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Kenneth Tellis

Life on the move in a British Army Camp overseas
By Kenneth T. Tellis
Feb 3, 2013 - 1:15:09 AM

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My father, who was an army doctor, did not have any choice where he and his family could be sent to, when the orders came from the HQ. In the old days it was considered very normal to be sent to an overseas colony in Africa or Asia where there was a British Army Camp.

We had recently arrived here and had been staying in Army quarters for the last few weeks. My older siblings had to go to the Garrison School and being a five-year old, I had yet to be allowed to go there too.

Anyway, I was not the kind of child that hung around and did nothing. I had to have my own adventures and make discoveries of this new place we were to call our home away from home. There was a huge Combined British Military Hospital and a Family Hospital attached to it. At first I avoided the Military Hospital, because the nurses and the orderlies who saw me loitering around might question me and then report this to my father who was the officer in charge. Anyway, I settled on the smaller hospital as my first target and climbed onto the roof where there was a chimney of the coal-fired water heater below. I had my best friend and buddy my dog Blanco wait for me at the bottom of the building, little knowing that within the next half-hour all this was going to change. It just happened that my father was going to be visited by one of the officers from the nearby Army Camp. I saw a sports car driving by and as they passed there were my father and Major Urquart looking up at the roof where I was sitting. Major Urquart stopped his car and they both got out and came near the building. My father in his military fashion ordered me to get down at once. When I got down he was very angry with me and read me the riot act and then told me to go straight home at once.

Life was really filled with adventures and I was having a wonderful time. One day when I was out with my dog Blanco, it started to rain cats and dogs, and I was out there having the time of my life and Blanco was party to it. Here was I totally drenched and running around enjoying every bit of it. To my bad luck, I was seen by the Matron Greenwood, OBE, who was in charge of the family hospital, and who went and told my father of my father of my activities in the rain. My mother came by and dragged me home where she dried me with a towel. But, it was a bit too late, since that soaking in the rain had given me Pneumonia, and I was very ill for over a week.

But there was more to come in this new surrounding, because we lived in a bungalow and all our friends were members consisted of members of the British Army and their families. I would go to parade ground and watch the soldiers doing drill. In the evenings we had families that gathered at the same parade ground and spend time getting to know each other. There would Donkey rides for the older children and a few other games. Of course we did not mix with the local population, nor have any dealings with them socially. That would be unthinkable, and considered something just not done.

All my close friends were Army Brats like myself and I made some very good friends. One was Oliver Whitehouse who would use a catapult to kill birds. Or we would go collecting Red Bugs that came out soon after the rain. Then there was my friend Jimmy Orchard, the son of a sergeant major who was the first to befriend me when I arrived here.

My next adventure was to visit the hostelry and take a look at the horses for the Gun Carriage, which also was used for funerals. The man here was a Welshman nicknamed Waxy, his real name was Harold Ward and he came from Swansea, Wales. He would show me the inside of the hostelry where he worked. As an army hostler and his work was using Brasso in polishing brass and keeping the leatherwork of the bridle supple using Dubbin to soften it?

Waxy and I became good friends, and he used to call me the little warrior. I was really having a great time and I was to learn a lot of how thing were run in an army camp.

One day, I saw a snake enter the army bungalow and followed it inside, where I got hold of a pole to poke it, never realizing that it was a very poisonous snake. Till my Mum heard the racket that I was making and came to find out what the problem was? As soon as she the snake, she sent for my father who took out his gun and shot the creature. Since I had never laid eyes on a snake before, I had no idea of the dangers of antagonizing a poisonous snake.

A few months it would all come home to me. A sergeant who was visiting a friend at the Army hospital, decided to walk back to the camp. But, he had no idea that there were a lot of snakes that came out to hunt in the evening and he got bitten. Now in those days the snake had to be caught to make antitoxin from its venom to treat the person who was bitten. My father sent out people to look for the snake and kill or capture it for making the anti-venom serum for treating the sergeant with.

My father had just gone out of the hospital one evening to meet an ambulance that was arriving, when he heard a whistling sound. He had no idea what it was and there was waiting with our dog Blanco at the side of the road. Blanco, also hearing the sound walked in the direction from which it came and was attacked by a snake. My father managed to get Blanco home and he was in a very bad state. But my father then got a team of soldiers to search for the snake. They managed to corner it and kill the snake. It turned out to be the very snake that had bitten the sergeant that evening and they were able to save his life. But for poor Blanco there was no such luck, because he died that same evening. My buddy Blanco had unknowingly saved my fathers life that night by fighting that snake, and I had lost my best friend.

The Coronation of King George VI was being held in London, and all British Military Camps overseas were holding a Coronation Ball for the occasion. My Mum took charge of all the catering since she was a very good cook. And I can still remember the Ball, because that was the very first time that I heard the tune "On the Beach of Bali Bali" played by a band. The next day all the children in the Camp received a Coronation Medal and also what we then called the King's Cup. My Mum had been doing a lot of needlework for the occasion. She made cushions of the Royal Coat-of-Arms and the Union flag on them. The Coronation Dinner that was held on May 6, 1937 was very sumptuous affair. My Mum had made Irish stew with dumplings, Beef Olives, Roast Beef, Steak and Kidney Pudding, and roast Piglet with an apple in its mouth. Of course we also had sandwiches of all kinds and Blancmange Pudding and Custard Pudding. My father being a medical officer was totally in charge of the Army Hospital, and responsible for its operation and the treatment of army personnel. It was very hard in those times if you contracted VD. My father was treating a close army friend for syphilis, and had to give him Malaria, in order to kill the disease, but it did not work and my father watched his friend die in agony when the syphilis had reached his brain.

One day, I saw my father dress in riding britches and wear his Sam Brown belt along with his ceremonial sword and I asked him why he had all this on? He told me that in the afternoon there was to be a funeral cortege passing by the house with the body of a 3rd Royal Artillery sergeant on a Gun Carriage and a Dead March with soldiers having their rifle butts reversed preceding it.

We had just begun to enjoy life, when my father was ordered to go to British Somaliland, to await the invasion of Abyssinia and Eritrea by the British Imperial Forces. From there he was sent to the Sudan and latterly to Cairo, and from Cairo to a standing camp in Alexandria. When the British advanced into Libya, he went to Derna, Bardia, which were captured without a fight, and they captured over 100.000 men from Mussolini's Italian army stationed there. I was not to see my father for a goodly six years. But such was the life of the British soldier who was sent overseas. In time I had become a very independent and knowledgeable person and I went to the Army Camp to meet with men who came back from the front. I talked to them and they told me their stories. But I was also made aware of the Royal Maritime Artillery and their job defending Merchant Ships against German Surface Raiders (Merchant Cruisers) in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and on the coast of East Africa. But not leaving out incidents of Japanese Surface Raiders in the area of the Bay of Bengal and the near the Andaman Islands that had sunk or captured British Merchantmen on the high seas.

And so I end this story of another episode in the life of an army brat, which I hope that you will enjoy.

Kenneth T. Tellis


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