British Element Trieste Force 1945 - 1954
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It was clear to us in the sixth form at school that national service was going to affect us all. In 1947 85% of university places were reserved for returning ex-servicemen but it seemed sensible to try for a place. At University I shared digs with “Dusty” who had been in the Parachute Regiment. He was 28 and had risen from the ranks to become a major. He was widely read and, to me as a callow youth, seemed – and was - very worldly wise. He wasn't, however attuned to study; he failed his exams and went off to become chief of police in one of the colonies. We had been used to walking in the hills and he would sometimes look around a say whether it was a good defensive position. He would also talk of people he had encountered in the army, sometimes admiringly and at other times derisively. Few of those he admired were senior officers.
The university OTC had access to a rifle range and seemed glad to let non-members use it, perhaps in the hope that some would join - but few did. I went once but it there was a lot of waiting around and not a lot of interest.
I have a memory of being interviewed about national service and being asked which arm I would like to opt for. When I said I'd like to go into the navy, the interviewer said I would have to sign on for an extra year to be eligible and put me down for the air-force. It was at some stage in this interview that I was asked if I had thought about the Intelligence Corps. It was some time later that I heard from two old school friends who were in the air-force, that they had both got as far as Jurby in the Isle of Man. When I wrote and asked for the army I was mildly surprised that someone, somewhere, had troubled to agree and reply.
It was soon after our trip to North Wales to fire the guns that I was told that I was to be transferred to the Intelligence Corps. I remember nothing about the journey from Oswestry to Maresfield in Sussex, so everything must have gone well. I do remember thinking that the setting for the entrance was very prettily situated. Within, however, the depot was a dump. I was excused most of the basic training bit and went on to the SMI, the School of Military Intelligence. Although the title was impressive, the premises comprised only the same tatty,wooden huts.
The people were very different from those I'd met in the gunners. I was interviewed by the CO, Lt Col Pine Coffin (really) who seemed very pleasant and welcoming. There was nothing exceptional about the rest of the first day. It was early in my time there that I met Corporal Stubbs. He was a National Serviceman but was under pressure to sign on; he never complained about his lot so it's possible that he was happy to be there even if he was not sufficiently happy to want to be there for longer than was necessary. He took us for stuff like map-reading and we were lucky with the weather. We would find some pleasant spot where we could sit or lie around; he would briefly tell us what we were supposed to be learning and often he would recite long extracts from the works of Rudyard Kipling whom he seemed to admire.
Maresfield was in some delightful countryside and there were some excellent walks. Nearby was Piltdown and there had been some notoriety about Piltdown Man, previously thought to be a very early humanoid specimen but later found to be a composite fraud. There was also the Bluebell Line, a preserved steam railway and, nearby, the home of Jimmy Edwards.
On the main line there were frequent trains to London and it was possible to get there over the week-end and stay at Googe Street station very cheaply. I don't remember there being any difficulty about leaving or entering the camp, whether we were in uniform or in civilian clothes; for a place where Military Security was on the curriculum it seemed very relaxed.
Still mindful of the advice given me by George Twentyman at Park Hal and my old school-mate who had been a PTI, I played rugby for Crowborough a village nearby.
It was soon after my arrival that there was an intake from both Eton and Harrow; I've no idea why they arrived in a bunch and the Etonians all seemed to have been in “the corps” so they already knew something about drill and weapons. My first impression, on seeing them, was of the various ways they had of wearing the same uniform. Berets it seemed could be worn on the back of the head with the lace dangling down the back of the neck; trousers were tucked into gaiters so that they as if they had cycle clips on. But the new boys certainly livened up the scene; they organised a concert with sketches which were nearly funny.
One of my mates was one of the Harrovians, George W. It emerged that , like me. He was keen to get an overseas posting. One day he came up with the idea of volunteering for Korea as a sure fire-way of getting that wish. Being a devout coward, however, I demurred but finally we put in a request to see the CO. The CO had already seen George before I was called and was clearly already amused when I went in. His smile became a loud guffaw of laughter as I spoke. He did explain that only regulars were being sent. So even if we had done nothing to advance the war effort, at least we could say we had introduced a note of gaiety into the CO's otherwise humdrum afternoon, although I couldn't help thinking that it would have been kinder to have moderated his laughter. The offer to volunteer, however, must have been recorded because the OC at TSO told me that I was lucky, in that the FS section sent out to Korea had been wiped out.
One of the lecturers at the SMI was WO11 Samuels who was one of the brightest and best of the people I met in the army. In one lecture, entitled “How Not to Give a Lecture” he not only gave a full and detailed description of the pitfalls that it was possible to fall into, but as he spoke he demonstrated each one. There was a pile of books on the table that looked as if it was going to totter at any second; he paced distractingly up and down the stage tossing apiece of chalk as he spoke; his finale brought the house down; he had been standing with a slight stoop and as he straightened up, his head ended under a light shade so that he looked as if he was wearing a coolie hat and he finished with a beaming smile. It was the only army lecture that I attended that ended with a prolonged round of applause.
There were all sorts of lectures about “trade craft” where such things as safe houses and dead letter boxes were talked about but they all seemed more like the stuff you read about in a novel than things we were likely to come across in real life. There were “escape and evade” exercises and they were good fun. Finally there were exams. Some people took them seriously enough to revise for them.
A posting to BETFOR seemed to be the prize worth having and it was said to be reserved for those who had done best on the course.