Here I was, the year 1958, a boy in man’s boots doing guard patrols on the Russian Border
I was born in Castle Park and grew up in Shiremoor. By the time I was 15 both my parents had passed away and being one of the youngest of 8 children my other brothers and sisters now had families of their own, which meant I spent a little time with each before being old enough to join the Army.
The last one I lived with was in Halifax, Yorkshire where I made lots of new mates and joined the Territorial Army. In it, I was part of a gun crew and heavy work it was, the good thing was I took and passed my driving test while at camp near the Brecon Beacons in Wales, Later that year I took the Queen’s shilling and became a regular soldier.
I joined a tank regiment known as the 12th Royal Lancers who recruited in the Halifax area. After my initial training at Hadrian’s Camp, Carlisle, which included lots of bull with little sleep, those of us for the Lancers were posted to Wolfenbuttle, Germany, via Harwich and the Hook of Holland. It was a long, tiresome journey and I saw some unusual monster size trains. We fed en route on the train from cups that were more like bowls. It might be only my own personal feelings but in those days lads didn’t mature as quick as they do now.
So here I was, the year 1958, a boy in man’s boots doing guard patrols on the Russian border. In camp, we used old paper money called Baffs and we had to nominate each week how many German Marks or Baffs we wanted in our wages. It was hard to work out and everyone was forever on the swap of each money after deciding on a late visit to the city. I soon learnt enough German to get the bus into the town of Braunschweig for a night out.
Back then the Germans all wore those long black trench coats like Herr Flick of the Gestapo in the TV series Allo Allo. But those in the real light of day or shaded street lights looked more threatening. Germany was colder than the English shores I’d left behind, and I soon had to accustom to driving army wagons on the opposite side of the roads and autobahns in bad icy conditions, which I’ve got to say I did without accident.
I’m not sure if I’d have to have served National Service as the cut off point came about my time but here I was a few month later about to leave Germany en route for Cyprus. We knew little of what we would face over there, all we knew was it was an island 100 miles long by 50 miles wide, and saying the Turks and Greeks didn’t like each other was a bit of an understatement. But before that, we had to say hello to the notorious Bay of Biscay. It was the start of a long voyage that people pay hundreds of pounds for now.
Twenty-four long hours later we were out of the Bay which was a relief to most. The troopship Devonshire, after being cleaned up, took us past Gibraltar up the Med and landed us in Malta where we were glad to put feet on solid ground. The locals selling merchandise from bumboats and the tiny kids diving to great depths retrieving coins we threw was picture postcard stuff.
Soon we were on our way again, only the sea was now like a millpond. I saw porpoises for the first time playing in the ship’s wake; what fun we thought it was, it looked like they had come to entertain us. I bet they had fun also as we ploughed on to the port of Famagusta with its crystal clear water. We then trucked through the dust to our new home of Camp Elizabeth just outside Nicosia and that dreaded Nicosia Murder Mile.
The camp itself was made up of eight-man tents pitched on clay or dust depending on the weather, no paths or roads, no electrics, only generators on essential buildings, like the cookhouse or the officers’ mess with barbed wire perimeters. When it rained the heavens opened, it became a quagmire, two hours later it was sun-drenched and dusty again. There were long drops for toilets with no hot water.
Cyprus was hot, half the world’s fly population centred around the small Pakistani food hut but we still patronized the place for ice drinks; dysentery was rife. Our operations were mostly ammunition escorts in Ferrets, Saracen, and Daimler armoured cars, gladly the Daimlers were soon replaced by Saladins,
As a driver, I did my fair share of murder mile patrols escorted by the Royal Military Police. The EOKA terrorists were still very active at that time, before Archbishop Makarios for the Greeks and General Grivas for the Turks signed the peace agreement to halt hostilities. It never stopped completely but allowed us to then go over to Kyrenia within the safety of the shark nets to paddle and cool down after those previous months of constant heat and confinement to barracks. Before the truce was signed one of our troops (and I’m so glad it was not ours) found a school bus that had gone missing. The children and escorts had been decapitated. We left the island after serving our 15-month term leaving behind several of our mates in Waynes Keep cemetery: lads who had soldiered and died for their country.
Our next posting after a short leave was to be Omagh in Ireland, but before that the powers that be had decided that the 9th Lancers and our regiment, “the dirty dozen” or “glorious 12th” as we were called, had to amalgamate. It was a big pomp affair with everyone looking their best while the regimental guidons (flags) with many honours from battles fought from all the wars were proudly displayed. Ireland was not what we expected, the barracks were not like Germany but ok compared to Cyprus. Other soldiers may truly report of all the bad happening in Ireland but we hit lucky in 1961/62. There was very little if any trouble in our two years there. In fact, half the regiment married girls from Omagh and surrounding areas.
The MOD in its wisdom doesn’t let you be happy for long and our next posting was to Aden. The Oxfordshire was a much bigger and better troopship for this journey and the Bay of Biscay’s fish claimed little if at all anything of our previous meals, unlike that of our last trip heading for Cyprus. This was another cruise that people pay hundreds of pounds for, and here we were enjoying the sun for nothing.
We passed Malta this time and parked at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Troopships in those days took priority in any convoy, which left that lady of the sea – a beauty named Canberra, parked behind us. To pass time away we did lifeboat drills and even lowered the boats for a row in the Med. Buff, my squadron sergeant major, rocked the boat when he stood up. I politely reminded him and requested he packed it in as I couldn’t swim. Well, you don’t tell the SSM what to do, so he snarled my name “Sales !! the sharks would eat you before you drown”. It’s funny but after that day he never said a bad word to me like he did others.
Sailing through the Suez Canal was strange, just 7 years had passed since the Suez Crisis where ships were sank and soldiers killed, battles had raged, and yet here I was, a lad from Shiremoor, crossing parts of the world I’d only read about. I was here in places like Egypt and Port Said and that of Alexandria where Field Marshall Montgomery had fought all those tank battles with Rommel. These were not news flashes, I was here looking at camels and pyramids. The canal was just over 100 miles long and narrow; mostly it was single lane except for the Great and Small Bitter Lakes where other ships heading the opposite way could pass.
There were north and southbound convoys which were timed as to pass at the Great Bitter Lakes, and for those with a strong arm (wink wink) the Nile Delta was just a stone’s throw away. Our troopships led the way through the canal at the speed permitted. I’m not sure if we had a tug boat out front or pilot on board. Once out of the canal and into the Red Sea, the sleek looking white painted Canberra passed us as if we had stopped – she was late for the England v Australia cricket (Ashes) test matches. We all waved and they were returned by the barmy army (or didn’t they have them in those days). Maybe it was Sir Leonard Hutton and Co. waving back. She, that’s the Canberra, soon left us in her wake so we got a bit more deck tanning in before we hit the Gulf of Aden
Aden was very much like Cyprus, very hot with very little going for it. We had the BFPO Forces Radio, which was a plus and those good old family favourites requests on a Sunday, but the pluses were few and the minuses many. Unpleasant heat sprinkled with unfriendly Arabs was not the recipe for taking it easy.
Crater was the eye on any storm and it caused many problems, even movements in camp without your personal arms was a chargeable offence so we never went anywhere without our Sterling machine gun. Lives were lost by all regiments that set foot on Aden’s shores, ours being no exception. The only difference was on this middle eastern posting we were billeted in what can only be described as an aeroplane hanger with small side partitions giving us a bit of privacy. It was air-conditioned and had one ice water drinks machine.
Our working hours were from 0600 until lunchtime, and such was the heat we took salt tablets daily. There’s not a lot to say about Aden but one of the things that sticks in my mind most is the lowering of our flag after a soldier’s death. Our eyes and thoughts were drawn to the flag like magnets, wondering who had been murdered – there was no other word for these killings.
Of the lads who were married or had married Irish girls very few had quarters so were separated for the duration of that posting. Letter writing became our pastime followed by a visit to the camp cinema blowing our wages on soft drinks. The BP beach, which we were allowed to use, did allow us to see others from our home country. By then I’d given swimming my all and could swim albeit only about one length in distance, which pleased me.
When the day finally came to leave we were transported back from Aden on one of the first Comet jets in service, landing in Istanbul then Rome before crossing the Alps. It was another highlight as there was a lightning storm during that part of the flight, the flashes on the snow-covered peaks reminded me today of fluorescent lighting on white shirts at a disco. That part of the flight was scary but beautiful. On landing at Heathrow, it was bitter cold but as we had the best sun tans ever, we had to show them off leaving the plane in short sleeve shirts (with goosebumps as big as eggs proving vanity can be painful).
I’d served six of my nine years engagement by now, time was slipping away as we headed for Osnabruck, Germany. The lads were all happy as married quarters were first class here, and this time wives and kids accompanied all ranks and not just the seniors as had in other places. It wasn’t long before I gained promotion having passed advanced driving courses on four vehicles, gaining my coveted B1 gold Rolls Royce badge which looked good accompanied by my chevron (stripe), as at last, I’d gained the dizzy heights of Lance Corporal.
It was while on one exercise at Hohne that I took time out to visit the Belson prisoner of war camp. It had all the stillness and eeriness about it that its reputation emits. I left with shivers running down my spine. It was not long after that my old SSM Buff, who had become officer for the Transport Section, gave me the job of driving the regiment’s Commanding Officer. You needed pride and respect for that job and I oozed both, along with that of Exemplary Conduct Record.
The CO was the best officer I ever met, he called me “Danny Boy” at all times and if I ran him to seaports like Ostend or any airport he would make sure at his own expense I had overnight accommodation so as to travel back to camp the following day. Our ventures took us many places, one was a 500 mile trip to the Austrian Border, to a ski resort called Oberjoch where I had three wonderful weeks with no commitments except for the 500-mile drive return trip, but who wouldn’t settle for that deal? It was another first and best ever holiday of my life and all for free, I’m glad to say our team won cups at these games.
My second stripe was soon gained followed by another wage rise and had me considering signing on for another 3-year term. The Queen Mother was Colonel in Chief of our regiment and I almost met her. One day when she dropped in I was standing just a few feet away by the staff car. I’m sure she gave me a smile and wink, for the simple reason I’m sure she saw my knees knocking. What a great warm friendly lady the Queen Mum was, this was the icing on the cake for me, and being promised my third stripe if I stayed in; I took the bait.
Our Commanding Officer had gained promotion and had been posted away from the regiment but not before getting me a posting to Tidworth to drive another brigadier friend of his. Sadly, his friend, and what would have been my new boss, was killed in a helicopter crash just days after my arrival leaving me jobless.
My nine years was just about up and I decided that the good times had passed, the other roads could only be downward after my great times in Hamburg and Hanover with my old C.O. It was back to Civvy Street for me. Five years ago I started a fun website for Lancers, talking to lads I’d never seen since 1967. Exchanged photos show those boyish faces have been replaced by bald heads and wrinkles, but when we meet up at the Lancers’ reunion once a year, the old twinkle is still in the eyes and the clock gets turned back. There are only 30 of us on the site although about 500 turn up at reunions, but the banter is as good as ever. The C.O phoned me a few times and wrote a couple of letters, thus showing what a gentleman he was, sadly he died a few weeks ago ranking Major General.
“RIP Sir. Your Obedient Servant Danny Boy” was what I wrote on his card.
Sadly, poor health – heart failure and angina – prevented me attending my C.O.’s funeral in Hampshire. His wife sent a lovely reply to my condolence letter thanking me for remembering and that she and her sons understood my being absent.