Harry and the Intercom
As Commando Gunners we sent a lot of time on the artillery ranges of Salisbury plain. It was at least a four hour drive in convoy to get there from Plymouth and usually boring in the extreme. But not with Harry aboard your vehicle.
The Command Post and Observation Parties had Land Rovers fitted with radio sets so we were placed at the front and the rear of the convoys to shepherd our precious flock along the A38. These Land Rovers were short wheel-based and there was not a lot of room in them, especially with a load of radio and Tannoy kit strapped abeam behind the driver. There is a strict hierarchy of seating n the Army, the Officers always got the front seat, the driver had the seat behind the wheel and the rest fitted in wherever they could. The radio operators sat in the back, and us Surveyors, who were all trained Signallers were often seconded to man the sets.
Most of the Officers were young and ripe for ragging. They would sit in the front seat with a headset on, looking as if they knew what they were doing, although all the sets were controlled from the rear. To keep them informed, we operators would switch the radio set to an intercom mode which would allow the radio operator to chat with the Officer in front.
Harry was a Bombardier and didn’t like Officers assuming the lead role in what was his domain, so as soon as we were an hour or so into our journey he would start. First he would cover the microphone and switch to ‘intercom.’ Then he would begin.
‘Good morning ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have just taken off from Heathrow airport and will be climbing to a cruising height of 33,000 feet. Our flight time to Tenerife is calculated as four and a half hours. The temperature there is ninety degrees with a slight wind from the West.’
The Officer would jump round in his seat and ask Harry, ‘Did you hear that, Bombardier?’
‘Hear what, Sir?’
‘We are getting traffic from aeroplanes leaving Heathrow.’
‘I didn’t hear anything, I’ll unplug your headphones and use another jack, Sir.’
Five minutes later Harry would start again.
‘Here Charlie, you anywhere near the High Street? There’s a fare wants picking up and taking to the railway station. Says she’s got a bad back and has five suitcases and needs someone strong to help her. You up for it?’’
The officer would jump around again and exclaim, ‘Now I’m hearing taxis, are you sure you aren’t getting any interference, Bombardier.?
‘Nothing here in the back, Sir. I’ll check the tuning, it could be harmonics.’
Then it would be Police, Fire Engines, Ambulances and anything else Harry could think of, each time the Officer asking how he could hear things that Harry couldn’t. Harry would come out with the most outrageous suggestions, a short circuit in the windscreen wiper windings creating pulse waves, an electro-magnetic reaction between the steel chassis and the aluminium bodywork of the Land Rover. Once he said that unusual static electric magnetic propagation from the Officer himself could be the problem, asking the Officer if he would like to stop the convoy so that he could get out and earth himself. It was all rubbish, of course but Harry had the brass neck to get away with it.
Convoys with Harry were never boring..
Shotguns and Whisky
At one stage in my Army career my Colonel called me into his office and told me that as of then I was the designated head of the clay pigeon shooting club, that it was 400 pounds in debt and that he expected me turn it around into a profit-making enterprise. We were in Cyprus and the locals from the nearby village were all fanatical hunters so I decided to arrange a meeting at our club as a bit of public relations exercise. Being poor squaddies we had no shotguns of our own and there was only one in the armoury, a Henry single barrelled model with an extra-long barrel used for vermin control, so we took it in turn to use that. None of us were in any way expert clay-pigeon shots but we were all experienced with different types of weapons.
The locals arrived with a variety of beautiful shotguns, the Beretta over and under being the weapon of choice. Someone had built a range with two towers from where the clays could be launched and a half-crescent of firing positions with a microphone on each to voice activate the launcher. There was a man in each tower to load the clays.
We tossed a coin and the locals won, so they shot first. It was terrifying. They were all using self-loaded cartridges and the fills varied from wildly overcharged for the flamboyant shooters to wildly under-charged for the meaner members. The result was a three or four foot flame emerging from the barrels of the former, enough to melt the clay pigeon not shatter it, and a dull hiss from the latter, causing the soldiers to dop to the ground and shout, ‘MISFIRE!’.
For our part, there was no need to track the clay with the Henry, we just had to wait til it had reached the end of its trajectory and shoot it while it was virtually stationary. Not a very satisfactory state of affairs and we were still 400 pounds in debt.
Time for lateral thinking. I ran of a few forms stating that all the locals were temporary members of the club and drew a lot of ammunition from the armoury. We arranged another meeting and I told the locals that they could sign the forms and become temporary members of our club and could buy proper ammunition at a much reduced price but couldn’t take it away from the range. The Colonel turned up to see how things were being handled and brought half a dozen bottles of whisky from the Officers Mess for the winning team.
It was an interesting meet. All the guns fired correctly this time but the voice activation system was a little too delicate for the very vocal Greeks and clays started flying willy-nilly across the front of the firing point. One local tapped the microphone to see if it was working and out of the tower came a clay and he took a wild shot at it. One of the soldiers dropped to one knee in best combat fashion and took a shot from there and nearly took his shoulder off. Another enthusiast shot at the clay the moment it left the tower and splattered the tower with shot. A great time was had by all, we had no idea who had won or lost, so we retired to the local tavern, drank the whisky and had a meze.
The Colonel received 400 pounds and my resignation. Shortly afterwards he was cashiered for another series of enterprising activities and went to prison.
Things don’t always go as they’re supposed to.
I spent seven years with the Commando Gunners and what an experience that was. All of us young, fit and adventurous and the regiment gave us full rein to do almost anything we wanted. In that seven years I spent two years in Singapore from where I trained in the Malay peninsula virtually every other week, Australia, New Guinea and a short time in a Police stockade on the Thai/Malay border. (That’s another story.) After that we were either in Plymouth or Malta in addition to spending a lot of time on Commando Carriers, deploying all around Europe and the Mediterranean and across to the USA and the Caribbean. A hard life if you can hack it.
Our unit, 29 Commando Light Regiment RA was small, very adaptable and easy to deploy. We only had four guns for each of the two batteries, 105mm Pack Howitzers which could easily be moved around by helicopter and could even be stripped down and carried on mules when deployed in the jungle or other terrain impossible for vehicles to traverse.
All of us had different trades. There were the gun numbers who manned the guns, gun drivers, driver/radio operators and Battery Surveyors/radio operators who made sure the guns were in the right location and worked out the ranges and bearings to targets. Signallers and Battery Surveyors also manned the Observation Posts well in front of the rest of the Battery often with the Marine Commandos, to direct gunfire onto the targets. Generally speaking, no one trade really knew the other’s job.
That’s the background.
Everyone had their particular Achilles heel. I won’t name names as this is for public release but we all know who was responsible for the following incidents and laugh about it still.
At the end of the 60’s our 105mm Pack Howitzers were soon to be replaced with a new 105mm Light Gun, which incidentally was designed in part by my brother-in-law. The prototype had been tested in UK and was on its way to Woomera in Australia for hot weather/desert trials when it was thought that two birds could be killed with one stone and the gun could transit through Singapore for helicopter trials. It duly arrived accompanied by a Gunnery Instructor from the School of Artillery and a lovely shiny new one ton Landrover. Off it went the couple of miles or so the docks where one of the Commando Carriers was waiting to practice flying the gun from the flight deck underslung from a Wessex MK5. For some unknown reason they sent one of the signallers to hook the gun underneath the helicopter, and not one of the gunners who were the experts at this. Slings were positioned on the gun and the signaller waited with a large steel ring in his hand, which was attached to the sling’s wires. His job was to connect this ring to the hook underneath the helicopter.
Us surveyors were in the survey office in the main camp when the Gunnery Instructor came racing into the Battery Office next door screaming for a telephone. Our signaller had connected the gun to the helicopter incorrectly and the brand new prototype had dropped into Singapore Harbour soon after take-off. We told him not to worry, the Navy divers would soon have it out of there but he was beside himself. The gun and the Gunnery Instructor were gone the next day. The gun had to be flown back to UK for a full inspection and it was found that salt water had got into the trail legs somehow, so really we had done them a favour by highlighting this weak point in their new gun. Or that was our story. In all the fuss and bluster, however, the Gunnery instructor had forgotten to take his new one-ton Landrover with him and we ‘acquired’ it for trips to the beach and such like.
We were very good Gunners, we should have been as we practised non-stop and as I said before, were very versatile. One day we were doing fire and movement on a dusty range in Cyprus. In this case we were using helicopters to move us about, never staying in one spot for too long. We had all our survey kit and a lot of radio equipment in a trailer which accompanied us wherever we went, underslung from a helicopter. Or at least it normally came with us everywhere we went. The same signaller made the same mistake when hooking the trailer up to the helicopter. As soon as the helicopter had reached sufficient height and speed down came the trailer, scattering our kit and bits of trailer over a half-mile of hard and dusty Cypriot countryside. My radio operator and I were on an advance helicopter and he had a portable radio so we jumped into a wadi and he got in communication with the observers. I calculated where we were on a map and started to survey the guns into position as they arrived on the gun position. I say surveyed, this is normally done with a kind of theodolite but that was now in pieces and somewhere to the west of us along with our other kit. So I did what we were taught to do in extremis and which we had been taught by in the School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain and used a good old-fashioned prismatic compass.. I should add here that we were firing live ammunition, 33lb of high explosive packed into the shells, and we were not permitted to do this without a safety officer, in this case one of our own surveyors who had been on our helicopter lift was doing the job. We were all used to this kind of foul-up so I shouted across to him, asking if we were OK to go and he shouted back that we were. I really have no idea where our Gun Position Officer was all this time, probably on another helicopter, but the observers were sending down target information so we started firing. I had no equipment except a slide rule and a range table which I always carried with me and that was enough to get the guns firing The safety man was checking that we were at least in the right area as we started to shoot. In these situations, it is more important to get rounds on the ground which the observers can then adjust onto the target than to try to achieve pin-point accuracy. The second round of helicopters started to arrive on the gun position and the Gunnery Instructor was running around shouting, ‘Where’s the Command Post?’
‘Over here,’ I shouted and he jumped into the wadi with us. ‘Where is it?’ he asked again. I’m the surveyor and he’s the radio op,’ I said pointing to the signaller who was taking fire orders from the observers and writing them down in biro on his trouser leg.
‘Where’s the Gun Position Officer and what about safety?’ he cried. ‘Safety’s over there, he’s cleared us to fire and I’ve no idea where the GPO is.’ ‘But you’re only a Lance Bombardier, you can’t take charge of a Battery live firing, where’s all your survey kit?’ ‘No idea, and I’ve been doing this for six years in about twenty different countries and under three different GPO’s so a GPO is not really necessary.’
Just then more orders from the observers came down the net. The radio op yelled across to me, ’Add 200.’ ‘Add 200,’ I shouted back and went to work on my slide rule.
‘What are you doing!’ said the gunnery Instructor. ‘What I was taught in the School of Artillery,’ I replied. ‘I know we teach you that but that is for emergencies and this is practice firing,’ he almost wailed ‘We’re practising for an emergency,’ I said and passed the orders to the guns.
He calmed down and watched me, jumping out of the wadi and shouting orders to the guns (the Tannoy equipment had been in the trailer,) and jumping back into the wadi to work out the next correction. He then said, ‘I’ve never seen this done live except under strict supervision at the Gunnery School. Wait ‘til I get back and tell them what I’ve seen.’ ‘Well, I don’t know if it works or not,’ I said, ‘but we’ve heard nothing untoward from the OP, so it’s either working well or we’ve killed them. When you’ve got (x) hooking up guns and equipment you plan for the worst.’
Our safety ack for that day was with us during live firing at the other end of the island during another incident. This time I was up in front of the guns in an OP and we had dug ourselves in on the forward edge of a hill overlooking the impact area. We were happily firing away when the Battery Commander crawled into the trench accompanied by the Major General, Royal Marines. We gave them a brew and then the MGRM asked how close we could bring the gunfire to us. ‘No closer than 650 metres,’ I said, ‘especially on this ground, it’s rocky and rock splinters can be deadly.’’ ‘OK,’ said the MGRM, ‘let me see how close you can get to us.’
So we gave the relevant orders creeping closer until the safety ack shouted, ‘Stopped by safety, rounds will land 30 metres outside the safe impact area.’ The Battery Commander was a qualified Gunnery Instructor and he said, ‘I’ll take responsibility,’
So we gave the order and the guns fired. Then the safety ack shouted, ‘Wrong, rounds will land 300 metres outside the safe impact area.’ ‘Get down!’ shouted the Battery Commander and the rounds landed to our immediate front, one of the rock splinters blowing a mug of tea off the side of the trench.
‘Very impressive,’ said the MGRM and off he went over the edge of the trench and away while we all looked at each, rolled our eyes and whistled.
What did you say!!!!!!
It was tradition in the past to recruit youngsters to the Royal Navy and train them both on land and at sea. I was talking to an old salt one day and he told me that he had gone to sea as a trainee radio operator at the age of sixteen and was aboard a destroyer based in Alexandria. The ship was due to go to sea for the day for a training exercise but the Captain found it impossible to set sail as there were numerous bumboats crowded around her hull. The young radio operator was on the bridge at the time and the Captain turned to him and said,
‘You can speak a bit of Arabic, can’t you? Get these bum-boats moved so that we can get underway.’
So the young lad picked up the Tannoy, turned it up full blast and over the loud-speakers on the deck shouted, ‘Imshi riglak ya ibn sharmutah.’
The bumboats moved obediently away and the destroyer set sail.
On their return in the late afternoon there was a Naval Policeman waiting on the quayside and the Captain was told that he was wanted in the Flag Officer’s office. So off he went and returned some time later and said to the young radio operator,
‘What did you say to those bumboats this morning?’
‘I’m not exactly sure, Sir’ he replied. ‘It’s what the taxi drivers shout at people in the city to get them out of the way.’
‘Well, the Admiral had a complaint from the Royal Palace this morning that the King nearly choked on his breakfast when he heard that broadcast from a British destroyer. I’ve been told that it means, ‘Move your arses, you sons of whores.’
Luckily the Captain saw the funny side of it and said, ‘I think you had better go on an Arabic course and learn how to speak the language properly before you get the Fleet banned from Alexandria.’
So he did and he spent the rest of his career using the language for a more respectable use and the King was able to enjoy his breakfast in peace. Until, that is, he was overthrown in a military coup shortly afterwards. I often wonder if the Egyptian Military had heard the broadcast and thought that the British also wanted rid of the King. No doubt they used the same expression to oust the King and send him off into exile. And the young sailor became an unsung hero of the Egyptian people.
During our many Med trips we would deploy to some country or another and afterwards go to a port in that country for five days for ‘Rest and Recuperation.’ Having been deployed along the Greek border a for a week or so we sailed down to Pireas and anchored off, ready for a few days in Athens. We were ferried ashore by landing craft to Phaleron Delta. (I still remember that after 50 years, it was important to remember where the landing craft would pick us up to take us back to the ship.)
It had learned something a few years before from a bandmaster of the Royal Marines that I still practise today when I arrive in a new city. Royal Marine bands are assigned to a ship for long periods of time and therefore know most ports intimately. I asked him the best places to visit in Athens and he said, ‘Leave the dock gates, take the first right then first left until you see something of interest. That way you’ll avoid all the tourist spots and see the real character of a city.’
We had been in the port for four days and this was the last day ashore. I had come ashore alone this day as on the previous days I had come ashore with my friends and we had not gone further than a hundred yards from the dock gates before we discovered a bar and spent the rest of our day there. I wanted to see the Parthenon and the sights before we left.
Once ashore I saw a ruin on top of a hill in the distance and set off on foot to discover the city. I walked for a long time through the streets of Athens and eventually started to climb the hill I had been aiming for. Half way up I looked around and saw the Acropolis away in the distance. I was on the the wrong bloody hill! So I set a new course and eventually found myself climbing to the Parthenon. I found a few of my mates there and we did a bit of culture and then they headed off. I had been told that the best place to spend the evening was in an area on the lower slopes of the Acropolis called the Plaka so I headed there. The area is very touristy, steep steps leading upwards to the Parthenon with horizontal streets lined with bars and restaurants running adjacent to them. I found a bar on the corner of one of these streets and settled down for a beer and a bit of people watching. I wasn’t long before a US Marine in uniform stopped and started to chat so I invited him to sit and we had a few more beers. This was when the US was still fighting in Vietnam and he told me that he had been conscripted and had served there. Prior to conscription he had been a Hell’s Angel from the Oakland, California chapter. He seemed nice enough and not about to bite the heads off any of the many cats roaming around so we settled down for a few more beers and a bit of swinging the lead.
The configuration of the bar was a little unusual. It was an ‘L’ shape and on the side where we were sitting were the steps leading up to the Parthenon. There were a few small tables for the drinkers and a downstairs service bar for the waiters. On the street with its façade on the horizontal leg of the bar were tables and chairs for those wishing to eat. On the first floor was a bar with a balcony overlooking the steps and from there you went up some metal stairs on the outside of the building, something like a fire escape, to the WC on the roof. My new US Marine friend got up and told me he needed the WC and set up off the stairs to the first floor, he gave me shout and a wave from the balcony and headed up to the roof. The next thing I knew, all hell broke loose. The Marine had reverted to his Hell’s Angels’ roots and was pissing from the roof all over the tables and diners in the street below. Irate diners rushed in to the bar as the Marine rushed down the outside stairs. He hit the railings on the balcony mid-waist, flew over and crashed onto the tables below, smashing one. Then he was off on his toes down the steps and into the distance.
All attention then turned to me. ‘Never seen him before in my life,’ I shouted as I disappeared down he steps in his wake. That was the last I saw of him.
I don’t know why, but I took my beret off on this trip and tucked it under the epaulette of my shirt. More of that later.
I bumped into Nelly, another member of the battery a bit later, he was a bit the worse for wear and we meandered around visiting a few more bars. We ended up in an upstairs bar and chatted to a couple of waitreses, one from Egypt and the other from Israel, which was a bit strange in those days as they were sworn enemies. It was quiet in the bar so they were willing to chat even though they realised we were British soldiers and therefore unlikely to have any money to buy them drinks. Nelly got up to answer the call of nature and a few minutes later someone grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and my waist-belt, carried me across the bar and flung me down the stairs. To this day I have no idea who it was but if he was strong enough to pick me up I didn’t wait to find out. Seconds later Nelly joined me. It transpires he had gone to the Ladies Room by mistake and the ladies already in there started screaming and some gallant had decided to step in and rescue them.
We made our way back to Phaleron Delta and were told that the last landing craft had left and the next one would be at 06:00, so we found a bench and started to doze. All day long American servicemen had been offering to buy my green beret but for some reason I didn’t sell it.
Next thing I knew I snapped awake and there was an American Marine walking away wearng a green beret. I felt for mine on my head and it wasn’t there, so I jumped up, dropped the Marine and took my beret back.
‘What did you do that for?’ asked Nelly.
‘Bastard stole my beret,’ I said.
‘Your beret’s under your epaulette, I just sold him mine for twenty bucks,’ said Nelly. ‘Well give me ten’, I said ‘And there’s your beret back.’
We bummed a lift back on an American Admirals barge, got saluted and piped aboard by the Corporal of the Gangplank and then bollocked for confusing him. And so ended another run ashore.
Moral of the story. When your friends leave you to go to the Gents, leave them and get out of wherever you are before trouble starts.
Spider burns down the Underworld.
Before I transferred to the Dark Side we would come into Dhekelia on one of the Commando carriers, anchor off and transfer to Pergamos concentration camp for training on Ghoshi-Troulli and Trikomo. After training we would be given R&R for a few days, so would go to Famagusta. After a 12-hour session on the beach somewhere we ended up in a disco below ground, done out to look like a labyrinth, all chicken wire and plaster, There were sunken lights in the walls with uplighters to make the place look more authentic. One of our number couldn’t keep up so unbeknowst to us, when he got his beer he would pour it behind him into the recess where the lights were. After a while you could see the chicken wire glowing through the plaster and then the whole place burst into flames, obviously no fuse wire on the circuits. Another fine mess he got us into. Ended up in charge of a Police SWAT team up in the North East.
Spider and the taxi driver.
The next story about Spider was when we all went to Nicosia and visited Ellen’s Bar. We’d heard of her reputation and wanted to see if it was true. It was, the next best thing to Bugis Street. After the mandatory skinful, we decided to hire a couple of taxis to take us back to Dhekelia, the old Mercedes 240’s with bench seats front and back. Spider was in the back a behind the driver and he soon crashed out. After about a quarter of an hour he woke up, shouted, put his arm around the taxi driver’s neck and dragged him into the back seat. We were doing about sixty miles an hour. One of the lads in the front managed to stop the taxi and Spider immediately opened the door and ran off into the bondu. The taxi behind swerved but still managed to take the back door off and covered us all in broken glass with some nasty cuts around our heads and faces, and taking his headlights out on one side of his taxi. When we got our acts together we had to find Spider. We eventually found him behind a rock crying, ‘I’ve done a bad thing!’
We eventually managed to get the taxi drivers to take us to Dhekelia and went to the BMH to get stitched up. Spider was the only one unharmed and we dropped him off at Alexander Barracks on the way.
We got back just in time to get showered, dressed and on parade. The Sgt Major looked all the bandaged heads and thought we had been fighting again, and looking up and down the ranks said,
‘In his pit,’ we said.
So the Sgt Major goes storming over to the barrack block and shakes Spider awake.
‘Why aren’t you on parade, Webb,’ he shouted.
‘I was in a car accident last night, Sir, and don’t feel too good. Think it may be concussion,’ he lied, suffering from nothing more than a hangover, an occupational hazard in those days.
‘OK said the Sgt Major, stay in bed ‘til lunchtime and see if you feel any better, otherwise you’ll need to go to BMH.’
‘Thank you, Sir,’ said Spider and got his head down again.
And the rest of us went off to work. This was such a normal occurrence when you went out with Spider it. hardly warranted mention.
A couple of days later Spider was drinking in the NAAFI with the Paras. Commandos and Paras together in a bar always spells trouble and Spider, being a bit of a boxer started telling the Paras that he could take any one of them on, no trouble. One Para, with his arm in a cast, told Spider that he was the boxing champing of his company and challenged Spider to a fight, with one hand behind their backs. So Spider put his hand behind his back and the Para knocked most of his teeth out with his plaster cast. He didn’t go to BMH and I woke up next morning to the sounds of flies going in and out of Spider’s mouth feeding on clotted blood and tooth stumps.
But you’re not A sub
At one point we were stationed in Malta, in St Georges Barracks. We were separated from our Marine brothers in St Andrews Barracks by an 800m road, them at the top of the hill and us at the bottom, beside the seaside.
At the time, the fad was to drop your mates in it, not too seriously, but enough to get them a bollocking from the Sgt Major.
We had no char-wallah in our barracks so as soon as first parade was over the lads would jump into one of the Land Rovers and go to the top camp for a cup of tea and a wad.
The Sgt Major first became aware of this when he went into the gun park and found nobody there. He threw his customary wobbler and told everyone that they weren’t to use military transport to go St Andrews except on his say-so and they certainly weren’t to go the char-wallah’s when they were supposed to be working. He said he would be keeping an eye on the MT park to make sure that all the vehicles were in-situ.
So the next day, as soon as first parade was over the lads of A sub asked Aussie Martin, who was the duty driver that day, to run them up to the char-wallah’s. So he did. and when he got back to St Georges the Sgt Major asked him where he’s been. ’I’ve just taken A sub up to the char wallah’s, Sir,’ he said. ‘WHAT!’ he screamed, jumped in the Land Rover and got Aussie to take him up the hill to the char-wallah’s where he put the whole sub on extra duties.
Come lunch-time, A-sub waited in the NAAFI and when Aussie came in they made a great show of telling him that it was a good joke he had played on them and to prove there were no hard feelings, bought him a beer. And another, and another.
Aussie’s first duty drive that afternoon was to take a 3-tonner to RAF Luqa to pick some kit up from the airport. As soon as Aussie had left, A sub ran to the MT Sergeant and told them that Aussie was drunk and driving a truck to Luqa. The MT Sergeant jumped into the first Land Rover in the MT park and shot off after him.
Of course, the first vehicle in the MT Park was A sub’s, with its ‘A’ prominently displayed on the radiator grille, so when he appeared in Aussie’s mirror flashing his lights and beeping his horn, Aussie thought it was A sub and started to swerve all over the road to stop them overtaking him.
When they arrived at Luqa, Aussie jumped out of the cab, chuffed that the Land Rover had not been able to overtake him and ready to give A sub the verbals, then died of shock when the MT Sergeant climbed out of the vehicle, and not A sub.
After that incident a truce was brokered and the dropping in the shit of your mates stopped.
George devises a new use for strawberry jam.
We were live firing on Salisbury Plain and George and Harry Woodward were signalling for 79 Bty. I was acting as OP ack and as such was inside the bunker with the officers and other acks. George and Harry were outside in the cold manning the sets in the backs of their respective Land Rovers.
The bunkers were designed for watching the fall of shot and were reinforced concrete with a viewing slit about a foot deep set high up into them. The officers and acks would sit on high benches looking through these slits to observe the rounds falling. In the corner was a pot-bellied stove churning out heat and keeping everyone warm. Except George and Harry.
George and Harry had led auxiliary cables from the Land Rovers, under the door of the bunker and along the floor to connect the officers’ headsets and handsets to the radios in their vehicles. The officers each had a headset on their heads and a telephone handset tucked under each epaulet, to put them in contact with various levels of command.
It was bitterly cold and George, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, started his Land Rover to charge the batteries and also to get a bit of heat from the heater in the front. In a moment of madness he then decided to turn his vehicle around to keep the wind from coming in the back. Of course, we didn’t know what was going on outside until the officer next to me yelped and flew backwards off his stool and landed on his back on the OP floor. We all watched mesmerised as his handsets and headset snaked along the floor with a life of their own until they reached the door where the cables connected them to the Land Rover were ripped out. There was a deathly silence in the OP and the stunned officer got himself off the floor and stood there dazed, his ripped epaulets hanging down his sleeve.
He then stormed out, saw George driving in a circle in front of the OP and set off in pursuit. George stopped and realised what he’d done and the officer gave him a right royal bollocking. George, like all of us, was used to being bollocked and apologised. But George was not one to take this lightly and when all the equipment had been repaired and the officer was back in the OP, he skulked off to his trailer and emerged with a 16oz tin of strawberry jam. Ignoring Harry he climbed on to the roof of the bunker and dropped it down the chimney of the pot-bellied stove. The first that we in the OP heard was a loud bang. Thinking that a round had dropped short and hit the bunker we looked worriedly around. Suddenly the stove lid shot into the air and clanged to the floor. Red hot strawberry jam erupted from stove and dripped onto the floor, and the smell of burnt jam filled the OP. Luckily no-one was scalded.
I knew it had to be George or Harry but as they had been trained to do, they emphatically denied it was anything to do with them. The mystery of how a tin of strawberry jam ended up in a pot-bellied stove was never solved, but we had some laughs about it over a few beers over the years.
There’s good days, and there’s bad days.
Following on from my last ditty, after a couple of weeks of being shut in our barracks it was deemed safe for us to go out into the towns and villages of Malta, although we were told to avoid Floriana, where the rabid left-wing supporters of Dom Mintoff gathered, not far from the entrance to Valetta. We were told not to go into that area and as there were not many bars there, we complied. Normally we stayed close to home in Paceville which was in easy staggering distance of our barracks.
We were still doing guard duties around the island, but when were not guarding somewhere we were back in barracks, doing normal maintenance work on our equipment of general training. Sports played a big part of our day, we did a lot of running in squads in the mornings, normally up and down the ranges to the rear of the barracks. These were on a hill and running down to the butts and back up to the six hundred metre firing point was boring and knackering. Then we had afternoon sports on a sand football pitch in the camp, which left a good number of us scarred for life. Manchester City visited the island to take part in a match against a Maltese team and we took them training with us. I remember Mike Summerbe in particular remarking that he was glad he didn’t have to train like we did. This was in the days of the heavy drinking football culture and they certainly held their own in the third half. Eventually the grass rugby pitch at Hal Far was opened and 79 Commando Battery became the team to beat. (That was us.)
Our Sergeant Major at the time was a bit of an old warhorse and disciplinarian and when I was released from my guard duty one afternoon during one of my tree-day stints to play rugby, he made it clear I would make up the time at a later date. So on the next stint of duty, when the rest of my section returned to the barracks at midday, showered and went out on the town, I was made to stay on duty for the afternoon and returned to barracks at six in the evening.
The barrack room was empty, everyone was out having a good time, so I decided to shower and put on my suit and go down to Valetta. The suit was to get access to bars and hotels that would not allow access to us erks in jeans, T-shirts and desert boots. (No socks or underpants, we were Commandos.) I am quite happy in my own company and was looking forward to a quiet night
My first port of call was a bar in Sliema, I forget the name now, but its main feature was a horseshoe shaped bar which started from just in front of the door as you entered and looped around the interior to the toilets in the opposite corner. It was early and I was the only person in the bar, so I got chatting to the barman and had a couple of beers with him. I don’t like having my back to a door in bars so sat on the far side of the bar next to the toilets. At about nine-ish a crowd of young men entered, all well-oiled and they continued drinking apace on my side of the bar. A short while later another group came in, similar ages and demeanour and they crowded the bar at the entrance door side of the horseshoe. You get a sixth sense of impending trouble if you hang around bars in various ports around the world as I had been for the previous four years, and I knew what was coming. It didn’t take long, someone said something and the bottles began to fly. My way out was blocked, the toilet had no exit, so I jumped over the bar and crouched down with the barman with the intention of making a bolt for the door during a lull in hostilities. It came quite quickly, the ammunition was quickly expended by both sides and as they moved in for close quarter combat I hopped over the bar and made my exit. He who turns and runs away…………. And it wasn’t my fight.
Next stop was the Preluna hotel, it had a late bar and a disco upstairs but this night it was empty, Mintoff’s shenanigans had virtually stopped all tourist activity and besides, it was February. Again I got talking to the barman and we had a good long chat. Drinking in bars and hotels was expensive and I hadn’t put a few warmers in the bank in the NAAFI before I left camp, so I was more or less boracic by midnight. It was only a couple of miles back to camp, so I decided to walk back along the seafront, it was a calm night and the moonlight was shining on the sea which was flat calm. After a few hundred metres a big old Mercedes taxi stopped alongside me and the driver asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to St Georges but had no money and he said that that was no problem, he had finished working for the night and he would give me a lift as far as his house in Spinola. I jumped in the front seat and off we went. After a few more hundred metres, thick diesel smoke started pouring out from under the dashboard. We stopped, jumped out, he opened the bonnet and saw small flames licking around the inlet manifold and thick smoke billowing from the engine compartment. ‘Do you have a blanket or something to smother the flames?’ I shouted.
He ran to the boot and rushed back with a car rug and between us we put out the fire.
He obviously wasn’t going anywhere that night so he told me there was no need for me to stay with him. I thanked him for his hospitality, bid him farewell and carried on walking along the promenade. My white shirt had black cuffs now and smudges of diesel on the front of it. My suit stank of diesel fumes. As I rounded the small headland of San Gilian, from nowhere, a wave broke over the sea wall and drenched me. The sea was still flat calm and I have no idea where the wave came from but it did a great job on my dark blue suit. Survival mode kicked in, there was nothing to do now but run back or risk hyperthermia, even the Med is cold in February, so I settled into a comfortable pace and carried on. There were no more incidents until I was running around the bottom of St Georges Bay only about a hundred metres from a hot shower and my room. There in front of me I saw a body, lying in the middle of the road. I stopped to see who it was and saw I was my friend and fellow Command Post wallah, Eric. I woke him up, put my arm around his shoulders and started to help him back to the camp, but he jumped away from me and shouted,
‘You’re soaking wet.’
Top marks to Eric. We made it into the camp and separated to go to our respective rooms on opposites sides of the small square. Suddenly Eric shouted to me, ‘Look!’
I turned and in front of Eric was a large rat, up on its back legs looking as if it was challenging Eric to a few rounds, gloves off. Eric simply booted the rat and it sailed across the short distance between us and hit me square in the chest before falling unconscious at my feet. Now there are two types of rat, those that live in the countryside, eat healthily on fresh food and live in warm, cosy nests; and sewer rats.
This rat was the latter, and it smelled like it. I immediately and involuntarily threw up over my shoes, wiped the vomit from my mouth with the sleeve of my suit, stripped naked where I was and rushed to the shower. After I had finished showering I climbed into my bed, pulled the covers over my head and asked God what I had done for him to turn a quiet night out into such a fiasco. He didn’t answer.
I was woken in the morning by my roommates shaking me and asking what my clothes were doing in the road outside and why they stank.
‘Well, you’re not going to believe this,’ I started, but gave up, gathered my clothes together and threw them in the bin. (except my desert boots which were salvageable and just needed a good scrubbing.)
Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.
I was serving in Malta in the early seventies when Dom Mintoff decided that he wanted more money from the British Government or all the British forces could go home. We called his bluff, sent all the wives and children home, left the Commando Group in St. Georges and St Andrews from where we were sent to carry out guard duties on the British installations around the island. We would do three days turn and turn about and my section was stuck on top of Dingli Cliffs in a flat-roofed radio station used by the RAF at Luqa airbase. Behind us was a road and then a four hundred drop to the sea below and in front of us were fields to the horizon.
Mr Mintoff had said that we should be off the island by the first of January or he would send the Royal Maltese Artillery to take over all the British military installations. We listened to this with interest as the RMA were more pro-British than pro-Mintoff and besides, we had the keys to their armoury, meaning they would have to go up against fully armed British Commandos, with no weapons less their own personal weapons, shotguns, pistols and such.
So, on the evening of the thirty first of December at eleven thirty we climbed onto the roof of the radio station and laid in line behind a small parapet waiting to see if anything was going to happen. We had live ammunition in our pouches but not on our rifles, the British version of the Belgian FN, a formidable weapon.
At a few minutes before midnight the countryside in front of us was lit up with spotlights from vehicles careering across the fields towards us, with gunfire erupting from them. The Bombardier in charge of the section started issuing fire orders.
‘With a magazine of twenty rounds, load!’ The sound of magazines being slotted into ten rifles
We started to experience the familiar threepenny bit – dustbin lid feeling.
‘At the vehicles in front, on my command, fire.’ The sound of rifles being cocked and brought to the aim.
Just then a Maltese technician responsible for the maintenance of the radios came out from the building and asked.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Get back inside!’ shouted the Bombardier, ‘we’re under fire.’
‘You’re not under fire,’ he said, ‘they’re hunting rabbits, they’re always doing this, they’ve got spotlights on top of their Land Rovers and that freezes the rabbits and then they shoot them.’
‘Bloody hell,’ muttered the Bombardier, but we kept our weapons loaded and aimed until the rabbit shoot in front had disappeared.
Another international incident averted by pure luck. If that technician hadn’t been on duty that night there could have been bodies all over the Maltese countryside.
The Thain and Wings’ Golden Shower.
After the Turkish Peace Operation in Cyprus in 1974, we were not allowed out of the barracks area but were restricted to the camp, Three Mile Point and Five Mile Point. There were no bars except George’s, until the Colonel borrowed some cash from the PRI and built one next to where Tasso’s was eventually built; the colonel left shortly afterwards, was cashiered and spent six months in Winchester prison. Then one of the local farmers built a bar out of wooden staves and bamboo, above a ten foot drop into a sheep pen and named it the Bamboo Bar. It had absolutely no facilities, at first we had lighting from paraffin lamps and then a few jury-rigged light bulbs. It had a beaten earth floor and a fridge to keep the beer cold and of course the ubiquitous barbecue to cook those mammoth pork chops and a gas ring for the chips. There was no toilet, you just wandered off to a quiet place and let flow. It was eventually destroyed in a massive fight, like something out of a Dodge City bar fight, when 2 Sqn and 1 Sqn decided to have a set-to about something or other. Taff Clancy was to the forefront, as I recall and for once wasn’t fighting with me. I remembering sitting to one side with Laurie Sellars and I think Paul Moran and a few other 3 Sqn members and seeing figures shrouded in dust moving in and out of the light and shadows as the place was slowly demolished by bodies knocking over the supporting struts or disappearing through the bamboo walls. When the dust settled there was nothing upright but a few bits of bamboo wall and those tables whose legs had not been used for CQB.
So the scene is set. I will now tell a ditty about a night out with the Thain, when we were both Lance-Jacks, the Thain recently having recovered his stripe after having been busted down to Private. We had been in the NAAFI, as was our wont, and had decided to go to the Bamboo Bar for a few more beers and a pork chop. When we arrived, SSM Wings Cooper was sitting strategically to the rear of the bar with his back against the bamboo wall where he could keep an eye on everybody. He was with one of the young WRAC girls, as was his wont, Elaine Blencoe was her name if I remember rightly. He looked at us with deep suspicion and we sat well away from him, having had more than our fair share of personal interviews in his office during the previous few months. We could both recite The Riot Act by heart. After a while and a few more beers the Thain got up and disappeared. A few minutes later Wings gave a shout, jumped up and looked behind him to see a stream of piss coming through the bamboo wall and onto his chair, the first offerings having gone all over his back. The piss was cut off in mid-stream as soon as Wings shouted and the sound of someone jumping the ten feet or so into the sheep fold and footsteps disappearing into the distance could be distinctly heard. For some reason Wings came roaring across to my table and said,
‘Where’s Thain? And I know you had something to do with this!’
Protesting my innocence was no good so I just shut up and Wings grabbed Elaine and stormed off. The case was never proved, DNA testing had not been discovered in those long past days. But we all knew the culprit. I was always a little jealous of Thain after that, after all, it’s every soldier’s dream to piss all over the SSM.
The Union Jack.
I have a language school here in Spain, and in the hallway there is a Union Jack. As with most things in my life, there is a funny side to the story behind it, but it wasn’t funny at the time.
In July 1974, there was a Greek-backed coup in Cyprus and a month later the Turks annexed a little under half of the island to prevent further bloodshed and provide security for the Turkish Cypriots. A lot of the British families were living in hired apartments in the nearby coastal town of Famagusta and during the fighting they had been evacuated to the UK for their safety. My family was one of those evacuated and they were not expected to be allowed to return to Famagusta. It is still under Turkish occupation forty-five years later.
The families had been forced to leave immediately, with the absolute minimum of baggage. The apartments that had been vacated were still full of personal belongings, so after things had quietened down a little it was decided to send the soldiers who had been living in them into the town to pack their belongings into wooden crates for shipment back to their families in UK. There was still a lot of military activity going on, the Turkish mainland forces were patrolling the town, ostensibly to stop looting, so each soldier was issued with a Union Jack to hang on the front of the building in which they were packing their boxes. A convoy of British Army trucks drove around the town dropping soldiers off at their apartments, each with a pile of collapsed boxes and a load of screws to put them together. I arrived at my flat, unloaded my boxes, hung my Union Jack on the front door and climbed to my first floor apartment. Opening the door I was met by a terrible stench from the kitchen. The family had left in such a rush they had not had time to empty the fridge before leaving and the contents, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, water melon and such had rotted and were seeping from the seal around the door. There had been no electricity since the invasion and there still wasn’t. I opened the French windows onto the balcony overlooking the street and pulled the stinking fridge from the kitchen and emptied the rotten contents onto the pavement below, then closed the shutters and began packing.
I went around the flat gathering clothes, kitchen utensils, plates, pictures and all our other belongings. We had been told we could use any towels, sheets and such to use as padding and I soon had a pile of stuff in the living room ready to be boxed. I estimated the number of boxes I would need and got ready to assemble them. It was extremely hot in the flat without electricity, no fans or air conditioning, so being sealed in I stripped naked, and began assembling and packing.
After a short while I heard a noise outside so I opened the shutters and found myself looking straight at a Turkish conscript, his rifle pointing at my stomach. He was on top of an armoured personnel carrier so we were almost eye-to-eye. I think he was more shocked than me; he raised his rifle and I thought how stupid and humiliating to be shot while standing stark naked on a balcony in Famagusta. I gestured wildly to the Union Jack on the door below and bellowed ‘Ingilizce’ and he looked down, smiled, then laughed and waved to indicate that he understood. The APC drove off on its rounds and I tried to get my adrenalin under control.
I returned to my packing and a while later I heard the sound of someone crying outside. I put my shorts on, went downstairs and carefully and slowly opened the flag-draped front door and peered out from behind its protection. There was an old woman kneeling on the pavement trying to eat the rotten food I had dumped there. I spoke quietly to her so as not to alarm her and she turned and looked me with what can only be described as savagery. I recognised her as the mother of the Greek family who had lived on the ground floor apartment. Her and her husband had lived in a small building, little more than a garage, to the side of the building. Their family had left them there when they’d fled the city. As had all the Greek inhabitants. I managed to get her away from the rotten food, goodness knows how long it was since she had last eaten, and led her back to the garage. Her husband was in the double bed they had in there, I remembered he’d been bed-bound and he stank to high heaven. The wife pulled the sheet back to show me his body and it was literally, rotten. He’d been wetting the bed and worse for the best part of a month and goodness knows how he was still alive. They had been drinking water from a water-butt and the wife had been scavenging for food around the neighbourhood. I indicated to her to wait and I went upstairs and warmed up some tinned food that was lying around and took it down to them. She had a little English and I told her that I would call the Red Cross as soon as I got back into the British-controlled camp a couple of miles up the road.
The convoy came around late afternoon and I went back to the camp with the others who had been packing up, but no-one had a story like mine. And of course I called the Red Cross and gave them the address of the old couple. I found out later that the husband didn’t make it out.
Now when I pass that flag on the stairs of the school, mixed feelings come over me. Sometimes I smile and sometimes I don’t.
How to lose a signals section in one easy movement.
During my time in Singapore with the Commando Gunners we were issued with new HF radio sets. They weighed a ton and with the new nickel cadmium batteries, a hand generator/charger and other ancillaries the things were a serious load to carry about. We were never likely to need HF radios, the maximum range of our artillery being 10km and our normal operating range between 4km-6km, a distance over which you could almost shout, but we had been issued with them by the ‘Powers That Be’ and therefore we had to carry the bloody things about. They needed a long wire aerial for long distance transmitting which was impossible to erect in the jungle, making them even more useless for light artillery.
It was decided to train the signallers and the Technical Assistants in its use, so we duly went through a course designed to bring us up to scratch. That done the Sgt Major, having heard that they had a range of 400 miles, organised an exercise where we would set off, four men to a Land Rover, and spread ourselves all over the Malay Peninsula, making contact every night at 18:00 hours with a radio operator (me) who would stay behind in Singapore.
So off they went in their Land Rovers with trailers full of jerry cans of petrol to find suitable sites for the trials. There was a stipulation that they must remain dressed in uniform when driving and leave the vehicles in police compounds each night.
The first night I was tuned in and waiting at 17:45 and soon the radio checks started to come in with their respective location reports.
At half past six the Sgt Major turned up, just after I had closed the radios down.
‘Where are they then?’ he asked.
‘31 is at Berhenti, 32 is at Simpan Kiri, 33 is at Kerja Jalan Raya and 34 is at Bahaya,’ I told him.
‘What!!’ he bellowed, ‘you bloody idiot.’
I should add here that the Sgt Major was a Malay speaker of sorts.
‘They’ve read out road signs, not town names. Now we’ve got 31 in somewhere called “Stop,” 32 is in a town called “Keep Left,” 33 is stuck in “Road Works” and 34 is in “Danger!” We’ve lost the bloody lot of them and they’ve only been on the road for a day.’
Satay, its part in my life
Jim and I had been on the doss around the Malaya peninsula for ten days. We’d worked our way up to the Thai border and been locked in a stockade there for breaking a railway bye-law, the Border Police take no prisoners, and were on our way back to Singapore, almost stoney broke. We decided we would have one last fling in a decent hotel and lo and behold, as we got off the train, there was the Station Hotel. No need to look any further, if it was good enough for the Raj, it was good enough for us. It cost eighteen dollars a night, room only, about two pounds sixty pence, but even so five times the price we had been paying up til then. We got showered and were on our way out through the foyer to find a cheap food stall when a couple of planters called across to us. They were dressed as all planters should be, Panama hats, linen suits crumpled beyond belief and sweaty handkerchiefs in their top pockets.
‘We are having an argument about where you can get the best satay in KL,’ one of them said. ‘You are coming along with us to judge.’
‘Fair enough,’ we said, never ones to turn down a free meal.
‘First a few drinks to put us in the mood. GT ice and slice?
This is too good to be true, we thought, and got stuck in. After a few we were bundled into a taxi with the planters and off we went around KL, tasting chicken satay in a host of eating places and roadside stalls, all of them delicious as far as we were concerned. We were never asked once what we thought of them, in fact we were ignored throughout the whole episode, and then, suddenly the planters were gone. We had no idea where we were so had to ask directions and walk for an hour and a half back to the station and our bed. Yes, our bed, we were sharing a double.
In the morning we found that there was a NAAFI bar full of Gurkhas in the station, so we got chatting and ended up playing snooker for bottles of Anchor beer. They weren’t that good, in fact one of them took a wild swipe and ripped the cloth on one of the tables, much to the consternation of everyone there. We were about half a dozen bottles up when the Singapore train arrived so we jumped on and sat down to finish the beers. The ticket collector came along and said we weren’t allowed to drink any beer we had brought aboard, only what we paid for in the dining car, so we got our heads down. When we arrived in Johore Bahru the Border Police came aboard the train and seeing the beer bottles sticking out of our bergens, told us we couldn’t take beer into Singapore. So we got off the train, sat on the platform and finished off the half-dozen bottles, the border was nearer the barracks than Singapore City so it would be a cheaper ride anyway. As soon as we had finished the beer and got up to walk across the causeway, the Singapore Border Police told us we couldn’t cross the border as we were drunk, which we weren’t, so we sat back down again and decided to get our heads down on a bench in the station til the morning. As soon as we had dropped off the Border Police woke us up and told us we couldn’t sleep in the station and kicked us out, so we got a taxi from the rank outside and bribed him to take us over the border into Singapore, which blew the rest of the money we had. A good leave, saw lots, got lashed up, locked up, arrived home broke, who could ask for more?
The Satay man
Every evening after sunset on our housing estate in Singapore, the satay man would come around on his Rudge Wedge bicycle, an ammunition box filled with smouldering charcoal welded to the rear pannier frame. He wore a pith helmet, a white singlet, a pair of baggy khaki shorts and flip-flops. On his handlebars was a loud bell which he rang vigorously as he shouted at the top of his voice, “Satay, Satay,” to let us know he was on his way. But to my knowledge he never sold a thing, but not because his satay was not delicious, in fact I´m told it was.
The reason he never managed to sell anything was more a matter of applied physics than questionable culinary skills. You see, as he pedalled along the street the slipstream caused by the forward motion of the bike fanned the charcoal and made it glow red. This began to burn the backs of his legs and his backside and so he would pedal a bit faster to get away from the heat. This of course fanned the charcoal to white heat so he would pedal faster, eventually rising from his saddle to stand on the pedals, trying for Olympic gold.
It was a marvellous example of perpetual motion and I can still visualise him racing around the estate with sparks flying out behind him, his bell ringing and his reedy voice getting higher by the second before he disappeared into the next street. Eventually another satay seller realised it would be a better idea to push his bicycle around and that solved the problem and allowed us to buy some satay, but it was nowhere near as entertaining as the first seller. I wonder where he is now, still pedalling?
Conversations I wish I’d never had.
As a Corporal I was on a course run by a senior Warrant Officer. We had a bit of a disagreement which resulted in me being told to leave the room. He came out to reprimand me after a few minutes and said,
‘Well, anything to say for yourself?’
‘I think it’s just a matter of us not seeing eye to eye,’ I said.
‘You what!?’ he said.
It was then I remembered that he only had one eye, the other he had lost in a hockey accident.
I passed the course but with the lowest score it was possible to get without failing.
Years later he was a Major and I was a Sgt Major. The night I arrived to take up my post in Cyprus my new Squadron was holding a dinner night to celebrate something or other. I sat with old friends and we all got stuck in to the wine and beer. Suddenly there was a tap on my shoulder and another old friend, The Thain, said with devilment in his eye
‘May I introduce you to your Squadron Commander?’
It was him! I stood up, turned and looked up simultaneously. And continued to look up and up as the Major was about six feet six tall. He was standing very close to the back of my chair and as my head tilted backwards at an ever-increasing angle I overbalanced backwards, tripped over my chair and fell in a heap on the floor.
‘You haven’t changed,’ was all he said as he turned and walked away.
Surprisingly enough we got on very well, although probably luckily, I had a new boss very shortly afterwards.
I joined a new squadron in Germany for a three year tour and as was customary I reported to the Sergeant Major on my first morning to be told where I would be working. As I was talking to him the Squadron Commander came into the office. I was introduced and we had a little chat. He seemed a very relaxed sort of chap and then he said,
‘Well, as you are here you might as well have your joining interview with me now and get it over and done with.’
‘Thank you very much, Sir,’’ I replied and followed him into his office.
‘Take a chair,’ he said and I sat down opposite him across his desk. It seemed as if we were going to get along well. Then I opened my big mouth. Pointing to a photograph on his desk I said,
‘That’s a nice photo, Sir, it’s taken in the Lake District isn’t it? Is that your brother, he looks a lot like you?’
‘No, that’s my wife,’ he said.
‘A good start,’ I thought.
A few weeks later he called me into his office.
‘You’re going to Northern Ireland next week,’ he said.
‘I thought I was not supposed to be going the tour after next, Sir,’ I replied. ‘I’ve got leave booked for next month.’
‘Yes, but Corporal X who was supposed to be going next week can’t go as his wife is in UK on a course and there is no-one to look after his two cats.’
‘I’ve got two daughters, Sir,’ I said.
‘Yes, never mind, your wife can look after them. Have a good tour.’ That showed me exactly where I was in the pecking order.
While I was in Armagh I volunteered for an Arabic course and as soon as I got back to Germany I packed my family off back to UK and got out of Germany post-haste. Before I left he called me in to sign my final report. It read,
‘Cpl Jones is a fine upstanding soldier and rugby player.’
‘I’m Cpl Potter,’ I explained.
‘Are you?’ he said in surprise, and crossed out Cpl Jones and substituted Cpl Potter to what I supposed was his standard report with just the name needing to be filled in.
I arrived in London to start my Arabic course. I had bought a house in Plymouth and was commuting at weekends. A few weeks after I’d started there was severe snowfall all over the country. The Sgt Major of the school was late getting back into London on the Monday because of this and just before we started our lessons the boss of the school, a retired Major said to him,
‘So you had a lot of snow up your way, did you Sgt Major.’
‘Yes Sir, we were snowed in until this morning.’
‘What about you?’ he said turning to me.’
‘Well Sir, I live on the edge of Dartmoor and there was a lot of snow down in Devon but also a lot of wind, so although the fields were mainly clear of snow, the wind had blown the snow into the sunken lanes we have thereabouts. There were drifts of about six feet in some of them making them impassable.’
’Really?’ he said. ‘And how long have you worn spectacles?’
Well and truly goosed
About nine months after the cessation of hostilities in the Falkland Islands, I was sent down there to do my stint, keeping the garrison manned and hoping that the knowledge that I was there would discourage the Argentinians from having another go at invading. I flew down to Ascension Island with a plane full of other soldiers, where we were to pick up a troopship, the SS Uganda, and continue our journey. In this case there were a lot of soldiers from the Irish Rangers with me, on their way to take up post down south. It took a few days for the ship to fill and then we were off. It was a pretty boring trip, well away from trouble out in the South Atlantic and there was not a lot to do, a bit of PT to keep the joints loose and some weapon training. The Uganda had been used for taking schoolkids on educational trips and had a small swimming pool forward and the troops took turns to use it. We were soon in the roaring forties and true to form the wind blew up. The waves were big, and I mean big, but as the wavelength was long, the ship rose and fell relatively slowly, albeit at a steep angle and at times rising and falling thirty feet or more. It came turn for the Irish Rangers to swim and in went a bunch of them. The ship dropped into a trough and all the water in the pool sloshed to the far end of the pool leaving them in water barely covering their knees. Then the ship rose to meet the next wave and the water came rushing back, knocking the Rangers flat and half drowning them until the water rushed to the far end of the pool as the ship dropped into the next trough and left them marooned again. The rest of the crew and soldiers watched in amazement and awe as the Rangers tried to extricate themselves from the pool, in the end having to surf their way out of the pool on a seventh wave.
They arrived in Port Stanley with the rest of us and were deployed on East and West Falkland, the west being quite isolated and a haven for wildlife. There were worries that the conflict may have disturbed the habitats or breeding cycles of some of the varied and interesting species to be found on the islands, so a Conservation Officer was appointed to assess any damage that may have occurred. He was based in Stanley and I often saw him around the place. One day I saw him in the Dolphin pub and he looked visibly shaken so I asked one of the lads what his problem was. It transpired that he had flown to East Falkland to do an assessment there and had been told to liaise with a party of Rangers who would show him around. The pilot was given coordinates of the rendezvous point and they had an uneventful trip over the Sound and landed close to where the Rangers were waiting. The Conservation Officer had jumped out of the helicopter and walked over to meet his guides, to find them sitting around a campfire with an Upland Goose spit-roasting nicely over it. Now there are Upland Geese more than enough in the Falklands to provide the odd barbecue and no-one is going to worry overmuch if one or two are taken for the pot, but they are definitely not to be offered to a Conservation Office on an assessment mission. Also there is a much rarer subspecies which is restricted to the Falklands and it could not be discerned from the scattered feathers and the nicely browned bird on the spit whether this was one of them or not. I never heard what had happened to the bird, it would have been a pity not to have eaten it and made its sacrifice in vain. I don’t know what action was taken against the Rangers concerned as evidently they had not been told that there was a conservation order in place or indeed that there was such a thing as a Conservation Officer, let alone that he was going to pay them a visit. This sort of behaviour normally goes under the description of ‘incentive’ and is lauded in the Armed Forces, but the way the Conservation Officer was downing whiskies that evening suggested a certain amount of damage had been sustained somewhere.
A few lads from my time as a Boy Soldier stick in my memory. One was called Rose and he was a Pakistani although he spoke with a London accent you could cut with a knife. We called him Rosie, I was Pansy. He looked like Peter Sellers in the film, ‘The Millionairess,’ and had a wicked sense of humour. Come the end of our basic training we had a passing out parade when we ceased to be recruits and passed into the main body of the regiment. The presiding General was a Brigadier Goschen and the Sergeant in charge of us told us that he liked to ask every other soldier in the parade if they knew his name, probably because he was so old he forgot it every third step. We were briefed time and again on the name, ‘Goschen, Goschen, Goschen.’ Evidently he had presented the Regiment with some silver heralding trumpets and for that got to have a parade in his honour three times a year. I believe he was also a very much decorated soldier.
Come the day of the parade Rosie and I were stood next to each other. The Brigadier appeared, much smaller than we expected a senior officer to be and proceeded to walk along the front rank. He asked the boy to my right if he knew his name and the lad confidently shouted,
‘Good man,’ he replied.
He ignored me and then stood in front of Rosie, obviously surprised at having a dark-skinned soldier in front of him and demanded,
‘And what’s your name?’
‘Goschen, Sir!’ yelled Rosie.
‘Goschen?’ said the Brigadier, shocked. ‘Didn’t know we had any Indian Goschens’ in the family.’
‘No, Sir!’ shouted Rosie. ‘Rose, Pakistaní.’
‘Pakistani Rose? What is this man talking about, Sergeant,’ he asked, turning to our Troop Sergeant.
‘His name is Rose, Sir, and he’s Pakistani,’ replied the Sergeant.
‘Why did he say his name is Goschen?’ asked the Brigadier.
‘He gets confused, Sir,’ said the Sergeant. ‘He’s gets very confused, gets nervous on parades, Sir.’
‘He jolly well confuses me, too,’ said the Brigadier. ‘Sort him out.’
We all managed to hold our breath until the Brigadier had finished inspecting us but as soon as we got back into the barrack block we collapsed with laughter. Rosie was duly sorted out and I know for a fact that it had no effect on him whatsoever.
A Close Shave.
We were all sat around one evening, waiting for something to happen as soldiers so often do, when we got to talking about what we had done before we enlisted in Her Britannic Majesty’s Armed Forces. One of the lads had been a barber and he told us about his experiences. He started his apprenticeship at fifteen years old and his first few weeks were spent sweeping the floor, changing towels, learning how to sharpen a cut-throat razor and finally lathering up balloons and shaving them. When he could do this consistently without bursting them he was told that he could make house calls; working in the shop was not allowed until he was sixteen.
Come his first appointment, he packed his small leather bag with his mobile barber’s kit and caught the bus to the address he had been given. He knocked on the door and informed the lady who answered that he was from the barber’s shop.
‘Oh yes, It’s to shave my husband, he’s upstairs in the front bedroom.’
So he climbed the stairs and a minute or so later came back into the parlour and said to the woman,
‘I think your husband’s dead!’
‘Of course he is,’ she said. ‘He’s been dead since Sunday. We’re laying him out today and we want to have him looking his best. He needs a shave, so can you get on and do it, please?’
So he climbed back up the stairs, a fifteen-year-old lad, and started to shave the dead husband.
Ten minutes later he was back in the parlour and said to the wife.
‘Do you have a photograph of your husband?’
‘What on earth for?’ she asked.
‘I can’t remember what he looks like,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’’ she said.
And he tried to explain that rigor mortis had set in and every time he pulled the skin of the dead husband’s face taut to make a clean stroke, the skin stayed where it was. Now the poor man had one eye open and one eye shut, a half-smile and half-grimace and would terrify anyone who looked into his casket at the wake. The distraught wife rushed up the stairs and wailed at the sight of her husband, so our friend decided that his job was done as the corpse was clean shaven so he quietly packed away his things, left the wife pushing and pulling at her poor husband’s face and discreetly left and returned to the barber’s shop to warn his boss to expect an irate phone call.
Is it all worth it?
This incident suddenly sprung ito my mind today, I don’t know why. It happened while I was on leave and shopping with my mother and two daughters in a small supermarket in Brighton. It was the day after the Aldershot bombing in 1972 when the IRA had killed six women and a Catholic priest, (nice one Paddy.) One of the women was the mother of a Para with whom I had completed a four month course the year before.
The conversation was between a woman in the shop and the owner and went something like this.
‘Did you hear about the IRA blowing up that barracks in Aldershot yesterday?’
‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it, all those women killed.’
‘Yes, terrible, they should be killing soldiers, not innocent bystanders’
That was when I realised what my life and the lives of my friends were worth in the eyes of some of the apathetic and ignorant British public. My mother was just about to have a go at them when I stopped her and told her that it wasn’t worth it, and it wasn’t. But forty-four years later it still sticks in my mind and made an already cynical soldier even more so. A few years later I was in Armagh and couldn’t help wondering if I would have put myself in harm’s way if I ever saw that woman threatened. I probably would have, acting instinctively because that’s what we were paid and trained for. And at the end of the day, I took the Queen’s Shilling to do just that. Pity the politicians can’t stick to their side of the bargain.
The Egyptian Eastern Desert is grey and dismal, even when the sun shines. It reminds me of a disused slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog, split grey rock or huge fields of shale, with greyish-brown dust filling the spaces in between. I’m sure David Attenborough will disagree and prove that under every rock and in every crevice there is a wealth of fascinating flora and fauna, but scorpions aren’t my thing. I was just crossing the area on my way from the Red Sea port of Hurghada to the airport at Luxor. That four or five hour trip is tedious in the extreme as it winds across one hundred and eighty miles of wilderness to the almost indecently vulgar greenery of the Nile valley.
Midway across there is a small oasis, the name of which I never discovered, and this watering hole makes full use of the never-ending stream of diver-filled coaches moving to and from the Red Sea. The Egyptian residents make their living by selling cold tea and hot fizzy drinks at exhorbitant prices to a captive market. There are invariably a number of bedouin tribesman present, sitting at the fragile wooden tables on the verandah of the decrepit hut used as a cafe, staring watery-eyed at the western women in their none-too-fundamentalist shorts and halter tops, dreaming dreams of the harem. The only other occupants are the young conscript soldiers assigned to guard this priceless treasure. I was bored after five minutes so dread to think how these poor fellows feel after a few months in this particular outpost. They are so lethargic that they don’t even come out to gawp at the women, and believe me, for a soldier of any nationality, that’s very, very bored indeed. In my experience conscripts are ninety-nine per-cent acne-enriched testosterone and one per-cent common sense. And they share that one per cent between them.
During the half-hour stops the drivers insist that the coaches are cleared, so that they can do whatever it is that they have to do, probably sleep; and they thereby ensure that everyone has to tramp into the cafe and spend money, which of course brings a backhander for them. I had a bottle of water with me, however, and the last thing I felt like was sitting in a sweaty cafe getting slowly smoked, so I wandered off to the edge of the oasis for a look at the desert, or the road, or the rocks, or anything except my fellow passengers.
It was a matter of minutes before an old sergeant sauntered across to me.
“Good morning,” I said in Arabic.
“Ah,” he said, “You speak Arabic.”
“Ah,” I said, “And you understand it.”
He laughed at this.
“Do you like the desert?” he enquired.
“Are you mad?” I asked, “It’s a bloody awful place.”
“You’re right,” he replied. “I’m from Alexandria and I miss my garden terribly. Where did you learn to speak Arabic?”
This is one of those questions that always requires careful thinking about in Arab countries. If I tell them I learned it in the Army, it can go one of two ways. They will either arrest me immediately and throw away the key, or they regale me with stories about their Army experiences or tell me how good or bad the British Army is. This old sergeant had the look about him which suggested the latter.
“In the Army,” I told him, “I was an instructor.”
‘Ah, I see,’ he replied knowingly, ‘What did you teach?’
I realised that things here could start to get very complicated, so I chose a low profile military activity.
‘Weapon training’” I replied, knowing that all soldiers have to undergo weapon training. The old sergeant nodded knowingly and then, reaching under his greatcoat and the heavy woollen jumper he had on, he pulled out a Browning 9mm pistol.
‘Here we go,’ I thought. ‘What’s the Arabic for; I demand to see a representative of Her Majesty’s Government?’
“This is my own gun,” he said proudly. “I’m a champion shot. See that rock?”
And he immediately opened fire across the main highway at a boulder on the far side. No-one in the Army post reacted; they were no doubt used to this old regular shooting up the countryside whenever he felt like it, but the scene in the cafe was something else. Half the people were trying to hide and half were trying to get outside to see what was going on. Women screamed and men tried to act bravely.
When he had exhausted all the rounds in the magazine he smiled a smile at me which can only be described as roguish. His eyes sparkled with malicious delight as he looked over my shoulder towards the cafe and he reloaded the Browning with a fresh magazine. I groaned inwardly, knowing what was coming next. And it did.
“Here you are,” he cackled, “You have a go.”
What can you do? I had made my bed and now he was pulling back the sheets; so I fired the magazine empty, cleared it and handed the weapon back, my ears ringing with tinitis.
The tourists look shocked, who was this mad Englishman in shorts and T-shirt shooting at rocks with an Egyptian soldier?
“Yes,” I nodded, “A lovely weapon. It does you credit.”
He smiled, thanked me for the compliment and seemed pleased that I had joined in the shooting with him.
“Come into the post and have a cup of real coffee,” he suggested, “not that piss they serve over there.”
“I must be careful not to miss my bus.”
“You won’t,” he said. “It can’t leave until I say so.”
And he was right. We went to the post, a breeze block and corrugated iron affair, containing a number of metal and wire bedframes with palliasses the width of bank-notes laid neatly on them and after a leisurely coffee or two and a chat about weapons, he led me back to the coach and saluted me as I got aboard.
I’ve no idea who or what the people around me thought I was, but I was travelling alone and as is so typical of the British, no-one asked any questions. A few people did give me some sideways glances, but I acted oh-so nonchalantly and gave away nothing. After all, there ain’t a lot you can say, is there?
As many of you know, I left 29 Commando after seven years and transferred to the Int Corps. At the end of my career I was writing reports for the JIC, the Cabinet and such. One thing that was drummed into me as a makey-learney was the importance of only reporting the facts, not to make assumptions but just tell it like it is. I left Int and did five years in Customs, again in Int. I took redundancy then and bought a yacht. One day I did a short passage from Dartmouth to Plymouth and for a change I had someone else aboard, my old mucker Jim Barron, whom I’d known since I first walked into a barrack room in the Citadel many years before. We were joking about this and that and talk came around to what would happen when we died. I told Jim that should it be him first, I would have his watch. He told me that there was no chance and that it was going to his grandson. When he died so unexpectedly I was, like many others, devastated, and couldn’t get my head around it. I could have made the funeral, but for a long time I have been funeral-averse, and didn’t go. I feel something like hopelessness at funerals, like ‘What’s this life all about?’ so try to avoid them. I had instead, a quiet moment under the holm oak in front of my office and shed a tear or two, as we do. I imagined the funeral taking place and the family and friends there to ‘show their respects,‘ as they say. What a trite expression to try describe what we feel for friendships forged in the Mob. When I had come to terms with it all I wrote this poem. Before I published it I did what I had been trained to do and checked the facts, only to find that Jim had lost the watch some years before, probably swept up with the shavings in his workshop where he loved to work with wood. So I have a poem that isn’t strictly true, it is my mental picture of Jim’s funeral, but I left Int work many years ago and now claim poetic licence and so will post it, for all those who knew Jim; from us old farts to the youngsters who only knew him in the latter part of his career, not as young Wurzel, one of the lads, but as ‘Sir.’ My best man and I his.
The Rolex that he bought in Singapore and wore in thirty lands or more
Often during times of war, is wrapped around his Grandson’s wrist.
He knows only his Granddad, the old man who taught him how to use his tools,
In the garden shed while Granny cooked some food. But Granddad was young once.
They’re all stood inside the church; his wife, his daughters,
His grandkids, many, many of his friends. Those friends
Have seen too many gravesides, lost too many mates of late,
And crave that there’ll be aeons more before they’re screwed down in their wooden crate.
I was with him when he bought that watch in Sembawang,
Proud as Punch, he showed it off, and me as jealous as hell. A Rolex Submariner,
The bevel black and shiny. Now there’s no enamel left, the years have chipped it off
Leaving it as shiny as the medals on his box.
Its provenance is long and proud; Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf;
And there were other conflicts fought before he beat the the jeweller down
That hot and sweaty afternoon. And when it was bought we went next door,
Into the Harbour Lights, and toasted its purchase with a Tiger beer or two.
His grandson will never know the half of who his Granddad was,
But we know, we grew up with him, went through his torments, were beside him
In bars and deserts and jungles, it didn’t matter where
As long as we had friends around to suffer and to share.
And now he’s gone, but only in body, and that as worn as his watch.
But his memory stays and makes us laugh and cry and brings back many tales
His grandson won’t be told. These are soldiers stories, not for family
But for those who were there with him, wherever it may have been.
It’s strange, but an old worn Rolex won’t lose its value, is worth as much as new,
And this one’s unique, with its wealth of stories from all around the world
Half of which would never be believed by those outside the exclusive club
Of which he was the Boss. But they’re true in all their unbelievability.
Rolex watches now are worn by tennis stars and such, fit young men or film stars
As a sign of achievement and success. But they knock a ball around all day
And know nothing of the stamina and guts it takes to patrol for days or weeks
No shower or a beer at end of day, just a hard and stony grot in a wadi somewhere.
We had our beers as soon as we got back, too many usually,
Fought the Redcaps, or the Paras if we could, acted like they’d trained us to be.
We’d wear our Seikos, Rolexes and Omegas to a fancy bar
And there we’d look with scorn on the mere mortals drinking there.
When we are asked if we knew him, we’ll say, ‘Oh, yes,’ and smile a smile
While we stare off into the distance. ‘Oh, yes, we knew him well.’
‘What was he like?’ they’ll ask. ‘He was one of us,’ we’ll reply
While, ‘You haven’t really earned the right to ask,’ we’ll think.
Harry’s twice cooked pork
We were talking the other day about what we wanted doing with our bodies when we eventually died. ‘Put me in a couple of bin bags and let the Council collect me.’ ‘Chuck me in a builder’s skip.’ ‘Chuck me off a cliff into the sea,’ were among the suggestions to come forward. ‘Cremate me and scatter my ashes in the River Thames at Greenwich on an incoming tide,’ was another.
Which brought back memories of Harry. We all remembered him fondly and had many a tale to tell about him. He had spent a lot of his time in Hong Kong during his military service and when he returned to UK we had all visited his house many a time to have a few beers and enjoy his favourite dish of twice-cooked pork. This he prepared to perfection but the recipe he kept a closely guarded secret. He swore had been given to him by a Communist defector and was unknown outside of the village from which the defector had originated in the depths of the interior of China.
He had been adamant that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered mid-Channel from a ferry, so that they could float up and down the Channel ad infinitum. He had been an avid sailor and had sailed across the channel many times, always single-handed as he said he didn’t want the responsibility of passengers when he was at sea. It took a bit of planning to get the tides right and we decided we would do him proud by combining his last wishes with a trip across the Channel, have a few beers on board, a meal and a few more beers in France and a carry out a wake and commit his ashes to the deep on the way back. That way the tide would change just as we approached mid-Channel and there would be six hours of a spring tide to carry him down towards the Western Approaches and then back again on the next tide. A number of us signed up for the trip.
We decided to send him off in style, dark suits or blazers, black ties and medals, which we packed for the trip. For the passage to to France we were in scruff order, just right for a prolonged session of drinking and story-telling. All went remarkably well, the sea was calm and the drinks flowed, ditties were told recalling scrapes we had got into with Harry and those we had heard that Harry had managed to get into all by himself in Hong Kong. The ferry docked in France, we went ashore for a quick meal and were back aboard in time to have a few more beers before we had to get changed for the ceremony. Harry’s ashes were in a red urn, he had told us that this was good luck in Chinese culture, and we had tied a few red sashes around the neck for a little bit of extra luck. We all appeared on the stern of the ship as smart as guardsmen, although by this time a little less than ramrod straight due to twelve hours of steady drinking, and formed up in two ranks close to the guardrail.
George had been nominated to make a speech and he called for quiet while he made a short and poignant eulogy to Harry. Then he untied the sashes from the urn and threw them into the Channel before unscrewing the lid and prepared to tip Harry into the sea. The first ashes dropped over the stern and thereafter it all went wrong. I am not sure how it happened, I think the Captain of the ferry chose that moment to make an alteration to his course, but as Harry’s remains dropped towards the sea the wind shifted and half a second later they appeared on an updraft and flew in all directions, some swirling back towards the Channel, a good half of them all over the gathered company and the remainder stuck on the underside of a lifeboat on the port side. At first there was deathly silence then an absolute uproar as we reveled in Harry’s last defiant action. We were frantically trying to get his remains from our jackets but only succeeded in brushing them further into the weave until it appeared as if we were wearing grey jackets and black trousers. I’ll tell you something, trying to spit your mate’s ashes out of your mouth and rub them from your eyes with any kind of decorum is impossible, even more so after copious beers and we continued to howl.
When we had calmed down we got hold of one of the crew and asked him if we could borrow a hose to wash our mate from the keel of the lifeboat. He looked incredulously at us and decided that it wasn’t worth causing a rumpus with these obviously insane and half-drunk old-timers and gave George the nozzle of a fire hose, whereby he gently hosed Harry down onto the deck, through the scuppers and into the Channel. And that was the end of the ceremony. We retired to the bar and had a few more beers before we docked in Blighty, every so often bursting into uncontrollable laughter. We rolled down the gangplank still in fits and had a beer or two more before climbing into taxis and getting ourselves off home to bed.
But that wasn’t the end of it. During the next few days we each made our way to Sketchley’s to have our jackets cleaned. So Harry became dispersed even further, we were never sure where but research on the Internet said that the residue from dry cleaning fluid, once it had been filtered, either went down the sewer or was declared hazardous waste and was incinerated. We didn’t like to ask the dry cleaner’s which system of cleaning they had used to get rid of Harry’s ashes, they looked a bit delicate and we didn’t want them having nightmares, but either way Harry would have been satisfied. He either went down the sewer and eventually into the channel, or he was incinerated again and therefore became Twice-Cooked Harry. He would have loved that.
Don does Rocky
Writing about the RAVC the other day reminded me of CSMI Scott and the gym in Garats Hay. When I was doing my basic AN(SI) course, as I had done an AIPT course in my previous existence, Scotty asked me to help with overseeing the RAVC WRAC element from Melton Mowbray when they came to use our gym while theirs was being upgraded. I was told to keep an eye on them while they tried out the trampoline. It changed my life. Standing at the end of a trampoline and watching a fourteen stone ostleress dressed in WRAC issue PT kit is not a sight to forget. The knickers, physical training, all ranks’, Women’s Royal Army Corps (no photo available, any of the ladies still got theirs?) which were flashed unmercifully at me and stretched to breaking point as they did straddle-jump after straddle jump was most unsettling. It has stayed with me to this day. One of these young ladies getting it all wrong, hurtling off the end of the trampoline and me having to catch them before they crashed to the floor was more than was reasonable to ask any soldier.
And another story, this time when I was on my A1 with a bunch of reprobates, at least one of whom eventually made Lt. Col. Reprobate. Killer Naismith, aka Donkey Don, was asked by Scotty to help out with a production of ‘Rocky’ being staged by an AmDram company in Loughborough. They were looking for someone with boxing experience and Don was the man, having boxed a lot in his time and being a bit handy with his fists. He was asked to play the part of the defending champion in the production and his role was to go three rounds with Rocky and then get floored. All went well until the actor playing Rocky started mouthing off to the ladies in the cast, telling them that he could take Don any day of the week. Don asked us if we would like to come along to the last night and we all obliged. Come the fight scene, Don unmercifully hammered the poor actor for three rounds, blood and snot everywhere, until Don stuck his chin out and allowed the actor to punch him, whereupon Don slid theatrically to the floor. Oh, how we laughed and cheered. There is more to this story, all Rocky productions have a sequel, but Don has too much dirt on me for me to tell you, unless you manage to get me in a bar somewhere and pour a copious amount of the Black Stuff down my throat.
Many of us old Cyprus hands knew Laurie Sellars. he and I transferred to the Intelligence Corps at the same time and we first met during basic training at Ashford when we I would drink together in the NAAFI. If encouraged, Laurie would proudly wave in our faces a certificate from the military mental hospital at Netley, showing that he was officially sane. I was more than a little jealous of him and secretly coveted his sanity chit. With this priceless document Laurie was a tailor-made candidate for the Intelligence Corps, whose volunteers veer between eccentricity and outright insanity.
Why the sanity chit? He had been a cypher technician in the Royal Signals and had been sent for a six week stint to the Army Missile Tracking site in St. Kilda, part of the Outer Hebrides and the last outpost in the Atlantic before America. Bleak and inhospitable, often cut off for days during winter storms, it was not the place you volunteered for. A lot of secret work went on there, tracking prototype missiles fired from Benbecula, across the water, and cypher systems were needed to send the data back to Benbecula. The six week stint had turned into nine months when an administrative error ‘lost’ Laurie. The boss of the military there kept Laurie busy by getting him to solder four-foot lengths of scrap co-axial cable together to reach from the TV antenna at the top of the mountain down into the accommodation at sea-level. After nine months of this it was decided he was a little’ unusual’ and was sent to Netley. They could find nothing wrong with him and gave him his certificate to carry on with his Army career. Laurie told me all this over a few pints one night with a great deal of mirth and chortling.
He was good company and although a little shy, a great hit with the ladies who, having met him, found their maternal instincts kicking in and felt that he needed looking after. Laurie seemed impervious to this and just soldiered on in his own way, preferring his beer to other distractions. He didn’t want any commitments it seems, perhaps because he wasn’t sure that he really was sane after having been subjected to the battery of decidedly strange tests that had been forced upon him in Netley and then having come out ‘clean’. Or perhaps he was at it all the time but kept a low profile; later events would make this more likely. Having worked with or been interviewed by many Army psychiatrists, I think he was a lot saner than most of them, they are a distinctly strange crew.
We were both posted to Cyprus and keeping to his usual modus operandi, Laurie would disappear in his car to Larnaca, do his own thing and drink with whosoever he wished. He turned up for work every day and did a good job and life went on.
I had been on a course in U.K. for a couple of months and returned to Cyprus to begin a month’s leave in late November or early December, as I recall. I had only been back in my married quarter for a few hours when there was a knock on the door and the Sergeant Major told me that Laurie had been killed in a car accident and that I was to be in charge of the firing party at his military funeral a couple of days later. I was shocked to hear of his death and then cynicism kicked in. ‘Cheers, Laurie,’ I thought. ‘Now I have to get a haircut, bull my boots and get my uniform in order, drill the firing party and miss the first week of my leave.’ But I was extremely sad to have lost a fiend and a character of his standing. I spent a few hours with the rest of the firing party practicing for the funeral and heard the RSM monotonously repeating that we must all fire at the same time and that the volley must sound as one shot.
‘The intelligence Corps?’ I thought. ‘You’ll be lucky, it’s a good job we’ll be firing blank rounds or we’d be burying a few more during the week.’
The day of the funeral dawned rainy, cold and miserable. We turned up at the cemetery in Dhekelia, got fell in and I marched the party across the cemetery to our position in front of the open grave. I had my first misgiving as the grass under our feet made coming to a halt, military fashion, a very difficult manouevre, due to the rain and wet grass. I feared that one of the party would slip on his backside, or even worse, go sliding into the waiting grave. The spoil for the grave had been piled to either side and Astroturf had been placed on top of what was rapidly becoming mud, so as to make things look neater. It continued to drizzle and soon the rain was dripping off the peaks of our hats. We waited and we waited. Mourners began to arrive, Laurie’s father and brother came first and then a file of men in grey trench coats and trilbies took their places. Then a handful of ladies who, by their dress, had done well to have got out of bed after having worked all night. I recognised the Bulgarian Head of Station as one of the trench coat brigade and smiled to myself. Laurie had obviously been enjoying himself on his lone forays into the town and had made a few friends who would not have been approved of by the Security Officer..
It rained some more and we were beginning to get cold. Someone rushed into the cemetery and spoke to the RSM. He marched smartly over to me and told me that there had been accident at the exit to the morgue between the gun carriage carrying Laurie and a taxi. Things were being sorted out, ‘Wait.’ ‘Here we go,’ I thought.
The soldier next to me was starting to feel the effects of standing in the cold and rain for three quarters of an hour and, shivering badly, began to sway. I knew that he was going to faint and my biggest fear was that he would fall forward onto his rifle and bayonet and impale himself.
‘That’s all I need,’ I thought. ‘You bloody dare!‘
Luckily the RSM had seen what was going on and marched smartly across again and led the soldier away to behind the gravediggers shed.
At last the gun carriage arrived with Laurie’s coffin strapped to the top. The pall bearers lifted it gently down and rested it on the planks that had been placed across the grave to support it during the service. There were also ropes laid across the grave which were to be used to lower the coffin into its final resting place. The padre gave a short service and the burial began.
As with all military funerals, the coffin was draped with the Union Jack with the soldier’s belt, bayonet and hat placed on top. The last post played and the weight of the coffin was taken up on the ropes held by the burial party.
The rest is a mass of confusion and may well not be in the correct order. One side of the Astroturf, having been put on a load of mud, began to slip towards the open grave and the coffin begin to tilt alarmingly. The pall-bearers on that side realized what was happening and attempted to correct the tilt but the coffin had already started to enter the hole in the ground, where it wedged sideways. Everyone took a step back and took up the strain again and gradually managed to lift and right the coffin. They began to lower again when it was realized that the flag, belt, bayonet and cap were still on the coffin, so it was raised again and they were quickly snatched off before they disappeared six feet under. Once again Laurie started to descend, this time without any more catastrophes. The RSM and I watched, bemused. The flag was folded and handed over to Laurie’s father and I called out the orders to the firing party. We adopted the firing position and I yelled ‘Fire!’ One shot rang out and that was mine. ‘Reload, Fire!’ Again my single shot. The last volley, if you can call it that, was exactly the same.
We came out of the firing position and back at ease and I whispered out of the side of my mouth to the soldier nearest to me,
’Why didn’t you fire?’
‘My fingers are too cold,’ he replied.
‘And you?’ I said to the next soldier.
‘I’m not getting my rifle dirty and have to clean it, just for Laurie,’ was the reply.
‘Give me strength,’ I thought and watched the proceedings continuing to my front.
Dhekelia cemetery is as all military cemeteries, immaculately groomed and attended to. Lots of cut grass and yew trees. Laurie’s grave was close to one of these yews and a WRAC girl stepped up to salute the grave in a perfect military fashion, longest way up, shortest way down. Unfortunately on the longest way up she entangled her arm in one of the overhanging branches of the yew tree bringing it smartly to her forehead. When she released it her hat shot off and landed dangerously close to the grave. Everyone drew breath but luckily it didn’t go into the grave otherwise Laurie would have been buried with a WRAC No 2 dress hat on his coffin. What would future archeologists make of that? People started to move away and the RSM made his way across to us.
‘He’s going to crucify me,’ I thought, but he smiled and congratulated me.
‘Good volley,’ he said. ‘It sounded like one shot, just like it should.’
‘He must be deaf as a post,’ I thought and called the men to attention and marched them off.
Needless to say we had a few beers as soon as we had handed our weapons in. Just out of spite I made everyone clean them thoroughly,
‘As they have all been soaked and might rust,’ I said while really thinking that if I had to clean my rifle, they could bloody well clean theirs.
I’ve never heard a bad word spoken about Laurie by anyone. He was a good bloke, lived his life his way and tried not to let the Army interfere too much. Good Intelligence Corps material. I know he would have roared if he had been on the firing party, and hope he had tears running his face when he met St. Peter.
Aftermath of an invasion.
I felt guilty about the giant-sized Union Jack we’d painted on the drill-square of the barracks, four miles west of Famagusta. It was supposed to protect our camp from Turkish Air Force friendly fire. Now they were using it as an identification point to align their warplanes for the attacks on the pitifully sandbagged Greek Cypriot National Guard positions surrounding the besieged Turkish Cypriots in Famagusta Old City. A city inexorably linked to tragedy. Othello’s city.
It was as if we had compromised our non-aligned role. Acting as guides for the Turks, but not compensating by giving the Greeks an equal measure of assistance. Earlier the Turkish planes had strafed the Greeks in the corrugated-iron camp at Three-Mile Point, using the Union Jack as a marker to open fire. The ejected 30mm cartridges from the wing cannons, stamped with a U.S. logo, had showered onto our barrack room roof, cracking the tiles and providing us with souvenirs of war.
Later, when the Turks had liberated the Old City and occupied the whole of Varosha, the Greek ‘New Town’ from which the civilian population had fled, I went to Three-Mile Point. A Turkish Army Captain showed me, with great pride, a hole which had been drilled by an armour-piercing round fired from a Turkish tank. It had passed clean through all ten huts standing in line to the right of the camp. It epitomized that little war. Tanks and armour-piercing rounds against corrugated-iron huts.
Somewhere, no-one knows where, there are more than a thousand Greek Cypriot prisoners-of-war, or corpses, not seen since 1974. Stories abound of salt mines or male brothels on mainland Turkey. Or are they pawns to be bargained for at the appropriate time? I hope for their sake and for the sake of their families, still standing vigil twenty-six years on at the Green Line border crossing points in Nicosia, that they are dead. But I’m sure their mothers don’t.