We were sitting in Major Kemp’s office, a dozen or so Officer Cadets who knew that very shortly they would receive their Commissions having, all but the shouting, passed the Standard Military Course at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Major Kemp held a staff appointment with Personnel Branch 9 at the Ministry of Defence and held our immediate futures in his hand. Today we were going to find out where we would all be posted.
Just over a year before, I had been a Corporal, now I was to be a Second Lieutenant. I had done well at Sandhurst. I had been promoted to Cadet Government, won a Director of Studies Prize and, until confounded by injury, been in the last eight in the running for the Sword of Honour. I had been offered one of only two Commissions the Army Air Corps had on the table for my entry and had turned it down in order to rejoin the Corps which I had served as a soldier and junior noncommissioned officer, the Corps who had recognized my undoubted talent and had sponsored me to Sandhurst. Such performance and outstanding loyalty could only be rewarded.
Naturally we had all already filled out our posting preference forms and submitted them to PB9. I had asked for Germany. I was supremely confident. I knew there was a vacancy for a regimental officer at 3 Base Ammunition Depot. This was the unit nestled within splendid countryside on the border between Germany and Holland just south of Venlo in which I had served three years as an Ammunition Technician prior to Sandhurst. I spoke fluent German, a smattering of Portuguese (half the labourers who had been working for me were part of the Mobile Civilian Labour Group and all from Portugal or those who had fled Angola and Mozambique after independence) and I held a candle for the Colonel’s daughter who, while I had been stationed there, was very nice allowing me to take her out a few times but, since I was only a Corporal at the time, treated me more as a diversion. If I returned with a commission, she would be bound to take me seriously. Failing 3 BAD, I wanted Berlin. I was mature enough to understand the potential folly of sending a young officer back to command men that had only so recently been his drinking buddies. Berlin, though, would be an excellent second best. I was born there, I had family there and a nice house on Heiligen See.
Major Kemp consulted his notes and then started doling out postings.
None of us wanted Donnington. Don’t get me wrong, Shropshire is one of the nicest counties in England but a posting to a Central Ordnance Depot as a newly commissioned young officer would be like a jail sentence so all but one of us breathed a huge sigh of relief when this posting was dispatched with first. We all felt sorry for the poor bugger selected. Hong Kong came up next. I could have coped with Hong Kong but I knew where I was going. The guy that got the posting was a really nice guy so I was pleased for him. Canada came up next. Blimey, that’s a hell of good posting. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Southern Germany, I loved the Canadians. But I was happy with Germany. Gibraltar. Yeah, go and feed the monkeys, I thought. Central Vehicle Depot Ashchurch. Christ! That’s as bad as Donnington! Blackdowne came up next, the Training Battalion and Depot. I knew all about THAT bloody place. Poor sod, posted from one khaki brained training establishment to another. Well, at least he didn’t have far to lug his kit. Sandhurst and Blackdowne were so close together, even a 2nd Lieutenant could afford the taxi fare. Finally, the Germany postings came up. First, 3 BAD, I did not get it. I congratulated my colleague assuring him that he would enjoy his posting. Then Berlin. By now I was sitting on the edge of my comfortable armchair. Major Kemp glanced in my direction. I wanted his babies I loved the man so much. ‘Mr. Leece,’ he said.
It was like something out of the Great Escape. Everyone was looking at me. Steve Leece, who was and still is a great friend, looked devastated. I had nearly been thrown out of Sandhurst for striking a fellow cadet who had been bullying Steve. They all knew how badly I wanted Germany and how protective I had always been of Leecy who couldn’t have been more than a 120lbs sopping wet. What an unlikely pair we were. He went to a very good school. He got into Sandhurst using his brains. It couldn’t have been muscle, he didn’t have any. He came from a very comfortable Jewish background and yet he ended up best mates with a half German uncouth thug. I am convinced he had still been a virgin when I got him laid at that party in London. My grandfather had been on the wrong side during the war but he had still been an Army Officer of the Wehrmacht and was of the old school. I wanted to be able to pull on best bib and tucker and drive down to Baden Baden and show him where his guidance and support had led me. I was devastated. The atmosphere in Major Kemp’s office was electric, I had to say something so, in my best German accent I looked at Leece and said:
‘It looks, after all, you vill see Berlin before I do’
That just left me. All the plum postings I knew were up for grabs had been taken. Now it looked as though I was going to have to take whatever I was given.
Major Kemp looked very uncomfortable. I tried hard to look like the enthusiastic, loyal young officer I had been trained to be but I was fucking pissed off and must have been shooting daggers at him from just above my forced smile.
‘Belize,’ he said.
‘Belize?’ I said, ‘That’s in the Caribbean, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ he confirmed.
‘Golden beaches, palm trees, tequila clear waters, daiquiris and great fishing, Hemmingway territory?’
‘More or less,’ he lied.
I was chuffed to hell. After all, you don’t join the army to hang around in barracks or depots; you want to get your knees brown. I was being paid to go to the Caribbean!
|All this and a pension too!|
The flight from Brize Norton left very early so I was excited as hell as I checked into a B&B close by the evening before. This was all very unusual for me. As a soldier, you moved entirely under the Army movements system. You got your orders along with your train and flight tickets or whatever, were given a destination to report to whereupon you were given a barracks to bunk down in and a mess hall in which to eat. All the time NCO’s in pristine uniforms were shouting at you and ordering you to spread your kit out for inspection. As an officer, you just pitched up in the morning knowing you could claim expenses in the form of the Nightly Rate of Subsistence Allowance, NRSA, and travel costs. It was all terribly civilized.
I was excited to see Brize Norton. Blimey it was a well-run airport. Everything was immaculate. The RAF staff would knock any commercial airline employee into a cocked hat they were so efficient and friendly. Granted they had the advantage of quite a few Snowdrops, the RAF Police on standby to quickly deal with difficult ‘customers’ but overall, passing through Brize Norton as a passenger was not only a painless experience, it was enjoyable. After all, we were going somewhere exciting. The RAF, as the most junior service, has always been rather more relaxed and civilized. I guess it’s bloody hard to concentrate on flying a plane with a poker shoved up your arse but us Brown Jobs were used to such a shafting. Wasn’t I happily about to travel thousands of miles East instead of a few hundred miles West to Germany?
The first thing I noticed boarding the VC-10 was that all the seats were facing the wrong way round. The Vickers Armstrong VC-10 was a high performance passenger aircraft which entered service in 1962, enjoyed 16 civilian operators and was finally retired by the Royal Air Force only two months ago on the 20th September 2013. It was ideal for hot and high performance from shorter runways and still, to this day, holds the record for the fastest London to New York crossing for a sub-sonic airliner. In all its 51 years of service, only 140 passengers and crew have died on VC-10’s and those aircraft were being operated and flown by Africans who are almost guaranteed to fuck up. If you don’t believe me, give any one of them a 10mm Chrome Vanadium, guaranteed for life spanner, ask them to undo a bolt and see how long it lasts. We are only talking about the spanner here, not the expensive equipment you hope will be serviced with it.
The Nigerian operator did a good job of killing all their clients and employees the pilots having fucked up a landing at Lagos due to the incompetence one would expect from pilots who had eschewed training in favour of bribing a member of a CAA recognized authority for their licence, But 43 of the passengers of the East African Airways flight that crashed on take-off in Addis walked away, no doubt because of rearward facing seats. The cause of that accident was due to the operator operating the aircraft outside its high altitude load limits. Addis Ababa is quite high on top of a plateau. The aircraft was just too heavy to take off in such a hot, thin atmosphere.
Considering that the last time a VC-10 had crashed was twelve years before in 1972 and the one I was climbing onto was maintained by the RAF, I had no fear of flying. Besides, you can always trust people in uniform especially the delightful WRAF girl showing me to my seat. Women’s Royal Army Corps girls (WRAC’s) were generally hairy beasts of burden by comparison apart from that gorgeous blonde I bumped into years later when I had to give a lecture at Blackdowne but, as an officer with his fingers already once burnt, was not allowed to tuck into.
I was excited as we flew over the Irish Sea and then Ireland. My lasting recollection of Northern Ireland, apart from being blown up and spending time in the Military wing of Musgrave Park Hospital recovering was when an RUC patrol had been ambushed by a command detonated IED and we had been called in to clear the scene before the bodies could be retrieved. These things take time and there was this little RUC copper on duty next to our bomb wagon which was fully equipped with the latest technology. If we were on the move and transmitting, our flexible antennas could strip the red paint off a bus. We were using all that power to brew tea in what Americans would call a War Zone and we would call a bit of a misunderstanding.
She was gorgeous in her tight fitting green cotton uniform. I was wearing a flak jacket and armed to the teeth. She had just lost two of her colleagues, possibly friends, blown to bits in a terrorist attack. Her hair was ginger, ill-concealed beneath her bonnet. Of course her skin would be pale, she was in shock but I could not help notice her heaving breasts and flashing green eyes.
As opening lines under such circumstances go, especially with a red haired Celt and no matter how innocent it sounds, I would urge you to avoid, ‘Fancy a cup of tea love?’