Thursday, 16 December 2010
Going home on leave was always something to look forward to. My Mum had slowly but surely entered the human race again after the loss of my Dad and had even joined a singles club in Norwich and I would happily pass time taking the piss out of the blokes she bought home for dinner, or who collected her on the way into town. Mum was in her early fifty’s by this time and had discovered verve and energy for life, which had been repressed as she dealt with the dramatic changes the loss of your partner must bring about. Both my brother Richard and I had left home and Julian had become the “Rastafarian about Town” as he had developed a majestic set of dreadlocks over a few years! He resided mainly in his bedroom, playing the bongo drums, at which he became very adept and he became a very talented drummer and percussionist.
He was none the less a trial at times and kept Mum, and my brothers and sister entertained as his smoking habits developed in a more floral direction (!). He also had very green fingers and I recall hearing how my brother Mark had gone to visit my Mum one afternoon and they had taken a walk down her garden. At the very end, Mark found a species of plant that is more commonly grown in warmer climates (or in artificially lit attics and warehouses in Manchester), which produces a valuable cash crop. Mark set about ripping up the plants with gusto and would have been at home demonstrating against Genetically Engineered crops some years later, had the thought entered his head. Julian was very disappointed by this turn of events and took a stand by remaining in his bedroom for some days, appearing as he did to occasionally make a brew (of tea) and then retreat. He was fast friends with a few of the local lads, Michael Walsh and Mick Harrison (Gary’s brother), who was also a drummer.
I was somewhat distanced from the world Julian lived in, but would sit with him in his room and listen to his latest tirade against the establishment (Mum, Mark, Helen, Richard and I) and try to understand what drove his opinions and attitude, but to no real avail. My leave was mainly spent at my sister Helen’s house, spending time with my nieces, Claire and Katie and my brother in law David. David was very healthy, achieved through years of boxing training and he and I would regularly go on runs around the local parks and open spaces. We would also go to the Crome Health Club in Norwich, which had an outdoor trim track with various exercise points, ten press up’s, squat thrusts, pull ups etc. In those days I could run for fun, all day there and back. I was very fit and healthy and David and I would sprint on our runs together, just because we could. David had become a brother to us, he had moved “beyond” brother-in-law. He had changed as well, with responsibility had come a maturity and a work ethic that meant he worked hard for his family and constantly sought improved salary and opportunities. I looked up to David as he was a decent, consistent friend and he adored my sister.
My leave was over and I was headed back to military life and training to become a Combat Engineer and soldier. Just for the record I was joining; 3 Training Regiment, Royal Engineers at Minley Manor, Camberley Surrey. My training party was 82B Ex AT (Apprentice Tradesmen) Party, 3 Troop 55 Squadron. I was there from January to March 1983, phew! Mick Hayes was in my troop, but we were a mixed bag, as members from various other companies’ at Chepstow made up the party. Upon arrival we were met by our training instructors, who we were to find out, had tremendous skills, in the area of dishing out bullshit and orders to clean, scrub, buff and bull anything fixed down or moveable. They (the instructors) were Corporal (Tank) McCann, funny and easy going, but able to sort out the wheat from the chaff, (I was still definitely classed as chaff at this time, whereas Mick was definitely wheat), Corporal Styles, a straightforward type of guy, Lance Corporal Laing (Steve), who was over 6ft tall and loved beasting anyone, anytime (especially late at night), Lance Corporal’s Perrens and Harvey and Staff Sergeant Smith.
The Lance Corporals were assigned platoons, within the troop and once we had settled in to our dorms commenced the daily rituals of early morning wake ups and late night inspections. What I considered hard work, as regards inspections at Chepstow, had nothing on what these guys could dish out. The idea was that they were turning us from soft apprentices who had never known hard work into proper soldiers, who worked as a team and worked hard, very hard. The Royal Engineers are usually amongst the first into any battle, as their skills and equipment ensure that the infantry and other army regiments, as well as the Airforce can do their bit. The Engineers, amongst other things, carry out; Mine Warfare, (clearing and laying mine fields), Demolitions, (bridges and obstacles), Bridge Building and gap crossing, general construction, (using the artisan trades we learnt at Chepstow), provision of clean water, use of hand and power tools, operation of boats, basic bomb disposal and construction of field defences’. In fact all the good stuff.
The problem with Minley Manor and the training area in particular was that in winter, it was a mud bath. No matter where you went, you tracked mud around with you and back into the dorms. Marching as a squad, you would walk through the puddles, (usually a foot deep in the woods), as these were formed by the tracks left by tanks and personnel carriers. The training consisted of learning to use all the equipment and lasted around 9 weeks. Corporal McCann was quite a character and once we had been broken, mentally and physically, of our poor habits ingrained at Chepstow and had begun to act like soldiers instead of kids with trades, he relaxed and we settled into the steady rhythm of learning. Among our number was a lad from one of the Parachute Regiments. 9 Parachute Regiment, Royal Engineers, work alongside the Parachute Regiment and there is also a Commando Engineer Regiment, (59 Commando). This guy had taken his wings, but fancied joining the Royal Engineers rather than staying with the pure Para’s. He was the embodiment of a Para, confident, cocky, sure of himself, unfortunately he was also a bit of a twat.
The Falklands War had ended in victory for Britain, he had never even been there, but felt he was able to comment on the qualities of the Royal Engineers who had served in the war, mainly (in his opinion) the poorer qualities. We were working with McCann and had taken a tea break, when the ex-Para spoke up. Cpl McCann was having none of it and after saying that he had lost a few mates in the war, proceeded to smack him in the mouth. Fair enough I thought and Cpl McCann even helped him up and bought him a tea as well. What I was really looking forward to and enjoyed a great deal, was the disco, in the nearby pub. There I settled into my now well tuned act of chat up lines and offers of walks home, by moon light. It was a long time ago and as we were only there 9 weeks or so, I cannot recall any special names or events, but I did my best to leave on good terms with the local girls and very bad terms with the lads.
More than anything though, was the eagerly awaited flight to Hannover Airport and on to Neinburg Weser, 1st Field Squadron and 21 Engineer Regiment. The day arrived and I passed out of training and went to the airport. Arriving in Hannover, I was met by a soldier from the regiment and a number of us, including Mick Hayes were driven to Neinburg. It was fairly late on, so Mick and I were bunked together overnight in transit accommodation. The NAAFI was open so we went over for some food and a beer, and then crashed until the following morning when we reported to the company office. Whenever you travel anywhere with the army (this was back then anyway), you could request a packed meal. The box was always white and a good foot and a half square. It would contain a really grotty sandwich (cheese or ham), a bag of nondescript crisps by some unknown manufacture, a small piece of fruit cake and a boiled egg.
Why a boiled egg, I cannot say, but you knew who had a packed lunch as they were generally miserable with constipation for a good 4 days afterwards. Mick and I were introduced to the CSM (Company Sergeant Major) and escorted down to the block housing our new squadron. Our Commanding Officer was Major Whittington RE. That’s all we ever knew of him until he left, except that he considered it fun to have us run around in our Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Warfare Suits, (NBC Suits) at every opportunity and that he would call us out on Active Edge (Night exercise) at a whim. He was marched out of camp on a white horse, our squadron symbol and paraded down the main street outside camp, the Berliner Strasse, but I am getting ahead of myself here. Just that I was glad to see the back of the bugger I suppose.
We were taken to our block and up a flight a stairs to our end of the block housing my new comrades. Typical of the army, there are always those who want to make a quick impression on the new guys, which are treated like shit for the first few days anyway. There was the comedian; who will make a joke at your expense, the hard nut; who will show himself to be the hard nut by glaring threateningly and make it clear as to the exact dimensions of his bed space, (cross that line and you are dead), the green brain (so called because they even think in army terms when on leave) etc. The lot I was introduced to included a guy called “Titch” Winder so called due to his lack of height, Ads (Adcock) who I mentioned before as he thought he was Suggs from Madness, Ian Mills, who had a fantastic bushy moustache and Allan Tonner, who I remember as being a decent guy and had better say that, as he reads this. He, Ian and I would spend nights on guard duty writing and singing songs, using the bogs as a studio due to their excellent echo qualities.
Our block was laid out as follows; first and foremost the Squadron Bar was in the Attic, because those with the need to get mashed most nights could roll down stairs and into bed! The wash rooms, laundry, drying rooms and showers were in the centre of each floor with dorms and rooms either end and the stores and troop offices were in the basement. The armoury was in the attic as well, but safely walled off from the bar! The cookhouse was just down from our block, next to a hall and the guardroom was next to that, by the camp entrance. The square separated our block from the other squadron blocks and the NAAFI was opposite the cookhouse. Just outside the camp gates, across the road was a Grosso Market (supermarket) that did a fine line in cheap Liebfraumilch, (1 deutsche mark for a litre about 25p back then). There was also a fast food place just down the road that did a fine half chicken and chips with mayonnaise (Hahnchen mit Pommes unt Mayo, the Germans put mayo on chips way before we thought of it!) as well as Currywurst and bratwurst (bratties) and Bockwurst (bokkies), all mit pommes unt mayo.
We were given a bed space, a locker, a bedside locker, a bed and a mattress and that was it. However, noting the hard nuts words of wisdom, I found that unlike in training, where everyone had exactly the same amount of space, in the “real” army, you got what was left or was to be sacrificed by another squaddie. And so, I lived unable to fully open my locker doors for a few weeks until I became better known and some other unfortunate sap joined our troop and became the centre of attention. What I did notice very quickly was that there were some very attractive German girls, who quite liked the Soldiers. Typical me, you may think, and you'd be right, I was to get very attached to some, not too attached to others and into some very funny situations with most of them. I will stop here as to relate the story of my first foray into downtown Neinburg and a trip to the Weser Bar and the Treff Punkt Bar to drink my first and only “Engineer” requires more space.
Written and Posted by Jonathan Weaver