John Jeff, 1st Bn Seaforth Highlanders

“They ought to bring back National Service!”

Young people today must be tired of hearing that, and it is usually uttered negatively, despairingly, as a ‘short sharp shock’ panacea for ‘the youth of today’. I would like NS re-introduced, but only so our current young adults could get as much from the experience as I did.

I received my call-up pares a few weeks before March 1957. I asked to join a Highland Regiment because two of my father’s brothers had served as officers in the Black Watch and Highland Light Infantry, respectively, in the First World War, and also I wanted it to be as difficult and hard an experience as possible. Having been at boarding schools since I was 4½ years old … NS held few fears for me.

Disgusting food

The main meals at Fort George were pretty disgusting, and we all had to take our turn in ‘spud-bashing’ and pan cleaning. Fettes food hadn’t prepared me for anything quite as unappetising as this! The breakfasts, swimming in fat, kept me fuelled and they, plus NAAFI[1] sausage and chips (I couldn’t afford anything else on 21/- net pay a week) and all the exercise, built my weight up. Later on, in our superb (ex-Panzer) barracks in Munster, we were chosen to spearhead the new-style army catering, with beautifully presented and tasty multi-choice food. No wonder I went up a couple of weight divisions in boxing, and was just under ten and a half stones when I left National Service.

My last Fettes report … shows that I was 5ft 6 in tall and only 8 stone at 16. When I arrived at Fort George 2½ years later I was 6ft tall and a spindly 9 stone, and had never before mixed with a lot of pretty tough lads from much less privileged backgrounds than mine. Some of the jobs we had to do I found heavy going; using a very heavy floor-polishing ‘bumper’ and digging trenches were not my forte.

The people I served with were superb and we all had absolutely no doubt that we were the very best Regiment in the British Army. Most people would do anything for anyone, there was no obvious resentment or bad feeling between people of differing backgrounds (and religions!), off-duty there was a fair amount of fraternisation between ‘other ranks’ and officers … there was very little bullying, although one or two would ‘throw their weight about’ sometimes, and this wouldn’t last long as it would be sorted out very quickly behind the NAAFI.

Love letters

A surprising number of my fellow soldiers were married, and/or had never been away from home before, or received ‘Dear John’ letters from their girlfriends (and sometimes their wives), or were unable to write. On several occasions I was asked to write love letters for lads who couldn’t “do words”, and some of the quite extraordinary dictation I received would make any O[ld] F[etesian] blush! Most were able to cope, but a few could not; a small number would go ‘AWOL’ by going home to sort out their problems, one shot himself by leaning on his rifle and pushing down the trigger, making a hole below his collarbone and in the ceiling, the bullet ending up in the bottom of a tin wardrobe in the barrack-room above. Another managed to hang himself, somehow, by his braces from a high-level lavatory cistern, not pleasant for those who had to cut him down, but a real tribute to the strength of army-issue clothing.

At the end of that cricket season I was sent to Barton Stacey Camp for my three-day [officer] Selection Board, and succeeded in failing it without making it too obvious, as I had been coached on exactly what to expect. I knew it would cost my parents at least £1000 (a lot of money in 1957) to kit me out as a Highland Regiment officer, and I knew they couldn’t afford this and I certainly didn’t want to be an officer in any other Regiment but the Seaforths.

I was fortunate enough to buy a car for £25 from our MT Sergeant, so I knew that it was in good mechanical order. My 1937 DKW 700cc 2-stroke car, ‘The Flying Mess-tin’ left a trail of blue smoke around the roads of Oxford Barracks [in Munster] as I learnt to drive … Petrol was provided by a good friend who was Corporal in charge of Petrol/Oil measuring and records, and my free petrol was part of ‘evaporation’ of Regimental stocks.

The only time I had any real trouble with a fellow Seaforth was on exercise on a very cold night on a German heath; we were all in slit trenches awaiting an attack on a clear moonlit night … and I had finished, utterly frozen, my 2-hour ‘stag’ on sentry duty and woke up the lad sharing the other (covered) part of the trench to tell him it was his turn - he told me to ‘go away’ in his brightest Glaswegian, and, when I insisted, he drew his bayonet on me, and he meant it! I invited him to get on with it, but reminded him of the consequences, and told him if he removed the knifepoint, by now pressing on my waistband, I would forget about it and not put him on a charge … it is a great tribute to the spirit in the Regiment that things so seldom turned really nasty like this.

[1] Navy Army and Airforce Institute

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