Ken Armstrong served in British Royal Marines 22 years during ‘Cold War’

Ken Armstrong was a Command Sergeant Major in the British Royal Marines who first went to sea shortly after World War II aboard the HMS Victorious. He took part in the 1956 Suez Crisis and spent the last two decades in the service teaching drafting and engineering at the navy’s drafting headquarters in Portsmouth, England. Sun photo by Don Moore

Ken Armstrong was a command sergeant major in the British Royal Marines when he retired from Her Majesty’s service after 22 years. He joined the “Bootnecks”–Marines– in Glasgow, Scotland shortly after graduating from high school in 1947.

“I was just finishing my education and trying to go to the university when I got a call for military service. I couldn’t get a deferment, so I walked around the corner one day and went in the Royal Marines’ recruiting office and signed up for 12 years. When I told my mother she was shocked,” the 81-year-old Spanish Lakes mobile home park resident recalled.

“I spent the next year training to be a Marine,” he said. “We were trained both as sailors and commandos.

“HMS Victorious was my first ship. She was an aircraft carrier based in Portsmouth, England. I became ‘Corporal of the Gangway.’ I inspected everybody who came aboard or went off the ship.

“When we were at sea my position was on the bridge alongside the captain. I was his runner and I looked after him when he was on the bridge,” Armstrong explained. “The only problem was I was always seasick. I was never a good sailor.

“The captain, when he was on the bridge, had a cigar in his mouth . The smoke from his cigar didn’t help me at all,” he said. “The captain was seasick as well. He wasn’t a good sailor either.

HMS Victorious was Royal Marine Sergeant Ken Armstrong’s first sea duty in 1948. Photo provided

“We sailed out of Portsmouth for the Mediterranean and on to Gibraltar and Malta. It was 1948 and we were doing training exercises. I spent 18 months on the Victorious.

“We came back to England and I was stationed in Chatham, one of the Royal Marines three bases: Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth. It was there I heard about the drafting school and decided to sign up. I was sent back to Portsmouth for training in drafting.

“We learned mechanical engineering at drafting school. We were drawing bridges our people had to build. A while later I received additional training as a topographical draftsman.

“After finishing my studies I joined Headquarters Company 3rd Commando Brigade based in Portsmouth. My job was to interpret aerial photography and make battle maps for the unit.

“A few months later, in 1951, I was sent to Malaya where there was a war going on between the rubber planters and the bandits. They sent in the Royal Marines. It took us a month to get there by ship.

“I spent the next 18 months drawing the main battle maps for the Marines. Then our brigade withdrew and went back to Gibraltar. I was there about a year when the Suez Crisis broke out.,” Armstrong said.

“In 1956 the Egyptians tried to nationalized the Suez Canal. British, French and Israeli forces stepped in to block the takeover. The American troops got involved and gave the canal back to the Egyptians.

“During the crisis I was station in Port Said, Egypt. Every day we patrolled up and down the 90-mile long canal. Nothing exciting happened.

Ships burn off Port Said during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis in which Royal Marine Sergeant Ken Armstrong was involved. Photo provided

“There was a little Salvation Army canteen out there in the desert that served tea and a bun. We’d stop in and drink a jam jar full of tea and would have a bun. I always remember that,” he recalled fondly.

“When I returned from that deployment I had to upgrade my qualifications to 2nd Class draftsman and mechanical engineer,” he said. “I was promoted to command sergeant major and head of the drafting department at Portsmouth and served out the rest of my enlistment.

“When my enlistment was up I had to decide if I wanted to reup for another 10 years in the Royal Marines. I did,” Armstrong said. “During my last 10 years I went to night school and got a degree in electrical engineering.

“I ended up teaching drafting and engineering at the drafting school in Portsmouth. I took over the training side of the office,” he said.

“After the Marines I went to work at London University as a teacher and lecturer in the College of Technology. I thought mathematics and electrical engineering for 21 years.”

Eleven years ago Armstrong and his wife, Avril, purchased their home in Spanish Lakes in Nokomis north of Venice. They spend one-third of the year here, one-third in England and the final third in Greece. They have been married 62 years this March and have two grown sons: Kenneth and Russell.

“I never regretted my time in the Royal Marines. I utilized the facilities that were offered to me and got a good education,” the old ‘Bootneck” said. “It’s been a good life.”


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 and is republished with permission.

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