Written by John Page (Master, 1954-85)
Friday, 17 June 2005

“I am he that came out of the army.” (I Samuel 4. 16)
posted - 17th June 2005

Many Old Brightonians I have met during my retirement have memories about their experiences in the CCF and I thought this third – and final – instalment of reminiscences over the last fifty years should deal with the Corps and why I became involved.

When I joined the Common Room in 1954 the CCF was run as a private fiefdom by Lt. Col. V G Smyth, DSO, OBE. He had enjoyed a distinguished career of 34 years as a regular officer in the Royal Artillery, serving in the Middle East, India and China. The calculating skills needed as a Gunner were useful in teaching Mathematics to lower sets and his travels equipped him to include personal experiences in his Geography lessons. According to current folklore he could be distracted from the syllabus by appropriate questions and persuaded to tell stories about his different campaigns, particularly with Allenby in Palestine, 1917, where a Turkish shell passed through his legs without exploding.

He still wore his highly-polished riding boots on formal parade and when he went to Annual Camp insisted on the status and services due to an officer of Field Rank – much to the consternation of the permanent staff who did not expect officers with the cadets to outrank them or know Queen’s regulations. He was loyally supported by RSM Upton (‘Leslie George’) who ran the Armoury and as a Warrant Officer in the Royal Marines Small Arms School at Hythe was well qualified to coach shooting, both with .22 rifles under the Hall and on the open range at Steyning with .303 Lee-Enfields. 

Financial support for the CCF, which had replaced the JTC in 1950, came from the War Department and the size of each school’s budget depended on the percentage of cadets who passed Certificate A, Parts I and II. The all-day tests were carried out by a visiting team of Regulars and Colonel Smyth always took the officers out for a slap-up lunch at the Royal Crescent, while the NCOs were liberally and liquidly entertained by Leslie George at his favourite hostelry. Then in the afternoon any boy who had failed in the morning could be generously re-marked and the College grant could be guaranteed for the next year. In fact most of the money was spent on hiring the full Royal Artillery band to accompany the March Past on the occasion of the Annual General Inspection.

To prepare for the ceremony the Inter-House Drill competition was always scheduled to take place in the preceding week. House spirit could be relied on to induce even the most reluctant participant to make some effort to clean his kit properly and march in step. It was one contest in which the Day Houses usually prevailed as the boarders resented being removed from their evening leisure activities to practise on the Back Quad. At that time there were enough rifles in the Armoury for every cadet to carry his own but that did not make it any easier for the senior NCO in each House to achieve the requisite co-ordinated uniformity as his squad sloped, presented and ported arms.

It must have been a trial for Col. Smyth that the officers under his command at Brighton College were schoolmasters playing at being soldiers on a Friday afternoon. In fact I can recall from the Army Section only Reg Henderson who had been in the Intelligence Corps interrogating German POWs and Bernard Boddy, ex-RAF, whose faded service blue raincoat seemed a permanent item of his outdoor clothing. So my arrival was welcomed as I had some non-combatant infantry training as the following digression will explain.

I had joined the KRRC in December 1943 because it was the regiment in which my father has served in WWI and the six weeks of basic training proved a salutary cultural shock after a very sheltered upbringing. Ten years of boarding school had not prepared me for life in a barrack-room where on the first night I was bawdily mocked for being the only one of 35 recruits who put on pyjamas. My companions tried to enlighten my innocence by sticking pornographic pictures round the bunk-bed. After that period I found myself in a pre-OCTU squad up on the Yorkshire Moors and realised the 60th Rifles liked to consider themselves an elite unit because the only reading matter that reached our remote outpost as we endured the rigorous training was the weekly issue of the Eton Chronicle.

The KRRC and the Rifle Brigade provided infantry motor battalions in an armoured division and every officer had to learn how to maintain and drive or ride all types of vehicle. Those six weeks at a school of Driving and Maintenance in the Lake District were the most enjoyable part of the OCTU and I have always been grateful for the Army’s tuition in the operation of the internal combustion engine and of a non-synchromesh gearbox. We were told on being introduced to unwieldy 500cc side-valve BSAs that the motor bicycle had taken the place of the horse in the training of a modern officer and most of the ensuing practice was very much cross-country.

By the time I was commissioned the war in Europe was over and I found myself shipped out to the Middle East and attached to the Sherwood Foresters in Palestine where the 1st Infantry Division was attempting to enforce the Mandate. All the experienced war-time staff officers were being demobilized and my CO was asked to send up to Brigade HQ a young man who could use a knife and fork. That was my sole qualification for becoming Brigade Intelligence Officer expected to track down information about the terrorist activities of The Stern Gang and I.Z.L. In fact my only contribution to a congenial small Mess of 10 officers was to check unreliable accounts of our Palestinian cook. However the posting made me an Acting Captain (a rank my father achieved after three years in the trenches) and ensured permanent scepticism about the reliability of the British Intelligence community – quite apart from their nurturing of the Cambridge spies. My own release came in time to go up to Oxford for the Michaelmas term, 1947.

As the Sussex Regiment was the parent unit of the Brighton College CCF I had to discard the black buttons and fast pace of a rifleman and learn to stamp and polish. Luckily when Col. Smyth retired in 1957 (presented with a silver cigarette box by the Under-Officer Conrad Griffiths) and I took over command, the RSM felt responsible for ensuring my kit was properly cleaned. Every boy in the school still had to be a member of the Corps and I took the first small step in easing compulsion by excusing scholarship candidates in their seventh term in the Sixth Form. Other innovations were Field Days that entailed tactical exercises out in the countryside, including night operations, and the start of the Arduous Training camps in the Easter holidays.

Everyone will have his favourite story about the military fiascos but my deepest blush recalls the night exercise round Cuckmere Haven where at last I could try out the Verey pistol and its stock of coloured flares that Leslie George kept secreted in the Armoury. Next day the Argus reported how the Newhaven lifeboat had been called out on an abortive mission because of a false distress signal. I feel shamefaced also at how ill-equipped we all were for the rigours of the first Arduous Training in the Scottish mountains.

It seemed a wonderful opportunity to travel so far at the Army’s expense and camp out for a week during the Easter holidays living on compo rations. Our only waterproofs were groundsheets and wearing thin denims we had to carry on our shoulders heavy two-man permeable bivouacs. (The rain poured round, in and through.) Despite blizzards and the wet and cold we survived getting lost in the mist swirling over the Highland screes and it proved a memorable experience. My Section included a publican’s son who had been smoking since the age of ten and could light a match in a gale, ensuring we could ignite our Tommy cookers to warm our food or start a bonfire to dry ourselves and our clothes. We were also grateful to one of Bayliss-Smith’s sons whose zoological skills enabled him to extract unlaid eggs from a scrawny fowl purchased from a crofter that greatly enriched the monotonous tinned stew. We attached the head to a pole which became our talisman and led the parade as we marched down the platform of King’s Cross on our way home.

Llangollen was another destination, where I knew the town’s solicitor and he arranged for the police to safeguard our rifles when we did not need them. In return we carried out a realistic night exercise to catch poachers stealing salmon from the River Dee. Roger Minor was most imaginative at thinking up improbable scenarios and for one exercise in those Welsh hills to keep the two warring parties apart his scheme inflicted instant sterility on anyone descending below 2000 during the hours of daylight. His long service earned him a third pip and we all regretted he retired from active service before he could become ‘Major Minor’. It is a wonder in these safety-conscious times that no worse casualties resulted from the unrestricted use of blank cartridges and thunderflashes than ringing ears and an occasional burn. Another hazard to which cadets were exposed was that a civilian driving licence equipped CCF officers to drive WD 3-tonners during Annual Camp, although the boys in fume-filled rear of the vehicles had to endure nasty noises from unskilled operation of the crash-gearboxes.

Back in Brighton we tried to enhance the AGI programme by displaying some of the training being carried out by cadet NCOs – after all the CCF was the one branch of the school where the teaching was done by the pupils. With the help of Dick Braybon we had constructed an assault course on the New Ground and the REME Section was also going to demonstrate their driving skills. Jill Stewart’s brother had passed on to us his superannuated Rolls-Royce with a shooting-brake body built onto its massive chassis. Unfortunately the novice chauffeur at the wheel at the time engaged reverse gear and went astern at excessive speed straight into the Inspecting General’s smart staff car. As he was an Old Brightonian with a good sense of humour he was able to square the authorities without anyone being court-martialled. However an official Court of Enquiry was convened when some Sten guns disappeared from the Armoury – a visiting regular CQMS making good a deficiency in his own stores?

Not all Annual Inspections were as eventful and by the time RSM Upson retired in 1967 with the British Empire Medal after 41 years of continuous service Peter Points had taken over and he secured the redoubtable talents of RSM O’Connell. Peter was one of three colleagues who went on to become Headmasters and on retirement returned to Sussex and became Governors who could help decide policy with valuable expertise and inherent loyalty to an institution they had already served once.

This appointment adds a satisfying suggestion of cyclical composition to my narrative because Chris O’Connell’s Adjutant in 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards had been Guy Head, younger son of Commander Head (Bursar 1949-63), who had been my only contact with Brighton College long before I knew I would spend almost all my teaching career there. I was at school with Guy Head in the 40s and while the rest of his family were in the Royal Navy he joined the Brigade of Guards and ended his eminent career in command of the Sultan’s Forces in Oman, where I met him during my sabbatical year on VSO in Salalah. (See The Brightonian, May 1974!)

You do not reach Warrant Officer status in the Irish Guards without being a fearsome martinet on the parade ground with the right voice, vocabulary and presence but just as important in a cadet force were Chris’s irrepressible sense of humour and his inexhaustible fund of stories, in addition to his experience of running Junior Leadership courses in the Army. His knowledge and ability to display and instil mountain skills on Arduous Training camps in the Cairngorms, Mountains of Mourne and elsewhere was another valuable distinction. What became apparent later – perhaps surprisingly in a Regimental Sergeant Major – was an empathy with the young that often detected a troubled soul. Many a boy and girl found a sympathetic listener and wise counsellor in the Armoury where they could disclose worries that would not otherwise be eased.

As an interested observer I could watch with vicarious pleasure how the Corps, thanks to his contribution, proceeded to prosper and it received public recognition when in 1972 Brighton College was the school selected to provide the Army Section of the CCF contingent for the Queen’s Jubilee parade of the Armed Forces. As an additional honour the British Empire Medal was presented to Chris and he was also given the Lord Lieutenant’s Award ‘for meritorious service’. But that is a tale to be told by another in fifty years’ time.

P.S. I see that the last issue of The Pelican printed my second instalment, instead of the first in which I had explained what had set off this train of reminiscences. In fact it was last November’s Remembrance Service where I saw the date of 2004 was exactly 50 years since the first one I had attended. To explain the title ‘Jubilee’ I quoted the instructions about seven Sabbaths of years given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Book of Leviticus XXV; 10) ‘Ye shall hallow the fiftieth year.’ Hence the subsequent Old Testament references which may have baffled some readers.

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