The Heroes of Phantom - Major Alan W Laurie

Alan was born in Grantchester, the second of two boys, just outside Cambridge, and told us of an idyllic childhood exploring meadows and woodland along the Cam, and fishing in the river.   His parents were from farming backgrounds in two widely separated parts of Scotland and he visited his grandparents there during summer holidays.    Father Willie was a tenant farmer, but gave that up in 1924 and worked as an agricultural adviser and then, during the war in Kent on distribution of animal feed.   Mother Meg took in paying guests before and after World War ll, and during the war kept house for Bishop Chase, then Master of Selwyn College.   It was there on leave from the Army that Alan first met Rosemary Woodhouse, a student of Bedford College,  London, evacuated because of the war to Cambridge, who was lodging in the Master's Lodge and sharing a gas fire in the evenings with his mother. 

 

Alan attended school in Trumpington from age 7 and six years later won a scholarship to Monkton Coombe boarding school near Bath.  He followed in his brother Ran's footsteps by rowing in the school eight at Henley, and displayed in his letters home to his parents a considerable interest in nature and literature, including poetry.  He missed the skylarks so common at home in Cambridgeshire, and in one letter transcribed the whole of Thomas Hardy's poem, Shelley's Skylark, which follows the imagined death, and presence in dust everywhere, of the skylark described in such depth by Shelley, and adding "I don't think that anyone but hardy could have thought of that idea".  He was a thinker from an early age, but at that stage, from his own account, not so much of a talker.   Reading was a thread throughout his life and picked up pace considerably after retirement to Burrington. 

 

In the summer holidays of 1938, just a year before war broke out, Alan and two friends from Grantchester, took the boat to Dieppe and walked to Rouen and back in two weeks - total outgoings for meals and accommodation were covered in full by a gift of £10 from his brother, who was six years older, and back on leave from the Sudan Political Service where he became a District Commissioner.   Six years later Alan was back in Bacqueville-en-Caux, one of the villages he had stayed in during the walking holiday - but this time in an armoured car as part of the invasion force shortly after landing on Juno beach on 16th June 1944.    He had enrolled in the army, aged 18, as soon as war had been declared, but he was not called up for another two years, and during that time he studied history at Selwyn College, Cambridge.   Brother of a Ran, who had rowed in the Berlin Olympics, and with an excellent rowing record at Monkton Combe, Alan was soon sought out by the College and University Boat Clubs and he was picked to row in the Cambridge crew in the 1940 boat race.   The race was held at Henley for fear that big crowds on the tideway would attract bombing, and Cambridge won by a good margin.   Later that year Alan was elected President of the CUBC but there was no boat race in 1941. 

 

While waiting to be called up, Alan took an active part in the Grantchester Local Defence Volunteers, the forerunner of Dad's Army and he was put in charge of the Stokes' Mortar.  His call-up papers arrived in May 1941, just before the exams. He was allowed to sit his Part 1 History exams (he got a 2.i), and after a few more months during which he was assigned to a agricultural work team in Great Eversen with a gang of conscientious objectors, he was recruited into the Royal Artillery.   After training at Shrivenham Barracks was put to work on coastal defences in Scotland (where he also received cookery training) and later in Brize Norton.  A chance (or perhaps not chance?) meeting with a friend at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge while on leave led to him being transferred in October 1942 to the secret regiment "Phantom" (officially known as GHQ Liaison Regiment) whose purpose was to gather information on the exact positions of forward troops during fluid battlefield conditions.  Phantom's officers had a unique reporting structure, and were very mobile with small patrols consisting of an officer, a sergeant or corporal, an armoured car, a jeep and motorcycle/dispatch rider cum batman.  They were morse-code literate and had their own special high security codes.  Dad was particularly impressed with one of his radio operators whose name was Wingett.  Nick-named Swingit Wingett, he had a roll of aerial wire on a piece of wood which he swung up into trees and was always on air more quickly than any other operator. I have a handwritten assessment of officers by Lt. Col. A.H McIntosh, commander of Phantom.  Most came out as extremely highly regarded.  The entry against LAURIE is particularly succinct:  "Probably the best patrol officer.  Guaranteed not to fail."  

 

Service in Phantom had an enormous influence, I think, on my father's subsequent life.  He cited in particular the scope and the need for independent decision making far from HQ, the informality of the relationships between the officers and other ranks that was natural in small patrols, and his experiences recording actions at the front and in the relief of one of the German concentration camps.   Friendships formed in Phantom operations were lifelong.  Phantom officers became godfathers to his first two sons, and Alan became godfather to another's daughter.  Alan served in Phantom first in North Africa and Sicily and then in the sweep from Normandy through France, Belgium, Holland to Germany.  It was sometimes brutal stuff they were reporting.  This is from one of Alan's radioed situation reports dated midday 26th March 1945 during the Rhine crossings: "Violent opposition to every attempt to expand the bridgehead...In clearing Rees Ist Gordons  set parts of the town on fire, and were using 3.7 howitzers at point blank range. After two days fighting in the town they took only seven prisoners and these came out of a burning house.  Every German had to be killed.   The same fanatical resistance was offered to 154 Brigade early this morning".   And in a letter home to his parents in April 1945 after the liberation of Stalag XB at Sandbostel: "If anyone ever doubts the concentration camp stories I shall be able to say that I have seen some of the inmates, some dead and some alive, but all so emaciated with hunger and disease that you literally could not tell the living from the dead.  They were dying while we were there".  Years later Dad's 8yr old grand-daughter Tanith sent him a questionnaire on the war as part of a school project.  In his written answer to "How did you get into the war?" Dad wrote "I thought Hitler was a bad man who did cruel things to lots of innocent people. I thought he had to be stopped.  I volunteered to join the Army in September 1939".

 

In later life Alan was a keen opponent of Brexit (more on this from my brother Ian, in a moment), and the events leading up to the war, his own and others' experiences during the war, and then the establishment of cooperation between European nations made him despair at what he called the tribalism peddled by certain British politicians - the "we are in you are out" mentality.  He was riled by people saying "the role of government is to carry out the will of the majority".  "What of the minority?" he would say.  He had a keen interest in people and was for the most part not judgemental of people, although there was a fierce and uncompromising streak in his politics, and also to a certain extent in his defence of family.    There was also a streak of recklessness and impulsiveness competing with common sense, and driven by feelings for others and ideas of justice.  At the end of the war this revealed itself in a John Buchan like adventure - a night drive through Germany to Holland with a Russian interpreter in a successful, and strictly illegal, attempt to save her from repatriation to Russia. 

 

On demobilization in October 1946, after five years in uniform, Alan returned to Selwyn and, rather than complete his history degree, wanted to do something more immediately constructive as he put it.  He opted for a one year Diploma in Education which he completed in 1947 with a term of teaching practice in Bedford Modern School where he began to coach rowing.   He saw more of Rosemary, including on several holidays together, on the Broads and in Skye, and they were married in August 1949.  By that time Alan was teaching at Kings School Rochester, where, apart from teaching, as he put it, very bright 11 year olds, he was a resident house tutor in a boarding house, coached rugger, played cricket, did some rowing on the Medway, and started to develop informed opinions about independent schools.  He went on to teach at Shrewsbury School in 1950 and remained there for 20 years, eight of them as housemaster of Severn Hill.   Many former Severn Hill students have written in the last few days to my mother to praise Alans' approach to running a boarding house, which at that time differed from standard practice. Dad, following the advice of the then headmaster, Jack Peterson, tried to "Love every boy in your house and make sure that he knows you do".   Changes included the ending of corporal punishment, the encouragement of freedom as far as compatible with responsbilities in loco parentis, and much more dialogue - talking with and listening to each boy - than had been the custom hitherto.   More than one former student noted the huge impression that Alan made in paying attention to each individual, spending hours touring the house, often with torch in hand, ready to talk about politics, current affairs, school activities, or indeed anything that interested himself or themselves.   Alan coached rowing with notable successes, both at house and school level and although he played little, he always maintained that cricket "was the best game ever".  On one memorable occasion, coming in at No 11 with the fathers' 11 40 runs or so behind against the boys' Ist 11 at Kingsland Grange School, Shrewsbury he hit a series of boundaries and won the match for the fathers, in the process losing four balls into the long grass at the brook end.  He later sent a cheque as a contribution to the cost of the balls. 

 

It was at Shrewsbury that Alan began to be influenced by "Henry George and the riddle that Progress and Poverty march together", as he put it, and the difficulties of changing entrenched systems when wealth gives power and those in power will be hurt by change.  He was much influenced in his political views by maverick fellow staff member Frank McEachran, author of "Freedom The Only End", who had us stand on our chairs to recite "spells".     In 1953 Alan joined the Liberal Party, and in May 1962, while a housemaster, and much to the astonishment of the Conservative incumbent, was elected as a Shrewsbury Borough Councillor for Kingsland and Coleham ward, giving the balance of power to the two Liberals and one Independent on the Council.    His election agent was a student at the school - a Dayboy.   While at Shrewsbury Alan undertook the two year training to become a marriage guidance counsellor and then did counselling for many years, first in Shrewsbury, and later, after retirement, in Ludlow.   He was a prison visitor too. One of Alan's referees for  subsequent job applications commented in his reference on Alan's "remarkable and exceptional range of interests and activities beyond his duties as a housemaster and teacher at Shrewsbury".   At school Alan took the step of leaving Severn Hill after only eight years because he wanted to get back to teaching.  He was advised that this would limit his chances of getting a headship but that did not faze him - perhaps reflecting the low value that Dad put on status, and again a certain recklessness.   Dad was, in fact, interviewed, with Mum, for a couple of headmasterships and was runner up at Gordonstoun.  In retrospect he was pleased that he was not selected.  He had been growing out of sympathy with private education in theory, although accepting that much of the practice was excellent.  Here as in other aspects of his beliefs - on land for example - he was, he said, and many of us are perhaps, to a certain extent in internal contradiction.  Life goes on, he said, and we have to live and operate within the system while at the same time campaigning to change it. At the school he undertook new challenges as a normal member of staff, including taking charge of activities on a Thursday afternoon for those who did not volunteer to join the Combined Cadet Force.  The new system was still funded by the War Office, so the scope was pretty good.    Among other things he ran a working party to clear the footpath along Offa's Dyke, and built canoes with the boys.    We built one too and navigated the Teme while on holiday at Downton and later at Burrington.  Having always lived in school accommodation my parents bought a cottage in Burrington in 1965, and as many of you know, that is where they retired to in 1981.  More of that from Ian in a moment. 

 

While at Shrewsbury Alan and Rosemary embarked on quite an adventure - taking the four of us, Ranald barely one year old, to Canada for a year.   Alan taught history at the the Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute and we finished the year with a camping trip that took us to the far west and Banff and Jasper National Parks. In an article for the Ontario Department of Education Newsletter in 1958 Alan set out his concerns about history teaching as he found it, calling for freedom to give teachers the choice of texts and to allow time for reflection.  He railed against the type of question that tries to trip up students on unimportant facts, and explored the problems inherent in trying to measure progress.  "It is no good just testing memory", he wrote, and "an exact view of history is not only false but dangerous".   He advocated more streaming, quoting from John Stuart Mill "A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can".   He was angry when I asked my teacher in Canada how to do a particular piece of arithmetic, and the teacher replied "Never mind, I'll give you some easier ones  tomorrow".

 

A common thread running through Dad's various professional appointments and voluntary work has been his natural aversity to taking things at face value leading to analysis of problems and, where possible, making changes to address them.   This was nowhere more apparent than at the Royal Normal College for the Blind, where Dad was appointed Principal in 1970.   The RNCB had two campuses - Albrighton Hall, just north of Shrewsbury, and Rowton Castle, on the Welshpool Road to the west.  On arrival he was faced with a plethora of corruption, infighting, jealousies and substandard practices, including poor accommodation, micro-managing (and funding) by the rather remote governors (who met in London), and chaotic accounting.   With the constant support of Her Majesty's Inspector for Special Education, Bill Snowden, a plan for radical reforms was put into effect.  Staff changes were made, a clerk to the governors was appointed, governors' meetings were moved to the College, fees were increased by 50% and the extra money contributed to changing dormitory accommodation to study bedrooms, Albrighton Hall was closed and all operations were gathered at Rowton Castle, supported by a building programme.  Reforms were made to teaching too so that it extended beyond training for occupations such as piano-tuning and typing to include academic subjects O and A levels.   The Ministry of Education was persuaded to give the College Further Education status which at a stroke did away with the distinction between instructors and teachers.  The consequent rises in salaries were a real boost to morale.   Entry procedures were reorganized, links with ophthalmologists were strengthened to give advice, information and support to both students and parents.   When Alan arrived at the RNCB it was generally accepted to be sliding towards closure.  What was needed was an outsider to develop a strategy for changes across the board and someone to negotiate the finance and Alan did both.  And he ended up by planning, negotiating and setting up the move of the RNCB to Hereford. 

 

Alan felt that the label of housemaster at Shrewsbury gave him social kudos and that it is generally assumed to be his best achievement, but that in fact it was the RNCB post, "out of the limelight of the prestigious world of public schools" as he put it, that gave him the most satisfaction in terms of achievements.   He had similar feelings about his final appointment as Warden of College Hill House, an adult education centre in Shrewsbury - an unusual collaboration between the County Further Education Department, Birmingham University Extra-Mural Department, and the Shrewsbury Arts Society.   There was a lot going on in terms of courses ranging from teaching adults to read, to extra-mural degrees.  And people were coming in with questions about social services and education and visiting the bookshop and the cafe.  Courses were also held at other sites all over the county.   Dad was there for five years and during that time he got to know Roy Fletcher who had put large sums into charity for local causes.    He offered to put money into College Hill House with the specific aim of moving operation to the derelict Southam's Brewery site, which he owned.  To cut a long story short, the County Council were persuaded, Alan drew up plans and building eventually began on what is now known as the Gateway Education and Arts Centre, which was opened by Princess Anne after Alan had moved on, in 1984.   Alan's collaboration with Roy Fletcher and the Roy Fletcher Trust continued after his retirement, with support provided to organizations with which Alan was working, including Home-Start and Relate.  Alan's involvement with Home Start began while at College Hill House and continued well into retirement both in Shrewsbury and in Ludlow, so more of that from Ian shortly.  Alan wrote that his association with Home Start was immensely rewarding and one of the most important to him of the many things in his life.    Alan was certainly a "multi-tasker".  While at College Hill House, he was, among other things, chair of Shrewsbury Liberal Association, and in 1979 he stood as their Parliamentary Candidate in the general election.   He came second, pushing Labour into third place.  He was glad when looking back at his old leaflets a few years ago, to see that he had several "green" messages in them.   

 

When looking back at what he valued in his life Alan put family at the forefront - and people.  Alan was generous with his time, and with his money, and personal wealth was low on his priorities.    He attended church regularly with Rosemary, and although he regarded religion as a guide in our treatment of fellow travelers through life, he came not to believe in heaven or hell, or dying on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.   He was, nonetheless, a keen and active supporter of the Church, and a believer in its social role in the community wherever he lived.    His reading, particularly in recent years, was wide, and included works on the brain and altruism.  As attested to by the number of people here today, Alan was a popular man - he was tolerant and gentle, he tried to understand everyone, and for the most part he was non-judgemental.   As I said earlier, this inevitably involved some inner compromise, of which he was aware, and which, I think, embarrassed him.   Alan enjoyed comedy, and he enjoyed telling a certain type of joke, but he was not naturally funny himself and he was difficult to tease.   He looked in on himself a lot, searching it seems for understanding, and he has left behind many poems, short stories and even a 50,000 word unpublished novel written over the years. He liked talking too, telling about his search for understanding, and recounting anecdotes, and he was happy to accept invitations to give presentations on Henry George, or Inequality among others, or his trips abroad, to Sri Lanka and Nepal for example.  Lots of energy, then, and also the ability, acquired in the war, he said, to be able to do nothing fruitfully. 

This record given to us by Alan's son Andrew.

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