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Black Country lad in the snowy mountains of Cold War Europe

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 08, 2014

  • The Austrian peaks where the Warwicks learned to ski, many of them in training for Korea

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THE COLD War was brought vividly to life in our June 19 edition, when former RAF man Brian Conway shared his experiences of the Berlin Airlift.

But East and West were squaring up to each other on many fronts for many long years, and Peter Gadsby of Wolverley, formerly of West Bromwich, has his own memories of the post-war chill, from his period of National Service.

Here Peter recalls his time spent on the Western side of the Iron Curtain …

"To do your National Service in the 1950s was, in no uncertain terms, a shock to the system." Peter told us. "I enlisted at the age of 18, on January 5, 1951, with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

"The first six weeks' training, at Warwick, was all about making sure that you knew where you belonged – at the bottom of the pile. And it worked very well indeed. After training, we were issued with tropical kit, but still didn't know where we were going. We knew that the Middle East required ten weeks' training, and Europe six, so there were mixed signals. But you don't ask questions, you just do as you're told.

"So we were off to no one knew where, until we got there. We caught the train, and the first thing we knew, we were in London. Then we were put on another train for Harwich, for services crossings to the Hook of Holland. From there, we went straight to Klagenfurt in south Austria, 25 hours of travelling, then on a local train to where our battalion was.

"For us then, it was Graz, near the Yugoslav border. Very nice some would say, but going there in the army is not the same as going on holiday. Going around the mountain, training on foot, was what we were sent there for, and Korea was still being fought at the time; so put two and two together.

"This was what later became known as the Cold War, and we were in close proximity to the Russians, but the only disruption we ever saw was the occasional Communist Youth rally, which I think they did just to show they existed. They were Austrians not Russians, and sometimes they'd come over into our bit and do a demo. In their eyes, we were an occupying force.

"Life in barracks was, I suppose, the same as for most soldiers, but come the winter of '51/'52, about eighteen or twenty of us spent one month up at Semmering Pass, the frontline between British forces and Russian forces. So for one month about 18 to 20 of us knew what winter was in Austria; but at least it was a month away from the main battalion.

"We were guarding the border between our part and the Russian part, with about a hundred yards between us and them. We were in a hut and there was a pole barrier on the road. The border was just a line on a map, we were surrounded by forest. We had an officer, a sergeant, two NCOs and twelve privates.

"We didn't see a lot of the Russians. Our first encounter with them was when we saw some coming through our checkpoint, as they were being escorted away. They'd been for a visit, but we weren't told what it was about.

"While there, in the depths of winter, we would often see barely-clothed families coming from the forest behind us. They were escaping from the east, and we'd usually see them at about two or three in the morning. All they wanted was to get warm and have something to eat. It was January or February, freezing snow on the ground, and they were in clothes not fit for summer.

"They were what we'd call Displaced Persons, with no means of identification. They were the flotsam of Europe, some had probably been in concentration camps – there were still plenty of people wandering around eastern Europe in 1951.

"We weren't allowed to give them anything, orders were to send them on their way. But we'd give them a hot drink, let them stay with us for a bit and then let them go in the morning. We probably had dealings with about a dozen of them in that one month, which gives some idea of how many people were still wandering Europe at that time. They had no paperwork, they would just tell us they were going home.

"When we could, we'd see to it that they got a lift in the one-ton truck that was going down to Messieuslag for supplies. That was where the railway, road and river all met."

"After Semmering Pass, we went to the mountains to learn how to ski. Very nice you might think, but the army way was a lot different from the way you learn on holiday; the equipment we used then is now in the museums. It was part of our training, part of survival. The conditions were said to be the same as they were in Korea, so it was a regular thing for British soldiers to train there.

"Then it was off to the North Tyrol to play soldiers with the French Army, skiing with them, and practising manoeuvres. And again, that was no place to be in the winter.

"But being sent to Austria was, I realised much later, one of the best postings that one could hope for at that time, especially with the Korean war still being fought. Things I got to do, such as learning to ski, I would never have had the chance to do in Civvy Street.

"Looking back, I wish I'd made more of it, instead of just putting up with it. When you're doing National Service, you're counting the days, I had a calendar and I was literally crossing them off. But with hindsight, how much would it cost you to learn to ski now? I wasn't a great skier, but I could get downhill ok. You soon learned how to stay up once you'd fallen over a few times!

"With nearly twelve months done, in October we went off to Vienna for the international guard change. Vienna in the 1950s was a lot like Berlin – it was inside the Russian sector, and to get there meant going behind the Iron Curtain. 'A' Company of the Warwickshire Regiment, whom I was with, were to be there for a month, and while there we were given a pep talk by Anthony Eden, who I believe was Foreign Secretary at that time.

"In those days, Korea was about six weeks away by ship, so if you add that to the six months you'd do when you got there, anyone with less than about eight months left to serve would not be going. So a lot of us were sent to different places. My posting was Klagenfurt. Some of the less fortunate Warwicks were sent to Korea, to replace the Leicestershire Regiment. No one fancied that.

"To get leave to go home was not a right, but I did get some in February 1952, at the height of the East Coast floods in England. It was not a very pleasant crossing at all.

"Many more duties would come my way, but eventually, along came demob from full-time National Service after two years. I had to report for the Territorial Army at Witton Barracks in Birmingham. We were asked to sign on with 16th Parachute Regiment, which we did for three and a half years. As parachuting was voluntary, not one of us signed for that, as we all had jobs to go to and didn't want a broken leg; especially if you were in the building trade, as I was.

"National Service was in my experience an army on the cheap, and is not the answer to today's ills. A lot of people say 'Bring back National Service', but I say no. It was what was needed after the Second World War, to replace those who'd fought and won the war for us. But we are not at war now – unless the government feel they have the right to get involved with other people's troubles."

Did you find yourself face to face with the Russians in the Cold War? Tell us your experiences: write in or email gjones@blackcountry bugle.co.uk.

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