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Chapter 4: Arrested as an Irish Spy

by CSV Media NI

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Archive List > Books > Alex Dickson - Memoirs

Contributed by 
CSV Media NI
People in story: 
Alex Dickson
Location of story: 
Ilford or Barking, England
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8876343
Contributed on: 
27 January 2006

Very shortly afterwards the 70th Battalion was broken up and Col Lucy was given a new command at Palace Barracks the 28th Training Battalion so that everybody in the
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Battalion was transferred to other regiments but he kept me and seven other people who he took with him to Palace Barracks.
During my service with the Royal Ulster Rifles two rather unusual things happened to me. The first item was rather a strange one it was during the time in 1943 when we were stationed with the 70th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles at Chigwell in Essex. The Headquarters were in quite a nice house I think it was called Rolls Park. One day Colonel Lucy sent for me, I was one of his signal instructors and he told me he had been thinking and was a bit concerned about what would happen to our communications if we ever had to go into action in what was a fairly built up area, parts of London and he realised that our infantry sets I think they were called a 28 set had not any great distances. I agreed with him and I said that I felt in practice when out on schemes that if I could get a bit of height, sometimes by putting an aerial up a tree or if I could get up unto a height it helped the distance we could cover and I suggested that if we were in action in a built up area the best plan would be for the radio operators, if possible, to get unto the top of a high building, preferably a flat roofed one and that way we would increase the distance we could cover. He agreed to this and asked me to arrange a scheme. Well I arranged it and suggested to him that from were we where in Chigwell if we dropped one man with a radio in say the following towns lIford, Barking, Dagenham, Woodford, Wandstead a man in each of those places dropped of with a radio with instructions to if possible get on top of a high building and set up communication we would have a headquarters set set-up at headquarters here in Chigwell, the house we were in was fairly high and we could put up an outside aerial. The Colonel readily agreed to this and a few days later the transport was laid on and we left mid-morning, we were each issued with a packed lunch, which turned out to be a corned beef sandwich and we were driven of and the driver stopped of at lIford, Barking, Dagenham, Woodford, and Wandstead. Dropping a man with a radio off at each place. I myself was one of the ones dropped off, I don't particularly know those areas that well, I think it was either Ilford or Barking I was dropped off in and very quickly I was in the main street, I looked around and there was a good high building with a flat roof, so I made my way over, the doors were locked but there was a bell which was marked caretaker which I rang and a man eventually opened the door and I said to him, "I would like up unto your roof, I'm on an army scheme."
He looked at me for a while without saying much and then said, "What's that on your back?"
"Oh I said that's the radio I'll be using", he didn't answer me again and he was still holding the door half-open and didn't invite me in. I said to him "Look mate this is an army scheme and it is important that I get up unto your roof, if you don't give me permission I'll have to find someone who will."
So at that without saying anything he opened the door and waved me in and showed me up to the top floor and then through door unto the roof. He didn't come out with me, he closed the door once I had stepped through and it was an ideal position a good sized flat roof with a little parapet built the whole way round it, it looked a fairly new building and I went over to the edge which overlooked the main street there were no other large building obstructing us in anyway so I thought it was an excellent position for the radio. I set up my radio made all the connections and it didn't take very long before I had made contact with our headquarters at Chigwell and then giving a bit of time for the others to get into their various positions I eventually got through to most of the other stations and was delighted that my scheme was working. It took a bit of time and eventually I was a bit peckish and I had my corned beef sandwich for lunch but then I felt as if I needed a toilet, it was getting essential that I was going to have to have a leak. I turned my radio off and made my way over to the door, knocked it but nothing happened so I hunted and I had an old ex- scout clasp knife in my pocket a heavy thing so I took it out and used it to hammer the door but no one appeared so it was essential that I do something so I walked round the back of the roof and I noticed a place on the roof where the floor gradually sloped towards the edge and an opening where the water would have run off into spoutings. Nobody could see me where I was so I had my leak on the roof where it would go down into the spouting and made my way over to the radio again set for a while then I sat wondering "Jesus Christ what's going to happen when the lorry arrives and I'm not down there".
So I was wondering what to do next when suddenly the door out onto the roof opened and an army Captain stepped out with a revolver in his right hand and shouted at me, "Stand away from that radio and put your hands above your head."
By the time I had taken a few paces forward and put my hands above my head there were 6 more soldiers had come through the door unto the roof and had moved out circling me from a distance all armed with rifles and they all seemed terribly nervous and the officer's revolver was actually shaking in his hand and I realised it was bloody dangerous because there is nothing more dangerous than an nervous person with an armed revolver in his hand. I said to him "Take it easy, Sir, I'm not going to do any of you any harm, what are you doing up here anyway,"
"Oh we were warned about you I got a phone call to say there was an Irishman up on the roof with a radio, signalling to German aircraft so your under arrest."
I said "Look Sir, catch yourself on I'm a soldier in an Irish Regiment but I'm in the British Army and I'm here on an army scheme, please point these guns somewhere else before there's an accident, I'm not going to be able to do you any harm, if you want to you can search me, I have no weapons or anything."
So at that he shouted at the Sergeant, "Put your rifle down and search him from the rear."
So the Sergeant put his rifle down came round behind me and searched me and the only thing he found were the old clasp knife and a few bits of loose change, he took it out of my pockets and put it in his own pocket and shouted over to the Captain, "He has just an old knife."
I said, "Now perhaps you'll point those bloody guns at the ground."
He said "No more, where's your identification."
Unfortunately my pay book, which was my identity card as well had been handed into the office earlier that week because I was going on leave the following week and you always had to hand your pay book in the week before. So I explained to him that I had no identification because I was due on leave the
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I told the Captain "Look phone Hainault 3030 and ask for Colonel Lucy who is my commanding officer of the 70th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles".
So he did that and asked for Colonel Lucy, and I could only hear one side of the conversation but he said to Colonel Lucy, "I have a Lance Corporal under arrest who says he belongs to your regiment,"
Colonel Lucy must have asked him my name or something but he shouted over, "What's you name, what's your name," and I said, "tell him it's Lance Corporal Dickson,"
so he told him who it was, and I don't know what the Colonel said but it must have been enough to convince him that what I had told him was the truth, because he said, "Oh everything sounds alright,"
I says "Well thank God for that, because you had me worried."
I had noticed by this time by the way that they weren't regular soldiers, they were all a bit on the elderly side, and they were Home Guard. That was it I ask him to send one of the men up to bring the radio down from the roof, he brought it down and I made my way into the street again and I waited for about an hour until the lorry came to pick me up again. It seemed strange funny in a way afterwards but it wasn't a bit funny at the time the guns were being pointed at me. The funny thing about it was, years after the war was over, when the TV programme Dad's Army came on it reminded me about the episode when I was arrested by the Home Guard as a spy.

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