I enlisted in the Rhodesian Army, Corps of Signals, as a Signalman (Smn) on Friday the 5th of March 1975 on a three year contract that I was later to change to a seven and then a ten year term. In the image above is the badge of my Corps as it was at the end of the 80s. The smaller images show the Federal badge on the left with Queens crown and on the right the badge we wore up to the end of 1979.
Above is a depiction of the first badge I wore – pre-UDI.
My first posting was to the Army Communications Centre – Army Comcen – at Army HQ in KGVI barracks on the Borrowdale Road, Salisbury.
On my first day, after being issued with my kit I sorted out everything so that I could report for duty the following Monday and I remember going through all this kit in a somewhat bemused manner – there was more than the National Service issue but it was all relatively straightforward. I took the scissors out of my housewife (the sewing kit that had needles, thread, buttons and darning wool in it for the maintenance and repair of one’s clothing) and used them to mark my brushes. We were issued a brand new hairbrush and a clothes brush marked SRG in a triangle standing for Southern Rhodesia Government.
I carefully scratched my new regimental number onto the back of the brushes. (Years later we had to add the prefix 72 to these numbers).
I then got some nylon string and made up my new dog tags, damped my beret to shape it, polished my new signals cap badge and attached it to the beret.
I was not issued Greens (No1 dress) yet because I was too tall for the standard sizes in the stores. I would have to report to a tailor and greens would be made to fit.
Above – the safety razor I was issued and my lanyard with issue whistle attached!
I was surprised that I was given my own ROOM in the KGVI Corporals and Privates mess, having expected to be in a barrack room!
On Monday the 8th I reported to Army Comcen, at Army HQ, for my first day of duty as a regular soldier where I met then-WOI Basil Bartlett, i/c Army Comcen. I was put to work to learn message handling. What to do when a message was handed in and what to do when a message was received. Messages were mostly received and transmitted by teleprinter and despatch rider at that time. To a young, somewhat shy, eighteen year old this seemed a terribly dry and boring posting. The badge shown here is that of the Rhodesian Army.
Like many people who have never served and have little idea about the military I had expected to be in a field troop and operating radios and running around the bush and I was, for the first time seeing the more mundane side of things. As anyone who HAS served will know there is a lot that goes on without which any organisation, not least the military cannot function.
The signals we were handling had to do with training courses, rations and catering, clothing, arms and ammunition, discipline, medical policy – just about anything one could imagine. An army is like a little independent country that has buildings and equipment to maintain, people to feed, clothe and equip and who need medical attention from time to time. In the same way the mechanics, stores staff and a myriad of other people were getting on, in the background, with the task of keeping this complex entity alive. Coordination of these activities countrywide could only be achieved by having efficient communications between various headquarters and units and this is what the Corps of Signals does – both in peacetime and in time of conflict.
Of course, at the time I felt crushed – this mundane activity was not at all what a youngster wanted to do – be a glorified clerk and wear OFFICE dress. Office dress felt like a rather elaborate school uniform of khaki shorts, stable belt in the corps colours of green, blue and light blue (signifying communications over land, sea and air), calf-length socks with garter flashes, black lace up shoes, green shirt, blue lanyard and beret (that you took off while working at Comcen). It must be admitted that no-one PARTICULARY liked the more mundane but very necessary postings – and always hoped to NOT end up at Army HQ
I carried on in this vein for several more months and I have to confess that it did add a bit of practical to the basic message centre work that had been covered in our training at the School of Signals.
Army Comcen, later to become P Troop, was at the time under the command of 4 Signal Squadron that was based in KGVI barracks and members had to attend various training and other parades held by the Squadron.
Among the characters at Army Comcen were Dickie Monckton and Abe Eyberg – Dickie was a Corporal when I joined (or was he a Sgt and BECAME a corporal or…). It was rumoured that Dickie had a room in both the Sergeants and Corporals messes because he was promoted/demoted so regularly. Dickie was a mischievous bugger but a really good bloke too. I believe he had seen some service in WWII. He had red hair and a Jimmy Edwards/RAF type moustache and a bit of an UPPAH CLASS accent! Abe Eyberg was a very thin gingery man who was a teleprinter technician and, I think, a corporal at the time. He and Dickie seemed to get along like a house on fire.
Because the army worked NORMAL OFFICE HOURS on Saturday mornings, most training and drill parades took place on Saturday.
About a month or so after joining it was decided that there would be a route march from the Squadron, out of the bottom gate of KGVI, up to the main Borrowdale road which would then be followed up to the Army HQ gates and back through the barracks to the Squadron HQ. I think that in fact we turned left out of the bottom gate and marched down towards the prison, then through part of the police grounds and onto the Borrowdale road at the North Avenue intersection.
When we formed up the senior NCOs and the SSM checked all of us to ensure that we had full water bottles and magazines, (we did not carry packs for this march). One of the checks of our kit was to sniff every water bottle to ensure no-one had booze in them – even going so far as to take a sip out of the most suspect water bottles (Dickie and Abe) who stood with exaggerated, wide-eyed innocence as this exercise in MISTRUST was carried out.
At the first stop, we were all gratefully taking a swig of water when it was noticed that Dickie and Abe had drawn their bayonets and were prodding them into their water bottles. After this, they swished the bottles around, reached in two fingers and pulled something out that they threw into the bushes. They each took a swig and Dickie offered me a drink. Tentatively I raised his water bottle to my nose – WHISKY! I have NEVER liked whisky so I passed on that, much to Dickie’s amusement, but several lads had a swig and one or two took a donation from the whisky and water carriers, which strongly flavoured their own water. Every time someone in authority came down the line, Dickie and Abe were the epitome of comedic innocence!
Dickie explained to me that it was an old soldier’s trick to push a French-letter (Condom in modern parlance) into the mouth of the water bottle, pour about half a bottle of whisky or brandy into the FL then tie it off. Chuck a couple of ice cubes in – if available or the neck of the bottle allowed it – and top up with water. Until the FL was punctured by the bayonet or a piece of wire, no-one would be the wiser at a cursory inspection. These two had been doing this for a long time!
The worst and most surprising thing, about drill and weapons at 4 Sig Sqn was that they were still issued with the .303 rifle (top picture above). The first time I was issued one of these from the armoury I was horrified, as I had never learned any rifle drill related to the .303. No problem I was assured – we were to do SLR drill (bottom picture above)…with these rifles that did not have a pistol grip! After marching or standing with the rifle at the shoulder one’s fingers felt they had been in a medieval torture device because you could only hook two fingers into the trigger guard and the bloody thing weighed about four kilograms!
This torture (no one really likes drill and these rifles made it more than difficult) was stepped up because 4 Sig Sqn was to muster the signals unit for the upcoming Queen’s birthday parade in June – nobody knew that this would be the last officially celebrated QBP in Rhodesia – indeed it would never again be celebrated in the territory.
I was rather intimidated because, being the tallest in the squadron (and one of the youngest at only 18 years) I was selected to be the RIGHT MARKER. Anyone who knows and understands drill, based on the British standard, knows that all drill commands relate to the relative position of the right marker. The command BY THE RIGHT or BY THE LEFT is not an arbitrary selection on the part of the NCO or officer giving the command. It is dictated by the position of the right marker irrespective of how many turns may have been made that place the right marker in what APPEARS to be the left file of the rear rank! It is actually not as confusing as it sounds but once again illustrates a methodology that is somewhat mysterious to the uninitiated.
As an aside, all this drill meant that in the field one had instinctively learned to follow commands and leaders (in the old days of set battles particularly) could work to a marker, a datum point if you will, that provided a sense of order to the apparent chaos.
To return to the QBP…
All the companies, squadrons, platoons and so forth on the parade were to form up towards the rear of the grassed Glamis Stadium in the old British army ORB (Order of Battle) which dictated that cavalry were to right of the line (to the left as one faced the parade). So from the left were the Artillery (the armoured regiment had not been formed at the time), Corps of Engineers, Corps of Signals and then the infantry units in their order of seniority. (In Rhodesia, this was to be changed some years later giving seniority to infantry and Special Forces and finally other supporting arms.)
Once the units had been formed up by their WOs the parade RSM gave the command “PARADE! RIGHT MARKERS!” This was the order for all the right markers to come to attention, march forward exactly twenty-one paces and halt. The next command was a SILENT one – the squads counted something like five beats and then the WOs, in a stage whisper ordered QUICK MARCH…at which all the units marched forward twenty one paces and halted – as near as possible to their marker.
The command was then “PARAAAADE, RIIIIIGHT DRESS!”
The officer did a smart about turn to face his unit.
The right markers stood still, all other troops did a sharp EYES RIGHT, raised their LEFT arms (rifle on the right so the right marker also raised his left arm), and shuffled into position at arms’ length from each other. The Parade WOs smartly marched to the right of their unit line, halting at the right marker then smartly turning left to check that the line was straight in the front rank. When the NCO was satisfied, the command “STAND STILL, STAND STILL THE FRONT RANK” rang out – from each unit. The NCO then performed a smart left turn, took a regulation pace and halted, executed a right turn and repeated the dressing with the centre rank and “STAND STILL, STAND STILL THE CENTRE RANK” could be heard down the line. Once this had been completed with the rear rank the WO would march to his position at the rear of the unit. The parade RSM then gave the order “EEYYES FRONT!” All heads would snap to the front as the left arms were smartly brought to the side and the officer would about turn to face front again.
We were stood at ease – a blessed relief to us, the units carrying the 303 rifles. When the dignitaries started to arrive – the Governor General, the Prime Minister and other guests – we would be brought to attention, shoulder arms and present arms. When all the guests had been seated, and the obligatory parade inspection completed, we marched past in review order with the salute being taken by the Governor General.
The speeches, although we were standing at ease, were a blur of discomfort and then we marched past again in column of route (?) I am sure some old sweat will correct me as it was 53 years ago and I, at eighteen and a new soldier, was a bit overwhelmed by all that was going on.
We then marched off the parade ground and were dismissed and taken back to barracks.
The only unit that wore GREENS (No1 uniform) on that parade were the RLI. The RAR was not yet issued greens and many of the other units were made up of territorials so we paraded in bush jackets (in those days issued to all territorials and NS and some regular units), shorts and stick boots with puttees and hose tops – in retrospect more comfortable than sweltering in greens would have been.
I hope the description adequately describes the pomp and performance that the troops had to go through to mount a parade such as this. I suppose I was lucky – having a few months previously taken part in a similar parade at my own passing out parade at Llewellin Barracks where the order of the parade had been very similar (except, to my mind, we had REAL rifles – the SLR [and I KNOW the .303 Lee Enfield is a brilliant rifle!]).
It was while I was resident at the KGVI mess that I was arrested by the BSAP (British South Africa Police). The only time in my life that I have suffered that indignity and I had, actually done nothing wrong – well not personally that is.
I was a rather naïve youngster and one Friday after work several of us were having a drink in the mess when I was asked if I would like to come out to a dance at the SOE Hall, just east of town. I was with a Corporal in the Military Police, Jimmy Thurling, when we got to the venue and, because I had already had quite a few beers I was happy to have a soft drink. The band was playing and there was much dancing and noise.
Suddenly there was a commotion outside and the shout of FIGHT went up. I mooched outside where two blokes who had been fighting were watching their girlfriends get into it. I think the most horrible strike I have ever seen was when the one girl knocked the other one down then, grabbing her ankles, proceeded to kick the other in the groin with her high heels. As the girl on the ground screamed, blue strobes announced the arrival of the police and, in the confusion, Jimmy handed me a coke saying “Just hold my coke for me.” then disappeared into the crowd.
Not a moment later a policeman, seeing me with TWO coke bottles, grabbed them and sniffed. Of course Jimmy had had about fifty percent brandy in his coke so on went the manacles and I found myself in a police car. My protestations were, to put it mildly, taken rather cynically because I HAD been drinking – although not for a while.
At the Railway Avenue police station, I was charged with the offence of drinking in public and given the option of paying a fine of thirty shillings or being locked up. One pound and ten shillings was about five percent of a month’s earnings then and I cannot remember if I had the money to pay it or if I had to go back within a week to settle it but I walked out with my fine or receipt in hand.
I have a vague memory of someone taking me back to barracks but I may have had to walk or take a taxi…we still worked on Saturdays.
Jimmy Thurling of course thought it was a great joke because he had known what was going to happen to anyone found with booze in the street – and as a Military Policeman he would have been in REAL trouble if he had been arrested by the BSAP. I got no help from him – not that I expected any but I did learn a lesson!