"Kingston Wins the British Red Beret"

Courtesy of John Collins, C-13 Honorary Member

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Newly-minted Major Bob Kingston left the 82 Airborne Division en route to the Army Command and General Staff College, which admitted him to its Hall of Fame in 2003. Here’s how his oral history recalls subsequent duty as the 82d’s exchange officer with the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group in the United Kingdom from August 1960 to August 1961. Procedures were much simpler than in the United States Army. Bob’s annual training objectives as a company commander, for example, appeared on one page.  

Napier Crookenden was a brigadier in charge of the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group headquartered in Aldershot, England. I was the training officer for about two months. Then they called me in and said, “We’d like you to help us out.” I said, “Sure, of course!”  They went through this elaborate charade about they didn’t have enough officers down at P-Course; that is the pre-parachute selection course.  I was a major and would I mind going down and being a platoon leader?  I said, “Hell, no!”

            Well, the first day the company commander, who was a major, came out and introduced us to Staff Sergeant Smoky Furnace, who was the PT man.  He was quite along in age at this time.  He must have been 40 years old, you know.  Well, we did right face, double time; and five miles later we came back to what was two weeks of really nothing but PT. The first night I came home I was on my knees when I knocked on the door. My wife Jo opened the door and I said, “Get a hot bath and the Ben Gay on me!” 

            I can remember the first run. We weren’t on the roads, but running through the woods at a pretty good clip, and mentally I was saying, “If I fall out, you know, I’ll have to terminate this assignment.  If I fall out, I’m going to get out of the Army, because I’m letting them down.”  It was one hell of a run, I know that!  And then we did two seven mile runs later, but that first one was the worst I’ve ever had. [Be aware that Barbwire Bob HATED physical exercise of any kind].

            I did everything except the log roll or the log race. We carried our own logs, our toggle ropes, and the milling with which they put you in a ring for three minutes.  They size you by height and weight, and disregard completely the rank of officers.  It’s the first time I’d ever seen that, then or since, in the British Army.  You know, they have the real class distinction between officers and enlisted men.  I can remember the chaplain got a broken nose. I can remember the graders there, P-Course company commander and his people, where the poor man lost the fight physically, but won it on courage.  That’s what they were looking for -- determination and courage.  A lot of people for some reason broke or dislocated their thumbs, because they held them out of the fist.  They didn’t know how to fight.  In those days -- and I think they still do it -- they dropped about 40-45% out of the class.  In the British Army, when you volunteer for a parachute regiment out of the other regiments, and for some reason you flunk out, you don’t revert to the Army. You become a civilian because you enlisted in that regiment, specifically.

            I didn’t know it, but this was the time that the command group was looking at me as a potential rifle company commander.  I was the seventh American to go through that program and the first to get a rifle company.  I got C Company, 3 Para. Rolly Gibbs was my battalion commander and the 2 IC -- second in command -- was Tony Farrah-Hawkin. Rolly Gibbs ended up with four stars as Commander of the Imperial General Staff and the 7-H of the Northern NATO Command out of Oslo.  So we had three four-stars-to-be in that little battalion.

            My company sergeant major was Sergeant Major Ferguson, a little wee Scot, who had fought for the Special Air Services SAS in Malaya in the ‘50s and ‘60s -- a hell of a good man.  I recalled that, if I wanted to, I could work 24 hours a day commanding that company.  John Barlow, who had B Company next to me in the lines, had had that company for almost five years. There were times that you didn’t see him for days at a time.

             Two ICs and the NCO ran the company in Aldershot.  We were in the adjacent town of Cove, where the 3rd Battalion had its barracks.  You have to realize that the Army was in Aldershot and the town grew up around it.  In Kipling’s book The Young British Soldier, Aldershot was mentioned as the training for the British soldiers. 

            At one time I used to take the reveille formation in the morning.    Corporals stayed in the lines with the troops.  The warrant officers, who are first sergeants, and the sergeants have their own separate mess.  It was a much newer and much prettier mess than the officer’s mess.  I’ve been back many times.  We were back just before Christmas in 1985 and they had a new mess. This was where the IRA -- Irish Republican Army -- bombed the mess hall three or four years ago. When I used to take reveille once in a while the sergeants joined them.  Then the warrant officers joined them at reveille, usually the first sergeant and the commanding sergeant, company sergeant major, equivalent to our first sergeant, took it.  I noticed that when the senior platoon sergeant would pull in, the company all stood rigidly at attention.  When they reported to me, they started scratching their asses and picking their noses and things like that.  So I took the Queen’s regulations, paragraph such-and-such that describes the position of the British soldier at attention.  I waited a couple of times and finally somebody scratched his ass and I said, “Okay, Private So-and-So, for your information, under your Queen’s regulations paragraph blah blah, the position of a British soldier at attention is. . .” and I recited it.  Well, they said, “The son of a bitch has memorized all of the Queen’s regulations!”

            You don’t go down in the British Army and say, “Sergeant So-and-So come see me” to pay him a compliment.  Matter of fact, paying a NCO a compliment, particularly in front of the men, is almost unheard of.  I said I could work 24 hours a day.  The British soldier can make a date a month from now at five o’clock in the afternoon and know that he can make it unless an emergency comes up.  Eight fifteen to ten o’clock, they work around the company, and they don’t do close-in training like we do.  They don’t have the room.  Ten o’clock to 10:30 is tea; 10:30 to twelve, again work; then lunch.  Then they play some kind of contact sport to 3:30 or 4:00, unless you are on some kind of detail.  And that’s it!  This is a profession!  When I needed radio operators -- ‘wireless,’ as they call them -- when I needed mortarmen or gunners, I just put the requirements with the training officer.  Then the regimental depot produced the next class, some of the next bunch of recruits. 

            My annual training inspections consisted of the brigade commander and the battalion commander telling me what my company needed.  My company needed night firing and night patrolling.  I went to see the training officer and made arrangements to get Sunny Ridge Camps for two weeks.  We went out there and the first day we got set up.  From then on, we were doing night patrolling and night marches.  We set up a regular jungle lane walk down to a range for firing and night patrolling.  The night before we left I took my warrant officer, my company first sergeant and officers over to Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath, 70 miles northeast of London and 25 miles from Cambridge, which a USAFE F-15 fighter wing called home. We were in the bar about five minutes and in came this security officer. I told him who we were, who I was, and that these were my officers.  He said, “May I join you?”

            To make a long story short, during the course of the evening, he proceeded to get uproariously drunk and said, “Why don’t you come see me tomorrow?  We’ll go over to the base commander and make arrangements for your company to jump and test Lakenheath’s security.”  Fine; I didn’t want to go back with Conway, anyway!  So he and I showed up the next morning, went to see the base commander, and he said, “Yeah, let’s do it this week.”  I said, “You know I’ve got to go back and talk to my brigade and battalion commander.  They’re kind of committed, but I’m sure they will allow us.” So we did, and they limited me to 30 people inside the wire.  We couldn’t go into restricted areas [especially nuclear weapon storage facilities].  Fine. 

Base authorities and local police had to know the exact night because of obvious reasons.  Well, we jumped the whole company just after dusk, 18 miles away, and I split us up so we had six five-man patrols to go, and most moved over the fence simultaneously at 0200. Myself, the command sergeant major, and three privates went through a sewage drainage ditch and I knew the American occupants wouldn’t get down there and tie down the bail of barbwire that we expected there.  And sure enough, they didn’t. As we came up that ditch, one of the alert dogs saw us, but his handler wouldn’t respond.  That is about the only incident that I told the security officer about later.  

            Prior to that, at about ten o’clock, a drunk BBC reporter tried to get in the main gate, and he raised hell with them.  He was told he was invited there by the base public affairs officers because there was going to be a raid tonight.  Full alert.  Lights as we came in.  Public broadcasting radios saying “men of 3 Para, we already captured Major Kingston here, company commander, he is already captured,” and that type of stuff.  Sixteen of my 30 people were picked up.  As a diversionary effort, at two o’clock off the end of the runway -- and I was hoping a plane would go by, but it didn’t -- I had my people outside steal a lot of hay.  They had almost finished a miniature hay row there and ignited it with gasoline.

At 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, I sent two privates to the commanding officer’s quarters.  His wife answered the door.  My people said, “Madame, we’re here to see Colonel So-and-So.”  She said, “What’s the matter?”  They were all camouflaged of course, and all that.  “Sir,” they said, “we’re in need of private soldiers.  Sir, we have instructions to ask you to accompany us.”  “Boy,” he said, “I’m not going to play your foolish games.” “Yes, sir; you’re not coming?”  “No, sir.”  “Well, our instructions were to kill you.”  “Okay,” he said, “I’m dead,” and he went back to bed.

            The security police area is separated.  It’s a small area off by itself on the base.  The 16 of us who were caught were put in one room.  The rules of the game were you couldn’t evade once you were detected, because of the live ammunition; you had to stop right there and give yourself up.  As we went to breakfast in the dining hall of the security police, and as my team either came in or were in jail when I was captured, I got the nod from each one of my other five team leaders.  They all had a number one objective and then a couple of secondary objectives.  Mine was to go into the main hangar.  We had blocks of wood, colored orange, acting as demolitions.  We couldn’t touch the aircraft, so we just put them under the wheels.  We calculated what it would take to blow these 16” reinforced concrete runways, brought in sandbags -- the exact poundage -- offset them from the runway, and left them there.  Everybody was in a jovial mood.  They had captured us all and the security guy was there.  I said, as we finished our lunch, “Would you like to hear what my objectives were?”  “Yes.”  So I laid out an aerial photo of the base that the RAF had taken probably five days ahead of time.  The base didn’t even know it was taken. 

            I said, “Now, this is team so-and-so, and its objectives were these.”  I had them all marked. This guy was in semi-shock.  All of my first objectives were taken. That included their commo, which is on the base but it’s basewide, goes to each side.  I just put guys outside who just put satchel charges up and blew all the commo.  Again, calculated.  We were going around.  This guy was in complete mental shock by this time. I had the Red Beret and all the normal British Airborne kit on, but was wearing US Army major sleeves.  We were inside a hangar and I was showing him the blocks, and in came a lieutenant colonel Air Force, raising hell.  “You can’t come in here,” he said, “this is classified!  What’s going on?”  “Well,” I said, “I commend you on your security, but where were you this morning?”  “What the hell are you talking about?”  “I’m Major Kingston, United States Army,” I said; “I command C Company, 3 Para.  You had guards in this place last night.  See all those red boulders and yellow bricks?  We put those in there.  All your planes have been destroyed.”  This guy went almost raving mad. 

Three days later I had a call from the Army Attache down at London, and the Air Force executive agent for the Attache in London said:  “Don’t come down to London for awhile.”  “Fine,” I said, “what happened?”  “They just relieved the Lakenheath Base commander.”

            We went on schemes overseas.  We also went to Scotland several times.  Did a jump on Fowler Moor.  I was invited as some of the other officers were to a dining in at Stirling Castle. The film Tunes of Glory with Alec Guiness was filmed in the Stirling Castle.  We were also invited to the Aldershot Military Tattoo and to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, where I was a guest and had a dining in later at Edinburgh Castle and dining in at Stirling Castle with the Black Watch.  

            We went to Malaya.  We were supposed to go to Kota Tingi Jungle School.  We got there.  We got a change in the middle of the night in the rainstorm.  There was a British lieutenant colonel meeting us and he said the scheme was changed. We are going to put you along the Thai border.  This was in ‘61.   We are going to put you with the 2nd Battalion, 10th Gurkhas, who will teach you jungle warfare and jungle training.  So as an American Army major, for about two weeks I led a column of 110 Gurkhas and British Airborne in the Malaysian jungle learning jungle techniques and jungle warfare. The maps were terrible and we were being resupplied by helicopter every five days.  Helicopter pilots would say, “Well, I’m on that mountain,” and you couldn’t even see them or hear them when they landed. That was a great experience. 

            We stayed at Nickerson Barracks while we were in Singapore.  That was, of course, before it became the independent city of Singapore. Then we went to   Schleswig Holstein, where we were to secure bridges so German armor could move across. We went early to our staging area on the Isle of Sylt. Why? Because Sylt has the largest nudist beach in the country. Then we went to Wales and again to Malaya.  On the way out, we stopped at Aden and on the way back we stopped at Seychelles, where we refueled.  That was a great tour.

            My experience with the British had a big impact on me later. Very much so.  For instance, Napier Crittenden had been a 23 year old battalion commander during World War II.  He was a Guards officer.  I remember him saying -- particularly when I had a battalion, and I knew exactly what he meant -- “I couldn’t be a battalion commander today.”  “Why is that,” I asked, “Are you too old?”  “Hell, no,” he said.  He was a little wiry guy in very good shape.  Incidentally, he just wrote a book on Normandy.[*]  He retired as a lieutenant general.  Anyway, he said, “No, but when I was given a mission, if it cost every man in that battalion, I accomplished that mission.  I was killing the youth of my nation and I didn’t realize it.”  Of course, that’s what I did in Vietnam.

            The system, the professionalism of the British Army, and the responsibility that was assumed by their NCOs, plus what they called regimental service for the junior officers, was very good.  In those days the junior officers didn’t go on the staffs.  They went into units for five years to do what they call “learn regimental soldiering.”  That does them very well later on.  In the British system you must pass that course to continue to get good assignments and an increase in rank.  Well, about 50 percent of the people aren’t qualified to make staff or are not in a position to take the examination.   

            In the British Army companies are commanded by majors. The 2 ICs, or seconds in command, are captains.  That’s why you see old gentlemen that are very proud to call themselves Major Smithers or Major Kingsley Burke and all that.  There is no professional personal stigma attached with not being promoted in the British Army.  In 1960 and ‘61 the whole British Army was about the size of our Marine Corps -- 220,000 or something like that.  They understand the game.  The population understands it. Some regiments list up to 22 battalions in the country records. In the parachute regiment, as in other regiments, the NCOs know the pedigree of everybody else.  “Old So-and-So did well when he was in 2 Para, but look what he did when he was in 3 Para.  I won’t serve by him,” or, “Yes, I’d be pleased any time to serve with him.” 

            I reduced a sergeant in the British Army for incompetence -- unheard of, practically.  He had come to me from the equivalent to our CID.  He was attached to that for quite awhile.  He was quite overweight and out of shape when I got him.  He was one of my platoon sergeants.  I had a platoon sergeant when I was there who had a nervous twitch and obviously was not in too good of health.  Each company had to put a platoon size strength -- full platoon size strength -- into what they called Evelyn Woods competition.  You did a speed march, then fired all  weapons in the platoon, and then were scored on the speed march and on the pits.  It had to be a full platoon complement. 

            Well, I asked what happened to this sergeant.  He said he had been captured and interrogated by the Joint Interrogation Team. The SAS Roving Commandos and the Paras didn’t have time to volunteer for that. If they were captured, they were given it.  In those days they had four hours to break them and that was because of the limitation placed on the British Army in Cyprus when they were after Greek  terrorists  What they did with this guy, they found out very early that he didn’t take alcohol.  So they force fed him alcohol and he got alcohol poisoning and they almost lost him.  He was recuperating back in the unit.

               One young guy came in from the field service.  I gave him a month, you know, to get in shape, and he didn’t. So I went to the adjutant and said, “Look, I’ve given Sergeant So-and-So enough time.”  “Yes,” he said, “I think you have.  What would you suggest?” I said, “My Army would reduce him for incompetence.”  He looked at me and said, “Bob, that would be difficult to do.”  So I went to talk to the battalion commander, Rolly Gibbs.  Rolly said, “Shit, that’s a great idea!  I’ll back you.”  So the word got around that damn regiment real fast.  But it was a great tour. 

              I was the first U.S. officer to accept British Army quarters. Blackpool reserved very nice quarters for people from the embassy,  in the cavalry, and the staff colleges.  It had been a Naval Air Station. My wife Jo and I could live there or we could live with the British.  I said to Jo, who was British, “Let’s live with the British Army.”  We moved in.  No central heat.  We got there in July and when we made the motor march, the drive out to Aldershot, we had to have a fire in the fireplace that night, it was so cold. 

            One night we were sitting there in the wintertime.  We had some company in, Father Louie Madden, who was a Catholic priest of the parachute regiment.  One of the reasons they had a Catholic priest was there were so many Irishmen in it.  My living room was so small that it wouldn’t take a 9x12 rug.  We had to roll the rug up on one side.  We were discussing Northern Ireland and one of us made the suggestion that the British pull the troops out of Northern Ireland.  Louie Madden said, “If you did that, you’d see the biggest blood bath this country has seen in centuries.”  We all poo-pooed -- this is 1960-61, and you would think a thing like that wouldn’t happen.  “You don’t know what’s going on in Northern Ireland,” he said. 

            He turned out to be absolutely correct.

[*] Napier Crookenden, Drop Zone Normandy, Scribners, 1976.