In the first of a special two-part interview, we talk to Bembridge’s Ken Hicks about some of his interesting escapades and narrow escapes while serving in the Army.
Listening to Ken Hicks talking about his Service life is a bit like thumbing your way through a thriller novel.
Every sentence has a twist, although Ken is still somewhat restricted on what he can actually talk about publicly, as he still falls under the jurisdiction of the Official Secrets’ Act.
What Ken can reveal is that in a career that took him all around the world, he has experienced more than a few moments when he genuinely thought he was about to breathe his last. He mused: “Yes there were occasions – a razor was held to my throat and a gun pointed at my head. But I have always been very fortunate.”
When Ken was a pupil at Nettlestone Primary School and later at Sandown Grammar School, he could not possibly have envisaged what was to unwind in front of him. He said: “I left school at 16, and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but at 17 I wanted to see more of the world. At the time the Korean War was on, so I decided to go to the Army Recruiting Office in Newport and join up.”
He joined the East Surrey Regiment in January 1952, and on February 7 – the day after King George VI died – he went to Kingston Barracks. “Suddenly I was thrown into a totally different and tougher world. It was hard, but extremely good for me.” Aged just 18, he passed a Potential Officers’ Course and went to Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School to train as a Second Lieutenant. At Eaton Hall, Ken gained a place at the Royal Military Academy to train for a Regular Commission – fellow cadets with him included King Hussein of Jordan and the Duke of Kent.
“I really enjoyed Sandhurst, and in no way distinguished myself, gaining my Commission in 1955. While there, my Platoon Commander suggested I should join his Corps, the RASC, as amongst other duties they flew light liaison aircraft and operated the Army’s maritime fleet. He thought it could be right up my street – which it was!”
Ken’s first posting in 1955 was to 11 Armoured Division in Germany, but because he was, in theory, in a mounted Corps he had to learn to ride, including bareback – an experience he didn’t particularly enjoy. He reflected “I am the only one in the family who had formal riding instruction; although my wife, Deirdre, has a great love of horses, my feelings are rather different!”
Childhood sweethearts Ken and Deirdre planned to marry in September 1956, but in June the Suez crisis erupted, so instead of planning their wedding he was preparing his platoon for action in Suez. However, as the campaign was constantly delayed, he eventually got seven days leave to fly home to marry. After a two-day honeymoon he was given 12 hours notice to embark his platoon on the troopship “Dilwara” in Southampton. Just before departing one of his Reservists’ wives came to the barracks and said ‘you’re taking my bloody husband so you can take his ******* baby as well’– the sort of problem which Sandhurst doesn’t train you for,” said Ken.
“The “Dilwara” had 2,000 soldiers crammed into 1,000 spaces, so I slept on the cabin floor, but that was comfortable compared to some future sleeping arrangements.”
The conflict was over Egypt seizing the Suez Canal, the UK’s main artery to India and the Far East, so Britain, France and Israel decided to reclaim it. “We went ashore by small landing craft. There was a heavy pall of smoke over Port Said, and we found a bombed out building to use as the Company base. I managed to find a smelly old bath to sleep in, when sleep was possible.
“Gunfire was coming from the prison where Egyptian Commandos fought bravely until the last one was killed. Shortly after, a Lieutenant Moorhouse, a member of the Yorkshire jam-making family, was snatched off the street and three days later was found in a steel wardrobe having been tortured and killed,” said Ken, who soon afterwards had a lucky escape himself.
One of his duties was to act as the unit’s liaison officer with the 1st Battalion of the French Foreign Legion. “I was going on my BSA motorcycle to their HQ, along the coast road, rounded a corner by the Muslim cemetery and ran into an angry Muslim demonstration against us. Being surrounded, and knowing what had happened to Moorhouse, I was not too happy! I drew my .38 revolver and thought I could deal with five of the mob and retain one round for more personal use. As the crowd pushed forward I thought that my time was up, but at that moment three British armoured cars rounded the corner and rescued me.”
Ken even suffered the wrath of his allies. Once he saw members of the French Foreign Legion holding six Egyptian prisoners captive, with ropes around their necks. One prisoner was forced to stand on one leg, and if he put the other down he was beaten. Ken asked a Legionnaire what was going on and was informed the ‘one-leg’ prisoner was being punished for firing at a Legionnaire. He was then told in no uncertain terms he was asking too many questions and had outstayed his welcome. Sadly the following morning six bodies were found in the nearby Sweet Water Canal!
At that time Ken had a jeep driver, Tansley, who undertook many other tasks. Ken recalled: “One of these was to disinfect the latrines. One night he ran out of disinfectant so threw down petrol instead, he then sat on the toilet and lighted a cigarette – the unfortunate result was heard for a considerable distance and he was taken, badly burned, to the military hospital based in the docks and evacuated to the UK the next day.”
Ken saw many unfortunate results of the conflict before the UN ordered the Allies to withdraw. His company were one of the last units to leave on December 22, and as they did the Egyptians were still taking pot shots at them. They arrived back at Southampton on January 1, 1957, and he managed to snatch a longer, delayed honeymoon, before returning to Bielefeld in Germany where he was promoted to Lieutenant.
In June 1957 Ken was posted to the RAF Light Aircraft School at Middle Wallop – at that time, before the Army Air Corps was formed, the RAF trained the Army light aircraft pilots. He went solo after eight hours of instruction and later gained his civilian Private Pilot’s Licence. During this time he had one lucky escape, when, with his instructor on board, a fuel leak caused an emergency landing; upon touchdown the aircraft hit a fuel bowser at the end of the runway. Although the plane was destroyed, fortunately it didn’t explode. Having jumped out, Ken reckons that he was running even before he hit the ground!
*In our next edition, Ken Hicks reveals a little about his time as the Intelligence Officer of the UN Force in Cyprus; and after leaving the Army early, his work for the Lloyd’s of London Insurance market as a ‘Kidnap and Ransom’ negotiator, where the deals involved millions of pounds.