The Suffolk Branch History
3 Green Jackets,The Rifle Brigade returned to England from Cyprus in August of 1964. The battalion moved into Normandy Barracks, Felixstowe, Suffolk which is on the east coast of England . The barracks were originally built as a Naval Air Station in the First World War and spent most of its subsequent life as an R.A.F Flying Boat base. It consisted of an incredible mismatch of not only old but also odd buildings cluttered around four immense aircraft hangars, adjoining the Orwell estuary and opposite the town of Harwich. Interestingly Felixstowe is now just about the largest Container port in Europe .
The MOD plan was that the battalion would remain in Felixstowe until mid-February of 1965 and then go on an unaccompanied tour, meaning wives and families remaining behind, to Aden for nine months, a plan that was not approved of by the wives and families though the majority of the battalion welcomed the idea! This posting was confirmed but no sooner had arrangements such as training begun than it was cancelled in late September of 1964.
Then the idea was mooted for the battalion to leave Felixstowe and move to Colchester where there were better barracks and married quarters, a major move for both families and the battalion. No doubt there must have been a sound military reason for this but it was never explained. This perceived stupidity was agreed and but for the events in January 1965 would almost certainly have taken place.
Soldiering in Felixstowe was a mixture of “Stand By” alerts and preparations to move overseas at short notice to troubled parts of the world, encompassed with the everyday life of a soldier, which in so called peace time, means endless training, weapon handling and firing one's personal weapon also being a Rifle Battalion everyone would have achieved a high standard. It is remarkable how adept Riflemen become in the firing of a weapon because of all the training. For an infantry soldier the rifle is the most important part of his equipment and must be treated as such. Daily routine after “Muster” would involve pokey drill, which were exercises in holding the rifle outstretched in one hand, to strengthen ones arms, this improved shooting. All would also shoot on the range at least once a week and check zeroing; a means of insuring the bullet arrived at the target you were aiming at.
It was December of '64 and the battalion had been tasked by Brigade to mobilise and carry out an Air portable exercise. The activity was hectic and for some reason everyone made a conscious effort to get everything right. The stores and equipment were completely packed as per regulations. Apparently someone who will remain unnamed in 2 Green Jackets (The King's Royal Rifle Corps) had chanced his luck by not putting the correct packing round a vehicle battery which was loaded upside down on to the aircraft, the acid leaked and burnt through the floor of the aircraft, writing the plane off until repaired. The RAF was not amused and heads rolled! Perhaps those in 3GJ had taken note.
Arriving at the airport the battalion spent a couple of days checking stores and documentation until all was correct to fly off to the exercise area. Then to be told that there were no aeroplanes available for the exercise. The language by one and all was most uncomplimentary to the RAF and their heritage came under severe examination. But perhaps the real reason for unavailability was to become more obvious in the early New Year.
Reporting back from Christmas break the battalion paraded and were informed that it was going for one year to Hong Kong and then Borneo. It was on the 31st of December that the CO Lt Col, Mark Bond, had been telephoned by MOD and told this news; he was also informed that only “essential personnel” were to be informed. This was taken to mean by him, all members of the battalion! As much of a secret as MOD were making it, some members of the battalion had already been informed, prior to the CO, by their milkman. The local media had apparently already broadcast it.
Recalling people from far and wide was a problem, no more than the C Company Commander, Major Stephen Cave , who was in Barbados negotiating to buy a sugar plantation that adjoined his families' sugar estates. A man delivered his Operations Immediate signal of recall on a bicycle. Such were communications in those days and places.
Unlike today not everyone in the army had a passport; so two officers were dispatched to London with the mission of obtaining a passport for those in need from the passport office. Also birth certificates were obtained from Somerset House but in the case of one Rifleman when asked for details of nationality and parentage, replied, “don't know, I think I was picked up on the streets of Limerick”. The solution provided by Dennis Williams the chief clerk, was to get such individuals to sign a certificate stating they were a bastard. The passport office was then happy!!
It is worth recalling that when a family separate because of military duties it is much harder on the wife than on the husband. Generally when the husband goes away he's off on an adventure, it may be a dangerous one but an adventure none the less. He has a lot to occupy his mind and no matter how much he loves and misses his family, he doesn't have the burden of responsibility that the wife carries. In this day and age not many husbands disappear for a complete year and have no contact other than the postal system. These were days long before the mobile telephone.
So there was 3 Green Jackets,The Rifle Brigade having had a move to Aden cancelled and warned for a move to Colchester moving off to Hong Kong and Borneo, all in less than four months since returning from Cyprus and leave. But in that short space of time many friendships were made in Felixstowe and returning from Borneo a year later, these friendships were continued. Being away for a year and, working together both on operations in Hong Kong and in Borneo, cemented lasting friendships and this is perhaps best reflected in, that where ever there is a Green Jacket event you will always see a group of Riflemen from that era joined in conversation. But it didn't end there.
Back to Felixstowe in February of 1966, leave having been taken post Borneo, the battalion was informed that for the next few months it was to concentrate on getting ready to go on the Strategic Reserve, and be fit for this role by the August. Then true to form it was sent to Northern Ireland in April. Admittedly only for about five weeks but another separation for those with families and girlfriends. So Felixstowe was the home of the battalion until moving to Iserlohn in West Germany in April 1967.
Felixstowe had been a happy station, everyone seemed to enjoy it and many marriages transpired. Pom Hemsley who recently carried out a head count and believes certainly perhaps forty one and maybe even more marriages might have taken place. Even the wives who didn't hail from the area enjoyed life. The Riflemen were happy, hard work, plenty to do and all very rewarding.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Green Jackets settled in the area and it is from those that the Suffolk Branch came about.
Forming of the Branch
Firstly it is important to say that the Regiment changed its title to The Royal Green Jackets on the 1st of January 1966, a date now held as the regimental birthday, though the bracketed titles (43rd&52nd), (The King's Royal Rifle Corps) and (The Rifle Brigade), worn since 1966, were not relinquished until the June of 1968. The Royal Green Jackets Association began in 1968, and individual branches not formed until some years after.
The Suffolk branch came about at the instigation of Joe Mills who had served in the Rifle Brigade and the Royal Green Jackets, he was too aware that there were many ex Riflemen in the area of Felixstowe where he lived. So he wrote to some of them in 1987, suggesting a get together for a drink which led to Joe, Gordon Pilcher, Sid Jarman and Larry Lamb meeting up in the ‘Feathers' and from this casual initial meeting an outline plan of the way ahead was discussed. The first official meeting was then held at the Leisure Centre Felixstowe on 3 June of 1988 and the idea that Joe Mills had conceived was born.
The first Committee consisted of Joe Mills secretary, Jim Hitches treasurer and Tommy Evans entertainments. This committee remained unchanged until Gordon Pilcher took over from Jim Hitches in 1989.Though true to Green Jacket form there were others always in the background ever ready to assist and one of these was Barry Gilmore who with Joe and Gordon were probably the driving force. They agreed that future meetings would be held thrice monthly and that a membership fee of £2 would be levied monthly. Interestingly in the year 2013 meetings are monthly at the Royal British Legion with an annual subscription of £12.
It was Barry Gilmore who suggested that they should have a Benevolence member, to look out for members and their families who might be ill, making sure that they were visited and looked after with urgent necessities. John Bevan volunteered and it was agreed that the Branch support him with his own financial account which he uses for the purchase of flowers, wreaths and niceties for those in hospital. John has put a lot of time and effort into his role and has kept all informed on the health and well-being of all local members. He's certainly the best man for this role.
The first major undertaking was the Ladies Dinner Dance held on the 20th of January 1989. The committee were very much involved and Barry Gilmour given the onerous task of finding a venue. The Guests of Honour were Major Ken Gray and WO1 (RSM) John Mann. Since then there has always been a regimental guest of honour. This most successful evening was so well supported and enjoyed that it is now an annual event with close on two hundred attending.
The branch members and their ladies always give great support to this dinner and dance and it is now more than just a branch event, for many members are accompanied by their children who themselves bring their spouses. In true Green Jacket fashion, it is a family affair. And this is how the branch would wish it to continue for one has only to look back to 1965 and, on many other occasions, in all Green Jackets battalions, when wives and children were left unaccompanied they made life time friendships.
The Standard was the idea of Frank Moss, the branch wanted to have an identity, something that would set the Suffolk Branch apart from all others. All were aware that historically the 43rd , 52nd and 60th had all carried their Colours with pride and were the place where their major battle honours were displayed. They looked into what the other local Associations had and how and when they held their meetings and realised that they all had a banner, flag or Standard to parade with. As a brand new Association it was felt that the Standard on parade was the best way of getting the branch noticed and taken seriously. This was proven correct as the Standard soon became very well known and in the early days when there were nearly 20 of the branch parading on Remembrance Day, they were allowed to march off last so that others on parade and spectators could all see the drill and the speed of marching.
Standard Bearers have been WO1 Ian McCarthy RE (ATO) who was an honorary member; Ian had served in N. Ireland with 1 RGJ in the 70's and found our way of life much to his liking. When Ian left the position was taken up by Alfie Adams, who did excellent service for many years until passing over to Jim Hitches, which on his demise was taken over by Larry Lamb, his son or whoever is available.
Up until the Branch was formed the town of Felixstowe held their Remembrance Parades at 12 noon an hour later than the rest of the country. The branch approached the Town Council and asked them to consider changing the parade to 11am, but they thought that this would be impossible but did decide to hold an open meeting which Joe, Jim and Gordon attended, there were many against the change, some looking at the branch as new boys on the block and what right had they to change things. This was not the position of the branch, after all the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, had held a significant position in the nation's and commonwealth's hearts since the end of WWW1.
There were many within the town and visitors to it, who would go to the Cenotaph at 11am to find nothing happening, there was also a considered feeling that things should change. So one year the branch decided to go it alone, it soon had the backing of the Army cadets and the RAF Association, so plans were then put into place for the branch to hold its own parade to commemorate Remembrance Day forming up at 10.50am on the Seafront. They paraded with those mentioned above and at 11am the honour was given to Gordon Pilcher to speak and after the two minutes silence the parade marched off. This parade was very well supported by visitors and locals alike the crowd even larger than that the main parade taking place an hour later had. It is not surprising to relate that ever since Felixstowe has held its Remembrance Day parade at 11am.