My Time at the Tower of London

Brian Beckett recalls being called up for National Service at the Tower of London

By Brian Beckett

Royal Fusiliers City of London Regiment Diamond, Platinum, Gold and Enamel Sweetheart Brooch_Royal Fusiliers recruitment poster 2There have been countless experiences narrated and written by people about the day they were called up for National Service. Most of the time they are stories of arriving at barrack gates or railways stations and being pounced upon by bullying and screaming NCOs [Non-commissioned Officers]. In contrast, my entry into the army was quite civilised and humane when reporting to the Royal Fusiliers at Waterloo Barracks, located within the Tower of London, on Thursday Dec 5, 1957.

I was familiar with the Tower of London. Until the time of call up I had been a member of the small bore rifle team belonging to the company for whom I had been working and which had use of the Tower's miniature rifle range one evening a week. On those evenings, after visitors' closing time, we were let in at the main gate by a Yeoman Warder and would collect the rifle range key from the Royal Fusiliers' guardroom at the Waterloo Barracks. The miniature range was located beyond the visitors' area of the Tower.

The Fusilier stationed at the Tower of London's main gate that morning directing the new recruits was surprised that I knew my way around, and that I was on friendly terms with some of the Yeoman Warders.

After processing and documentation I was directed to my barrack room where I met up with fellow recruits and the Room Corporal, who introduced himself in an almost friendly manner. At lunch time we were taken to the dining hall and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. We were still wearing civilian clothes and had yet to be subjected to any overt discipline or a raised voice.

Only one person in my room was not a National Serviceman. He had signed on as a regular for 22 years and suffered a great deal of banter from all of us.

Prior to call up, all recruits had received a 'welcoming' letter from the Royal Fusiliers with a questionnaire asking for clothing sizes. Therefore, that afternoon we collected a uniform, a kit bag fully loaded with clothing (that fitted reasonably well) & webbing equipment. The platoon sergeant went through everything with us to ensure we were aware of what had been issued and that nothing was missing. When I opened one of the bullet pouches I found a note from the previous owner which read: 'Three days to demob!' This did nothing to help my already low morale. Once we were in uniform things did get very serious and for the next three days we were kept extremely busy with jabs, bulling of boots & equipment*, written tests, lectures, etc. And, an army haircut! Because there was not a resident barber on site a trio of local barbers were contracted to come in (too) regularly. Discipline had definitely asserted itself but was faintly restrained in some respects. The NCOs had a slightly paternal attitude towards us that weekend and the Platoon Sergeant even got annoyed when hearing that some people had not written home.

But full discipline and regimentation kicked in with a vengeance at the start of training that first Monday morning. Square bashing took place on the parade ground between the Waterloo Barracks and the White Tower, which meant there was often an impromptu audience of the visiting public, which was daunting. The moat was used for outside exercises and sport. Everything we did was carried out under constant harassment and threats, and upon waking each morning we knew there was always the possibility of a snap pre-breakfast PT [physical training] session. Time was spent on the miniature range, and to familiarise us with the use of the nearly obsolescent Lee Enfield rifle, we had a day on the ranges at Rainham Marshes.

The Tower of London was the Regiment's depot but was restrictive for the more robust elements of training. So half of the basic training programme was set to be carried out at Purfleet Barracks, described as 'less' comfortable.

ABC whiteThe Royal Fusiliers were not involved with any ceremonial duties at the Tower of London; these were the responsibility of small detachments from one of the Guards Regiments who billeted for short periods at Waterloo Barracks. Waterloo Barracks, now home to The Crown Jewels, was one huge building, accommodating several large barrack rooms, a gym, dining hall & kitchens, together with a number of offices and training rooms. Space was also utilised at locations within the Casemates* and other buildings of the Tower's complex. The guardroom was at the main doorway whilst the detention cells were three floors above it, behind the big clock overlooking the parade ground. Being threatened with 'time behind the clock' was a favourite with NCOs. The establishment was too small to warrant a NAAFI*, but there was a recreational canteen run by the Regiment which sold a very limited range of items. On Sunday mornings someone was detailed to go out to the news vendor at Tower Hill underground station and buy newspapers for those wanting them, although there was little time available for reading.

Each barrack room could accommodate about fifteen beds. We were lucky; central heating had recently been installed and so the two large fireplaces in the rooms were defunct. Meaning, no longer were people detailed to look after open fires and clean them out, nor did the room get very dirty. Furthermore, the whole building was always warm. From the position of my bed I could look along the length of the room and out through the windows at the far end and see Ibex House, a large office block near Aldgate. If I awoke during the night and saw its lights on, it meant the cleaners had arrived for work and the time was getting depressingly close to 6am reveille*.

Hot water in the washrooms was limited. The hand basins were supplied by old Ascot multipoint gas water heaters and only the ones nearest these appliances got a decent supply. These facilities were due to be upgraded under the same refurbishment programme as the central heating, as was the electricity supply which was operating on DC*. The toilets & showers were situated separately in parts of the Casemates behind the barrack building. Fatigue parties were delegated each morning to clean them. But as these facilities were located within the main fabric of the Tower of London and came under the jurisdiction of what was then the Ministry of Works, they sent their own staff in to clean them again afterwards!

At the time of my medical examination, several weeks before call up, it was known that I was partially colour blind and technically unfit for the infantry but the system had still allocated me to an infantry regiment. However, just a few days into my service life, I was taken to the military hospital at Millbank for further tests. Shut within the Tower's boundaries every day was akin to being in prison, so the opportunity of getting out for a morning was really exciting. The result of that excursion was re-confirmation of my colour blindness and I was designated definitely unfit for infantry.

RF_00766So, at the end of what ranks as one of the most eventful fortnights of my life I was transferred from the Royal Fusiliers to the Royal Army Service Corps at Aldershot to be trained as a clerk.

My medical problem had really served me well because life with the R.A.S.C. was somewhat sweeter. I kept in touch with someone in the Fusiliers for a short while and heard that after transferring to Purfleet Barracks the discipline had stepped up several notches, making life even more miserable.

During the following Easter period, whilst on embarkation leave prior to being posted to Germany, I was invited by members of my old rifle club to join them for what was to be my last visit to the miniature range. At the end of the evening's activities I took the key back to the guardroom and surprisingly met my ex Room Corporal and learnt that the Fusiliers were about to depart for the Arabian Gulf; a posting I was not sorry to miss.

During the heady days following my demob [demobalisation] at the end of 1959 I passed by The Tower of London and unashamedly spent a while watching with warped satisfaction a squad of newly arrived National Service recruits crawling over the cold and muddy grass in the moat.

The exhibition hall now displaying the Crown Jewels on the ground floor of the Waterloo Barrack building covers the area which used to include the kitchens, dining hall, recreational canteen, and gym. The old toilets behind the building have been refurbished for use of the visiting public.

The miniature range was demolished in the 1960s. Historically it was an interesting building because it had been the place of execution for a number of German spies, principally during the First World War. At the time of my association with the range there were stories of people claiming to have seen their ghosts. But there were never any ghosts, just faint wisps of cordite smoke or London Smog drifting in front of the target lights on very rare occasions.

Footnote: Upon my arrival in Germany I was posted to a small unit attached to an RAF [Royal Air Force] base and which functioned with an absolute minimum of discipline. Never in my wildest dreams during those two weeks at the Tower could I have visualised that the misfortune of being unable to distinguish shades of green and red would herald such a fortuitous change of circumstances to my service life.

img20230415_174950171024_1BRIAN BECKETT
* ‘Bulling’ is a military term used to describe the method whereby shoes or boots are polished to a high shine
* The “Casemates” refers to the domestic buildings located in the outer rampart of the Tower of London. Some of the Tower’s residents live in these buildings.
* NAAFI: Navy, Army and Airforce Institutes, a company to run recreational establishments and sell goods to servicemen
* Reveille: morning wake-up call
* DC: direct current, as opposed to the more commonly used modern alternating current system