Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Coming to the end of National Service

Although I still had the pin and plate in my fractured leg there was no real need for me to be in hospital but the army was keen to get me back to physical fitness.  I was transferred from Catterick to a rehabilitation unit in Chester where specialist staff were employed in physical training, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and dietetics. Apart from injured soldiers there was a regular intake of new recruits who were considered underweight after their initial call-up and therefore needed building-up. It was very evident that in post-war Britain some young people were seriously undernourished.

I was able to make use of the specialist attention and very good food.  I was also given the job of librarian which gave me the opportunity to read the daily papers and a few books.  In an army unit the library was not a facility that was well-used so for most of the time I had the place to myself. Because of my interest in photography I was also given a special task of printing small copies of X-rays.  I had an old 'plate' camera which was used as an enlarger/reducer so small prints could be attached to files held by the Chief Medical Officer.

In due course I had to return to Catterick Hospital to have the ironmongery taken out of my leg.  This stay in hospital was far shorter and I was soon sent back to my original unit in Elgin, supposedly pronounced fit.  By this time, of course, I was well into my second year, still a Private with only de-mob to look forward to.  I was given a desk job in administration. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky as there was an incident in Farnborough, at the NCO course I should have been on. An exercise covering demolition and explosives had gone badly wrong and a group of soldiers, including people I had known, were killed in an explosion.

After a few weeks I was posted to Ripon where the Royal Engineers had an Army Emergency Reserve Unit ( AER).  One of the conditions of National Service was a further three years being part of the Territorial Army or three weeks per year in the AER.

I have one more lasting memory of National Service: the regimental parade and an open weekend in the camp.  The Regimental Band of the Royal Engineers came up from London.  To parade with a full military band was quite an experience. The band proved their versatility as they became the dance band for the Saturday night party and a full orchestra for a classical concert on the Sunday afternoon. They even had a piano soloist who played Schumann's Piano Concerto.

My time in the army was now drawing to a close and I was looking forward to my university course in Cambridge. I recall standing on Ripon Station waiting for the train home and wondering about the last two years.  What would have happened if I had just deferred National Service and gone straight to university two years earlier? Would my leg still have fractured? Had it been a wasted period with lost opportunities? Looking back now it is obvious I have vivid memories of this very short time and I tasted a side of life which was quite unique.

National Service was scrapped in 1956. I did return to Ripon for one more summer camp in 1955 in the AER before I finally hung up my boots.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

Catterick Military Hospital had its own brand of discipline.  Ward rounds were like any other military inspection so much so you had to lie to attention. The majority of patients had orthopaedic injuries so there was a lively atmosphere in the ward. As a young man of 18 I rather enjoyed all the fuss from the nurses and made the most of it, rather than worry about my curtailed army career.

The nurses and sisters all wore their own version of military uniform, the sisters having bright red short cloaks which bore their officer rank and any medals awarded during their service career. The general routine was no different from a civil hospital but I think the food was better and, to help build up our strength, we regularly received a bottle of stout to drink.

It was while I was here that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2 June 1953. In order to give injured servicemen the opportunity to attend, a number of us were allowed leave to watch the procession. Luckily for me, my name was pulled out of the hat. We were driven by ambulance to the North London Barracks medical centre where we met up with about 30 other injured soldiers. Some of the top brass came to see us before we boarded a special bus to take us to a point on the route near Hyde Park.

The weather was appalling on the day and we waited for hours for the royal procession. My clearest memory, however, was not of the Queen but a trip many of us had to make to the nearby public toilet in the park. This motley crew of walking wounded limped across the sodden grass to do the necessary but, as we returned to the bus, I noticed that clearly displayed on the front was a large placard which read, "EX KOREAN WAR VETERANS". The fact that I had broken my leg during National Service in Scotland, and that the injury was a repeat of an old fracture caused by a bicycle accident when I was 12......well, I kept that to myself.