You can link directly to articles here:
- Inside the Cabinet Office by Derek Treagus
- A rather different army career by Lionel Jacobs
- A train journey to Calcutta by Joe Hammond
- A Choirboy at Heart and A Rude Awakening by Tim Mitchell
- My Awakening to (and in) the Middle East by James Fox
- Victory in Europe by Graham Admans
- Scenes from a Sailor’s Life by Barrington Daubeny
Inside the Cabinet Office
By Derek Treagus
It was 1986, Sir John Fairclough (at that time, plain John Fairclough) had just been seconded from IBM where he had been Managing Director of the Hursley Laboratory to take the position of Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Being keen to ensure that he had the appropriate tools available to him and perhaps also keen to show the value of IBM equipment to Government (IBM Hursley was later to go on and win two Queen’s Awards for Technology), Sir John asked for the newly announced PC/AT (manufactured at that time at the IBM Greenock site in Spango Valley) to be sent to him for use in his office.
All it needed was someone to install the required software and then install it in the Cabinet Office itself. Having run a number of IBM PC projects at universities across the UK. There was one obvious candidate…….. ME!
With the IRA still active two years after the Brighton bombing, security was tight. The PC was taken from Hursley for security checking and delivered to Downing Street in an unmarked van (his office was in the Cabinet Office next door to Number 10). Once it had been delivered I was similarly taken up to Downing Street in an unmarked car.
Whilst I don’t remember the exact details of my entry into the Cabinet Office, I was taken to Sir John’s office where the PC (serial number 00000003 from memory, pity is wasn’t 007) was waiting to be installed. Duly setup, John (IBMers always used first names regardless of their position within the company) arrived, introduced himself and I set about explaining the machine. It didn’t take long as he was well versed in and used to using new technology himself.
My final memory is of him showing me the entrance to No 10 Downing Street. Probably the closest I have ever been or ever will be to the Prime Minister and the seat of Government of the United Kingdom.
A rather different Army Career
By Lionel Jacobs
At the age of twenty one and having just finished a five year apprentiship I was not very pleased to receive a letter from the Queen asking me if I would be kind enough to join the Army for two years. National Service was normally started at the age of eighteen. I was excused until I had finished the apprentiship.
Because of my engineering backround the obvious regiment for me to join was the REME, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. I was summoned to report to the REME training batallion at Blandford on the 25 February 1955. There were twenty nine other young men joining on the same day, many of them looking as though they should be going to school not joining the army. We were here to carry out our six weeks basic training or square bashing as it was known.
The first three weeks is virtually all sqare bashing, marching up and down on the parade ground until we all got it right. We learnt to salute and look after our equipment and how to keep the billet clean. Our platoon comander was a Corporal Martinez. I’m not sure of his nationallty but he was not a very nice person. He would pick on individuals and try and belittle them as much as he could. If we got things wrong he would double us round the parade ground in full kit until we could go no further.
He picked particularly on a young Scottish lad by the name of Billy. When Billy arrived at the camp he had long hair, velvet collars on his long coat. He was in fact a teddy boy and Corporal Martinez did not like teddy boys, He really did give him a hard time.
After the sqare bashing we were taken to the rifle range for practice and then started field exercises. We were given rifles with blanks and had to carry all our equipment to make things realistic. During this exercise Corporal Martinez and five others, including me, ran across this clearing. When we got to the other side there was no Corporal Martinez. We went back and found him face down in the mud. He had a hole in his back where someone had shot him at close range. Blanks in rifles won’t kill but they will certainly burn holes if they are fired at close range
Corporal Martinez was ok but the next morning the five who were with him was up before the Commanding Officer wanting to know what had happened the day before. We knew that it was Billy who had shot the Corporal but we did not want to let him down. It began to get very serious and at one time all five of us were going to be court marshalled. Much to our relief Billy finally owned up and we were free to go. Billy was sentenced to six months in the army prison in Colchester.
After three weeks all new entrants are given a TAB injection. This is one of many you will receive during your army service. The TAB injection is paticulary strong with severe side effects. All participants’ are given thirty six hours free of duties. I was the only one of the platoon that had no side effects in fact I was helping all those who very poorly.
At the end of the six week period you had your final booster TAB injection. I personally do not remember having mine as I came to life five days later in hospital. What had happened was the first injection I had did not take and when I received the booster jab my body could not cope
This one incident changed the path of my army career. By the time I was released from hospital my platoon ha been posted to Tripoli . I really have no idea what British troops were doing in Tripoli in 1955.
I was retuned to Blandford and I don’t think they knew what to do with me so I became batman to the Comanding Officer. This entailed me being at his house by seven every day, making sure his uniform was clean and pressed, and his boots cleaned. After he left for work I became Mary the house maid. My duties included washing up, hoovering, making the beds and general housework.
After one month of being Mary, I was transferred to the armoured vehicle workshops in Bordon. I did a six week course on tanks, mainly the Centurian and Comet. At the end of the six weeks we all had to sit an exam to prove our competence. Once again because of my engineering backround I did very well in the exam. The next day I was summoned to the Major in charge who asked me if I would like to become a tank instructor.
This suited me fine because I had just got married and Bordon was only forty miles from home. I started off teaching new recruits but ended up teaching officer cadet’s. These were all young men who had graduated from university and offered a commission. I would teach them in the classroom for one week. They would then go to the workshops to learn how to take out engines, gearboxes, and final drives.
To finish their training three tanks were placed on the heath. The group were split into groups of seven, Each group were given a map reference, then had to find the position of the designated tank and either remove the engine the gearbox or the final drive. This was done under battle conditions. They had to arrange all the equipment needed including lifting, gear lighting, food and they had to work until the job was finished. My job was to drive to each site and make sure they were coping. When they finished the work they were allowed to drive the tank on the heath.
The Centurian weighed 63 tons and had a tank capacity of 180 gallons. If the tank was driven on the heath for 3 hours the tanks would be empty. The miles to the gallon was 5 gallons to the mile.
My army career ended in March 1957 I had some good times in the army and meet some wonderful people, I still do not understand what I was guarding in the middle of Salisbury plain in January 1956, minus three degrees. This is the army, if it moves you salute it, if it does not move you paint it.
A train journey to Calcutta
By Joe Hammond
Recent (2019) Probus recruit Joe Hammond recalls a childhood train journey:
I was at school at St Paul’s School, Darjeeling, where my father was a Housemaster and my parents and I lived permanently on the school compound. Once a year however during the three-month winter break we would travel to Calcutta for a short holiday. This annual highlight remains vivid in my memory, retold here when I was thirteen.
To see the full story of Joe’s click via the following link A-Train-Journey-to-Calcutta. It is a long but well worthwhile read especially for those who have themselves spent time in India.
A Choirboy at Heart
By Tim Mitchell
I was conceived in peace but born in war, in October 1939. I often reflect on how difficult that must have been for my parents, especially as my father took a commission in the Royal Marines the day war was declared.
We lived in Oxford, where my father had been a librarian at the Bodlean and my mother secretary to the Editor of the Oxford Times.
Towards the end of the war we went to live in a farmhouse in west Wales where my father was adjutant to the marine training camp for the invasion.
Thus I went to a tiny Welsh primary school where I learnt a little of the language. While on the farm I learnt how to milk a cow and whistle through my fingers for sheep dogs. And I opened my first Post Office Savings Account, Llwyngwril 26.
Then back to Oxford, where my father collected his MA and trained for the clergy. I was sent to Greycoats School, Oxford. It was a girl’s school, Preparatory for boys. I was a regular customer of Blackwells and learnt to love books.
Father was duly ordained and we were sent to the Medway towns, where he became a curate in Rainham then vicar of Borstal (the village not the institution). I went to Kings School but soon won a scholarship to Westminster Abbey Choir School.
That meant boarding next to the Abbey, in Deans Yard. We rose early each day, had to run round Deans Yard then have a cold shower before breakfast followed by an hour’s choir practice. We sang ten or eleven services a week in the beautiful historic Abbey, with the sound of our voices and the organ echoing through it.
Special memories include Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion with an orchestra; roller skating on the flat roof of our five storey school; being first to grab each week’s copy of the Eagle, the only comic allowed; carrying our books in our hymnals as we processed for Sunday evensong with a visiting preacher; playing cricket each week in the grounds of Lambeth Palace; singing at the opening of the Festival Hall, with Royal family and members of the Government.
With a year to go before I was due to go to public school, my voice broke so I had magical year at a small boarding preparatory school in Dorset. Such memories, tree climbing, bird nesting, building camps in the thousands of acres open to us.
The headmaster, a retired Indian Army Colonel, going out before breakfast with his 12 bore to bag a couple of pigeons. I and another boy being paid to collect the school milk in a churn before breakfast each day, dragging it back through the fields from the farm on a trolley.
Lying in bed on Summer evenings listening to the rooks in the beech trees, the sun always shining on our cricket field.
A rude awakening
By Tim Mitchell
I had been destined for public school but while at the Abbey I arrived back late one term after a bad cold to find I had to sit a test. l’d no idea what it was or why, I’d never seen anything like it but thought it rather fun. Anyway a few weeks later I was told I had passed my 11+ with flying colours. So what?I was going to public school. But a clergyman’s stipend was meagre and our local grammar school, Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, had a good academic record. So it was that instead of going to Kings School I went to the Maths school in Rochester, which was also the catchment for Chatham, where the dockyards were.
And it was tough. There was a strong work ethic, rigid discipline and emphasis on results. Everyone else had been studying the curriculum for two years so I was way behind and in some areas never caught up. And I knew no one. There were 600 boys at my first assembly and the noise was an overwhelming waterfall. I had an extreme Oxford accent and had to drop that fast. I was caned often and had few friends. There were some highlights, like our English teacher who instilled a lifelong enjoyment of Jane Austenand Shakespeare. (l still remember a trip to the Old Vic some 65 years ago to see Richard Il with John Neville and Virginia McKenna.)
I struggled through to “O” Levels, then joined the 6th form which proved more amenable as most of the rougher elements had dropped out. Some of the teachers were very good and took more interest for A level. We got a new headmaster who was truly inspiring. I played cricket and rugby but not very well. However I played tennis for the school and swam at the local baths every day as well as learning to ride. The school drama group was impressive and I particularly remember the Mikado and Treasure Island. Meanwhile my father had been moved to become vicar of Meopham and rural dean of Cobham. It was a huge improvement for me and my two younger brothers, with lots of delightful people and lovely countryside and at lastI met some girls!
Then I got my A level results and was accepted by Reading University although l was only 17. My course was Psychology and Economics, but after a year I dropped Psychology because it was so theoretical. I greatly enjoyed my time there and matured a lot. As well as meeting plenty of interesting people, l played chess and bridge for the University. I also discovered jazz and sailing, which has lasted me a lifetime. I duly graduated with a 2.1 (and remembered one of my old school reports (surely he’d do better if he did any work at all”.) One of the most important things I learnt was it was time I stopped drifting and started working with perseverance.
But I wanted a break before entering a new career. Through my parent’s connections I managed to take a “job as a supernumerary” on a tramp ship, using the owner’s cabin and with my own steward! We went to Casablanca and back and I enjoyed playing cards with the crew, drinking the duty free beer and smoking the duty free cigarettes and dining with the officers.Then after a six week holiday in Paris I took a job in the City, with a Lloyd’s broker. They paid me a pittance but promised that if I worked hard they would pay me well. And I did and they did. After my my first yearI I never had cause to complain. But that’s another story.
My Awakening to (and in) the Middle East
by James Fox
Two years out of University with two years design experience and itching to get my on-site experience. It was mid 70s and my employer a British Consulting Engineering practice had plenty of work overseas and was constantly looking for young engineers to fill posts on all its construction projects. So a simple application and I was whisking my way off to the Middle East. In fact Doha, Qatar.
I was newly married and it was a married appointment, which was great but unfortunately because it was my first appointment overseas I was advised to go out first to sort out living accommodation etc. A wise move.
So with a big kiss and a fond farewell I took my flight from Heathrow to Doha; a route which I subsequently grew to know very well. The flight left at a reasonable hour, mid afternoon; but because of the time difference and the flight time 7 1/2 hours, I did not arrive until around midnight.
There to greet me was another young engineer with a few months in Qatar under his belt. He told me that I was fortunate in that a flat had just become available so I did not need to stay in a hotel.
What hit me as I got off the plane was the temperature, 28ºC at midnight but more than this the humidity. We jumped in to his air-conditioned car, very swish as no such thing as that in the UK back then, and drove. To start with on a new highway but very soon in to a maze of back alleys. We finally arrived, but where, I had no idea. All that I knew was that I was tired; it was one o’clock in the morning and I needed my bed.
We went through a metal door into a very bare hall and proceeded to climb at least 5 or 6 flight of stairs. I had no idea where I was going. We walked along a very long corridor. All surfaces bare and hard. A door appeared and was opened by my colleague. It was late and he was keen to get to his home so I was given a very brief introduction. So brief that all I was shown was my bedroom and the toilet. It was still very warm and humid and I asked if there was any air-conditioning. Yes said my colleague and showed me a box in a hole in the wall which he turned on. He then left.
So there I was in a very strange room, very late, but I had a bed. I climbed into bed and tried to go to sleep. The air conditioning unit in the hole in the wall worked quite well, it kept me cool, but it was noisy. So noisy that after a short while I could not take it any longer and had to switch it off. I tried to compensate this by opening the window wide, hoping for a cool draught.
After a year I grew so accustomed to the noise of the air conditioning such that I had difficulty sleeping without it!
There I lay and finally fell asleep. I am sure you have all seen Tom & Jerry cartoons where one of the characters gets such a fright that he levitates and then crashes back to earth. Keep this in mind. I was not familiar with the Muslim religion in any way. May be this should have been part of my briefing back in Head Office.
What I had not been told or could see in the dark of the night before was the proximity of the Mosque to my block of flats and in particular the minaret with the speaker attached pointing into my bedroom window. Dawn was at about 5 a.m. and just before this time the first call to prayer was made. FRIGHT is a word that does not fully describe what I experienced. I firmly believe that I jumped whilst in a horizontal position and then fell back into bed. I was befuddled. I could not work out what was happening. I staggered to the window and could clearly see the speaker still making its plaintive call.
Needless to say I did not spend a second night in that accommodation and found out that I was the first to stay there. I do not believe that any other members of our firm did stay there. So was this a set-up?
After a few years I grew accustomed to the call to prayer. At times on a quiet still evening in a big town it is fascinating to hear the call to prayer moving across the town from Mosque to Mosque because of course it is determined by its longitude and when the sun actually rises.
8th May 1945 Victory in Europe (VE Day)
By Graham Adams
I remember VE Day very well. We were living in New Malden, Surrey near Kingston upon Thames. My Father decided we would celebrate the day by hanging a large Union Jack from the landing window and floodlight the house with a sodium light that he had at his works. He invited some of the family and Home Guard friends to a party at home.
The large floodlight was placed on the front lawn and Dad plugged the cable in, the light was not in the best position so he asked me to move it. Somehow or other the case holding the light was alive and I received an electrical shock, I was unable to let go and the light was fixed to my hand.
Fortunately Dad was standing close to the switch and was able to unplug it and the light dropped to the ground. I ran crying to my Mother and it was only when she put me on her knee she found that I had wet myself. The rest of the day went very well with everyone singing and drinking and wishing each other good luck.
Our home had not suffered any damage from the bombing during the war although I do remember the sound of machine-gun fire and diving under the stairs for cover but we were not hit.
As the party came to an end Dad had a Home-guard thunder flash and to bring things to a close he lit the blue touch paper with the result that several window were out.
Graham D. Adams (Aged 9)
Editor’s Notes: The photograph above was taken inside The Watchman, New Malden and is part of their online story about the Blitz and how it affected the local area. Information about the War Memorial, the 1940 Air Raid and people’s individual memories of the New Malden Blitz are also available online using the links in this text.
Scenes from a Sailor’s Life – How the Captain got his dates
By Barrington Daubeny
This is a story of a voyage on the waters of Babylon more than forty years ago. In 1976/77 congestion in Arabian Gulf ports was of truly monumental proportions. It was common to have one hundred or more ships anchored in the queue outside each and every one of these Gulf ports.
I was serving as a young Captain in a twenty year old general cargo ship bound for Basra. The ship herself was typical of her type, but in motorists’ terms she could be best described as ‘an old banger’. On arrival off Khorr Al Amaya, outside the entrance to the river, we anchored to wait our turn. Ships were all around us – too many to be accurately counted.
To my surprise, after only a few days of waiting we were called to the pilot station in order to proceed up river. Only later did I realise that this was just a ruse to make it seem as if there was little waiting time for either Basra in Iraq or Khorramshahr in Iran. The fact was that the port authorities stuffed the river with anchored ships – not quite for the full distance of seventy miles from the sea to Basra – but just about anywhere where there was any room, and in some places where there was not.
Known as the Shatt Al Arab, this waterway is formed some one hundred miles from the waters of the Gulf, by the confluence of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The banks of the waterway are very low all the way to Basra. At the mouth these banks are covered with reeds and grass, but upstream this is soon replaced by vast groves of dates. These dates grow right to the water’s edge. It is a very muddy river. It is soft alluvial mud – difficult to walk on so they say, but also forgiving to ships that come to test its resilience.
After crossing the Bar, we made our way upriver passing the regular columns of anchored vessels. It is tidal here and in consequence at regular intervals the anchored vessels swing. No longer neatly parallel to the banks, they lie athwart the stream waiting to take up a new heading as the changing tide strengthens.
Above Khorramshahr and below Basra, it was our turn to squeeze into an anchorage spot. Of course I might have known it would happen – after all she was an ‘old banger’. Correctly angled across the flood stream we headed towards the bank, intending to bring up, swing neatly to the tide and so end up in the middle of the river pointing downstream.
“Slow Astern”, came the order. Dingaling, went the engine telegraph: but there was no familiar cough, wheeze, thump of an engine start. “Full Astern”. Still silence from below. “Let go Starboard anchor”. Crash, rattle: out went the anchor.
With no diminished headway the vessel drove serenely onward, and into the river bank. Date palmsbowed down over the Foc’sle head and completely hid the men of the anchor party from our view.
The river pilot was quite undismayed. “Tell them to pick some dates”, he said. However, before such a practical and opportunist order could be complied with, the engine came back to life and began to shudder and shake us astern. Slowly we backed out of the mud – and away from the dates.
Three weeks we lay at that anchorage. Each time the tide turned we had to stand by the engine. As we swung – and the ubiquitous dates seemed almost close enough to be picked from the poop – a short burst of engine kept us clear. Our desire for these succulent sticky fruits remained unsatisfied. Finally came the day when it was our turn to go to a berth and discharge our cargo in Basra. A few days later, just before we sailed, the local ship’s agent presented me with a parcel.
“For you Captain. A present from Iraq”. Later – clear of the river and heading thankfully to the open sea – I unwrapped the gift. Inside, was a large presentation box – of dates.