NRP Military Service 1948-49 | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

NRP Military Service 1948-49

Hi all,

My grandfather did his military service in Hong Kong, 1948-49, and although sadly he was not able to return to visit before he passed, he always told us stories of the place and his times here.

I inherrited his photo album of these two years, and have uploaded the photos below. These are scans of each page, if people are interested I can upload higher resolution scans of each individual photo.

I only realized recently that the photos of drills in October 1949 would have been the British army preparing for potential invasion by the PLA. He was stationed on the hills overlooking the border in mid October when the KMT withdrew and the Communist army took their place over the border.

NRP Military Service 1948-49 Page 001
NRP Military Service 1948-49 Page 001, by Jonathan Jones, Nicholas Roy Phillips
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Forum: 

Thanks very much for sharing your grandfather's photos with us. If you're able to add higher-resolution scans of the individual photos, I'll enjoy seeing them. 

Please could you also tell us about which unit he served in? Sometimes that will lead to comments and questions from families of other men who were here in the same unit.

@jj_hk

I'm very glad indeed that you have uploaded these; in fact, after years of browsing this site, I've registered specifically to contact you. It looks to me as if your father was with 25 Field Regiment R.A. (likely 54-battery, but possibly HQ-battery). My grandfather, Fred Newman, was with this unit (54-bty) from 1948 to 1951 in Hong Kong and Malaya and would very likely have known your father. The names of many of the locations depicted in the photos--Tai Lam, Fanling, Whitfield & The Gun Club--are well-known to me, but you have provided the only images I have seen of many of them.

I have done a considerable amount of research in the unit and would be delighted to hear from you (especially to hear whether my suppositions are right). 

You'll find a sample of what I've been doing here:

http://ww2talk.com/index.php?threads/family-soldiers-1-4th-essex-ww2-25-...

 

Thank you for your comments! Actually it was my Grandfather, not my father, but very interesting to know your grandfather was in the same place at the same time!

At some point many years later he sat down to write his memoirs, this was 50 years later and some of the details may not be accurate, but he talks in quite some detail about his experience. I don't recall he mentioned which unit he was in, but he did mention various details that would probably be enough to identify it. I'll tidy it and post it, and hopefully you'll also find it interesting and perhaps useful in filling in some details in your research!

One snippet from his notes that caught my attention that I'd be particularly interested to know if you heard mentioned anywhere else:

..."Although there was one chap from our regiment who deserted, or went AWOL, and finished up in Shanghai, having scrounged a lift in a trading junk.  He came back while we were still down in Gun Club Hill, did a short spell in the cells, was promoted to bombardier and put in the regimental Police. Anyone with such initiative, plus a smattering of Mandarin, was too valuable a man to loose, I suppose."

I always wondered if this was true, or a just a tall story that got exaggerated over the years! There are some other stories in there, and mention of various names, hopefully it lines up with your research.

Give me some time, I will try and post the first section at the weekend. I'll also sit down and read the thread you shared properly, many thanks for sharing!

JJ

Thank you, and I'll post higher resolution scans, I'll try and post some this weekend when I dig out his memoirs. Happy to see interest!

Apologies about the father/grandfather slip.

I look forward to reading what you can post from his memoirs.

I have the story of the deserter from a relative of the man himself and another member of the unit, though the location in China was Canton. His name was Gnr Raymond James Rose ('Tiger'), and he absconded with a friend from the Catering Corps.

Brief mention here:

https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes1...

I have the reason for their light punishment being that the city had just fallen to the Communists and they were able to give up-to-date information on the situation there.

Thanks again

CF

 

Interesting! My grandfather mentioned that story several times, it's hard to imagine nowadays just wandering off into China, even if it was only up to Canton!

Before I post the first excerpt, I found a small mention elsewhere in his memoirs that you might find interesting:

...The first ‘media exposure’ I remember was in Hong Kong in 1949 when my outfit was filmed by Pathe Gazette, or Gaumont British News, or was it The March of TIME  da da da daaaah? (can’t remember) for screening in cinemas throughout the UK and America to show the world how we gallant soldiers were defending the free world from the menace of international communism.

They filmed some of us slogging our way up a hillside, loaded down with gear, No. 22 wireless sets, rifle etc, with determined faces that showed that the free world was safe in our experienced hands (eighteen and nineteen year-old boys). I wonder if the film still exists in some news or military archive, for I never saw it, of course, being out there far from any English-speaking cinema...

I suspect the film is long lost, I wouldn't even know where to start looking, but I imagine it would be quite interesting viewing if it ever did turn up.

First section of my Grandfather's memoirs from his time in Hong Kong, 1948-9.

I have skipped the early sections talking about basic training as they are less relevant to Hong Kong, but I'll start by posting his impressions of the journey out. I have lightly edited this for readibility, but mostly left things untouched. This includes parts that might be taken as offensive, or at least not "politically correct" as I believe it better to retain the flavours of the time than try to whitewash things later. No deliberate offense is intended to anyone, living or dead, by either the author or by myself.

I'm not sure when exactly he wrote this, but it would have been after 2000, so at least 50 years after the events described - I will leave it to readers to judge how much detail is accurately remembered. Note that my Grandfather was a keen birdwatcher throughout his life, so frequently notes and descriptions of birds pop up in his memoirs. I have left these intact for flavour, and because I suspect they're the most accurately remembered parts!

Thinking it would be an opportunity to see bit of the world, I had volunteered for ‘overseas posting’ before going on my one and only leave, which turned out to be embarkation leave. I was given my posting: report to Woolwich Barracks prior to being sent to Malaya.  Shit, I thought, by overseas posting I meant somewhere in the south of France or on the banks of the Rhine with lots of girls and wine of the region or the equivalent thereof.  It was wine women and  song I wanted, as any soldier should. I doubt if I’d tasted much wine at that time, hadn’t had much taste of women, and I couldn’t sing either.

Woolwich barracks, long the home of the ‘Gunners’ ,i.e. the artillery, was like a Victorian prison. Green and cream paint, primitive toilets, cold water, cold rooms and damp beds -  the only good thing was the food. A regimental sergeant major, presumably from the catering corps, stood in command of the cookhouse and canteen ensuring that the food was properly cooked, properly served and there was no waste. Every man could  load his plate with as much as he wished when the meal was served up. But to waste any was to be put on a charge. I went up for second helpings of some delicious pudding. ‘You can have rice’ the RSM said. I said I didn’t like rice.  ‘You’re not hungry lad’.  Ah well! We were only there a few days before going to embark at Southampton docks.

We were given a splendid send off from Southampton. We few gunners were to be accompanied on the voyage by no less a prestigious outfit than the Queen’s Own Fourth Hussars, a crack cavalry regiment whose commander in chief was none other than the great Winston Churchill himself. There was a pipe band of the Ghurkhas to see us off and speeches from some big-wig on the dock. There were troops of journalists and photographers to ensure that the whole episode received maximum publicity for the brave soldiers going off to repel the communist menace in Malaya.  I thought our lot were a bit ill-equipped with fighting skills, having fired only ten rounds with the old Lee Enfield .303 rifle. We had taken sten guns to bits and put them back, more or less in the right manner, ("Today, we will have naming of parts!")  but I did wonder how the recruits who had forced those bits of disparate electrical plugs and things together would manage with a bren gun. Would they somehow blend bren and sten to manufacture a new weapon with the simplicity of one and the efficiency of the other?

We left in the summer, I think it was late August, and hit a gale in the Bay of Biscay.  I have never seen so much spew. The decks were awash with it, I think everybody on that ship except me was as sick as a parrot. All calmed down when we passed though the straits of Gibraltar and training was resumed. For our lot it meant PT every morning to keep us fit, and not much else. It was a very nice way of spending five weeks to reach Malaya.  There was not a lot of space for marching drill on the deck of a troopship, but I was a bit surprised to see the Hussars being taught how to dismember sten guns. It seemed they had had even less training than us. It probably didn’t matter, for it’s difficult to simulate jungle warfare on Salisbury plain, it would have to be done out there under real conditions.  I couldn’t see how twenty five pounder field guns, together with a limber full of ammunition, towed by trucks, would be much use in thick jungle either.

It was in the Mediterranean that I saw my first Hoopoe.  It settled briefly on the ship before carrying on to Africa.  More surprising was a Long-tailed Skua that passed along the port side somewhere near the island of Pantelleria . I had no idea what it was, but wrote a description in my diary (now lost)  and identified it from books when I came back home.  The ship stopped at Port Said, where we were not allowed ashore, but could purchase all manner of things from the bum-boats that came alongside.  They were offering Spanish fly and dirty postcards. Honest, although the Spanish fly was probably no more than a bit of red ink and the dirty postcards hardly likely to rouse the ardour of a frustrated monk.  Then down through Suez canal, where some fellaheen, to rousing cheers from aboard ship, waved their circumcised but normal-sized cocks at the few ATS women aboard.  Off Aden, where we bunkered up with I didn’t know what, I didn’t think it could be water from that parched, inhospitable land, I saw a camel train, laden down with huge packs across their backs, moving off towards the hills on the horizon. Where could they be going?  What remote and thirsty landscape awaited them beyond the dusty haze. I could not imagine travelling in such a land.  There were bum-boats here too, but with fruit and dates to sell.  Few bought them, fearing all kinds of contamination, I think.  A bum-boat, a small canoe-like craft with two men aboard, came under the stern, where I was looking ashore and, with the agility of a monkey one man climbed the mooring rope and came aboard. Seconds later a large bag of something, grain I assumed, was lowered down into the little craft, followed by the man back down the rope and they paddled off.  It was so quick, so skilfully done that I could not but admire their audacity but believe they must have done it many times, and with help from aboard ship unless they were familiar with all its decks and holds, which was not likely.

Passing down through the placid Indian ocean, under the hot sun with flying fishes gliding at the bow, or under a black, star-studded sky to the tune of a mouth organ, well played, was  an experience people pay thousands for.  I was afraid they might start boxing matches again, especially after some of the men said I looked like a boxer, and was quick on my feet. This after a minor fracas with a belligerent Irish Liverpudlian looking for a fight. For the less aggressive, there were evening concerts in the fore well-deck, when people would get up on the battened-down hatches and do a turn, some bad, some very good. There were, as always, blokes in drag, singers of the latest songs, and the inevitable mouth organs, harmonicas I should say. One warm night, when the swell was just a gentle roll, glistening in the moonlight,  this officer got up. Not many officers were prepared to do it, I mean stand up there and perform before the other ranks. His posh voice was incongruous there among so many working class accents of poorly educated boys who’d left school at fourteen.  He was probably a conscript too, but one who had deferred his service until he had graduated from college. He was, however, a brave man.
He stood up on the hatch. ‘I’ he said, ‘am going to recite some poems.’
You can imagine how this was greeted, but he was an officer, so nobody said anything likely to put them on a charge.
‘If you don’t like them it will be because I have not read them properly,’  he went on.  ‘They are very good poems,’
He began to recite Kipling. ‘Women …..    ‘’’’’’’  Gunga Din,  ……. and  …  There’s a little yellow idol……
Soon, apart from his melodious voice, there was absolute silence except for the slight throb of the engines and the bow wave swishing against the ship’s sides, He had us enthralled and when he finished the recitations the silence was followed by a rousing cheer and loud applause. . Perhaps he became an actor, he certainly had the voice for it, but that performance was one I’ve never forgotten. If I had known his name it may have been one among the few that I can remember.

The ship stopped again in Colombo, in what was then Ceylon, where we were threatened by bootblacks and, provided we paid a small deposit before they went off to fetch them, offered the sisters of young men and boys who accosted us as we stepped ashore. There’s no doubt that the sight of military personnel brings out the worst in people, but I have to say that some men fell for it, never, of course, to see brother or cash again. They deserved to lose every penny for being so dim.

Going down the Malacca Straits, past its white beaches and numerous palm-fringed islands, with thick jungle rising to the distant hills, I thought it the most beautiful coastline in the world, and longed to go ashore there and explore it, to see what gorgeous birds might be found among such exotic surroundings.  We were expecting to be sent into that jungle with other intent, however. It was hard to believe that such a country could be the scene of  bloody warfare. Next stop was Singapore, where we watched the Hussars disembark to the welcoming skirl of more bagpipes, this time from a Scottish regiment, and march off towards the jungle. They had a pretty tough job up there, and not all of them came back.  We had been expecting to follow them, but by then our unit was under new orders.  We were to continue on to Hong Kong, towards which borders the battle-hardened armies of Mao Tse Tung were marching inexorably on.

 Before reaching our destination there was one more maritime ordeal, in the form of a typhoon in the China sea.  All hands were confined below decks, but by this time, after nearly six weeks afloat, had found their sea-legs and there was very little sickness. We disembarked and lined up on the dock, where we were given a briefing by some top brass. The colonel of our regiment was a Colonel Lamont, (no, I didn’t remember his name but found it on the internet) but I don’t think it was him, somebody with a lot more red on his shoulder. The main theme of this discourse was that the Chinese were an untrustworthy lot, a nation of rogues and thieves, who’d cut your throat for a cent, although, a factor in their favour, he said, not as bad as the Indians.  Dead bodies were fished out of the harbour on a daily basis, so always be on your guard etc etc.  This was undoubtedly true of some of them, but it was also undoubtedly true of some of my brothers in arms, as I was to find out. The sad thing is that as a result of all this indoctrination, which I do not deny was essential when among a population that we might in the near future be obliged to kill by the thousand, was that I never got to know a single Chinese as a friend.  Fraternisation was difficult, because of the language barrier, and also covertly discouraged.  It was in the army that I encountered my first acquaintance with racism, not against black people, for there was a black, well, pretty-well black, bloke in out battery. Now, in the army, if your name was White you were known as  ‘chalky’ if Miller then ‘Dusty’, the Irish became paddy, Welsh taffy and so on as in most close-knit institutions. The black bloke was known as ‘darky’, and why not, it made him one of us and his colour forgotten.  No, the racism I encountered was against the Chinese.  I was standing at the counter in  the NAAFI one day, next to a squadie and a Ghurkha, the latter, so I was told, being the only ‘colonial’ troops allowed in there. I heard the squadie call the Chinese behind the counter ‘Johnny’. ’Cup ‘o chai, please, Johnny. ‘  The Ghurkha tapped him on the holder,  ‘Him no Johnny. Me Johnny. Him Wog.’
 

 

 

 

Thank you for going to the trouble of typing it all up. 'We' aren't yet in Hong Kong, but you've already dropped one clue that helps me and confirms that your grandfather was with 25 Field Regiment, R.A.: he mentions Colonel Lamont. Puzzlingly, his name is omitted from the list of Commanding Officers in the semi-official listings, but I've found him mentioned by name in the paperwork for 40 Infantry Division in 1949: Lieutenant Colonel John David Alexander Lamont.

I've typed up a similar multi-page memoir from another member of the regiment (a national serviceman) for the same period. I'm not really able to upload it here as I do not have the authors permission and have since lost contact, but if you were to write to me, I'd be happy to email you a copy to compare with your grandfather's. 

I look forward to future installments as and when you can find time.

CF

 

 

Happy it's of interest to you!

Fortunately the material is all typed up already, but I think he never returned to edit it, so it's a little disjointed. I've tried to keep the editing light but reorganized bits to give a structure - in most cases dates are not provided so I'm just grouping them around topic. I'd defintely be interested in the other serviceman's memoirs, I'll drop you a private message.

Here's another section:

Although I have never been back to see it, the Hong Kong of those days was very different from the Hong Kong of today. The harbour was crammed with beautiful sailing junks, with dark sails and polished timbers. There were whole villages of sampans where people lived their lives in tiny boats. The Star ferry, plying back and forth from mainland Kowloon to Hong Kong island, was a passenger ferry only. There were no skyscrapers. The tallest building was the Bank (of China?), and the usual method of transport through the crowded city was by rickshaw pulled by coolies with the most incredibly large calf muscles. Delivery and carriage of goods was by baskets suspended from a long yoke across the shoulders, necessitating a peculiar rolling gait to enable the load to progress on an even keel, without jarring the shoulders. The coolies, men and women, carried extremely heavy loads by this method, and I found it hard to believe that such tiny, frail-looking people could be so strong.

Up on Victoria peak, which was manly scrub-land still, there were large houses lying in ruins from the bombardment of the Japanese, to remind us of what this city had suffered just a few years ago. Inland, up in the New territories, the people lived in small, walled villages surrounded by rice paddy.
We marched, or were driven in three-ton in lorries, I can’t remember which, up to the barracks, named Gun Club Hill. This seemed to comprise a square with barrack rooms, in two stories with a double flight of stairs meeting at ground level, on opposite sides. One-story Regimental Head Quarters offices and the officer’s mess were at one end, and low buildings, including the office of the most miserable man in the army, the regimental quartermaster sergeant, ‘Q’ at the other. It was a forbidding place, stark and functional, with whitewashed stones and a few miserable plants planted in echelon outside RHQ. I hated it on sight. We were allocated our bunks, all lined up along the barrack rooms, and given time to unpack our kit bags and stow stuff away in the lockers over the bed-heads. 

I was shoving a few of my meagre personal belongings up there when I heard a voice say ‘Yow’ the intimate form of greeting for the Cornish. It was never used to, or by, an Englishman. Sure ‘nuff it was one of we standing there, Christopher (Kit) Andrews, from St.Ives, an old school friend and fellow member of the youth club. What a relief to hear his voice. Being a couple of years older than me, his time in the army, and Hong Kong, was nearly up. We exchanged news and arranged to meet up in the Naafi, where he enlightened me as to the barrack routine and where to go on our day off.

He also introduced me to ‘Ma’s’ a little café off Nathan Road run, it was said, by the Chinese widow of a British officer. Waiting at tables were local girls with whom we could dance and talk to in their limited English. I tried to learn a little Cantonese while I was there but didn’t get very far with it, for the tonal stresses were too difficult. When I’d been visiting the pace for some time, one of the girls asked my age. Sap Gow I said, nineteen, and all the girls fell over with laughter. It seems that Sap Gow means nineteen, but Sap Gow, with a slightly different intonation, means masturbation.

The rough element of the regiment soon found this place and, as they would, brought their aggression with them. Fortunately most of their fights were among themselves. There was a night when four of them came in, the worse for alcohol as usual. It seems there had been a quarrel which had not been resolved. Two of them, a little hard faced Glaswegian and a tall Geordie, after a few verbal exchanges began fighting over the little table at which they were all sat. The two non combatants rose up and separated them. The pair were standing face to face, apparently putting the quarrel behind them, and the Geordie bent down to brush spilled drink off his trousers. The Glaswegian brought his knee up and into the others face. He reeled back, blood dripping from his nose, while the other two held onto the Glaswegian. The Geordie grabbed hold of him and the others let him drag his opponent outside. Ten minutes later only the Geordie returned. His knuckles were raw where he had smashed the other’s face up. Next day in the barracks they were all pals again. 

One of the annoying things about the 26th (?) regiment RA [sic - it was the 25th as discussed above], was the fact that all their webbing was black, treated with shoe polish and brushed to a shine. It was annoying because our webbing by this time was saturated in blanco and had to be scrubbed clean before the black boot polish was applied. Once done, mind you, it was far better, for sweat and blanco do not mingle well, encouraging skin rashes and prickly heat, of which we were to have our fair share.

We soon settled in, and life in the regiment was made bearable by our signals sergeant, who recognised our worth and treated us as equals as humans, if not in rank. I wish I could remember his name but all this was a long time ago. He was known, I was told, as ‘Flight’ from his habit of getting carried away by enthusiasm or panic, depending on circumstances, and zooming around at twenty thousand feet. I never thought this, and respected his efficiency in controlling a team without the need to shout or pull rank.

Mail soon began to arrive and one of our lot had a newspaper cutting sent from home that quoted the defence minister (or were they still called Ministers of War at that time?) assuring the House of Commons that all the troops sent off on the ship with the Fourth Hussars were fully trained experienced soldiers. No raw conscripts had been sent to Malaya or Hong Kong.

We were at Gun Club Hill for about nine months, I suppose (or six months? perhaps less?). The growing emergency, with the communist troops getting ever nearer, meant that while there were a few soldiers about the place when we arrived, just us, the Buffs and the 26th (?) Ghurkha brigade, there were more arriving by the boatload. The bind for us was that one small unit of Commandos were coming and they had precedence over boot-blacked webbing. Ours had to be scrubbed white and blancoed again. Which meant a hell of a lot of scrubbing. This annoyed us all, including Colonel Lamont, who actually apologised to us without concealing much of his own irritation.

The authorities were building refugee camps in anticipation of the hordes who would flee the communist oppressors and part of our duties was to guard the empty buildings against squatters and looters. As our guard arrived on one occasion there were some people inside the fence. I don’t know who they were or why they were there, but they seemed to be arguing with some Chinese policemen. The argument stopped when one of the police whipped out his pistol from its leather holster and struck the other across the side of the head with the barrel. Incidents like this were always a mystery to us, having no idea what they were all about, but they were not pleasant to see. 

We were also preparing for the population to rise up against us and part of our training was in riot control. We were issued with shields and batons and loaded into three ton trucks which were driven into the crowded markets where we all jumped out and faced the terrified people in a threatening phalanx. The commanding officer would point out someone in the crowd and a marksman pointed his rifle at the poor bugger, scaring the shit out of him, and me too. I couldn’t see the point of it. The drill was that it was more humane to shoot only the leader of any riot, when the crowd were supposed to disperse, thereby saving many lives. I suspected flawed thinking here and imagined being overrun by hundreds of enraged Chinese who’d just seen an innocent man shot. 

On another occasion we were out in the countryside on an exercise under the command of a South African seconded officer, when, for some reason long forgotten I was with RHQ (Regimental Headquarters) instead of at the O.P. ( Observation Post). The officer decided that a modern Chinese house, with a young family living there, would make a nice temporary HQ, so we moved in and commandeered the place. The little kids were terrified. I began to question our motives here.

There was also the time, on another scheme when we stopped outside one of the walled villages where field kitchens to be set up. Our presence always aroused the curiosity of the villagers and a few inevitably came out to watch from a safe distance. Give the cooks their due, it wasn’t an easy job preparing food for a whole battery under those conditions, but they did it. They served us chops in our square mess tins and we found somewhere to sit in the shade to eat. Outside every village there was always a number of mangy dogs, vicious, slinky things that were probably rife with rabies. Having chewed most of the meat off my chop I threw it to one of the mangy dogs which ran back towards the village with it. An old woman beat the dog off with a stick and took the bone, which she began to chew and suck to get the few remaining bits of gristle out of it. I was appalled, for I had no idea that these people could be so poor when Hong Kong, under British rule, was evidently one of the most prosperous cities in the world. How could the rich be so indifferent? A soldier sitting near to me, who had just seen what I had seen, took a sip of tea from his large enamel mug. ‘Oh Christ, ‘ he said. ‘There’s no fuckin’ sugar in the fuckin’ chai.’ 
 

More interesting material there.

You're correct that it was the 26 Gurkha Infantry Brigade.

The Buffs is 1 Buffs (The Royal East Kent Regiment), and they were soon joined by 2/6 Gurkha Rifles and 2/10 Gurkha Rifles.

What your grandfather describes (accurately) as troops arriving 'by the boatload' was the expansion of the post-war garrison to divisional strength (40 Infantry Division), which really got underway in July 1949 as Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War began to look assured.

Many thanks. 

JJ,

There could be a million and one things that have kept you busy (now more than ever), but just in case you may have thought there's a lack of interest at the other end, I can assure you I'm keen to read the next instalment!

Regards

Charley