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Former chairman of Wisdom Hospice shares memories of National Service in the 1960s

Luneburg Heath, northern Germany, July 19, 1960.

The 10th Royal Hussars are on annual tank manoeuvres in a time of heightened Cold War tension, and as night falls, the remote detection systems of the Soviet Union could this minute be trained on the regiment's overnight tank park. Perhaps black-clad Russian special ops forces are this second focusing infrared binoculars on the Hussars' treasured engines of war, from the midst of nearby heathland shrubs.

No. 1 Guard of the 10th Royal Hussars. Peter Hopgood is in the third row, sixth from the left. Submitted by Peter Hopgood
No. 1 Guard of the 10th Royal Hussars. Peter Hopgood is in the third row, sixth from the left. Submitted by Peter Hopgood

Or they might not be. But if they had, the technicians operating those remote detection systems would surely be quivering at the controls, and the special ops forces would surely have edged back deeper into their shrubs, wide-eyed with fear, because they would also have detected the British-made defence system in place to protect those tanks....

A man with a stick.

And not just any man – for that man was Peter Hopgood, and as Peter recounts in his blog – snoppersays.blogspot.com – the four months of National Service training before his posting in Germany had turned him into a "lethal killing machine, who was quite capable of turning left and right on command."

Sixty years on from when the last National Servicemen were called up in November 1960, Peter, 81 – a former chairman of Friends of the Wisdom Hospice in Rochester who lives in Leybourne – has shared his memories of serving his country; memories which he's collated over the years since retiring as deputy chief executive for Tonbridge and Malling Council.

His accounts, written with fondness, realism and humour in turn, will no doubt resonate with many others who entered National Service as "wide eyed innocents" and left as grown men with a new outlook on life.

Peter Hopgood Picture by Barry Crayford.
Peter Hopgood Picture by Barry Crayford.

"Today is the 4th of February," wrote Peter earlier this year. "It comes round each and every year, of course, and each time it does it takes me back 60 years when things happened to change my life forever.

"I woke up that morning in the pub that my parents owned in the rustic serenity of the Hampshire border country but I would spend that night in quite another world. Early that morning I was given a lift by a neighbour to Reading train station; caught the train to Paddington station in London, crossed the capital and boarded another train at Euston station."

He recalls how the journey north ended with him bundled into the back of a three-ton Bedford truck which deposited him and fellow new recruits at Catterick Camp, in Yorkshire, "thrust into a quite alien world of confusion, not to say bewilderment" to begin two years of National Service.

"I think there were about 12 of us thrown together as `B` Squad in the 60/03 intake and we were allotted a barrack room where we were left to unpack our belongings," he writes.

"The first things that struck me were, firstly, the diverse dialects, from Hartlepool to Esher, calling at Manchester, Derby, London, Glasgow and it seemed all points of the UK compass. The second was my exposure to more 'industrial' language than I ever knew existed, to heroic blasphemy, to obscenely colourful descriptions, such that the constant use of technicolour swearing simply resulted in negating its intended effect. It became the norm.

"I suppose I grew up fast, became resourceful, became immune to the constant pace, hustle, bustle and sheer pointlessness of military life. I learnt to go with the flow, to accept that I was there for 731 days and to just get on with it, to grow accustomed to being asked what was my "'orrible spewy name" and accustomed to all the other abuses and attacks on what was left of my innocent, provincial sensitivities by bawling, masochistic, one-stripe drill corporals.

"It comes round each and every year, of course, and each time it does it takes me back 60 years when things happened to change my life forever. .."

"For six weeks we learned how to march up and down, turn left and right and even turn around. When we weren't marching, we were shining our kit, doing PT, doing fatigues and all the while counting the days, if not the hours."

Not all those at Catterick were able to adapt so fast, and his blog shows how brutal life could be for those who failed to meet standards required in basic training.

"As our training progressed, we began to support each other against the onslaught of military discipline, prejudice, intellect and practice," writes Peter. "One of our group was, sadly, one of life's unfortunates. A pleasant, mild natured, inoffensive chap called Newton, who came from somewhere like Retford in Nottinghamshire.

"However hard he tried, he simply could not come to terms with the marching drill. He was naturally ungainly and it wasn't his fault that he could never look tidy, but that had singled him out for special (mis)treatment by the drill corporals. The rest of us did what we could to help him – polishing his brasses, shining his boots, ironing his shirts – but we couldn't march for him.

"Things reached a climax one day when the drill corporal's patience finally ran out. The barrack block was a very big building on at least three storeys, mounted with a clock tower in the centre of the roof. After yet more of Mr Newton's marching incompetence on the parade ground, the drill corporal's`conversation with him went something like:-

Corporal: "Newton, do you see that ******* great building there?"

Newton: "Yes, Corporal."

Corporal: "Do you see that door in the middle there?"

Newton: "Yes, Corporal."

Corporal: "Right, Newton. When I give the order for you to march, I want you to move smartly to that door. When you get there, open it and go inside. You'll see a flight of stairs that goes all the way up to that clock tower. Still with me?"

Newton: "Yes, Corporal."

Corporal: "Right. I want you to climb those stairs, get to the top, come out onto that balcony and jump off. And before you hit the ground, I want you to shout out 'Here comes **** all.' Got that, Newton?"

Newton: "Yes, Corporal."

Corporal: "Right, Newton. Quick march!!"

"And off he went in the direction of the door. When he got there, he didn't hesitate and disappeared inside, which left a now concerned drill corporal to run after him and haul him back into the sunlight. It changed things.

"We helped him more and more and so, remarkably, did the drill corporals, whose attitude, either borne out of fear or admiration, changed into an almost benign encouragement which lasted until Mr Newton and the rest of us 'passed out' a few weeks later, after which I never saw him again.

"I went back to Catterick some years ago and was relieved to see that the barracks and its clock tower had been demolished and I wondered whether the world was smiling any more kindly on our ungainly colleague. I hoped it was."

On another occasion – a cold, snowy day in the midst of the North Yorkshire winter, Peter and his comrades were herded into the "ubiquitous Bedford 3-ton truck" and driven off for half an hour into the depths of the rural Yorkshire, until the truck stopped and four of the recruits including Peter were invited to step outside.

Whether they were in the depths of the Yorkshire Moors or the Yorkshire Dales, it was difficult to say... but there they were left abandoned.

The Yorkshire Moors. Image from iStock and Lorado
The Yorkshire Moors. Image from iStock and Lorado

"I don`t know why, but of the four of us, I was handed a map and a compass and told to escort the other three back to our barracks at Catterick in time for tea," writes Peter. "With that, the truck sped off, presumably to deposit other groups of four at various locations. I didn't have a clue where we were, so the first thing to do was find a road, hopefully a crossroads with a signpost and then check the map and find the route back to camp.

"But hang on a minute. Here we were, by ourselves, dumped in the middle of nowhere and we could have taken the option to just look at the compass and head south. But 50 years ago, after three weeks of military training, the thought never crossed our minds and after a few travails, we just about made it back in time for tea. Those Dragon Guards had done a job on us, so much so that we considered our return to Catterick as something of a triumph rather than a missed opportunity."

After a few months of Catterick, Peter was "whipped into enough shape to be posted to a regiment - the 10th Royal Hussars (Prince of Wales` Own); the Shiny Tenth, the XRH - in the green hell of BFPO 16 in Germany."

It was there in that northwest German camp that Peter learnt to be "hard", by choosing a pint of Paderborner Export and a pork pie over cup of tea and a sticky bun during the mid-morning break at the NAAFI canteen.

And it was there that he 'celebrated' his 21st birthday, on July 19, 1960, by defending his new regiment's best hardwear with a pick-axe handle.

Allied parade in Tiergarten, West Berlin, 1965. Image from iStock and Atlantic-Kid
Allied parade in Tiergarten, West Berlin, 1965. Image from iStock and Atlantic-Kid

Peter writes: "In those days, the 21st was THE big birthday – the introduction of 18th birthday celebrations had not happened – so the 21st was the ultimate rite of passage. Well, for most, I guess it may have been.

"For me, it was anything but. The reason? I was being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure by doing my National Service with one of the country's finest cavalry regiments – the 10th Royal Hussars, no less. And it just happened to be that my 21st birthday coincided with the annual tank manoeuvres which took place close to Schneverdingen on Luneburg Heath in northern Germany.

"And it just happened to be that those in charge of the regiment thought it would be a good idea to assign me to the job of guarding the tank park overnight. (I always thought the idea was that the tanks were there to guard us, rather than the other way around.) I was convinced that my posting on guard that night was an act of deliberately evil intent on the part of the military, presumably thinking that such malevolence would teach me not to react in a way which would be "contrary to good order and military discipline."

"Now, the army's idea of how to effectively guard a regiment of tanks and other assorted armoured fighting vehicles was to equip the person on guard with a wooden stick. So when, at about 3am in the middle of this teutonic wasteland night, a loud bang is heard emanating from said tank park, yours truly charges forth brandishing the wooden stick and shouting "How dare you interrupt my 21st birthday?"......or words to that effect.

"Later I discovered that it was the work of an upstart subaltern who thought it would be a jolly jape to unsettle the guard by throwing a firecracker into the middle of the serried ranks of vehicles. I seriously doubt that the military careers of either of us were enhanced that night – he for being up so late and me for not really troubling myself too much to apprehend the culprit.

"For all of that, however, I still retain some kind of warped affection for the regiment and a real friendship with some of the people with whom I was conscripted all those years ago. However, I did feel a slight sense of revenge when, in 1969, the 10th Royal Hussars were amalgamated with another regiment and so were no more.

"And with each and every birthday that comes around, I think back to that long, dark night in that faraway wilderness on that pointless task and wonder whether I should sue the government for the psychological damage I have suffered ever since for being denied my 21st birthday."

It wasn't all traumatic though, and by February 4, 1961 he was half way through his two years service, and breezing through army life.

"It was downhill all the way now," writes Peter. "I had become a highly tuned lethal killing machine; well at least on the pinball machine in Fritz's bar down the road. I had mastered the curious world of military language (language, military for the use of); I could by now turn smartly left, right and right around and I could respond instantly to being barked at by sergeants, officers and anyone else who fancied a good bark.

"On the positive side, I had risen to the dizzy heights of Lance Corporal; I had become part of the Regimental football squad and, most importantly, had cemented my part time role as a fully trained projectionist in the garrison cinema. I had long been accepted as a member of the PA Club, following my downing of the entry level eight litres of Fritz's finest in one go and I had also been accepted as a member of the National Service Ticking Association, whose role in life was to tick (a mild but constant form of grumbling) about anything remotely military, especially barking."

"What it did for me personally is still relevant, in that if you've got something to do that is useful to the community..."

"But the 10th turned out to be something of a 'family', with a sense of togetherness, of 'comradeship' and even as a mere National Serviceman, I was seduced into believing that I had found a kind of acceptance. If I had not been on my guard, I could equally have been seduced into returning that acceptance, for when the day finally came to leave, 731 days on from being pitchforked into Catterick`s three-ton truck, I was asked by the Shiny 10th`s Commanding Officer whether I might like to stay on and become a regular soldier – with vague promises of promotion and a secure future (in an armoured fighting regiment? I don`t think so) – but I declined gracefully and headed for the exit door."

And so a year later the 731 days of service were complete, and Peter was free of the army.

"I left behind some strident memories, some good, some dreadful, some hilarious, some tinged with genuine pathos," he added. "But I also left behind some good friends, some of whom I am still in touch with these 50 years on. And I know that at least one of them will be reading this shambling ramble with similar memories to my own. Somehow, it only seems like yesterday."

"I've said before that, for me, the experiences I had left me with mixed feelings; I would rather not have been called up and yet, having been, I learnt things about life and about myself that I suspect have proved useful, not least the comradeship I discovered from being 'all in this together'. And yes, my cynicism remains untouched, for how else could it be, having proved so hopeless at shooting that my rifle range score was laughably inept so I was posted to a cavalry regiment that had tanks with massive guns; and when I was demobbed I found myself posted to a reserve regiment that went by the name of Sharpshooters. Which, of course, aptly demonstrates the eternal contradiction in terms that is military intelligence."

Allied military vehicles parade in Tiergarten, West Berlin, 1965. Image from iStock and Atlantic-Kid
Allied military vehicles parade in Tiergarten, West Berlin, 1965. Image from iStock and Atlantic-Kid

Speaking to Kent Online this week, Peter said admitted there weren't many National Servicemen left to share their memories, but he wasn't going to fall back on clichéd suggestion that today's youth should be called up.

"I wouldn't recommend it to anyone," he said. "The difference is the time scale. When we were brought up in the 1960s you didn't have any choice. Nobody went against it – it was just part of life and you shrugged your shoulders and did it. Nowadays there would be so much that people wouldn't want to do, and so many people against it, it wouldn't work.

"My alternative suggestion would be that rather than have enforced military service, I'd propose some mandatory but limited time spent doing things in the community. Even if it's something like picking up litter, it's doing something. What it did for me personally is still relevant, in that if you've got something to do that is useful to the community, it will help develop a sense of self awareness, and it gives you self discipline."

And that's something that an ex-servicemen never loses. He might no longer wield a pick-axe handle with the same swashbuckling menace as his 21-year-old self, but Peter's regular blog updates show his self discipline remains as powerful a weapon as ever.

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