Let me start at the beginning of my knowledge. I spent my 21st Birthday in Prison. A simple statement. Mind you, as I had spent my 19th Birthday at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, my 20th working in an NHS Hospital as a cleaner of floors, (extra money to pay for the Liebfraumilch bill was welcome), it was no surprise to find myself in HMP Frankland on my 21st. Going on leave just before Christmas, my car was stopped by the fine officers of the local constabulary. Well, I thought I was under the breath limit, even after a couple of stiffeners at Luncheon, and the car had enough faults on it to warrant the stop. The driver had a vicious sneer, and sent his passenger out to approach my wreckage of an automobile, while he was tensed in case I did a runner. I wound down the window as he approached, (yes snowflakes, you had to wind the window up and down, if it was working, and cars had something called a choke), having rapidly ingested a mint. Good afternoon sir, intoned Officer Thug, but is your surname Panick, and are you an Army Officer? So, once we had all agreed that he had the right chap, I was turned round, ignoring the various faults in the Vauxhall Vectra his mate was muttering about (tyres bald, regulation this and that, how did it pass an MOT) and headed back to my start point. There, I was given a friendly reception by my Colonel, a whisky, and told to go and pack for about a month or so, and the transport would be here in about one hour, and we were off to be prison wardens. It seemed unlikely that a Dinner Jacket or formal wear would be required. So I did that, got on the bus with some other ‘volunteers’, and arrived at HMP Frankland. For some reason, the group included our Ammunition and Technical Officer (ATO) and rather more logically, the Regimental Doctor. Joined by parts of another Regiment, who had also not spent the previous Christmas in Northern Ireland, and humming the Pink Panther theme tune, we met the Prison Governor. He kindly explained that as all the Prison Officers had gone on strike, the Home Office had sought emergency measures, and we were they. The prison was due to be opened in about 6 months, but as it was an emergency, it would now be opened in three days time. We had about 300 soldiers, including Military Police, and a large number of dogs, arriving tomorrow, he had been told. He had about 20 prison governor grades to help us, and they might arrive at some time in the next few weeks. Would we like the guided tour?
First question. How many prisoners? About 40, but it could well increase to about 200.
Second question. These doors, between the cell blocks. Where were the locks? Answer. Yes, that might be a problem. I think that was the point of the first Michael Caine/Italian Job joke at the ATO.
Third question. Did the Governor have a cash float or a Cheque book, and where was the nearest hardware store that could provide chain and about 40 padlocks. And why had we just sent the ATO off with all the money to B&Q? Other DIY hardware stores are available in the North of England.
Fourth question. These cell doors. Very nice. Sturdy. But no locks either. No, they would be arriving tomorrow. Fitted? Not certain. Send a signal for REME fitters to be included in the ‘volunteer’ list. And more dogs.
So, after the cash float, courtesy of the Home office, had been raided for Taxis, local Restaurant Bills, and a very large drinks bill at various local hostelries, we retired for the night into either of the two prisoners gymnasiums, to sleep, perchance to dream. Seriously, if you think the MP’s expenses were a rip off, the bill sent to the Home Office was horrendous. As we drunk one place out of Moet, we moved to the next. And the next. And so on.
The planning committee reconvened the next morning, slightly the worse for wear, in a local cafe. Overnight, we had beds for all, coaches and trucks with soldiers, charabancs bearing the members of the Military Police from all three forces, the fine members of the various Catering Corps, and the canine force.
Let us put it this way. No prisoner was going to escape. Colditz was an open prison compared to this. Alcatraz was an escapers paradise. When you have 40 prisoners, with 300 troops guarding them, you may be on a winner. The first rehearsal of the arrival of prisoners, and thus the reception procedure, involved one coach at this stage. The planning committee decided to disgorge the prisoner contingent (enacted, for the purpose of the rehearsals, by a group of soldiers acting as prisoners) right by a wire fence, behind which the canine contingent with handlers were massed. Suitably encouraged, over a few rehearsals, the gap was narrowed to about 1 foot from the coach door to the fence, at which point our group of soldiers were refusing to leave the security of the coach, even encouraged by the Regimental Sergeant Major. The Furry Land Sharks won paws, claws, and teeth down.
And so, the prisoners arrived. There are people who talk of rehabilitation. Not in this place. The guards were sleeping in the Gymnasiums. The officers had the Rehab Gym. The workshops were closed. There was no Rehab. The dogs were let loose between the cell blocks and the fences. The handlers looked on. And not one prisoner escaped. And thus, I spent my 21st Birthday.
Two other things.
The phone bill was being paid by the Home Office. At this point, access to a phone was a novelty. So, armed with the overseas dialling codes, found in the various Telephone Directories that someone had kindly ordered, we started a Christmas Call out to the English Speaking World. If you got a call on Christmas Day, from a refreshed English Army Officer, and you were say in Texas, I hope you enjoyed chatting to the strange Army Officer from Engerland. I enjoyed chatting with you.
Sub Note. I can’t remember serving the soldiers tea with rum (Gunfire) on Xmas Morning. More about that in a future recollection.
The second thing. Visits were supervised by the Military Police and the Governors. The common soldiery were not supposed to be there. Rules are sometimes broken. I did witness one, where a young lady, dressed in a fur coat, was pointed out to me as worth observing. She was wearing nothing under the coat as she opened it to her hubby, bar the stockings and suspenders. A nice recollection. Happy 21st 2/Lt Panick. Happy Birthday to you!
© Captain Panick 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file