Sunday, 7 October 2012
BBC news…..Unemployment has reached over one million for the first time since the nineteen thirties. The Prime Minister Mr Edward Heath spoke in Parliament and said……………
We started training.
“Come on move, get fell in.” We rumbled out of the quarters, a big four storey building. It had been built by the Germans in the run up to the Second World War and now the British Army occupied the barracks. It was January 1972, there was a biting wind sweeping across the parade ground. We lined up in three ranks and the N.C.O.s made sure we were standing up straight.
Major Ellis (DSO) came down the steps. He normally did not come out for daily parades, so something was up. He was followed by his side kick Captain John Cook, he always walked a quarter of a step behind Ellis like a well trained dog.
Sergeant Major Bill Stone brought us to attention, turned and saluted Ellis, then with a stamp of his feet marched to his place on the parade. Ellis, with his weedy voice gave us the command to stand at ease.
“We’ve just received the orders from Brigade Head Quarters,” he paused and just had a quick look at his notes to make sure of the dates. “We are going to Northern Ireland on the 24th March. It’s for a tour of 4 months and we will be serving as an infantry unit.”
There was a hubbub ran through the ranks, each man with his own excitement or dread, each man with his own agenda.
“Quiet.” Stone brought some order back to the parade.
Ellis continued, “We will be based in Belfast and will start training with immediate effect.” He looked over to Stone. “Let the men fall out Sergeant Major.” He saluted Stone, Cook following suit. Then both of them disappeared into the warm.
Stone returned the salute and turned to the parade.
“PARADE, PARADE, SHUN.” We all moved to his time “PARADE, DISSSSS...MISS.” A sharp turn to the left, a stamping of feet and we broke off.
We all gathered round in groups and I was drawn to my section. Our troop consisted of four sections of ten men with a Corporal and a Lance Corporal, but as normal most of the sections were undermanned. We also had a Troop officer and a Sergeant.
Jock was the first to speak. “Will we lose our overseas allowance?”
I burst out laughing. “Trust you to think of that.” Jock was a typical Glaswegian. Eddie Wright, our section leader, a married man with two kids, must have been dreading this call up. “Shut up and listen, you sweaty little Scot. We need to wake our ideas up, especially you.” He scowled at Jock.
“I’m not going if it means a pay cut.” The Scot kept his line.
“You won’t lose your overseas, because you’re still based in Germany, and you don’t have a choice.” Eddie wanted time to think. “Look everyone go to the NAAFI get a cup of tea and be down the MT park for.” He looked at his watch “…ten thirty.”
I looked around the square, men were milling around and generally talking excitedly. There seemed to be two camps, married men, who were worried and the single men who would get some excitement after years of training. We ambled over to the canteen, glad to get out of the cold.
Gaff Gaffy a short stocky man, a pragmatic Yorkshire-man always good tempered, always seeing the funny side of life, poked me in the ribs. “Get them seats over there, I’ll get the teas in.” He held out his hand for the money, he wasn’t that generous. I gave him a few coins.
“Get me a jam doughnut as well.” I made my way over to one of the few empty tables. There was an amazing amount of excitement running through the hall. As I sat down I saw Tom Edwards just leaving the front of the queue. He saw me and made his way through the crowd. He sat down with his two cups of tea laced with sugar and a plate of buns. He had a massive appetite, but he didn’t have a pinch of fat on him. He played for the regimental football and rugby teams and in his spare time would swim up and down the baths.
“Well I joined up to shoot someone, so now I’ll get me chance.”
I knew he made statements like this all the time, so wasn’t surprised. I had stopped taking the bait a long time ago. He also was heading for the world record for marrying. He was only twenty and had been married twice, divorced twice. He said he didn’t think one night stands were fair on the girls. I’d replied, “Why not just get engaged for the night?”
“Are you looking forward to the tour?” I probed.
“Hell yes, the tarts are very pretty there, and they fuck for buttons.” He kept his mouth full all the time; he filled his mouth up again, “...and we’ll get a medal.”
“You’re not going for more wedding cake are you?” I loved the subject of his marriages.
Gaff arrived with his hands full of cups and plates.
“Shift your arse.” Tom as usual was taking up most of the table. He pulled back a bit and finished off his buns and washed them down with the last of his tea. He leaned back in his seat and lit a cigarette, and keeping in character, blew smoke in my face while I quietly munched on my doughnut.
“Eddie seems pissed off about Belfast.” Gaff said.
“Well you’d miss nookie every night and your own bed.” Tom’s misconception of marriage showing itself again.
I finished off my doughnut and open my cigarette packet. “Well, I think I’m going to enjoy this tour.” I watched them for their reaction.
“Yep, better than sitting around here waiting for the Russkies to come.” Gaff was in the same camp as me. We had been building bridges and blowing them up for two years all together and we were ready for a change. We wanted to be back to where the women spoke English. A change was as good as a rest.
Simon Rutter came over to our table and sat down. Nobody ever called him Simon; in true army fashion we called him Wally after something that happened to him in training camp. He was a slight man, happy go lucky and with an easy laugh.
“We start training on Monday,” he said and started to eat his bun.
“Well it’ll be better than building bridges at midnight.” Gaff replied.
I went into one of those mini daydreams. Nobody knew I had been brought up in Belfast. It never occurred to me to tell anyone; my accent was Liverpudlian. I started to think of the streets I had been brought up in, remembering people who I had known. Would they recognize me? Would I be on my old patch?
At that moment, there was a scraping of chairs on the concrete floor as men started to make their way back to their units. Gaff slapped me on the back of my head with the back of his hand.
“Come on hero.” I came to and followed the rest.
There was a biting wind as we made our way back to the motor transport sheds and we grabbed a last fag as we entered. Normally we would have been cleaning the APC, or checking our kit and making sure that everything that should be sharp was sharp, or making sure that everything that should be clean was clean. We did the basic maintenance on the APC ourselves, changing oil, greasing up the tracks and making sure the air filters were working, and most of all painting the damned thing. But that day was different. We piled into the back and closed the door. We left the top open.
Eddie had composed himself, he had a fag hanging out of his lip.
He nodded at Jock, “Get a brew going.” But we all mucked in; that’s the way it was in such a small space. The pump stove was produced and lit, someone found a kettle and we all had our mugs, teabags and dried milk ready, next to the driver’s seat; our only spoon was hidden in the top shelf next to the first aid kit and the gas-masks.
“Where’s the fucking sugar?” We all looked blank, we all knew that we had run out. We all took sugar, we all took loads of sugar. Everyone looked at me. When anything was needed it was my job to steal it. I don’t know how it started, but I once had to find a camouflage net and the engine to an assault boat one hour before handover. Ever after that, even the officers would make a list and expect me to replace all sorts of missing things. Everyone turned to me.
“Boil the water and give me a minute.” I disappeared out of the back door of the wagon. The cookhouse was a three minute walk away, but I didn’t want to miss the sentiment in the wagon so I ran. I went in through the back door of the cookhouse, straight past the dishwashing staff and into the main kitchen and bumped into Sergeant Todd in his full whites and a very tall cook’s hat, telling me he was top dog.
“Excuse me Sergeant, I’ve been sent by Sergeant Major Stone.” I put my humble face on. “He’s asked if he could have some sugar, his office has run out.” He looked around the cookhouse, everyone was busy preparing the lunch for the regiment. He led me through to the dry storeroom and filled a brown paper bag with sugar and as an afterthought, gave me a massive tin of coffee. I looked at him, we both knew this was wrong, but I was in too deep now, so took the tin.
“Tell him I’ll see him at the mess tonight.” I thought shit no, now I’ve torn it, they’re buddies. “He needs to play bridge better than last week.”
“I’ll tell him.” I said weakly and made my way back to the wagon. The back of the wagon was nice and warm and there were yelps of joy when they saw the tin of coffee. I kept my mouth shut about how I had come by it.
“All engineering training is out of the window.” Eddie was filling us in while we carried on making coffee and generally making a mess. “I’ve had a quick look at the training schedule and it looks good.” We sniggered, we had heard it all before.
Eddie went on, “We start on Monday, fitness, yellow card, riot control, intelligence, weapon training and ..…” He droned on listing all the training we would be doing over the next few months, we carried on making coffee and smoking and only half listening to him.
Meanwhile, in his office, Major Ellis was being handed a memo by the duty clerk,
Memo; Ref order 113211.
To Major E. Ellis,
1174 Engineer Regiment,
Due to the shortage of Intelligence personnel at this point in time, and the on-going problems in Northern Ireland, we need 3 personnel to assist during this tour. These personnel will be required for the full tour. They must have 2 years’ experience. We look forward to your help in this matter.
Lt-Col G. Allen.
Ellis looked at the memo and wondered why, when a unit was preparing for their first action in years, they would take away much needed personnel for intelligence duties. He walked to the door, “Thomas.” He shouted down the corridor. The clerk came on the double.
“Sir.” Thomas stood at the door.
Ellis looked up from the memo, “Get me the sergeant major.” He went back and re-read the memo. Bill Stone wandered down the corridor to Ellis’s office. “Close the door please Sergeant Major.” He handed the memo to Stone, and after reading it, Stone looked at Ellis.
“Can we stop this?”
“I don’t think so sir.”
Stone knew it was tight for manpower. His mind went into overdrive, mentally selecting the worst, wackiest and least able.
“I want you to select the men who we send and I’ll also make sure that we have an influx of men from the next intake coming out of basic training.” Stone stood up, he was already making a list in his head.
“Just leave it with me sir.” He made his way back to his office. Now his mind was on the bridge game tonight; there was plenty of time to choose who to get rid of.
In the wagon, smoke thick in the air, we were starting to warm to the idea of Belfast and were speculating.
“Bet I’m first to shoot one of the bastards.” Jock always liked to reduce it down to violence.
Gaff lifted his leg and let out a noisy fart. “Piss off, you couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo.” He took a deep breath to take in the aroma.
“Open the back door for fuck sake.” Smoke and foul air leaked out of the back of the A.P.C. but we stayed inside. We were used to this sort of thing. We carried on musing about what we were going to do on the tour.
That evening, Todd stood at the sergeants’ mess bar drinking with Sergeant Stone. After the initial chat about the posting to Northern Ireland, he remembered his gift to Stone. “Did you get the coffee?” Todd looked at Stone for some sort of recognition for the favour. Stone paid the barman and turned to Todd with a questioning look on his face.
“What coffee?” They walked to the tables and took a seat.
“The coffee and sugar, I sent them over with your runner, the ugly little twat you sent in this morning for sugar.” Stone thought about this.
“I don’t send for sugar, the clerk runs that sort of thing.” He took a long pull on his pint.
“Well that little twat Deery, the cocky sod came in this morning and asked for sugar for your office. And I gave him a big tin of coffee too.” Stone could feel his face flush; he did not like Deery, just something about him.
“Leave it with me.” It was at this point Deery went to the top of the list. Stone decided he needed to get rid of shirkers like Deery. Their minds turned to the night’s bridge tactics.
The next morning Stone went into Ellis’s office.
“Good morning Sir.” He laid down the list of men who he wanted out before they had live rounds up the spout, before those little mistakes could cost lives, before the action started. Ellis glanced at the list, all the usual suspects were on the list.
“Thank you Sergeant Major.” Ellis put the list to one side and leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.
“How did the bridge go?” He played for the officers’ mess, and liked to keep abreast of what was happening in the enemy camp.
Posted by Ol' Grumpy. at 12:40