Part 2 …

The Army Recruit (Britain’s last hope!)

The war was dragging to its close, and my continued training and interest in becoming, at least, aircrew in the RAF had to be abandoned with the reduction in the needs of the airforce. With a measure of despair, I told the call-up board that I didn’t care which service I went into and, when drafted, I was ordered to the Gordon Highlanders’ Brig o’ Don barracks in Aberdeen. I was to do my primary infantry training in the depths of winter in 1945—and another era dawned.

We were a sorry crowd assembled for kitting-out at the barracks, and came from all over Scotland, but mostly Glesga ‘keelies’.1A ‘keelie’ was a young working-class male from any large town, but particularly Glasgow. It implied the person was tough and a potential hooligan. After being allocated to our barrack huts, where a very necessary pot-bellied stove blazed away, army life commenced. We were shown how to lay out our full field service kit—item by item, and in immaculate order—upon our made-up beds. Even the studs in the soles of our boots had to be burnished, and the soles blackened and polished. If the daily inspection showed the least unsatisfactory item, the whole lot would be tipped into the middle of the floor to be re-folded, re-blancoed,2‘Blanco’ was a white compound used by the British Army from about 1870 to whiten webbing and other military equipment. re-polished and squared off with our board inserts for the next morning’s inspection.

His mother chortled when she saw this photo many years later. “Aye,” she said, “Britain’s last hope!”

His mother chortled when she saw this photo many years later. “Aye,” she said, “Britain’s last hope!”

Saturday’s inspection was so important that all Friday evening was spent in doing everything up, and the night was spent on the floor alongside the bed. It was the depths of winter in Aberdeen, and we had to parade before breakfast, early, for outdoor gymnastics dressed only in gym shorts and sand-shoes—it fairly took your breath away. The rest of the days were spent crawling around the sand dunes, firing on the range, marching around Aberdeen in full service marching order (FSMO), and forced marches that sorted out the fit from the rest. Surprisingly, the ‘hard yins’ from the slums were not always the real survivors.

A few incipient signs of revolt and objection were quickly met by a couple of NCOs, who double frog-marched the culprit to even less salubrious situations: kitchen duties; ‘jankers’;3‘Jankers’ is British military slang for ‘restriction of privileges’, an official punishment for minor breaches of discipline. parading every half hour in FSMO with the guard—and woe betide the victim if any stain or mark crept on to himself or his kit! The ‘sentence’ would be increased, and the guardhouse loomed as the next alternative, where the toil was not only incessant, but performed at the double.

After six weeks, where the object was not only to increase physical capabilities, but to mentally break the individual and remould him to the army’s specification, the time arrived to be allocated our respective regular units and corps. All were interviewed and accessed, and I was allocated to the Royal Signals Training School at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. I had to report there in the New Year after a week’s leave at home. The result was that I missed Christmas dinner (where the officers always served their troops) in Scotland, and the Scottish New Year celebrations in England.

Catterick was a huge sprawling city of the army, where different corps and units inhabited identical huge barrack blocks laid out in their own areas, well landscaped and modern. Months of wireless work followed, sitting in cold classrooms, chanting “dit-dah-dit” and memorising wireless procedures, or careering around the countryside in wireless vans trying vainly to set in with others calling “All stations—Able, Baker, Charlie!” All this was interspersed with square bashing on the enormous parade grounds under the eagle eye, from some improbable distance, of the regimental sergeant major. Even worse was the jaundiced eye of the leathery CO, a captain who had risen through the ranks of the regular army from private—and, to show he didn’t care who knew it, he wore the same issue uniform as we squaddies, plus the three pips on his shoulders.

At night, it was back to barracks where the room corporals were old soldiers returning from abroad and awaiting discharge. They insisted, in our case, on all windows remaining open, no matter what the weather—a not inconsiderable consideration in the middle of a Yorkshire moor’s winter! An occasional visit to the local town of Richmond was the main outlet from army life; though, as a garrison town, it was hard to escape completely. It was here that a mild liaison with some Land Army girls led to the loss of a tooth on the steps of a local pub.

After a few grinding months and some home leave, I had to report to a holding camp from where drafts left for the many parts of the world where the British Army still held sway. The crowd jostled around the bulletin board. Some were to go to the West Indies, a few to British embassies abroad—but, for myself and two new acquaintances (aka Cash, Cheetham and Craig), it was off to the Middle East to join the British forces then (1946) fighting the Communist insurrectionists in Greece (the ELAS). We had been posted to the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards (KDGs) signal section, then in Athens.

Active service
En route to Cairo with army buddies (Bill?) Cheetham and Rupert Cash in 1946

En route to Cairo with army buddies (Bill?) Cheetham and Rupert Cash in 1946

Armed with travel warrants, and proceeding from transport office to transport office, we went from London to Dover Castle and across the Channel. We went through still devastated France by train to the wrecked naval base at Toulon, then by troopship to Port Said and to Cairo. What an eye-opener Egypt was! The bustle, the smell, the poverty, and the desperate measures to protect one’s possessions. Here, where even an outside picket, an inside picket, patrols, and guards could not always prevent the loss of rifles from around your feet, or the theft of your trousers from under the mattress upon which you lay.

Whilst coming to terms with these new sights and sounds and dangers, and being immersed in the real Army of the Empire for the first time, the onward movement to Greece was hastily cancelled. The British headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem had been blown up [22 July 1946]. This signalled the commencement of full-scale hostilities in Palestine between the Jewish population (hungry for the admission of the shattered remnants of Europe’s Jews, and the setting up of a Jewish state) and the British Army. The Army’s task was to assuage the fears and hatreds of the Arab population seeing the land slipping from them. Trouble from one side or the other had smouldered and flared for at least ten years; now, the gloves were off, and a full-scale urban guerrilla war broke out. Reinforcement were hurriedly rushed into Palestine to assist the British troops and the paramilitary Palestine Police in place. The 1st Infantry Division, the 6th Airborne Division and, from Greece, the King’s Dragoon Guards formed the new ‘get tough’ policy formulated by the Attlee Labour government, with Ernest Bevin the minister responsible. They were not to have it all their own way.

Signalman Iain Craig, with 1st Battalion King’s Dragoon Guards, Maquebila, Galillee, Palestine

Signalman Iain Craig, with 1st Battalion King’s Dragoon Guards, Maquebila (Muqeible), Galillee, Palestine

Our small group, Cash, Cheetham and Craig, were entrained for North Palestine, where the KDGs had responsibility for the Syrian-Lebanon frontier, the Golan Heights, and the Galilee area. The train meandered from Cairo into Palestine, and such was the progress that you could hop down into the orange groves, pick a few oranges, and hop back on board the still moving train. Attacks had commenced on trains with the purpose of obtaining arms, so loaded rifles were kept by your side with the sling twisted around your arm (or, if sleeping, your ankle) in case of being taken unawares. We arrived at Haifa Station to be met by a laconic pair of troopers in a 1500 pick-up, and taken to our new home: the camp at Maquebila in the hills of Galilee 4This is probably the Muqeible Airfield, now an abandoned military airfield located in the northern West Bank, approximately 1 km southwest of the village of Muqeible, Israel and 3 km north of Jenin, Palestine. The airfield was built in 1917 in the Ottoman District of Jerusalem by the German Luftstreitkräfte. In 1918, after the Battle of Megiddo, the airport was used as a military airfield by the Royal Air Force, being designated RAF Muqeible. In July 1941 12 Blemheims of 45 Squadron were sent there for use as a forward base for the assault on Beirut. It was also used by the United States Army Air Force during the World War II North African Campaign. — another new phase to begin.

It was a quiet start as the regiment was resting, and a minimum of activities, like parades and patrols took place. My first military activity started with the running of a line from our cavalry troop in the hills back to regimental headquarters. A corporal (whose ears had almost been burned off in Greece) and I, with a small scout car, spent the days in hills of Galilee laying the line over fences, through trees, under culverts. We hoped it would go unnoticed by the increasingly militant Jewish settlers of the border kibbutzim. Up until this time, most of the trouble had been down south, around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The Signal Squad of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, Tiberius, Palestine 1947. Iain is centre back.

The Signal Squad of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, Tiberius, Palestine 1947. Iain is centre back.

However, with the transfer north of the Airborne Division, who were more aggressive in their role than the 1st Division, the Dragoon Guards, as an independent regiment, were moved to Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee to relieve the Welsh Guards in residence.

As a town, then with dual Arab and Jewish populations and a police fortress atop of the hill, the level of ‘incidents’ and attacks rapidly mounted. The sea, or lake, lies a fair bit below sea level, down a winding road past the Horns of Hattin, the scene of a disastrous defeat of the Crusaders by the Saracens. A Crusader castle still existed, along with considerable ruins and remains of Roman and early Jewish days. Sites of religious significance abound, of course, from Capernaum to the site of the Sermon on the Mount, all laid out along the route of our convoy as we descended the twisting road. The signal’s truck, with faulty brakes, held on the back of the bumper of the truck in front.

Café Schor in Tiberius, Palestine, 1947 (Postcard sent home).

Café Schor in Tiberius, Palestine, 1947 (postcard sent home).

The regiment took over the Elizabeth Hotel and grounds, and the wireless section ended up in the previous ladies’ toilet! The switchboard was in the rather exposed doorman’s cubicle, while most troopers lived in army tents in the grounds. Next door was a canvas seated cinema, and across the road the Café Schor, so a security zone was set up by placing two Browning machine guns just outside the doors. They were soon to be used, as trouble and attacks mounted throughout Northern Palestine. Our baptism occurred in the form of a flame-thrower attack on the car park adjoining our tents. Shots were exchanged with the roof of the nurses’ quarters at the local hospital across the road. When one of our jeeps was attacked within a few hundred yards of our camp, restrictions were imposed on all movements outside. To carry arms and a minimum of four people became mandatory if you intended to go for a meal or a drink, or even to swim in the lake.

On patrol in the Hills of Galilee, 1947

On patrol in the Hills of Galilee, 1947

A highlight occurred when the navy (who had been turning back immigrant ships from Europe) brought the Theodor Herzl into Haifa [13 Apr 1947]. The regiment was tasked with cordoning off the docks using their armoured cars, while marines stormed the overcrowded ship against violent opposition, and a huge crowd around the cordon hurled missiles and abuse. Bomb and gunfire attacks occurred every day, and so did continual patrols, road blocks, and guard duties. The number of firefights began to become a burden of constant duty. The signal section worked three days on and one day off and, being excused all other duties, were not so badly off as others. However, generally, the continual pressure and casualties turned the easy-going British soldiers more and more pro-Arab.

Attacks on British civilians escalated until Operation Polly was announced on the wireless for the evacuation of non-military personnel [February 1947]. We received the message late one night for decoding. By this time, the Arab population were stirred enough to join in, and extra effort from the British forces was required to hold the two communities apart. Things almost erupted when, in retaliation for the execution of three terrorist members of the Stern Gang, two British sergeants were taken when off duty and hanged in an orange grove [July 1947]. All personal arms within the camp were immediately withdrawn to prevent retaliation, but the Paras and the Palestine Police were less restrained. So, things boiled up, and a divisional signaller, Dick Peever (a pre-army friend of mine from Polmadie, and whom I had visited in Haifa), was shot in the back.

World War II wreckage seen on the way from Tobruk to Benghazi, 1947

World War II wreckage seen on the way from Tobruk to Benghazi, 1947

Ernest Bevan and the British Labour government were under heavy pressure from all sides to get out and, in due course, the regiment fell back to Haifa to prepare for evacuation. As the British army fell back, its hitherto bases were immediately rushed by Jews and Arabs from either side. Ferocious fights broke out that the army patrols had to try to separate, under fire from both sides! At last, the advance parties (of which the signals section was one) boarded a troopship for the two-day trip to Tobruk en route to Benghazi in North Africa (where a few months were to be spent before returning to the UK with the rest of the British Army of Palestine). We stood at boat stations as the ship left Haifa, immediately running into rough weather that prostrated the largest part of the troops on board. I spent two days lying on deck with fellow suffers from sea sickness.

We were all grateful to arrive at Tobruk where, after an overnight stay, all available personnel, drivers or no, were pressed into driving the regiment’s vehicles through the scenes of the recent war. We went through the towns of Derna, Barca and the Tocra Pass, all names familiar from the 8th Army days, when C-Squadron of the Dragoons had taken part in the Siege of Tobruk.

Benghazi, Cyrenaica, May 1947

Benghazi, Cyrenaica, May 1947

At the little fort stopover at the Tocra Pass, a lingering interest in aircraft tempted me down a wadi towards a seemingly intact German Stuka—until the warnings about uncleared mines all around brought a more sensible caution. The debris of war—tanks, guns, trucks—lay everywhere; Italian, German and British. The Italian slogan “Credere! Obbedire! Combattere!” [believe, obey, fight], along with the letters HD (Highland Division) adorned many walls as we drove slowly towards Benghazi. All of the towns were as ghost towns, and only remnants of the previous populations were left.

At last, we embarked for Malta to await the stream of troopships from the evacuation of Palestine. Our stay in Malta was enlivened by the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet and the arrival of a Yankee cruiser squadron. Groups of sailors brawled and fought up and down the medieval streets, including the famous ‘Gut’. The squaddies, of course, joined their fellow countrymen in the navy with boots and belts until the MPs and shore patrols brought some order. We eventually joined one of the returning troopships, which movingly (and amazing to me; we had just concluded nine years of war and excavations) were welcomed at Southhampton by hordes of small boats with flags and whistles. A last few weeks with the regiment in the quiet (and, oh, so green) countryside in Yorkshire [May 1948], with the option for promotion being passed by then, and it was back to civilian life in dear old Glesga town.

The troopship at Grand Harbour, Malta, 1948

The troopship at Grand Harbour, Malta, 1948

Back in Civvy Street

After an attempt to resume my apprenticeship, which was guaranteed to returning soldiers, I realised that, at 22, I was too old and was enticed into the Railway Police by recently demobbed Stewart Gold, and another chapter unfolded. [Missing 2½ lines …] I met Pat McKay, her father George5George Brown McKay, b. 16 Apr 1900 at 96 Bothwell Park Rows, Bellshill; s/o Andrew McKay and Elizabeth Brown.  (a foundation member of the Communist Party of Great Britain) and mother Sarah.6Petronėlė “Sarah” Juzė Šugždaitė, b. 16 Nov 1901, Lauckaimis, Lithuania; d/o Jonas Šugžda and Petronėlė Melninkaitytė. Sarah & George married 23 Feb 1929 in Uddingston. Shortly thereafter, I joined the Railway Police and attended the police course at the Scottish Police Training School on the road to Edinburgh. A small-scale scare ensued at the time during the Soviet Union’s blockage of Berlin [June 1948], and war seemed possible; we reservists faced being recalled into the army.

Wedding day for Iain and Pat, 15 Jan 1949 at Pollok, Glasgow. Witnesses: Jane Reuben and Iain’s old mate, Stewart Gold. Iain and Stewart were in the Railway Police at this time.

Wedding day for Iain and Pat, 15 Jan 1949 at Pollok, Glasgow. Witnesses: Jane Reuben and Iain’s old mate, Stewart Gold. Iain and Stewart were in the Railway Police at this time.

The police job consisted mainly of patrolling Glasgow’s many goods yards and, occasionally, railway stations; many long, cold, wet days and nights were to come. Nothing is so empty and dreich as a deserted goods yard at night with long columns of railway vans (often loaded with export whisky and, therefore, a target for thieves) down near the docks of what was still then one of the great ports of the world. Fortunately, things were mostly quiet, although I was hauled over the coals once when, upon a change of shift in the morning, a van was found broken open and many of cases of whisky missing. The temptations of warm bothies or shunter guards-van, with the stove still alight were rather great on a cold winter’s night.

A few glances askance were cast upon my role as a police officer when, during an election campaign, vans and trucks were leaving my scene of duty with various slogans adorning their sides. It was, therefore, with relief that Pat and I, and newly arrived baby, Alan, were accepted for migration to Australia. The idea was floated by Nancy McKenna,7Nancy McKenna was the sister of “Jock” McKenna, the second husband of Robert McKay’s sister-in-law Jessie Evans. Jessie was Myfanwy Evan’s older sister, the d/o Edward Evans and Hannah Jenkins. a visitor to George and Sarah McKay from Ipswich in Queensland. She was a friend of George’s brother Robert (“Buddy”),8Robert “Buddy” McKay, 29 Mar 1902 – 8 Feb 1965; he was the younger brother to George McKay, and Pat’s uncle. He went to Australia in 1924, and Iain and Pat stayed with him and his wife Myfanwy Evans at 50 Mary Street, Blackstone when they first arrived in Australia in 1950. long resident in Australia.

Not only was Britain still, only slowly, recovering from the war and with rationing still in place, but the housing shortage had left our small family with only a room (overlooking a pub)9Possibly The Hampton Bar at 58 Albert Road. [63 Albert Road] to live in for the major sum, in those days, of 25/- per week.10About £46 ($A84) at today’s rates. I didn’t see any pot of gold at the end of a rainbow—but, being still restless after being abroad in the army, the prospect of a free trip (to recently discharged servicemen) on an ocean liner had an immediate appeal. I had over-hastily resigned from the police on first notification of an available ship, and was forced to perform a short six-week term as a tram conductor, following at the same depot in the footsteps of my father before.

Pat, Alan, Iain and Pluto c.1953 at 39 Holt Street, Brassall, Queensland

Pat, Alan, Iain and Pluto c.1953, at 39 Holt Street, Brassall, Queensland

References[+]


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