Military memoirs and musings from a National Service infantry soldier serving Her Majesty in the 1950’s with the 1

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TitleMilitary memoirs and musings from a National Service infantry soldier serving Her Majesty in the 1950’s with the 1
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The Kings Own Scottish Borderers took over the active service, front line territory of Johore State, Malaya from the Fiji Regiment at the end of 1955. Above picture shows some of the Fiji regiment posing with a recent ’bag’ of Chinese terrorists.

Our Headquarter Company moved into the former camp of the Fijians at Batu Pahat in Johore while our other rifle companies set up for business in individual company camps straddled across the state which gave us quick access to any trouble spots as and when any cropped up. Our only contact was by wireless and each company started regular foot patrols in the surrounding heavy jungle, keeping in regular radio contact with our Gurkha friends who were in overall control of this area.

Our Pipes and Drums were at Singapore docks to play the Fiji Regiment away from port. This was a very moving but fairly casual ceremony which, as far as I was aware, was actually unofficial. The Pipes played a slow lament as the Fiji troop ship pulled slowly out of the harbour then the Fijians replied by chanting a traditional Fiji salute of brave men, hardly a dry eye in sight.

We had grown fairly close to the Fijians in the short time we had been involved with them. This bond had grown stronger one night in the Union Jack Club in Singapore when a fight broke out between a bunch of English guys and a heavily outnumbered small group of Scottish guys from our regiment. I have used the word ’small’ advisedly for most of our lot were originally from the Glasgow area of Scotland where most of the guys were fairly short by nature, something to do with their poor diet during the late thirties. It seemed their tempers were also fairly short and fights with ’the auld enemy’ were a regular occurrence.

The Fijians present in the club bar that night were at first puzzled at the sight of the outnumbered, smaller white men battling it out with the larger group of also white but taller men. The big, tall Fiji’s immediately decided to intervene to help the outnumbered small men who talked ’funny’. They mistakenly assumed the smaller, outnumbered men would soon be in trouble but decided to even things up a bit by joining in on our side.

I say, our side, because I was actually present at this little fracas accompanied by Big Ray that night. We had been to see the Frank Sinatra movie, Love is a Tender Trap, at the big, air conditioned Cathay cinema in town and decided we just had time to visit the medium sized but non air conditioned Union Jack club for a quick beer before catching the last bus back to our barracks.

I think I may have previously mentioned that Big Ray came from Jedburgh situated just a few miles from the Scottish Border. In the long forgotten bad old days of unrest between our English neighbours to the south of the border and Big Ray’s ancestors in Scotland, there were always a few scores to settle, all that was needed was something to fan the still burning embers, any old excuse would do.

Ray found an excuse the first minute we strolled into the bar just in time to see the beginning of the evening’s entertainment. The show started for us just as we entered the bar where we saw an English military guy seemingly accompanied by an enchanted chair! Both objects were apparently flying through the air and over the beer bar together. The flying illusion was shattered when the guy travelling apparently airborne slithered over the bar coming to rest when his head connected with an ornate ceiling support post. The chair carried on all by itself until it smashed into the big mirror behind the bar, shattering it completely.

It was immediately evident this particular feat had been instigated by a huge Fijian who was now surrounded by a group of English soldiers determined on revenge. The big guy was obviously in his element, laughing like a drain while energetically cracking a few heads together. The whole scene before us was just like one of the staged bar room brawls featured in Hollywood Wild West movies except this was real blood. Anybody knocked to the floor remained on the floor, nobody got back to their feet, shook their head Hollywood fashion, then started to fight again fresh as a daisy. That just does not happen. Ray quickly contributed to the mayhem by grabbing one of the opposition by the scruff of the neck and smashing his face into the wall, he slithered down and sensibly stayed down.

Apparently, The Military Police had already been summoned, just about the same time as we walked into the bar, their arrival was dangerously imminent by now and none of the participants wanted to remain in situ when the military cops made an appearance. The punishment meted out for causing a scene like this would not be pleasant so the bar room cleared quickly with Big Ray and I giving up any thoughts of having a beer, we both made a smart about turn to disappear rapidly into the humid Singapore night.

Scottish regiments preferred to let their own Regimental Police take care of any incidents involving their own soldiers. Punishment was usually handed out by our own officers then administered by our own Regimental police, any involvement of British Military Police with any of our regimental antics was never invited, it just ’wasn’t done’.

This little affair was outside our regimental area though, even the very drunk Jocks realised that. They scampered away into the night as steadily as they were able, leaving the military police to puzzle over the wrecked bar. Our Fiji pals just carried on with their beer drinking, they were due to sail for home in a few days and didn’t give a fuck for anybody, plus, they were each above 6 feet tall so who in their right mind would want to tangle with them anyway?

We were still stationed in Singapore, our signal training successfully completed. We were now awaiting orders to be dispersed to our respective rifle company locations in Johore State, Malaya. We had all spent some time visiting these locations in small groups for a few days at a time to familiarise ourselves with the radio communications involved. I had spent a few days with Able company, even been allowed to make the daily Sit Rep (Situation Report) by radio to our friends the Gurkhas.

Headquarter Company had established their base at Batu Pahat, the former Fiji base in Eastern Johore so the very few of us still remaining in Singapore were having our small numbers depleted daily on orders from the H.Q. office as they settled in to their new location in Malaya. Whether we had been temporarily overlooked during the H.Q. Office move up country or perhaps just forgotten, John Scott and I were beginning to feel a bit lonely as all our mates had now been sent to their allocated rifle companies.

At last John and I received our marching orders one morning from an uninterested office wallah who must have been ordered to remain at the old office in Selerang barracks to tidy up the odds and sods like us two.

Our marching orders were unlike the instructions issues to all of the other guys. They had all been told to get their bodies on parade then to board a truck and be dispatched to their various destinations in Malaya. John and I were told to roll up our bedding and move only to another building at the other side of the barrack square, select a bed space in an otherwise deserted and empty building to await further instructions. I was suddenly aware another Daze situation was approaching. We could get no further information from the office wallah, mainly because he had no further instructions for us anyway and we had nobody else around to ask either. We settled into the other, deserted and spooky building across the sacred square as directed.

We were used to having other guys around us, they could be annoying at times and often we would get pissed off with other guys, some of whom were forever cadging something, ranging from borrowing boot polish (how the hell can you borrow boot polish? Perhaps you could take a spoonful of the stuff and return a replacement later). Some even tried to obtain the loan of a favourite shirt which would probably never be returned. Some optimistic borrowers even invited a definite refusal to any attempt to cadge cash from you to pay for an evening out.

However, annoying as other guys certainly are, it is certainly strange for only two guys to be situated alone in a large three story but empty building, especially when it gets quite suddenly dark at around 6.30 p.m.

We were used to hearing shouts from an orderly sergeant ordering us to “Get these fuckin’ lights out”, at 11 p.m. when the bugle had sounded Last Post and the duty piper had played his Flowers of the Forest lament.

Even our faithful charwallas had departed, last seen as they packed themselves into an army truck and were driven off to rejoin the rest of our regiment. Now we would have loved for somebody to turn some lights ON at 6.30 p.m. as the entire building started to get dark about that time. Even the usually irksome sound of a Glasgow voice cadging ’a wee tate o’ yer polish’ would be welcome. But no sound came, just the occasional bang as one of the unsecured doors to the veranda was caught by a sudden draft and slammed unexpectedly against the wall. This unscheduled forlorn banging noise gave us the willies. We rushed round the gloomy vastness of the huge room, switching on any light switches we could find, checking to make sure all the doors to the veranda were hooked firmly open. No more scary bangs in the night, as the soldier said to the girl.

Could it be that the big, bad, brave, potential SAS volunteers were starting to feel a wee bit nervous all by themselves? Bloody right we were! We had heard stories of hundreds of dead bodies killed by the Japs and buried beneath the barrack square, perhaps the location of the buried bodies was a myth but the killing, beatings, tortures and plain starvation stories were all true and all these bodies had to be buried somewhere around here.

I had already witnessed the mysterious and scary black figure standing at the bottom of my bed only a few weeks ago. Might just have been old drunken Spike but I really don’t think so. When this place was full of daylight and jocks, it could often be quite cheery and comfortable. A deserted night spent here was quite another story. Changi Jail had its own horror stories and it was located just down the road from here, the whole area had a reputation for being haunted.

I was relieved when John suggested we take a walk over to see if the NAAFI beer bar was open. We intended to do the only sensible thing which was to get pissed before trying to spend a lonely night in this bloody place.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny as always in this area. Our heavy drinking the night before had driven away any of the threatening potential ghosts and ghouls from our thoughts last night, leaving not only just bloody hangovers but also the worrying thoughts about our future and what was to happen to us. We were each a bit concerned in case the spectre of our attempt to obtain a transfer to the SAS might have been resurrected. Why had we alone been selected for isolation, why were we not heading up into Malaya like the rest of the guys?

Luckily, there was a happy ending. A couple of hours later the office wallah guy finally made it to our new location in the isolated lonely leper colony to which we seemed to have been sent. It appeared he had received instructions for us late the previous afternoon but did not consider the news was of any urgency so had postponed walking over to tell us in the heat of the afternoon. It seemed he had also decided to linger to have some breakfast tea this next morning, even then he had taken several mugs of British Army tea before wandering over to give us the news. Why should Britain tremble when there are guys of this calibre to defend the country?

It seemed his news was good and the direction of our next move had been solved. John and I had been transferred to the Regimental Pipes and Drums.

This was great news for both of us, however, we had to remain where we were for the time being as the Pipes and Drums were presently on board a Royal Navy destroyer heading north on the South China sea to take part in an official goodwill visit to Bangkok, Thailand. They would return to Singapore in few days, hook up with us then proceed to report to the new location of HQ Company over the causeway in Batu Pahat, Johore, Malaya.

This was fantastic news for us, the Pipes and Drums are the crème de la crème of the regiment, never referred to as ‘The Band’. There already was a regular instrument playing army military band with us, as in all British regiments. We referred to this military band rather disdainfully as, ‘The Girls’. The Pipes and Drums are different. Exclusive to Scottish Regiments, they are infantry trained men first and foremost, able to carry out the same duties as the man in the rifle companies. The best shot in the regiment was one of our pipers. An earlier soldier, Piper Dan Laidlaw, was awarded the Victoria Cross during the first world war for playing the Borderers into battle with the regimental march, ’All the blue bonnets are over the border’. Although unarmed, shot through both legs, he was downed but continued playing the pipes as the Regiment charged and victoriously took the enemy position successfully.

Members of the Pipes and Drums were all regular soldiers, two year conscripted soldiers like us were seldom considered so this was indeed something special for John and me.

Apparently, our transfer came about because of unexpected circumstances. Drum Major Moore had returned to the U.K. for medical reasons prompting the promotion of Corporal Black, the leading drummer, to the position of Drum Major. By coincidence, a few of the regular pipers and drummers nearing the end of their service also had to leave the regiment to head for home. Their departure left the Pipes and Drums a bit short of pipers and drummers, hence our transfer.

We also heard the breaking news the Suez Canal had been blocked owing to a dispute between the Egyptian Premier Nasser and the British. It seemed General Nasser had ordered some ships to be scuttled in the Suez Canal thus effecting a complete blockage of the canal. This blockage now caused all ships returning to the U.K. to re-route across the Indian Ocean to reach home via Cape Town, South Africa. The returning military personnel now had to travel up the west side of Africa which added another two weeks to the normally four week journey to the U.K. which was now extended to six weeks.

This was the reason for the regular soldiers leaving the Pipes and Drums sooner than planned if they were to reach the U.K. in time to be demobbed. The custom of flying replacements to join or depart from regiments in the Far East was just starting at that time. This mainly applied to replacements, the ‘old soldiers’ returning to the U.K. still returned by sea, which seemed to me to be a great idea.

Both John Scott (a piper from Glasgow) and me (a drummer from Penicuik) had really met the Pipes and Drums only once. They were returning from completing a season of shows, parades, beating retreats etc. in London. They made an overnight stop at the Regimental depot in Berwick on Tweed while we were still undergoing our basic training. John and I had wasted no time in telling them about our background. Even better, I discovered I even knew Corporal Black’s younger brother Bob. This obviously stood me in good stead when Black, the leading drummer and bugler, was later suddenly promoted to Drum Major things were certainly looking up for us at last.

A few days later we joined the Pipes and Drums. They were all full of tall stories about Bangkok. We loaded ourselves and our kit onto a couple of three ton trucks, drew our rifles from the armoury and we were off at last, heading for active service over the causeway connecting Singapore to the State of Johore, Malaya for the next adventure. On the way to the causeway leading to Malaya we were entertained with tales of their exotic doing in sexy Bankok. Having only recently carelessly lost my virginity, I was at last able to give the occasional knowing nod of approval to their farfetched stories, I was really ‘one of the lads’ at last.

We reached Batu Pahat army camp in Johore State after a fairly short truck journey and I noticed the camp looked a bit frayed at the edges. This was understandable as the Fiji Regiment had only recently vacated it. I imagine they had partied hard before taking their leave. This brought back fond memories of their evening spent lending strong support to some members of my own regiment during their slight disagreement with other soldiers at the Union Jack club in Singapore.

Piper Campbell. 1st Kings Own Scottish Borderers.

Selerang Barracks, Changi, Singapore Island. 1955.

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