Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Historical Perspective: The Maltese Deployment

Once again, I feel in the mood to post an extract from the memoirs of my grandfather, Les Parkinson. Unlike previous posts, this doesn't relate to his service in the Royal Navy or the police; instead, it's a bit from his service in the British Army with the Cheshire Regiment in 1934. At that time, the Cheshires had been posted to Malta, Britain's central Mediterranean fortress.

When we got up and saw that we had stopped we realized that we had arrived, for we no longer felt the rhythmic pulse of the ship's engine. When we were able to go on deck, oh, what a sight. There lay the biggest battleships I had ever seen, lots of them, what a grand sight it was. Later the ship was berthed at the quayside to be unloaded. Although it was winter the weather was warm, no snow or frost, and the harbour was a hive of activity. Small boats were like flies, bells ringing, and bugles sounding off on the battleship. It was all a new world.

The Grand Harbour, as it was called, was a wonderful sight. On the west side were high cliffs with a lift running up the side from sea level to the top, where the Barracca Gardens were. It was in this area that the navy wives used to gather to wave farewell to their husbands when the fleet left harbour. In the Grand Harbour were the battleships Barham, Repulse, Renown, and Queen Elizabeth with her distinctive inverted "Y"-shaped funnel. There were the eight-inch gun County class cruisers with their huge funnels, the London and the Devonshire, the aircraft carriers Glorious and Courageous, the fleet repair ship Resource, and several supply ships. These were painted a different colour than the fleet, which was painted in medium light grey. The Home Fleet was a dark grey, the Mediterranean Fleet medium grey and the Pacific Fleet a very light grey. In the various creeks that let off the main harbour lay the destroyer flotillas and the submarines with their depot ship, the Cyclops. The whole view was so wonderful that it is a sight never to be forgotten. Little did we know that we would get to know the ships and their crews better as time went on.

We had to leave the view in order to eat breakfast and prepare to disembark. At the appointed hour we left the ship, carrying our musical instruments and our sea kit bags. We ended up inside a large warehouse on the quayside. There we found the band of the only other infantry battalion on the island, the 1st Bn. Worcestershire Regiment, waiting to play us to our new home, St. George's Barracks. The civilians were out in droves to see the latest regiment to occupy their homeland. The Maltese people have a long history. While they are somewhat akin to the Italians, they have their own lingo and ways but there was a lot of poverty evident. It was plain to see that they relied on the armed forces for their living and well-being.

Our barracks were about two or three hours' march away. We marched along the coastal road past Sliema Creek, a town where the destroyers were moored, and on to St. George's Bay, a village. Here we saw the building that was to be our home for the next few years. It was on high ground. The barracks lay in two long rows, behind which was the NAAFI at one end of the building that was the gymnasium, cinema, and sometimes church, and at the other end was the sick bay. The rows of buildings ran north and south. At the back of the westerly rows lay two double-decked buildings. These were to be used by us, the Band, Drums and Signallers. Behind the east block lay the NAAFI, below which was the guard room and north of this was the officers' mess and quarters. At the south end beyond the sick bay was a road that led up to St. Andrew's Barracks and to officers' married quarters.

At the side of the road led up the hill to the barracks was St. George's Bay, which was to be our private swimming pool-cum-boating pond. On the side of this was a huge block of flats, which were married quarters, and the road that was in front of our block led to the fire hall and the barrack square. Also there was the band sergeant's married quarters plus the range warden. He was from the Royal Engineers and looked after the rifle ranges. The whole island was made of lava rock, but from which volcano no one knew.

It didn't take long to settle in our new quarters and get back to normal routine. The worst bit of news we got was that boys were allowed into town only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and then we had to be in by 6:00 PM. They said that this restriction was to prevent our being corrupted by the evil goings-on in the "bad" areas of the town.

We learnt that the main city was the capital, Valletta. The other "towns" were Sliema, Calafrana, Chian Tuffea, Imtarfar, Marsa and Musta. Musta boasted of having a church with the fourth-largest unsupported dome in the world. The population were devout Catholics, and this was evident by the feast days they had. It was surely a land of bells and smells. They had some funny beliefs, and one was rather funny. Most churches had two spires, one on each side of the main entrance. On each spire was a clock, both in working order, but neither of them showed the correct time. One was early and the other late, the reason being that the Devil himself liked to interrupt their church services. When the devil came by the first clock he was early, for the service had not started, so he went away only to return by the time on the second clock. He then found that the service had been held and the people had gone home, so he missed the service much to the joy of the people.

We used to contend with church in St. Andrew's Barracks, and the gymnasium was converted for this purpose. Our chaplain was a Captain Carter, he was a terrible man, and we often wondered how he ever became a man of the cloth. His wife was not a nice person. She used to have men working in her house doing housework that she hated doing. She was always reporting the men to their officer for the slightest infraction, boy, she was hated. I myself was once reported by her for having a couple buttons on my fly undone, and this was whilst we were in church. During church services the boys were the choir, and Mrs. Carter used to sit in the front pew with her daughter. They both used to look for trouble.

After we had settled in to our normal routine, life was great. We used to get up at five thirty in the summer and finish at twelve noon, then the rest of the day was play time.

We had a couple of new officers come to us, one was named John Daniel Egerton Smith. He was a real snob, as his name suggests, and we christened him "Egg and Chips." He hated our guts and was a double-dyed "B" of the first degree. He hated the Band, why, we never knew. One day we were playing his platoon at field hockey, at which he was good for he played for the English national team one year. Anyway, we knew that he had it in for us and expected the worst.

Before the game, Bill Hookway, our bass drummer, who was a very good player, offered a reward of half a crown to the first bloke who drew blood on Egg and Chips. The game was about five minutes old when Hookway hit the ball at Egg and Chips, who tried to hit it but missed, and the ball veered off his stick and hit him on the left eyebrow, nearly taking it off. He had to go to hospital and left the game. His team had to play one man short and never stood a chance, but this didn't ease the situation at all. He never changed his ways, but he was always on his guard in contact sports for I am sure that he knew why he was hurt.

Sport was good, for it no doubt developed us and gave us a good start in life. Our soccer team won all the trophies. There was a civilian league open to civvy teams only and the champions were always the Sliema Wanderers, and in the annual charity game between the forces and civilians, they always won for that was the only team that beat us. Rugby was not played as the ground was too hard, for the playing area was gravel.

There was a horse racing track at a place called Marsa, and each year there was a period of racing that they liked to think was akin to Ascot. The ladies got dressed up to the nines, just like the real Ascot, and the Governor-General being the guest of honour as is the Queen of England, this being the typical actions of the English abroad. There were two army bands on the island and they were always engaged to play during the main meets of the year.

Whenever there was the British Army, there was always pomp and ceremony. Depending on the whim of the Governor-General, the bands used to take it in turn to beat retreat on the Palace Square in Valletta. The two regiments used to take it in turn to provide guards at the Palace. The regiment used to send a company to town, and they used to stay in the Floriana Barracks just outside of town. From there they used to march into town for the guard duties, and changing guard on the Palace Square was an event that drew big crowds.

The first time we beat retreat was an exciting thing to me. We bussed to Floriana Barracks then marched the short distance to the Palace. We rehearsed and rehearsed until we were perfect. There was only one land entrance to Valletta and that was through the arch called the Porte des Bombes. Everybody who could hold and play an instrument was on parade and boy, the thrill of marching through the gate and seeing the crowds, for anybody who was anybody was there. In fact, the whole of Malta must have been there to see the Cheshires beat retreat for the first time.

Anyway, we included the changing of the guard for the first time, and how the crowd loved it. Our regimental sergeant major, Jack Sharples (Big Jack, he was called), was as proud as a peacock, and the CO came to us after the show with the Governor-General and his wife to congratulate us on a good show. This became a regular monthly event during the summer months.

Big Jack, by the way, was a wonderful man. He was about six feet tall and took size seventeen in boots. He had a voice like a foghorn and prided himself on knowing every man in the regiment by his name. In fact, one day in the 1950s when I was in the Police after the war, he saw me in Manchester on duty in Deansgate. He came to me and said, "How are you Parkinson, how are your brothers?" That was about fifteen years after I had left the regiment.

Anyway, back to Malta and the thirties. Being a band boy, life was restricted and we had to attend school. Everybody in the regiment had to get the third class certificate of education, but we boys had to carry on until we became men at eighteen years of age, so we carried on learning and taking exams. First the second class certificate, then the first and on to the special, and the latter two were equivalent to high school. They involved languages, and it was a rule that one selected Hindi or one of the other popular languages of India.

When I started swatting for my first class, I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. I managed to pass one subject easily, but the English was hard. We had to more or less learn these books to memory. One of them was as dull as dishwater, and this was "Chippinge" by Stanley Weyman. It was a story of the Middle Ages in England. I just couldn't get into it enough to answer detailed questions, so I was glad when my eighteenth birthday came. This was a day I had looked forward to, for I became a man. My daily rate of pay increased from one shilling a day to three shillings a day, and most of all, I was able to smoke openly and not have to hide my cigarettes. But the other things that came were unwanted. I had to have a rifle and battle order equipment, do guard duty and go on fatigue party.

Our school was in St. Andrew's Barracks, as was the church, and to get there we had to climb a hill and pass married quarters. It was about two miles' march and of course the musicians had to play on the march. The hardest thing was to keep one's khaki uniform clean. The "dhobie wallahs" used to a good job starching stiff the tropical uniforms.

Being boys, we all had to do sports, such as soccer, rugby, field hockey, athletics, swimming, water polo, life saving, fencing - you name it and we did it. Most of all, we did a lot of it, to get out of band practice in in the afternoon and evenings, and when we had spare time we used to go into the practice room and make up a band with one of the boys being the conductor. Nine times out of ten, the band master would come by and listen and watch, and more often than not would teach the conductor how to beat time.

As a result of our public performances, the band was much in demand. The wives and families of the Royal Navy personnel had an amateur dramatic society, and they decided to stage "Gypsy Love" at the Valletta Opera House. This was a very beautiful building and it was quite an honour to play there. The band became the orchestra in the pit, the conductor was of the opera house and our band master, who was a good cellist, was in the orchestra. The show was a huge success. Another job we did was for the Navy. The captain of the aircraft carrier Glorious asked us to beat retreat on the flying deck of the carrier to celebrate the ship's birthday. This we did, and what a shock when we got on the deck. We formed up below decks and were taken up on the aircraft hoist to the upper deck. That, I thought, was the best and most interesting retreat we did. Afterwards we were assigned to messes for a meal, boy, those sailors lived well!

After that, friendships with three vessels were formed, in particular the one with HMS Resource was the best. When the fleet sailed on its autumn course to the eastern Mediterranean, the band went with them. Only men went, though. They were assigned to various messes and parts of the ship. They gave many concerts, especially as they entered the foreign parts of the eastern end of the "Medi." All told, they were away for one month, and we had many social evenings with the crew. I got friendly with a rating, Bob Dunne. He was saving up to get married when the ship was in England for refitting and recommissioning. It was a sad day for us when he went. The band was on the quayside, playing her out of the harbor, while she was flying her decommissioning pennant. This was a very long pennant that flew from the aftermast as a sign that she was going home after two and a half years' absence.

About six months later, who should walk into our barracks room, none other than Bob. When I asked him why he was back, he said, "Well, as you know, I was going to get married. When I first left England I made an allotment from my pay to my girlfriend. She got the money every month for two and a half years. Every now and again she would send with her letter a bill showing that she had bought something for our home. When I got to the house I saw all the furniture she had bought with my money. I also saw the children she had by her husband, who she married one month after I first left the UK. There she was, living in my house and using my furniture that had been bought with my money and I couldn't do a thing about it, as all the bills were in her maiden name. So to save trouble I just walked out of her life, went back to barracks, cancelled the allotment and re-signed on the Resource for another tour."

I think that going in to the army was a good thing. I cannot ever recall missing my parents or my home. Of course, I missed the Depression years by being abroad. It was only when I returned and by seeing the state of things that I did realize that I had not lost by joining up. In fact, much later when I went to join the Police, did I fully realize that I had done the right thing by leaving home when I did.

Being in Malta was a good thing, although I was not able to see the place because I was a boy, and being such movement was restricted greatly. We were only allowed into Valletta or any other place outside the barracks until eight o'clock and then it had to be a Saturday or Sunday and in the company of another boy. But I never had the money to go into town. My basic pay was one shilling a day, which was one-twentieth of a pound, and then the exchange rate was four dollars to the pound, so my shilling a day was worth cents. Of that money I made an allotment of sixpence a day to my mother, as did my eldest brother. This helped out at home. We were lucky, for we had three meals a day and a roof over our heads and were paid for it. When we got paid on Friday, the money we received we had to spend on cleaning materials, so to get extra money I did work for other boys.

The main job I did was being DRO for them at the price of one shilling. The Dining Room Orderly had to draw the food from the cookhouse, take it to the dining room, serve it and then clean up afterwards. That happened for times a day for us boys. We got an extra meal, supper, plus we had to go to the cookhouse for "spud bashing," where we peeled potatoes for next day's dinner. The only good thing about that was the bucket of "Sergeant Major's" tea that we had to drink during the time it took to peel potatoes and onions when required.

Our Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Percival, and he was later the GOC Singapore during WWII when it surrendered to the Japanese Army. He was mad on sports, so much so that everybody had to take part in most branches of sport. He initiated a league-type programme where a "young" soldier with under two years' service was teamed with an "old" soldier in all team events. I finished up participating in fencing (epee and sabre), bayonet fighting, tug of war, cricket, rugby, soccer, running a quarter-mile, half-mile and cross country, swimming, rowing and water polo. This actively kept us busy and fit, especially field hockey, that was a great game!

Because of the ability of the band, we were split into two to balance out the other company. We were called Band A and Band B. Each year one of us was first and the other second. That was because of one man, Joseph Jellye. He was a very good all-round athlete and he was the odd man between the cutoff for A and B that was done according to the alphabet. We never lost an event. This was good for the regiment.

Every regiment had its sports day during the year and always invfited other teams to run in the invitation race. Usually the race consisted of two laps of one hundred and ten yards, two laps of two hundred and twenty yards, one half-mile and that killer of races, the four hundred yards. We usually entered two teams and always did well. One of the perks of being a member of the battalion teams was that during the season we were fed special meals, much to the sorrow of the non-runners.

With the participation of sports, we did not have much time to go into town. What bit of money we had we managed to last on. We had a cinema in barracks with one projector, and at the end of each part the lights came on and the screen was wetted down with water whilst the reel was changed. We went there three times a week. It cost twopence to get in and threepence for a couple of cooked "pigs' feet" to eat during the show. These we got from the NAAFI. These were good for we used to toss the small bones into the crowd, much to their annoyance.

Today is May 7th, 1934. It is my eighteenth birthday. Today I can go to the NAAFI and buy a packet of cigarettes and walk about smoking without fear of getting put on the fizzler (a charge) for smoking. Today the army says that I am a MAN. To prove it, I had to move out of the boys' room and go into the mens' rooms. To prove it further, they gave me a rifle that fired real bullets and had an eighteen-inch long bayonet, and equipment in which to put the bullets when they gave them to me. But as is life, with the good things that came with being a man so came the bad things, like having to be prepared to do guard duty and to do fatigues. That is how I celebrated my birthday, by being on a working party. We were making a new barrack square-cum-hockey pitch, for the surface was gravel. The engineers used explosives to blow the rocks to a reasonable level of evenness, then we had to manhandle them and level off the surface.

Still, it made me realize what a sheltered life I had led up till that date. It was good to think that no more would I be locked up in a cell for the night for being cheeky to an NCO or to get caught smoking and get jankers for it, which was punishment confined to barracks, and extra fatigues like whitewashing the coal bunkers.

Les Parkinson celebrates his eighteenth birthday with his comrades - Malta, May 7, 1934

Each autumn in the army we had to contend with manoeuvres. This was playing at war, with the red army versus the blue army. Our CO made a bet with the Governor of the island, Sir David Campbell, that he could land troops on the island, so the powers that be decided to make that the plan for the coming manoeuvres. Now that I was a man in the eyes of the army, I was to be an unwilling participant, for our regiment was chosen to be the invaders.

On the day we marched to the grand harbour at Valletta and boarded a battleship, HMS Repulse. This thing they called a ship was huge, it was the biggest thing I had seen, or even been on. We boarded little boats called Trot Boats and were taken out to the Repulse, where she laid at anchor in the harbour. We had to walk up the gangway that was on the side of the ship at a very steep angle and so on to the deck. We were fully booted and spurred for a "war," with full fighting gear plus a load of blank ammunition.

Being an invasion force we didn't have a band as such, so those (me) that were not stretcher bearers were riflemen. I was attached to B Company. My sergeant was a big fat fellow named Culm. He had just returned to the UK, having spent six years in Africa on the Gold Coast as an instructor to the local army. He was scary and mad, having spent so many years in the sun drinking whisky.

When it got dark the ship sailed, to where we did not know, but it was a good feeling to be at sea on the go, and most of all on the "floating town." I lost all sense of time. We eventually stopped sailing and formed up on the deck to go again into the Trot Boats. Then our time came to file down the gang planks to the boats. This time it was a little different, for we had to go down the steep slope. At the top as we left the deck there were two sailors, one on each side of the gangway. They had to check that our belts and our epaulettes were undone. This was to ensure that if we slipped and fell into the water we could cast off our equipment, which weighed about fifty or sixty pounds.

Anyway, we got into the boats safely and moved off and formed up to go to landwards to land on the island. By this time it was getting light, for dawn was breaking. Our sergeant, Benny Culm as he was known, gave us a lecture as to what we should do as he had a lot of experience. He said that when the boat hit the sandy beach it would stop, and over the side we would go and wade ashore. He would lead the way and then we would see him on the beach. After a while, we felt the boat scrape on the bed and stop. Benny Culm then shouted, "Follow me."

Over the side he went and disappeared. The water was supposed to be waist-deep, and it was where we went in, but for him he landed in a hole and all one could see was a rifle laying on the water and a topee floating. Eventually he came back to the surface, cursing and swearing at us for laughing. We made it ashore without further to-do and did not run into the "enemy." We lay around our positions for hours, for the sun came up and dried us. We had no food, so we ate any fruit we could find. Eventually, the "war" ended when we marched into barracks without being "attacked" or even seen, so far as we know. Anyway, we were a sorry-looking bunch and went to bed after a good meal and slept for two days. That was my baptism of fire and the only manoeuvres we held on the island.

Past Perspectives:

No comments:

Post a Comment