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A Soldier's Tale - Dick Nutt

October 1942 - March 1945. Officer Cadet to Lieutenant

My first Action

The Company was part of “Corps Troops” - we were not part of a particular division but were available to be sent anywhere in the Corps area. I was appointed as a reconnaissance (Recce) officer in Company HQ. Our task was to build a Bailey Bridge over a small river for a new American Division – the 104th “Timber Wolves”- recently arrived from the States The Americans crossed the river in assault boats and occupied the far bank but, when the Squadron moved up to start the bridge, we were fired on with heavy mortars and had to move out quickly. You cannot build a bridge while the enemy can observe your movement. Clearly the fire was observed and the Officer Commanding (OC) decided to send someone up to the bridge - you will have guessed that the someone was me. So I told my driver to take our small, lightly armoured, scout car, up to the bridge to see if we were fired on. After a short interval we were, so we beat a hasty retreat. This happened several times that night. Jerry started getting crafty and from my position sticking out of the top of our scout car, I could see the explosions from the falling mortar bombs chasing us down the road. I called to my driver to get a move on but he had to traverse a roadblock of felled trees, which slowed him up. It was nearly light then, so the OC decided I needn’t do another run. We built the bridge that morning and launched it so that the heavy weapons and supplies could go forward to the American Division. Later we heard that there had been a German radio operator in a cellar of one of the houses overlooking the bridge site that the Americans had failed to flush out!

May 1945 – 1951. Lieutenant to Captain

Having been second in command of the Field Park Squadron I was then a Troop Commander in one of the Field Squadrons and my usual job was to provide sapper support for the RAR.

How to disable a Centurion tank

In Korea, one day, there was an armoured “swan” (a venture into enemy territory). The first tank got into deep mud in a paddy field when there was a minor explosion and the tank stopped. As we learnt later the tank was deep in the mud and its flat belly was sliding over the mud and compressing it. Apparently there was a "schu"-mine (a very small anti-personnel mine of German pattern) in the mud and the pressure in the mud had set it off directly under the tank. The explosion had to go somewhere and as the seal between the tanks belly and the mud was so tight it bent the tank's belly (quite a thick piece of armour) and that broke the large casting securing the tank’s gearbox. So it stopped!

The Tank Regiment’s colonel had tried to get it towed out but that was no good, so he called me over and asked me to go out and booby trap the tank so that the Chinese could not steal it in the night. Now I had to think quickly! The tank was out in the open not far from the Chinese lines and the chances of getting the tank booby trapped before I got shot seemed remote!! I asked him if he wanted the tank back in the morning and, of course, he did. I was then able to point out that the Chinese could watch me preparing the tank with booby traps AND making sure that the trap could be removed, they would still be able to steal the tank, The Colonel accepted this. Phew that was a close one! Talking of close ones, there had been desultory mortar fire all morning but we realised that the sides of the hill we were under was protecting us and we were used to it. The Tank colonel had only just arrived in the forward area and ducked each time a bomb landed.

1952 –1957. Captain to Major

There shouldn’t be a problem: it is only a training jump.

The job was in an army airborne unit doing development and training in all air matters that affect the Army – a fantastic job. [The only time I was in one job (and one house) for 3 years] The way it came about was this. In 1957, I was doing a rather boring job as Adjutant of a divisional RE HQ in Herford, Germany. The phone went and it was the usual chap from BAOR telling me to move some soldiers to new jobs. But this time it was not soldiers but me; I was to be promoted Major and moved to RAF Old Sarum near Salisbury.

Later a terse signal arrived which said that I was to volunteer to do army parachute training or the promotion and posting was cancelled! I don’t think the army usually goes to such extreme measures to obtain volunteers! We were on our sixth jump of our Parachute Training Course at RAF Abingdon. I had been put on the Territorial Army course, which was for eight jumps in a fortnight, as I had to be back with my unit as soon as possible. On the first day of the course, after a short address by the Commandant, we were shown, without any explanation, a silent black & white film with endless shots of parachutes, which failed to open. The disastrous results were not shown but could be imagined. At the end of it our instructor said, “Does anyone want to leave now? There will not be any record on your documents and you can return to your unit”.

Dick Nutt (right) with Sox Hosegood, chief helicopter test pilot of the Bristol Aeroplane Company and a Bristol 192 twin-rotor helicopter

I was a bit shocked and considered leaving but pulled myself together in time. Incidentally, at 33, I was the oldest on the course and also the most senior so I couldn’t really have left. The instructor then said they were all dummies and the shots were taken as part of the development of the parachutes. That is what I call really good psychology and reflects the rest of the course, which was quite first class and very practical; the very best training I ever received. We started with a lot of ground training: before any movement the order was always “Green on GO!” which is the order given to exit before every jump.

One of the early frighteners was to climb up onto a platform about 30ft above the ground in our gym - a RAF hangar. We then put on a harness tied to a wire and had to jump out into space. This wire was connected to a drum on a large fan and, as you jumped, this contraption generated little resistance until you had fallen about half way down to the floor. Then it slowed you to the speed you would probably get on a real jump. You did it twice! You started your real jumps from a tethered balloon. On the first jump I was the first one out of the basket and the Sergeant Instructor said “Off you go, sir: the second best thrill in life!”

In retrospect the balloon jumps were easier than jumping out of a plane and easier to control. The parachute was tied to the balloon basket by a strop, which pulled the canopy out of the pack on your back as you jumped. It is just the weight of your falling body, which pulls the canopy out, and you have to fall about 140 ft before it develops. It seemed to take a long time for you to fall that distance. In an aircraft you are jumping into a 100 + mph gale so the canopy comes out very quickly. On that day we were jumping from an aircraft, not only using port and starboard doors but also going out as quickly as we could after each other, which is how you would do it operationally. The jump seemed OK but, as I looked up to check all-round observation, I saw a pair of boots, which had swung onto my canopy and then got round a rigging line so that they were locked to my canopy. This was a bizarre sight and I was concerned lest his boots would collapse my canopy but the instructors immediately noticed it on the ground who, using a megaphone, he told us not to try get out of the tangle. As he said this he saw that, without control, we could crash into a vehicle, which he hurriedly had moved.

In those days (1957) we were still using the wartime chutes; the only control you had was to pull on your lift-webs (which connected you to the canopy) and this moved you in the direction of the pulled web. Ideally you wanted to land with a small but definite horizontal motion as this reduced the shock of landing but, as you could not turn round you couldn’t tell which way you were going to land so we had been trained to land with horizontal motion in any direction. In this case we could not control the canopy so we were going to land in the direction of the wind, which mercifully was light. We picked ourselves up and found that all was well when we had untangled the chutes - saved by good training and a very vigilant instructor! It had been a near-run thing!

1960-1965 Major

Colonial Experience

How lucky I was to find that the Squadron was to do 6 months in British North Borneo and was already there when I got to Singapore. It had been decided that better training facilities than those in Malaya were needed; they chose the Kota Belud area of Borneo where the country side was more like Salisbury plain than a jungle. There was to be:- (a) A tented camp with full electrical and water facilities for a battalion (about 750 men). (b) A route for Centurion tanks without using existing roads, from the sea to the Training Area. (c) An airfield for Blackburn Beverley aircraft, which would be used to transport personnel direct to the Training Area.

Sapper squadrons in the Far East were to do this task in rotation, changing every 6 months. My Squadron was the fourth and last and our main task was (a) the airfield with some work on making (b) happen.

We were entirely on our own; there were no other army units in Borneo. Everything – petrol, food had to be bought as arranged by my excellent second-in-command. At least we got our own water (a standard sapper job) and provided our own lighting with a generator. Much had been added to the Squadron - (tipper trucks, workshops, extra plant and equipment plus an extra officer solely for Project Management and a Medical Officer).

The District Officer (Borneo was still a colony!) was a great help and was the only other non-native for many miles around. For example, when he needed to meet the local chiefs to agree location for the tank track – (b) above – he gave me his horse with a European saddle while he used a local horse with wooden saddle. We also worked closely with him when planning a suitable parade for the Queen’s Birthday Parade. He arrived in full regalia with Ostrich plumes on his helmet. The Airfield was mostly a grass runway so we had to prepare a smooth, well-drained surface and hope that the grass would appear (tropics, remember): it did. The main problem was that at the end of the runway we had run into a hill and we had not brought any explosive with us. It took a long time with 2 heavy rooters (we bent one of them!) I thoroughly enjoyed my time there with great support from the men in the Squadron. The responsibilities were immense and, after the six months were up, I asked for a short leave so that I could return to Singapore in a small cargo ship with about 8 passengers, calling at the ports down the Borneo coast.

Epilogue

It was customary to “dine out” officers leaving their jobs. In my case, there were three of us Squadron Commanders to be dined out on the same night in Singapore. The speeches began with the other two OCs, of British Squadrons. When it came to my turn, I thought that I would do my speech in Malay. Obviously my officers all spoke Malay, but I guessed that no one else would (including the Colonel with whom I was not popular). I was surprised that I was able to make an impromptu speech in Malay but the drinks were free for the leavers so perhaps that helped. Anyhow the speech went down very well with my officers but was received very glumly by the others, especially the Colonel!