The Incompetent National Serviceman Part 2
There, the train made a tour around much of the cathedral before crossing over to the right bank of the Rhine. As we reached the Mittel Rhein, the aspect changed again. The vine-clad slopes, topped with castles in various states of disrepair, the half-timbered buildings of places like Nieder Lahnstein and above (?) all, the traffic and the myriad suns dancing on the Rhine restored the holiday feel.
Dusk was falling when we reached Wiesbaden and turned off the Rhine to go up the Main. We slept through Bavaria and were awakened as we approached the Ausfrian border. Here, there was another change of locomotive. We were at breakfast when passing Salzburg. The train halted for a short while at Mallnitz, four or five tracks from the station platform on which a line of children was seated. Noticing our military train, they burst into singing, in English, "My bonny lies over the ocean".
The train climbed above valleys of green fields and scattered buildings, all cheerful under the bright sun and blue sky. Disappearing into tunnels, we emerged into another valley or on occasion the same valley but at a different level, having spiralled inside the mountain.
At Spittal, the train stopped and the khaki-kilted Cameronians (or were they Cameron Highlanders ?), returning from leave, departed. Shortly after the train restarted, the Conductor, a WO I, slid back the door of our compartnent and having ascertained that we were for BETFOR, told us that in about 20 minutes the train would be stopping at Villach where we would have to alight. He did not know how we were to get to Trieste but was sure that we would find out at the station. And we did. As soon as we were off the train,a corporal approached us and told us that there was a 'bus with a trailer outside the station and ordered us to put our kit into the trailer and then return to help him with the mail bags. The trailer was a surprise; it was glazed and seated like the 'bus. However, on our way to it, a sergeant came up to us telling us to get on the 'bus with all our kit as there would be plenty of room for it because there were not many fravelling. As George Orwell might have said, three stripes are better than two, so we boarded the 'bus and did nothing about the mail bags. They were probably put in the trailer by some lads returning from leave, for we did not see the corporal again. The sergeant took the front seat and we set off. Somehow, we seemednow to be more in touch with "abroad".
At Thorl Maglern, we reached the frontier with Italy. Over the border (down Italy way), the 'bus stopped for half an hour at Tarvisio, where a bottle of beer, which I did not like (it tasted artificial) cost 60 lire. Then we fravelled down the narrow winding valley of the Fella, through Pontebba, Chiusaforte, Resiutta and Ospedaletto. The valley
gradually broadened and then we were on the north Italian plain, stopping for another 30 minutes at Tricesimo. I avoided the beer.
After going round what seemed to be the outskirts of Udine, we could see to our right the hull of a ship under construction at Monfalcone.
We halted at the Sistiana Blockpost where we entered Zone A of the Free Territory of Trieste (FTT or, in Italian TLT) which was administered by Allied Military Government (AMG) and occupied by British (BETFOR) and US (TRUST, i.e. Trieste US Troops)
forces under the command of Major-General Sir John Winterton. He occupied Duino Castle.
The coast road, then the main road to the city, rose above the castle and made a 90 degree turn to the left. Suddenly, there was the Adriatic, stretching out to the south, deep blue under the clear blue sky. Ahead, in the distance, over the water was the hazy city. Sun on the shining sea prolonged the quasi-holiday mood as we passed Grignano and Miramare Castle. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Castle had been home to the tragic Maximilian who was thrust by Napoleon III on Mexico to be its emperor and, La France perfide, callously abandoned to a Mexican execution. Now, the castle was occupied by the TRUST commander.
Past Miramare, the holiday feeling was heightened by the sight of the Triestini enjoying the Saturday afternoon sunshine, strolling on the coastal promenade at Barcola.
Under the bridge taking the railway over to the right, we entered the city, passing the station in Piazza della Liberta, then into via Ghega and bearing to the right the bus came round the end of the Old Port where the sea became visibie again. On we went, over the Grand Canal, passing Piazza dell'Unita to our left and, on our other side Molo Audace and the Pescheria. From the Riva 3 Novembre we turned left to go up the short curved Via Duca D'Aosta into Via dell'Universita where, in modern parlance, the .bus terminated, outside 'Q' Movements.
The sergeant there told us to change our BAFVs for lire and whilst we were doing so, he would ring for transport. The other passengers had already disappeared into one or other of the two trucks which had been waiting for them.
The Landrover, when it eventually arrived, initially took us back the way we had just come but then turned right into Via Milano, crossed Via Josue Carducci and into Via del Coroneo. We briefly stopped to let the sergeant (was his name Burton ? why cannot I remember it ?) off he telling us that the driver knew where to drop us. A little farther up we reached our destination at no.2l. The porter opened the lift for us and on the 3rd and top floor, we were met by the Duty sergean, Sgt. Paul Twomey. He greeted us saying that our arival had not been expected until the following day. We were conducted to the Corporals' Mess on the floor below. And so were we admitted to Trieste Security Office.
There was some bad news. A number of the corporals were away in Grado on passes but had left their beds fully laid out for inspection on Saturday morning. This was not an inviting prospect but my memory suggests that this in fact did not persist for long.
More persistent was that the required shade of blanco was khaki green. Mindful that I would eventually return to buff at Maresfield, the large and small packs, pouches, etc. turned green on only those parts which showed when displayed on top of a cupboard. Fortunately, they were able to remain parti-coloured for the rest of their existence and never received any additional coats of blanco. The belt and anklets web had to change completely, and to accept an occasional fresh application. These transformations were effected on Sunday.
On the previous evening, I was allocated a bed in a room occupied by three corporals, 'Sam' Gage and David Morris, both Old Etonians, and Gerald 'Jack' Cockroft from 625 Four Lane Ends, Bradford.
Feeling weary after the travelling, I made ready for bed and was just about to enter it when 'Jack' Cockroft rushed into the room, declaring "The Yugoslavs have invaded and we have to evacuate immediately". So I arose, redressed and only when I again was fully clothed did he reveal that it was a hoax. I do not think that he said "E uno
scherzo!". I would not have understood it if he had.
On Sunday evening, the Mess was filled by the return of the sun-seekers from the beach at Grado. At Trieste, the coast is rocky and there was no sandy beach at Barcola or Grignano.
We entered the Office itself, on the floor above, on Monday morning and were assigned to the filing room, Card lndex, supervised by Sgt. Mike Rogers. At that time, the OC was Major H.M.de B.Romilly, known as "Puggy". There had been a very recent change in 2i/c, Capt.RM.Richards replacing Capt. Dickson who, although no longer with TSO, had not yet left Trieste. This was regarded by the Corporals' Mess as a change for the better. No-one, apparently, had a good word for Capt. Dickson. The other officers were Capt.A.L.A.Mifsud and Capt. Gimblett (no initials because I do not remember, but am almost certain it was not "H"; at this period, 'H' opened the btting for Somerset). The latter officer was not in Via
del Coroneo but had his office in Via San Nicolo, with Sgt David J. Caswell, of Biggleswade who had signed on for three years. With regard to other ranks, the establishment for TSO was l7 sergeants and 27 corporals.
Capt. Richards informed me that I need not worry about the 'probationary period'. This was useful information as it enabled me to continue to forget about it.
As the name suggests, TSO was an office and kept office hours but adjusted by the need of a long midday break in summer to avoid the uncomfortable build up of heat after 12 noon. So the start was earlier and the finish later. We worked only the mornings of Saturday and Wednesday. There was a short minor duty on Wednesday afternoons.
The military government had political advisers, British and American. The British polad was one of the recipients of some of our reports so I visited that office at least daily. The Orient Express which, I believe, went in those days only as far as Belgrade, called at Trieste on Wednesday afternoon carrying, amongst others, the Queen's Messenger. An
official of the British Polad met him at the station and exchanged bags. On one occasion in the past, when the official was waiting for the train's arrival, a shot was fired. It is not certain that the person had any particular target in mind but the shot had gone somewhat in the direction of the official. It was decided that in future the official should have a bodyguard, to be provided by TSO. So, every Wednesday afternoon, one of TSO's NCOs, in civilian clothes weighed down by a fully loaded small but heavy Browning automatic would accompany the man from the British polad to meet the Queen's Messenger on the Orient Express. Apart from being offered a dram of whisky on one occasion, nothing ever happened,
The reception desk at the entrance to TSO on the third floor was manned by two members of the Venezia Giulia Police Force (VGPF). It must have been the very best job in the force, albeit with little or no prospects for promotion. One of them was tall and slim and known as 'Spike' (I never enquired). The other, shorter and a little more plump, was 'Pugliese', presumably he was from Apulia (Puglia). Spike's principal role seemed to be the liaison officer between the bar (tattoria) next door and those of us requiring, during the day, a caffe latte, price 60 lire. 60 lire was also the cost of a pannino con prosciutto (ham roll) at the Bar 'AI Viale' or of a cassata of Zampolli's, than which I have tasted none better , or, indeed, as good and to which I was introduced by Paul Ryan.
Zampolli's gelateria, near the AKC, was a little farther up and on the other side from the Bar 'Al Viale' in the Viale XX Settembre. Incidentally, for ice-creams, we were
supposed to confine ourselves to gelati Motta, the Italian equivalent of Walls' (who also incidentally, also made sausages - I doubt whether this was a Motta sideline - which I have never actually sampled.) ln the evenings, it was pleasant to sit at one of the tables outside the bar and watch the people strolling up and down; the Viale XX Settembre was one of the principal sites for the daily passeggiata.
On the Saturday after my arrival in TSO, Capt. Dickson had his departure party for the Office. His limited imagination stretched only as far as a case of gin and a few bottles of soft drinks. I have never liked gin, thinking it not so much a drink as a rather unsuccessful perfume. So I had one spirit glass of a soft drink and then found there was none left. So I took a full glass of gin and to avoid any possible but well-meaning attempts to top it up by those unsteadily abandoning sobriety, took nothing out of it. At some stage, our two VGPF led most of the party in singing what I initially thought was a local traditional song but later discovered to be one of Italy's popular songs of the time, 'Papere e Papaveri' It took a little while for the tune, a little watered down, I think, to reach Britain where it was given some embarrassingly dreadful words (I suppose, though, 'Ducks and Poppies' might not seem all that much better) and an even more trite title 'Poppa Picolino'.
Jack Cockroft had been out delivering our reports, etc. to other units and offices about the town and returned just in time to avoid missing the last of the gin. Bemoaning the fact that he had had only one glass, and by this time it was very obvious that all our comrades had had considerably more, he happily accepted my full glass in exchange for his empty one. The corporals had only to tumble down the stairs to the floor below. I do not know how the sergeants managed the return to their mess, which was on the sixth floor at no.6.
After two weeks and because 'Rocky' Boultbee wanted a change, I was put in charge of the duplicator room. Under my command were two Gestetners, a Velos stapler, paper, tubes of ink and boxes and boxes and boxes of American staples of only a few of which fitted the Velos. At the same time, I took over from Jack Cockroft the twice daily delivery of our reports, etc. to a small number of other units, offices etc. This was quite a pleasant task: I was driven in one of our vehicles by one of our drivers, all of whom were local civilians. At first the vehicle was a Landrover, then it descended to a Jeep and finally the small van known as a PU.
All the regular recipients were in and around the centre of the city. Jack taught me to refer to each office by its location, so for instance, when going to the office of the RNLO, I would tell the driver 'Lloyd Triestino' and he would drive me to the palace on the corner of the Piazza dell'Unita. There were one or two rare variants. On one occasion I delivered to a(n) RN cruiser moored at the passenger jetty opposite the piazza. Another single visit was to an office at Passeggio Sant'Andrea 23. We went to the New Port area and drove up and down the Passeggio a few times but could find no number 23 or anything near it. My driver then stopped and asked someone and we learned that when the New Port was constructed, it cut into the Passeggio creating two unconnected sections. No.23 was in the other section and we had to go into the very cente of Trieste and out again to reach it. I seem to remember that no.23 was almost isolated and the area round about it relatively bare of buildings. By 1986, this had been reversed; the buildings seemed to be relatively bare of space about them.
About a month after our arrival, Robin, Tom and myself were set a short test. I remember only the first question, "Who is Josip Broz?" Because I did not know the answer then, I have never forgotten since that he was Tito. We all passed the test and each was awarded two stripes.
I believe that we were entitled to one 48-hour pass per month. During my time in TSO, I took advantage of this only once. I was by no means alone in this. The actual occupants of both the corporals' and sergeants' messes were National Servicemen with only one or two regulars, like David Caswell, who had signed on for three years. All the other regulars were married and lived with their families in married quarters. This circumstance combined with our being virtually isolated from all other BETFOR units and our situation near the very centre of Trieste allowed our entitlement to slip from our minds. Life was vry congenial and the occasional duty, on the floor above, not much of a burden.
Soon after Robin, Tom and I were made up to corporals. The Army Welfare Unit arranged weekend visits to Venice. We took advantage of this and were joined by three or four North Staffs. privates. Somehow, I was elected i/c although I suspect that Tom's army number was lower than mine (Robin's was 16 higher). We tavelled by train in uniform, which made passports unnecessary. On arrival, we were met by a guide who took us to the pensione where we were to stay. It was near Santa Mada della Salute, on Giudecca. There, we changed into civilian clothes and would not resume our uniforms until it was time to return to Trieste. During part of the next two days, the guide took us to St. Marks, the Doges' Palace and other places of interest including Ca' Rezzonrco, where Robert Browning died. On one of our 'free' periods, we went across to the Lido but I was not much impressed by it.
The AWU also had a box for some performances at the Teatro Verdi. This was advertised on the BFN (British Forces Network) and applications were invited from interested groups in units. A group would be selected by lot to have the use of the box for a particular performance. A group from TSO, about six of us, I think, were fortunate on two occasions, both in the following year, 1953, although we were the first to be picked on only one of these. This was for a performance of 'La Traviata' in which Renata Tebaldi sang Violetta. On the other occasion, we had been selected as reserve but the unfortunate winners could not attend as they were put on duty that evening. I have aalways suspected that this was a piece of malevolence by a senior NCO responsible for organising duties. The performance they missed and we enjoyed, was by a British touring ballet company whose principal ballerina was Mona Ingoldsby (but billed, for Italian reasons, as Monica).
The Americans also had their own local radio station (AFN, of course). The building above our garage was occupied by a detachment of the US military police. Their windows above the yard between the buildings faced north so that, unshuttered, they could be kept wide open in summer. It was therefore not difficult to hear AFN broadcasts.
We became over-familiar with 'The Blue Tango' and with the news provided by 'AP, UP and INS'. The US troops were constantly being exhorted to relax.
Our windows which overlooked the yard, of course, faced south. So, in summer they too were kept wide open during the day. They were doubled and both opened inwards to enable the wooden shutters outside to be closed. The louvres were adjusted to let in some light and restrict some of the sun's heat. There were occasional heavy storms
resulting in a torrent of water running down the Via del Coroneo. In summer, they did not last long and soon after the sun resumed its sway, there was no evidence of the storm's visit. Thunderstorms at night provided an almost constant flickering light as the lightning played on the tops of the surrounding hills.
The summer of 1953 was not as good as that of the previous year. However, our unit did play some cricket against other army units. Somehow, TSO had acquired three wicketkeepers. One match, played on tarmac (a parade ground at Rossetti barracks?) to which I, accompanied by Geoff Simmons and Mike Wood, went as scorer, we had only ten players in the team. I now have no idea how this had happened. Our ninth wicket fell at the end of an over and I was elected our 11th man. I stopped scoring, literally. The end I went to was, of course, now the non-striker's. The first ball of the next over bowled David Piper. We had batted frst, so we had the disadvantage of one poor fielder in our eleven. We lost.
In the late summer or early autumn of 1952,we had a change of OC. Major Romilly was succeeded by Major Tom Carew. An early installation in his office was a small glass tank complete with water and two goldfish. However, night alone in the office seemed to give the fish an ambition to explore the office by flight. A daily succession of dead fish on the floor led to the tank's disappearance. Instead, he later acquired a small dog, although there was a rumour that the dog had adopted him.
In the flrst week of December, Part I Orders were posted ordering four of us to report to 'Q' Movements for our return to Maresfield for demobilisation. Ian Murdoch and Tom Strang, on the grounds that they had been temporary acting sergeants for less than six months, demoted themselves to corporal. This was to avoid all possibility of being made Orderly Sergeant for a week at the depot.
Before our departure, a meeting of the Sergeants' Mess was held to determine, amongst other things, who should replace Ian Murdoch and myself in our bar appointments. Schilizzi, who presumably found Part I Orders insufficiently interesting to read, proposed that I continue in my role (whatever it was). I thanked him for his kind words but pointed out that I would not be able to carry out the duties (whatever they were) so would have to decline the nomination.
In compensation for the loss of that office, I was, as I feared, made Orderly Sergeant the morning after we reached the Iintelligence Corps Depot at Maresfield. The RSM was a WO I from the Irish Guards (was his name Miller?). He thought that the stripes on my sleeves were a little too low and ordered me to correct this. So I wore the other BD instead.
The week ran from Wednesday to Wednesday, the orderly Sergeant being distinguished by a red sash. He had his own small office, complete wlth bed and bedding. He ate at the Sergeants' Mess where the food was dreadful. One of the duties was to visit the ORs' mess at mealtimes to receive any complaints about their food, which was in fact considerably better.
On the last Wednesday, I was as usual in the ORs' mess at breakfast time when the Signals Regiment Orlderly Sergeant (there was a Signals detachment also based at Maresfield) suggested that perhaps I ought to have been outside calling the roll for the NCOs' parade. I had completely forgotten this, the Orderly Sergeant's last task of his week. Looking out of the window, I agreed with him but said it was now too late to do anything about it. In any event I had no roll of names to call from. No-one, not even the formidable RSM said anything about this to me. If it had been mentioned, I thought of saying that probably everybody else who should have been present was there because no-one, including myself, could have known previously that I would not be.
After breakfast the next morning we were taken to Uckfield station. On boarding the train, we from TSO had a compartment to ourselves. My companions then
began to talk about the interviews they had had with the Depot's OC, still Major Wilkins.
He had tried to persuade each of them to stay on in the Army. I listened to them, quietly amused. They then asked me about my interview. I had not had one; Major Willins evidently thought that the Army would be well rid of the incompetent national serviceman.