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A Shout From The Attic: In The Army - Early Days

...I took the Queen’s shilling. From that hour, I was hers
to do with me as she willed. I found that she willed a lot
and that she had a lot of help!...

Ronnie Bray begins an entertaining account of his days in uniform - "to jog memories and persuade the medals officer to send me my gongs.''

While I hardly expect a grateful British public to carry me shoulder high and fete me as a hero, it would be nice to think that somewhere in the bowels of the military archives of this great country of ours my small contribution to world safety and the overthrow of tyrants was known and available to future researchers looking into the mass of soldiers whose exploits are largely unknown but who, nevertheless, answered the call to bravely serve the country and its people. But, in those vast archives there is not even a hint of my service in the colours from 1952 to 1955.

I had no idea that I was in the secret service, but I must have been. I joined the Army on a Regular engagement so that I wouldn’t have to serve for two years as a National Serviceman. I was rewarded with an extra thirty shillings a week for my unswerving loyalty and devotion to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors.

I signed papers, was questioned about my religion, had a medical examination, received a travel warrant, had a military haircut from the barber at Green Cross, and in August of 1952 I hied to Blandford in Dorset where I was swallowed up by the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, to be trained as a killing machine and, eventually trained, after a fashion, as a vehicle mechanic.

I was given a military number, 22820103, that is engraved in my heart and brain, another haircut, several hundred pounds worth of military equipment, including a rifle and an illegal bayonet, and five dummy rifle bullets. The Queen, her kingdom, and all her subjects could sleep safely in their beds! Basic training was the most terrifying six weeks of my life.

Next, I was sent to Barton Stacey, inducted into X Platoon, and allowed out to put the fear of God into the inhabitants of several Hampshire towns as I screamed down highways, byways, narrow country lanes, and main streets in a growling four-ton camouflaged Austin lorry, spurred on by an eccentric but likeable lunatic in flying boots and leather jacket who had flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain and couldn’t get the madness out of his blood.

Two weeks later, I was given a driving licence and made to promise that I would never return. My Spitfire pilot had endured more danger in his two weeks with me at the wheel than he did knocking down Luftwaffe kites. I shipped out to Ellesmere in Shropshire to become transmogrified into a vehicle mechanic.

As to my skills, towards the end of my service a Green Howard officer, one Captain, Bagnall, who took as much dislike to me as I did to him, though with less justification, commented, "I am not qualified to comment on his abilities as a mechanic, but the company transport goes, which speaks for itself.” He was being kind.

After Ellesmere, my next posting was to Borden, to the REME Regimental Retraining Unit. This unimaginative copy of Boys’ Town existed solely for the purpose of making soldiers out of those of us that the military machine had failed to turn into soldiers the first time around. Was all that shouting and marching really necessary, and how can all those days I spent on Jankers be so lightly set aside as if they never happened, when I have the marks to prove them?

From there, I was posted to Number 11 REME Workshops, in Sudbury, Staffordshire, to work on a vast array of incredible large vehicles, many of which left my hands in poorer condition that they came into them. I did my best to fix what was amiss but quickly learned to limit my work on the metal monsters to blowing horns and checking lights. Anything more than that proved expensively damaging.

I was at Sudbury for eleven months. I should add that all this time I was paid every week without fail. I mention this because of what is to come in the hope that I will not be alone in my astonishment.

From Sudbury I was posted to Ægypt where after a couple of weeks with the Yorks and Lancs regiment at Shandur, close by Kabrit on the Bitter Lakes through which ran the Suez Canal, I was attached to the support company of The Green Howards second battalion in the Suez Garrison, that place from where we kept our eagle eyes on the doings of those Ægyptians who resented our presence in their ancient and interesting country.

Fortunately, none of their bullets had my name on them, presumably because my presence there was a dread secret, although I didn’t know it at the time.

After four and a half months of Saharan sun, the British Government saw fit to hand the canal back to its rightful owners, and the Green Howards headed for Cyprus, rightly called the Jewel of the Mediterranean. And I went with them. In fact, they insisted I go with them, so they obviously knew who and where I was, and where they wanted me to be.

I travelled from Port Said to Famagusta, Cyprus aboard the Royal Naval corvette, the Empire Shelter, and was in Cyprus for exactly one year, having arrived on the first day of August, 1954, and flying out from Nicosia airport on the same date in 1955.

Once I was back in England, I went through the demobilisation process at Aldershot, and when my documentation was complete I was given a travel warrant back to Huddersfield, being discharged from regular service with the highest rating possible for that length of service, "Very good!"

Thus far, it seems reasonable to conclude that the army knew me, that it had tracked my movements, and had kept good records about my service. The fact that it never failed to hand over a cash amount every payday certainly lends support to that opinion.

It is not widely known, but Ægypt had been an active theatre, which means that real bullets had been flying in divers directions, and that bombs and other nefarious and devilish devices intended to persuade the British to quit the sands of Ægypt were employed against us, and that they had not been without effect. The weekly "Incident Reports" attested to the mounting deaths along the Canal Zone, victims of a continuing war, although it was not recognised as a war for half a century, and those of us who served there received no formal recognition.

Cyprus degenerated into an active theatre after a few months when EOKA became active. A Greek war hero, Colonel George Grivas, known as Dighenis, led a campaign of terror and obstruction against British interests and troops to try to secure Cyprus as a Greek province. Conseqientaly the British government issued General Service Medals for soldiers who served there for a minimum of sixty days during what they classified as the "Emergency.” But, for some reason, my Cyprus medal was not sent to me.


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