I can just remember being taken to a little back-to-back house of dirty red brick in Lozells, Birmingham to see my great-grandmother on father's side. I must have been two years old and I have a vague memory of a wizened old woman lying in bed and wheezing breathlessly in the smoky city air.
Grandfather Stanier would have been a clever man had he been given the chance. He left school, such as it was, in Lozells, Birmingham at the age of eleven to become a pot boy. That is the lad who lathers the customers of a barber's shop in preparation for the barber to shave them. Each regular customer had his own pot, and woe betide the pot boy who used the wrong pot for a customer. Some time later he became an apprentice at Dennisons, the famous clock and watchmakers in Birmingham. In his final year, an apprentice had to demonstrate his ability by constructing a skeleton clock. It had to be a skeleton clock, so that the master could evaluate it without having to go to the trouble of taking it to pieces. Father told me that the incomplete clock was only finished in time to be his wedding present from grandfather. For more years than I care to remember, it stood on the sideboard in the living room, striking the hours and chiming the half hours. The local G.P. who attended the family took a great fancy to it and, on occasion, waited to watch the movement operate as it struck the hours. He wanted to buy the clock, but it was not for sale. As a boy of perhaps nine or ten, I helped grandfather re-furbish it, but after grandfather's death in 1939 the glass dome got broken and it gradually deteriorated, to be reconditioned by Brian in the sixties. When the clockmaking industry in the U.K. collapsed, unable to compete with mass produced German clocks and Swiss watches, grandfather joined a firm making electric meters, and I remember going with him to the firm's annual sports days. In the races, participants got a start advantage according to age, one yard per year over a reference age, and grandfather started his races half way down the course, twenty yards clear of the next man. It was quite rarely that he could be caught. I recall him sitting in one of the rest tents, liberally applying linament to his aching muscles.
It was only after grandfather's death that father discovered that he had been conceived out of wedlock and found out the story. It seemed that grandfather was courting the elder of the two sisters, Florrie, but it was the younger sister Lizzy that he got pregnant. Linda has a wedding photograph of the couple, with grandmother, despite tightly laced corsets, obviously about six or seven months pregnant. They moved into a terrace house in Boulton Road, Handsworth, and lived there until about 1935 when they bought a council house in Pineapple Road, Stirchley, a quarter of a mile from our then own home.
Grandmother was a tidy little woman, addicted to making Christmas Puddings which were kept for a year to mature and then distributed to friends and relations.
In middle age, Grandfather ``got religion'', becoming an enthusiastic member of the Christadelphian Church (Christ is coming tomorrow! Be prepared). In this he was joined by the youngest daughter, Elsie, but the elder daughter, Lilian, and father, who was the eldest child, remained outside the movement, and grandmother was distinctly lukewarm.
In around 1930, Elsie married Melva Purkis, a Christadelphian lay preacher from Torquay. Purkis senior was a greengrocer who made enough to buy and run two hotels in Torquay, the Palm Court and the Paignton Hydro. Melva was very religious and his father bought him a couple of farms near Torquay to keep him out of the Forces during the war. Melva was in any case a Conscientous Objector. His religion didn't stop him being in the black market up to his eyebrows during the war, supplying his father's hotels with meat and clotted cream. Elsie's parsimony was legendary. There was always an exchange of Christmas presents between the adults of the family, and it was traditional to spend Christmas with Grandfather and Grandmother. One year, the expected parcel arrived from Torquay, and inside were about a dozen presents, gift wrapped, but unaddressed and with instructions that they were to be distributed as prizes (for everyone) for the traditional Christmas card games. The ``gifts'' turned out to be all the old tins of food surplus to the hotel stocks. I remember winning a tin of prunes.
Father was apprenticed, probably at thirteen or fourteen years of age, to the silversmiths firm of Elkingtons, which had pioneered the technique of electroplating silver on to base metals, so rendering Sheffield plate obsolete. Sheffield Plate was a sandwich of a thin sheet of silver soldered on either face of a thick base metal substrate, which was then rolled out for making up into silver plate articles. One of his contempories at Elkingtons, and a lifelong friend, was Bert Salt (or Sault) who married one Eva Pepper. The two copper wall plates (one of which has appeared mysteriously on Linda's wall) and which used to be ``oxydized silver'' finish were made by Elkingtons by electroplating copper onto a wax master. Father moved to the silver and goldsmiths firm of Adie Brothers in Hockley, Birmingham, probably after demobilisation in 1919, and remained there until he retired. He was one of the team of craftsmen who made a number of notable gold and silver articles, including a gold tea service for King Farouk as a wedding present to Queen Farida (now in the Cairo Museum), an outrageous wine cooler in the form of a fullsized beer barrel in solid silver, also for Farouk and also believed to be in the Cairo museum, another gold tea service for the Maharajah of Baroda, now in a museum in Delhi, a magnificent silver chandelier for a London synagogue, innumerable gold cups for famous horse races and the silver tea service given by Birmingham Corporation to Princess Elizabeth on her wedding to Prince Phillip. I refrain from mentioning the use made of Farida's tea service by the artisans before it was packed for dispatch.
Father was mobilised into the Territorial Army in 1914. In those far off days, the Territorial Army was just that, confined to the U.K. and father eventually went to Shoeburyness, near Southend-on-Sea where he was billeted with the Read family at 32 Park Road, Thorpe Bay, where he met, and married the youngest daughter, Mabel in 1917. At some stage during the war, father volunteered to transfer to Pembroke Docks, South Wales, making or repairing copper piping in submarines, but actually spending most of the time turning mussel shells into snuff boxes for the naval staff. I appeared in September 1918 and moved to Birmingham in 1919 when Father was demobilised.
On the distaff side, Grandfather Read, whom I cannot remember, was an alcoholic who went blind and senile in his later years. He had been a cobbler by trade. There is an apocryphal story told that I, as a baby was presented to him, promptly weeing over his bald head, at which he is alleged to have complained about being left outside in the rain. Long suffering Grandmother Read had two daughters, Ruth, the elder, and Mabel, and a bevy of three or four stepchildren from Grandfather's first marraige, of whom I can vaguely remember Percy, then in the Merchant Navy, and Ada. I can just remember Grandmother as a tall severe woman dressed in black from head to toe.
Mother became a pupil teacher at fourteen. In those days, a pupil teacher was just put in front of a class and told to get on with teaching. Very occasionally an examiner would turn up to see how he or she was getting on. Mother often used to tell the tale of how she was set the task by one examiner of talking on snakes, and she had an inordinate horror of snakes. On her protest, the lesson was turned to worms instead. She hated worms. One can hardly think of mother as athletic, but she was the champion woman fencer of Essex in her time. Her presentation foils were borrowed by a friend who forgot to return them. Throughout her life, mother was passionately interested in education. Her life revolved round the Co-op Womens' Guild and its Choir and Drama Groups and the Co-op Education Section. Indeed, except for being a good cook, she wasn't interested in much else, and certainly not in housework. In later years, Grandma Stanier used to descend on her from time to time. ``Mabel, I've come to do out your cupboards.'' Mother neither took offence, nor really noticed any changes.
Around 1919, the now united family moved into lodgings in Handsworth, Birmingham. It didn't last very long, as I am alleged to have plastered the landlady's furniture with treacle and flour, and about 1920 our family moved into a semidetached council house, No 5 Reeves Road, Pineapple Estate, Stirchley, Birmingham. Margaret Ruth, never known as anything but Peggy, and Roger were both born there. I remember that, in my first year at the tiny Pineapple Road council school, I rounded the corner of the house a bit sharpish and gashed my scalp rather badly (never been the same since!) and was off school for several weeks.
It was a carefree, happy childhood. Fishing for sticklebacks in the Kings Norton canal. Watching the steam tugboat haul a long line of narrowboats into the ``three mile'' canal tunnel at Kings Norton, and rushing over the hill by the tow bridle path past the horses to watch the convoy emerge from the far end and the narrowboats reunited with their patient horses. Watching the occasional lone narrowboat ``legging'' it through the tunnel, with the crew member on his back on the cabin top and walking the narrowboat along by his feet on the tunnel roof. Fishing trips, always to the canal, with Wally Milner and his father, the local postman. Very occasional picnics on the Lickey Hills, south of Birmingham, amongst the bluebells and the pinewoods. Going by bus to visit grandfather and having to change buses half way. Playing ball games with grandfather in the local park (the Black Patch). Listening with bated breath to the headphones of grandfather's home made crystal wireless set. There were only two sets of headphones which had to be shared round the family in rotation. Watching grandfather's home converted from gas lighting to the new electric light, and hearing grandmother complaining that ``...the electric didn't give the light the gas lamps used to...'' Learning to ride a new bicycle, and the afternoon rides through the countryside, alone or in company with Horace Aldous (Addy). The Sunday afternoon Sunday school at Hazelwell Methodist Church. Practice for the Sunday School Aniversary concert, at which I picked up head lice just in time for the interview for the grammar school. Youth Hostel cycle trips initially with Addy Aldous and then later with Betty.
For more years than I care to remember, summer holidays were three weeks with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Fred at Southend. Mother used to cart us all down to London by train from New Street to Euston, then by tube across London to Fenchurch Street station and the suburban train to Southend. Peggy was always travel-sick all the way. I can still remember the great J-Class boats sailing in the regattas off Southend. They were perhaps two or three miles away, but one could get a bit closer by walking, or taking the electric railway down the mile-long pier. Father never came with us on holiday, prefering to carry on with a moon-lighting job and his garden. We only broke with tradition twice, in 1934 and 35, when mother took us to a boarding house in Clevedon, having picked up its' advertisement in the Co-op Womens magazine. The first holiday at Clevedon was so successful, probably because it was different to Southend, though not by much, that Father was persuaded to come on the second holiday. It poured with rain every single day of the fortnight, and he never tried a holiday again.
I can remember little of Betty's, your mother's family. I remember Lizzie, one of father-in-law's stepsisters, and she appears on the film of Barbara's wedding, along with Betty's father. He was a carpenter who met mother-in-law whilst he was repairing the ``string and canvas'' airplanes of the 1914/18 war. Mother-in-law had been a teacher at Great Elm village school and then a governess to a Naval officer's family. I met Betty's grandfather (on the distaff side) whilst we were on a cycling holiday in 1937. He was a nursery-man in Frome, having been head gardener at Hapsford House, Great Elm, but was sacked for laughing when the owner stepped back and fell in one of the greenhouse water tanks. Or so goes the story.
For the first couple of years at New Street, I was very successful, gaining the Form Prizes. For some unknown reason, I had been marked down to enter the Modern Languages Sixth form, but I was called to see the senior Science master, Commander Langley who suggested that I opt instead for the Science Sixth. It subsequently transpired that I had gained Distinction in Physics and Chemistry, but a bare pass in the two Languages.
Then came the crunch.
Peggy was at Kings Norton Grammar School and Roger was at, or about to enter Camp Hill when the great depression struck. Father was put on half time. It was a fiendish arrangement. Three days at work, then three days on the dole. But there was a waiting time of three working days (or was it five?) before unemployment pay could be drawn, and by that time, the three working days had arrived. The effect was to halve pay without any recompense. Father's pay dropped to about one pound five shillings a week, out of which he had to pay the mortgage (by this time, we had bought a council house 112 Pineapple Road), coal, gas, electricity and rates bills, feed and clothe five and pay fares to and from school for three children and fares to and from work for himself. It was, of course, impossible, and was soon to be compounded by another factor. Mrs Aldous, mother of Horace, Doris and Albert, had a severe mental breakdown brought on by malnutrition, the worry of trying to keep the family on the dole money, and the operation of the iniquitous ``Means Test'' by the callous Assessors who determined whether unemployment pay would, or would not be paid.
``...You have a piano. Sell it. You have two ornamental vases. Sell them. You have a kitchen table, a dining table and six chairs, but there are only five in the family. Sell one chair and one table...'' And so on until only the bare essentials laid down by law remained. Only then could unemployment pay be drawn, and even then it would be little more than a pound a week for a family of five.
The Aldous family had to be split up and distributed round friends and relations. We took in Doris, despite our own desperate situation, and she stayed with us for about a year. Doris was a pretty fourteen year old red-head, who in later years sadly developed a brain tumour and went blind.
In those desperate days of the depression, we lived almost exclusively on potatoes roasted in their jackets in front of the coal fire. The sweet course was milk thickened with cornflour and, with luck, a dab of jam. Saturday and Sunday dinner was one sheep's head (sixpence) and that had to spin out as long as it could as brawn. For a very occasional feast, mother would cook a rabbit (one shilling and sixpence) with any vegetables grown in the garden. I have never liked potatoes since those times. Malnutrition took its toll on the family as with much of the working population.
When all the meagre savings had been used up, there was one last attempt to reduce expenditure. Immediately after each morning assembly at school, a crocodile of boys formed in front of the headmaster's high seat, each in turn to ask some question. ``Sir, my family are going to the Bahamas this Christmas. May I be excused the last week of school?'' ``Sir, may I be excused R.I. next year, on religious grounds as my family are Jews?'' And so on. The long queue slowly passed the Beak's seat, each to ask his very public question. I had to join the crocodile, to ask ``Sir, if my parents had to withdraw me from school before the end of the school year, would they have to repay all or part of the Free Place school fees?''
The Beak, the Reverend Edwin Thirlwall England, Master of Arts, Doctor of Divinity, all six foot six bean-pole of him, didn't hesitate. ``Yes.'' He said. ``Next boy.'' Perhaps he had been asked the same question before. Of course he lied, but it meant that I stayed on till the end of the school year, when I was sixteen.
In that last year, I was persuaded to give a lecture to the school Scientific Society, and I chose to talk on Short Wave Radio. I knocked up a crude demonstration of a UHF transmitter and receiver, and my assistant on that occasion was a classmate, Harry Boot. Harry Boot went on to Birmingham University in due course under Professor Oliphant and at the beginning of the war was put onto work on UHF Radio. He and a second classmate, Randall developed the magnetron valve, the microwave power source of every Radar set, and now of every microwave oven. For their invention, a grateful government awarded each of them twentyfive thousand pounds free of tax after the war. That was a lot of money in those far off days, equivalent to about a million pounds of today's minimoney. A few years ago, I read Harry Boot's obituary in New Scientist, and it seems he did nothing of any consequence after his work on the magnetron.
In later years, I have often speculated that, had I gone to University, the Boot/Randall magnetron, which, if the truth be known, was probably the brainchild of Oliphant, would have been the Stanier/Boot or the Stanier/Randall magnetron and I would be a rich man.
But the Tarot Cards of Fate are capricious and it is not given to mere mortals to reshuffle or seek to change the cards once the Gods have dealt the hand, and the cards dealt to me spoke of a different future.
Albright and Wilson were two Quakers who set up the business to manufacture safe (or relatively safe) materials for match heads which did not bring on the dreadful industrial disease of phosijaw which played havoc with the match girls of Bryant and May's factory in London. Red Phosphorus for safety matches and Phosphorus Sesquisulphide for ordinary matches, if you must know. That it was a firm owned by Quakers did not stop it being a principal supplier of phosgene poison gas during the 14/18 war, and perhaps also in the last war. They also employed gangs of fourteen year old boys straight from school at eleven shillings and sixpence a week, operating hand presses making the red phosphorus pellets for incendiary bullets. In the great panoply of Gods, the greatest of all is Mammon.
In those days, there was no such thing as Day Release, or even training in your employer's time, so I had two evenings a week at night school and in 1936 (or was it 1937?) I got the Intermediate Degree in Science. But I had come to the conclusion that I was in a dead-end job. Indeed, a school colleague who came to Albrights just after me was still a lab assistant in 1952. With the inevitability of war within a few years, prehaps it might have been wise to remain in what was a reserved occupation, and so avoid war service, but the Laboratory was rapidly filling with the sons of the senior management, their friends and acquaintances, intent on doing just that, and I didn't fancy competing against those with such an advantage.
So I took one of the several entrance examinations to the Civil Service, the one leading to a junior supervising post in the Post Office Telephone Service. These examinations were highly competitive. Out of the three to four hundred entering, only the first thirty were accepted and I was ordered to report to Dollis Hill, London for a long training course on 1 March 1939, at a salary of one hundred and ninetyfive pounds a year, out of which you paid for your own accommodation and travel. None of us on the course could afford even the bus or tram fare into the city, and we spent most of such leisure as we had playing tennis in Gladstone Park.
About three years before I went to London, I had become interested in a certain Betty Williams, whose family had moved close to our home and whom Peggy brought home after they had met at Sunday School. Grandma Stanier is said to have told mother that ``...that there wench is after our John..'' She was quite right. We became engaged a few months before I moved to London, when we had to continue our courting by post. It says a lot that the engagement survived the separation, for I could only afford one day trip to Bimingham (six shillings return) during that time. I had always been interested in photography, and up to this last move, I still had a photograph of Betty which I took in 1936 on the very first Agfacolor film when she was sixteen and had hardly ever been kissed.
Whilest I was in London, the National Service Act (or something like that) was brought in, introducing conscription into the armed services for all twenty year olds, and I had to register. I was interviewed by the original Colonel Blimp, who was most interested in my knowledge of radio and telephones and so on. ``With your background, you will be posted to serve in the Royal Signals.'' There was a perfunctory medical examination, about which the not-far-from-the-truth standard joke was:- As you entered the room, two doctors, one on each side, took you by the hand. If you were warm, you were classified A1. Then one doctor looked in one ear, and the other doctor looked in at the other ear and if they could see each other, you were marked down for Officer training.
At the end of the London course, I was posted to Birmingham and I had a brief three months in Birmingham Telephone Area before I was conscripted into the Royal Regiment of Artillery just after the outbreak of war, to become a cookhouse orderly. Betty and I had a hurried wedding by Special License just three weeks before the tearful parting when I reluctantly joined the army.
We were issued with uniforms, all much too big; boots, mostly too small, but fortunately I have small feet; two blankets and a kitbag with an assortment of kit. Each morning every bed had to be laid out in the precise manner shown on the office orders, carefully designed to look as if one had three blankets, not two. Kit was inspected weekly, and to overcome the inevitable losses, an ingenious system was soon developed of passing articles surreptitiously around, so that everyone had a full kit for the few moments whilst it was being checked. We gabbled unintelligible orders into nonexistent radios, tapped away on makeshift morse keys, paraded with 1914/18 rifles and practised gun drill with two ancient 1914 field guns which had been condemned for firing, and which had been burnished so as to make them as conspicuous as possible. The food was inedible, except that consumed by the cookhouse staff, who lived very well indeed. Our principal occupation seemed to be to waste a good hour or two on a weekly route march which finished at a local wood where we were required to act as unpaid beaters for the local hunt, to which most of the officers belonged. I am happy to remember that the beaters singularly failed to stop any of the foxes escaping through their ranks.
We were confined to a radius of ten miles from the camp and passes to visit home were almost impossible to obtain. The gate to the estate was manned by military police, who also patrolled the main roads to intercept would-be travellers, but there was a back entrance to the estate (the tradesmen's entrance!) which wasn't guarded, and I soon devised a cycle route to and from home which kept to very minor country roads outside the authorised area. Provided one was in by the night roll-call, noone asked awkward questions on where you spent your leisure time. With careful planning, it was possible to get home for one or sometimes two evenings a week. Many a time, I was dispatched back to barracks late in the evening, wrapped in anything waterproof, and with sheets of brown paper tied round my legs to ward off the worst of the weather.
Arriving back late one evening after an unofficial trip home, I came into the barrack room where some twenty of us slept in two tier bunks, to find it empty and deserted. No soldiers, no kit bags, no blankets, no mattresses, no bunk beds, nothing. After some searching around, I found someone with the story. The Corporal in charge of the room, a doctor's son, had been sent to hospital with ``Spotted Fever'' -- Meningitis -- and everyone in the room was in quarantine. But where? Eventually I found them. At the far corner of the estate, in the pigsties from which the original inhabitants had only recently been evicted. There we were treated as lepers. We bedded down on piles of (new) straw, as all our bedding had been burnt. All our kit was sent away for fumigation. A canteen of food was left for us in the middle of a field, to be collected as soon as the orderlies had gone. We marched in the daily route marches in a scruffy little group fifty yards to the rear of the rest of the column. Noone would come within thirty yards of us. Not that that stopped any of us slipping off home as usual. Indeed it was easier, as the pigsties were conveniently close to the rear entrance. This happy state of affairs continued for three weeks or so, until the scare died down and none of us went down with meningitis. The corporal never came back and the rumour was that he didn't recover. There were no antibiotics as we now know them.
From time to time, I made enquiries as to the possibility of a transfer to the Royal Corps of Signals, but nothing came of them. But early in 1940, the Post Office Telephones which had been releasing staff to fill alleged vacancies in the Signals, found out that only about five percent actually got posted to Signals, and raised a stink. An order was issued from on high. ``Every ex-Telephones employee to be transfered compulsarily to Signals forthwith.'' I arrived in a camp in Liverpool along with hundreds of others. Some were far from pleased, having worked themselves into nice little sinecures, and sometimes nice little rackets. Some found themselves demoted from senior NCO posts to plain Signalmen with a loss of pay which was considerable for those hard-up times. The Unit was in a shambles, and an advance party was sent to prepare a camp in Prestatyn in North Wales. I think I scrubbed out every grubby little boardinghouse in Prestatyn from top to bottom. I must be one of the few people who have climbed Mount Snowdon carrying a tin helmet and respirator, as one was not allowed to go out without them.
I got Betty lodgings for a week or so in the town and managed to slip out of the derelict boarding house in which I was billeted most nights. I was late one morning and the troops were already on parade when I belted round the corner to take my place at the rear. ``Just been for a morning walk sergeant.'' It was pouring with rain. The lodgings brought Betty into contact with lesbianism for the first time. The wife of the owner had a passion for the District Nurse who also lodged there, and kept the pillow on which nurse had slept with her at all times.
In May of 1940 I was sent up to the Signals training school at Catterick in Yorkshire for a six month-long course for the premier technical post in a Signals Regiment, the Foreman of Signals. There were a motley crew on the course, and I remember just a few of them. One was the black sheep of a well-to-do family who had been shunted into the regular forces as an alternative to the Colonies, to get him out of the way. Then there was St Clair, who practiced the clarinet during any leisure period and far into the night. The course was, of course, an absolute doddle, being largely a repetition of the simpler parts of the Post Office one I had so recently taken. I managed to get Betty, now well and truly pregnant, into very cramped lodgings in the village for a short holiday, and we had a lovely time wandering round the dales immediately around the camp.
The whole Unit went into panic stations at the debacle in France and the evacuation from Dunkirk. We were thrown out of our comparatively comfortable barracks to make room for the new arrivals from France, and we heard at first hand some of the harrowing tales they told. All leave was cancelled, but I managed to get one long weekend when Brian was born, and Betty and I had a day together under the trees on the lawn of the Nursing Home in Harborne. Stuffed marrow was on the menu.
The course was marred by one bizarre accident. We had all been sent out in canvas covered pick-up trucks to carry out some radio experiments. The fellow who was probably the cleverest one on the course was half asleep at the back of the truck when the driver, it had to be St Clair of course, cut an approaching lorry a trifle close. The side of the lorry tapped the canvas side of the pick-up and knocked one of the steel aerial sections. It hit my colleague on the head and broke his neck.
At the end of the course, everyone got a fortnight's special leave, except me. I had to report to the Holding Battalion at Scarborough, where of course, no-one knew anything about me, or what I was supposed to do. With hindsight, I now believe that I was destined to go with the second wave of troops to Norway, but the Norwegian campaign ended in disaster, and the second wave never went.
If you have ever seen the satirical film ``Privates Progress'', you will know exactly what a Holding Battalion is like. The Regimental Sergeant Major has about three or four hundred men from every regiment under the sun, for whom he has to find some sort of time-consuming work every day.
First the names of those for whom posting instructions had arrived, were read out. The RSM didn't wait for an acknowledgement from each man named, but carried on regardless. On the command, perhaps fifty assorted men fell out and wandered off to the Orderly Room to find out their fate. That left perhaps upwards of three hundred.
``From here to here. Fifty men to the Coal Fatigue.'' Fifty men under an NCO solemnly marched round the corner and as soon as the column was out of sight of the parade, they scattered.
``From here to here. Twenty men for Officer's Mess Orderly duties.'' Twenty men marched round the corner and then cast lots as to which half dozen would actually go to the Officers Mess. The losers slouched off reluctantly, whilst the rest vanished.
``From here to here. Thirty men for Guard Duty.'' This meant an uncomfortable twentyfour hours, forbidden to get undressed to sleep, and a spell on the windswept pier guarding it from who knows what. The sergeant in charge of the Guard fatigue knew that he will get it in the neck if the guard wasn't actually found to be on duty, so there was no chance of sloping off if you happen to be caught for this unpopular duty. I spend one bitterly cold Christmas night watching the waves break against the jetty. After that experience, I found it advantageous to join the Coal Fatigue.
And so it went on, with the hundred or so left after the imaginary jobs have been allotted sent off on a fruitless route march. Most of the them were in tropical uniforms, preparatory to going abroad somewhere or other.
Scarborough in midwinter is VERY bracing.
Everyone knew that the jobs were imaginary, but there was a more than token effort to return the skivers to the fold, and the Military Police endlessly toured the town's coffee shops and the tea bars rounding up the strays. They never thought of looking in the Public Library. On fine days I used to walk on the Yorkshire Moors, just returning for evening meals.
After a couple of months of this existence, my name was called out on the morning parade, and I was given instructions to report to ``...the FCO at such and such RAF unit at Tadcaster...'' Who or what the FCO was, and where the unit was located, no-one knew. All I got was a one-way ticket to Tadcaster station, where in due course I arrived humping all my kit. The station was deserted except for the Stationmaster.
``Where was such and such RAF unit?'' I asked him.
He had never heard of it, but he volunteered to ring up Northern Command Headquarters in York to find out. Northern Command refused to tell him, but eventually agreed to send a dispatch rider out with the information. He arrived a couple of hours later, and the double sealed envelope gave the address of an airfield about three miles away, and a telephone number. They would send a car for me. This was a real honour. Usually, one had to walk.
The FCO turned out to be the Fire Control Officer, and he seemed surprised to find me with all my kit.
``It's just an interview to find out if you would be suitable for a particular job. Just complete this examination paper.'' He presented me with a couple of foolscap pages of elementary questions on electricity and mathematics. ``In what Units is electric power measured? Kilowatts or Kilowatt-hours?'' ``What is the square root of 10000?'' That sort of question. It was so pathetically simple that if I got less than 100% right I ought to have been shot.
The FCO, a pleasant young RAF type, trying hard to grow a proper moustache, gave a cursory scan of the paper.
``Ah, yes, excellent. We are looking for men with electrical and radio experience to operate and maintain the new Radio Direction Finding and Location equipment (shortened later by the Americans to RADAR). It is still very secret. The posts carry with them the rank of sergeant. Go back to the Holding Battalion, and you will receive posting instructions in the next few days.''
That was the last I ever heard of the suggested posting.
I got a railway pass back to Scarborough and was driven back to Tadcaster station by the FCO himself (honour indeed), as the RAF station had emptied itself for the weekend and he was the only one left. It was late on Friday afternoon, and the next train wasn't until next morning. The railway pass didn't specify a route, merely the ultimate destination, so I hitch-hiked to Birmingham for a long weekend. I remember that one of my lifts was in a Police Car, and they didn't believe my story, but let it pass.
On the following Monday, or was it Tuesday? I reported back to the Orderly Office at Scarborough.
``...we understood that you were posted to Tadcaster. Just report on parade in the morning...''
I re-joined the Coal Fatigue, but as the days passed I couldn't be bothered even to join the ranks of frozen tropical-dressed men, and I just disappeared into the Library. About a month later, one of the men who slept in the same room came up to me.
``Is your name Stanier? They've been calling your name out on morning parade for the last few mornings.''
I reported round to the Orderly Office.
``Ah, yes, LanceCorporal Stanier to be promoted to Sergeant, Foreman of Signals as from that day, and to report forthwith to Weybridge.'' The FofS job carried with it the rank of Sergeant, and later Company QuarterMaster Sergeant (CQMS), which meant pay going up to about two shillings and sixpence a day.
For the few days at Weybridge, I was billeted in a requisitioned house on an expensive estate, but hobnailed boots had already destroyed the plywood parquet flooring, and an interesting selection of graffiti covered the walls. Then we were on the move again, to Bletchingley in Surrey. There was the usual squabble as to which Section got which requisitioned building, and, after the floor of one Victorian house fell in with dry rot and had to be abandoned, the Technical and Motor Transport Section moved into the servant's quarters of the Old Rectory. By chance or design, this was a mile or so from any other section, which suited the T.M. section very well indeed, and the staff could run their several rackets without hindrance.
The first priority was to get a plentiful supply of petrol, preferably uncoloured. Petrol for commercial vehicles was coloured red, for army vehicles it was, naturally, khaki, and private vehicles were only allowed to have uncoloured petrol in their tanks. There was a national trade in filtering coloured petrol through gas masks, in the belief that the active charcoal would filter out the colour and the tell-tale additives, but that was unnecessary for the T.M. section was close to the requisitioned garage so it was a natural thing for it to take over the pumps and distribution of fuel. A little tinkering with the pump ensured that only 0.95 of a gallon was delivered for each gallon registered, and for a small consideration the petrol delivery tanker driver would forget to add the required colouring to the delivery. And then the Unit's emergency generators worked night and day charging batteries and powering emergency lights -- on paper -- to account for an adequate amount of fuel. All this was so satisfactory that the cockney character who ran the pumps got a profitable little business going, supplying even the Canadian forces private cars, and on one memorable occasion had to refuse an uncoloured fuel delivery as every tank, including the spare (i.e. unknown to the military authorities) tank was already full.
Then there were the radio mechanics (all ex-Telephones) who had a contract with a radio dealer in the neighbouring town to collect, repair and return all his faulty radio sets at a fixed rate plus parts. One mechanic had a profitable watch repair service going, and used to turn up spare parts on a hand drill. The vehicle mechanics soon had a section, screened off from public view, repairing the beat-up bangers owned by various members of the section. I bought my first car, a Singer 9, registration CKV253 for £25 and the lads did up the engine for another tenner.
Much of the time, we seemed to be providing Public Address services for various manouvers and exercises. There was one occasion when we were providing P.A. and commentary facilities at at mock tank attack, made more realistic by numbers of half-charge mines designed to shake the tanks, but not damage them. It so happened that we were relaying the leading tank's radio commands to the rest of his squadron when his tank ran over a mine which was distinctly more powerful than half charge and the tank was lifted bodily into the air, though undamaged. The tank commander's considered opinion of the antecedants of the planters of the mine was relayed verbatim and at length to the attendant top brass.
The south coastal strip had largely been cleared of civilians and driving on the empty roads was boring, so the P.A. team devised three-man driving, a suicidal arrangement to relieve boredom. The man in the driving seat only operated the three pedals, accelerator, clutch and brake and was supposed to keep his eyes shut. His companion squatting behind him steered. I, in the passenger seat, changed gear on a crash (i.e. non- synchromesh) box. It was real teamwork, and quite exciting in town traffic.
Rations for the M.T. section were delivered weekly. The QuarterMaster's lorry would unload the boxes and double check them. The delivery crew and the Quartermaster would get back into the cab and the lorry would then leave the yard and move on down the narrow lane towards the next delivery point. As it left the yard, two men would jump on the back and throw off boxes as fast as they could until the lorry reached a sharp turn some three hundred yards down the lane, when they would jump off. A party would already be collecting the boxes strung out along the lane. The M.T. section ate well and supplied many a family back home with welcome extras.
I got Betty and baby lodgings a few miles away, but was almost immediately sent off to Prestatyn for yet another course. There was an army joke that the only difference between a Bombadier and a Brigadier, was that the Brigadier had failed more courses. In my absence, the bitch of a landlady made Betty's life a misery and she was almost hysterical when I got back, three weeks later. In desperation, I toured the villages on a motorbike, trying to find better accommodation, and eventually knocked at the door of the Maynards in Bletchingly itself.
Ivy wanted to see Betty first and she afterwards told her that she looked so pathetic, carrying this big child, that she could not turn her away. We moved, pram, baby, Betty and all in an army lorry the same day.
Ivy was like a mother to Betty, despite being only about six years her senior. Marston, suffering from severe asthma, could never be in the forces, but, as a builder, ran the NFS Rescue service. The Maynards had two daughters, Joyce, the elder and Gillian just a few months older than Brian. Brian and Gillian played in the same play pen, caught a severe attack of whooping cough together, and grew up together for almost two years.
Betty lived with the Maynards happily for almost two years, and I was there for most of the time. But eventually, I got moved on again, and was ordered to report to Stromness, in Orkney. As usual, I had only 24 hours notice, so Marston had to supervise Betty's return to Birmingham whilst I departed for the north, to arrive in Thurso the following afternoon and get the ferry, the old St Ola from Scrabster harbour to Stromness, across the dreaded Pentland Firth and past the rugged western cliffs of Hoy and the sandstone pillar of the Old Man of Hoy and into the medieval town of Stromness.
The southern islands of Orkney, Pomona or Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray, South Ronaldsay, Flotta and Hoy (the High Island) surround the waters of Scapa Flow, one of the finest anchorages in the world. During the war, this was the main naval anchorage and a small fleet of seine net fishing boats, modified for carrying passengers, maintained a free bus service between the islands. Scapa Flow is so large that to do a round trip from, say, Stromness to Graemsay, Lyness on Hoy, Flotta, St Mary's on South Ronaldsay and back to Stromness was a full day trip. And often a very rough trip. Communications within the northern group of the Orkneys, outside the ring round Scapa, were maintained by larger fishing trawlers running a bus service from Kirkwall. The names still evoke memories of low sandy islands, basking in the heat of summer and with the island sheep grazing on the seaweed of the littorial shore. Shapinsay, Stronsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Eday, Papa Westray, Westray, Rousay, Egilsay.
I found myself at Melsetter, on Hoy. Life was quiet. Dig for bait on the sand flats of Longhope in the morning. Fix up with the lifeboat man at Longhope for a lobster to be delivered live on the day one went on leave. Collect the mushrooms from the field adjacent. Fish for pollack off the rocks in the afternoon. Pull in the lobster pot from the rocks at low tide and reset it. Go out with the local poacher after a rabbit or two. Shoot a hare for the mess dinner. Borrow a boat from the RAF and row out to the Dörflinger and fish off the propellor shafts. After the 1918 surrender, the German fleet was anchored in Scapa Flow whilst the Allies argued endlessly as to what they would do with the ships. As the arguments went on and on, the Germans scuttled the entire fleet. Between the wars, a firm of salvage experts raised the warships, one by one, turning them upside down, filling them with air and bringing them to the surface bottom up, and then towing them to Rosyth for breaking up as scrap. One of the last to be raised just as the war started in September 1939, was the Dörflinger, and it was too vulnerable a target to be towed back to Rosyth. So, right through the war, a couple of men lived in a wooden hut stuck on the keel and housing a couple of big compressors, and pumped more air into the upturned hull whenever it sank too low in the water. They were anchored only half a mile off shore, but they could just as well been in Ultima Thule and they welcomed any visitor to relieve the dreadful monotony of their lives.
A posting to the Orkneys had several advantages. It was classed as an overseas station, yet one got leave every four months, weather permitting. Food was plentiful and far better than in England. There was little to do. I really only got one serious job to do in the two years there. I had to borrow a row boat and a hand winch from the RAF, ``borrow'' a mile of submarine cable from the Navy and lay the cable the half mile or so from St Mary's to Lamb Holm as a temporary link whilst the ``Churchill Barriers'' were built by Italian PoW's from St Mary's to South Ronaldsay. I was the only one who could row. We laid a steel wire from one shore to the other, floated on lengths of driftwood tied on every few metres, and winched the cable across, buoyed up with naval buoys washed up on the beach. Then came the job of cutting the cable free of the buoys and allowing it to sink. During the mêlée, one of the rowlocks disappeared over the side, and we had to paddle like mad to avoid drifting out to sea in the general direction of Norway.
When the weather was good, Orkney was idyllic. When the wind blew, it was hell. I remember having to crawl on hands on knees down the path from the nissen hut to the cookhouse, as it was impossible to stand on two feet in the 100 mph plus gale. On one memorable occasion, someone opened the door to a nissen hut in a gale, and the back end blew out. The Navy insisted that the barrage balloons were kept in the air, no matter what the weather, and the RAF crews lost about half of them in every gale. However, on one occasion, the ten ton winch disappeared as well, and was eventually found by the navy divers a hundred yards out to sea. But the balloon fabric washed up on the shore could be made up into good inflatable beds and pillows.
Not long after I arrived at the section, there was an influx of new officers, winkled out from sinecures in Gibraltar and elsewhere. One Captain in particular I remember, if only for the fact that his sole and extremely boring topic of conversation was the innumerable women in his life. If he was to be believed, then he couldn't possibly have had time for any other activity, military or civilian or even eating and sleeping. He soon displaced us from the comfortable little farmhouse which we had commandeered as the sergeants' mess, into rather less comfortable nissen huts, with the object of releasing the small bedrooms in which the seemingly endless procession of pretty young Wrens could be suitably and privately entertained.
Leave started at around seven in the morning when one was shuttled down to Lyness pier and out to the old Aberdeen cattle boat, the St Ninian. Dependant on the tide, she sailed out through the boom gate blocking the deepwater channel between Flotta and Hoy, past the notorious tidal whirlpool off Switha and out into the Pentland Firth, a stretch of water reckoned to on a par with Cape Horn. At spring tides, the turbulent flow through the Firth reaches twelve knots, which was about the St Ninian's maximum speed, so each crossing had to be planned to use the tidal eddies, and no two crossings ever took the same route. It was usually a very rough trip, and it was common to have several men carried off on stretchers with broken limbs when the vessel reached Scrabster Harbour, not to mention the dozens who would be prostrate with sea sickness.
From Scrabster it was a mile and a half route march to Thurso station. Big notices on the station urged you not to sit on your eggs. This was a half-joking reference to the crates and the half-crates of eggs being lugged along by most of the men to fuel the blackmarket down south, since eggs were unrationed on Orkney and restricted to a ration of one or two a week back home. The leave train was nicknamed the ``Admiral Jellico'' and ran daily at seven pm from Thurso to London and back in twentyfour hours, winding its way over the single track route across the bogs and moors of Sutherland to the coast at Helmsdale, with the train crew delivering shopping and mail at each tiny halt, then along the coastal route to Perth, where it paused for breath and then continued on the East Coast main line. I used to change at Crewe and arrive in Birmingham at about five in the morning, in time to catch the workers' bus out to Northfield and climb in through the kitchen window. On a couple of occasions Birmingham was being blitz bombed and it was a little exciting trying to get home amongst the chaos of fires, hoses, rubble and rescue parties.
I remember going back once off leave and having to spend a whole week over the Christmas period, stuck in a freezing nissen hut on the hillside overlooking Scrabster, waiting for the weather to moderate enough for the ferries to attempt a crossing.
I can remember being seasick in Scapa only the once. I had been on an inspection trip to Shapinsay and on arriving back at Kirkwall, I found the Flow so rough that all the bus boats had been cancelled. This was by no means unusual, but I found one fishing trawler skipper who wanted to see the film on at Lyness Naval Cinema that evening, and he was determined to get there. The only accommodation was in the wheelhouse, the skipper had an exceptionally foul pipe running on Naval Plug Twist and I had had nothing to eat for about eighteen hours. We set off into the teeth of the gale into the funnel of Scapa Bay, immediately south of Kirkwall. The boat went slower and slower as she ploughed into the mountainous seas and eventually, the skipper decided that he would never make Lyness and reluctantly he turned back. Meanwhile I had made my tribute to Father Neptune.
I got the usual less-than-24 hours notice of a move to Felixstowe, where I found myself in Landguard Fort, beating off the incendiary bombs aimed for the harbour. During my stay in Felixstowe, an ex-colleague from the Post Office course at Dollis Hill, turned up. He had been given my name as the liason contact. He was three years older than me, and was just outside the age group being released by the Post Office. He went round the country acceptance testing new cables being provided for the forces, and he had arrived to test a new cable across the estuary. He told me after the war that he and his family lived on his travel and accommodation expense allowance from the Post Office and banked his entire salary. He finished the war comparatively well off.
Susan was born whilst I was at Felixstowe, but not long after this event I had another spell in Catterick as a lecturer, and I managed to get Betty lodgings for a couple of weeks in the village and in Richmond. One day we teamed up with another couple from the same lodgings for a picnic in Swaledale. It was an exceptionally hot day, and we men badly wanted a swim in the river to cool off, so we both borrowed our wive's knickers to wear. Identical M & S turquoise briefs, I remember. Unfortunately, even hanging the knickers on the bushes to dry didn't work, so the giggling girls had to go to the Church canteen knickerless, to be served personally by the vicar to tea and cakes. But after only a couple of months at Catterick, I was sent off on Embarkation Leave, preparatory to being posted somewhere abroad.
I had only three days of this leave when the Police arrived to inform me that I had to report immediately to Morpeth, where, of course, no-one expected me and I cooled my heels for a week or so, whilst someone sorted out the paperwork. Then, in charge of about a dozen men, it was off to Liverpool to join the old transatlantic liner the Duchess of Bedford and a convoy into the Mediterranean. It was utterly boring voyage, packed thirty to a small room, just big enough the sling hammocks from one side to the other.
There was intense speculation as to our destination, but the Liverpudlians had known precisely, and the shouts from the dockers on the port as we left -- ``Give you know what to the girls of Sister Street''- told everyone that we were bound for Alexandria.
We were, and you could smell the unique odour of the Egyptian city many miles off shore. In the week or so I had in Alexandria, I only lost one fountain pen to the gangs of teenage pickpockets. Most men lost much more. Then it was the slow train of cattle trucks (for the troops) and two berth compartments (for the officers) over the Suez Canal, up the Gaza Strip to Haifa. A couple of days in Haifa and then a long convoy of army lorries, driven by Indian troops up the valley of the Jordan, past Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, across the Allenby bridge and up the escarpment on to the Syrian Desert stretching right across to Iraq. It took four days to cross the desert, stopping each night at one of the oil pumping stations on the Iraq/Lebanon pipeline. There were tented encampments at each station, but they were due to be inspected within a few days, so we were prohibited from using them, and had to bed down as best we could on the desert. Anyone who tells you that deserts are made of sand, hasn't seen the Syrian Desert, which is of purple rock, varying in size from a ten ton truck down to dust. It does not make a comfortable bed, and one blanket is no insulation from the piercing cold of the desert night. Always shake your blanket before getting in, and shake your boots before putting them on. Otherwise the scorpions will get you. They got several men the first night. The sting is painful, but not lethal. At Habbaniya, I got the first glimpse of the Euphrates, and from there it was only some seventy miles to the ancient city of Baghdad.
Baghdad defies description. The narrow street markets, with the craftmen making everything from filigree jewelry to clothing, copper ware to pottery in little six feet by four feet cubbyholes open to the street. Everywhere were the touts and pimps, extolling the virtues of their wares, or the lack of virtue. The Golden Mosque, with its great dome covered in goldleaf brought by the faithful and its four vivid blue tiled towers, one at each corner, from whence the muazim calls the faithful to prayer five time a day, is so surrounded by hovels that it can only be viewed from a rooftop. Inside the Mosque the words of the Khoran are written in flowing script on the ceramic tiles lining walls and roof. Nowhere is there an image of a face or person, for this is forbidded by the Moslem religion. The great river Tigris, perhaps a third of a mile wide here, and spanned by a graceful stone bridge, cuts the city in half, separating the trade quarter from the high class residential quarter. A porter carrying a grand piano on his back staggered up the road. A caravanserie of donkeys laden with food, carpets, household goods, firewood, spices made its way to the market area. Dhows under lanteen sails downwind or rowed by great sweeps against the wind, moved slowly along the river. At night the city was lit by a myriad lamps reflected in the swirling water. Ferry boats crossed and recrossed the river for those who did not care to travel the mile or so to the bridge.
In war time, car spares, wheels and tyres were almost unobtainable, and many a taxi clattered past on bare rimmed wheels. There was an enormous black market in ``stolen'' army tyres. One taxi crashed into a mud wall surrounding a house, to reveal row after row of stolen army tyres embedded in the wall for safe storage.
We lived in circular mud huts with thick walls about four feet high, and capped by a bell tent for a roof. The thick walls were a wise precaution, for the Arab Legion who guarded the camp, the crack Jordanian troops under the famous English Colonel Glubb -- Glubb Pasha -- had a habit of loosing off occasional rifle shots in a random direction to while away the time. The canvas bell tents were riddled with their efforts.
I had a month in Baghdad, visiting the Golden Mosque, taking a trip to an excavation of one of the Sumerian cities, climbing a ziggurat and sitting on the clay throne in the palace of a king dead these five thousand years, now thirty feet below ground, covered by the remains of the civilisations which followed as each conqueror destroyed his captured city to prevent the ghosts of the dead haunting the living. I watched the careful excavation of a find of clay writing tablets being baked in situ so that they wouldn't disintegrate when exposed to the air.
Then by train for twelve hours down the route of the Tigris past Ctessiphon and Ur of Chaldea and Al Querna where the Euphrates joins to form the Shatt el Arab, now a mile or more wide, and lined with irrigated fields of rice and giving way to a mile wide swathe of date palms as Basra was approached. Sea going liners were at anchor and at the quayside in the river port of Basra, sixty miles from the head of the Persian Gulf, and surrounded by seagoing dhows awaiting the right winds to take them trading for spices and ivory and exotic woods and slaves down the East African coast. For this is the port from which Sinbad the Sailor set forth on his magical voyages. The Duchess of Bedford was in the port, having brought a full complement of Polish refugees through the Suez Canal, round the Horn of Africa, through the Straits of Hormus and right up the Persian Gulf and the Shatt el Arab whilst I had dillied and dallied across Israel, Jordan and Iraq.
The T.M. section was located a few miles out of Basra, most of which was out of bounds to the troops. We worked from 6am to midday, and then retired to lay on our sweat soaked bunks under the mosquito nets until dusk. Salt tablets were issued daily and one omitted to take them at your peril. The unit lost a cook through heat exhaustion during the worst of the September ``date ripening'' winds, when the normal wind sweeping down from the mountains of Iran (Persia as it was then called), and reaching a temperature of only about 100F suddenly reverses as the effects of the monsoon edge north and the wind coming up the Gulf reaches 120F and 100% humidity. Then you can't cool yourself by sweating, and it is necessary to drink gallons of cold salted water, just to keep cool. All night long, there was a procession of naked men staggering into the showers and emerging still wet as it was impracticable to dry off. One slept outside, under the wide verandahs on a canvas bed in a lukewarm pool of sweat. Everyone kept a supply of stones under the bed to throw at the stray wild dogs (Pyards) snuffling round the beds at night.
The young Officer in charge of the T.M. Section, whose name I cannot remember, got himself in trouble with the Army through marrying an Armenian/Egyptian girl whilst on leave in Cairo, and then overstaying his leave. Then he was in deeper water, as she had influential friends and got a civilian visa to Iraq and followed him to Basra. The C.O. was furious. Wives were just NOT allowed, but she had a valid civilian visa and he couldn't do anything about it. She was a voluptuous twenty year old (well, more or less) and she could swear at her husband fluently, loudly and at length in at least four languages, and often did. Like all these middle and high class Middle East women, she couldn't do anything for herself, and he used to have to bring her dirty smalls back to camp for someone to wash.
There were three Italian ``co-operators'' helping in the workshop. They had been Prisoners of War who, when Italy surrendered, ``volunteered'' to help the Allies rather than sweat it out in a PoW camp. They were very skilled mechanics, but one in particular got syphilis three times in less than a year and had to go back to the cage.
As army radio sets were so complicated and needed elaborate, and unavailable testing facilities for their repair, as well as unavailable spares, maintainance was largely on the basis of ..if it works, O.K... if it doesn't work, throw it away.. Much of our time was taken up repairing the radio sets belonging to the Indian Army Officer's Messes, and in making a replica of an Old English Pub for the Signals Officers Mess, where the Commanding Officer even dressed his Mess Orderlies in Old English Costume, and in the tropics too! Six carpenters, four mechanics and sundry other personnel spent twelve months full time on this Pub.
Meanwhile the C.O. was having a torrid affair with an ENSA girl about a third of his age, taking the girl into the desert in his official Humber Snipe and making love on the back seat whilst the driver sat in the front seat. When the ENSA Concert Party moved back to Baghdad, he followed by train, but missed the opportunities afforded by a mobile love nest, so he telephoned for his car and driver to be sent up by rail. The unfortunate driver had to sit in the car on a flat truck for the twelve hour night journey, and when they arrived in Baghdad next morning the car had been jacked up on logs and all four wheels and the spare were missing, having been stolen en route.
The M.T. sergeant was a keen fisherman and spent many a hour on the pontoon bridge which spanned the Shatt el Arab, fishing with a home made hook on a stout line baited with a pound or two of fat meat from the cookhouse, catching fresh water sharks. They were usually about four to six feet long and made a welcome change from fat Iraqi mutton. Then he had the urge to try a different fishing ground, so we ``borrowed'' the MT pickup truck and set off on the dirt road north to Al Querna, at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, where there was a tatty sign announcing that you were now in the original Garden of Eden. From there we carried on north, crossing the Euphrates by the pontoon bridge to the tomb of the prophet Esra, where there is a mosque catering for the Moslem, Christian and Jewish faiths. I went round the Mosque whilst the sergeant got on with his fishing.
We were in the workshop one morning when up came an American Jeep with a couple of Russian Officers and a Polish driver/interpreter.
``Could we repair their radio set?'' They produced the set which was obviously the Mess set, a copy of an American design of about 1935.
``Of course we could. Just leave it and come back in a couple of hours.''
But there was no way they would leave the set, so we had to tackle the repair with a Russian Officer breathing down our necks. In fact, it was only the dial cord broken, so that the tuning knob was inoperative, but we made it last more than the two hours.
On another occasion, an officer of Transport Command turned up.
``Did I know anything about Electronic Depth Indicators on ships? They were in a dilemma. The captain of a Polish merchant ship was refusing to sail until his Electronic Depth Indicator was repaired. The radio officer hadn't been able to get it working.'' In this refusal the Captain was very wise, for the Shatt el Arab was notorious for its shifting mud banks, and there were no pilots to be had.
He produced the technical manual on the instrument, and it seemed a simple enough bit of gear, so off I went, down to the docks and on board. I couldn't find anything wrong, until I spotted that the metal stylus which swept across the scale and registered the pulses was just clear of the sensitised paper. I screwed the stylus in half a turn and the instrument worked. It was regarded as a great triumph.
I had just the one trip into southern Iran to the town of Ahwaz. Costly Persian carpets were laid out along the dirt paths of the town, so that the pile would get well bedded down. After a few days on the street they were taken to be washed in the river, and then packed for sale. For some reason, probably the price, I never thought of buying a carpet to bring home, but I was still on less than three shillings a day.
We heard little of what was going on outside, and our sole source of information was the BBC, received on an ex-merchant navy radio receiver scrounged from the navy, who had failed to get it working. We heard of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then the Japanese surrender and a free celebration bottle of Canadian beer was issued to everyone. We sat around to await demobilisation. It was a long time coming.
My radio picked up many Amateur radio stations which had restarted now that the war had finished. A friend of mine in Teheran started up an amateur station without bothering to ask for authority, so I followed suit, making up a small transmitter and using the call sign YI6JS I had dozens of contacts over the world, most of whom pestered me later for confirmation, for Iraq was a rare catch in the ``Worked 100 countries'' and the ``Worked all Continents'' scramble for certificates. Then an American Officer, another ex-amateur operator turned up at the camp looking for me, having heard me on the air and found out who I was from my contact in Teheran. I had a couple of days in Khorramshahr and Abadan as his guest at the American bases there. If you are ever offered chicken stew with peaches and cream dumped on the same plate on top of the chicken, I advise you to decline.
I found a small stock of Kodachrome film in the local bazaar, having been flogged by some American soldier, and I took as many pictures as I could of Basra and the journey home, estimating the exposure with the aid of a light meter made from an old selenium rectifier element.
A few days after the New Year, I began the long journey home. First sorting out what could be humped back, and watching the Indian troops spiriting away anything left. Then by train to Baghdad and almost immediately on the road convoy down the oil pipeline route to Haifa, and this time we were allowed to used the tents at the staging posts. It is quite a weird feeling, going slowly down a steep hill off the desert plateau, to pass a sign at the side of the road. ``You are now passing sea level''. And the road is going rapidly downhill as far as the eye can see, with the hairpin bends sweeping along the hillside far, far below. Then through the banana plantations by the Allenby bridge over the river Jordan and down the valley into Haifa. We were all set to move on a week or so later, when the Irgun Zwei Leumi, the Israel terrorist group, or freedom fighters, depending on which side you were on, blew up the train on which we should have travelled. Perhaps it was pure coincidence that it happened to be the very one carrying cash to pay the troops. That meant another wait in Haifa, so I walked up Mount Carmel and round the Monastry on the top.
Then, 36 hours late, we set off by train long the coast route to Egypt. This time we actually had passenger carriages with compartments (eight to a compartment) instead of cattle trucks. Presumably we were being introduced gradually to civilian life. We had been scheduled to have a stop for a midday meal at Gaza, but, being 36 hours behind, we had the midday meal at midnight instead, arriving at Alexandria late afternoon. Everyone impatiently kicked their heels at Alexandria for a few days until we went aboard an American ``Liberty'' cargo ship. It had been specially strengthened with a foot or so of concrete over the decking, as a protection against minor bombing, and it had been diverted on its way to the Japanese war. As an American ship it ran on American Seamens Union rules,and that meant that, there being only one shift of cooks and orderlies, we had three meals in eight hours and sixteen hours with nothing. It was the first time I had ever seen a column of officers, mug, knife and fork at the ready, waiting for the mess to open at seven in the morning.
The ship staggered and rolled its way into the teeth of the usual winter mediterranean gale, rising up the face of the incoming wave and pivotting over the crest with an almighty crash to slide, almost out of control, down the other face. We were in five tier bunks which shown a remarkable resemblance to the quarters on the old slave ships.
On the third day it was announced over the ship's loudspeaker system that the ship would dock at Toulon at six am next day, and troops would be ready to disembark at seven am. When I got up next morning, there was no land in sight. About mid morning, the ship turned right through about 150 degrees. I went along to chat to the ship's radio operator, yet another ham to ask him what was happening, for there was no explanation over the loudspeakers.
``It's the captain'' he said. ``He's not so hot on navigation and he's just found himself by the Balearic Islands, about a hundred and fifty miles south of where he thought he was.''
We actually docked next day . All the crew leant over the side to watch the pilot aboard. I asked the radio operator what all the fuss was.
``The last pilot only issued three orders for the engineroom. ``Full Ahead'', ``Full Astern'' and ``Finished with Engines''. He steered the ship through the maze of sunken warships, and into the dock at full speed.'' I was told. ``And we've got the same one.''
He did the same again. It was hair-raising.
Toulon was wet and miserable, and all of us found ourselves in an encampment of tents connected by paths of duckboards just floating on a foot or more of succulent mud and it was a relief to get aboard a train a few days later.
And what a train! I doubt whether there were a dozen windows in the whole of the carriages. Each compartment had a straight choice. Leave the windows boarded up and stuff up the cracks with anything which would stay in position and sit in the dark; or see what is going on and where you are, but freeze.
The French had devalued their currency by 100% just before we arrived, so the wide boys who had stocked up with soap and chocolate and cigarettes, expecting to make a killing by selling to the French en route, found themselves selling at best at cost price. It was a very uncomfortable twelve hours to Dieppe, where yet another tented encampment in a sea of mud, awaited us.
Everyone watched the Orderly Notice Board like hawks. Each day, the orders appeared. ``Such and Such Group will hand blankets in at 03.00 hrs, march down to the harbour at 03.30 and embark at 04.30. And each day, without fail, the same group would march back at 05.30 with the sailing having been cancelled due to storms. They would then draw another couple of blankets each and go back to sleep. By the time that my group appeared on Orders, tempers were getting very frayed and fights were breaking out between rival groups who thought that they should have had priority.
After over a week of this frustration, I actually did get aboard a ferry, designed for about three or four hundred passengers, but packed with well over a thousand heavily laden troops. One man was sick in my face, and we hadn't even been untied from the quay. It was a rough, rough trip to Newhaven, where we arrived in early evening, to be packed immediately onto a train for Aldershot and into the demobilisation sausage-machine queue at two in the morning. I arrived at New Street Station, Birmingham on the first day of February 1946, Betty's birthday. I had been in the army for six years four months and a few days.
I returned to the Post Office Telephones and almost immediately found myself back in London on yet another course, and Betty and I took the opportunity of renewing our friendship with the Maynards, meeting Ivy as she came out of school, and then going home with her to meet Marston and the children.
On finishing the course, I returned to the Midland Regional office writing the technical specifications for new telephone exchanges and extensions to existing ones.
I had quickly worked out the profit and loss account of my income, I found that my minimum expenditure without any allowance for holidays would be £400 and it was clear that I could not possibly live on the £300 a year from the Post Office, even eked out by judicious travelling for which overnight expenses could be claimed. On most occasions, I took camping equipment, so making a reasonable profit on the deal. Even so, after my miniscule savings vanished, I had to rely on regular handouts from Father, who never failed me.
It was no surprise to anyone that Linda was born a few days short of twelve months from my return home. She arrived in the first few days of the greatest freeze-up of the century, when milk, frozen into its' bottles had to be collected from the end of the road, half a mile away, and the doctor trudged on foot from the main road on his rounds. Linda was the world's worst baby to rear, taking at least two hours for each of her four-hourly feeds. She only thrived when we gave up milk and put her on solid food.
Shortage of fuel put most of the country on half time for a couple of months whilst the deep freeze continued. As I travelled into the city by rail, I can remember little of the transport problems that must have happened, as the railways kept going through thick and thin.
We had a camping holiday at Uphill, near Weston, taking two midget tents tied onto a pushchair by train and bus, as we had no car at that time. It was so hot that most of us suffered from sunburn. One night, the tent pole broke on the children's tent, and had to be replaced by a broom handle next morning.
After the best part of two years on Specification writing, the Post Office held a competitive examination for promotion, for which the ex-Forces candidates took a much simpler paper than those who had remained in the Telephone service, as befitted their missing years. I was offered a post in London Headquarters which I said that I could not possibly afford to take, and a few months later, I was found a post in Birmingham Telephone area supervising the staff installing telephones. My immediate colleague was Len Pullen, who was a keen pianist. But his red-haired wife wouldn't let him play on the home piano, and he had to hire time on a piano at Dale Forty, the piano dealer in the centre of the city.
I joined the Post Office First Aid organisation and eventually was the leader of the team who represented the Midland Region in the prestigeous National Competition, where the team made a real hash of things. The P.O. First Aiders were part of the St Johns Ambulance Brigade section and I and colleagues attended a whole series of functions over the years. I remember being at a tatty theatre in Aston one evening when one of the statuesque nudes started to sway. (By the Lord Chamberlain's rules of the time, a nude had to remain absolutely still). Bill and I rushed forward, but the stage manager beat us to it. The drummer of the resident orchestra had his act off to a fine art. As soon as the last drumbeat of his first part of the show was over, he was out of his seat, down the orchestra steps, under the stage, along the corridor and across the road into the pub. He just had time to down a couple of pints when he had to dash back across the road, along the corridor, under the stage, up the orchestra steps and into his seat in time to join in the music at the right point.
I became interested in bee keeping and eventually took over as demonstrator for the South Birmingham Bee Keepers Association, and as an official Inspector checking for bee diseases for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. It brought in a few pounds extra during the summer, and the travelling expenses enabled me to keep a car on the road, if only just, and I got a trip to the Agricultural Research station at Rothamstead.
After a couple of years on Installation in the area, I came back to the Regional office on provision of special circuits, just in time to get a team together involved in providing special video circuits on ordinary telephone cables for the newly formed Television Outside Broadcast units of the BBC and later for the new Independant Television Companies. This was in the days before the transistor had been invented, and all the equipment was heavy, bulky and consumed large amounts of power for the dozens of valves.
Jane arrived, more by accident than design, though none the less welcome for all that, and I helped at her birth. Brian went to King Edward High School, and found many of the masters who had taught me, still there. Susan went to Kings Norton Grammar School, whilst Linda, and then Jane went to Lickey Hills School. Brian gained entrance to Wadham College, Oxford and father helped out with a regular hand out to him. We couldn't afford to do so.
I passed an interview for promotion, and at the same time my own job on Circuit Provision was upgraded, but the post was filled, at least on paper, by a senior colleague who had failed his own promotion interview. But I still continued to do the job and I became disillusioned waiting on vague promises that all would be sorted out in a year or so, so I accepted promotion to Blackburn Telephone Area as Planning Engineer. This Area had such an unfortunate reputation that no-one wanted the job until I took it on.
In the meantime, in the belief that we would be staying in Birmingham, Betty and I had had built a new house at Cofton Lake Road, Rednal. I remember that it cost £3350 freehold, but I had to do the plumbing, electrical work, decoration and central heating and build the garage, which probably added another thousand to the cost. We plunged even though we couldn't afford it at the time, but we were in residence only six months before the promotion to Blackburn came through. House buying was in the doldrums when we came to sell and we barely broke even. I wonder what it would fetch today?
I bought a second-hand caravan and towed it up to Blackburn and parked it in the yard of a pub high on the hills to the north of Blackburn. The pub also ran a pig farm and a poultry farm as well as being an official caravan site. There I drew up the plans for the new house in Green Drive.
I travelled extensively round the area, trying to assess its' problems, and soon fell in love with the beautiful scenery. One afternoon I bumped into a hen which had been scared out of a hedge right in front of the car. Then I had a problem. I couldn't take it back to the caravan to pluck in case the pub's owner thought it one of his, so I had to sit in the middle of a wood and pluck and draw it.
The area certainly did have problems, starting from the top. Billy Beach was a ``Headquarters'' man, completely out of his depth in an area which actually had to do things. His sole interest for some years had been his smallholding high on Whalley Nab, and he brought his milk and eggs down daily for sale in the office. One girl on the staff did nothing else but hawk these round. There was a standard joke in the area, which may not have been far from the truth that there was a special marking on some people's appraisement forms. ``Does not take milk or eggs.'' Zilla, his wife, always known out of his hearing as Drusilla, was as nutty as a fruit cake. She must have been one of these doll-like beauties in her prime, but that was long ago. He invited us once to tea, and when we got there, she announced that there was no tea. On another occasion we got invited to dinner, but he made sure that there actually was a meal that evening. However, she offered drinks, and produced an enormous tumbler for Betty. Heaven only knows what she put in it, for it made Betty absolutely paralytic.
With no direction from the top, the area just drifted along, usually rating in the efficiency stakes just above Swansea, which area could always be relied upon to prop everyone else up. Swansea had acquired undying fame by an exchange transfer to a brand new telephone exchange which had made no provision for about a thousand customers on a little satellite exchange, who were left high and dry for weeks. I set about trying to get some sense of urgency into my planners, and formulate an Area Plan for the future years. It wasn't too popular in some quarters, but within five years I virtually controlled the area in all but name.
When the house in Green Drive was under construction, I moved the caravan on to the plot, so as to be handy to do the work I had arranged to do, plumbing, electrics, central heating, decorating, floor laying, kitchen fitments, and so on. It was the only way that we could afford the £5500 which the house cost. When the house in Cofton Lake Road finally sold, after an anxious six months, the rest of the family joined me, with all the children sleeping in a big ex-army tent in the garden. Marston and the two girls brought their own tents with them on a visit that summer, and it was obvious to all and sundry that Brian and Gillian hit it off together. The army tent burnt down on Bonfire Night, having been hit by a stray rocket, just a few days after we had all moved into the house.
It was at the Ribblesdale Camera Club that Betty was first introduced to photography, under the tuition of the late Ben Tyrer. Ben was a professional photographer freelancing for the Farmers Weekly, and photography was also his hobby as well as his livelihood. He often used to tell the tale of his start on a photographic career. He was out of work during the great depression, and suddenly got the offer of a job at the local cotton mill. On the strength of his new job, Ben got married, only to find that the job was to last only a few weeks whilst another fellow was ill. When the fellow returned, Ben was out. He persuaded his new father-in-law to give him a plate camera as a wedding present, and with this he went round all the churches photographing them with the old magnesium flash powder (which leaves a good coating of white Magnesium oxide powder over everywhere) and selling copies of the photos to the vicar to flog for the church funds. If the church was locked, as many were, he would get in through the coal hopper and the boiler room door. Ben was a fine photographer, and a good teacher. Betty soon proved better than me and I gracefully gave up still photography in her favour, to concentrate on cine. Alas, Ben was a heavy smoker and never came round from an operation for lung cancer. But I still have some of his film material, which Mary, his wife was about to consign to the tip after his death.
In due course, Billy Beach retired, pushed out much against his will, and I took over as Manager of the Area. Within a couple of years, I had raised the Area from its former lowly position to the Area against which everyone else's results were compared. My belief that everyone should give a fair day's work in return for his/her pay brought me into conflict with the Unions, particularly the very left wing Post Office Engineering Union, who tried very hard with a weak Director to get me ditched.
Some of the events which happened are almost beyond belief.
There was the lengthy correspondence with a lady in Burnley who complained to the Radio Investigation section that her neighbour had a magic box which she used to steal the complainant's radio programs.
Then there was the lengthy ``Red Flag'' case. A Red Flag case is one where the correspondence has been sent initially to the Prime Minister, whose office then flag it out to the appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) Ministry, thence to the Headquarters of the Organisation concerned, and it goes down the chain of command to the Area who have to answer it back along the same route. A gentleman in Rochdale complained to the Prime Minister (it was in Teeth's day) that the dastardly Secret Service had bugged his telephone, and he wanted the interception stopped. The fact that he didn't actually have a telephone seemed immaterial. We were in a bit of a quandry as to how to word a suitable reply, when down came the next Red Flag letter. It transpired that the dastardly Secret Service, now disguised as Telephone Engineers had now bugged his electricity meter and he couldn't have a private conversation with the light switched on. We were just pondering over this one when the next Red Flag letter arrived. Of course, Teeth's office hadn't correlated the three letters, but dealt with each one on its own. The Secret Service had over- reached themselves and had descended to bugging his milk bottles, so he had had to go on to tinned milk. One of my staff went out to see this gentleman, and asked him how he knew that his milk bottles had been bugged.
``It was easy. The milkman goosesteps down the road.''
There was the case of the Telephone Exchange that didn't work. Plesseys were very anxious to get their ``Crossbar'' system introduced into the network, as they could hardly sell it abroad if the Post Office wouldn't have it, and Bacup was to be the first in the country. The problem is that, no matter how many tests you make on new equipment, you can never reproduce all of the innumerable combinations of events which can occur in service. When the old manual exchange was cut out and the customers switched over to the new exchange, a very obscure fault (it turned out to be just a single wire trapped behind a metal plate) caused every call to lock up on one single circuit, but only when some call measuring equipment was switched into use. The Mayor of Bacup made his first call with a great fuss and palaver and everyone retired to partake of the turkey buffet kindly supplied by Plessey. As I left the platform, my Area Engineer in charge of the transfer came up and whispered ``The Exchange isn't working and the Service staff want permission to switch back to the manual exchange.'' Even aside from the catastrophic consequencies which would have followed from such a decision, just in practical terms, this was impossible, as it would have entailed reconnecting thousands of wires disconnected from the old equipment. In any case the operators had already retired to the pub down the road loudly proclaiming that ``...the b.... exchange doesn't work...'' and by then were incapable of operating an exchange. Just as the Plessey senior engineer was putting dressing on his mound of turkey salad, I announced quietly to the top table that the exchange was locked up with an obscure fault and was inoperative. He didn't eat his lunch.
Finally, the unusual combination of events which caused the lock-up was sorted out, but it took three hours and during that time, Bacup was isolated from the telephone world. No-one would have noticed, except that there was a fire in the town during that period and they had to send a runner out for the Fire Brigade.
Then there was the occasion when International Dialling was made available in Rochdale, and the Mayor's first call just had to be to Gracie Fields on Capri. I still have the tape of the Mayor trying to get a word in edgeways as Gracie took over the show. It must have been one of the last things she ever did, for she died not long afterwards.
International dialling brought with it, its' own problems. Basically, it cost money. Not much, it's true, but some people didn't like paying and, with the willing cooperation of some telephone engineers throughout the country, ingenious devices were fitted into exchanges to let those in the know, make their calls without the bother of having them charged. Many of these systems made use of the facility the engineers must have for making test calls to verify that the circuits are working satisfactorily. Special test numbers with a test message recorded on them are very boring, and a few interesting ``test'' numbers got into the unofficial directories. One of the most popular was that of a certain establishment on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, where the recorded voice of Sexy Suzy gave a blow by blow account of the erotic delights awaiting customers. It got so popular that the number had to be changed, as real punters couldn't get through for the press of unofficial calls.
The Free Calls racket got so widespread at one time that it was found that half of the calls from the U.K. to America weren't being paid for, and I had one senior engineer seconded to Headquarters, full time on tracing and killing the unofficial attachments and systems which had been installed to enable the racket to flourish. He paid for his time many fold.
In the end, more and more of the Telephone service was being dominated by new whiz kids brought in to ``modernise'' the service, in the course of which the idea of public service rather got lost, and I was glad to lay down my burden precisely on my sixtieth birthday.
Immediately after the war, I was operated an amateur radio station G3APU, but I gave it up after about five years as it was too much like the job I did, and it was beginning to get expensive as the string and sealing wax days faded in favour of factory made equipment and mainly Japanese equipment at that. I've kept bees and grown orchids, done a lot of work with microscopes and pond life, kept fresh, tropical and salt water aquariums (till the salt water leaked into the electric light fittings), studied hieroglyphics, and made telescopes, but for sixty years photography has been my main hobby. I used to do both still photography and cine, but when Betty showed that she had a much better eye for a photograph than I had, I concentrated on cine, and I got embroiled with the Amateur Cine movement, becoming Chairman of the Institute in 1985/6. I haven't made many films, but I've miles and miles of film still to edit, some going back over thirty years, and one of these days, when I can find time, I'll get down to it. I just wish I could find the time.
In 1976 I felt the need of some challenge and I decided to learn to fly. I had a course at the Air Navigation and Training Club at Blackpool Airport, and, aided by three Rotary trips to Toulouse to boost my flying time, I eventually obtained a Private Pilot's License. Unfortunately, it got so expensive to fly, and Betty hated flying, particularly if I was the pilot, that I have made little use of the license since the early days after I was fully qualified. And then Jane, the girl who taught me, who was a far better and more experienced pilot than I could ever hope to be, was killed when the door of her plane fell off in turbulent conditions and damaged the tail on the way back from Aberdeen and she came down in the North Sea. But learning to fly was an experience I would not have missed.
After the tent burnt down in 1959, we graduated to a caravan for holidays and in 1970 Betty, Jane and I took the caravan across the North Sea from Immingham to Göteborg and travelled up through Sweden and Finland beyond the Arctic Circle and back across the Baltic Sea, Sweden and home. We had gone equipped for an arctic safari, but it was so hot above the Arctic Circle in the 24 hour daylight of summer that we spent most of the time stripped to the barest essentials. The holiday was so enjoyable that we repeated it the reverse way round in the next summer, travelling along the Finnish/Russian border into the Arctic Circle and back through Norway. We were struck by the friendliness of the Finns, who invited us back to their homes at the drop of a hat. Then we had a holiday solely in Norway, hauling the caravan up the hairpin roads as far as the Jostedal glacier in Nordfjord.
We celebrated my retirement in 1958 by arranging a trip to South Africa for two months from January 59. We flew from Leeds to Amsterdam and thence to Johannesburg We were entertained by the Rotarians of Jo'burg South for a week before setting off for the edge of the Kalahari Desert, down to Cape Town and round the Garden Route to Natal and the Transvaal, and a memorable fortnight in the Kruger National Park before returning to Jo'burg and the flight home. It was a most beautiful country, but I couldn't possibly live there with the attitudes of the white South Africans.
We kept our friendship with Pierre Billiers in Toulouse, visiting him most years as part of our holiday in France and the Pyrenees and in Provence.
In 1983 we flew out to Delhi over the Great Circle route across the USSR and on to Srinagar in Kashmir where we had a month in one of the fabulous houseboats on Lake Nagil. We had one safari by shikara down the Jhalum river to Walar Lake, and a few days pony trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The next year, we celebrated my recovery for my second operation for cancer by a sea trip to Cape Town. The only passenger liner now making this trip is the RMS St Helena, and we were put off the ship on the island of St Helena for a week whilst the RMS did a shuttle trip to Ascension Island. It was a fascinating visit, and we wished that we had not committed ourselves to going on the South Africa and flying back from Cape Town. The racial tensions were even higher than on our first trip and reinforced my views on that beautiful but sad land.
Written by John Howard Stanier just before his 70th birthday (1988)
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