| After basic training at Topsham Barracks, Exeter, when most of my muckers went off to Kenya to fight the Mau Mau I became an orderly room clerk on the permanent staff. This meant working directly under Dick Shorland, a regular soldier who had served in Burma during the war. He was now a warrant officer with the grand title of Orderly Room Quartermaster Sergeant, and referred to simply as Q. A friendly man who would always try to get his staff off parades or inspections if he was able. My job was mainly to type out the day’s company orders and take dictation from the adjutant when he wanted to write letters.|
Before National Service I had been a trainee newspaper reporter, and may perhaps have slightly exaggerated in my claim to be able to write shorthand. So every time Q said: “The adjutant wants you in his office with your notebook,” I would wonder if this was the day I would be rumbled, and find myself on the next draft for a meeting with the Mau Mau. But with the combination of some very basic shorthand, some very rapid longhand and a bit of guesswork, I managed to get by and retained my desk in the Orderly Room.
It was certainly not an arduous job, and work usually finished at 4pm unless one was duty clerk. This meant cleaning and tidying all the offices, and then next morning laying and lighting the CO’s and adjutant’s fires. This could be a little unnerving because both officers expected their day to begin with a cheerful, warming blaze in their grates. And fires don’t always perform as required. So there was always a nail-biting time after the application of the match. More than one duty clerk found himself in trouble because the grate was full of newspaper ashes, charred sticks and cold lumps of coal when the officer arrived.
Often soldiers who were confined to barracks on jankers would be allocated to help the duty clerk. Sometimes this presented a bizarre situation, because many of them were in the potential officer cadre and might shortly be commissioned as second-lieutenants. Which meant that the chap I had just told to get on his knees and polish the floor would soon have to be saluted and called sir.
I once had my own saluting dilemma when I decided to hitch-hike home for the weekend. A coach pulled up beside me. “Jump in,” said the driver, and I saw that all the passengers were in the uniform of the parachute Regiment. no problem. Except that half-way along the aisle I recognised the officer in charge of them. it was ken, a friend from my Wimborne Grammar school days when we were both in the school cricket team. But now 2nd lieut Ken.
What should I do? army regulations demand that a private soldier salute an officer. but this was ken, my old team-mate. i’d feel a bit silly snapping a smart salute to someone who had been a cricket pitch pal. On the other hand, i couldn’t just say “Hi ken, how’s things?” private soldiers don’t talk to officers. they take instructions from them. and call them sir.
so I took the cowardly way out and strode quickly towards a seat at the back pretending that i had not noticed there was an officer on board. and when the driver reached the point where i had been asked to be let off i moved with equal speed in the opposite direction, not daring even to glance at that uniform with its single pip. By now any other officer would probably have put me on a charge. but then, if it had been any other officer i would have known what to do. Salute.
A few years after this incident I did actually become an officer myself — just for a week. As a reporter on a weekly newspaper I was invited to join a Press trip and write about local men serving in Cyprus. And to give us some authority and the right to dine in the officers mess all the Press team were assumed to hold the rank of captain.
But at Exeter I was a mere Orderly room “nignog” and as well as duty clerk duties I also had to take my turn on fire picquet. Six soldiers would draw lots for the pleasure of patrolling the barracks for two hours between 6pm and 6am. Get the first or second “stag” and you were lucky. But to be woken by the midnight-to-two chap and told it was your turn to take the pickaxe handle and guard the sleeping barracks until 4am was, to say the least, not fun. So instead of wandering around looking for trouble, the only thing to do then was to find a hut with an unoccupied bed or seat and hope that either the duty officer didn’t come prowling or one hadn’t fallen asleep when the time came to return to the guardroom and rouse the next man on duty.