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Qualicum Beach veteran recalls West Berlin and Northern Ireland

Dave Horrocks served in British Army with Royal Engineers
Dave Horrocks served in the British Army and was stationed in West Berlin, Northern Ireland and Kenya in the 1960s. (Kevin Forsyth photo)

Dave Horrocks joined the British Armed Forces when he was a teenager. Within a year he was trained and found himself in West Berlin, deployed with the Corps of Royal Engineers.

The year was 1965, when the city was still divided between spheres administered by the Western Allies and the Soviet Bloc.

Horrocks recalled staying in a barracks close to watchtowers guarded by Soviet soldiers — sometimes he and other British soldiers would swap military pins with the Russian conscripts.

Close by was Spandau Prison, where prominent Nazi prisoners Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer were still incarcerated. There was a monthly rotation of British, French, U.S. and Soviet troops guarding the prison. It was an interesting time and place to be, to say the least.

“It was one of the better postings that I had during my military career because it was then the divided city,” Horrocks said. “We still had the presence of the Russian forces and the East German military police on the other side of the wall.”

Evidence of the destruction from the Second World War could still be seen at that time and Horrocks remembers a bombed-out church.

“That was the sad part about it, the good part was the times we had, and we had a lot of good German friends as well,” he said.

While in West Berlin, Horrocks made a lifelong friend, a Scottish fellow named Phil who was his best man (twice) and the two still remain in touch on Facebook after 57 years.

Horrocks joined the Royal Engineers because he wanted to learn a trade. When he walked into the recruiting office, the officer took one look at Horrocks, a tall man, and said, “ah, a Guardsman!”

“I says, ‘not on your life’,” Horrocks recalled with a laugh.

As an army engineer, he learned a multitude of skills and was able to deploy with all echelons of the military, if required.

“We can build it and we can blow it up,” Horrocks said.

He spent a little under three years in deployments to West Berlin, before spending time in Kenya and Northern Ireland, where his unit was stationed in a town called Antrim and would commute back and forth to Belfast.

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He arrived there in December 1969 at the start of the Troubles, a sectarian conflict between Protestant loyalists who wanted to remain part of the UK and Roman Catholic republicans who wanted to join with Ireland.

“It was very tense, obviously because you’re in a harm’s way situation,” Horrocks said. “They were beating one another to death, literally. We were fortunate in the fact that we weren’t part of that detachment that were on the front line. We were basically the backup, you know. We went in with the grading equipment and the earth moving equipment, if they’d blown up a house or they’d done some damage.”

Horrocks’s unit built riot fences, as well as carried away the wreckage of car bombings.

He also deployed to Kenya, where the UK was helping the local government with infrastructure improvements such as fixing roads and building drainage ditches.

“They had a very stable economy, but it had been pretty ravaged by the Mau Mau process back in the ’50s,” Horrocks said. “So they were rebuilding and it was taking a lot of time.”

To get there his unit had to fly into Cyprus, then Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, before landing in Nairobi. They were then transported to a town called Nanyuki, roughly 90 miles from Nairobi in the Rift Valley.

The area had recently experienced some landslides, Horrocks said. The Royal Engineers built a camp and cut bamboo to make their huts.

“You had to build your bed off the floor and you had to hang your boots over the end of the bed, tied with the laces,” he said. “You couldn’t leave them on the floor. And if you forgot and didn’t bang them together in the morning — beware of the scorpions. Because they will sting you — and it hurts.”

Horrocks spent time with his unit in Valcartier, Que., to assist the Canadian Army’s Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doos) with bridge abutments and other engineering tasks. The Van Doos engineers were fully deployed elsewhere, and the assignment gave the Royal Engineers a chance to carry out tasks they wouldn’t normally be assigned, Horrocks said.

He was struck by the huge forests in the area and enjoyed the extra pay he received for being posted in another country.

“A pint of Tetley’s Bitter was 10 cents, and a pack of Rothman’s King size cigarettes was 12 cents Canadian,” he said. “We were millionaires.”

His time in Quebec was one of many reasons he decided to immigrate to Canada. He moved to Calgary in 1977 and worked as a mechanic before he moved into the automobile glass industry for 29 years.

Horrocks and his wife moved to the Parksville Qualicum Beach area during the pandemic to be closer to his wife’s family.

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