Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times

Chapter four

National Service

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My brother, Michael, then a junior officer on leave from the army, drove over to collect me at the end of my final term at Sedbergh. We had an agreable journey over the fells to Harrogate, the last stretch across Blubberhouse Moors. 

I quickly enrolled for a term at Harrogate art school to give myself something to do in the months before I received my call-up papers for National Service in the army.


Enrolled at art school

I took a portfolio of paintings to show the principal, Mr Lincoln Jenkins, before being accepted. He did not seem impressed, but took me on. I went to the art school only in the mornings, and spent the afternoons learning to retouch and remove spots from prints at my father’s photographic studio in Prince’s Square, Harrogate.


Drawing from life

Two evenings a week, I cycled to the art school to take part in life classes, drawing in charcoal either a buxom girl who posed naked for us students on a sort of throne, or a rather skinny man, who looked as if he would not be able to hold the required pose for long without collapsing. 

My teacher was Mr Simon, a Frenchman who was a drinking pal of my mother at Chalmers’ bar overlooking the Stray, sometimes known as Muckle’s Vaults. Mr Simon drew in bold charcoal strokes and certainly taught me a thing or two about draughtsmanship. I also kept myself fit and trained on punch bag and ball at Mr Styan’s gym, described in an earlier chapter.


In the boxing ring again

I took part in one tournament at the Harrogate Boys’ Club. My opponent was the captain of boxing at Ashville College, a private school in Harrogate. I won the bout fairly easily.
In view of my somewhat lurid medical history, our family doctor and godfather “Uncle” Leslie Wesley-Smith offered to write a medical report that would rule me out for military service. With my parents’ enthusiastic agreement, I declined the offer. Accordingly Uncle Leslie wrote that he had known me all my life “having delivered him myself” and that I was perfectly fit for military service.


Called up at last

Some weeks later, I reported at Strensall Barracks, York, and was admitted to the West Yorkshire Regiment. 


Too much and blinding

I recall being shocked at all the foul language used by the other recruits in my barrack room. We were each given three ‘biscuits’, canvass-covered mattress sections, three blankets and a pillow. There were no sheets. With this bedding we made up our beds each night. During the day, it was all on neat display with our blancoed webbing and equipment, plus our “best boots”. The boots were made of a mottled leather. The mottled effect had to be removed. The way to do this was to burn the boots by smearing them with black boot polish and setting them alight.


A leadership role at last

I was appointed to lead a group of fellow recruits in physical training, running at the front of the group.
I was placed in what was known as “The Waterloo Platoon”, recruits judged to be officer material. I was reasonably good at arms drill, but did not take to all the bullshit.

After a couple of weeks, the army staged intelligence tests for all new recruits. We were seated in rows at long trestle tables.

I found most of the tests, of vocabulary and reasoning ability, ridiculously easy. But the last test of all floored me. Piles of components from household mechanical objects were heaped in front of us and we were required to assemble them. There was a padlock, various other mechanical contrivances, and finally a disassembled bicycle pump. When time was called and everybody had to stop working, I had failed to assemble a single item. 

The man next to me, an illiterate gypsy, had successfully completed the entire mechanical test. 

I then attended an intervew with a selection officer, who asked me what branch of the service I wanted to join. Mindful of my linguistic qualifications, I said I wanted to join the Intelligence Corps.

The officer told me that I was considered to be officer material, but I would have to give up any idea of a commission if I opted for the I Corps – “the I spy with my little eye Corps – old England’s only hope”, as some poetic wag later described it. 


Aiming for the I Corps

Doubting my military ability, I there and then decided to ask to be transferred to the Intelligence Corps.

A few days later, I put on Field Service Marching Order, complete with ammunition pouches, steel helmet, Lee-Enfield rifle and bulky kitbag. Waiting for the bus to take me to York railway station. Outside Strensall Barracks, I lost my balance, and fell on my back, like an upended tortoise. My pack broke my fall, but I needed the help of passengers waiting to catch the bus to get me on my feet again.

Eventually, I completed the long rail journey to Uckfield in Sussex, where an army three-tonner was waiting to transport the new recruits to Maresfield Park Camp, Depot of the Intelligence Corps.

I was then able to discard my White Horse of Hanover badge and don the badge of the “I” Corps, popularly described as “A pansy resting on its laurels”.

There were some interesting people in my intake, among them Bryan Magee, who is a considerable poet and became a Labour member of parliament, and Chris Layton, son of Lord Leighton, owner of the now long defunct News Chronicle.

There was plenty of the usual army bullshit. I recall having a drill sergeant who taught us to salute in the following terms:
“In days of old, when knights were bold. And ladies did as they were told, knights greeting lovely young ladies knocked up the viziers of their helmets, thus.” Sergeant Sproull then went through the motions of saluting: “Hup two three, Two two three, Down.”


Riding a motor bike

Most of our remaining time was spent on learning the rudiments of military intelligence. The army also taught us to ride motor bikes on BSA and Matchless 500cc machines. We used to ride in a long column along the Sussex country roads. Otherwise, we practised starting and stopping our machines on the barrack square. 


Beale comes to grief

One of our squad, a little mustachioed man called Beale, was all thumbs and incapable of controlling his machine.Eventually, Beale was drummed out of the I Corps. On one occasion, when several squads were drilling on the barrack square, Beale, who was supposed to practise starting and stopping his motorbike, drove his machine in first gear right through the drilling columns, seemingly oblivious to the yells of the sergeant-instructor. Then, he fell off his machine and out of my life.

More relevant to our future employment was a course in how the army was organised in those far-off days, with characters like CRASC and Crème taking the stage. The initials in fact stand for Commander Royal Army Service Corps and Commander Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Among other fairly useless activities were exercises on paper. One spy-catching exercise was set in Italy, Operation Chastity, involving a play on the names of the two Italian wines Asti spumante and Chianti. The other exercise was set in Dortmund. I played the part of a duty sergeant at Field Security (FSS) HQ. 

Receiving a report that the local police chief had mustered a huge police turnout to oversee a socialist rally, I rightly decided that this was unnecessary. 


Ordering the police about

I had a delightful row in German on the telephone with the police commander, telling him the socialists were a legitimate political party and that he would be removed from office by the occupying power if he did not knuckle under.

Eventually, the day of our passing out parade arrived. Most of my mates went to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), and some were dispatched to HongKong and Palestine. 

I found myself at Liverpool Street Station, catching the train known as the MEDLOC Express, to join British Troops in Austria (BTA). I recall crossing a rickety iron bridge within the station to get to the Medloc Express, waiting to take me and my comrades via Harwich and the Hook of Holland, then via Cologne to Villach in Carinthia, Austria. Many years later, that bridge still existed and I was to use it frequently in a different incarnation.




Next: Chapter 5 >> Field security in Austria

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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh