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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


Horfield Barracks had been a prison, and I had visited it with the BBC Hens' Chorus for a concert before my induction into the army. I had played at soldiers in the school OTC, but of course knew little about the real thing. I found that the atmosphere, though tough, was   not unpleasant, and as we were all in it together my fellow-soldiers and I mucked in and laughed at what we could. I was very glad to know the sort of people I had never been allowed to meet at school and Oxford; it gave me a much better understanding of life, and I have always been grateful for this. We used to drink in pubs and play darts in the evenings, as we were still allowed out up to the time of Dunkirk, and I was able to keep in touch with my BBC and other friends.

After a spell at Horfield we were moved down to Eastville Park, where we camped out in tents; luckily the weather was marvellous. I had no intention of applying for a commission as I was quite happy in the ranks, but I did not want to stay as an infantryman for ever, and could not get into an army band as I played no orchestral instrument. I had heard that there was a regiment called the Field Security Police in which languages were needed, and which might perhaps have enabled me to get to France. So I applied for a transfer; meanwhile we continued our basic training at Eastville. The war had still not really begun for us. One day, while we were solemnly slow marching round the square, a plane appeared overhead and circled about for quite some time; eventually the AA battery on the hill above realised it was not one of ours and loosed of at it. The plane, in panic, dropped its bombs, luckily wide of the camp, and made off as fast as it could. Shades of Dad's Army!

After Dunkirk we took in a large number of soldiers who had been evacuated from the beaches, and I had to stay up all night recording their names before they could be sent on the leave which they thoroughly deserved. Shortly after this my company was moved elsewhere and I was given a job in the camp office pending my transfer to the Intelligence Corps depot at Winchester. This proved to be in King Alfred's College, a teachers' training college of which, oddly enough, Grandfather Searle had been Vice-Principal at one time. Here the discipline was much stricter than at Bristol; the Gloucesters,  a fine fighting regiment, could afford to dispense with a lot of bullshit, but the Army evidently thought that the Intelligence Corps consisted of a bunch of formerly long-haired intellectuals who had to be licked into shape. So we were drilled by Guards NCOs and made to blanco everything in sight. Occasionally we were allowed out in the evenings, but all leave had been stopped because of the threat of invasion, and I did not even get permission to go to London for the day to attend my brother Michael's wedding, to Margaret Poole from Beckley.

Our training at Winchester was fairly short, and at the end of August we were posted to our various units. As I could speak reasonable French and German, I was naturally sent to the Highlands of Scotland where the only language of any use was Gaelic. (My father had a similar experience when he was recalled to the Civil Service on the outbreak of war. As he knew Burmese well and was indeed compiling a Burmese dictionary, he was of course sent up to Lytham St. Anne's, Lancs, to be put in charge of rationing petrol.) In the end my posting proved a blessing in disguise, but I was not to know this at the time. The summer of 1940 had been exceptionally fine, but when our little band - there were six or seven of us - reached Fort William it was pouring with rain which it continued to do for most of the eighteen months I remained there. However the air was good, the local people warm and friendly, and the scenery, when one could see it, spectacular.

Our unit consisted of ten lance-corporals, mainly lowland Scots, two sergeants and an officer; the latter was Major Gavin Brown, who had been a master at Stowe and was a highly intelligent man. We were not policemen in the sense of controlling traffic or throwing people into jail; our job was to preserve the security of a number of camps in the area between Fort William and Mallaig. This had been declared a Protected Area, and even the local residents were not allowed in and out without a pass. The reason for all this security was kept secret. The cover story was that the camps were for training commandos, and there was indeed a big commando training camp at Lochailort; at the other, smaller camps similar training was given to a different kind of troops. The difference was that the trainees at these other camps were foreign soldiers who needed toughening up before being returned by parachute to their own occupied countries to organize resistance, propaganda and sabotage under the auspices of S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) These so-called "students" were not allowed out of the camps and could only be seen on their arduous exercises climbing the mountains; it was a sparsely populated area, and the presence of strangers was easily noticed. Our job was to control the number of people who were allowed to visit the camps and to look out for anything suspicious. Our. headquarters was in Fort William, and the section was scattered among various camps along the Mallaig road - some could only reached by boat. We had had some motor-cycle training at Winchester, and were equipped with motor-cycles to patrol the area. Once a week we all rode into Fort William for a conference and to draw our pay. (The basic rate for a private soldier was then two shillings a day). As much of the road had not been metalled and consisted of boulders surrounded by mud, this was a somewhat hazardous experience for motor-cyclists who were as inexperienced as we were.

At first I was stationed at Lochailort, perhaps the toughest commando training centre in Britain. The trainees had to accomplish endless climbs in full equipment up and down sodden mountains in pouring rain, as well as rope-climbing, assault courses, weapon training and various other strenuous activities. Among the distinguished men who passed through its courses were Lord Lovat, of the Lovat Scouts, Gavin Maxwell ("Ring of Bright Water") and. I believe, David Niven; but as they were officers I couldn't meet them. With me I had another Field Security man, Stevie, a former schoolmaster from Glasgow; our chief duties were to meet the local train which arrived from Glasgow once a day and see if there was anybody suspicious on it, and to check security in general. The camp consisted of the Castle, which was a large country-house where the officers were quartered, and a number of tents with duckboard on the mud for the other ranks. Luckily my colleague and I managed to get a small room in the hut which housed the NAAFI, and so we were able to escape the worst of the rain - and we didn't have to undergo commando training. In fact nobody else in the camp had much idea why we were there and we were allowed to remain aloof and mysterious and even to keep our room locked on the pretext that it contained secret papers.

Apart from the camp, the village of Lochailort consisted literally of the railway station, a hotel and a small shop (there didn't seem to be any local inhabitants). The hotel was run by a formidable-looking lady called Williamina Maclean, who in fact belied her appearance and was warm and generous. I sometimes went to the back bar, mostly frequented by Irish labourers who were working in the camp. They invariably drank spirits with chasers; whisky and beer, gin and beer when the whisky ran out, and finally sherry and beer. There was indeed a shortage of Scotch, as it was all exported to America, and on my first visit to the famous West Highland Hotel at Mallaig I was disappointed to find the only whisky they had was Canadian Rye.


We didn't have much to amuse us in our leisure time, but occasionally dances were held in the village hall in Arisaig, near Lochailort. These dances usually started at dusk and ended at dawn, as the girls had to walk long distances over the mountains to get to them. They played the traditional Highland dances, which gave me the idea of writing a suite on Highland tunes, and also modern jazz. Some of the fisher girls came over from Fraserburgh on the east coast; one of them and I used to perform an energetic sort of jiving act, which astonished my fellow-soldiers - though not a good dancer myself, I sometimes find a partner with whom I can dance well.

The estate manager at Lochailort, Mr. Cox, was still living in his house near the castle in the middle of the camp. He, his wife and family often welcomed Stevie and me into his home for tea, scones and conversation in the evenings, especially on the nights when we were on guard duty at the castle. He once took me deer-stalking; I went, not because I wanted to shoot stags, but I hoped to see these beautiful animals in their natural surroundings. However, they got wind of us a mile away and soon disappeared.
As I was now in a more or less settled position I was able to think about writing music again. I sketched out a rather Bartokian Music for Piano, Strings and Percussion, and then a less Bartokian and more individual Suite for string orchestra. I still lacked confidence as a composer, particularly as there was nobody to whom I could show my work, but with the Bartokian piece I felt I had made a break-through, and today I call it my Op 1. It does not rely so heavily on . other composers as my earlier works, and it had quite a success when it was performed in London during the middle of the war. The money for this concert had been put up by Rodney Phillips' brother Ian; the programme, which was given in the Wigmore Hall, also included Webern's orchestration of Bach's Ricercare from the Musical Offering, not often played in those days, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Beethoven's 4th symphony with only a small body of strings. The conductor was Walter Goehr.

Goehr had been a pupil of Schoenberg in Berlin in the 1920s. He came to England in 1933 with his wife and their infant son Alexander, now one of Britain's leading composers and Professor of Music at Cambridge. Walter Goehr was offered a job at Morley College where he gave some enterprising concerts; in England he was generally better known as a conductor than a composer. However he used to give a virtuoso performance once a week on the BBC radio show "Marching On"; this was a dramatisation of events as they occurred and went on the air at 7 p.m. Early in the day Walter would arrive in the studio, learn what events were to be presented, write suitable music for them, score it, have it copied, rehearse it and conduct it that evening. He made a certain amount of money out of this, with which he generously financed concerts of contemporary music at a time when no one else, including the BBC , dared to do such a thing.

Back in Scotland, I had lost my room in the hut over the NAAFI, and had to sleep on a camp bed in one of Mr. Cox's outhouses, which was at least dry, if rat-infested. I had been made an acting sergeant, which meant that I could use the sergeants' mess, and shortly afterwards I was moved to Arisaig House, a fairly modern mansion which stood on a hill outside the village. This was more pleasant than Lochailort, and so was the Arisaig Hotel which belonged to members of the Macdonald family. Lochailort was in Cameron country and the laird, then away in the army, was a Cameron. He returned to Lochailort when his aged mother died; she was given a full Highland funeral, with the eerie sound of the piper's pibroch echoing round the mountains. The laird also arranged a communal netting of a small loch on the estate which contained a large quantity of salmon trout. The catch was supposed to be delivered in toto to the laird, who had the fish sold in London, but a good many salmon trout found their way into the heather, whence they were retrieved after dark1 and the whole neighbourhood lived on this splendid fish for some considerable time.

My Field Security colleagues and I were sometimes sent to meet parties of "students" in Glasgow; they came up on the evening train from London. We took them to a hostel for the night, and escorted them on the 5.50a.m.(!) train from Glasgow up to the destinations beyond Fort William. Fortunately this was about the only train in the country which kept a restaurant car going in wartime and when a fairly substantial breakfast appeared about 8a.m. there was general jubilation. These trips meant that I could sometimes see friends in Glasgow, including, on one occasion, Sir Adrian Boult, who was conducting there and invited me to supper in the Station Hotel before the students' train arrived.

Nevertheless I was becoming rather bored with my circumstances, though they were not too unpleasant, and I felt that I ought to be doing something more active. There was no possibility of promotion within my unit, so I felt I had to apply for a commission. I went to Inverness for an interview, and in due course was told to proceed to a Transit Camp at the Great Central Hotel opposite Marylebone Station in London; it is at present the headquarters of the British Railways Board. The hotel was filled with a large crowd of NCOs and private soldiers all wondering what was going to happen next; eventually word spread through the grapevine that we were going to be sent to India to do our officer training there. Again I felt that I ought to use such French and German as I had; fortunately the headquarters of SOE was just round the corner in Baker Street. I went there and asked to speak to a friendly colonel whom I had frequently met on his visits to the training camps in Scotland. I explained the situation; he made a few telephone calls, and in due course I was given a commission as an instructor in SOE.

I was first sent on a course at their "finishing school" near Beaulieu in Hampshire. This was concerned with the usual paraphernalia of spying-codes, secret inks, disguises, contacting agents, cover stories, and also the writing of propaganda leaflets, for which our instructor was the writer Paul Dehn. But after a few weeks I was sent as an instructor to one of the preliminary training schools, the first school through which the students went on entering the service, before their toughening-up period in Scotland. The subjects here were map-reading, weapon training, fieldcraft, wireless transmission, P.T., explosives and Silent Killing. I knew something of these already and had to pick up the rest as I went along. Fortunately there were excellent manuals to guide us, and we didn't have to spend any time on parades or bullshit of any kind. The courses were short and designed to give the students the minimum requirements they would need when living as agents in occupied countries; their objects were to organize resistance movements, to collect intelligence and to do propaganda and sabotage. The students came from all the Allied countries, many of them having escaped with great difficulty from their homelands; they were brave men and women who had volunteered to undertake a very hard and dangerous task, and I had a tremendous respect for them.

The students who came to my school, which was held in a large country house near Wokingham, were mostly French. SOE had two French sections. One was the Anglo-French section under Colonel Buckmaster, which sent over such well-known agents as Odette Churchill and Captain Yeo-Thomas ("The White Rabbit"); these were mostly people who were bilingual in English and French or were of dual nationality. The other section comprised the De Gaulle French under "Colonel Passy", who took his pseudonym from a station on the Paris Metro, and these were the ones with whom I was mostly concerned. They were Frenchmen who had escaped from Occupied France, usually via Spain and Algiers, and very few of them spoke any English so my French came in useful after all. (One exception was a middle-aged man, Louis Burdet, who owned a hotel in St. James's; we met again after the war following his appearance in a TV quiz show, "Find the Link", in which he publicly stated that the training at our school had saved his life. He organized the resistance in the Marseille area under the name of  M. Circumference). These French men and women came from all parts of France, from Lille to the Pyrenees, and from all walks of life. Their politics varied from extreme Right to Communist, but they were all solidly behind De Gaulle, whom they felt was the one man who could save their country, and they appreciated our efforts in training them for the work they were-going to do.

My C.O. was Major J.H. Dumbrell, a regular officer from the Royal Sussex Regiment who had served in the First World War as a very young man. He was quiet and reserved, and his manner was very pleasant. He left me to look after the training of the students without interference - though naturally I asked his advice on important decisions - and concerned himself with the administrative side of the school, which entailed dealing with endless correspondence and demands from our Headquarters in London. I was with him for more than two years altogether, and we always got on well.

Silent Killing was a pared-down form of the Unarmed Combat which was taught to most Army units at that time; it was an earlier version of what is now known as karate. But we didn't want to waste our students' time on elaborate passes, throwing people over one's head, etc;.. what they required to know was how to defend themselves without weapons and if necessary, how to knock out a sentry who was guarding a target, say a power station, which they were ordered to put out of action. Our visiting instructors in this art were two ex-Shanghai policemen, then in their sixties; they had silver hair, were soft-spoken and looked like bishops. "Knee him in the balls" they fluted, "grind down his ankle with your boot". Their training, though simple, was very efficient, and I am sure that many of our students owed their lives to it.

As we had a regular training schedule which took up the whole day, but not the evenings, (except when we had night exercises) we often used to go to the Railway Inn at Wokingham after supper. This was run by a large and cheerful Cockney called Stanley and his much younger, pretty wife Anne. Here there was always amusing conversation and usually quite a crowd of people. Winston Churchill's daughter Mary used to look in sometimes; she was stationed down the road as an ATS. Stanley had been on the Stock Exchange before the war and was then living at Surbiton. One night he went into the bar at Waterloo Station for a quick drink before catching his train, when a sailor walked in with a monkey who was wearing a black and yellow check suit. The sailor ordered two half-pints of beer; he drank one and the monkey drank . the -other. Intrigued Stanley got into conversation with the sailor and offered to buy the monkey from him. At first the sailor was indignant - "E's me pal; we've been all rahnd the world together" - but eventually sold him to Stanley for £5. Stanley and the monkey walked off hand-in-paw; Stanley bought a dog ticket for him but was stopped at the barrier - "That ain't no dawg" - and so the monkey was registered as "cattle". They boarded the train which stopped once before Surbiton. Here a man got in wearing a bowler hat. "I love monkeys", he sid; whereupon the monkey seized his hat, tore off the brim and handed it back. On arrival at Surbiton Stanley and the monkey went through the barrier, arm in arm; when they had walked some distancethe ticket collector shouted after them: "'Ere, one of you 'asn't given up 'is ticket".

I also had some time for writing music, and there was a piano in the house. My Op. 2, Night Music, was written at this time. Its style was suggested by Webern's orchestration of the Bach Ricercare which I had heard at Walter Goehr's concert, and it was intended as a tribute to Webern on his 60th birthday, though of course I was unable to send him a score of it during the war. Though not a twelve-note work, it was more or less atonal and was scored transparently for a smallish chamber orchestra. It was performed in 1944 at one of the first concerts of the newly-formed Society for the Promotion of New Music, which has done so much over the years to discover and help young composers. The concert took place in the Royal College of Music; Constant Lambert conducted, annoying the College authorities by insisting on smoking throughout the rehearsals, and there was a large and distinguished audience, including Vaughan Williams, who was always interested in hearing what the younger composers were doing. The performance made quite an impact, and I began to get requests to write pieces, for instance a piano piece, Vigil (France 1940-1944) for an album in honour of the. French Resistance Forces - a very suitable task in this case.

As instructors we were naturally expected to do all the jobs our students had to do, and this included parachuting. I was sent on a course to Wilmslow, outside Manchester, near Ringway airport. We were given a severe stint of physical training to make our muscles flexible, and also detailed instructions on how to fall out of a plane and the right way to land. In the evenings we went to the local pub and had some amusing conversations with members of the Hallé Orchestra, including their principal clarinettist, Pat Ryan. But as the day of my first jump approached I was full of foreboding and thought that my last hour had come, especially as on the landing ground I had seen several "Roman Candles" - men whose parachutes had got their cords twisted and did not open. We jumped from only 300 feet (to give the enemy less time in which to shoot at a descending agent) and our rip-cords were attached to the plane, so that the parachutes were supposed to open automatically. We jumped through a hole in the floor in those days, and the first jump was from a balloon which, since we could see the ground all the time, was worse than jumping from a plane. However we had been so well drilled that when the time came to jump we went automatically on the word of command. When I hit the fresh air I had a feeling of immense relief, and floated down in supreme happiness. But only for twenty seconds, as we had to concentrate on avoiding any injury on landing, especially if there was a wind. However I enjoyed my initial four jumps so much that I later voluntarily returned for another course of four, three of them in one afternoon.

I was told a story at this time about a Polish officer who was being parachuted into his native land to organize the Resistance there. Just before the jump, he drew himself up to his full height, saluted smartly, and before disappearing through the hole exclaimed: "And if we see us not again, Allo!"

Eventually the entire staff of the school moved to another country house near Market Harborough in Leicestershire. This was further from London, of course, but the house had a lake which contained pike, and our cook who, though a Frenchman, was a British army sergeant, would often make splendid meals from this tasty if bony fish. The famous John Fothergill, author of "An Innkeeper's Diary", dating from the days when he was the proprietor of the Spread Eagle at Thame in Oxfordshire, a hotel much frequented by Oxford undergraduates in Evelyn Waugh's day - had taken over the Three Swans in Market Harborough, and we were anxious to try out the fare provided by this legendary figure. Unfortunately, owing to wartime restrictions, the best he was able to produce was a variety of different kinds of risotto containing mostly spam and other tinned food - "Mr. Fothergill's Special", the waiter told us. But in the circumstances we could hardly complain.

Boosey and Hawkes, the music publishers, put on some concerts of contemporary music in London, and I was asked to write a piece for string orchestra for one of these to be played by the famous Boyd Neel Orchestra, which did so much for modern British music at that time. I wrote an Ostinato (which later became the first movement of a second string suite); the performance went very well and attracted quite a lot of attention. My C.O. was also kind enough to allow me to work on a piano concerto on the mess piano in the evenings after training, though he must have suffered considerably from the noises I made. This was partly a reworking of two pieces I had sketched out before the war, and though the Concerto was later played at the Proms and elsewhere I have never been happy with it; for me, unlike Berlioz, it is a mistake to attempt to rehash earlier works.

Meanwhile our training courses at the school continued; from time to time volunteers for overseas operations were called for. I invariably applied for these, but was never accepted, so I suppose that I was needed as an instructor. When D-Day came the French Resistance blew up all the railway lines leading to the invasion front, thereby preventing the Germans from moving up supplies; we could feel that our contribution to the war effort had been worth while in the end. As more European countries were liberated SOE operations naturally became more limited, but I remained at the Leicestershire house until early in 1945, when I was sent back to my original school near Wokingham, this time with a different C.O., to train some anti-Nazi Germans who were to help in liberating the prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and I was there when the war in Europe ended.

Obviously SOE's work was now over, and we were all transferred to other units. I was given some language tests, in which I apparently did better in German than French - the French text was an extremely complicated piece about the technical side of railways - so I was sent to the Intelligence Corps HQ to await posting to Germany. The RQ had now moved from Winchester to Wentworth Woodhouse, an enormous 18th-century mansion on the outskirts of Rotherham, Yorkshire, which belonged to Lord Fitzwilliam, and indeed the earl's mother was still living in part of the premises. Unfortunately the beautifully landscaped garden was almost completely spoilt by opencast mining, but I was glad to have been there for a short time before my next move.

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