Monday, 23 December 2013

Officers are like Lighthouses in the Desert...

Very bright but fuck all use.

What was the other thing the lads used to say?  Oh yes.  There is nothing more dangerous than an officer with a map.

I took exception to that.  Not the lighthouse bit.  I roared with laughter when I first saw that piece of witty graffiti scrawled on the walls of the butts of the Wrekin Ranges in Shropshire.  No, what pissed me off was that when it came to overland navigation using just a map and compass, I was brilliant and I still am.  I was pretty good at sea too.  After an overnight passage through an October gale in the Baltic I passed the buoy marking the entrance to the Kieler Bucht within a cable's length not having altered course since I laid it off Lyø Light in Denmark.  Don't forget, in those days once you were out of sight of landmarks, it was dead reckoning, we didn't have satnav. 

I am by no means the sharpest tool in the box but navigation was just something I could do.  When I went on my first cross country solo from Blackbushe in Surrey I reached Shoreham near Brighton in blazing sunshine and clear skies with no problems.  Then I had to fly to Thruxton and the weather closed in.  I admit, I wasted a bit of time dogging out over the English Channel trying to find out just what an Aerobat could do.  I mean, if someone lets you loose in an aerobatic rated ‘plane, you just have to give it a bit of stick. 

I could see bugger all out of the cockpit.  I am supposed to be flying VFR, visual flight rules.  I couldn't see a blasted thing.  Now I could have tried to climb above the weather (and into controlled airspace) but being on top of the clouds is definitely not VFR.  Besides, I knew my sphincter would suck up the seat cushion as I descended through the clouds again towards Thruxton.

There is no real skill to navigation.  It is 10% basic geometry and 90% confidence.  If you believe in yourself, you will get there.  Lose faith and change your mind halfway, you get lost.  It is simple as that.  The only way I could see the ground, and any useful landmarks, was by tipping the wing down and glancing at what was immediately below me to try to make head or tail of the roads, rivers and towns that all looked the same but unlike anything on my navigational charts.  I could have descended but I was extremely conscious that southern England does have a few hills and I really did not want the last entry in my log book to read, with the brevity the Air Accident and Investigation Board are famous for, 'Fatal Crash. Controlled Flight into Terrain. Pilot Error'.  So I maintained altitude, corrected for drift and pressed on.  Don't forget, for a pilot, altitude above you is of no use whatsoever.  With less than fifteen hours total flying time I was new to the game but I had already figured that one out.  I was just a tadge concerned why, despite my best efforts sawing on the controls, the vertical speed indicator needle was flashing up and down.  I really was trying hard to fly straight and level but it was jolly windy outside.  I couldn't see a bloody thing except grey streaming rain and I was starting to feel like a very small boy who had somehow managed to pinch and steer his Father's car onto a motorway and now desperately wanted to go home so the nightmare would end.

Flying at exactly 120 knots IAS I knew what time I expected to be over Thruxton.  I also knew that if I continued on my current heading beyond Thruxton, I would fly into the controlled airspace of RAF Odiham and, like as not, collide with a novice helicopter pilot similarly bewildered by the weather so at the calculated moment of my arrival over Thruxton, still blinded by cloud and rain, I stuck the aircraft onto its wingtip and executed a graceful but very tight arc to port.  Looking down out of my side window I could see, through the tempestuous murk, not the receding coast of Wales, its beautiful hills and beaches littered with shivering day trippers, the smoldering wreckage of dead helicopters and beyond, the Irish Sea in which I would no doubt drown when I ran out of fuel and crashed into it, but Thruxton in all its glory laid out below me.  An airfield surrounded by a race track on which no less than Sir Stirling Moss had earned his spurs. Had I been more than half a mile either side of track, I would have missed it.  I called Thruxton tower to secure permission to join the circuit before descending through nature's soup, turning short finals and dumping one perfectly serviceable light aircraft and its terrified pilot onto the rich, fertile and terribly moist soil of Hampshire.

In Belize, formerly British Honduras, these navigational skills were put to good, if very boring use.  In those days Belize had only three roads; the Northern Highway, the Western Highway and the Southern or ‘Hummingbird’ Highway so you would have to be working overtime to get lost while in charge of a vehicle.  The jungle was altogether a different matter.  It was not unheard of for tourists to wander into the jungle and spend the next few days and nights trying desperately to find their way back to a campsite that during their ordeal, they were never more than a few hundred yards away from. 

Guatemala never recognized Belize’s sovereignty claiming instead that it was part of its own territory.  Their argument has some historical merit but since when have facts perturbed Britain’s colonial ambitions?  As a British Protectorate with a parliamentary democracy and the Queen as head of state, Belize hosted British Forces the purpose of whom, when not either jungle training or taking full advantage of the many attractions the country had to offer, were to leave indelible in the minds of Guatemalan leaders the impression that Britain was prepared to do to any invading forces of theirs what Britain did to invading Argentinians. One of the ways we did so was by patrolling the border between the two countries.  There is no physical border, no fence, it is just a line on a map drawn through what on the ground is thick jungle.  Good navigation skills were extremely important if we were to avoid running into our Guatemalan counterparts and get into an increasingly heated argument about which group of armed-to-the-teeth soldiers were on the wrong side of the border.  Encounters with Guatemalan troops were, however, extremely rare and we spent most of our time chasing off Chiclero Indians who had snuck across the border to illegally tap the Chicle tree for the sap used in chewing gum.  Personally I could not see the harm and likened the situation to a man whose trees were groaning with more fruit than he could ever use chasing off any neighbor who dared to sneak onto his property and pluck a few.

One of my jobs as a Supernumerary Officer in Belize was to bring together all the cooks, bottle washers, mechanics, storemen and shiny arses (clerks) together and train them into a force capable of defending the one and only international airport and our camp.  Every six months we all had a jolly good exercise.  The first one was, and I took it personally, an absolute disaster.  All I had done was dust off the plans for defending the camp, read and then implement them.  On the first night F Company (a mixture of SAS and SBS special forces) who were acting as ‘enemy’, infiltrated the camp and notionally blew up HQ, Comcen, the fuel dump, the stores, the workshops, even the bloody cookhouse!  Not only would the real life outcome have been a disaster for the operational effectiveness of HQ British Forces Belize, it was a disaster for morale.  None of the troops assigned to Defence Company believed they stood a chance so just didn’t bother.  Even the OC Defence Company, a Major, had decided Airport Camp was basically impossible to defend.

So for the next exercise I threw the rule book away.  According to the rules contained within the plans, defence of the camp relied on the ring of manned sangars surrounding it, all with interlocking arcs of fire.  The ground was too marshy to dig trenches so these things were built instead.  They made them big and the walls thick.  They were basically pill boxes made out of heaped up soil and sandbags and they stuck out a mile.  The camp had to be drained so there were ditches crisscrossing the whole site, countless highways for infiltrators.  The perimeter was, shall we say, a tadge porous.

With a 120 very bored and demoralized men there was no way I could defend a perimeter several miles in length.  As far as I could see, Defence Company was little more than a static guard force with no reserve.  I agree, if it ever got to us having to defend the camp, something had gone badly wrong with the bigger picture but I just hated the attitude prevalent in HQ that we were just a tick in the box.  I know the troops I had at my disposal could hardly be considered crack infantry but I was ex Light Infantry and knew instinctively how effective coordinated highly mobile units could be, especially if they had the element of surprise on their side.  If, as a special forces saboteur, you are busy surreptitiously planting a demolition device and look up to see a guy pointing a rifle at you, you don’t ask him how well trained he is.  You just take it as read that if he squeezes the trigger, it’s going to hurt.

As an ex ranker I knew all about the misery of badly devised exercises, watching officers twatting about in Landrovers with upside down maps wondering why they couldn’t locate A Company’s position while I stood my post soaked through to the skin and freezing guarding a notional ammunition dump on the Luneburger Heide wondering, after twelve hours, when someone would come to relieve me, or even just feed me.  As an aside to all ex-servicemen out there, have you ever noticed that when you were standing that lone guard post in the middle of nowhere, no one ever passed by but, with compo rations churning your guts and unable to hang on any longer, as soon as you were squatting behind a bush with your keks around your ankles having a much needed dump, that’s when the Orderly Officer pulled up and accused you of abandoning your post?

If I did not have the resources to stop the enemy getting in, I could have a bloody good go at catching them in the act and give the lads not only a good exercise, but a bit of fun as well.

I rocked up to my boss’ office.
‘I want to try something different for the upcoming defence exercise,’ I told him after we had exchanged military courtesies, ‘may I have your permission to carry on?’
‘You really don’t want any major fuck ups at your stage of your career, Mr. Gowans,’ he said before dismissing me.

I took that as a ‘yes’.  Honestly, the confidence of your boss can be so inspiring.  I was chuffed to fuck as I gathered the troops together the night before the exercise was due to start.
‘Gentlemen!’ I started as I stalked between the two ends of the bar in a Nissen hut converted into a drinking hole for the members of the Force Ordnance Company wittily christened the FOCInn Belize.  Work it out for yourselves, not every soldier liked being stationed in the jungle.  Anyway, I had been mightily impressed by Richard Fox’s performance in a Bridge Too Far so knew just how to carry myself, although I was aware that suggesting this forthcoming exercise might be something the assembled would relate as a heroic tale to their grandchildren would be a Comparison Too Far.  I was just glad they’d all turned up.

‘Sometime during the night,’ I announced, ‘in the early hours of the morning, the alarm will go off and stand to will be announced!’
A hand shot up in the audience.

‘Yes, Corporal Callaghan?’
‘Sir, we’ve done this loads of times before.  This is our last chance…’ (I was thrilled!  Commitment to get it right this time! I made a note of young Callaghan.  With that kind of enthusiasm I would see him promoted to the Sergeant’s Mess in no time) ‘…to get pissed so can we open the bar now, please?’ he finished.

‘Callaghan!’ growled the Force Ordnance Warrant Officer in warning.  Now I could see why the wise old FOWO had suggested that if I really wanted to get the troops together the night before an exercise, rather than call them to parade I should select the FOCInn as a more informal venue.
‘Righto, Chaps,’ I said taking a deep breath.  The FOWO’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling fans as he wondered if I really had just addressed hairy arsed squaddies as 'Chaps'.  ‘We’re going to do it different this time.  For a start you are not going to spend the next few days sitting in Sangars.’  There was a stunned silence interrupted only by the squeaking of the spinning ceiling fans.  ‘The bar will open in ten minutes time, as soon as I have finished this briefing.  Corporal Callaghan will buy me the first pint to make up for his impertinence,’ a ripple of laughter. ‘FOWO, I’d be pleased if you nominated someone to ensure it closes again at 22.30.  That gives you all two hours drinking time. Gentlemen, don’t get pissed.  I will jail anyone who fails to turn out in good order at stand to…’ I could see eyes light up, a comfortable cell rather than shitty exercise conditions, ‘…AFTER the exercise.  As soon as the bar closes I want you all to get your kit and move it to the stores round the back of the guard room.’  There was a discreet cough from the FOWO.

‘Yes Mr. Fowler?’

‘Those stores belong to the Military Police, Sir.’
‘They do indeed!’ I said.  I hated the Military Police but now was not the time to go into that, ‘but it is an empty shed ideally located for what I have in mind.’  He looked less than convinced so I continued.  ‘Mr. Fowler, tell me, as FOWO doesn’t that make you, along with the RSM, the most senior Warrant Officers on the camp?’

‘Yes Mr. Gowans.’  He was being formal now that I was ruffling his feathers.  Calling me Mr. was reminding me that I was only a  Second Lieutenant so he had a choice of his form of address.  Until I got Captain, I was a Mr. as well.  Not a professional officer, just a Gentleman Officer.  Touché Mr. Fowler.
‘As Acting Defence Company Commander,’ the real Defence Company Commander being busy dining in the Mess before getting his head down so absent from these proceedings, ‘do I not have the right to requisition whatever available assets I need to defend the camp?’

‘You do, Mr. Gowans.’
‘If the Provost Sergeant Major complains, Mr. Fowler, is there a polite way you can tell him to wind his neck in because we WILL be billeting our men there.  I am not going to allow our blokes to spend the next few days rotting uselessly in sangars while his men who, you might respectfully remind the Provost Sergeant Major, for the duration of this exercise come under our command, sleep in the comfort of their own empty cells?’

‘I can do that, Sir!’ he said humour restored.  No soldier who does a real job of serving his country likes anyone who joins up only to rat on his mates.  You want to be a copper?  Join the Old Bill.  We all hated the Military Police whose function in wartime appears to be directing traffic and shooting those suffering from shell shock and in peacetime just making everyone’s life a misery.  They are the same the world over.  They must all be pressed out of the same shitty mold.  I once dragged a soldier onto a plane, minus the foot that had been blown off by a landmine and when we got to the other end, the Military Police refused to let him pass the last mile or so to definite medical care because the bleeding body barely hanging on to its life had lost not only its lower limb but its documents as well.  Fortunately the rest of us were all armed to the teeth so were quickly granted a special dispensation.  I have been on the receiving end of many Glasgow kisses but the one planted on this particular Monkey in his smart, well pressed uniform by the wounded soldier’s mate was pretty spectacular.

So why did I leave it so late to brief the troops?  Simple really.  I had a deception plan in mind.  I knew none of my fellow officers would blow it because I had not told them and besides, they were all busy getting smashed in the Mess.  Mr. Fowler didn’t get to be one of the most senior Warrant Officers in the British Army without being professional.  He was intrigued too and I could trust him to ensure his Senior Non Commissioned Officers would toe the line until the balloon went up.  It was imperative ‘F’ Company did not know what I was up to.
For weeks beforehand, I had been surveying the camp defences.  In my opinion, there was no way I could make them secure.  I went to the Adjutant to make my report and ask for more resources.  He and I got on really well together.  After all, wasn’t it his responsibility to licence the whore houses British servicemen could use and hadn’t he taken a shine to me and let me tag along on one of his inspection trips and got me laid with an almond eyed mestiza for free while he discussed a few things with the Club owner?  As an aside, years later, after he retired from the Army, I passed by his cottage in Suffolk and was mightily impressed.  I had never seen a ride on lawn mower before or a lawn big enough to warrant one let alone a garden pond that size.  I decided there and then that Army Officer’s pensions weren’t just gold plated, they were solid platinum studded with diamonds.

‘Forget it’, he said.  ‘You know the score.  F Company get in, blow everything up and that’s it… End Ex’
End of Exercise.  Yes, I knew the score.  Bugger around hundreds of servicemen for no real aim.  Even F Company weren’t impressed.  It was just too easy for them, no real challenge but it wasn’t their job to train us, just to give us a taste of where we were going wrong.  F Company were pretty damn good.  Just as I did, they knew the camp defence exercise was on the cards so they were out there deciding just where they would come in to wreak maximum havoc. 

The British Army tends to knock off at about five o’clock so the troops can get cleaned up and hit the cookhouse.  Officers also knock off about then, not to rush to their laden plates but to sink a few G& T’s in the bar before changing for a dinner that is generally served a couple of hours later.

So days before the exercise was due to start, I was lying in a drainage ditch watching F Company test my defences.  I quickly realized that in broad daylight, you could not beat the Mark I eyeball; movement would give your position away.  At night, a starlight scope was the bee’s knees.  Any movement would also give your position away.  It was the hour in-between that interested me, the period when eyes could no longer see clearly and electronic devices remained overwhelmed by the brightness of the setting sun.  If I could not see them, in all probability, so long as I moved carefully, they could not see me either.  This gave me a degree of control over what they could and couldn’t see.  I was just pissed off that this window of opportunity coincided exactly with mosquitoes, and of course, sundowners in the Mess but I was on a bit of a mission
During the day I overtly improved the defences in certain areas.  I had lads pouring flaming buckets of petrol over the weeds growing through the barb wire perimeter fence to improve visibility beyond.  We tidied up the sangars.  We did everything we were expected to do in accordance with the rules.  At sunrise and sunset though, I was crawling up drainage ditches and other weak points to plant punji sticks and set trip flares (notional Claymore Mines), anything that would ruin F Coy’s day, or night and do it without being seen.  Don’t forget that while for us the object was to defend our own airfield, for F Company they were notionally attacking and disrupting a Guatemalan Air Force Base deep inside enemy territory.  If they were taking it seriously, and they take everything they do seriously, their exercise started days ago with them infiltrating the jungle to within yards of our perimeter fence to set up observation posts.

Four in the morning the balloon went up.
(to be continued...)


  1. And the suspense is killing me...


  2. I am looking forward to the next episode. "It's the way you tell 'em!" This account gives readers an honest and articulate insider's view of military life and it has real energy - linked to your infectious zest for life. A great read.

  3. Norm, YP, thanks!

    I have just finished the next ten pages (amazing what you can achieve when sober for a change), I can post them now if you want. Or should I leave it a few days?

  4. Don't wait too many days, please. I am so un-military minded, but this is exciting. I can't wait for more.

  5. Replies
    1. I'm not sure what not being able to find your shadow means, sorry!

  6. Post! Post! Post!


  7. Next installment, please! Any time you're ready, sir.

  8. I love it when you write sober... write more, please...

    1. Some of my best stuff was written when I was smashed!

  9. Put it up! Put it up!

  10. 'To be continued'.... as soon as possible. My maps are usually printed upside-down.

  11. Keep the stories coming.. good writing. Curious to know, did you finally get your PPL ticket? I can relate to the "VFR on top of the clouds" which over here in colonies is actually allowed.

    1. Yes I did but it time expired a few years after I left Belize which was the last place I did any flying.

  12. I think when your toe finally finishes you off I'm going to publish all your work off the internet and make a fortune!

    1. Sadly for you, my toe has healed up nicely and I am off the danger list!


Please feel free to comment, good or bad. I will allow anything that isn't truly offensive to any other commentator. Me? You can slag me without mercy but try and be witty while you are about it.