By Geoff Butler
Hermes thanks those who supplied images, including www.paradata.org.uk
Editor’s Foreword: The legendary Herbert ‘Nobby’ Arnold remains one of The Parachute Regiment’s most famous — or notorious — Regimental Sergeant Majors. His life and career are well-described on the Paradata website. Born in 1927, he joined the Army aged sixteen during the Second World War, volunteering for the Airborne in December 1944. He died in 2001.
After a brief time back in civvy street, he came back to The Parachute Regiment, where he would remain for almost thirty years. His medals recount the career of an experienced Airborne warrior of the early post-WW2 era: WW2 service, Palestine, Canal Zone and Suez, Cyprus and the Radfan. The GRVI General Service Medal for Palestine is named to the Army Air Corps or AAC rather than ‘PARA’, as was the official practice for named Parachute Regiment medals in the 1940s. This was an administrative hangover from our Regiment’s earliest days.
Hermes contributor Geoff Butler, who passed through Depot PARA in Aldershot when Nobby Arnold was RSM there, shares a touching memory of the fearsome Badge Man, who cared very deeply for the soldiers under his sometimes eccentric command.
Many felt that Nobby Arnold should have been decorated for bravery in the Radfan in 1964, where a ridge captured by 3 PARA’s Anti-Tank Platoon was named ‘Arnold’s Spur’ in recognition of WO2 Arnold’s outstanding battlefield leadership and valour. His CO, Anthony Farrar-Hockley, is said to have told Nobby Arnold that the award of decorations was a lottery and Arnold had simply missed out.
Nobby Arnold’s departure from the Army under a cloud is widely seen as an example of senior officers failing to stand up for their men in the face of civilian complaints, in stark contrast to the kind of leadership exercised by soldiers’ officers like Anthony Farrar-Hockley.
Geoff Butler: Nobby left the Regiment under a cloud in the early 1970s. He had bawled out a civilian who had wandered across the Depot drill square. Nobby later told me that the civilian he challenged was OK about the incident when Nobby explained that the reason involved security. The Depot and other Airborne establishments had no fences and, as the IRA bombing of Brigade HQ showed, were wide open to attack.
Nobby recalled that he had offered to buy the man a beer and that it was the officer with the man who made a big thing out of it. Nobby also told me that the drill square was sacred ground because of the tradition of laying bodies out there after battles so that the regimental colours can be paraded through the lines of fallen soldiers.
Many years later I was walking along the seafront in Worthing when Nobby and I spotted each other at the same time. I was looking at him and he said “Excuse me, do you know me?”. I replied: “Yes sir. You were RSM Depot when I was in Junior Para.”. He said: “Let’s have Cream Tea and a chat.”.
I am glad we did. I found out how he came to leave the Army, what he was doing and explained to him that the guys all talk about him on our Internet chat sites. I think we used Yahoo Chats. Nobby had not heard of that so I explained it to him. He said: “Will you be my signaller so I can say hello to the lads? “. Nobby then wrote me this letter and I acted as signaller for him as requested. He mentions this in the letter, reproduced below.
Nobby spent much of his retirement baking cakes and visiting old people’s homes to deliver them. He also still had his men’s welfare very much to heart. Talking about his days as an RSM, Nobby explained his theory that if a soldier is alert, he will stay alive longer. “So, I made them alert!”, he said.
The antics Nobby got up to caused laughter in those observing but not in the soldiers he collared on his rounds. One time, he jailed a dog for walking across his drill square. When the owner, Sergeant Jim Kerr, went to the guardhouse to get his dog at the end of the day, the guard commander refused to let him have it in case Nobby jailed him for allowing the dog to escape. Nobby then turned up and said: “The dog must have a three-course meal!”, and send word to the cookhouse. After Sergeant Kerr’s dog had had his meal, Nobby released him.
I remember one time that Nobby wanted a guard commander. We new boy soldiers, Junior Paras, were lined up outside the Depot armoury. The NCOs were supervising us. When the click-click-click of the RSM’s highly-bulled shoes was heard approaching, panic set in. Nobby appeared and asked the corporal: “Are these men well-informed, Corporal?”. “Yes sir!”, came the corporal’s reply. Nobby asked three of us Junior Paras who the Paymaster was. No-one knew the answer. Nobby said to the corporal: “I thought you said these men were well-informed, Corporal. Two extra guard duties!”. Pete Merry, the corporal in question, was not very pleased with us. We knew our day was about to get worse and it did!
Nobby used to love payday as we had to march up to the table and get our pay and if you were in shit order, that was your lot! You got show clean, guard duty or jail! Some guys had their money paid into their bank accounts to avoid pay parade.
One of his former COs told a story at Nobby’s funeral about getting a letter from Nobby regarding discipline and laziness in the Battalion. Nobby had noticed that the sergeants found it more comfortable in the Sergeants’ Mess during the day than being out and about supervising the corporals and the troops. “I have addressed the problem, sir.”, wrote Nobby, “I have removed the furniture from the Sergeants’ Mess.”.
Nobby had less than two years to live after sending me this letter. May he rest in peace. At least I got his message out. When I shared it on the web, a lot of guys replied with funny stories about Nobby Arnold. Nobby is buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery, in the Para Section. Here is the letter he sent me.