TOM HOWELL: MAJOR. RIP. 27th May, 2016
Photo above: Front rank marker Cpl Pugh, Pte Kimmons, ?, Pte Kent (re-enlistment), ?, Pte Edgecombe, Pte Howell. Inspection Party includes Lt Higgs Coy Commander, Major Floyer-Ackland OC Depot, Sjt Ben Dunster Pltn Sjt.
Life in the ArmyPrior to joining the army I had been a member of 14 Cadet Bn DLI for six years and by the time I joined the army in August 1952 I had attained the rank of Adult Warrant Officer. When I went to the recruiting office in Durham City near my home, I had no idea what I wanted except I wanted to be an infantryman. Because I could ride, the recruiters tried to interest me in joining the Household Cavalry but to no avail. They then showed me a large wall poster featuring all the cap badges of the British Army; my eye was immediately drawn to the row of light infantry badges – in particular I was taken by that of the DCLI, especially as I remembered my maternal grandfather had been born in Stoke Climsland Cornwall. Grandfather, whom I had never met, had moved to County Durham seeking work, where he eventually met and married my grandmother. He served with the DLI in the Great War but was invalided home in a weakened state suffering from the effects of gas poisoning. Sadly, he immediately fell victim to the Spanish ‘flu epidemic and died, aged 32 yrs old, on 2 Dec 1918.
That decided it for me there and then; I was given a rail warrant and told to report to Bodmin. What I didn’t realise was the warrant was for the most direct, rather than the quickest route, and as a consequence found myself on the ‘milk train’ calling at every station along the line before arriving in the midst of Bodmin rather than at the station next to the barracks via Bodmin Road. It was very early in the morning – probably about 0600hrs – when I walked up the hill from town with my little suitcase and arrived at the guardroom and reported to a very bemused guard commander. The next intake was not due to report for another two weeks so I was kitted out and put to work as an odd job man. Two jobs particularly stick in my mind; one was to count out piles of 11 buttons and 11 rings to issue to the incoming recruits for their suits of denim, the other entailed sitting in the company office with paste pot and brush, amending Kings Regulations and the Manual of Military Law, deleting ‘His’ and inserting ‘Her’; deleting ‘King’ and inserting ‘Queen’ etc as required.
The RSM of the day was Stan Pine, and my Pl Sjt was Ben Dunster, Trg Coy Com was Lt Jerry Higgs, and the OC Depot was Major SN Floyer-Acland. Life as a recruit was unremarkable and made a lot easier by my cadet service and I was able to help others deal with things like kit inspections and boning boots etc.
For new national servicemen it was a bewildering world initially. By dint of our previous ‘service’ myself and a regular re-enlistment by the name of Pte Kent had acquired braided ties, rather than the normal rayon type issued to new recruits. The adjutant Capt Guy Matthews was looking for some help to collect apples in his orchard. Sjt Hawkey, a regular marking time in the depot till imminent demob, decided our infringement of the dress code made us prime candidates for the job. It was, as they say, all done in the best possible taste, we had a wonderful time and enjoyed our first Cornish tea before being taken back to barracks. It was about this time too, that I tasted my very first Cornish Pasty – and what a whopper it was. I was taken home to Redruth, by a fellow recruit named George Kimmins, where his parents looked after me as if I were their own. They served up one of the biggest and best pasties I have ever tasted, even after my many years of seeking pasty perfection it remains supreme. At the end of basic training I was fortunate enough to be chosen as Best All-Round Recruit and Best Rifle Shot, thanks in part to my previous cadet experience, and after embarkation leave I was promoted to Corporal as Draft Conducting NCO and set off by boat and train via Harwich and Hook of Holland to join 1DCLI in Minden. The smell of boiled cabbage at the transit centre will remain with me forever; by marked contrast the train journey across Germany was sheer luxury and superb meals were served at regular intervals to keep everyone happy. However there was much evidence of the recent conflict in the form of damaged buildings and bomb craters etc; a sobering reminder of what we were about.
Once with the battalion I kept my stripes and joined an NCOs’ Cadre where I was instructed, by among others, the then Sjt Pete Firth. On successfully completing the course I was posted to A Coy, commanded by Major ‘Toots’ Williams. My Pltn Com was Lt Ian Robertson, Sjt Bert Love my Pltn Sjt, and I believe Pony Moore was CSM.
Life in the battalion seemed an endless round of exercises or ‘schemes’ as they were known then. I remember lying in the cold snow wearing my 2nd battle dress under denims and stuffing my wet ammunition boots with straw at night to keep them from freezing up. I also remember CQMS ‘Cushy’ Price bringing a container of his fabulous ‘All In Stew’ that cheered us all up enormously. Infantry/Tank Cooperation was very much the thing and we spent much time riding about on the back of Centurions, protecting our eyes from the dust by wearing goggles. Once, for some inexplicable reason, a thunder flash went off in my map pocket splitting my trouser leg from waist to gaiter and severely burning my leg. On another (live) firing exercise at Hohne ranges, a tank fired an HE round that dropped short and fell just 20 yards or so in front of my section. Luckily the blast went forward and no one was hurt. In another incident I was travelling in an Austin K5 3 tonner one rainy day in convoy when the vehicle skidded and left the road, falling down a steep embankment. I was travelling in the cab and as the truck rolled over the driver went through the windscreen and I landed up in his seat badly bruised and shaken. There was total silence from the back of the truck where my section was travelling together with loads of kit, like hay boxes, cookers and other G1098 stuff. I staggered to the rear, expecting the worst. Fortunately they had all been asleep, simply absorbed the bumpy ride, and awoke in a very confused state. It would be interesting to know if any one else remembers any of these incidents.
A regular feature of battalion life was the weekly mandatory cross country run. Not everybody’s cup of tea but I enjoyed it and also ran regularly for the battalion. I also played in goal for the company football team, but was not really very good at it.
In late October 1953 I was transferred to HQ Coy as Officers Mess Cpl. I did not want the move, but in the light of my subsequent commissioning, it proved to be a very valuable experience. In late November 1953 I was part of the Advance Party to Plumer Barracks, Crownhill, Plymouth, where conditions were in marked contrast to those of our excellent centrally heated Minden accommodation. Least said the better.
JAMAICA & BELIZE
On 12 Feb 1954 I flew with the Bn Advance Party to Jamaica. We travelled on a Boeing Stratocruiser ‘Monarch’ flight in superb comfort with first class meals and complimentary bar in the upper deck. No one had flown before and just being in the terminal was a fascinating experience, and some boys got excited at seeing Stewart Granger (heart throb of the day ) in the departure lounge. We travelled via Prestwick, Reykjavik (Iceland), Gander (Newfoundland) and Bermuda (dropping off A Coy party) before landing at Montego Bay and transferring to a smaller Viking aircraft for the short flight to Palisadoes Airport Kingston, which at that time could not handle large aircraft. I think everyone found it an exhilarating, if tiring, experience.
After a short while I was able to get back to a rifle coy (B Coy) . Later a call was put out for volunteers with knowledge of diesel engines to go to Belize where power was provided by a camp generator rather than town mains. That is how in September 1954 I found myself aboard the RASC Vessel ‘OXNA’ with a platoon under command of Lt Mike Lamb, at sea for a 4 day voyage. After we had sailed from Kingston it was discovered most of our rations had been left behind and we had to subsist on meals of corned beef, carrots and onions; not that it mattered very much – we had atrocious weather, the decks and the galley were awash, and almost everyone was seasick. Matters were not helped when a propeller fell off. Luckily a spare was carried and we hove to in a running sea to fix it. Apparently it was a common occurrence! The OXNA made visits every 3 months or so to Belize bringing replacement vehicles, food, equipment, and of course, soldiers.
When eventually we got to Airport Camp I found I was not required for ‘diesel’ duties as the Royal Engineers had posted in a Cpl for that very task, so I stayed with Lt Lambs’ platoon for quite awhile and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Belize. After a time Mr Lamb went back to the UK to join the Parachute Regiment, and he was relieved by Mr DK Balance, a NS officer. Our Pl Sjt was not a well man and so was ‘unofficially’ detached to look after the Sjt’s Mess and I was appointed A/Pl Sjt. We were frequently on exercise to Pine Ridge and other training areas which could be quite wearing but always enjoyable. The Humming Bird Highway seemed a magnet for the long marches deemed necessary for our well-being. The term ‘highway’ was a bit of a misnomer because it was little more than a logging track. The only maps available to us were provisional sheets in monotone, drawn up by the local Survey Dept in 1945, and very deficient in essential information.
Nearer to Airport Camp, Boom Ferry (about 10 miles away) was more readily available as a route march destination to fill in an afternoon! One day I took my platoon out past Airport Camp and across to the south side of the Belize River where we came across a 20 foot long python at least 18 inches in diameter. Discretion being the better part of valour we froze and let the python slide into the river, before moving hurriedly along! Actually, It was not uncommon to see snakes in the camp area. One had to be very careful when carrying out fieldcraft training to avoid eyeballing snakes of all sizes. Much smaller but equally menacing was the horde of sandflies that plagued everyone when mounting guard, and with no concessions to relax from a martinet duty officer. Even with KD trousers and sleeves rolled down it was purgatory.
In early 1955 I was posted back to B Coy before flying back to the UK in May 1955 to attend a course at the Army MT School at Bordon. It so happened that at this time the country was in the middle of a national rail strike. It was also the case that at that time personnel returning to the UK to attend courses had first to report to their parent depot ie Bodmin, before going on elsewhere. This for my travelling companion (Sjt ‘Robby’ Robinson) and I meant reporting to Wellington Barracks in London, where we boarded a 3 tonner bound for Taunton. By various other local shuttles we made it to Plymouth where we spent the night on a bench in the station waiting room until a utility vehicle turned up to take us to Bodmin. A few days later we returned by the same means to London and on to Bordon in Hampshire to attend our course. The strike had been resolved by the end of the course but we still had to undergo a transit stop at Goodge Street Underground Station, as we had done enroute to Jamaica. This was accessed by a very tight metal spiral staircase in the centre of which was a two-man lift, the use of which was denied to common soldiery. The dormitory levels were very deep in unused tunnels, which had housed Londoners sheltering from the Blitz. The dormitories were cold, the food was atrocious, and the noise of trains in adjacent tunnels made it impossible to get a decent sleep.On return to the battalion I was promoted to Sjt and posted back to Belize as MT/Tech Sjt. I remained in Belize until returning to the UK on HMT ‘DILWARA’ in March 1957. Before that we had to experience several hurricanes, the worst of which was Hurricane ‘Janet ‘ in September 1955. We took shelter in the more substantial buildings of the adjacent Stanley Airport rather than the wooden buildings in our camp. Fortunately the hurricane front turned north during the night and we escaped the worst, but Corozal and Chetumal (Mexican border town) suffered appalling damage and we carried out relief work aided by US forces who flew in and dropped relief supplies. We also had to contend with frequent bush fires.
On a lighter note many of the boys spent holidays in Mexico, some to Merida, capital of Yucatan Province, but mainly to Chetumal just over the border from Corozal, the most northerly town in Belize. There were also offshore islands (or ‘cays’) offering swimming and other forms of relaxation. The local girls were very friendly and the local populace as a whole were welcoming and friendly to the troops. Airport Camp did not have the facilities and luxuries as enjoyed by our pampered comrades in Jamaica and Bermuda, but without exception soldiers found ‘E‘ Coy – (‘E’ for Excellence) the place to be!
Once back in the UK at Walker Lines , I found I was to be posted to the Regtl Depot as a Trg Sjt. OC Trg Coy was Capt Jeremy French. CSM was Smokey Hallett, Depot RSM was Harold Royffe and other Trg Sjt’s were Edwards, Basham and Bulley. CQMS was Dick Orum. I took up my duties as Trg Sjt in April ‘57, and commenced an unremitting cycle of intakes of young boys to be turned into men. It was interesting to see the impact of the new recruits denuded of their civilian clothing and hairdo’s, shovelled into tailor-made denims, big black boots and ‘gently’ introduced to the rudiments of military life. Time was of the essence. We moved swiftly through the training programme – weapon training, field craft, fitness training, drill and more drill etc – until each platoon emerged as from a chrysalis – a fully fledged fighting force capable of working well together under all conditions.
In June ‘57 I attended the All Arms Drill Course at the Guards Depot Pirbright where I spent a considerable amount of time holding a rope with another SNCO pretending we were a full rank of soldiers doing ceremonial drill movements. I also achieved a level of proficiency with a pace stick but was never able to put into use once back in Bodmin. Two things of significance happened at Pirbright. Firstly, I broke a bone in my wrist whilst cranking my car with the starting handle. Unforgivably for a former MT Sjt, I had neglected to hold the handle correctly, and paid the price when it backfired. Secondly, I met the girl I was to marry. She was in a party of nurses invited to a Sjt’s Mess Dance. On a trip into Aldershot I met up again with Lt Mike Lamb, by then serving with 1 Para Regt.
Once back in Bodmin I got back into the routine of training yet more young men. I worked with a number of platoon commanders, but principally Lt Nigel Petrie, with whom I have remained in regular contact over the years. I still had my hand in plaster but no light duties available to me. I was out in fair weather and foul on Millpool Ranges, Brown Willy Tor and other exotic recruit venues! I had to wear the plaster for over six months before my wrist could recover from the abuses received.I married my wife in Bodmin in January 1958 and Major (QM) Bert Croucher very kindly made a married quarter available to us, and where my daughter Virginia was born in November 1958. My next door neighbour was CSM Smokey Hallett and his wife Sarah. Not only was he a good neighbour but a man I very much admired and respected.
MONS & BEYOND
In April 1959 I was posted to Mons Officer Cadet School (OCS) as an instructor in the Small Arms and Minor Tactics Wing. I was in good company. My OC was Capt Brian Balls Rifle Brigade who signed his letters with great relish! Wing WO was QMSI Keith Argent, Small Arms School Corps, a crack shot and Queen’s Medallist at Bisley. Fellow L I instructors were Sjt Mick Carroll KSLI, and Sjt Bill Tonkin KOYLI. Another instructor was KRRC (now Rifles). The rest of the team was very representative of the infantry brotherhood.
It was a very interesting and enjoyable posting. There were four companies of cadets at various stages in their training which lasted 16 weeks, and ended with two weeks being spent at Sennybridge Battle Camp in the Brecon Beacons. Established during WW2, when a large area was cleared of the local populace to provide a living firing training area for more advanced work. Deserted farms and hamlets made realistic house clearance exercises possible, and the hilly terrain challenging to would – be infantry officers.
I became an established member of the team, and Directing Staff members encouraged me to apply for a commission. Unfortunately at the ripe old age of 27 I was too old to apply for an infantry regular commission, so after taking advice I elected to try for the RAOC which seemed to me to offer interesting career opportunities. The first stage in the process was to find out if the RAOC would have me!. I was taken by my sponsor (Capt later Brigadier) Keith Beresford) to see the Commander of the RAOC Training Centre at nearby Blackdown. Whilst waiting in line with other hopefuls for interview, I was surprised to see Lt Col (Rtd) Bobby Wetherell – CO of 1DCLI prior to Lt Col Leisching – who worked there as an RO, and had heard there was a light infantryman on the premises. We had a long chat and he wished me well in my endeavours.
My next hurdle was the War Office Selection Board (WOSB) at Barton Stacey – three days of physical and mental challenges, and grilling by senior officers – which I passed and shortly afterwards commenced my officer training, supervised by my erstwhile colleagues. One of the highlights for me was being a member of the cadet team that won the Evelyn-Woods Marching & Shooting Competition. Essentially a 10 mile speed march and tile shooting competition, the cadet team defeated many regular teams, including several from 16 Para Brigade. At the end of the course I attained Junior Under Officer rank in the order of merit and was commissioned into the RAOC on 3 June 1960.
I was posted to an Ammunition Depot in Cumberland. Initially I was employed as a Training Officer, but by May 1961 I was promoted Captain in charge of a number of sub-depots. Without internal roads, they were all served either by standard or narrow gauge railway, and the ammunition was stored according to type and degree of risk in compliance with ammunition and explosive regulations.
In 1962 I successfully attended a Regular Commissions Board (RCB) at Westbury Wiltshire, which led to my selection for a long (8 months) Ordnance Officer’s Course studying general management and all aspects of the logistics function. On completion of the course I was posted as 2ic of a Corps Troops Ordnance Field Park(OFP) in Dortmund BAOR. This was the biggest OFP in the army, and when in a mobile role, comprised of about 120 vehicles carrying a vast range of MT, Technical and General Stores, including industrial gases and other workshop essentials. To camouflage the unit in the field was no easy task.
In late 1963, volunteers were called for to form a new commando logistics unit to operate in direct support of 3 Commando Brigade RM, currently deployed to Borneo. After a process of elimination and successful completion of the Commando Course at RMTC Lympstone, I was selected as 2ic of the new unit and emplaned for the Far East in May 1964, serving in Borneo, Malaya and Singapore.
The primary role of a Commando Ship is to be a highly mobile base for a military force and to land them by helicopter and landing craft with supporting units of the Royal Artillery. After a landing, the ship acts as a supply depot to support troops ashore. The ship can also act as a fast troopship to carry Army units to troubled areas. One of the perks of the job was to supervise the updating and validation of stores and equipment held on board ships of the Amphibious Fleet for use by commando forces. As a result I spent some time at sea aboard HMS’s Albion, Bulwark, Fearless, Intrepid, Galahad and others. Returning from Japan on HMS Albion (commanded by Capt BGG Place VC DSC RN, hero of X7 and the Tirpitz raid) we called in at Labuan, where I met Brig Floyer-Acland and Maj ‘Pip’ Brown. In Singapore I met Cpl Charlie Gough acting as groom for a local general, and former band corporal Harry Galloway then serving with the Australian Army. I also had a lunch date at the Singapore Cricket Club with Mike Lamb, by then a civilian working for a local soft drinks company.
Whilst in the Far East I worked hard towards completing my Capt/Major promotion Examinations and in December 1966 I was posted home on promotion to Major as a Company Commander in the RAOC Junior Leaders Bn. There I found one of my pl sjts was ‘Johnny’ Allsopp ( formerly DCLI ). As part of the training cycle I often found myself back in Cornwall with my young soldiers at Fort Tregantle.
In November 1969 I found myself selected for another commando tour as DADOS 3 Commando Bde RM still based in Singapore, where I met Maj Gen David Tyacke when he came to lunch in the Cdo Officers Mess at HMS Simbang. He lost no time in reminding me of an incident that took place in Walker Lines in 1957 when he was Duty Field Officer and I was Bn Ord Sjt. A soldier returned from disembarkation leave with his young baby after a domestic dispute and housed the child in his foot locker. I met often Maj Bob Waight SCLI G2 at HQ FARELF who made sure Brigade staff got more than our fair share of parachute jumps (both land and sea) at RAF Changi, because our role called for Brigade staff to be able to join a commando ship at sea by parachuting alongside and be winched aboard by helicopter. During EX Bersatu Padu I met up with Lt (later Maj) Gordon Besford whom I knew well in earlier years.
Sadly, British Forces were withdrawn from the Far East in March 1971, and I returned to the UK to complete my tour as Senior Logistics Officer HQ Commando Forces RM based at Mount Wise Devonport.
In October 1971 I returned to RAOC as Chief Planning Officer, HQ Vehicle Organisation, based in Chilwell Notts, which commanded all tri-service vehicle depots in the UK, and exercised technical control of all overseas service vehicle depots. 1971-1973 was a very interesting period given the precarious political situation and industrial unrest against the background of the 3-day working week. Veh Org had upwards of 22000 stock vehicles and 2000 civilian staff (represented by 23 different unions). I was responsible for the economic and efficient use of manpower, finance, storage accommodation and equipment resources.Following defence cuts in 1974, HQ Veh Org was amalgamated with HQ Base Org. After overseeing the transfer I was posted as OC Ammunition Depot in BAOR. The depot was a large site covering about 4500 acres, an internal railway system including 3 rail heads, over 200 explosive storehouses, workshops etc. Inventory value was about £44M. Annual Operating Budget £13M at ‘74 prices. A programme of stock palletisation and introduction of mechanical handling equipment was underway. Manual accounting systems were being computerised. Activity levels were high with volume road/rail movement throughout Germany and Belgium, and import and export to UK and other continental countries.
At this stage I had never been happier. My family was on station with me, my work was very satisfying, and I was involved in many extra-mural activities. However yet more defence cuts and very much reduced career opportunities resulted in my decision to accept voluntary redundancy. I left the army in December 1976. When I told my mother (who had resisted my enlistment all those years ago) that I had decided to leave the army, she exultantly claimed “I knew you wouldn’t like it!
The Author wishes to acknowledge the assistance given by Merv Chandler, formerly of “E” Company, Belize, in supplying some of the photographs included here and for help given in identifying names and faces. Merv Chandler convenes a “Belize Veterans” Re-Union each year at Bridgewater and welcomes all former 1DCLI with Caribbean Service to attend. Further details can be obtained from the Editor on email firstname.lastname@example.org