As part of our new exhibition, Children and Military Lives, we have invited contributors to share their stories of adventure, family and exile.
1944 to 1964
“I was born in the war you know” I say to my Grandchildren evoking a response from the older ones of “Which one Grandpa?” At which point I put them straight. I mention it to them as it begs further questioning from them about my childhood. I like to think that my story to them helps them to see another aspect of growing up without the trappings of the internet and social media.
The beginning. I was born on 18 May 1944 in St Helens Lancashire. My father was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and apart from seeing me shortly after my birth, I didn’t see him again until I was three. He went straight from Europe to India and didn’t get home until March 1947. That was the year when it snowed in May and my Father froze, which my Mother noted in her life story that it, “Bloody-well served him right.”
Two sets of parents All of this meant that I had been brought up by my Mother and her parents, with whom we lived throughout this period. My parenting was about to change and indeed it did just when I was three and had a Father for the first time. It took some years to get that right but it taught me, at an early age, to work at relationships if you want them to work. It stood me in good stead throughout what was to be a nomadic life, phase one of which lasted until I was nearly 20. My Mother and Father were a great example to me in this regard.
First and second moves.
My Father left the Army in 1947 to sort his and our lives out. After a while back in his pre-war employment he re-joined the Army in 1950 and we were posted to Germany. I had to leave my first school and move to the British Forces Education Service (BFES) School in Detmold having travelled to Germany by the train and ferry and train again. In Germany, the train went through the Rhur, which had suffered extensive bomb damage. When I asked my Mother who had done this, she told me that it was our bombers. I learned my first lesson on the horrors of war. We had a lovely house in Detmold and I had a happy enough time but we weren’t there for long, about 18 months, before we had to move to Hameln, the home of the Pied Piper. Again, a lovely house where I played mainly with German children across the road where I learned a good bit of German. This was to stand me in good stead some 4 years later but that was school number two in Germany and my third Primary School in three years.
Third Move. This was back to St Helens as my Father was sent unaccompanied to Japan for 18 months, so we went back to live with my Grandparents. I now had a sister who had been born whilst we were in Hameln. I went back to the same primary school (school number four) I had left three years earlier and was now close to taking the eleven plus, which I took. Because I was a borderline case (due to my disrupted education thus far) I had to be interviewed for a place at the Grammar School in St Helens. I am sure that I only got through this interview because, when asked, I was able to answer a question in German. (School number five)
Fourth Move. My Father was posted to Hong Kong from Japan and so it was, that my Mother (a most loving and courageous woman) took my sister and I to Hong Kong on the Empire Orwell troop ship, to again meet my absent Father. The trip was an education in itself, particularly as it was close to the Suez Crisis in 1956 and we couldn’t go ashore in either Port Said or Suez as we transited the canal BUT apart from the wonderful experience of going through the Suez Canal, I went ashore in Gibraltar, Aden, Colombo and Singapore and had the most wonderful of times on board for the 28 day cruise. The meals were terrific and you could eat as much as you liked, an excellent invitation to a growing teenager. There was a school on board but nobody went to it as there was far too much to see and do. What better education is there? In Hong Kong I went to the BFES St Georges’ secondary school which was a bi lateral grammar and secondary modern school, which as schools went, wasn’t a bad one. (School number 6) During our 18 months in Honk Kong we lived on the Kowloon (Mainland) side and we had to move from one flat to another about a third of the way though our tour. It was during this tour that my brother was born. My Mother enjoyed two trips on an Air Sea rescue boat from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, where the Military Hospital was, to deliver him. Two trips because the first was a false alarm and the real thing happened two days later. She was not popular!
Soon it was time to go home to the UK and I for one, was hoping that we would have to go via the Cape of Good Hope as all the shipping had gone that way during the closure of the Suez Canal. As we had been the last troop ship through before the closure, it was only fair that we would be able to go the long way round. It was not to be as we were the first troop ship to go through, going West and were not able to go ashore at Suez or Port Said! It was an interesting and memorable transition as I was able to witness at first hand the debris that had been used to block the canal during the conflict. From the delights of the
Far East my Father was posted to a TA unit in …………SLOUGH. Not the best of times.
We moved to a two-house army patch on the outskirts of Slough and I went to Langley Grammar School. (school number 7) I think I will pass no comment on this chapter of my life as Slough was probably the worst place we ever served in and Langley Grammar, the worst school.
Was it worth putting up with Army life, my Mother wondered? Well clearly it was because our next, and final trip abroad was to MALTA.
This was the first trip we ever made as a family and again it was on a troop ship, the first and only ship specifically built for this purpose, the SS Nevasa. In Malta I went to the BFES RN school in Tal Handaq, which was a similar school to the one on Hong Kong but run by the Royal Navy and the Head was a RN Captain and his Deputy was a Lieutenant Commander RN. The staff were a mix of the BFES civilians and RN instructors. It was a good school and was, as you can imagine very efficiently run. Nevertheless, it was (school number 8). It was also during this tour that my second sister was born, allowing my Mother the rare claim to having each of her four children born in different countries!
Suffice it to say that the nearly four years I spent in Malta were amongst the best in my life. A boy in his mid-teens in an idyllic setting in a co-educational school in the early 60s could not have asked for more. Suffice it to say that the icing on the cake was that I met a girl who was later to become my wife and still is.
Eight schools in thirteen years was an educational challenge in terms of schooling. It was disruptive and frustrating and the distractions were immense. I could have gone to boarding school but neither I nor my parents had any experience of them and I certainly didn’t want to go. Did I lose out academically? Yes enormously. Did I get a good education? Most certainly but why do I say that? Well, there are several reasons and examples.
People in this modern world travel far and wide. They generally get into a tube and get out hundreds of miles away as they arrive in the next airport. They have a holiday and then do the same route in reverse. Sure, they have seen
somewhere new but they haven’t arrived in the right way and they haven’t lived there. Why do I think this is important? My reasons are many and varied. Arrival in a new country has to be a journey which allows you to see the route and experience the arrival in somewhere new, ideally by sea. Nothing can better sailing, for example, into Grand Harbour in Malta. You see the island emerging, you see the colours, smell the smells and in the Maltese experience, you hear the bells! The same applies to any port be it Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone going on a cruise can get that experience but there is something few people do and that is to live in the country you have arrived at long enough to know it, appreciate it, know its people, its customs and way of life. Appreciate why people do the things the way that they do, what are their customs and why do they have them? Above all, do everything to become part of it and live it and respect your hosts.
From an educational perspective this teaches Geography, History, Mathematics (calculating how far you have come and how long it took with an average speed to be calculated, calculating the currency exchange,etc), Languages, you won’t be fluent in your hosts’ language, although some do but you will learn key phrases at the very least, but also life skills such as tolerance, adaptability and the ability to make friends wherever you are and whatever nationality they may be. I could go on, suffice it to say that in the long term I believe I was better equipped to face a changing world than I ever would have been had I not had these experiences.
Academically I was challenged, eight schools in thirteen years did take its toll but what I lost in academic qualifications was, in my opinion, eclipsed by the variety and richness of my life in my formative years. I was glad that I didn’t go to boarding school and ever thankful to my parents for not sending me, but even more than that they tolerated my academic frailties. In the end I had a rewarding life in the Services but the world was changing and academic qualifications had become ever more important. I saw that my children were on an unacceptable route of ever-changing schools and so with much reluctance and only with their agreement they went to secondary school as boarders but not before thay had “lived” in Germany and Cyprus. At least they had some of the experiences that my wife and I had had. Neither of us would have missed it for the world, such was the life of a service child.