National Service in Ceylon – Jan 1947 to Jan 1949

John Summers

(For photographs of John's time in Ceylon see here)

I was called up for National Service in February 1947 when 18 years of age, during one of the worst winters on record. During the war and just after there was a shortage of coal for industry and homes and, because of this, from 1943 to 1948 one in every ten conscripts was assigned to work in the mines. They were known as "Bevin boys" after Ernest Bevin the Minister of Labour and National Defence. Before my enlistment I worked with a firm of shipping agents in Buchanan Street, Glasgow: Roxburgh, Colin Scott & Co. Ltd. in the crew and accounts department. I enjoyed the work I did there. Strathaven, in Lanarkshire, was my hometown and where I was born.

After passing a medical examination I opted to serve in the army although my elder brother served in the RAF during the war. I was posted to the Green Howards, an infantry regiment near Beverley, Yorkshire, to do six weeks basic training – usually called "square bashing." We were taught marching formations, rifle and bayonet drill designed to make us fit to serve in any sector or regiment of the army. All this was done under very strict army discipline. A sergeant and a corporal were our two instructors. The corporal was a man about six feet six inches tall - powerfully built - and looked really ferocious in his endeavours to teach us how to charge with a rifle and bayonet. There was fear in eyes of the lads when seeing this hunk of a man charging at a sack filled with straw suspended on pillars and plunging a bayonet into it. We were expected to follow his example.

The lads training with me came from a variety of backgrounds but all of us were soon made aware by the Green Howard instructors that any nonsense would not be tolerated. "Jankers" was a frequent threat or "put on a fizzer": being put on a minor charge or, more seriously, landing in the camp jail (derivation of "jankers" unknown although thought to be of Hindu origin). Coming from Scotland made it difficult at times to understand the accent of the lads from certain parts of England as listening to a BBC wireless voice was my only experience. Nevertheless, it made a colourful mixture of accents and, no doubt, the English lads at times would find our Scottish accent rather peculiar. One problem I recall - and nothing to do with accent - was ordering three scones from a NAAFI canteen and asked them to be put in a "poke", which I thought was a normal English word. I received a bewildered look until I eventually explained: paper bag. There were other West of Scotland expressions I used that I thought were normal English phrases and these again met with baffled looks.

The snow was very deep around the area of the camp and when the thaw came it caused floods in the surrounding areas. Several nights, or very early mornings, we were taken to a nearby quarry to fill sand bags to help stem the floods of water in surrounding towns and villages in Yorkshire. There was no form of heating in our billets and we had the discomfort of putting on wet boots and clothes on rising each morning. However, the lads during the war would have had to put up with much worse conditions. Towards the end of our training we were given an IQ test to determine our suitability for future postings. I was despatched to the Royal Signals at Catterick Camp, near Richmond, in Yorkshire under the heading of "clerk special duties" - whatever that meant!

Training at Catterick consisted mainly of learning to send and receive messages in Morse code; learning to type and several other aspects of signal communications including the Murray code system which was associated with teleprinters (sometimes called teletype). The signals training was quite extensive and took at least seven months to complete. It was a Grade 1 trade and eventually earned a few pence per week more than some others. Following our signals training no other National Service men were put on this course and only regular soldiers, making a life in the Royal Signals were trained in view of the length of time it took.

Catterick was my first experience of doing guard and also piquet duty. The Signals unit was located in the Mosul lines in the camp and there was guard duty each night. "Orders" were posted upon a notice board and a daily check had to be made to see if your name and "last three" (the last three of your army number) appeared for guard or piquet duty. The guard was thoroughly inspected by a duty officer beforehand and the best turned out soldier (sometimes called "stick man") did not require to do any guard and was awakened at 5am in order to arouse the duty officer and some others in the morning. I was selected for this on one occasion and the officer whom I had to awaken was adamant I should ensure he got out of bed before I left. I did this but he didn't look too pleased with my best efforts.

On completion of our signals training we were sent to a transit camp for one week which gathered together the lads from various regiments who were being shipped overseas. I boarded the troopship "Georgic" in Liverpool in December 1947 which was destined for the FARELF (Far Eastern Land Forces). I did not know where this would take me. The Georgic was a cruise liner converted into a troopship during the war. Our beds on board consisted of iron bed frames, one on top and one below, and canvas was stretched across these iron frames to form each bed basis. It was mid-winter and very cold. The tendency was to pile the blankets we had on top until we realised it was just as important to have a good layer of blankets underneath. It was quite rough in the Bay of Biscay before we entered the Mediterranean and our first port of call was Naples. We then sailed through the Suez Canal, stopped at a few ports including Aden and Colombo, before proceeding to Singapore. Hundreds of soldiers were lined up on the deck at Singapore with full kit ready to disembark when a Signals Officer called out six names including mine.

What had I done wrong was my first reaction! The six of us were told there had been a breakdown in communications and we should have disembarked at Colombo (not a very good start for a Signals squad). We stayed on board the Georgic for two weeks till all the soldiers who had completed their service embarked to sail home. I was pleased about this move: when we stopped at Colombo on the way over Ceylon looked a beautiful sunny island with sandy beaches lined with palm trees, whereas Singapore looked a bit dull and dreary and had obviously suffered from the Japanese occupation. All the other Royal Signal lads continued their journey from Singapore to a signal station at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We were allowed to get off the boat a few times during out stay and visited The Raffles Club on one occasion. Its appearance at that time did not live up to what I envisaged and it was obvious little upgrading had been done since the war years. Care had to be taken where one wandered in Singapore and once through ignorance found ourselves in a "no go" area and were quickly pounced on by two Military Policemen. Eventually they realised, after an interrogation, why we were not aware of banned districts. They thought we should just stay on the Georgic.

Eventually we arrived in Colombo probably about four weeks later than planned and were billeted in Echelon barracks (now demolished) in Colombo for two days. We boarded a truck on the third day and told we were going to a high speed wireless station about 40 miles north and out in the wilds. We were warned it was rough soldiering as there were very limited facilities at "Hora Henna". It didn't sound good!

On arriving at Hora Henna (name possibly associated with snakes as Ceylon has a vast variety of them) we were met by a friendly distinguished looking signals captain who supervised us getting of the truck with all our equipment and directed us where we should go to report our arrival. It was not till afterwards I discovered this was Captain Cox, the CO (commanding officer). He was a real gentleman and held in very high regard and respected by all the lads.

There was lieutenant who spent some time in the camp; his name was De Silva - no doubt descendant from previous Portuguese occupation. He was the paymaster who paid us every two weeks. He always had an armed army guard with him when drawing money from a bank in Colombo. This guard was from some regiment based at Echelon barracks. However, on one occasion he came without this guard and had to find a replacement to go with him to the bank. For some reason or other I was chosen! I was equipped with a revolver and holster and he and I and a Sinhalese driver set out in a car to go to Colombo. We entered the bank and to me it felt like one of those old cowboy films I used to enjoy where the robbers made off with all the cash. If I had been challenged, I thought, there was nothing I could have done: there was no ammunition in the revolver and if there had been I didn't have a clue how to fire it. On our way back we picked up a high ranking Signals Officer in Colombo to take him to another location. This seemed to be a fairly regular routine. He was a very pleasant Scotsman and wondered why the usual guard was missing. Knowing the background to my type of training it twigged on him that the operation of a revolver would not be one of my expertise. He teased me about this and I was impressed with his modest and friendly manner.

The station acted mainly as a relay station, receiving messages from other parts of the world and transmitting them forward to other stations. In those days there were no satellites, and messages to and from London and other stations such as Melbourne, Australia, Kuala Lumpur and other locations could not be sent directly because of the distance. When I arrived there were a few signal connections still operating with high-speed Morse but were in the process of being changed to a radio-teletype system using the Murray code, a five unit telegraph code system developed from the Baudot code by Donald Murray (a New Zealander) who died in 1945. Since then I think further developments have been made to the 5 unit system. Messages from other signal stations for transmission onwards were received mainly in normal language via teleprinters but some were in cipher form. These messages were also received on tape and then had then to be fed via an auto-head for forward transmission by radio signal. This was, I thought, quite "state-of-the-art" at that time for army use although it had been initially developed earlier in the century. Depending on atmospheric conditions messages sometimes had to be sent more than once to clarify. Messages received from the army headquarters in Colombo had to be prepared by our lads by typing a punched tape to transmit. We could also communicate with other stations by using the teleprinter keyboard to ensure messages were received in good order or to answer any questions. We also had an occasional unofficial chat with our counterparts at the other stations. Having this friendly talk was probably an offence but did help to foster good relationships. There was always a radio mechanic on shift during the day to ensure the wireless equipment was in good order.

The results of the main UK football matches were sent from London to give the lads some sport information. Football scores were then retransmitted to the signal's station in Kuala Lumpur. These results from London came under the name of Archie Quick. Who this was I have not a clue, but I have a sneaking feeling one of our lads sometimes changed the scores to suit the team he supported and no doubt disappointing some unsuspecting person receiving the transmitted messages.

There was a three shift work system in operation: day shift; back shift and night shift. This was necessary as at least one of the other distant signal stations would be working in view of the time factor. We were allowed one day off after nine days work. There were no week-end holidays. On night shift each of us had to do a turn of one hour guard duty at the gate and sometimes on other shifts too. Also, on an hourly basis overnight each had to do piquet duty. This comprised of walking round all parts of the camp's perimeter to see that everything was secure and there were no intruders. This was a rather dark eerie task as all sorts of unusual sounds and rustles were heard from the wild life. The camp was a fair size and would cover the area of approximately eight football fields. Usually on our day off we would be trucked either to Colombo city or to Negombo beach which was approximately 10 miles away from the camp. About ten lads could travel in this truck and to pass time on the journey a sing-song ensued and the favourite songs were: "There's an Old Mill by the Stream Nellie Dean" and "Wait till the Sun Shines Nellie". There were a few other songs, of course.

Actually, the singing was reasonably pleasant to the ear - sometimes: dependent upon who were on the truck. Colombo was a busy place and it was the first time I had tasted ice-tea. Negombo beach was beautiful and it reminded me of some colour films I had seen of paradise islands. Tidal waves were quite strong and swimming was not easy. I was by no means a strong swimmer.

I was assured, along with the lads who arrived at the camp with me, we would be given some leave at Diyathawala in the central uplands of the island where the weather is cooler. This never transpired as replacement signalmen were not arriving to give any relief to the pressure of work. This was due to no further National Servicemen being trained for this type of work. We were very disappointed at the time. A change of scenery and temperature would have been welcome.

The billets, or what we called "Bashas", were about 25 yards long by 9 yards wide (constructed from local vegetation probably mainly palm trees with a type of rough thatch roof) all resting on concrete bases. They were surrounded by many palm trees and coconuts were in abundant supply but I can't remember who had the right to harvest these nuts. Occasionally, local Sinhalese men appeared and attached a rope round each ankle and climbed the trees like monkeys to cut off the coconuts and gather them. We had the pleasure of tasting the ones that happened to fall from the trees when official harvesting was not in operation. Three billets accommodated the soldiers who manned the three shift operation. There was a small officers mess, and a small sergeants mess. In addition there was a partially open situated cookhouse, a canteen and a games hut for table tennis and snooker. The signals operations room was constructed of brick and looked more substantial than the other buildings.

A Signals sergeant major appeared on the scene one day and was billeted in the camp for about three months. I think he was sent from Colombo to smarten up the camp and impose some dress discipline, or more likely he was just spare after the war and needed some place to be located. Not only did he cause the soldiers some extra work with kit inspections etc., but I am sure the officers and NCO's also suffered some discomfort with his presence. I recall during one kit inspection I was missing one of my two towels: in the Sergeant Major's opinion an offence. I had to be marched smartly in front of Captain Cox to explain this deficiency. Now, towels were worn often during the day on the way to the showers and it was not unusual for the lads to have fun whipping a towel from one of their mates and running off with it to cause him the embarrassment of running back naked to his billet. It was always returned to the owner but for a short period someone had three towels and someone one. This was a well-known frolic in the camp and was ignored by the officers and NCO's. In fact, they looked upon it as some entertainment for the young lads. There were never at any time females in the camp. At the hearing, and in the Sergeant Major's presence, Captain Cox had to demonstrate some authority and I was rebuked for having a towel missing. I was admonished and dismissed with a look and a faint smile from the Captain and told by him to be more careful. Other lads also had to be reprimanded for the same "offence" and other minor infringements. Not that there a was a lack of discipline in the camp but the Sergeant Major with little to do, I am sure, had to make his presence felt. As far as I know he had no knowledge of the work done in the operations room and I saw him in there on one occasion only.

Surprisingly, despite our location mosquitoes did not bother us too much. We slept under nets but I can't recall anyone being bitten. cobra snakes were often seen and caused some panic at times. Scorpions were common visitors and at certain times of the year flying beetles invaded billets when the electric lights were on. On one occasion I can recall we switched off the lights and lit torches so that the invading beetles had their wings burned and landed on the concrete floor. Army boots (called tackety boots in Scotland) were then put on feet and the beetles were trampled to death and swept out. Ants were another pest and they were kept from invading billet huts by surrounding the huts with some liquid chemical – I forget the name of it; maybe it was just petrol. On one occasion a type of Monitor lizard entered the camp. It was about five feet long and the locals Sinhalese working in the camp called it a Cobragoya (I may have the spelling wrong). I think the official name is probably varanus bengalensis which can reach lengths of well over one metre.

The camp cooks and other non-military workers on the camp were all Sinhalese and only a very few had a slight knowledge of the English language. There were no flush toilets and the work done by some of these men to cope with clearing and cleaning was by no means attractive. Fortunately the toilet facilities were well away from the living quarters. There was also a local barber who came a few days during the week to attend to the necessary haircuts. In those days soldiers hair had to be kept very much on the short side. Facial hair was taboo.

Entertainment was limited: there was a tennis court; table tennis; a rather uneven snooker table and one set of football goal posts. No girls, no dances! There was an RAF station about ten miles away where occasionally we went by truck to a small cinema to see some old films. That was about the lot. Another Scot's lad and I had played tennis from an early age and we were challenged to a doubles match against one of the sergeants and the lieutenant on two occasions. Much to the enjoyment of the lads watching the games we were not defeated. The officer and sergeant promised us another match but it did not come about. The tennis court had been constructed by soldiers who had served during the war with a good deal help of local labour. The court itself was in good shape but the net had seen better days. Tennis balls and racquets were kept in a very small clubhouse all of which were not in the best shape but nevertheless "served" the purpose.

The temperature did not vary much, even at night it was very warm. It took about a month to get even partially acclimatised to the heat. There was a popular open shower and wash place that was often used to clean and also to cool down a bit. The sun shone most of the time but when it rained it really poured down. One of the lads was discharged and sent home because of some type of skin condition that could not cope with the sun and heat. Two others with red hair had to cover up and wear a top of some kind most of the time when in the sun. At certain times of the year it was extremely humid and sleeping was difficult particularly after coming off nightshift. When not working shorts and sandals were the usual dress mode.

The nearest medical centre and small hospital was at the RAF station, and most of the lads, at some time or other, developed some complaint that required treatment. Dhobi itch, (tinea cruris) a form of skin fungus, was the main complaint and required several visits for treatment. One of the cures was the application of Whitfield ointment to the affected part, which I believe can also be used to treat ringworm infections. Prickly heat also caused discomfort mainly during very humid weather.

Like most of the lads I was very keen to get back home and "roll on the boat" was an often heard expression. Having said that, and looking back, the time spent there was most enjoyable despite not having any leave during my stay. I found my entire National Service a very educational experience which I am sure helped me in future employment. I eventually boarded the Empire Windrush and landed in Southampton in mid-January 1949.

I found it a bit difficult to settle in work when I arrived home as Roxburgh: Colin Scott & Co. Ltd. had amalgamated with other shipping agents and the work allotted to me was entirely different from what I had done previously and which I enjoyed. After a few months I changed jobs and started employment in the Marketing Department of the National Coal Board and worked with them in various capacities until I retired.

The foregoing was written by me in response to a woman whose grandfather had served at this station in Ceylon just prior to me arriving there. She managed to contact me through the Royal Signals internet site ( and was desperate to find someone who might have known him. Seemingly he died in his fifties and the she was also keen to know information about the signals camp, the work done there and my experiences. I contacted her about a year later but she still had been unsuccessful in her quest to find someone who had actually known her Grandfather. My recollections of signals work and systems might not be exactly accurate in view of the passing of the years but mostly they are correct. I now wish I had kept a detailed diary of my National Service life.

John Summers 2012