Memory Five

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Gibraltar

I became a  2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps at the end of August, 1947. On leaving OTS at Aldershot, I was given my posting orders and transportation details. I first went to a Nottingham RAOC depot for a four week orientation to learn about the logistics of supplying most of the country’s military with uniforms and footwear. I quickly learned that I did not want to be involved with that and I was happy to move to my next post.

My new order said I was to report to the 12th Armoured Vehicle Depot in Turwestern, a small town in Buckinghamshire. When I got there, I found an abandoned RAF airfield completely packed with tanks, Bren carriers and all sorts of tracked armoured vehicles. The post was commanded by a major with a captain, two female officers and me. I was never given a job and it was difficult to find things to do that looked military-like.

I was told, as the junior officer, I was in charge of the vehicle count. No one could tell me how many vehicles we had or should have, but the best estimate was 12,000. I tried to count them by driving a jeep along all the runways, but that turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. I do not believe that I ever got an accurate count.

After four months, I was replaced by another newly-minted 2nd lieutenant and it became his problem. One day, while I was at Turwestern, I played at Stoke Poges Golf Club in an Armed Services golf tournament. The only thing about it of note was that I played in a foursome behind 10 handicap Group-Commander Douglas Bader who had lost both of his legs. When he was shot down in France, a new artificial leg was parachuted into the prison camp when his squadron heard that he had damaged his leg when he parachuted in.

We enjoyed the local pub in Turwestern and all the RAF stories about the squadron of Wellington bombers that flew off to Germany every night. The bar-tender related stories about the revels and tragedies that occurred with the RAF clientele.

searchI was given leave in January, 1948 and told that my new posting was to the garrison Rock of Gibraltar. I went home and took Doris with me to introduce her to my parents. We were there for my 21st birthday, which was spoiled by me being ordered to go to York military hospital for a yellow fever injection. There had been cases of this in Gibraltar so it was pre-cautionary. I went up and down by train and was home for my birthday party. The highlight of this was the opening of a gallon jug of cowslip wine which my grandfather had made the week I was born. He said it was not to be opened until my 21st birthday. It was potable but only just. Sorry Granddad, I think you would have been disappointed.

I sailed for Gibraltar at the end of January, 1948, down the River Mersey from Liverpool. Gibraltar is a monolithic limestone rock at the southern tip of Spain. It is not an island but is attached to Spain by a mile wide no-mans-land. The British, who own the Rock, have built an airfield on their half and the Spanish side is wasteland. The Rock is 1398 feet high. (The Empire State Building is 1438 feet).

4631909-Gibraltar_monkeys_sitting_on_top_of_the_busses_Gibraltar

Barbary Macaques in Gibraltar

The population is roughly 30,000 and during WWII there were about the same number of troops. There is a labyrinth of caves, one of which was occupied by General Eisenhower from which he directed Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. About 200 Barbary macaques live on the Rock, with about one third in captivity and the rest running wild in the upper reaches wild life area. In the Officers mess where I was stationed, we had an artillery major whose part-time duty included looking after the apes. There is an old saying, that when the apes have gone, so will the British. I remember seeing on the garrison daily orders, “Ape, Mary Louise, last night, gave birth to two pups. Mother and pups are doing fine.”

My RAOC company was about 100 strong and the Company commander was a captain, to whom I reported. I quickly found that my salvation was Sergeant Major Knockle. He was a career soldier and had fought with Montgomery’s “Desert Rats” in North Africa. He made me realize that 2nd Lieutenant is the lowest rank in the army and that the Sergeant majors and other NCOs really ran the whole operation. He guided me through my learning period and helped make me a good and confident officer. It would have been tough without him on my side.

Our OTs, other ranks, were hardened soldiers who had been fighting the battles in North Africa, and I was a “school-boy officer” just here because I got drafted. I developed a great working relationship with my men and it made life pleasant. As the junior officer, I was  Sports officer, Payroll officer, Safety officer, NAAFI officer and was always at the beck and call of my captain.

Peace-time service in Gibraltar was fun, because the garrison was trying to get back to its pre-war colonial life. Officers were frequently ordered to find a suitable escort and report to the Admiral’s house for a garden party in honor of some foreign ship that had arrived in dock. Or, we could be ordered to represent our company at the Governor’s mansion for cocktails. Another officer and I found ourselves at these occasions with two Gibraltarian sisters who were nurses in the Gib hospital. They both had bikes with a motor and we took turns dating them to go on trips in plain clothes into La Linea, the nearest Spanish town and to other close areas.

Army picture

Ken in the Army

Visits to Spain were wonderful for me as I had never been in a foreign country. I enjoyed the food and the entire atmosphere. We all went to the Sunday bull fights in La Linea and saw some of Spain’s top toreadors. Before we went on these trips, we would go to the tobacconists to change our money. I never found out why you got as much as 10% more pesetas at the cigar shop than at the bank. We were told that it was because of “the smugglers.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my posting to Gibraltar but my two-year tour was coming to an end in September and I had to decide what I was going to do in civilian life. That’s another memory for another day.

One thought on “Memory Five

  1. I just read The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway which has detailed descriptions of bull fights in Spain in the 1920s – it made me think of you and wonder if that’s what your experience had been like. It sounded like a wild party. Have you read the book?

    Like

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