The little sods from the !st Monchen Gladbach Scout Troop

scouts-threeIt must have been the summer of 1961. Certainly before the Beatles. The music that year was all Dean Martin and the Drifters, or itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini.* And I recall being in love with a girl in the 4th form at Queens’s school in Rheindalen, Carol, and constantly singing a song to her called “Oh Carol”.** And there was Elvis of course. Anyway, I was in the boy scouts then. Moved on I had from the cubs, left behind all that Akela and dib dib, dib, dob, dob, dob stuff. Cubs had sixers in charge. I had been a sixer when a cub. Born to command I was. Now, in that summer of ’61, I had graduated to the scouts and I was quickly made a Patrol leader. Sometimes I even wore long trousers.

They would meet once a week, Wednesday evening, in St. Georges School in Monchen Gladbach. It was set within the perimeter of Ayrshire barracks,  a huge British military vehicle depot with acres and acres and acres of military Lorries and armoured vehicles and jeeps, motorcycles and trucks of all sorts and sizes, all kept in a high state of readiness for a possible soviet invasion. The school building was possibly the oldest building left in post war Monchen Gladbachscouts-school. It had a chapel at the very top where we would go for Mass on a Sunday, presided over by an elderly Dutch Priest shipped in from Venlo. He had very little English and conducted the Mass in Latin with a Dutch accent. It was an endurance test those masses. No joy, no reflection. Nothing. The school was on the next two floors below. Headmaster was a Mr. Denton. He would laugh a lot, always telling stories and encouraging the children to do the same, he delighted in their company, believed in them. He was perhaps more important a teacher than all those that followed in the fractured educational experience that came the way of service children. He had a gorgeous daughter, Valerie, with whom all the boys were in love. The scouts and cubs met in the basement which was a vast beautifully vaulted space of columns and arches.

We would be taken there in army Volkswagen cars or vans of which the authorities had an inexhaustible store of, and would go out their way to provide them for service families. They were driven by ex-Wehrmacht German soldiers. They still wore they field grey or was it green uniforms and caps. Without, of course the SS flashes or Iron crosses or indeed any insignia or badges at all. They looked rather scruffy and forlorn. Defeated. The Volkswagens would tour the estates of married quarter’s and pick up the children of the service families, convey them to scouts and take them back home afterwards.
We wore a badge on our left shoulder, or perhaps our breast pocket.scouts-badge The same regional badge as the regular army. A Saxon war- axe, which we were told, was modeled on a real axe found by archaeologists when the British Army was building its headquarters up the road in Rheindalen.

Perhaps supervision was a bit of a problem. We found in the vast vaulted basement a large stock of red paint. It was, I think, for painting fire engines. We painted all the vaulted ceilings, the arches and columns in bright red. Even the floor. And possibly a boy scout or two. We were very proud of our extensive work and achievement and reasonably expected to get a painting & decorating “proficiency” badge to wear with our uniforms. Merit badges the Americans call them. But things didn’t quite work out. I was demoted from Patrol leader, busted to simple rank and file boy scout. A rather bitter blow, from which, to be honest, I have never quite gotten over. Thereafter we met in an old Nissan hut and never again graced St. George’s School.

Each summer, and sometimes at Easter, we would go camping. Oh what fun! We camped once at a seaside resort in Holland. We made quite an impression and If there had been a merit badge for shoplifting we would all surely have got it. And we camped up in Paderborn in the mountains. But the place I remember best of all was the forests and hills above the Royal Air Force base at Bruggen near the Dutch boarder.
The tents were of rough green canvas. Six person tents, or in those days, six man tents. scouts-tentsBut you could get eight boy scouts in a six man tent. They would be sited in neat rows and between the rows there were two or three campfires which were kept burning all day and night and upon which we cooked sausages. Lots of sausages. And beans. Lots of beans. And occasionally a fried egg ala twigs. They were set in a valley, the tents, and up at the top of the valley was a wooden hut, about two kilometers away, which served as a tuck shop. One or two afternoons a week a volunteer from the RAF Bruggen scout troop would open the hut to sell confectionery to visiting scout troops, who came to camp from all over the British Army of the Rhine area.

The hut was in truth,  a very tempting target. And we boys, with more merit badges than common sense, highly trained in field craft and rather partial to confectionery decided to raid the tuck shop hut and liberate some of the sweets therein. It was done with military precision. Lookouts posted at strategic positions to warn of any approaching adults. The warning was to be an owl hooting. Terwit terwoo, terwit terwoo. (bird impersonation/merit badge) We had swag sacks to carry away the loot, in reality the sacks that the tent pegs and mallets were stored. There was a signalling system set up with torches. (Morse code/merit badge) The simple lock on the door was prised open with a wood cutters axe. (woodcutting/merit badge)  And suddenly, we were surrounded by all kinds of boxes of sweets.

The sweets and confectionery were divided on a strict basis of equality. Packets of spangles and refreshers, liquorice pipes, scouts-pipessweet cigarettes, Pontefract cakes, Chewits, scouts-cakesImperial mints, wine gums and pastilles,scouts-spangles-2 all religiously distributed regardless of rank age and I suppose, although it didn’t quite figure in our then underdeveloped minds, sexual orientation, there was no merit badge for sexual orientation, although had there been a badge for the philosophy of equality we would all have surely qualified. I might mention the crisps. Two boxes of packets of crisps held in the hut were found, upon being tested, to be not fit for purpose. The crispiness had gone out of them and the little blue bags of salt were a bit damp. Crisp packet technology was not very advanced in those days. We left the crisps behind.

It was late in the afternoon the next day that the RAF Bruggen volunteer tuck shop man was observed approaching the hut (observer/merit badge). He was seen in an agitated condition and shortly afterwards left, only to return sometime later with a landrover following his vehicle in which there were three RAF military policemen. Snowdrops they were called. Now it wasn’t of course the crime of the century and it didn’t need a Sherlock Homes of the Snowdrops to work out who had committed the offence. A wooden hut in the middle of nowhere. Nobody around for a twenty-mile radius except for the green tents of the 1st Monchen Gladbach scout encampment, some two kilometers down the valley. Towards the late afternoon the three snowdrops and the tuck shop hut man began to walk down the valley towards the tents.
We had an early warning system in place with camouflaged observers watching their advance. (camouflage/merit badge) The wooded valley, rather suddenly, filled with the hoots of owls as a mild panic set in amongst the hardy boy-scouts as they desperately attempted to destroy all possible evidence. One of the campfires suddenly burst into fiery life as various packets of sweets were fed to its flames. Some tried to scoff the evidence. I tried, in fact I succeeded, in scoffing a whole box of Pontefract cakes, an act I was later to regret on the primitive latrines of the forested campsite. I recall another of the patrol leaders with a mouth full of sweet cigarettes. By the time the snowdrops special investigation team reached the tents they found a sizable group of scouts gathered around a suspiciously blazing campfire vigorously singing “Ging gang goolle goolie whatcha” with  a rather over the top exaggerated emphasis on the chorus “Shally wally, shally wally, shally wally, shally wally,Oompah, oompah, oompah.” ***
But it was to no avail, they were not impressed. The snowdrops found abundant evidence of the looting. Scouts had pockets full of chewits and spangles wrappers. There were liquorice pipes hidden under pillows and one of our swag bags stuffed with fruit and nu bars and milky ways, tied with a reef knot and a woggle was discovered hoisted half way up a tree. (knot tying/merit badge)
For some reason the German police were not called in. Perhaps because it was Ministry of Defence Property, or was it War Department in those days? Was there a jurisdictional problem, or did they just want to cover it up and avoid all the embarrassment of misbehaving British boy scouts. There was certainly consequences. Reparations had to be made. We had all been told to bring to the camp at least 15 shillings’ pocket money. We scouts-5-bobhad to hand it all over, any shortfall being made up from scout troop scout-10-shillingfunds. And in fairness, they recovered a fair amount of the loot.
Our parents were informed and several scouts, including myself were expelled from the troop and were never again to be allowed to participate in scouting activities. But there were no prosecutions, no arrests, just the eternal shame of it all.   I regret it. Of course I do. I have never again, in all the years since that summer of ’61, never again, sat by a campfire, beneath the stars, the smell of wood-smoke drifting upwards to the open skies, mixed with the odor of burnt sausages, and the scout master strumming his guitar, sitting in the companionship of the best friends you will ever have and singing late and softly into the night, the immortal words of Lord Baden Powell:   Ging,gang,goolie, goolie, whtcha, ging,gang,goo, ging gang goo. ging gang goolie, goolie, goolie watcha, ging, gang goo…… 

Note:  They don’t write lyrics like that anymore::  http://bit.ly/18TKrlJ

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The night I met Elvis…

A site that I occasionally visit, where I can chat to old comrades and veterans with whom I use to serve, asked contributors to set out their “claims to fame”   After some thought I penned the following piece.

That’s a tough question and deserves a bit more consideration than you would give it on a flying and brief visit to the site. So I’ve been thinking about it….

It could be my exemplary war service with the fabled laundry and bath unit in Borneo ( http://bit.ly/1y5Taww ), or perhaps the occasion when as a young schoolboy cadet I met and spoke with the Secretary of State for War, Sir John Profumo ( http://bit.ly/1qQoOJ9 ) And I should not discount the experience of sharing a crap with a four star American general in Thailand ( http://bit.ly/1m7T3ey ).

However, after giving the matter my most careful consideration and going back over all the illustrious events of my chequered military career then I will have to say that it can only be the quite extraordinary experience of meeting with, and talking to….. Elvis Presley. Yeh, I had a conversation with the King.

Elvis

This is not a story that I tell too often because it so extraordinary that people have a tendency not to believe me. They mock me about the truth of the tale and suggest I am swinging the lamp. . But I have to say that if Elvis was still alive today, then he would remember the conversation, he might not remember me – I would concede that, , but he would remember the exchange between us all right, and would confirm to all those doubters out there, that what I am about to tell you is the gospel truth.

I was a young soldier, straight out of training depot and stationed in Germany, at Rheindalen, where I was a minor clerk in the great and sprawling military Joint Headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I was a nobody really, just an anonymous squaddie delivering mail from one office to the next, making tea and coffee, transporting secret documents from here to there. Saluting generals, of which, I might add, there was a great abundance and from all kinds of armies and air forces and navy’s. Indeed there were days in Rheindalen where you would walk around  the great Joint Head Quarters  with your right arm in a permanent salute position,  and think it was perfectly normal to do so.  Life was fairly dull with the occasional respite found in bratwurst and chips (served with mayonnaise!) and fine German beers.

The day came when I was asked to courier some secret documents to an American Army base in Frankfurt. They consisted of a stack of operating and maintenance manuals for a new tank being introduced to British armoured regiments on the Great Plains of northern Germany. Three of us were sent with the documents, travelling in a long wheel base land rover,  down the autobahns to Frankfurt. It was a great treat really, getting away from the dull routine of JHQ, seeing a bit of Germany, having a few beers in Frankfurt, no officers to salute.

Anyway we travelled down across the autobahns at the highest speed we could possibly get out of the old long base, down  to this massive American army base just south of Frankfurt city, and delivered our cargo of manuals to the nominated American officer. We were to stay in the base overnight and travel back up to Rheindalen the following morning. They put us into a transit billet and we dined, I recall the Americans called it chow, in one of the many cookhouses on the huge and sprawling  base. Most of the American soldiers were national servicemen, from armoured units, and we were made most welcome with a lot of comparing each other’s badges and uniforms and so on.  Of course they loved our English accents.

That night, at the American servicemen’s club on the base, there was a concert performance by no less a star than the great king himself, Elvis Presley. Because of course, as we all know, Elvis had himself been drafted into the military. And posted to Germany. The American generals had got him to do a series of concerts to entertain the troops across their European bases. And we had struck it lucky. An exclusive, all to ourselves, Elvis concert.

We were given a small  table with three seats, fairly close to the stage. There were hundreds of American soldiers sitting all over the place, on the floor of the dance space, crowed at the tables, standing on the windowsills, standing on the bar. It was jam packed and the German beer was flowing copiously.

Elvis came on to a truly rapturous reception. The drafted soldiers loved it that he was here, and for all his fame and glory, he was one of them. And he loved it too. He was in uniform; we were all in uniform, and we shared the experience in great joy and cheering. He looked incredibly smart and fit in his uniform. His hair was cut short in the American army way but he was still glowing with star quality. He brought on his backing group and introduced them one by one. They were musicians from the American Air Force band, four of them with a couple of big black guys who would provide the harmony to his songs.

And he went straight into the songs beginning with a piece that had a few German words in it “I don’t have a wooden heart” Then it was “Return to sender – address unknown” and “Heartbreak hotel” followed by “jailhouse rock” and “Blue suede shoes“. The place was rocking!  A couple of G.I.’s got up and started jiving on the stage next to Elvis and he loved it.  They were all drafted G.I.’s and were having the time of their lives.

He had a fine sweat on him and had undone the tie of his uniform and opened the tunic jacket. He hit us with “From a jack to a king” and with “It’s now or never”. He was looking fairly exhausted when he called on the band to go and have a beer. leaving him alone on the stage.  He sat on a stool, just Elvis and an acoustic guitar, in a spotlight, alone with his soldiers. And he talked to his people, how he loved being in the army, how he loved them all and knew they were, like him, a long way from home.  Asked if anyone was from Tennessee and  gave them all the love from Memphis.   He would sing them a ballad, “for all you lonely guys out there, especially the guys from Tennessee”

And he began to sing. It was “Are you lonesome tonight” which is possibly the finest ballad he ever recorded.  There was complete and utter silence in the room as all we lonely soldiers savoured the magic of the moment.

Now if you know the song at all you will know that about half way through Elvis stops singing and starts talking the song, like a poem, still strumming the acoustic guitar, but talking to his audience, with his deep throaty southern drawl,  about the intense meaning of the words of the song.

I wonder, if you’re feeling lonesome tonight, ya know, someone, somewhere, wrote that all the worlds a stage, and upon it we must play our part…”

I stuck my hand up and shouted “Shakespeare!”.

He stopped playing the guitar and looked out into the audience in total disbelief that he had been interrupted. You could see he was bristling with anger and a hostile murmur came from the American soldiers seated around us. Elvis was staring out in anger trying to identify where the interruption came from. I still had my hand up and waved it.

“Hi Elvis” I shouted, “it was Shakespeare.., all the worlds a stage.., it was Shakespeare what wrote it..”

He looked down at the floor in front of him and I could tell he was steaming with anger. He stared hard at the floor for what seemed like ages and the room went menacingly quiet. There was total silence except for the heavy angry amplified breathing of Elvis.

Finally he looked up at our table. And he pointed at me, with his right arm. I remember to this day that he was wearing a horseshoe shaped diamond ring on the finger that was pointing at me; I thought it a bit odd that a soldier should be wearing jewellery.

He pointed, and was struggling a little for words. Then he said to me, in his deep southern drawl of a voice

“English soldier, huh, English soldier…yo don’t interrupt, you don’t interrupt me when I’m singing my songs, yo understand?”

“An tell me this English soldier, who the fuck is Shakespeare?”

The song itself:

Queens School Rheindalen and the Profumo Affair

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.   Queens school badgeSo 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.  playll-cadets 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.   download   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,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.