Can you imagine being sent away at the age of 8 to join the British Army? The unbelievable true tale of Paddy Rochford.Caroline and Michael Rochford

Can you imagine being sent away from home at the age of eight to join the British Army? Neither could an ordinary little boy from Dublin whose career path had already been paved before he’d celebrated his ninth birthday.

Joseph ‘Paddy’ Rochford was born in 1912 to a poor Irish family who lived in the village of Chapelizod on the outskirts of Dublin. While his father was away fighting with the British Army on the French battlefields, his mother was left to bring up her family alone, living in fear that if the Germans didn’t kill her husband, Sinn Féin would. Irish freedom fighters were rising up against the British forces that occupied the land, and anybody caught siding with the enemy became a marked man.

Paddy's dad, Joseph, in his army uniform

Paddy's dad, Joseph, in his army uniform

Barefoot but happy, young Paddy could barely comprehended what the troubles were all about and spent his carefree days in the luscious Phoenix Park, daydreaming that one day he too would become a soldier.

That day came sooner than Paddy could have imagined when his father, Joseph senior, returned from the Great War and, disillusioned by Ireland’s prospects, sent his eight-year-old son to the Royal Hibernian Military School, a bleak institution that prepared young boys for careers in the British Army.

Behind the cold, stone walls of the boarding school, Paddy was shielded from the poverty and violence that plagued the streets. Homesick and bullied by the other boys, he did his best to knuckle down to his studies until 1922, when his life took an unexpected turn. Following the formation of the Irish Free State, the British Army was forced to evacuate the country. As the school was under British control, the boys of the ‘Hib’ were sent hundreds of miles away to continue their military education at Dover, in the south of England, hardly ever seeing their parents again.

Paddy and his parents, Joseph and Annie Rochford

Paddy and his parents, Joseph and Annie Rochford

It was a cold, rainy day in 1927 when a steam train pulled in to Aldershot Station and a smart, 15-year-old soldier stepped out. Having completed his studies, Paddy was ready to begin his career as a drummer in the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards.

Kitted out in his black bearskin and scarlet tunic, his first official duty was to guard the royal family at the historic Windsor Castle. He learned all the secrets of this great bastion, including legendary statues in the garden that came to life during the dead of night; the restless spirits that made their home on the shadowy East Terrace, and the time when a sentinel heard Big Ben strike 13 o’clock all the way from London.

Paddy and his collection of army boxing trophies

Paddy and his collection of army boxing trophies

All too soon it was time to leave this picturesque town to travel to the capital city, where Paddy and his comrades guarded Buckingham Palace, the Bank of England, and the dark Tower of London.

Though they called them the Roaring Twenties, industrial strife was beginning to take hold across England, dragging the country down into a state of depression; and by the 1930s everything began to change. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was gaining power in Germany, so thousands of Jewish families began fleeing Europe, headed for the Holy Land. This mass immigration caused friction with the Arab population, and the responsibility of keeping the peace fell to the Coldstream Guards.

Palestinian troops preparing for battle, 1938

Palestinian troops preparing for battle, 1938

Armed and prepared for combat, Paddy and his men were thrown into a ferocious battle to defend the holy city of Jerusalem from a riotous mob. Consequently, every town and village in Palestine had to be searched for weapons and rebels, who the Guards rounded up and brought to makeshift prison camps.

Paddy and his company were sent to Jericho, to scour the winding catacombs beneath the hillside caverns. Nothing was found, save for a collection of stone jars filled with what appeared to be yellowing parchment. Unsure of what these ancient relics were, Paddy’s commanding officer instructed the men to leave them as they were, only for the same scriptures to be ‘discovered’ by a shepherd boy three decades later, becoming known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Coldstream Guards mining a rebel stronghold in Jerusalem, 1938

Coldstream Guards mining a rebel stronghold in Jerusalem, 1938

Hundreds of miles away, trouble was brewing in Egypt as the public began rising up against the British, who’d held dominion over their land since the 1880s. Younger officers of the Egyptian Army, disheartened by the state of their country, were whispering in the ears of the impressionable barefoot natives, inciting them to cause mayhem on the streets. Once again it was down to the Guards to defuse the situation.

In 1939 the world changed forever: Britain declared war on Germany. Instead of returning to England, the Third Battalion was sent far across the Western Desert to defend the frontier of Egypt at all costs. The ill-equipped troops had to learn how to survive in the arid wilderness as the well-trained Italian Army advanced ever closer towards their position.

It wasn’t long before Mussolini called for Germany to send reinforcements. Upon Hitler’s personal command, a new expeditionary unit, known as the Afrika Korps, was formed. This was an elite fighting force under the leadership of the decorated Field Marshal Rommel, so cunning and devious he became known as the Desert Fox, hell-bent on sniffing out every single Tommy in the Western Desert.

Paddy, now a sergeant, found himself leading his men into the heat of battle. The sounds of shells and mortar bombs grew ever closer, and as ammunition whizzed overhead, Paddy placed his life on the line in order to bury one of his fallen comrades. After marking the sandy grave with an empty petrol barrel and taking down the co-ordinates to send on to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, he ordered his troops to withdraw.

Paddy in Egypt

Paddy in Egypt

During the ensuing mayhem, the young sergeant was run over by one of his own armored trucks. He heard his ribs crack as his body was crushed into the sand. Seriously injured and fearing for his life, he was rushed through the desert in the back of a rickety ambulance alongside other wounded comrades. Paddy was the only survivor when he arrived at Tobruk Hospital, from where he was transported by sea to a military hospital in Alexandria.

Time passed by slowly while he made his recovery, each day growing hungrier for news of his battalion. Then, one grey morning, he learned that they’d gone down fighting the Desert Fox at El Alamein, almost to the last man. His own future suddenly looked uncertain, until he was visited by a man from the British Military Mission in Cairo and offered a new career. He was to train the Egyptian Army at an institution known as the Small Arms Training School.

Being a smart and disciplined soldier, Paddy was appalled at the sight that greeted him when he arrived to begin his first day as military adviser. The building was ramshackle; the uniforms were shabby, and the lax attitude demonstrated by the Egyptians was enough to make a Guardsman sink into a pit of despair. He later discovered that the school received little funding from the government. King Farouk had his own Royal Bodyguard to pay for, and so long as they were well equipped, what did it matter about the rest of the army?

Paddy (centre, front row, with the white hat) and his troops at Moascar Garrison

Paddy (centre, front row, with the white hat) and his troops at Moascar Garrison

Determined to make a go of it, Paddy threw himself into his work. In no time at all he’d turned the failing school around. He built shooting ranges; rewrote the syllabus, and sourced all the modern weapons of warfare for his students. His dedication impressed high-ranking Egyptian officials, including the king himself, who invited Paddy to a lavish cocktail party at Abdin Palace.

The humble young man’s circle of influential friends began to increase, and one day he was introduced to a popular lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian Army. Gamal Abdel Nasser was a distinguished and highly regarded officer who’d quickly worked his way up the ranks and covered himself in glory on the battlefield.

As the months rolled by, Paddy and Nasser developed a strong bond of friendship, and Paddy learned that his shy and unassuming companion was the keeper of a dark secret: he was a prominent figure in an underground movement that was furtively plotting to overthrow the king and the government, before booting the British occupiers out of Egypt forever.

Privy to top-secret information, Paddy tried on several occasions to warn the authorities of the plans that the revolutionary Egyptians had hatched, but his concerns were met with doubt and suspicion. The Second World War was over by now, and nobody wanted to believe more trouble was on the way. Besides, Nasser was from a working-class background, and as such was considered of little consequence, and certainly no threat to the mighty Britannia.

Paddy entering the Moascar Garrison swimming gala, 1951

Paddy entering the Moascar Garrison swimming gala, 1951

In spite of this, Paddy spent some of his happiest years at the Small Arms Training School. He enjoyed his job, and when the working day was done, he’d travel into Cairo to sample the vibrant nightlife. The capital city was overrun with allied troops enjoying leave, seeking to forget their troubles. Drunken brawls were commonplace; prostitution was a roaring trade, and Cairo became the land of the quick fingered, where a local vagabond would have the contents of a soldier’s pockets out in a thrice, then disappear down a grimy back alley without a trace.

But Paddy had other things on his mind, for it was in Cairo where he met the love of his life. Marjorie Ragsdell was a beautiful young English girl who was serving with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She’d recently arrived in Egypt fresh from a tiny farming village. Her brothers were too young to fight, so she’d bravely volunteered to enlist in their stead, determined to make her war-veteran father proud.

Paddy and Marjorie on their wedding day

Paddy and Marjorie on their wedding day

Paddy was hit by Cupid’s arrow, and on 27th April 1946 his blushing bride arrived at Heliopolis Basilica, with flowers, picked from King Farouk’s garden, adorning her hair. Following a Catholic ceremony, the newlyweds headed off to spend their month-long honeymoon by the Mediterranean Sea.

The couple’s brief spell of peace was shattered when anti-British factions began stirring up trouble. Murder had returned to the streets of Cairo, and the sands of time were fast running out for Egypt’s gluttonous king. He’d already caused the first crack to appear in his throne by giving in to Britain’s demands in 1942, when Churchill ordered King Farouk to sack his pro-German prime minister, or else. The second crack came when he divorced his beautiful Queen Farida, who the Egyptian public adored as a Hollywood starlet; and the third crack, which threatened to shatter the royal seat completely, emerged when he fell out of favor with the younger officers in his army, who felt the king was offering them few prospects.

With the monarchy in disrepute, Colonel Nasser’s Free Officers were beginning to fancy their chances. Grenades were thrown into public places; soldiers were stabbed to death, and rivers were running thick with bodies.

The American administration troops were quickly pulling out of Cairo, for it had become too dangerous to stay; and by Christmas 1946 the British were following suit. They withdrew their troops and resources 80 miles away to the Suez Canal Zone. Paddy was promoted to regimental sergeant major and transferred to Moascar, the last garrison of the British Army in Egypt.

The Egyptians, however, were still not satisfied with these arrangements, and began cutting off food, petrol and water supplies from the larger towns. Egyptian employees were bribed to stop working for the British forces, and terrorists from Cairo came up to Moascar to sneak around the army camps, murdering every British man, woman or child they came across.

The violence peaked on 26th January 1952. This was a day so brutal it became known as Black Saturday. Organised squads patrolled the streets of the capital city, setting alight hundreds of buildings and butchering every non-Egyptian they encountered. Even the police kept their distance, too afraid to intervene.

On the Canal Zone, British troops waited with bated breath for the command to march back to Cairo, but it never came. This lack of British intervention confirmed to the rebels that Britain was a spent force, effectively giving the green light to the Free Officers. Nasser knew his time had come.

1960s Christmas card to Paddy from President Nasser

1960s Christmas card to Paddy from President Nasser

On 23rd July, Nasser and his closest aides staged their military coup, which became known to history as the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Having taken control of Abbassia Barracks, Nasser called for the abdication and immediate exile of King Farouk. Full of fury, Egypt’s last monarch packed his 273 suitcases and set sail on his royal yacht, destined to spend his remaining years in Italy.

Egypt became a republic, and Nasser, who went on to rule as president, demanded the evacuation of the British troops from the whole of his country within 12 months.

Back in London, Paddy found it difficult to adjust to a humdrum life after so much adventure, so he retired from the army and moved his young family to the Yorkshire city of Leeds, in the north of England, where he settled into civilian life and became the superintendent of a social housing estate.

Paddy and Marjorie with their newborn son, Terry

Paddy and Marjorie with their newborn son, Terry

As post-industrial Leeds developed in the 1960s and 70s, local traffic increased and the main road near Paddy’s home became an accident black spot. Fearing for the safety of his residents, and recalling his own near-fatal accident in the desert so long ago, he spent his remaining years calling for the installation of a pedestrian crossing over this mad mile.

Sadly, he didn't live to see his efforts bear fruit. After Paddy’s death in 1977, the council caved in to public demand. Paddy’s grateful tenants erected a monument at the side of the road adjacent to the newly-established crossing. During an official opening ceremony, complete with a Catholic blessing, it was named “Paddy’s Crossing" in honor of the brave Irishman who devoted his entire life to the safety of others.

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Caroline Rochford and her husband Michael run the genealogy company Heir Line Ltd, researching and compiling family trees for clients from all over the world. Paddy was Michael's grandfather. Caroline is currently working on a book based on Paddy's life. 

*Originally published in December 2014.