Prisoners were supplied with ciggies to keep them quiet
THERE is a great deal of similarity between the military career of Robert Leighton, featured recently in Bygones, and my own.
There is also another connection, as Robert's parents and mine were very good friends and, from immediately after the war, I always looked forward to our regular monthly Sunday afternoon visits by the Red Bus (Trent) from Ivy Square to their home in Glenwood Road, Chellaston.
Along with Jack and Ida Leighton would be Robert and his sisters, Rita and Jeanette. In the summer, we would catch the return bus from outside the Red Lion and Robert would always have a small (cherished) present for me. A pencil, cigarette card or likewise.
He emigrated to California in the 1950s and I only heard from him through my mother, to whom he always sent a Christmas card.
I joined British Rail in 1954 after being rejected for a job as a commercial artist by the Derby Evening Telegraph.
In reality, they told me to come back after National Service. I didn't!
On call-up in 1955, I put my name down for the RAEC (Education Corps). I had been told that you started as a sergeant and had a "cushy" time. It never happened, as you will see.
I was accepted and did ten weeks' basic training with the King's Regiment, Liverpool (virtually pure Scouse) at Freshfield, between Liverpool and Southport.
Being senior NCO-bound and with my National Health specs, I was both a candidate and accepted for a beating up – twice.
All good things (sic) come to an end and I was duly posted off to the RAEC training camp in Beaconsfield, which I learned was the definition of POSH!
I well remember coming off Saturday night guard duty and persuading a bemused officer to grant me a one-day pass, hitching a lift from outside the main gates into central London, as you do, catching the 3pm from St Pancras to Derby.
I arrived home at 7pm, had a meal and caught the 11pm back to St Pancras. I then walked across London at around 3am to Marylebone and sat in a freezing train with dozens of other squaddies which left at 5.30am to High Wycombe.
I alighted at Seer Green, crossed a snow-covered golf course and arrived just in time for a shave and shampoo, breakfast and roll-call. Easy-peasy. Then I failed to be accepted!
Now it was March 1956 and I was posted to the Royal Engineers' Training Regiment at Little Malvern. The Army could not get its head around a trained soldier turning up at a training regiment; one was in a training regiment, so train. I was, therefore, able to take a clerical course and can still hear the instructor telling me and a fellow lance corporal: "Do well in the exam and we'll post you both in to this unit and you can play cricket for the unit team this summer."
My friend – I cannot recall his name – already played for Warwickshire 2nd XI and I had batted for my school, Derby Grammar.
Needless to say, all three of us obtained our wishes, my friend was posted to the Far East – no coming home at the weekend to play cricket! – myself to Cyprus and the instructor? – he most certainly forgot all about us.
My last night was spent in Woolwich Barracks. I cannot tell a family newspaper of the state of the toilets. Foul is a miserable description; but the floor and wall decoration was unique but not, never fear, to the Army.
It was all excused by the Army's determination to make one more afraid of one's sergeant than the enemy. "A .... toilet. Wait till they come at you with a bayonet, son, then you will know what .... is!"
It seemed appropriate that the flight out of Stansted was not without incident. The plane developed a fault and we landed in the small hours in Marseilles, southern France, met the most miserable-looking Frenchmen in the airport bar and finally landed at Nicosia in the heat of the day, 30 degrees plus in battledress, boots, large kitbag and loving every minute!
I was separated out and posted to the transit camp for the Army in the Middle East, at Waynes Keep, just outside Nicosia.
My first night was spent sleeping in a "transit" tent; rolled-up sides, an iron bed, a mattress (not clean), a sheet and a mossie net. No one told me about the ants! I had inadvertently allowed a part of the sheet to hang out and woke up covered in them. Not amusing.
As a "qualified" clerk, I was to undertake duties in movement control – men and material – by any and all means of transport.
It was quite interesting, actually – not the least of which it opened doors. Nothing like having the manifest at one's fingertips and, more than one soldier, even up to major, pleading for a seat in a plane!
Being able to move people around, essentially those of lower rank and those not needing to move quickly, it was possible to create space on an aircraft.
The Army was generous in that one could accrue two weeks' leave in any one year, so my mate, Gerry, and I decided to have two weeks' leave in Malta but needed to create a "free" trip.
You wanted to go to Israel, you paid, or Egypt, you paid. No one went after the Suez Crisis, anyway! Most soldiers stayed in Cyprus – Limassol or Kyrenia. Paphos was unknown in the 1950s.
Military flights to Malta were three times a week, controlled from Cyprus. Monday/Wednesday/Friday returning the following day.
What I knew from experience was that there was a regular flow of soldiers who were serving time in the Cyprus military prison – frequently for drink or because they had been found AWOL. Poor judgment in Cyprus because one could not get off the island!
I "arranged" for Gerry and myself to act as escort to three transferees. Strangely, I never did know why, there was no return transfer. From Malta they went back to the UK.
The April day of our escort duties started early. Gerry and I reported to the main gate of the prison, which was adjacent to Waynes Keep, at 6am where life changed drastically.
Everything in a military prison runs on military prison regulations. No simple advice to report to admin; we were both escorted in double time to the admin block.
There we were taken through a series of exercises to determine that we were who we said we were, ie documentation, and inspected to see if we met the high standards of prison dress – indeed, that we were "dressed" correctly. All conducted at a high pitch to emphasise that any slip-up and we would likely be back in another role.
And all at rigid attention, no "stand at ease" here. I really did think that it might not be worth it.
The three prisoners were as good as gold and we flew out of Nicosia around 8am, landed at El Adem, a wasteland of nothing west of El Alamein and close to the Libyan border, landed at Benghazi, then flew across the Gulf of Libya, landed at Tripoli and, finally, late in the evening, landed at Luqa Airport, Malta.
Gerry and I had some time previously been told to stock up with ciggies so that we would have no trouble with the prisoners. We kept them supplied non-stop for some 10/12 hours and they were no trouble.
No problem with smoking on the aircraft. No cuffing, by the way. We were picked up by a prison truck and we went through the same rigamarole as in Cyprus.
Malta was a dream, steak every day, and the "arrangement" that I planned for the return – no escort duty now so at the hands of the local transport office to honour it – went without a hitch.
The camp on Cyprus summed up the British (Army) way of life – exactly how Robert had experienced it, along with its response to events around it.
Cyprus at this time was in the grip of Enosis, union with Greece, with General Grivas and his EOKA terrorists/freedom fighters waging war on all and sundry.
It was evident that all the Greeks wanted was for us to leave and they would soon sort out the Turks!
The camp was protected by a high razor-wire fence with armed guards on the main gate. One was ALWAYS armed outside the camp.
During the cricket season, I volunteered to play. The ground itself was situated in the camp.
The very first over I was fielding at fine leg and the batsman got hold of the ball beautifully and it sailed over my head for a six.
Miles away in the distance were the Kyrenia Mountains and I set off towards them. The ground was bone hard, no grass and the ball had gone so far it should have been a 12. On retrieving it I had a funny feeling. I looked towards the mountains again and realised there was no fence!
I looked around and, in the far distance on one side, I could see the fence or rather where the fence terminated. It taught me a valuable lesson that I still keep to this day. Whatever one is told or reads, nothing is as it seems.
Ted concludes his story on Tuesday.