From Backworth to Balmoral

During the summer of 1946 the Royal Family were in residence at Balmoral when Ron and a few of his mates were selected for royal duties.

A photograph of Ron Smith (left) on National Service 1946

Ron Smith (left) on National Service 1946

Ron Smith was born on 24th December 1927 at Cooperative Terrace, West Allotment, the youngest of a family of four – one girl the eldest, and two brothers.  His father worked as a miner.  His mother was kept fully employed caring for the four children – all shopping,  cooking and cleaning.

By the age of five Ron was attending Holystone First School.  At the age of twelve he transferred to Shiremoor Modern School where he remained until the official leaving date aged fourteen.  At this early age Ron’s Father died in the mine after a heart attack.

Straight from school, Ron took up his first job with the United bus company situated on Jesmond Road.  His uncle had been employed there for some time doing night work washing buses, and it was intervention which resulted in an office job for Ron.  After six months Ron found work indoors oppressive, so moved on to bagging coal using a machine.  He was employed by F. Cook, Coal Merchants, West Allotment.  At 17 he applied for his first driving licence and from then on was promoted and allocated his own wagon to oversee deliveries in the South Shields area.

December 1945 and Ron received his call-up papers for two years compulsory National Service.  After travelling overnight from Backworth to King’s Cross, and onward to Chichester, on February 21st 1946, Ron reported for what turned out to be a really tough six weeks training before moving on to Yeovil, Somerset for twelve more weeks.

For Ron at 18 this was his first taste of life beyond Tyneside.  Now, wholly responsible for himself, Ron had to adjust to daily strict discipline as well as learning to live harmoniously with lads from a range of different backgrounds, education and experiences.  Life was tough and rough.  Before being posted abroad he was moved on to Thetford for a while and eventually to Inverness.

During the summer of 1946 the Royal Family were in residence at Balmoral when Ron and a few of his mates were selected for royal duties.  They were detailed to drive the beaters in army trucks to their strategic positions on the wild outdoor grouse shooting moors.  Before departure, the trucks were inspected by King George IV and Queen Elizabeth.  Ron well remembers his chat with the Queen and her chauffeur when they discussed maintenance of royal cars which he learned were washed and polished twice a day.

On one special occasion Ron and his pals were invited to Balmoral Castle to maintain law and order in the ballroom.  The King and Queen arrived at the top of the stairs from the landing above.  All below had to stand while the National Anthem was played, and then the Royal Family descended onto the ballroom floor.  While the lads did not join in the Eightsome Reel or the modern dancing they had time to observe the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, and Peter Townsend, then Equerry to the King and later the subject of much publicity during his relationship with Princess Margaret.  This was a homely affair where all were able to talk and partake of the royal buffet.  This was the night Ron slept between white sheets for the first time since leaving West Allotment in February 1946 and never again until he arrived home 18 months later.

On the Sunday morning following this event the King and Queen attended morning service at Crathie Church.  It was just a short distance beyond the gates, and while crossing a stream Queen Elizabeth sprained her ankle.  All to the rescue!!

Soon after this privileged experience, Ron returned to his base camp and was soon transferred abroad.  Initially, Ron was in France for 2 weeks awaiting the arrival of a well-worn ex-POW transport ship, which would take Ron’s battalion to Egypt.  This proved a real tug boat in need of renovation.  While crossing the Bay of Biscay she sprung a leak due to a defective boiler.  This resulted in an unscheduled visit to Malta for repairs, but they had to remain outside the harbour.  It could be seen that within it, there were sunken ships; the masts like spikes could be seen above the water.

Throughout the journey the men slept in hammocks rocking up and around for 12 days.  The leaking boiler had caused unsanitary conditions with resulting gastric problems.  On arrival at Port Said – a twelve day journey, all had to have a full medical examination.

Following a brief stay in a transit camp in Port Said, Ron’s Company 285 RASC travelled across the desert to Femexa.  Eventually, alongside a major with a revolver always at the ready, they moved by road to Palestine where Ron remained for nine months.

All troops came out of the region when the Mandate was signed in 1948.  Ron should have had leave after a year’s service.  Due to the circumstances he found this was not possible.  However, on demobilisation he was allowed a day’s holiday for every month spent abroad plus 56 automatic days.

Ron sailed back to Britain on HMS Staffordshire, this proved quite a different experience from the old POW ship.  With two swimming pools on board and other luxuries, the lads have a well-deserved taste of the good life.  They disembarked at Southampton, and then onward to York to receive their de-mob suit – a plain grey pin stripe – and finally dismissed from National Service.  In Ron’s case a personal allowance and a Palestinian Service Medal.

Leaving York station for Newcastle at 7.21pm, Ron was back in Backworth within two hours.

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