Thursday, 21 August 2014
Life passes us by every day, but who really notices?
Have you ever walked into a shopping centre or high street and sat down in one of the many seats. Not because you needed a rest, but to look at people going about their daily life walking past. I do it nearly every time I go there, and I believe it has become a ritual with me. As an author of fiction I have a good imagination that works nearly twenty four hours a day. In a typical sitting if you look without staring, you will see the confident business man right down to the person doing their window shopping wishing their life away.
I see young girls no older than eighteen that have all the best years of their life ahead, but through a mistake or a false love they are destined to push that baby in a pram for another few years. Their life is over before it has got off the starting block. Their trail to their destiny has now been hampered by a child that they would in most cases die for.
What they dreamed of doing while in their high school years has been placed on hold. They know it will not be within their grasp for many years, and in some cases I can see the despair in their eyes knowing it will never take place. Their knight in shining armour has ridden on, leaving them to the fearful dragon called life. I know that if they are not strong and fight hard, the dragon will steal their soul before they realise their true worth.
From now until things get better their only holiday might just be a day at the beach, or a weekend at their mothers. To have a holiday in Spain or the French Riviera are now just a dream. Tax credits and social security will never pay for luxuries such as those. “That’s her fault,” I hear you say, but I say “Only partly.” School teaches you right from wrong and the basics of life. The harsh realities of life can only be learned by experience, but then it is usually far too late to go back in time. It is at that stage you find that you have lost your identity and have become just another statistic. I hear you saying, “That is just your imagination.” Yes it might be, but with one of these many pram pushing girls I must be right, and it is her I am talking about.
I see the old woman looking at the colourful modern clothes in the windows, Clothes meant for those same eighteen year old girls. They stand and look with many different expressions on their faces. The old women that is smiling at the manikin; I wonder what is going through her mind. Is she thinking of that last cruise she went on before her husband took ill which changed her life forever? Or is she thinking of those days when she wore those same revealing dresses.
A woman walks past bent at the waist. Her clothes are what I would call functional at best. Neither the colour nor the style suits her, but she has tried her best to look what she thinks is presentable. To those of us believe we know of her hardship who ourselves are aged, she looks elegant. Her meagre pension is just allowing her to live to get through another week. The steps of the old woman are short and faltering. Her weathered face tells the story of a hard life, and in her eyes are the signs of pain, tiredness. Her mind is now programmed to walk the hard trudge to the shops just to live before god allows her peace.
An old man sits on the bench next to me, who is leading a small dog that sits between his legs. He says nothing as he catches his breath, but he glances towards me and smiles. I can see his body even through his clothes, giving me the impression that he is now thin and frail. On the bench next to him is a single tin of dog food, to look after his best friend. He has a walking stick in one hand that is trembling while in his grasp. On standing up he has trouble, and I stand and take hold of his arm. Once on his feet our eyes meet, and I could see the hint of shame that he felt because of his tired body. He never spoke but I realised this might be me one day.
I sat down once more, but why I have no idea. Those people that I had seen had walked into the maze of people, and others had now taken their place. We are not all blessed with health and wealth, and I have my own crosses to carry. There was nothing I could do to lighten their load, and I knew I would never dwell on their problems or see them again. However, I could not help myself silently wishing them luck, with the hope that their lives would get better for the sake of their future.
Be well Ian.
Wednesday, 20 August 2014
(The Dunce At The Back Of The Class book two)
The day the battalion was re-formed after leave was the day William realised how short the battalions were of personnel. They were placed in B Company as a complete platoon, which made the company about fifty strong, including the officers and NCOs. The battalion as a whole was depleted, and with the high level of drop-out during training at the depot it was not surprising. Two of three-one-five depot platoon went to 1 Para Battalion, which left sixteen for 3 Para. The battalion was being re-formed, and the infantry side was smaller than the rest of Sixteen Para Brigade Logistics.
William had been in the battalion for about a month before they went on manoeuvres in Germany. They had been briefed that they would be parachuting into Paderborn training area, but the start of the exercise was a nightmare that William would never forget as long as he lived.
The battalion would be embarking from RAF Benson and they would be parachuting in battalion formation. Colonel Chiswell, the Commanding Officer of the battalion, was in the same aircraft as William, and William will be forever grateful for that blessing.
By the time they reached the aerodrome there were fifteen aircrafts already lined up, waiting for the personnel to arrive. William’s aircraft was a Hastings, a rather old design of aircraft that looked like the American Dakota but had four engines. The truck, with all of their equipment, was parked next to it. The stick numbers had already been allocated to William and his friends so they knew where they were sitting before they entered the aircraft. The containers with their equipment inside were passed down from the back of the truck. Afterwards, they took their places at the side of the aircraft facing the steps leading up to the door.
The whole battalion waited for a long time before the truck came with the chutes and reserve chutes. Each soldier took one of each before they walked back to their containers to fit chutes. The chutes had adjusting straps to cater to the different sizes of each paratrooper. Once all the adjustments had been made and checked by the paratrooper, then, as usual before a jump, sergeant major walked round with a sergeant or corporal and made a note of the number of the chute and the reserve next to the name of each soldier on his list.
Wearing parachutes is not particularly comfortable, and even in winter the paratroopers would quickly become warm. On this day, they became very hot as they waited, and when it became clear that they had even longer to wait before the aircrew had done their final checks, the men were told to remove the chutes until it was time to board the aircraft. They sat down on the tarmac, until finally they were told to put their chutes on once more.
The Commanding Officer made the usual announcement: “The green light constitutes an order to jump. Failing to do so will result in a Court Martial.”
The battalion went back to their aircraft, picking up their containers, and sat in their designated seats. There was another long wait as the dispatchers walked down the centre of the aircraft to check the chute and the workings on the outside of reserve, checking the D ring on the end of the strop and opening the flap on the reserve to check that the little red ties were still intact. Not long after that, the aircraft engines burst into life and even inside the aircraft there was the slight smell of aviation fuel and exhaust fumes, but none of them thought there was any problem with that.
The aircraft went to the end of the runway and powered up. There were popping noises from the engines, but again none of the soldiers had any idea that there might be anything wrong.
The brakes were released and the aircraft started to move down the runway, gathering speed. They felt the aircraft leave the ground and even above the sound of the engines they heard the noise of the wheels being retracted, and William was on his way to his first battalion parachute descent.
It was all going well, they thought, but not long after leaving RAF Benson they were to change their minds.
They had been flying for about twenty minutes when an engine stopped on the port side. This, in itself, was not much more than a minor inconvenience, and the soldiers all knew it. All of them had parachuted out of an aircraft with only three props working; it was part of their drills and William had done it while doing his training jumps in Abingdon. Right now they had just gone out over the coast, and William could see the coastline below and the other aircraft on either side of their Hastings.
All of a sudden there was a pop, and the inner engine on the starboard side stopped. This, clearly, might be more of a problem, but for a while nothing happened and the pilot gained a little height over the English Channel. However, William could see that they were turning, because the south coast was coming into view once more.
The pilot came over the loudspeaker. “We are returning to RAF Benson due to an engine and fuel problem. The inner starboard engine has been stopped to conserve fuel.”
They had been in the air half an hour when this happened. William was none too pleased with what he was hearing, and looking at the rest of the aircraft no one else was, either, but just as they passed over the English coast again, the aircraft gave a little lurch and the outer starboard engine stopped.
That left one engine.
So now, a single engine on the port side was now doing all the work, and it sounded as though it was screaming for help. No one in the aircraft said a word.
William looked about the aircraft at the others. Apart from the Colonel and three NCOs, all the rest were his mates who had come through basic training with him at the depot. Each one of them was looking about the aircraft and the expression on every face was the same. It was not fear, not exactly, but it was something very much like it. William was sure that this was not going well, and he knew that some of his friends had those same feelings. The talking had stopped, and it was a lot quieter inside the aircraft with only one engine working.
William and Decker looked out of the window directly behind them. The aircraft was low, looking to be much lower than safe parachuting height, and they watched the coastline slipping away.
“You live down there near the coast, Spike. Can you see your house?”
As soon as Decker asked the question, the whole attitude of the soldiers on the aircraft seemed to change. William looked at Decker as though he was mad, because even at this height the houses were no more than tiny square spots.
“Yes, it’s the house in the corner of that field on its own,” William replied. “If you look closely through the kitchen window you’ll see my mother is there, eating a sandwich.”
Decker gave a little laugh, and decided he would not be beaten by William’s sarcasm.
“Does she like cheese and tomato sandwiches, because I’m sure I can see something red on her lip.”
With a sly grin, William answered, “That’s beetroot, you fool. Can’t you tell the difference?”
They started laughing, and all the others joined in.
At that moment, the pilot managed to fire up the inner starboard engine, and the two working engines settled down to a steady drone that was painful on the ears. The tense atmosphere returned, without panic but in the full realisation that they were not out of trouble yet.
The pilot announced over the speaker: “You will hear a noise and heavy thump in a moment when we lower the landing gear. We are ten minutes from RAF Benson. Be prepared for a rough landing.”
In the aircraft there were nets between each paratrooper, specifically to provide some protection in the event of a crash landing, the paratroopers sitting along the sides of the aircraft with a net for each person. They had practised this during training, and without any order being given everyone on that aircraft had his net in position and around him. The dispatchers were also seated, each one of them, for some reason that seemed inexplicable, glancing at his wristwatch as though late for some important appointment.
Five minutes passed as the aircraft continued to descend reasonably smoothly, and then the unthinkable happened – the port engine, William’s side of the aircraft, stopped. He stared out the window at it in horror, and he could see the houses not far below them. They were coming in to land, but it was going to be rough on one engine.
The wheels touched the tarmac and the aircraft lurched, and then, just as the pilot was applying the brake and doing whatever they do with the engines – the one remaining engine, at least – to help slow the aircraft, that last engine stopped. The runway was lined with fire trucks as they coasted along it and, finally, came to a halt right at the end.
There was silence. No one move, not even the pilots.
The dispatcher and load master said something into his head mike, and then he stood up to open the doors, and as the fresh air rushed in they realised that there has been at least a few involuntary bowel movements during the last minutes of the flight.
The colonel stood up first and faced them. “Well done, men. Paratroopers never panic.”
Those words stayed with William for a long time after they returned from Germany. He would often wonder if that was what made them the individuals they were. There would be many occasions when not panicking would help him and others in the future. He also asked himself why he had not panicked, because they all knew what the consequences would have been if that last engine had failed just a few minutes earlier than it did. The Hastings would have glided for a short distance, but would they have been too low to find anywhere they could land without a total disaster?
No one in the aircraft needed to be told that the problems had been huge from the pilot’s point of view. In fact, there had been a massive leak in the main fuel line, and the tanks were completely empty by the time they landed.
By the time mobile steps were towed out onto the runway the Commanding Officer of RAF Benson was out on the tarmac and the Colonel was already shouting at him. Within two minutes, the RAF officer disappeared like the invisible man. The dispatchers told the lads they would be disembarking as soon as the steps were in place. Two trucks and a bus arrived before they walked down the steps from the aircraft, with their chutes still on and with all their equipment.
It was at the same time, the RAF Officer appeared again, and announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear him, “Another Hastings is being towed out of the hanger, and there is another window for a flight in three hours.”
The Colonel appeared to be on the point of an apoplexy. He shouted at the top of his voice, “The men in my battalion will never fly in a Hastings again, so you had better find a safe, serviceable aircraft to take us to our German destination.”
“The only other aircraft is an Argosy, Colonel. The problem with that would be that the pilots are not trained to drop paratroopers. However, the aircraft will be going to Germany.”
“We will take it. Please arrange a meal for my men once we have landed, and for transport to take us to the DZ where the rest of the battalion will be waiting.”
“Are you sure the rest of the battalion will still be on the DZ, Colonel?”
“You nincompoop!” the Colonel shouted back, seeming to turn even redder with rage. “Of course they will be there. The battalion will go nowhere without its Colonel!”
After that little exchange of words, the RAF officer disappeared into his car and was hurtling across the airbase towards his headquarters.
The paratroopers heard and saw the exchange between the two officers, and none of them had ever seen their Colonel look so angry.
Decker turned to William and said, “I think the colonel is upset, Spike.”
“I think it was when the RAF clown realised that the party wouldn’t start until the Colonel arrived at the table.”
“He was frightened of the CO, obviously. What made you think he was a clown, Spike?”
“Well, he made me laugh when jumped in his car at the speed of a bullet, just after he realised the Colonel was about to kill him for his mistake.”
There was a loud laugh from behind them. Neither had realised that the Colonel has walked back to the platoon while they were talking.
“Yes, I think you two read the situation correctly.”
He told them all to remove their chutes and put them on the truck. They also had to remove their equipment from the containers before they put those on the other truck, and then they were taken to a canteen to a meal. It was several hours later that they were on the DZ.
* * * * *
This was the first time William had been out of the UK. He found the battalion did a good deal of walking between locations, and the little German he knew did not help him at all. Fortunately, most of the younger Germans they met had a good grasp of English.
As an ordinary paratrooper not long out of training, William spent most of his time on this exercise in a two-man trench with John.
“It doesn’t feel like a foreign country, Spike. What do you think?” Before William had a chance to answer, John added, “It looks like any part of England, and very much like Coventry where I lived.”
William looked at their surroundings. There was a green grass meadow in front of them with a small farm on the other side. There were cows grazing, and a small red tractor in an open gateway, with a farmer loading hay onto it. The farmhouse was small with a long slanting roof almost touching the ground on one side. It was made of stone, like the flints used for building in many parts of the UK, and it was no bigger than a bungalow.
“Yes, I think your right, but the houses are slightly different.”
“Have you ever had a bratwurst, Spike?”
“What the hell is a bratwurst?”
“It’s a German sausage. I think you can eat them raw.”
“No I haven’t, and I don’t like sausages. I used to, until I joined the army, but the canteen has put me off them. I have often wondered if we’ve been eating them raw.”
“What’s wrong with army sausages? I thought they were nice.”
“The problem I have found with army sausages is that there is no taste, probably because there is very little meat in them. To say that you think they are nice tells me that you are a townie.”
“If you mean I don’t live in the country, you’re right.”
“Then you have no idea what food and drink is like in the country. My father used to come home from the dairy after milking the cows with a two-pint can of milk. There was two inches of cream on the top ready to put on my cornflakes in the morning.”
“It’s nothing like that in the middle of Coventry. We have the real stuff delivered to the door in bottles by the milkman.”
“Have you seen the lieutenant walking about, John?” and William looked around them.
“What do you want the lieutenant for, Spike.”
“I just want to let him know that I am in a two-man trench with a raving lunatic.”
The battalion returned from Germany and William was sent on a radio operators’ course, which he really enjoyed, and passed. The only problem was that when he returned to the platoon he was made platoon radio operator, and that meant he had to carry a radio on his back during manoeuvres.
3 Para, William’s battalion, had many personnel who were leaving the army at the same time. There had also been some of the rifle company personnel moved into support or HQ Company, which had left all the rifle companies short. It was for that reason over the next six months that most of the new recruits were posted to 3 Para. C Company had been in no better state than William’s company, but now it was noticeable on battalion parades how it had grown. Three-one-five Platoon was still intact, because when they arrived in 3 Para they had made up the whole of Two Platoon.
William, together with his closest friends, had been in 3 Para for about a year before they were sent on manoeuvres in Libya, although this was some time before the “Mad Colonel” ruled that country. They were supposed to parachute in El Afar, but because of a sand storm the drop was cancelled. The battalion landed at El Adem air base and they were taken to the outskirts of the desert by truck. They ended up near the temporary runway at El Afar, where the RAF were also conducting training exercises. On their fifth day, an Argosy aircraft crashed, cartwheeling across the desert and killing everyone on board.
As mentioned earlier, William had done a radio course in that year and was now the platoon HQ operator and carried the radio on his back. He found that the A41 radio was not light, particularly as he still had to carry the rest of his personal equipment. From the day he put the radio on his back he cursed it, little knowing that a little later in his army career it would save his life.
William never rated Libya as a nice place. Every day was burning hot, often with a hot breeze that picked up the fine dust and blew it in his face, but hotter still without the breeze. It went from one extreme to another, because during the night it was freezing, putting a frost on the ground. He hoped desperately that they would train at other more pleasant places than this. He had prickly heat up both arms with the fine dust embedded in the pores of his skin, and he was thoroughly miserable almost the whole time he spent in Libya.
There were hills in front of their position, and the colonel decided that it was time to advance. The temperature was around a hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, if there had been any shade, and yet William’s fearless leader had decided they should all go walkabout.
William threw all his gear into his pack and attached it to the radio harness. He could see just by looking at it that it was going to be almost impossibly heavy to carry, remembering his container when he had carried it onto the aircraft and how the weight seemed to bear down on him when he had to lift it.
They were told to have a good meal that morning, and again William thought about the jokers that seemed to be in control of the battalion. The twenty-four hour ration packs they had been issued were emergency dry rations, because some idiot at an ordnance depot somewhere in the UK had allocated the wrong ones. The trouble with these rations was that they needed a lot of water to cook them, and that was something the battalion had been short of since they had arrived in Libya.
The pack included a packet of six hard tack biscuits that tasted awful. William had experimented with them on the Germany exercise, and it had taken the whole exercise to find any way that made them taste even remotely reasonable. He had five packets with him that he kept for emergency rations.
In Germany, the battalion had gone two days without re-supply. They were told that, as part of the exercise, the supply aircraft had been “shot down” to simulate a realistic situation. William and the others suspected that it was more likely to be that someone had forgotten to order the supplies or that something, as usual, had gone wrong.
William kept hold of the biscuits from other shorter exercises because they were not too heavy to carry and there were always some left over because most of the others refused to eat them unless they were really hungry. He also had two tins of processed cheese, or “cheese processed” as it said on the tin, that many of the others did not like and dubbed it “cheese possessed”. As it happened, William really did like the cheese, which had a strong, smoky flavour. There were also tubes similar to toothpaste tubes, one type containing margarine and another type containing strawberry jam. William had three of each with him from the last exercise in the UK. For some reason, there were never the other types of jam left over: raspberry and greengage.
There was also vegetable soup in the ration packs, but it was far from being a favourite. In William’s entire army career, he never found any way to cook it without the little bits of vegetable remaining like little bits of grit. Similarly, there was powdered scrambled egg which, when cooked precisely according to the instructions, resembled a lump of rubber that perhaps could be moulded together with the lumps from other ration packs and used as a pillow, or alternatively squeezed into a ball for a game of makeshift tennis or cricket. Certainly, eating it did not really seem to be an option for anyone with a normal human digestive system.
There were two sachets of tea, one of coffee and one of Bovril, and powdered milk. William always disregarded the tea after the first time he tried it, as he would rather drink dirty water than waste his time trying that again. The tea was a fine dust in a sealed packet. He was under the impression that the world was experimenting on the British Forces with instant tea. If they had bothered to ask the men on the ground they would have told them it was a waste of time. It would be at least another three years before the ration packs would improve to the point where they received real tea bags.
In the end, William settled for a lump of rubberised egg and a coffee, because the egg had no taste that William could discern but at least it was solid and filling. It had to be either that or the powdered mashed potatoes. Those were yet another great army mystery, with no instructions and inevitably ending up either dry and powdery or almost completely liquid. William could never understand why these, at least, did not give some clue as to how much of the powder should be mixed with a specific quantity of water, but as he was certain he had used exactly the same amounts on different occasions and ended up with different results, perhaps it did not matter anyway.
It was after they had had breakfast that the news came over the radio they were about to move out.
The lieutenant had split the platoon up into sections, with the men standing ready for the word to march off. As they were standing there waiting for the command, Patrol or D Company marched past at the speed of greyhounds. William looked at them and shook his head in despair. He was unable to see how moving at high speed in heat like this could help them, or, in fact, moving at speed when there was neither any rush to arrive at their destination or any pressing need to leave where they were. D Company were the super-fit soldiers of the battalion, and also “secret squirrel” squad. William had the impression that they all thought they were the battalion’s answer to the SAS.
William and his squad waited for their orders to move. He was standing next to platoon officer, the fearless Lieutenant Dudzinski, and he always found that officer’s very existence in the British Army to be amusing. Here was the Parachute Regiment, undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest regiments, training for possible war against the Russians (among others), and William was being led by an officer of Russian descent. There had to be a joke there somewhere, but William could never figure it out.
“I hope to hell the CO is not expecting us to go at that speed, Sir.”
“No,” the lieutenant replied as he watched the company of men disappeared over the hill. “Of course not, Ballard.”
“Well, you don’t sound very sure, Sir,” William replied as he handed him the phone that was attached to the radio. “It’s for you from he-that-must-be-obeyed.”
Decker walked over and asked, “Where are we going, Spike?”
“We’re going to the seaside, Decker”
“How far is it?”
“Apparently it’s about ten miles; plus, I think the tide’s out.”
“I thought there was no tide on the Mediterranean Sea? What do you think the beach is like?”
“There is no tide, so I think we’re on the other coast. The sea will be warm, with a gentle sea breeze to cool our sweaty bodies.”
“Did you see Patrol Company go past? What was all that about, Spike?” Ron had walked up, and the reason they were asking William all these silly questions was because he was on the radio and privy to what the lieutenant knew.
“Apparently, they are the fox and we are the hounds.”
“Do we have to go at the same speed as they were going to catch them?”
“Nah, we just toddle off at normal pace and pick them up off the ground after the first three miles. They’re just a bunch of show-offs.”
“Is this walking about the desert going to happen every day, Spike?”
“I don’t know, but I will check it out during the day, and we can talk about it over a glass of ice cold water at the next oasis.”
His fearless leader handed William the phone back and looked at his map, saying, “Move the men forward, section leaders. Ballard, stay close to me.”
They had been walking at a steady pace for ten minutes when the Lieutenant stopped the platoon. He turned to face William, who asked, “What’s up, Sir?”
He stated, “There is no other coast to Libya.”
“For God’s sake, Sir, get a grip, or the men will think you’re a real officer,” and William laughed.
“I will forget you made that remark, Ballard,” he replied, but William could see that he was smiling. He had been their officer for about a year, and in fact he was a very good officer and the men respected him. Some of the young lieutenants were no more informed and had less experience and training than many of the troops they were leading. There was a lot of ass-kicking by the captains and majors, and some lieutenants never lasted more than a couple of months. The officers in the Special Forces were expected to be of a higher standard than those in other units.
They had been marching for a couple of hours when they heard the drone of an aircraft. A C130 Hercules flew over low and went out of sight, and then they saw what looked like a white parachute some distance away.
They marched on for about an hour until William heard a lot of screaming and shouting over the radio. He thought it best to put on the earphones that had been resting around his neck. He handed the phone to the lieutenant, saying, “I think you had better listen to this, Sir.”
Lieutenant Dudzinski walked for some distance with the phone to his ear while William walked beside him. The expressions on the lieutenant’s face made William smile even more than the conversation on the radio. Finally, the lieutenant handed him back the phone and asked, “What do you make of that, Ballard?”
“I think Bravo November is going to get his ass kicked by the colonel.”
“Who the hell is Bravo November?”
“The major in charge of Patrol Company. BN is an abbreviation ‘bicycle nose’ because he wears black-rimmed glasses, Sir.”
“You shouldn’t talk about senior officers like that, Ballard.” Again the lieutenant was smiling.
“Sir, why do you think after the company radio operator gets a message in Morse Code from the D company there is always Bravo November right at the end?” In fact, there was no way that Morse could be done on an A41 radio, but William had been trained on another that did and he had also learned to listen to Morse when he was with Christopher, because Christopher’s brother was a HAM radio operator and had taught them a little.
The boss answered, “I wondered what that meant.”
William could not help laughing at his stunned expression and the conversation on the radio.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Four Zero is being told his character by our illustrious leader, and I might add that he looks nothing like a tit.” Four Zero was the major in charge of D Company.
“Two one, okay, out,” William answered over the radio. “Sir, we have been told to halt and await further orders by other means.”
A runner came from HQ as the Colonels helicopter came into land. The runner spoke to the lieutenant, who then shouted, “Rest the sections. There is a briefing I have to attend.”
He walked off and William sat down, glad to get the weight off his back. Ron, Decker and Spud came over and sat with him. “What’s up, Spike?”
“Old bicycle nose has got lost, and the rations have been dropped fifteen miles away in the wrong place.”
“Does this mean there will be no food tonight, Spike? What else was said?”
“It seems that way, and except for old bicycle nose getting a verbal over the air, I know as much as you know, Spud.”
“Oh that’s great. No food again. Why did I join this dysfunctional army?”
They were all laughing, because Spud loved his food. He also had a knack of moaning about everything the rest of the platoon disliked, and it saved them the breath. “I only have packets of hard tack biscuits left.”
“Me too, Decker,” William answered. “It looks like jam butties for dinner.”
They could see the lieutenant walking back as the colonel’s helicopter flew overhead in the direction of the rations. “A-up, Spike. The gaffer’s coming back, to give us some words of wisdom.”
They all smiled as Spud said, “I can’t eat words of wisdom, Decker, you fool.”
They were about to stand when the lieutenant said, “Stay where you are. I expect Ballard has told you that the rations have been dropped in the wrong place. The CO has just flown off to see what transport he can get, but it looks like there will be no new rations until the morning. Has anyone anything to say?”
Spud stated, “I want to buy myself out, Sir. Would a cheque be ok, as I have no cash on me?”
The others burst out laughing, and the lieutenant said, “Aston, do grow up. You’re in the big boys’ army now, and you will have to wait until we get back to barracks. Make yourselves comfortable lads. We are here for the night. I have to go to the major’s briefing, but I’ll be back shortly. Corporal O’Neil, you are in charge.”
The other problem with the battalion being light on personnel was that they never had a platoon sergeant. There was a platoon corporal and section lance corporals, but that was it, and the Battalion strength was only growing by about six to ten personnel every month, because there was a limited supply of trained recruits coming in and there were two other battalions to replenish as well.
The rations could not be moved until the following morning, and the sun had gone down. When the lieutenant returned he told William that he had to turn the radio off. The batteries were dry cell and the new ones were in with the rations.
William was sitting next to the Lieutenant while waiting for the sun to go down when it would get cooler. “Can I ask you a question, Sir?”
“Yes of course, Ballard.”
“Dudzinski, what country does that originate from?”
“I think the name is Russian, but I’m not sure.”
Nothing more was spoken as the sun slipped down behind the horizon. William decided that was the best time to eat and opened his pack. Taking out the one tin of cheese with the rest of his saved goodies, he laid them out on his sleeping bag. Then he found his military-issue do-everything pocket knife and opened the tin. Actually, the knife did just about everything except for the proper function of a knife: to cut effectively. The blade was so blunt that it would struggle to cut butter. William had long ago decided that this was a deliberate army policy decision, so that there would be no risk of the soldiers cutting their fingers. How thoughtful of the military decision makers.
He opened a pack of the hard tack biscuits and smeared margarine on them all before placing a slice of cheese on each. To finish off, he put a blob of strawberry jam on top and spread it with the blunt knife.
The lieutenant was looking at him while he was doing it, as although it was dark it was not totally dark. He was just about to put this morsel of food in his mouth when he asked, “Are you not eating, Sir?”
“Well, I would have done,” the lieutenant replied, “But the rations have not arrived. Where the hell did you learn to do that, and what does it taste like?”
“It was in a woman’s magazine I was reading on a train while returning to Aldershot. Before you ask, Sir, no, I never bought it. The magazine was already on the seat of the train when I got in. It tastes very nice because the jam takes the bitterness out of the strong cheese the army gives us in these ration packs.”
William looked at the boss for a moment, and added, “I have a packet of mashed potato, scrambled egg, or you can have luxury biscuits like me.”
“I will settle for the biscuits, Ballard, if you don’t mind.”
“Good choice, Sir.” William then threw him two packs of the biscuits, a tin of cheese and a tube of jam, and said, “Help yourself, and you owe me big time for helping you survive this cruel twist of fate that the colonel and bicycle nose has placed us in."
“In that magazine, it also showed me how to make the perfect scrambled egg. A knob of butter melted in a saucepan, four eggs in a bowl mixed up well. Once the butter has melted pour in the egg mix and simmer, and keep stirring the mixture while not letting the scrambled egg get dry. The scrambled egg we get in these emergency packs is nothing like the taste of those in the magazine.”
William faced the lieutenant again, and asked, “Should I really be telling you all of this, Sir.”
“Why would you ask a question like that, Ballard?”
“Well, I don’t want to wake up one morning on this exercise and find out my fearless leader was a Russian sleeper. Then, when back in the UK, that the recipe for the perfect scrambled egg is splashed all over the front page of Pravda.”
The lieutenant gave a little laugh before replying, “Don’t be silly, Ballard. The Russians are not interested in scrambled egg.”
William smiled. and squinted at the lieutenant before he said, “So, you’ve already checked, Sir. Wicked.”
The lieutenant laughed.
Patrol Company returned during the night and walked past their position, only now they were a little more subdued. None of the officers were with them, and Spud had to have his say.
“The intelligence officer will be over later, lads. He has new maps for you with hieroglyphics. It’s so you can match the pictures with the surrounding countryside.”
The lieutenant smiled, and then said, “Shut up, Aston. There was no call for that.” But even in the darkness William could see him laughing quietly.
The rations arrived in the morning, as predicted, and after eating another mess tin full of rubber William was ready to bounce to the next destination. They set out once more, but this time the fox was following the hounds, and right at the back. They walked for about five hours before they came across some dilapidated buildings with a well. Orders came over the radio to stop there and take up position.
William was in the centre of the platoon in the command area, and to intents and purposes they were supposed to be taking this exercise as if it were the real event. The RAF Regiment from El Adam was acting as the enemy. The rest of the company were spread out over a large area, and also away from other companies. Williams platoon were walking ‘point’, and were further forward than the rest of the battalion.
The lieutenant said, “Get your head down, Ballad. Give me the radio and I will do the first four hours.” He and William took it in turn to listen in to the radio during the night, so that William could get some sleep. William got in his sleeping bag and put his earplugs in.
When he awoke the following morning, William was in time to see the lieutenant step into the covered shell-scrape with walls. As he took out his earplugs, he heard his fearless leader say, “That was one hell of an attack last night. Where on earth did they get all the helicopters from? Those thunder-flashes were echoing all over the position. How many blanks have you got left, Ballard?”
William looked at him as if he were mad. “Err… um… thunder-flashes? Helicopters? Blanks? What attack last night?”
“Do you mean to say you slept through that, Ballad? Now I will have to have you charged with dereliction of duty and sleeping while on duty.”
“Tell me something, Sir: what is on your back and where were you when the attack started?”
“The radio, of course, and I was outside checking the posts.” Realisation hit him that he had not bothered to wake William up to tell him of any attack.
“Then, with respect, how can you charge me for sleeping while on duty when you had told me to sleep, and you were also in charge of the radio? There is one other thing must ask you, Sir. Do you like the thought of being part of a court martial on your record? Because of the charge, I would have no choice but to request one.”
The lieutenant knew that he was in the wrong and that William could not be blamed for not being woken up. “You dare tell this to anyone and I will have your balls, Ballard.”
“Perish the thought, Sir. My lips are sealed. Just forget about it and put it down to experience. Oh, by the way, one other small point, Sir.”
“What’s that, Ballard?”
“I slept like a baby through your time off, as well.”
With a look of what William thought was ‘I will kill you later,’ the lieutenant replied, “Unless there is an emergency or the OC wishes to talk to me, let me sleep.”
William slipped out of the shell-scrape, pulling the radio with him, and sat with his back to the wall. He changed the battery and did the morning radio check, and then he pulled out the ration pack. By this time, Decker, Ron and Howard were a few feet away from him doing the same. As the water was boiling for the coffee, William cleaned his rifle. Although he had not used it, cleaning his weapon in the morning was habit, because a dirty weapon can kill the person using it, or a jam at a critical moment could get them killed.
“I could do with some sleep,” Decker stated.
Then they all started talking about the attack by the make-believe enemy that started in the early hours of the morning. William was asked what he had been doing.
A quick thought, and he replied, “I was running around behind our fearless leader with the radio on my back. I watched him take command of protecting the well from falling into enemy hands while directing the platoon to victory.”
Then a voice came from inside the shell-scrape: “Shut up, Ballard. Your story of fearless bravery is giving me nightmares.”
They were all smiling, as Ron asked, “What’s up with the boss, Spike?”
“He has a headache.”
“I heard that.” They all laughed, but silently so that the officer would not hear them.
It was quickly forgotten, as there were more important things to talk about. There used to be a program on the television in the sixties called Dactari. It was about Africa and wild animal vets and hunters of animals for zoos around the world. There was a lion on the show that had crossed eyes, called Clarence.
Well, the battalion had a driver with almost the same eyes, and he had been nicknamed Clarence. Also, there is a tree in Libya that looks dead but is actually alive. When it rains in the part of the desert where the tree grows, its leaves sprout, open, and die the same day. There are at least thirty signs around one of most famous surviving specimens of this tree, in almost every language you could think of, all saying the same: “This is the only living tree for five hundred miles in any direction.” It was not a big tree, perhaps fifteen feet high and about the same in width. Sure enough, Clarence reversed the Land Rover into it and tilted it forty-five degrees.
There was hell to pay, but luckily, because of the soft sand where it is situated, the roots were not damaged. The Libyans wanted it standing straight once more, and the whole of HQ Company had to carefully dig all the roots out and put it back into its correct position. It had to be done during the night and it took them all night.
The following morning, the platoon was standing in their sections once more, waiting for their fearless leader to lead them off on another hike.
“Where are we going, Spike?” Decker asked.
“I think we’re still looking for the sea, Decker.”
“What do you think the beach is like?”
“We’re on it, Decker. It’s a bit like Blackpool beach, except the tide goes out further.”
Spud butted in, “I wish you two would stop your stupid talk. The more you talk about the sea, the hotter I get.”
“We’ll make good time today, Spud. Bicycle nose is leading us,” William told him.
“Well, I hope he is reading the maps with the little pictures on, or we will end up in Johannesburg. I’m getting out of this army when we get back to the UK.”
Decker and William just laughed.
It was just then that the strangest thing happened, because this small dark cloud appeared above them. To be truthful, William had seen it earlier getting closer. Then, even more remarkably, raindrops fell for a minute or two. William’s fearless leader looked at Spud and said, “Now shut up, Aston. You’ve had a cold morning shower, and you’re beginning to give me the shits.”
It was during this day’s marching that William got cas-evacked (casualty evacuated). The Mycota powder he had been using on his athletes foot was not working and his feet had become a mass of red veins. The battalion doctor looked at them, and his decision was immediate and a chopper was called for. When it arrived, there were two more guys from D Company with the same problem, which at least made William feel a little better. It was not long after that the battalion ended the manoeuvres and they all returned to the UK. William could then get his prickly heat seen to, as well as the athlete’s foot that had then become even more painful.
* * * * *
It was not all manoeuvres. They had a lot of time off, and did weapon training, map reading, and general field craft. They were learning new things every day, and much of it was simply continuing the training they had done at the depot.
A few months after the exercise in Libya, B Company, that was William’s Company, went onto the ranges to do live firing. It was during that activity he made another big mistake.
They all had a go at firing the 84mm anti-tank gun, actually a recoilless rifle called the Carl Gustav and nicknamed the ‘Charlie G’ by the soldiers.
The target was not at a real tank but a small wooden replica placed one hundred yards away on a stick. Of course, the actual anti-tank rounds the weapon fired were far too expensive to allow ordinary soldiers to waste them on target practice. Instead, some bright spark had devised a mechanism that looked and felt like the anti-tank shell and was loaded in the same way, but the mechanism itself did not fire from the weapon and instead contained a single round of ordinary rifle ammunition. Tracer rounds were used, which by a remarkable coincidence, or clever design, followed a trajectory towards the simulated target exactly as a full anti-tank round would have done, and had the added advantage that they left a smoking trail behind them to enable the soldier to see how well he was doing.
William fired ten round, and William achieved ten strikes and felt justifiably proud of himself. Unfortunately for him, this meant that he was immediately assigned to carry the weapon for his platoon. It was heavy, although not quite as heavy as the radio, but it was more awkward to carry.