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EPPING: Retired corporal recalls days at army barracks
FIFTY years ago dozens of young men held their breath as they waited to discover whether they would be sent to Egypt to fight in the Suez Canal Crisis.
The boys from Thornwood Camp in Epping, aged only between 18 and 25, watched as the vehicles in their barracks were painted a desert sand colour and travelled in them down to Newport Docks, ready to fight their first real battle over the international dispute in 1956.
The boys waited nervously as Britain and France raged at Egypt effectively ousting them from the important oil shipping route until, at the last minute, Prime Minister Anthony Eden agreed to America's calls for a ceasefire.
Keith Richards, 76, was one of the young men carrying out their two-year National Service at the time, aged just 19, and started the Old Thornwood Campians' Association last January as he tried to track down his former brothers-in-arms from his home in Cwmbran, Wales.
He said: "It was a bit worrying but we took it as it came. We were on standby until late November, it really was down to the wire."
Mr Richards, who was a corporal at the barracks with a paycheque the equivalent of £1.40 a week, has since rediscovered 17 of his old friends who are still alive, and is looking for more of the 70 soldiers posted there in his time.
As the head of the Regimental Police and the physical training instructor at the camp in Teazle Mead , Mr Richards would organise patrols as well as leading a squad of soldiers running up and down what is now Carpenters Arms Lane with full packs on their backs.
But it was the rather more relaxed walk up the lane that most of the soldiers preferred, when they would attend dances with local girls and nurses from St Margaret's Hospital at Coopersale Village Hall, in Institute Road, Epping.
"You danced to a record player and we'd have to compete with RAF boys for the girls' affections," said Mr Richards. "We'd fight for the ladies of Epping though, and I remember quite a few of our boys striking up romances. I'd love to find out if any settled down in the area."
The retired policeman, who was a coalminer when he entered the barracks, said the experience educated him in the ways of the world.
"Those two years changed me from a very naive young man into a much more broad-minded person," he added. "I met all kinds of people and and I think what it did for me and many others was it gave us a sense of comradeship, and that's never been lost.
"When I tracked down one member, George Davies, he was very emotional on the phone: he cried because he was so surprised I remembered him. But we were a band of brothers."
Mr Richards is trying to find a former soldier at Thornwood called Captain Levine, who he believes became a doctor in Chingford before retiring. He would now be in his 80s.
Anyone with information is asked to email Mr Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org.