Chapter Eighteen

Troop Commander



The mood of HQ

Compared with the facilities at Brickhill, the officers’ mess at Stanley comprised a palatial residence set among lawns with pleasing views out to sea. I had a large, upstairs room, airy and bright, which shared a wide balcony with other rooms on the same floor. I could saunter along it or around the whole building or take a chair of an evening and view the scenery with a regal air and usually in solitude, since the other officers on my floor spent much of their time socialising below.

I had suffered a complete change of company. Roger of Brickhill had finished his tour of duty and was en route to Blighty. The new faces in the mess were pleasant, affable but, so far, uninspiring. A sprinkling of ancient majors tended to keep the level of conversation as dull as possible.

I wrote home at this time: “A lot of the joy I had found on Brickhill has been lost at Stanley. In the mess I am rather an odd man out for there is no one at present with even the remotest similarity of interest. I find little humour or jollity here. Everyone is horribly ‘regular’, Sandhurst products, an ancient major or two, or boys barely weaned from school. One subaltern has never been further afield in Hong Kong than the Royal Yacht Club. Such an attitude is broadly accepted. These are all good lads, easy enough to get on with but, dare I say it, ineffably boring. Sorry!”




The new task

My task increases in interest as the days pass. It is entirely administrative. No more am I directly concerned with the guns, the radar or gunnery as such. My office, just down the road from the mess and within the headquarters building, lies next to those of the CO and the Second in Command. It is well equipped with comfortable chairs, a spacious desk and innumerable filing cabinets, regimental index systems, covering almost all aspects of regimental life and the individual details of both officers and men, and a hefty wall safe for cash and regimental secrets. I share the office with my Troop Sergeant Major and two bright clerks.

HQ Troop carries out all the multitude of administrative duties essential to a large regimental headquarters. Clerks, drivers and orderlies of countless description make up my unit, together with a large REME detachment, officered technically by their own REME Captain and his sergeant major. I have under my command one hundred and ninety-three men grading from the Regimental Sergeant Major down to the greasiest of sanitary orderlies. Their personal documents, carefully numbered and filed, fill a locked cupboard. I hold the qualification record cards, dental histories, regimental and battery conduct sheets and education certificates, as well as numerous other collections of facts and figures. One of the more difficult and time consuming activities of the clerks is keeping all this information up to date. On inspection much of it turned out to be incorrect or unamended for many months.

From time to time I have to take ‘Orders’, which means I have to try a case of indiscipline by some member of my troop under the penalty system laid down under military law. I hold the immediate fate of these miscreants in my hands!

One of my titles is ‘Officer in charge of Civilian Labour’. I have to employ and discharge Chinese workers according to a complex set of War Office regulations. Engaging an amah for a sergeant’s wife is an entertaining activity.

Once a week, I handle a large pay parade for the troops, in which more than a thousand pounds runs through my hands in the course of an afternoon. Once a month, there is the civilian pay parade in which all the civilian employees of the regimental headquarters, coolies, amahs, cooks, Chinese waiters, Chinese clerks and dhobies (washermen) receive their dues: again a large sum flows over my table under the watchful and wily scrutiny of a Chinese accountant.

This mountain of work is eased by the varying contributions of my immediate office staff. We manage the allocations of leave, arrangements for courses in driving, education, water duties, physical training and various sports as well as keeping score of personal attainments under the ‘Star Qualification Scheme’ which has a bearing on the men’s pay. We keep the details of all regimental equipment, its efficiency, redundancy, need for repair replacement and so on. In the pay office I have a pay sergeant, a clerk bombadier and a learner clerk, and, for the civilians, my astute Chinese gentleman accountant. Further staff deal with POL, that is petrol, oil and lubricants for the numerous vehicles of the regiment, and with accommodation details such as barrack room management and personal kit. I am also in charge of a considerable small arms armoury and a signals unit equipped with radios, spare parts and other stores. The signals unit is the ‘control’ for the regimental radio net, for which I am also responsible.

My desk is the hub of all this activity and all the ‘business’ that the various offices do passes through my trays and all their documents have to receive my signature. Yet, my greatest responsibility and the one in which I take the greatest interest, is to ensure the welfare, hygiene, turnout and discipline of the men.

The major contrast with Brickhill is that, after morning parade, all these men spend the working day distributed around numerous offices and other locations on a very large site working under their respective departmental heads who are often majors. Liaison with these often opinionated and relatively ‘elderly’ characters is by no means simple. Frequent little tiffs occur.

One morning the DO (Director of Ordnance) rang up wanting to know why the armoury was in the charge of somebody who was no longer in the regiment! As I had only just taken over command I had no idea. He was very acid about this but it soon turned out that the fault lay with his own sergeant. Three days later I put one of his men on an education course for which he was due. At this I received a very apologetic phone call beseeching me to return him as soon as possible. I decided to be as magnanimous as possible, gradually learning the power of a skilled use of the telephone in such matters!

Various pay returns have to be in my office on certain dates each month, so that we can collate them and forward them to HQ Landforces, Hong Kong. One battery commander never gets his return in on time. I had repeatedly to ring him up and ask for it. One day he blustered and fumed down the telephone – there had been no changes since last month – some orders said this and others said that – I was politely unconcerned by his excuses. All I needed was his return on the following day.

“I have to make my report tomorrow and I shall expect your return by lunch time!” I put the receiver down.

Apparently he went roaring about camp all day muttering imprecations against “that young pup at RHQ.” Nevertheless, I had my return in on time. To back me up I could always get the Second in Command to send a demand note. Since this would amount to a reprimand, even regular officers, technically senior to me, avoid the risk.

My immediate senior is one of the top-ranking officers in the regiment. I am answerable to no one lower in the hierarchy. Sadly, this man suffers from the mental impediment of an extreme tautology of speech and a conceptual vagueness that amounts to idiocy. I have stood for hours in his office while he waffles to someone else when my urgent request would take a few seconds. I have found the answer to this. The telephone again! Even though his office is more or less next door, I ring him up whenever I want something, for he finds the jangling instrument impossible to ignore.

Some of the charges I deal with need to be remanded to him for a disciplinary decision. This is a terrible affair. He seems not to know the tight military law and usually administers a mild admonishment. The miscreant comes out grinning.

A man persistently late on parade was asked,

“Haven’t you got a watch?”

“Sah – No Sah!”

“Well – never you mind that – there is a perfectly good watch on the church tower. Just keep a watch on the church watch next time.”


To hear him lecturing a confirmed lecher on a VD charge, like a kind father talking to a twelve year old, is not funny. It is pathetic. Such a case merits twenty-eight days detention – he gave three. I have taken to suggesting the appropriate punishment and I have begun to deal with a wider range of cases. One man was brought before me for failing to appear on parade. I gave two days CB – Confinement to Barracks. I think he thought me far too strict.

The truth is that RHQ standards of turnout and discipline are lamentable – far below those obtained on Brickhill, in spite of our relaxed regime there. I felt that at RHQ we should be better than outlying sites and set an example. I began a series of vigorous inspections both during parades in the mornings and in visits to the barrack rooms. I discovered:

– Three battledresses covered with mildew.

– Several pairs of boots rotting with fungus.

– Greatcoats left in the dhobie since the previous year.

– Lockers smelling like Chinese latrines.

– One man had four uniforms screwed up in the bottom of    his locker, all filthy. He was wearing overalls all day!

– One mosquito net sodden with rain from being left    hanging over a balcony for a week.

– Barrack room blankets apparently never changed nor    fumigated for as long as anyone could remember.

– Boots left in the cobbler’s for six months – thus allowing    the man not to polish them for inspections.

– A Chinese laundry with so much faulty wiring that it    might have gone up in smoke any minute.

– Bed bugs in the telephone exchange.

As a result of this shake up, I have had four applications for transfer to Malaya!

In this good work I am more than aided by my energetic and forceful sergeant major. He was a sergeant at Oswestry, when I was a gunner in training there, and he comes from Newport, Isle of Wight. Only recently promoted from sergeant, TSM Jeffs is aiming high. Harsh yet humorous, strict yet understanding, full of drive and knowledgeable about all the many things I am ignorant about, the TSM is a first-rate soldier and an immense support. He makes up for all the uncertainties that a national service trained subaltern cannot avoid. Jeffs is a great egoist – “I did this” “I did that” and there is precious little it seems that he has not done. Certainly everything he does is done very well and he ensures that everyone notices it. He is aiming for a quartermaster’s commission before he finishes. Within the troop he is rapidly becoming a legend. I like to think we make a good pair.

Even so all is not well. The morale in RHQ is bad. One bombadier remarked to me, “This is an unhappy regiment.” I was sorry to hear it. Some senior NCOs are openly critical of the CO. “All he cares about is training, he does not care about the welfare of his men!”

The Colonel is indeed very keen on sustaining military training, believing perhaps that this alone can sustain morale. His ‘regimental policy’ fails to emphasise welfare. As a national serviceman I cannot help finding this amusing. After all, the Chinese have Russian planes that can fly so fast that our ancient radar sets cannot keep up with them. Such ardent military preparation seems a little misplaced when the equipment is really too old to do its job. Yet there is no doubt the efficiency of the regiment has increased greatly under his command. In any case what else should one expect from a CO!

Coming from Brickhill I had been surprised by this deep-rooted discontent. I said to the pay bombadier that I had not encountered anything like it at Brickhill. “Well,” he said, “Brickhill is known to be the happiest site in the colony!” I was overjoyed to hear this for I felt that our style of command at Brickhill had had much to do with it.

I pondered the contrasts between Brickhill and Stanley and found that the difference in feeling must have been due to situational factors as well as the attitudes of us officers.

Brickhill had been isolated and self-contained. By contrast RHQ is the hub of the regiment loaded with high-ranking officers and only a part of a very large garrison.

The isolation on Brickhill had allowed a great sense of loyalty and mutual feeling to grow up there. A team spirit was manifest in everything that happened. Such feeling did not exist at RHQ.

Our careful man management had produced an unusual atmosphere of informality on Brickhill. Officers, NCOs and men had no marked social barriers between them. All our duties interlocked, were mutually understood and supported. The loyalty between ranks operated both upwards and downwards.

Captain Robin Chandler, the TC on Brickhill, was personally not good at managing men. He had left most of that to us national service subalterns. Yet he was technically brilliant and provided an enthusiastic if occasionally rather overanxious drive behind our gunnery and radar training. The CO, in his bluff way, had several times complimented us on our site efficiency and we considered ourselves the best-trained unit in the regiment. The results of the January firing camp and the night exercise had confirmed that for us. Both officers and men felt that the site was good militarily and that our activities were worthwhile. This bred both confidence and enthusiasm, so that when failures did occur we were quick to try and mend them.

In RHQ there is a strict regimentalism; officers and many NCOs tend to have their accommodation well away from that of the men. Barriers between ranks are clear-cut and sustained. Formality reigns in all dealings between the ranks. All jobs are specialised and often highly focused on individual practitioners. The men are widely dispersed and work in separate offices with little contact with others. There is no sense of working together towards a common objective nor, therefore, a feeling that the troop must stand or fall by team work above all else. Little team spirit operates in the activities of RHQ.

On Brickhill, officers and NCOs lived cheek by jowl so that supervision of work was easily achieved. We did not need ‘bullshit’ to sustain our standards. At RHQ, supervision cannot be that close and standards of turnout, discipline and hygiene fall easily. The Sergeant Major and I have to keep a constant watch on these matters. If they fall below standard, both health and contentment become jaded.

On Brickhill I knew every man individually and often his whole life history as well; parents, girlfriends at home, popsies in HK. Personal troubles, many of them seemingly quite simple to those of us with wider education, often appeared as mountains to the men. A few words of consolation or advice often cleared things up. Several times, by talk alone, I had been able to prevent a man going AWOL (Absent without Leave) just because he was ‘fed up’.

In RHQ there were so many men that I did not even know most of their names. Rarely did I hear of personal troubles until they became very difficult or surfaced when a man was charged with some offence. The men tended to keep themselves to themselves, avoiding contact with those above them in the military hierarchy. The phrase ‘bloody orfficers’ was often muttered at Stanley in a way it never was on Brickhill. It is easier to get into the city from Stanley and correspondingly easier for men to get into trouble. Many more disciplinary charges had to be made at RHQ than was the case on Brickhill.

It seemed to me that efficiency and contentment in a troop depended entirely on the right relationship being established between officers, NCOs and men. RHQ runs on discipline when it runs at all. Brickhill tended to run on a sort of mutual understanding. The informality of Brickhill was a great asset. By informality I do not mean a familiarity which could erode the respect that sustains discipline, but rather a two-way friendliness between the ranks, based partly on humour yet also on a respect for the contrasting capacities and roles of each rank. This seems entirely lacking at RHQ.

The main troubles at RHQ are the large number of men, the lack of a commonly perceived objective, the absence of an isolation that encourages fellow feeling and the deliberately disciplined separateness of ranks.

I therefore set myself and my sergeant major two main objectives: firstly, to improve standards of turnout, discipline and hygienic training, even when this required the severity of a reforming approach; secondly to get to know men on a more individual basis, to encourage their wider interests and to facilitate recreational activities other than the cinema, the beer halls and the brothels. We felt that a feeling of troop loyalty and fellow feeling among the men might be germinated in this way. The rudiments were present. We sought to make them grow.




On trying to get things done! June 2nd 1954

I am like a man who has been given a complex machine to work. For a few days he looks at all the bits and pieces and sees how they work. After that he just sits and watches it, oiling it occasionally and carrying the can when anything goes wrong. The complicated administration of RHQ Troop has boiled down to a matter of seeing that my clerks do not make mistakes. There are few opportunities for real leadership, since all my men are employed as drivers or office workers. I function in liaison between higher-ranking officers who drive me round the bend with their pomposity, verbal diarrhoea and stupidity. As I said before, my immediate superior is the talk of the regiment – no exaggeration. During Officer’s Days he attempts to stand in for the CO who is in England on compassionate leave. Everyone, from the newest subaltern to the battery commanders, sits there wringing his hands in boredom and amazement at his absurd statements, his utter lack of logic and the smokescreen of hot air he produces. Sadly, the man is a fool. Last week he ordered me to cut down some of my men’s pay since they had just spent a little of their savings. This is actually illegal for no one can tamper with a man’s pay except under very special conditions. I remonstrated without avail. The pay sergeant, my sergeant major, the pay clerks were all furious as, of course, were the men involved. Another troop commander was treated the same way and erupted in fury. I ask myself how can I maintain my own morale let alone that of my men with a fool like this in charge.

In spite of these frustrations I am accomplishing some improvements. To interest the men and divert them from the bars and brothels as the only outlet for amusement, I have started a series of organised visits to places of interest in the colony such as factories, print works and, yes, even monasteries! I am getting much support from Sergeant Major Jeffs who continues to embarrass everyone by his efficiency!

One weekend I led a party of nine on a long hike in Lantao Island, stopping overnight at the Po Lin monastery. I was amazed to see how these bored clerks and REME fitters responded. Their jollity and enthusiasm was terrific, morale at its highest. The monastery, where I am now considered to be a friend, treated us royally and two of the more intelligent NCOs watched the morning ritual with great interest. Everyone seemed captivated by the beauty of the open countryside and the spacious hills.

On arrival we were served a marvellous Chinese dinner. The men were surprised when what appeared to be mammoth steaks arrived. When they learnt this was a meal of fungus they were horrified. One of them thought he would soon be sick. I gently encouraged them, hogging my own dish, and soon everyone was tucking in and enjoying the novelty. One of my NCOs now goes back there quite frequently, mainly for sketching.

Another party visited a printing press and another the Coca Cola factory. Two small parties are scheduled for the Leprosarium. I have also applied for a regimental beach hut! Of course it was refused as if I were quite out of my senses but it would be an asset. Some of the officers consider me a little daft to be so concerned about what my men do in their free time but gradually the idea is becoming respected. Some senior battery officers have asked me for details of the trips I have arranged. I am also considered to be the regimental expert on the Chinese! If I had greater rank I believe I could eventually influence regimental policy towards a more considered understanding of the men’s welfare.

One day, on some important annual holiday, we had a major regimental parade during which RHQ troop had to march past the CO, standing on a saluting platform. We trained and marched around the parade ground until I felt we had the matter reasonably on hand. The day came, not without embarrassment, however. Launching into the march past, I found to my surprise that my pace was much longer than that of the men so that I was steadily drawing ahead of them, so much so that, as I was approaching the saluting base, I was virtually alone. Worse still my command, “Eyes right”, could not be heard by the ranks so far behind me. Shambles! I had to put up with a good ragging that evening. Much later, talking with a major, he told me he had the opposite trouble – being a shortie he was virtually trampled upon by his men whenever such a parade was held. How one gets this right remains beyond me still! Anyway, it is only a few weeks before I shall be well out of it all.