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The Silent Listener
By D. J. Thorp
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Thorp
All rights reserved.
THE TRAINING OF PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATORS
I was born into a service family; my grandfather was a regular soldier during the First World War and eventually retired with the rank of Warrant Officer 2 (WO2) and my father retired after 30 years as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals having served prior to, during and after the Second World War. My older brother served twelve years, including active service in Cyprus, and my younger brother served for 27 years, including several years in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Continuing the tradition, my eldest son served nine years and completed tours of duty in Belize and with the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus. We all served in the Royal Corps of Signals – as miners' sons went down the pits so the Thorp sons enlisted into the British Army. Upon leaving school in February 1955 at the age of fifteen I agreed to serve for three years with what was known then as the Army Apprentice School (AAS), Harrogate, North Yorkshire, followed by a further nine years with the colours in the Royal Corps of Signals.
The AAS Harrogate was established in 1947 to provide the British Army both with a small cadre of regular soldiers suitably institutionalised from a young age to fulfil the roles of future senior non-commissioned and warrant officers, and also full apprenticeship training in a variety of trades including carpenters, painters, quantity surveyors and radio mechanics for various regiments and corps. This apprenticeship training was occasionally extended to servicemen from colonial and other armed forces – during the period from the late 1940s to early 1950s the largest single contingent of foreign apprentices to serve at Harrogate was from Myanmar (Burma), with the majority training as communication mechanics (later changed to technicians). The 'apprenticeship' in most cases was of three years duration, specialised trade training culminated in the passing of City and Guilds and other specialised trade-associated examinations, alongside training in military skills and education to include General Certificate of Education 'O' and 'A' levels.
The School was renamed the Army Apprentice College, Harrogate in 1966; by this time the only corps training its 'apprentices' at Harrogate was the Royal Corps of Signals. To coincide with its change of name, the College badge was also changed to that of the Royal Corps of Signals. The final graduation parade at the College took place in August 1996.
In addition to its apprentice school, the Army also recruited 'boys', officially referred to as Junior Leaders – young men aged between 15 and 17½ years of age. While these 'boys' received fulltime military training, the specialist skills relating to trade training they received was very basic. Unlike an 'apprentice' who spent three years, unless he was 'back-squadded' through illness or lack of progress before transferring, a boy entrant on reaching the age of 17½ years was automatically transferred to 'man-service'.
Having passed the apprentice written entrance exams and through a medical examination board been declared fit to serve in Her Majesty's Forces, I received instructions that I was to report to a central recruiting centre by 0900 hours on 8 February 1955, for induction into the Army, prior to travelling to the AAS in North Yorkshire.
At this time my father was a serving officer stationed at the War Office – he commuted daily by car from our family home in Chingford, Essex, to his office in Whitehall. Knowing that I would need assistance with travelling arrangements, I made the grave mistake of assuming he would take me with him at least as far as Whitehall, although secretly wishing he might drop me off at the door of the recruiting centre; after all I was only fifteen years of age and leaving home for the first time. No such luck, he informed me the evening prior to my enlistment that he would give me an early call the following morning to ensure I left in good time to catch a bus. With a small suitcase containing the minimum of personal items – I was instructed to take only items for washing, shaving and cleaning my military clothing and equipment, all clothing and other items of a personal nature would be issued on arrival – I left my parents home at the crack of dawn on a very cold and wet Tuesday morning in February to catch a Green Line bus that would take me to the Army Recruiting Office, Great Scotland Yard, where, after swearing allegiance to the Queen and receiving the Queen's Shilling, I was given a rail warrant to take me from King's Cross to Harrogate. The journey north was reminiscent of several years previously, when my older brother and I, each carrying gas masks and small cases containing most of our personal belongings, were evacuated during the Blitz to stay for several months with a family in Thornaby-on-Tees.
On arrival at Harrogate railway station, I along with other potential 'apprentices', some of whom had been waiting several hours, was met by the Duty Corporal. He checked our details against his records, confirmed no other trains were expected within the next couple of hours, then escorted us outside where our onward transport was waiting. In the pouring rain and strong winds, the small group of us were taken in an open 3-ton truck without seating to Uniacke Barracks, Penny Pot Lane, Harrogate, which was to be my home and place of learning for the next three years.
Some events and occasions, for better or worse, will always remain in people's memories and my arrival at Uniacke Barracks is one such memory. Debussing at the Apprentice School, all passengers were directed to a single-storey wooden structure known as a Spider. The Spiders – single storey construction, built from wood larch lap style panels under a gable roof, externally coated with dark brown creosote for protection against the harsh weather of the North Yorkshire Moors – both at Uniacke and across the road at Hildebrand Barracks (permanent staff accommodation) – were originally erected prior to the Second World War as temporary barrack accommodation for soldiers, with a change of use to a US field hospital during the war years.
The barracks consisted of six or eight large rooms constructed in a three or four, left and right 'herringbone' formation, with a very large central area and covered corridors linking the middle to the 'legs' of the Spider. The centre, the body of the spider, housed the ablutions, toilets, baths (no shower facilities), wash hand basins, 'Blanco rooms' and drying rooms, while the 'herring bones' or legs, were large dormitory rooms to accommodate up to eighteen occupants, nine on each side of the room. Each one of the eighteen bed spaces was furnished with a cast-iron framed bed, a single horse-hair mattress about six inches deep placed over a wire and metal support, a wooden wardrobe and a bedside cabinet.
Windows on both sides of the room were dressed with curtains in a plain khaki colour; we later discovered these curtains were for cosmetic purposes only and were never pulled for privacy. Occupants that claimed a bed space below a window were later to regret their choice because on kit inspection parades, if an individual's kit was not up to standard, it was easy for the inspecting officer to jettison the offending items – sometimes one's entire issue of military clothing and equipment – through an open window irrespective of the weather, whereas those not in close proximity to a window only had to contend with retrieving their kit from the floor around the bed.
The aisles were bare planks of wood and they were polished with brown wax polish – to maintain its shine, the floor was polished with brushes from boot cleaning kit for twenty minutes each morning by the room's occupants. The planks of wood to the left and right of centre were coloured black. I soon discovered that the colour was obtained by mixing brown wax polish with Zeebo Black Polish (normally used to polish black cast-iron fire grates); Zeebo Polish contained lead and after walking barefoot on the floor for several months we wondered why we had 'foot rot'. The floors of the surrounding corridors required regular scrubbing with soap and hot water. A punishment regular dispensed by the permanent staff (a regular soldier or National Serviceman as opposed to 'boy') was to scrub these corridors using only a toothbrush (personal property of the offender), soap and water.
No personal possession was allowed to be openly displayed and absolutely nothing was to be stuck, pinned or stapled to the walls; all notices and orders were placed in a display cabinet in the adjoining corridors. Only personal family photographs were allowed to be affixed to the inside of personal lockers. The one exception to these rules was a week before breaking up for Christmas leave, and festive decorations were permitted – there were prizes for the best decorated barrack rooms.
I previously mentioned that the barracks was once used as a US field hospital. This did not go unnoticed amongst the apprentices and this period of the camp's history was regularly the subject of many a yarn concerning the patients and staff, all based on rumour and with the inclusion and embellishment of gory details. One such story involved a US pilot who, having been shot down by enemy aircraft, was brought to Uniacke Barracks as a patient and accommodated in the same Spider as myself and other members of my term. Unfortunately, very soon after being admitted one of his legs was amputated and failing to make a full recovery he eventually died in the hospital. His legacy to the apprentices that occupied his ward was the 'Ghost of Stumpy'. Imagine some four or five years after his death, six dormitories, each with eighteen impressionable fifteen-year-olds with vivid imaginations, believing they had heard, seen or even spoken to 'Stumpy'. After rumours of such encounters it was not surprising that at night not many of them left the security of their beds to use the toilet facilities located in the centre of the Spider.
Dormitories within the Spider were allocated by alphabetical order, consequently I was in a dormitory with names starting at letter P through to Z. Having found our bed spaces, the next step was to 'march', not the word the Duty Corporal called it, to the quartermaster's stores for bedding, cutlery, and drinking mugs. Returning to our allocated bed spaces, after making up our beds and securing our personal belongings in our allocated wardrobes, we were marched to the dining hall (also known as the cook house).
My very first Army meal was London Roast, a mystery recipe consisting of minced beef, onions and other ingredients placed in a loaf tin and cooked in the oven. It was cut into slices and served with mashed potatoes, carrots and something called gravy (well it was brown and runny), followed by steamed pudding and custard. Having not eaten since breakfast that morning and the time now about 8pm, I was ravenous and ate all I was given without complaint. With the meal we had the mandatory issue of two slices of bread cut to regulation width on a hand-operated slicing machine. If stocks were running low the width of the slices was reduced. All meals came with two slices of bread and a single pat of butter, plus a single teaspoon of jam at tea. The butter and jam were insufficient to cover one slice of bread but that was the ration.
Returning to our dormitories we had a little time to become acquainted with the other occupants before lights out at 10pm. I soon discovered that I was to spend three years with a group of boys from very diverse backgrounds. Having introduced myself to two other sons of serving Army officers, coincidently one of whom I went to school with in Egypt a few years earlier, I was introduced to the boy in the bed next to mine whose name I think was Angus Taylor, from Glasgow; during our initial talk he mentioned his previous school was Doctor Guthrie's Academy. I later discovered that Doctor Guthrie's was a borstal; Angus, like several others at the school, had been up before the local magistrate's court so frequently that eventually, in an attempt to encourage him to improve his ways, he was given the choice of volunteering for the Forces or a spell in the local jail. Most given the same choice signed up.
My older brother served for twelve years in the Royal Corps of Signals, but prior to this he also spent three years at the Apprentice School, enlisting in February 1953 (Intake 53A). We were there at the same time for his last year and my first, but we had little contact; he had his circle of friends and I had mine. On the few occasions the senior boys had contact with the junior boys, it was either the junior being given personal items of a senior boy's kit to clean, or for the junior boy to be an unwilling volunteer included in the senior boys' games. These games could take the form of a race between junior boys, on their hands and knees pushing an open tin of polish with their noses along the full length of a corridor or, on the return of the senior boys to camp on a Saturday night after the pubs had closed, assembling all the junior boys on the parade ground for a regimental march pass. The Corps of Drums would be in attendance and all those on parade would be dressed in pyjamas and boots. Considering the noise of the bugles and drums, how members of the permanent staff failed to hear what was going on within the barracks at midnight was always beyond me. I believe nowadays the accepted term for this contact would be 'bullying'; we looked upon it as initiation and character building and no real harm came to any of us, but over a three-year period it was certainly a means of separating the men from the boys.
The consumption of alcohol in Uniacke Barracks was only permitted at dances and organised social functions, and then only if apprentices were over the age of eighteen. However, underage drinking outside camp was a challenge to all and considered only successful if one was able to get past the staff on duty in the Guard Room without them smelling alcohol on one's breath while 'booking' back into camp. On the other hand, smoking was permitted on reaching the age of sixteen. To legally smoke – but only outside of buildings and in designated areas – written permission had to be obtained from parents or guardians. On receipt of written permission a 'Smoking Pass' would be issued; the pass had to be produced if requested by a member of the permanent staff or an apprentice NCO. During my early period as an apprentice, the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) was Stan Longsborough of the Coldstream Guards. The RSM had a dog that regularly accompanied him to work, and when it needed exercise he would walk it through the barracks where he would frequently find apprentices smoking outside their barrack accommodation. The RSM would challenge the smokers to produce their pass, but to my knowledge he never caught an apprentice without one for the simple reason that he took the same route. An apprentice without a pass had plenty of time to remove any evidence that could incriminate him.
As apprentices, all our activities were strictly timetabled. I was down for physical training during the last period of the day on Thursdays. Nothing extraordinary about that except that Thursday was, in those days, special because it was pay day and the only weekday that those apprentices with less than two years' service were allowed out of barracks. Once the work day was over it was a mad scramble to get changed from uniform into blazer and flannels, rush down to the guard room where we were inspected by the Guard Commander who checked that our dress conformed to civilian dress regulations before allowing us to book out of barracks. If we moved quickly enough, we would be able to catch the 6pm bus to Harrogate in time to make the second showing of the film at the local Odeon cinema. The next bus would not be along until half an hour later and would have meant missing the start of the film. Waiting for a later showing was out of the question because we had be back in barracks by 10.30pm.
Our intake seldom made the 6pm departure because our instructor, Corporal Johnson of the Army Physical Training Corps, always took delight in finding fault with our efforts and delayed ending the class for 30 minutes or so. After several weeks of being kept behind after the class should have finished, the intake, all thirteen of us, decided that enough was enough and the following Thursday we would not attend the class. Instead we returned to our barrack rooms and lay on our beds until it was time to change out of our uniforms to go into town. But when we attempted to book out we were taking into 'close arrest' and locked up in the guard room. We were initially held on the grounds of being absent from our place of duty. Apparently when we failed to turn up at the gymnasium, the guard was alerted and searched all the possible places that we may have been hiding, everywhere except our barrack rooms otherwise they would have easily found us. Later that evening we were released from 'close arrest' and placed on 'open arrest'; this entailed reporting to the guard room first thing in the morning, at lunch time, after tea and last thing at night. After several days, including the weekend, we were charged and appeared before our Company Commander.
Excerpted from The Silent Listener by D. J. Thorp. Copyright © 2011 David Thorp. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Training of Professional Communicators,
2 Apprentice to Veteran,
3 My Career as an ACORN,
4 The Corridors Linking East and West,
5 The Special Task Detachment,
6 Preparing for War,
7 The Transition from Peace to War,
8 Action Stations,
9 Life in Bomb Alley,
10 Battle for Goose Green,
11 Arrival of 5 Brigade,
12 Communication Procedures,
13 The Planned Counterattack,
14 The Surrender,
15 Formation of a Permanent Signal Unit,
16 Transition to Post War Life,
Appendix 1 'La Gaceta Argentina',
Appendix 2 'Counterattack',