Rheindalen, a great sprawling British military garrison. Headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine and home to thousands of soldiers, their wives and children. And within fairly short distances from the garrison, massive Royal Air Force bases humming with technology, bristling with weapons and with armed fighter and bomber jets on permanent standby to launch strikes against the soviets. And dozens of military bases with enormous stockpiles of vehicles, ammunition, weapons including nuclear weapons, all supplying armed to the teeth Divisions of infantry, regiments of tanks and batteries of artillery.
By the early 1950’s, when the British military presence in Germany had changed from that of being a victorious army of occupation into a welcomed NATO defender of the Western way of democracy, it was decided that all those troops and military, with their wives and families needed schools for the rapidly expanding number of British children. So it was, that in Rheindalen, was established a brand spanking new secondary modern school for children over 11, the Queens School, set in pleasant woodlands on the edge of the great garrison.
It was, in my day, late ‘50’s/early 60’s, a straightforward garrison school, designed for the children of other ranks, and having as its mission the desire to turn them into, well, other ranks. Most of the officer’s children had grants (and the ancillary income) to attend posh boarding schools in England. The Officers married quarters around the garrison and the military bases were a bit notable for the lack of children during term times. Secondary Modern schools like Queens, were of course intended to take those who did not pass the 11 plus exam or those who only just made it. And of course we all knew, sure we did, that officers children, in those days, were always much brighter than the children of other ranks.
A central feature of life at the school was the Combined Cadet Force. With virtually every boy in the school being the son of a serviceman then this was hardly surprising. Each Wednesday we travelled to school from the towns and villages and married quarter complexes around the Garrison, in ill-fitting battle dress Army Uniforms. Boys from the RAF bases came in ill-fitting RAF uniforms and each classroom looked slightly more like a military barrack room.
In the basement of the school, next to the caretakers room and adjacent to the school boilers was the school armoury. Stuffed with rows of serious and lethal weapons, which were issued out to the boys at about 2.30 each Wednesday, whereupon the boys would march up and down the school playground saluting each other, with self-selected teachers dressed up as officers, shouting Orders.
From time to time the boys would don steel helmets and patrol through the woodlands, camouflaged and with fixed bayonets, searching for soviet enemies and learning all the soldiery skills of killing. Oh it was such fun! There were trips out to the vast military training grounds in Northern Germany to see how real soldiers lived. We had the chance to play with the big guns and pretend to be real soldiers. And out in the wilds of RAF Bruggen, on the Dutch Border, we would spend a couple of weeks fighting carefully planned battles with blank ammunition, assaults, charges, capturing each other prisoner, eating army rations and living in trenches under the German moonlight.
Of course we had a great advantage over English based cadet forces in that we were living in and around one of the most important military complexes in the world. We thus had access to units and equipment unheard of in England. And we were constantly encouraged in our military endeavours by visits from the Generals who peopled the nearby NATO headquarters. Thus there would be British Generals, Canadian Generals, American Generals, Dutch Generals all would come and smile at us and inspect us on parade in the school playground. And of course there would be visiting politicians looking for a good photo opportunity and anxious to show the military their appreciation of soldier’s families.
And so it was that we were exposed to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for War, John Profumo. He came to Queens to review and inspect the massed armed ranks of the school’s combined cadet force. I was there!
Now Profumo, while not exactly a spy for the Soviet Union, was careless and feckless and thereby betrayed his country and his people. We were not to know this at the time. Nor did anyone else really. But it was all published in the papers, the News of the World and the Daily Mirror in particular.
And then we knew.
We knew that we had diced with danger. There was a photograph of his girlfriend, Christine Keelor, I didn’t quite understand it at the time, didn’t fully appreciate its erotic potential, just thought she had a strange way of sitting on a chair. She it was to whom he whispered the Ministry’s secrets and she it was who passed on the secrets to her Soviet lover, a full KGB colonel.
Profumo reviewed the young warriors of Queens on one of our Wednesday afternoon military days. We paraded on the school playground. There was a military band from one of the garrison regiments playing suitably martial music , parents and teachers lined the edge of the parade/playground as we stood smartly to attention as he moved along our military lines accompanied by various Generals and a few teachers dressed up as officers. He actually spoke to me!
“And what does your father do young man?” He asked
“He’s a soldier sir” I snapped back in my fiercest 12 year old voice.
“Just like you then” he said and patted me on the shoulder and moved on down the line with his accompanying Generals, all smiling and chuckling at his wit and obvious rapport with the heavily armed schoolboys.
I have no doubt that later that evening he whispered into Christine’s ear as she sat awkwardly on that funny chair, and told her all about us. No doubt we were betrayed. We can be confident that shortly afterwards the school’s armoury appeared on Moscow’s war maps, earmarked and targeted for Soviet air-strikes. And for sure, the advance elements of Soviet invasion forces were warned to avoid Queen’s school because of its massed, heavily armed, well trained fanatical youth movement. Especially on Wednesdays.
It took me many years to get over the betrayal. It hurt, damaged my development as a fully rounded member of society. If you can’t trust the Secretary of State for War, then who the hell can you trust?
It was probably that incident, and my inherent sensitivity, that so traumatised me that I became one of the more difficult pupils of the school. This was sharply manifested in my epic confrontation with the headmaster Mr. Aspinall
There was a school tuck shop. It sold sweets and ice cream and other nutritious healthy educational treats for the always starving kids. Profits went to buy sports equipment or perhaps ammunition for the CCF guns. Anyway there was always a queue and if you were still in it when the bell went then hard luck, you had to answer the bell and return to the classrooms without delay. On the fatal, hot summer day, I had just bought and paid for a cooling nutritious ice cream, when the bell rang summoning us back to the books. I took the view that the tuck shop really shouldn’t sell ice creams so close to the bell. It was unfair. An infringement of my Human Rights. As the profit of my purchase was going to the school I thought it entirely reasonable that I should take and finish the cooling confection in the class room.
This was considered behaviour of the very worst kind. Just what you would expect of the son of a corporal or of those bloody other-ranks. It was much worse than the betrayal by Profumo. I half expected to be taken out and shot by a firing squad from the CCF. Instead I was frog marched to the headmaster’s study, subjected to an arbitrary trial and sentenced to be caned, six strokes, to be delivered with immediate effect, before the ice-cream even had time to melt.
But after Profumo, my respect for my elders was gone. I refused to submit. I REFUSED TO TAKE THE PUNISHMENT!. This was un-heard of. I reasoned that I was making a stand for tuck shop consumers, a stand that would echo through the ages. I may lose thought I, but the wounds that would be inflicted by the brutal strokes would be remembered, in tuck shop queues, in schools across the world, from this day until the end of time.
My father was summoned to persuade me to take the belting. He came with all the deference that other ranks have for their betters. He called the teachers “Sir”. It wasn’t that he was particularly deferential. That was the way then. Teachers expected to be called Sir by other rank parents. Teachers were honorary officers and socialised in the Garrison Officers clubs. They mixed with captains and colonels, dined with Brigadiers. They were accustomed to deference.
Of course my rebellion could not survive the combined pressure from headmaster and parents or the betrayal of Profumo. The stick was wielded with particular ferocity and dug deep into my rebellious bum.
WHACK you will not WHACK eat WHACK ice-cream WHACK in WHACK my WHACK classrooms WHACK
It took me many years to forgive what happened. The physical scars faded fairly quickly but I carried the mental scars for the rest of my life. Still do. I left the school as thick as two short planks. Not only did I not have any GCE’s I didn’t even know what a GCE was. I became a professional rebel, becoming an active trade union organiser, often comparing my members to metaphorical tuck shop victims. It was the trade union movement that enabled me to truly recognise the value of education and take some serious steps to remedy the disastrous years at Queens.
It was only in my late forties that I finally came to terms with the Profumo affair. I realised that it was not Profumo who betrayed me. It was that bloody school.