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15 October 2014
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Chapter 2: Testing Security

by CSV Media NI

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Archive List > Books > Alex Dickson - Memoirs

Contributed by 
CSV Media NI
People in story: 
Alex Dickson, Col Lucy,
Location of story: 
Plymouth, England
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8813054
Contributed on: 
25 January 2006

Early datys in the Royal Ulster Rifles

When we were fully trained we were then all sent to the 70 Young Battalion of the Ulster Rifles and with them we were stationed in us places, Aldergrove, Langford Lodge, Jackson's Fields at Holywood doing guard duties and so forth.

The only surprising thing that happened in the first few months was that the Army apparently decided that all British Forces should sit an intelligence test (I think we were one of the first units to sit it. we were sat down and a put down In front of us full of all sorts of questions and we were told that we had to complete this within a certain time. I think it was 2 hours. Now I have never seen anything like it before in my life, there was an awful number of funny questions and I as a person who had left school at fourteen didn't realise what it was. It was a super intelligence test but fortunately I had attended night school for a while and was an expert at maths and in actual fact I got my final examination at the Tech, Royal Society of Arts Final Maths Exam. I passed with distinction and a good lot of question was somewhat mathematical so I got through them fairly quickly and finished all the questions in the time allocated.

A month or two later my Company Commander sent for me and they said "Rifleman Dickson I have good news for you"

I said " Oh that's good sir, what is it"
he said, "You know that intelligence test we set,"

"Oh" I said "That funny thing with all the questions"

"Well" he said "You might have thought it a funny thing but it was a very super intelligence test and the Commanding Officers asked me to see you about it and congratulate you, you came second highest in the Battalion.”

"Oh" I says, "That's good Sir, you'll have to excuse me but I'm a very nosy person would you mind telling me who was first."

"No" he says "I don't mind telling you, it was Colonel Lucy our Commanding Officer, and he has told me that he wants to see you. He'll be sending for you shortly.”

A few weeks later he did send for me and again congratulated me on passing this intelligence test. "It's amazing", he said "You left school at fourteen and yet in this test you did better than all my officers as well as all the other men. I was the only one that got higher marks than you". He said, "Under those circumstances the only thing we can do with you is put you forward for a Commission."

I'm afraid this shocked me and I said "No Sir, I don't want a commission." My reasoning was very quick. I came from a working-class family and my father had died shortly before I joined up. My mother was a widow and as the army pay in those days was seventeen and sixpence a week I allocated seven shillings a week to my mother which meant every pay day when I queued up and saluted for my pay I got ten shillings. Now ten shillings when you had to buy your own razor blades, polishes, toothpaste and everything else and the odd bun and cup of tea in the Naffi didn't last long. I thought that if I took a commission I would have had to pay for all my kit and I knew I would never have had the money to do it and that my family couldn't help me, so that was why I refused, I said "I didn't want a commission.”

However, he was very insistent and he insisted in my becoming a potential officer and wear little white tabs on my epaulettes and he also said "I'll transfer you to one of the better units, you'll go into the signals platoon."

So I was transferred to the signals platoon. He kept every so on sending for me about this commission thing and eventually he insisted on me going away on a three or four-day course War Office Selection Board to see whether I was suitable for a commission. Well I passed the course they told me after the end of the four days that I was suitable for a commission and what commission would I like, and I said "Dh I know what I want, I want, a commission in infantry, preferably the Royal Ulster Rifles.”

"Oh," he says, "you can't have a commission in infantry you have bad eye-sight in your right eye, we would suggest you take a commission in the Royal Corp of Signals.”

"Oh no," I says I don't want a commission in the Royal Corp of Signals.”
This went on and on but eventually every so often I was sent for about this commission in the Corp of Signals and I kept putting it off and putting it off. However, we weren't long in Northern Ireland, before the end of 1941 we were shipped to Plymouth, Seaton Barracks just outside Plymouth. The full battalion was in a fairly modern barracks there and we were doing full battalion training and we were a good fit battalion, everyone in it was under 19 years of age and whilst we were there I was sent on a signals instructors' course, did fairly well and came back as a signals instructor, and quite often when we were on schemes and so forth I was the wireless operator, operating for the Colonel, I think he liked me in some ways because probably he thought I was suitable for a commission. He used me for one or two special jobs while we were there. I couldn't understand why but afterwards thinking over it I think he must in some way have been connected with the overall security for the area.

The first job he got me to do was he took me over to an old underground fort-type place on the opposite side of the road from Seaton Barracks, mostly underground with a moat surrounding it and a drawbridge entrance. He told me this place was very top security and nobody was allowed in without a very special pass and he asked me would I see if I could get in without a pass and prove that I had been in. I thought this strange but I went back to the place the next day, studied it from a distance, noticed the guard on the draw-bridge was very very careful inspecting passes on the way in but people coming out just walked out -no bother. So I walked the whole way around, there was a deep moat with very dirty water all around the place, I walked the whole way round there where no other ways into that building but across the draw-bridge, it was an ancient old stone built place, but I did notice on the way round that a pipe had been laid across the ground and over the moat and through the wall of the castle, it was a smallish water pipe, maybe 6 inches or so maybe slightly bigger, and I came back to it eventually when there was no other way in and wondered would it be strong enough to get me to the other side but on the other side there was only a very tiny ledge on the building but there were fairly new windows in the building, they had put new windows in to modernise the place. So I wondered and I got my leg over the thing and it seemed to bear my weight and then I was a bit worried because there was stinking dirty water under it and I couldn't swim and I wondered was it worth the risk but eventually I tried it and I got across to the other side. I edged my way along juking under the windows until I came to a window which was wide open, it was in the summer time, there was no one in the office so I got in through the window and there was a desk with lots of headed paper and dozens and dozens of rubber stamps, so I thought this would be a good idea and I lifted a sheet of paper and every rubber stamp I could find I put a stamp on this piece of paper and put it into my pocket. I walked around the place and eventually came to the entrance and exit, walked out past the sentry and as I walked out I said, "That's not a bad day mate" that was all and they didn't stop me.

So I got back to Col Lucy, gave him the sheet of paper told him what I had done, "Good God almighty," he says "Supposed to be absolutely impossible for anyone to get in without a special pass, and you've been in and into their offices and everything and using their rubber stamps, well I can tell you this no one will be going over that pipe again".

Sometime later I went over just on my day off to see and Jesus there was so much barbed wire before and around the place nobody could have got over it.

The only other odd thing happened to me personally in that area, we were very near the moors, Dartmoor. Some of us used to be sent out to Dartmoor and we were digging huge holes in the ground ant they were the size of a room underground you know usually in a piece of wood in amongst trees or something. When we had it finished, we roofed it with bits of tree and grass sods and covered it with leaves and so forth and made a concealed entrance into it. In one of them we actually fitted a small sink and a plumber laid a pipe from a river to the sink underground and we dug a deep sump so that the water could get away that way. We were working at one of these one day, all spade work you know it was heavy work, when the Colonel happened to come and was watching us and he called me up and said "Your doing quite well there Corporal.”

I had been made a Lance Corporal at this time, so I said "Yes, Sir it seems strange Sir, all this work digging these places and we never use them. I said, "It seems odd,"

"Oh well", he says, "Could I trust you if I told you a secret?"

I said "Of course you could Sir, I don't pass anything on that I hear or see."

"Well it's 1942 and we are still at great risk of the Germans invading, and if the Germans invaded British troops would probably have to pull back but it has been decided that we who have young men in our regiment will leave a dozen or so behind and you will be stationed out here in the moors in these various shelters, you'll have plenty of weapons, ammunition and tinned food, and one of the reasons I am telling you is, we are careful who we have to leave and you will be one of the ones I am leaving and I'll tell you something else remember this and pass it onto the others if I don't, you'll do as much damage as you can to the Germans at night and during the day lie low but if you are captured try and be captured without weapons, and when they question you state that you are Irish (Ireland was still neutral at this time) and that you were working over here working on farms but that when the Germans invaded you got scared and you came down near the sea hoping to get a wee boat back to Ireland, it might save your life.”

That was the only odd thing that happened down there you know but except that shortly after we arrived in Plymouth there was a most unusual thing happened, two of our boys had went into Plymouth for the evening and were beaten up by the Marines. The Marines at that time were very much cock of the walk in Plymouth. The Rifles being what they were stick together crowd word went round that we were all to get passes and go into Plymouth the following Saturday which we did. Before the evening was out the Royal Marines had to be taken out of Plymouth completely they weren't allowed out at all, they were beaten up every time they came out. Now that did not go down well, the Brigadier and everybody were complaining. This went on and we were confined to camp for a while and when we got out it started up again, now I personally wasn't involved but eventually the whole battalion got a months punishment and army punishment can be quite tough. The toughest part was the last week when we were told we had to do a 40-mile route march in 12 hours in full battle kit this may sound strange but we had to do it. The first 5 miles had to be done in 50 minutes running 20 paces and walking 20 paces. Every other 50 minutes we did the usual 3 miles 10 times and then the last 5 miles into camp we had to do in 50 minutes that was running 20 paces and walking 20 paces now that was 12 hours but it actually took 13 hours and we stopped at lunch time and there was a meal provided. I even remember the meal quite plainly there was two potatoes, one sausage and a mug of tea, so we were a very tired group when we eventually got back to Seaton Barracks.

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