My time, experiences and travels during:- 

 Army National Service 1952/1954 

Lance Corporal George Staples,REME

reme.jpg created for georeme.co.uk

Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers

 Formed in 1942.

From the very beginning the newly formed Corps was designated Royal,

Pte Mitchell the 1000th member of the REME Association 

being presented with a special certificate by Major  V. O. Aldred at Honiton

My time in REME, conscripted in 1952, basic training at Heathfield Camp, No2 Training Battalion, Honiton,Devon, like all others before and after me, being treated and abused by those who wished to mould us into soldiers.

Entrance to Heathfield Camp as it was in 1952 from the main road old A30. Company office can be seen on right with REME flag pole outside.The Parade Ground was further up the road,  up a few steps where the other flag can be seen flying. End of Guard room on left hand side. 

REME, Heathfield, Honiton Parade Ground 1952,where we did our National Service square bashing. 

Imagine the amount of steel left on that parade ground from the steel studs on all of those boots that have marched up and down with the marching parades that we did. The visits to the NAAFI to buy tins of Kiwi boot polish to melt into the toe caps and iron out the pimples with those "Flat Irons" heated up on the coke stoves. Remember the spit and polish lavished on them to get them to a highly polished finish. 

Picture taken 2002, some 50 years later by Clive Moor, REME showing the parade ground, the curb can be seen as in the earlier picture, the building now has blue garage doors fitted. As Clive mentions, his boots studs must have left many marks on that ground with the constant marching "about turn" practice we did. In fact the ground must be steel re-inforced with the thousands on intakes who have done the "about turn"!!!

7th March 1952. Second week of basic training.

THE GROUP:  

Officer 2nd Lieutenant Morgan, seated Sgt Spears, to his left Lance Corporal Gable, to the right of Officer Morgan, Lance Corporal Draper, to his right Lance Corporal Tooth.

I am standing third row in, fourth in from the right.

I started my six weeks basic training in early 1952 as one of the new intake... at Heathfield Camp, Honiton, Devon.

Our instructors were "Gods," whose every whim had to be obeyed. They were regular army sergeants who I think resented us intensely; they were convinced that we conscripts had ruined the forces for them. We were a motley bunch, from all walks of life; we had Londoners, Scots, and a Welsh group of chaps in the billet.

Our equipment consisted of the following:

·        Blanco, for webbing, belts and kit packs

·         Brasso, to polish buckles and buttons and a brass button stick

·       Zebo, to black polish billet coke fired heating stoves.

·       Stained polish, for the floors (asphalt or timber)

·        Soap and flat-iron, to crease our uniforms

Outside, if it did not move, we whitewashed it, even coal and coke in the fuel bunkers (!) - if it moved, we saluted it. Additionally, there were inane fatigues [penal chores] - hilariously mispronounced "fattygews" by our "superiors." 

Our weapon training was with the Lee Enfield .303 rifle (an excellent, accurate but heavy non-automatic weapon) plus bayonet - a nine-inch nail (spike);  

Bayonet shown. Is the austerity pattern spike and the associated scabbard

Heathfield Army Training Camp was on the left hand side of the A.30 trunk road, about a mile west of Honiton. The main GWR (Great Western Railway) from Paddington Station to the west passed along the rear of the camp and the whole area was surrounded by the beautiful rolling hills of Devon.  Through my period at the camp, the days had seemed the usual golden colour, although sometimes they were very cold and frosty.

The NAAFI was like a shop, cafe, pub, functions room, and small dance hall all mixed into the same large room. Each morning we’d get up, dress in our fatigue (working) clothes and go to the mess for breakfast. With breakfast over, we’d go back to the hut, make sure that our bed-space was clean, and then change into our uniforms ready for the daily morning inspection.

Lined up outside of our huts, Sergeant Spears would inspect us minutely while  Lance Corporal Gable held his little note book at the ready, this was for when names were taken for sloppy dress, dirty boots, buttons undone, yellow egg-yolk from Breakfast on chins, and all the other things that would only upset a Sergeant in the army. Day after day, I’d stand there while Sergeant Spears scrutinised us closely from head to toe, and every day I’d relax as he passed me by, taking names all around but never taking mine. It made me feel that all the evening work was worth it.

After approximately two weeks I was asked to report to Staff Sergeants general office and asked what was my profession, I replied that I was a watchmaker!!  We do not have watchmakers here; you will have to go on a trade test. I was then sent to Aldershot Barracks and given return rail tickets to get to Aldershot. On arrival at Aldershot I reported to the Guard Room, they did not know anything of my arrival and asked me to report to workshops.  I then proceeded to workshops they were all civilians there, I said that I had come for a trade test, oh! What trade test?

A watchmakers test!!!  Would you report to the workshop that you can see over there, I went to that workshop and again showed the chap my papers, oh yes, we do the trade tests for REME here, what is it that you will be doing?  I said a watchmakers trade test, ok we do that, there are three tests grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, basically if you do grade 2 and fail you will be a grade 3 craftsman watchmaker. I said: What happens if I take grade 1, well not many people take that test, but if you do take it and fail you will be grade 2 craftsman.  Well as I have mentioned they were all civilians in the workshops. I said I would take trade test grade 1.  Well you should have seen the look on their faces; they must have thought I was crazy or something.

The manager of the workshop said ok will you come here in the morning, we will arrange for you to start doing the tests, I said ok, where will I be staying? The manager said well not here, can you go home and be here in the morning, well I said my home is in Essex and it will take me some time to get here, well as long as you can get here by 12am we can start then.

Being able to go home enabled me to get my tweezers and other tools that I was used to using, so that I could use them for the test.  When I arrived next day at the workshop they had a bench ready for me and gave me a watch all in pieces, with the dial and hands in another box. They had a National Cleaning machine, I sat at the bench unwrapped my tools and laid them out on the bench, I do not think that they had seen anyone do this before, I proceeded to put all the plates, the train, balance, pallet and screws in to the cleaning basket, and then started to use the cleaning machine.  They offered me a cup of tea and were amazed at my close-up eyeglass which I had obtained from one of the Swiss watchmakers, made by the well known firm of “Wild”

After the machine had worked it’s usual cycle and all the parts had dried, I checked out all the plates and the jewel holes and the pivots on all the wheels of the train and balance, they were ok.

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Ok, let's move on the story, I started to put the watch together in the usual way, they provided me with watch oil etc, and I used my own oiler which I had made, after around an hour I had put the watch together, needed to make some final adjustments to the balance spring which was slightly bent. I asked if they had a timing machine, they said yes, but you are surely not ready for that yet are you, I said yes it is all assembled and I have adjusted the balance spring. Watchmakers that come here generally spend two to three hours putting a watch together, well I replied this watch is ready for my final adjustment to it’s timing, then I will fit the dial and hands to complete it.

They looked at me surprised, took me into another workshop with the timing machine in, I made some adjustments to the index pin in which the balance spring moves and tested the watch in the pendant down position (the position in which you wear a watch) and face up position. After I was happy with the timing I returned to the bench and fitted the dial.  The manager came over and said it looks nice and clean, will it be on time in the morning!! You know a repair is no good if the watch does not keep time, and you will fail if it is not on time, I said well we will have to wait until the morning to see.

The manager said well you have completed that so quick we are not ready for you with the other tests that you need to carry out, can you come back tomorrow, and well of course I had to.  I needed to catch the train back London, and then the District Line train to home.

Next day when I arrived the manager said to me look at your watch test, I immediately thought something was wrong, well to my surprise it was on time, with my watch a Jaeger Le Coultre which I had set it with, this was always checked with the BBC pips.  He said it needs regulating, I said it is exact on time with my watch, that I set it by. He looked at my watch and said that’s a quality watch make. When they checked their clocks, they were out with the pips, at the same time they looked at my own watch and were amazed at its correct time with the pips!!

They gave me a small box that had two watch movements in, which had been taken to pieces and all the pieces were together, they were two different watches although both the same ligne size.

I sat at the bench unpacked my tools and started to look at all the parts in the box. I decided that I would put all the parts of the watches in the stainless steel cleaning machine basket to clean them together as this would save me time.  After I had taken them from the cleaning machine I put the two base plates on my boxwood stands that I used for watch assembly and started to assemble one of them, needing to sort out first the mainspring barrel and it’s bridge, the winding mechanism and greasing and fitting the winding stem, together with it’s locking plate having completed this.  Then the train wheels that fitted into the jewel holes of each base plate and place in position the respective bridges, making sure that the train wheels all meshed in satisfactorily.

I was then able to establish the pallet and it's bridge, then assemble the balance cock, fitting the index and the endplate with its two screws and oiling accordingly. The balance was the next item to check, I noticed that the balance spring was slightly out of alignment; the index pin had been bent whereas it should be straight.   I figured out that whoever took this watch apart had bent the pin and damaged the balance spring in removing the balance.

After some work on the balance spring with my very fine Swiss Dumont tweezers I managed to get it looking right and affixed it to the balance cock and inserted the balance spring into the index, put the index pin into position. The balance spring was now nice and central to the index in which it moves and the balance and pallet worked.  After some small adjustments and ensuring the pallet was oiled I wound up the mainspring, and it worked well.

I started to put the other watch together in a similar way and of course it was easier since I had established all the various parts of this watch, the only thing that was different with this watch was that the balance staff was of the incabloc type and the top and bottom jewel holes were the normal two part incabloc setting. I assembled these and oiled them and fitted the balance up into the watch, after oiling the pallet I gave the stem a twist to wind the mainspring, whereupon the balance started to vibrate ok.   I took both watches to the timing machine and adjusted them, after my adjustments I asked if they had the cannon pinion and hour wheels for each watch and did they have the dials and hands for them, these were given to me and I affixed them, and set them to correct time. The manager sat down and looked at them and said well they look very nice indeed, we will see the results of timing in the morning.

I returned the following day and the watches were on time but only needed very slight adjustment, they gave me a stripped down pocket watch to repair, when I examined it the balance spring had been badly damaged and I needed to spend some time on this to get it right, this took me some considerable time, eventually, I got it right, I cleaned and assembled this and put the watch in it’s chrome case.  I made timing adjustments, the pendant up position and the dial up position and after the adjustment gave it to the manager fully wound, he opened the back and looked at it and again said that it was sparkling clean, looked very nice.

The manager and another gentleman asked me what watches had I repaired, I said many different types, but I have specialised in Government Aircraft watches, Omegas, and IWC’s (which he had never heard of) timing them to the Royal Observatory standard and certificate rating, he said well we have never had a watchmaker here work so clean and as fast as you, you obviously work to a high standard, I said that I worked for Donald deCarle who they had heard of, well now we understand, why you have presented us with quality repair tests and will let your officer know that.

I returned to Heathfield the following day to resume the square bashing that I had been relieved of for a week. The next morning on the parade square the sergeant was shouting at us all, you are “marching like a load of knock kneed sheep” You are a heap of Sh…  I’m going to turn you into soldiers, you heap of sh…

About a week or 10 days later I was asked to hand my pay book into the office, when it was returned to me, I had been upgraded from craftsman to craftsman 1st class, and my REME pay went up accordingly.

Gradually, the Sergeant and the Corporals began to mould us into soldiers. We had hours of marching and drilling, often with the Regimental Sergeant Major throwing his pacing stick to the ground as he screamed in frustration at our clumsy efforts. We had lectures, physical training, cross-country runs at the back of Heathfield Camp, inspections and more inspections, and spells on the assault course.

I learned how to put soap on the inside of my clothes’ pleats for knife-edge sharpness while ironing, how to get a mirror shine on my boots by using a bit of spit with the polish (after burning all the little knobbles off the leather with a hot spoon handle), How not to tuck my trouser-bottoms into my gaiters but use a ring of elastic around my leg and tuck the trouser-bottoms up under the elastic, and how to shrink my beret with alternate soaking in hot and cold water.

All brass buttons on our overcoats had to be gleaming and the brassware on our belts and webbing highly polished, this was a regular nightly job and polish boots. There were regular bed inspections in the morning and all webbing had to be laid out and the bed made perfectly, there was so much “Bullsh…t” it was unbelievable, but it taught many chaps to be proud of themselves.

Passing out parade there were probably around 500 of us on the parade square that day. All the command officers, RSM, Warrant officers, staff sergeants, sergeants, and NCOs. 

It was the final parade of marching that we would do at this camp, before being posted to different locations around the UK.  

I learned that I was being posted to the Bluebell Camp, Bluebell Lane, Huyton, Liverpool.

REME, Guardroom, Heathfield, Honiton, the cells are still there to the rear.

Picture taken 2002, some 50 years later by Clive Moor, REME

We haven't been forgotten!! The name of a road on the Trading Estate which was previously No2 Training Battalion REME

Lance Corporal Terry Birtley REME

Was in charge of the Cinema and the Organ at Heathfield Camp, Honiton, Devon until his demob in 1953 he is semi-retired now but please do see his details on my Links page. 

 

AFTER BASIC TRAINING

Posted after basic training to Huyton, Liverpool, each day went to REME Workshops at Fazackerly, was a watchmaker there in the instrument workshop repairing service watches. We cleaned and overhauled, repaired many service watches from various locations in the North of England

I had previously served an apprenticeship in watchmaking in the West End of London, under the direction of Donald DeCarle,FBHI a leading author and Fellow of British Horological Institute. I was finally involved in Government work repairing and servicing  the Omega 30's and IWC service watches, timing them for final calibration and testing at the Royal Observatory, Hurtsmonceaux, Sussex, On one of my deliveries to the Royal Observatory where they were tested, then issued with certificate before being returned to the various Government Departments, I had the opportunity to meet Sir Harold Spencer Jones, FRS,MA, ScD,FRAS, FBHI.  Her Majesty's Astronomer Royal, he was also President of our Horological Institute.

I was a Member of the British Horological Institute at the time.

Served many months at Huyton and Fazackerly REME Workshops. Was promoted to Lance Corporal.

Reg,Gordon & Myself at REME workshops.

The Bow and Arrow is the arm flash worn just above our stripes, it can just about be seen.

Having been at Huyton for a period of time this enabled me to see quite a lot of Liverpool and the surrounding areas like Manchester, New Brighton, Wallasey, and Chester. 

Served many months at Huyton, was promoted to Lance Corporal, having been at Huyton for a period of time this enabled me to see quite a lot of the area. The RSM also took different units to the shooting range situated at Altcar for rifle and bren gun training, also when rifles were serviced by armourers at workshops we used Altcar Rifle Range for testing.     

Littlewoods Football Pools, issued free tickets to the camp for their dances in Dale Street.  I met one of the girls there a checking supervisor, we were together for some time, an elderly lady friend of hers had a flat in Chester, where we could stay weekends if I was not on duty. 

We walked all around the walls of the City of Chester, Ellen showed me round the City which she seemed to know very well, was also saying hello to friends whilst we were looking in shops. 

I expect some will remember the Old Tudor Style frontage of the Gaumont Palace, this was a great cinema with a spectacular oak restaurant  (below) and service to spend a romantic evening. 

It was stated at the time of opening the Gaumont that the balcony- seating 800- was probably the largest in Northern England. The Gaumont was the only Chester cinema to house a restaurant- the sumptuous Tudor-style 'Oak'   (illustrated, somewhat fuzzily,) which remained open all day for patrons and non-patrons to dine.

We had a nice meal in this restaurant after the programme had finished, it was very relaxed, the waitresses did not hurry us up, we completed our meal with coffee and mints, we sat there to more or less we were the last ones to leave, before walking back to the flat.  

One weekend we took a rowing boat out on the River Dee. There was Eaton Hall fronting the river which was the other-side of the Old Dee Bridge, comprising seven unequal arches and built- about the year 1387, on the site of a succession of earlier wooden bridges and a pre-Roman fording place.
The bridge is mentioned as part of Chester's entry in the Doomsday Book.

Eaton Hall a very nice building with a golf course. During the Second World War, the property was maintained by the Army, then by the Royal Naval College who also maintained the nine-hole course, following the War, then by the Army who took a lease on Eaton Hall as an Officer Cadet Training unit.

I had been on a 72 hour weekend pass to London to purchase a number of watch materials from my supplier in Whitechapel and I phoned Ellen to let her know, what I was doing. My supplier was importing some fashionable ladies watches, and let me have 6 at trade price. On my return to Huyton Camp whilst at workshops later in the week I contacted Ellen, I met her on the Friday in town (Liverpool) we went to a pub and had our usual gin and tonic, afterwards we found a nice coffee bar. I gave Ellen one of the rolled gold cocktail watches which had a black cordette strap on, adjusted it to fit her wrist, she was very pleased with it, said she would show it to her friends at work.  I told her that I could not see her over the weekend as I was going out with Reg and Gordon into Manchester.

She mentioned to me that the Southport Flower Show, which I had heard of but never been to was going to be held shortly, was I interested in going to see it with her, I said: yes of course I was, she replied well one of the girls at work who is slightly younger than me, you have met her at the dances in Dale Street.  I replied oh have I:  well Ellen replied: she lives in Southport and has offered to put us up at her flat for the evening; I replied that's very nice of her.

We arranged to go to the show. It is very easy to get to Southport, regular services operate throughout the year, and there is a fast and frequent rail service that runs between Liverpool Lime Street, City Centre, and Southport.

Going to Southport

We met at Lime Street, Ellen said to me that four of the girls at work wanted a watch like the one I gave to her, I told her that I could get them for them and how much they were, she said she would collect the money from them, give it to me so that I could get the watches for the girls.

Ellens friend in Southport

We caught the train to Southport, Ellen took me to meet her friend, she had a nice flat, which she rented, just close to the sea front,  the beaches are really nice, fine sand. She showed us our bedroom; we left our bags there.  Ellen seemed always to be making tea and she took over in her friend’s flat making tea, we sat and chatted sipping away at our cups of tea. Her friend Lynn was a dark haired girl; I remembered that I had seen her with Ellen one Saturday night in the Littlewoods Ballroom, in Dale Street with her. She mentioned that she was also a supervisor at Littlewoods Football Pools. I asked if she had a boyfriend oh, he will be here later. 

I was getting hungry, since I had left camp before the evening meal was being served in the cookhouse. I suggested we go out and have a meal, Lynn said you two go and I will wait for my boyfriend.

Evening meal in Southport

We went out and found a very nice restaurant that was close to the sea front, in fact from inside the restaurant you could see small boats in the water out to sea, we chose a table by the window. This restaurant specialised in fish and steaks, we both ordered a rump steak, they served us with a pot of tea, we appeared to be always drinking tea.  After dinner we walked along the beachfront for a way. It was difficult, the sand was so soft, and I could feel that some sand had got into my shoes, we found a seat to watch some of the small fishing boats bobbing up and down in the water with their lights on as there were fisherman out there.

We returned to Lynn's flat, later to find her home alone her boy friend had not turned up, she was disappointed with him.  Lynn had cooked a meal and had her dinner. 

We sat and chatted for a while before going to bed well after midnight. The next morning after a late breakfast we made our way to the Flower Show it had been a delight of people interested in flowers and gardening for generations.

This outstanding Flower Show stands in about 34 acres of Victoria Park close to the town, close to Southport's famous Lord Street a mile long boulevard, with it's elegant shopping and a variety of other attractions. There are magnificent floral displays and show gardens together with demonstrations and practical advice. I found it very interesting with such a variety of flowers and plants, of course the smell  from all the flowers was very nice indeed. They also had demonstrations stands there, where you could watch people providing handy hints also using tools for the garden, in fact we purchased some bulbs and carnations which my Mother liked and posted them from Lord Street. Lynn came with us in the morning, but went just before midday. Ellen and I had lunch at a small cafe in Lord Street, went back to the flower show and eventually found a seat in one of the gardens that had been created and although there were plenty of people walking around we sat there for quite some time talking. Ellen was always inquiring, what do you think of my Mother and Father? Do you like Lynn? etc etc. The perfume from the flowers around us in the garden was fantastic.

I had been in REME for some14 months at Huyton when one day, I was called to the office at Bluebell Lane Camp and informed that I was being posted abroad, I did not know where. I phoned Ellen that I would be leaving Huyton as I was being posted abroad but did not know where. The following week I received travel documents to Arborfield.

Told Larry at workshops that I was being posted, well I’m afraid that happens here, but I did think that the officers here would not want to lose you, thought you were here until your demob, well National Service was 18 months, so I really only had another 4 months to complete my NS. 

I travelled to Arborfield and was collected at the Station along with other chaps who had traveled from different locations. We all lined up on arrival and a sergeant came along as usual, shouting to us, in the usual tones that we had been accustomed to on basic training at Honiton.  

There were two or three corporals and a lance corporal waiting for commands from the Sergeant, there was also another REME chap walking along the ranks. 

I recognized him as being at Huyton, he was on camp police duty there always very smart (with chains in his trousers) to make the creases in his trousers hang straight. He knew me very well whilst I was at Huyton, he looked at me and nodded, he continued to walk along the ranks. 

After a little while names were being called out, my name was called and I was sent into an office where he was sitting alone, close the door said he, show me your brown envelope.  You’re a watchmaker, well you are going to Southampton to board a ship for Gibraltar, a number of chaps come back from there, they seem to have had a good time, plenty of cheap watches, cameras, perfumes etc, they tell me plenty of Girls in the dance clubs, especially when the Americans come in on their Aircraft Carriers. He said I’ll fix you up with a good billet whilst you are here I expect about a week before you go the Southampton.

The billet that he fixed up bed space in for me was very quiet and out of the way.  

I was there for just over a week when I was called, pack your kit, you are going to Southampton today.  

I was taken to the Station with others by TCV and made my way to Southampton. On arrival at Southampton we were met by Military Police, who looked at the travel documents, we were shown vehicles which were taking us to wherever we were going.  There were a number of chaps on the TCV which I had to board, some Royal Artillery, Signal Corp, Royal Engineers, REME guys

The TCV, took us to the gang plank of a ship, It was not a very big ship, and some of the chaps said if we are going to Gib on this it is going to be a rough crossing, these bloody things have shallow keels, so they are not very good on the waves or a big swell.  

We were shown our bunks to put our kit, told to report up on deck, we had army boots on, the decks were made of steel, with the steel studs in our boots it was like an ice rink. I thought surely they do not expect us to wear boots whilst we were at sea and other chaps thought the same. 

An officer gave us a lecture, what we would be doing, each morning to report to the galley for breakfast, clean up quarters for bunk inspection, be on deck for routine dress inspection, change into denim overalls for duty allocated, like cleaning up the galley, toilets, washroom etc etc. 

We all reported on deck the following day, we were out at sea, it had set sail during the night. 

We were informed that we would be heading for Gibraltar, but also we were on some sort of exercise with other ships in a few days, the exercise at sea would last about six weeks. Well the crossing, was to say the least rather stupid, many of the chaps were very ill, the decks were so hot with the sun and the aft deck with the engines running, boots were lethal, none of the officers had given this any thought, we could not stand on decks, officers soon realized this, gym shoes were issued, these had thin rubber soles, whilst not being slippery on the steel decks, feet got very hot indeed from the hot steel decks. 

Well we had to put up with these. We were at sea for some two weeks when we were told that we were passing Lisbon, Portugal and would soon be meeting a number of other ships. We all knew that Gibraltar was not really very far. The following day we encountered many ships and they were all sending messages to one another, we moved away from the Portuguese coast line and appeared to be heading out into the middle further, later in the day we could see the Rock of Gibraltar, chaps who knew said we must be in the middle of the straights.

We were all watching as we went past Gib, it disappeared out of sight, there were now many ships around some very big, we were told battleships, warships, cruisers etc. We were in the middle of this so called exercise. We believe we went right down the North African coast line. 

We spent many weeks on what they called “this tub”  bobbing up and down in the water, with the tub seeming to slide down huge swells, even the Medical Officer was hanging over the side being ill, whilst dishing sea sickness pills to other ranks.

Eventually we were told that we would be landing at Gibraltar the following day, a big cheer went up by everyone.  Next day after we had breakfast in the galley we were told to pack our kits hand in gym shoes, fold all bed blankets, leave them at the end of the bunks for inspection.

After the usual deck inspection, we could see Gib in the distance we were told to hold ourselves ready to disembark. As we were nearing Gib Harbour the pilot boat came out and the ships pilot was hoisted aboard to take over the bridge controls to bring the ship into harbour. As we entered the harbour a big cheer went up from all the chaps and crew. Entering the harbour it was a very slow process but plenty of time to see the views of the Rock and across to Spain.

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