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

@Charley, yes, I've been caught up in other things, but I have the final two pieces here for you! Very happy that it's of interest!

This section gathers the "miscellanous" stories:

Although I never told anyone for years after being demobbed, I had a nickname in the army. I was Flossie. You can see why I did not want this to be known at home. One night, carrying a Tilley lamp, I was making my way back to the tents over the paddy field bungs when I met Perkins. Perkins was a nice bloke. Perkins was posh. Perkins was rich. His father was a very high ranking officer in the army in Europe. Perkins was just a gunner, a Tech Ack, i.e. technical assistant, meaning he had some mathematical education. I don’t know why he didn’t have a commission but he and his friend, whose name I can’t remember, were evidently ‘upper class’ and in their off duty times entered the officer’s messes of other regiments in town with no questions asked. I remember going with Perkins to a barracks on Hong Kong island to use the swimming pool. Perkins was scruffy, he was a chinless wonder with an awkward gait, as if about to fall on his nose at any moment. We were wearing ‘civvies’ just trousers and shirts, no indication of rank, but as we passed the soldier on guard he brought his rifle smartly to the salute, a gesture of respect only and compulsively given to commissioned officers. Perkins returned the salute without even a break in our conversation, as if it was rightly due to him. I, with incredulity, did the same. It was that which certain people of all or any class might acquire but has been ever denied to me, sheer aplomb. There’s nothing like it for inducing undue respect.
‘Ah,’ Perkins said, when we met on that dark night in the paddy field. ’The Lady with the lamp’
‘Perkins, you may call me Florence,’ I said.
‘I shall call, you Flossie’
And Flossie it was, to such an extent that I answered to it as readily as to Roy. Not that anyone ever called me Roy. It was always surnames in the army, as at public schools.

Eventually we, as hardened veterans, were ordered out to set up camp in the new territories to make room in the city for the ‘raw recruits’. It was when I saw the face of Battery Sergeant Major Briggs among a group of new arrivals that I became keen to leave Gun Club Hill. I’d begun to think Gun Club Hill was not so bad after all, but we went to a remote camp, nissen-like huts at Tai Lam, a location on the coast of a beautiful bay.

I’d been allocated to [?] battery as observation-post (O.P.) signaller. This was one of the more interesting jobs, although hard work. It meant going out on ‘schemes’ in a jeep with the battery captain, a ‘tech ach’ (technical assistant) to work out gun co-ordinations, and a driver who also acted as porter for some of the equipment. We climbed most of the hills near the border, from where we overlooked areas of country and observed imaginary enemy forces and directed the fire orders to the guns, some way back behind the lines. The hills were not particularly high, but the climbs were often pretty gruelling as we bent our backs under the weight of personal equipment, weapons and heavy radios. I enjoyed it, the exercise, seeing the countryside, and the challenge of getting through to the guns under very often poor communication conditions, with static, interference from more powerful transmitters and other hills in the way. Those radio sets were not as sophisticated as they are today, yet I suspect that communications are still pushed to the limit. Despite code names for each operator ‘Hullo two five for two five, report my signals, over’ Two five for two five strength five, (not ‘loud and clear’) Over.’ Most schemes were just for a day, but there were times when we were out all night and came back exhausted. It was pretty good training, and I became very fit. Real soldiering was never a problem. It was the bullshit that got us down.

Living under canvas in the monsoon was a bit trying. Nothing ever seemed to dry out, Cigarettes went green in no time and tracks through the camp were seas of mud. In Hong Kong, the saying went, ;’it ain’t the ’eat it’s the ‘umidity,’ The latrine was a deep pit with holes through a wooden plank, some way from the tents.

The Chinese people, I soon learned, wasted nothing. Most of the peasants in the new territories were too poor to waste anything, even if they ever had anything to waste and, as they grew most of their own food, one valuable commodity was manure, i.e. their own shit. All the manure, some from the animals but mainly human, was stored in deep pits where it was left to rot for a year or two before being spread on the land. It was good stuff. When the pits were full they dried out with a crust at the top and became covered in a thin layer of vegetation, looking for all the world like solid earth. Old hands, and new hands too, soon learned to recognise these pits and avoided them, but, ah yes, soon after we arrived there was one occasion when a signaller reeling out the telephone cables ran right across one and sank up to his neck, poor sod. He staggered back to base absolutely ponging. The officer there ran away, shouting orders to the other ranks over his shoulder. ‘Get him away. Chuck Him in the river. Get his bloody clothes off’ etc etc. Can’t blame him, mind.

One continuing gripe among the officers was that the signallers’ handwriting was so bad that the messages passed on could not be read. Trying to write in a notebook whilst lying on the ground in pissing monsoon rain and using one hand to keep the set tuned in was not always straightforward. So we had not a lot of sympathy with their gripes. Although it could have been important, to tell them just where the enemy were etc. During one debriefing the boss officer, I can’t remember what rank he was, or his name, held up my notebook for all to see and began a tirade about illiterate signallers who could put the whole regiment and the future of the free world in jeopardy. I kept quiet. Eventually the Sub-lieutenant who I had been working with was obliged to look at the notebook and admit that the handwriting was his, as he had used the book to write down messages he could hear without having to go through me. I thereby gained a reputation for loyalty for not ‘grassing’ him. That was unjustified as I was only waiting to see if he would admit to his own scrawl.

One of the standard military phrases was ‘Words to that effect.’ There was one night when blokes came back to Gun Club Hill from a night on the town and woke everybody up, leading to a bit of a fracas. There were, after all, some rough elements in our mob, and a fight ensued. The culprits were all brought up before the adjutant, who asked the sergeant who’d been involved in curbing the disturbance give evidence.
’Now, Sarnt’ he said ( They all said Sarnt instead of sergeant, don’t ask me why) ‘What exeactly did you hyar.’
‘Sah,’ came the confident reply from the sergeant who was as regimental as a button-stick, standing stiffly to attention, head high, with his baton under his arm. ‘I ‘eard the word Bollocks, Fuck off! Git yer fuckin ’eads dahn. Words to that affect, Sah.’ Accompanied by a smart salute.

Presumably some of the officers had a sense of humour, but had mastered the discipline of a straight face. There was ‘Old Bill’ for instance, who looked exactly like Bruce Bairnsfather’s Old Bill in the 1914-18 cartoons. (If you can find a better ‘ole) . He even had the enormous moustache. He was not the brightest. Or was he? I used to wonder sometimes whether these ‘old soldiers’ were as daft as they made out. Old Bill was never put on guard, for instance, because he was too scruffy and no amount of bullshit could change that. Put him in full ceremonial dress uniform and he’d still look like a sack of spuds tied in the middle. The one and only time he was detailed for guard duty, was just after he arrived at the barracks, and the inspecting sergeant could not believe what he was seeing. Ignoring all the other abominations before him he concentrated on Old Bill’s webbing belt. This was suppose to be tight around the waist with a bayonet hanging in its webbing sheath at the side. On Old Bill the bayonet hung like a cowboy’s six shooter somewhere at the level of his knee. ‘You look,’ the sergeant said. ‘like Wild Bill Hickock.’ Old Bill had never heard of Wild Bill Hickock and took this as a compliment, smiling proudly like, well, like the good soldier Schweik. It was evident that nothing could be done with him so he was given some menial task about the camp, totally without responsibilities, like sweeping up, and kept out of the way. Except on the day when the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (General Slimm?) came to inspect the camp, when Old Bill was detailed to be on guard at the very time the general’s entourage of cars and jeeps came through the main gate, looking as scruffy and proud as ever. I can not believe that this was not a posting for the general’s benefit and amusement.

Sometimes, even for the keenest, things went unintentionally wrong at the critical time. Like the time when a soldier was on duty, with fixed bayonet, at the Governor General’s residence, where a ceremonial changing of the guard always took place, as at Buckingham palace. They had one of those little sentry boxes outside, for when the monsoon fell the guard needed shelter. The soldier prepared to salute as the Governor swept by. This, as we’d learned in training camp, meant bringing the rifle smartly to the side from standing at ease to attention. The rifle was then lifted smartly to the right side before being swung smartly to the left shoulder preparatory to the right hand being smacked smartly on to the butt in the salute. This all done in five smart movements. Unfortunately for the soldier, he was too keen. On the third smart movement the bayonet got jabbed, and well and truly stuck, into the overhanging roof of the sentry box so that as the Governor swept by the soldier was struggling to release his rifle with both hands. Luckily, the governor, as usual, never gave the sentry as much as a glance.

There was a time when things went very wrong for me too. In the army there is always somebody doing ‘jankers’ for some offence or other and put in the guardhouse jail. One guy, not from our unit, developed all kinds of skin rashes while in custody and had to be transferred to the hospital. This meant that he must be guarded at all times lest he escape and go God knows where. 

(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 lose, I suppose.)

I was sent one night to guard the multicoloured delinquent in hospital. He was a big bloke, covered in horrible rashes and his whole body and shaved head doused in everything from gentian blue to purple potassium permanganate and white zinc and castor oil. he looked fearful and to make matters worse insisted in walking and talking like a zombie from outer space. He was in a small, locked room and seemed to want to piss every half an hour, when I had to walk with him along the corridor to the loos. It may have been on his sixth visit, in the dead of night, all lights dimmed that he asked to be let out yet again, I unlocked the door and stood aside to let him pass. He took the key out of the lock and he stepped outside and locked me in! OH SHIT, I thought as he lopped off making weird spooky sounds that echoed along the corridor, that’s me in the cacky. Next week I’ll be locked up in the barrack guardroom myself. Glad to say that after an anxious ten minutes he came back, doubled up with laughing that I could not share, being so angry with myself for being so stupid. All the same if he’d been a dangerous psychopath and murdered half the nurses on duty.

We had collaborated with the Ghurkhas for some months, joining in various ‘schemes’ and training exercises. I had great respect for them. On one occasion my captain took us to visit their camp. We were met by another British officer and as the two were standing in discussion the Ghurkha officer suddenly called out to a guy who was wielding a broom. The broom was hastily dropped and the Ghurkha saluted smartly before marching off. ‘We can’t have our V.C.s sweeping up, can we?’ the officer said. It was ‘one-upmanship’, of course.  I remember one scheme where we had been up all night making our way through the paddy fields towards some imaginary forward observation post and I was exhausted. The sergeant major seeing the state we were in ordered a couple of gunners, the tough guys of the regiment to carry the batteries. They refused, saying they were also exhausted. They were put on a charge and told that if this had been in real action the sergeant would have charged them with desertion and had them shot, but that didn’t help me. Eventually as we were returning across the paddy a couple of Ghurkhas took the load off my back and carried it for me. They offered to take my rifle too, but I knew that they would never give up their weapons so I hung on to the bloody thing out of respect. They could carry incredible loads, all packed up and hung from their foreheads on a strap. We were not allowed to use that method in case we tripped and the sudden releases of load could result in a forward whiplash or a broken neck.

The only time I ever came under fire was from our own guns. Once when we were on a ‘scheme’, in which certain Hong Kong offshore Islands were the simulated target for advancement. I, together with a Tech Ak, was under the command of an officer new to the regiment. The scheme involved going to the offshore islands. To do this we used the sampans, hired from local fishermen (I think they were Hokkah people) although what we were expected to use when the battle began, and the locals all got the hell out of it, I have no idea. On one scheme the little Chinese girl who was sculling one of the boats fell overboard and drowned, despite a British soldier diving in to try to save her. I didn’t see this, and was surprised to learn that very few of the sampan people could swim. It was said to be the same amongst Cornish fishermen. Some of the equipment we were using had been out there for a long time. The ammunition had been in Japanese hands, I was told, all through the occupation. On this scheme something went wrong with the transport, fifteen hundredweight trucks, that somehow, maybe through delay, confused the timing.

I was taken out to an Island with a new officer. I didn’t have much confidence in him as he’d been a bit of a wimp previously when we’d spent the night out in the monsoon rain. ‘I’m Ack Ack,’ (Anti Aircraft,) he kept saying ‘I’m not used to this’ And he turned me out of what he thought was the most sheltered place to kip, in a small cave, while I was obliged to seek shelter under a truck. In the night however, the cave became flooded and he was soaked in his sleep. Surprisingly no one awoke to help him out. It’s possible to sleep very heavily when one wishes.

 The plan was for three of us, he and me and a Tech Ack to be on one island while directing gunfire to explode on another, this time with live ammunition. Then we were to advance, by sampan, to the second island, having cleared it of the imaginary enemy, in order to direct fire onto a third island. We directed our fire and advanced as ordered.

As the three of us were progressing up the slopes to the peak of the second island we were suddenly in the middle of a rain of twenty five pounder shells exploding all around us. I dived into a small depression in the ground and got the gear off my back, while matey our brave officer nearly shit himself and cowered even lower than me in whatever slight depression in the ground he could squeeze into. He kept saying ‘I’m not used to this, I’m Ack Ack. ’ and was no use at all. The tech ach came down beside me with the battery and I had never set the radio up so quickly and contacted the regiment with the message, ‘Two five for two five.’ Trying to speak slowly and clearly as trained to do. ‘We’re under fire out here. What the fuck’s going on.’ or words to that effect, and the shells soon stopped. The shells were not coming from our battery. It seemed that there had been an error in coordination from one of the batteries, (three to a regiment) who were supposed to either target another Island with gunfire or open fire on this Island before we arrived, in a simulated advance. The other buggers had got the timing wrong, and were being directed from somewhere else, ashore, probably. 

On another occasion, all the forces in Hong Kong were on a combined scheme, with offshore battleships shelling targets for which we sent fire orders from the ground, and spitfires equipped with rockets zooming in like banshees. Our own battery firing over our heads were using old ammunition which had been impounded in Hong Kong by the Japanese during the war. The sequence was for me to send down the fire orders which I could hear the wireless Op on the other end repeat, and then the distant voices of the officers and sergeants shouting Fire, Fire Fire. The ammunition was so useless that it was a matter of luck if they ever hit the target. We were firing into a wide valley which sloped up for some two miles in front of us. Suddenly a small deer or gazelle broke from cover. All the combined fire power of the South East Asia Command was unleashed on the poor thing with small arms, howitzers and twenty five pounder shells exploding all around it. Nobody hit it, and I was glad to see it go bounding over the horizon to safety. I had no idea that there were deer in the area. We sent further orders down to the guns, and as I was listening to hear the fire orders in the headphone, then the whine of the shell overhead before looking to the target and the explosion, we heard instead an explosion overhead and saw smoke canisters flying out and landing on the ground quite close in front of us. I also heard a sharp zitt! close behind me. Turning round, I could see steam arising from a small slit in the ground not six inches from my leg. With my bayonet I dug out circular metal disc, which was the base plate of the shell. Some bloke with red on his shoulders said that as I was the nearest, and the one damn near killed by it, I could have it as a souvenir. Very kind.
 

... and this final section covers the communist advance:

It was some time before it dawned on me that should Mao Tse Tung decide to attack, we, up at the O.P., would be his first target, for if we were put out of action, so would the entire battery of guns be, not knowing where to shoot. Apart from the radio, we also used field telephones. These could only be used between units fairly close together, and were not really of much good to us, although we needed to be competent in their use.

It was very hard for me to accept that there were thousands of Chinese communist troops advancing towards us. As news of the communist advances or temporary retreats reached the populace so would the multitude of flags flying from the rooftops change allegiance. It would be all union jacks during the retreats then a sea of red flags as the advance continued towards the border. Many of the people were evidently not bothered who took the place over. The communists did promise more equality, although in retrospect they never did achieve it anywhere. One Chinese man explained it to me in the words ‘Chiang Kai Shek long time very good, short time no fucky good.’ He said Chiang had confiscated people's valuables to pay for the war. We get told all sorts of stuff and never know what to believe.

At some time, August 1949 I saw the HMS Amethyst who had arrived on the 11th, battle-scarred after she had fought her way out of the Yangtze river. HMS Belfast made a visit with the intention, I learned later, to see if it was possible to carry enough troops to make a raid up the Yangtze to rescue the Amethyst. An American aircraft carrier came in at the same time. The downtown bars were the nearest most squadies ever came to pitched battles. I remember seeing an American sailor flying out backwards through the swing doors of a bar, like those in Cowboy pictures of the Wild West. 

As the communist army came closer tension in the colony became more obvious. We were under canvas in an area in the New Territories the name of which I have forgotten. We were put on guard in pairs with a bullet up the spout and orders to intercept anyone approaching the camp with the traditional ‘HALT. Who goes there?’ (You can just imagine some Chinese veteran saying, ‘It’s OK mate, it’s only me.’) Orders were that one of us should stay in view and make the challenge while the other hid in the bushes and scrub to give cover. The challenger was obviously the one likely to get killed if any enemy did intend to enter the camp whereas the concealed one had a slight chance of survival. One night I was paired off with an Irishman. I had done a couple of exposed stints and suggested that next time he should be the challenger while I, for a change, hid in the bushes. 

‘Oh No’. he insisted. ‘D’ sargant said dat I was on wit you. Not you on wit me. Oi’ll hide in the bushes. You challenge dem!’ I could think of no suitable response, apart from pointing my rifle at him and telling to do his fucking share of possibly getting shot at.

Eventually the Chinese army approached the border. As observation post wireless OP I, together with the Tec Ack, the officer Captain Webb and the jeep driver, would spend up to a week on a hill overlooking the border and report back by morse code everything that we had observed during the day. This message was known as a situation report, or Sit-rep. Over the weeks we saw obvious signs that the population over the border were getting nervous, with more and more refugees coming over the Shamchun river to our side. The day before the army of Mao Tse Tung arrived, (October 16th 1949) when we were on the last day of our watch, we saw the nationalist army pull out. They seemed to have no inclination to fight against overwhelming odds with an inevitable result. They went with a caravan of camp followers, consisting of civilians, presumably, contracted to provide back-up services. I don’t really know who they were, but there were certainly a number of women who might have been soldiers’ wives or even prostitutes. Each night, I sent all this back by Morse from the officer’s notes before being relieved by the next observation post party and going back to camp. We arrived pretty tired and dirty after a week up there with not even a tent to sleep in, just a bit of canvas hung over a pole. We were just about ready to turn in when the shout came from the sergeant major for all ranks to muster on the square (a bit of flattened ground away from the tents). He was rattling off orders like a bloody parrot in a trance, do this, do that, go here, go there, we were going into battle. A voice from one of the trouble makers on being roused, seeing an opportunity to take the piss out of authority with no likelihood of punishment said, for all to hear. ‘What Dress, sergeant?’ 

We signallers went to the sigs hut, where we were once more provided with radios (22 sets) charged batteries and a gun. I had a 303 Lee Enfield and ten rounds of ammo. We also, if I remember rightly, a bren gun with no ammo, but as none of us could have carried it together with all the other gear that didn’t matter. To be fair, the authorities had been preparing us for this for months, and I had been watching the approaching Chinese army with some trepidation. Not so gunner Martin, from Falmouth, who kept saying he was looking forward to the battle when we would sort those slant-eyed bastards out once and for all.

It was also a mistake to change the well practiced routines at the last minute without trying out the new systems before going into action. We were used to climbing the hills overlooking the border with a great load of wireless, weapons and FSMO, Full Service Marching Order, which was just about everything one would need to get killed in. All that stuff would certainly have prevented a hasty retreat.  I loaded my signals gear onto the jeep and together with the usual contingent of captain, driver, technical assistant and myself we drove down to the ‘barrack square’. All the regimental guns with their trucks (they had a name that I’ve forgotten) and limbers full of twenty five pound shells were lined up ready for the off. As we passed, a few blokes wished us luck and farewell. Everybody knew that the forward observation post was the prime target for enemy gunners, for with no OP the guns were firings blind. I saw Martin, sitting on his truck, rifle between his knees, shaking like a leaf and ignoring everybody. 

Now, I must introduce bombardier Foster. He must have had a first name but I doubt if anybody but the pay and guard duty clerks ever knew it. He was a Don R, ie a dispatch rider, with a distinctive Yorkshire accent, who tore around the place on a motorbike delivering messages. (No mobile phones in those days.) Don R was a bit older than most of us, and I think he must have been a regular (i.e. signed on). In civilian life he had been involved with horses, he said, and looked a bit like a jockey, with short legs and the sort of hard features that all jockeys seem to develop. Now, horses, especially little Mongolian ponies, would have been much more efficient than we were at carrying all that gear up mountains. In truth there were no mountains in the new territories, just fairly steep hills that felt like mountains when we reached the top. It may have been planned for a while but the ponies arrived just before the day of action, leaving no time for training either them or Don R Foster. Nevertheless he was given a beast (probably had to sign for it) which was to be loaded up with our blankets (the only protection we had from the weather) each of which weighed ten pounds, and was to proceed alone up the hill named Robin’s Nest which overlooked the border with China, and meet us at the top. I can’t remember if he rode or led the pony all the way from the regimental camp to the front line, but don’t see how else he could have made it. I don’t think there were any horse boxes in the quartermaster’s store. 

We left the regiment and went to the base of the hill by jeep. From there it was a long trudge to the top. By now it was pitch dark and we were greeted by an officer of the Ghurkhas. I could make out in the dim night a white tape laid over the ground and leading on, out of sight, to the summit. ‘The password is So and So’. we were told ‘don’t forget it. My chaps (the Ghurkah soldiers), are all a bit itchy and they have their kukris sharpened and at the ready.’ Bleddy Hell ! All that training just to have your head and ears cut off by an over enthusiastic Ghurkha. We made our way to the top, following the tape, stumbling under our loads but trying to be as silent as possible, for the enemy were not supposed to know we were here. The border was within shouting distance. There was no one to be seen all the way up and at the top there was an encampment of Ghurkhas tucked in a hollow in the ground just beneath the summit. I had been up here before, and remembered a Ghurkha water diviner telling a squad where to dig for it. Sure enough they found an underground spring. We were given tea, and settled down in the cold and dark to await the arrival of either the enemy troops or Don R Foster with our blankets.

The Ghurkhas were silent as mice, all with their weapons ready. These were only rifles, stens and maybe one or two bren guns to share among them. They all had their kukris, but I couldn’t see how the bravest of men could repel the advancing hordes with such meagre armoury. True, I was in radio contact with eighteen of our regimental 25 pounder field guns way back in the rear somewhere, but if we couldn’t even see the enemy how the hell could we direct our fire power anywhere near them. If the enemy were even now making their silent way up the unseen slopes of the hill towards us any artillery fire was just as likely to blow us all to bits, friend and foe alike. I must have begun to feel a bit apprehensive, I suppose, but I really can’t remember feeling anything but cold and wondering where Don R Foster had got to with the pony and blankets. The night wore on and we gave up hope of him reaching us and settled down behind what little shelter there was among the sparse vegetation of the hilltop.

Then we heard them coming! The shouts and scrambling and loose rocks falling down the slopes over the crest of the hill. The Ghurkhas all leapt to their feet and we grabbed our rifles, determined to expel all of our ten rounds of 303 in defence of, well, ourselves really. As the shouts and noises became nearer there was to be heard the occasional expletive that sounded remarkably western and then the distinctive Yorkshire ‘Fook’. A figure appeared out of the gloom, lucky not to have been shot on sight or beheaded by a kukri. It was Don R Foster approaching from the enemy lines with a huge load on his back. He came staggering into our midst saying, ‘The fookin’ pony’s dead. I’m carryin’ all the fookin’ blankets.’ and ‘This isn’t fookin Robin’s nest.’ 

It was Robin’s nest, but Don R had got lost somewhere in the equivalent of no-man’s-land and in forcing the little pony to climb some other slope had driven the poor beast beyond its capabilities and it had collapsed and died. Don R had brought the whole load of blankets up the wrong side of the hill on his own back. No mean feat. He was given tea and sympathy until the continuing stream of invective against military organisation was exhausted and we settled down under the welcome blankets for an uneventful night and awaited the approaching of dawn. It was evident that the Chinese were keeping to the conditions of the Hong Kong hundred year lease and staying on their side of the border.

Daylight revealed what the Ghurkhas had done in the night. They were all around us dug-in in slit trenches they had excavated with little shovels and their bayonets. Following the white tape back down to our jeep we passed hundreds of Ghurkhas who had been there on our way up and we had seen or heard none of them. If fight we must, I’d rather have them on our side than any other troops I’d served with. 

After that I suppose my stay in Hong Kong as far as the military aspect was concerned was just a matter of routine camp duties with occasional ‘schemes’ to keep us fighting fit while we waited for ‘The Boat’ It was the perpetual cry among conscripts. ‘Roll on The Boat.’  At last the order that we had been waiting for was given ‘Pick up, your parrots and monkeys and face the ship’. Or words to that effect, Sa!.

These were eventful days, and it has taken a lot of words to recount what I remember of less than a couple of years of my youth, although I don’t think any of us saw ourselves as making history. Even now, I think it was more a case of history making us.

I have only just seen this 'thread' talking about 25 Field Regiment RA, and 54 Battery in particular, and it brought back immediate memories. The reason being is that I served in 25 Regiment, and as it so happens, I was in 54 Battery as well. I joined 25 Regt in 1968 and left when 25 Regt returned to the UK in 1971. 25 Regiment changed from a Field Regiment to a Light Regiment while training in the UK for our HK role. I stayed with the next Regiment out which was 47 Light Regt. Reading up on this old Regimental history definitely brought back memories.