One year, I car shared with 3 others from my Squadron and we drove across Germany and down to Zeebrugge in Belgium. The journey was uneventful until we arrived at the port, where I realised I had left my ID card back in Neinburg. All I had was my Railcard, so decided to chance it and see if I could get across using that, as it had my picture on it. We drove up to the Ferry entrance way and were asked for passports, whereupon my mates brandished theirs and I feebly passed across my Railcard. The immigration officer looked at me and asked where my ID card was, I told him, and he asked me out of the car. We went into the little office and he asked me a few questions about why I had left it back in camp, (by mistake!), why I was travelling (going on leave!) and when I was returning (1 weeks time). He said he’d let me travel, but could not promise that the UK Immigration people would let me in.
I took a chance and we drove onto the ferry. We arrived at Dover and drove off the ferry into Immigration, where I again produced my Railcard. The guy on duty said fine, through you go and that was it. I was home again. Andy Hill, the guy whose car we travelled in, lived just outside Norwich and we dropped the others off along the way until we reached Hethersett, his village, which is 5 miles away from my mum’s house. The cheapskate dropped me off on the road outside his village and I had to hitch the last 5 miles! Back then, a short haircut and an Army kitbag more or less guaranteed a lift within minutes and so it proved. I was in my mum’s house, eating dinner and relaying my trip to her. Julian had by now moved out and was living in a squat, quarter of a mile away from home, with his girlfriend. So I had my old bedroom and knocked about with mates who I met in Norwich.
Around this time 1983/1984, Wham! were the big thing and I was a big fan, so much so that I would style myself (dress wise not hair wise, well not yet anyway), on George Michael. I met a few people who remarked that I looked not too dissimilar to George, which at the time, given his then heterosexual nature, felt pretty cool and I paraded around in cut-off jeans, white t-shirts or shirts and espadrilles (very Club Tropicana), whenever the weather allowed. Back in Germany, my army colleagues evidently took this style of dress, to mean that I was gay and Mick Hayes (good guy, good laugh) would spend hours coming up with new and amusing ways of addressing me, examples being; Lemon Meringue Benty Piece/Boy, Bender, Fruit Pie Bendy Boy, Knob Jockey etc.
The banter was light hearted and given my obvious and well publicised experiences with the local and not so local girls, I was never in danger of being pilloried in a nasty way. Unlike for instance a couple of guys, one in our squadron, the other in 4 Field Squadron, who were caught, by the Guard Patrol, one buried into the other. The excuse of, “I slipped and fell on him”, met deaf ears and they were both installed in cells in the guardroom, subsequently charged, fined, imprisoned and dishonourably discharged from the Army.
My leave was coming to an end and I met up with Andy and we drove back to Dover. My Uncle Derek (Dad’s brother) at this time worked for Townsend –Thoresen the Ferry Company and my cunning plan, to be allowed to travel without “ze correct papers”, involved asking him to get involved with the higher echelons at Dover and allow me to travel. Turned out he was the head of training and had no swing whatsoever. But, not knowing this, I had the lads drop me outside the entrance to the immigration room and they carried on with my gear in the car and got onto the ferry. I then begged immigration to let me travel, called Uncle Derek, who as we now know, could not help and with time running out got the immigration men to let me get on the ferry.
The problem was that the ferry was 5 minutes away if I ran like the wind and as I set off could see the ferry closing up. When I was 14-15 years old I loved cross country and the army had improved my stamina quite a lot, but, when your goal starts to move away from you and you realise that you may not make it, well, my guts turned to water. I ran across the roads in the ferry terminal and started up the ramp towards the ferry. The ramp led into the car deck, but the ropes had been dropped and she was actually inching away from the dock. My mates stood as close to the edge as possible and I ran as fast as I could and leapt across clear water landing in a heap on the car deck. I had only just made it and the leap had been a good distance, one that if I had had a minute to consider it, I would probably not have tried. The crew and my mates lead a round of applause as I lay in a jellied heap on the deck panting for air.
Ironically, once we docked in Belgium, we were waved through and travelled without further problems all the way back to Neinburg. I was due to go back to the UK again for my Craft Operators course, before my tour of duty in the Falkland Islands and headed back, this time by plane as it was a course, a few months later. At Chatham they bunked me in a dorm for 10 men, on my own, cool I thought, until I remembered I had no alarm clock and being a crap at waking up, had to trek off to the NAAFI to buy one. My course (Craft Op Specialist) was an 8 week course run at Chatham and included amongst others, Ricky Evans the Welsh Rugby Union Player (then in my squadron and then Corporal Evans) who went onto win 19 international caps. He is now a Buddhist and fire-fighter. There were also 3 Ghurkhas and a selection of other Sappers from across the regiment’s squadrons.
The course taught us how to use every craft the Royal Engineers had at their disposal, from small outboards right up to the Combat Support Boat itself. A few facts on the boat; it is powered by twin Sabre Marine 212 Turbo Charged Diesel engines, that powered twin Dowty two stage Hydro Jets, giving a top speed of over 30mph when fully loaded (45mph+ unloaded) and could stop dead in the water in its own length from top speed, if the driver knew what he was doing. Highlight of the course was a cabbie out along the Medway across the Thames Reach to Southend Pier and back.
The seas were fairly rough but we made it there and back, everyone wanting to drive the thing. Put it this way, it was a cool bit of kit. Because the craft had these hydro jet engines, it could turn on it own axis and could be controlled with the sticks that angled the jets instead of the wheel. Delicate touches on the throttles and jets achieved really neat results. One test (pass or you were RTU – returned to Unit) was to edge the craft up to a large buoy, leave the cab, walk around the front and step off the boat and onto the buoy without the boat leaving you stranded. Course finished it was back to Germany for a few months before our move to Port Stanley.
Once back at camp, my compatriots all rushed to tell me that Mark (my best friend you’ll remember) had been seeing Heidi, and they revelled in telling me that he had been seeing her in a Biblical fashion, if you will. I know they expected me to get all Rambo about it; they wanted to see me charge across the camp, launch into Mark and sort it out. Problem for them was that I was no more annoyed than had I stubbed my toe. I did like Heidi a great deal, but I was not about to get out of sorts with my best friend, given that I had not written or called her whilst away and that I had been shagging a girl in the Women’s Royal Army Corp (WRAC’s) whilst at Chatham, who was a Corporal called Tina.
Tina went onto write to me weekly whilst I was in the Falklands, with me getting all excited about seeing her when I got back to the northern hemisphere, only to get a Dear John (you are ditched) letter, a week before we travelled back. Probably for the best, but the letters were rather fruity to say the least, as were the pictures she posted in them, which really pissed of the green brains (blokes who bleed green blood they are so army), as they only got letters from their mums and dads, if they were lucky. Heidi and i had drifted apart and we started seeing other people, Mark met another girl to and that was that.
Our tour (posting) to the Falklands started somewhat boringly, a very early wake up, to clamber onto trucks for a trip to the airport and a flight to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. We got off that plane and onto a DC10, for another flight to the Ascension Islands in the mid Atlantic and then a helicopter transfer from the island and onto the MV Keren. Some interesting points about that journey are; we had to refuel the DC10 in Dakar Airport, Senegal. If you wanted to smoke (I did), you had to get off the plane and sit alongside the runway, about 200 metres from the plane. It was the middle of the night and there was not a light anywhere as I trudged down the covered steps onto the tarmac. I was met by the blackest face I have ever seen (not unusual for Africa). All I could make out were the whites of his eyes and his big whiter than white smiling teeth as he welcomed us to Senegal and directed us across to the smoking area. Please don’t take that to mean I am racist, as I am as far from racist as it’s possible to be, just relating the story.
We sat and smoked, I lay back, my head against my backpack and I studied the stars. I awoke to see the last of my “mates” skipping up the steps onto the plane. The bastards had left me there, hoping I would not wake up until the DC10 thundered above my head. I jumped up and sprinted onto the plane, all of them jeering me as I walked down to my seat. We took off and flew onwards to Ascension, which is basically a runway on a rock. We were barely on land for five minutes before being uplifted by Sea King across to the Keren.
The MV Keren was an ex-Sealink car ferry called “HMS St Edmunds”, a civilian ship commissioned as the Military Vessel Keren after much wrangling with the Seaman’s Union and some skulduggery by the Royal Navy. She sailed down to Ascension and her job was to ferry troops from Ascension to Port Stanley (start of tour) and back to Ascension (end of tour). The problem with the Keren was that she was a North Sea Ferry, not really built for the high rollers of the Atlantic and therefore, not the most comfortable vessel to take to the high seas in. I have a good stomach for sailing, but others amongst our party did not and the slightest choppy wave would find the decks heaving (literally) with the stomach contents of fellow travellers.
The Keren had a flat keel, so that she did not “cut” through waves, but went up them and slammed down the other side. The “cinema and bar” were located as far forward as possible, when she went up a wave, you grabbed your beer, as when she slammed down the other side, the whole ship vibrated, sending anything not nailed down flying. The highlight of the trip down south was when I got up one morning really early and wandered up to the deck near the hastily installed helicopter platform. The ships tended to carry civilians of all descriptions as well, civil servants, TV crews, wildlife experts etc. I bumped into this guy who was travelling to the Falklands to study the wildlife population and the affects the war had had on it. We stood chatting, looking out to sea, when this huge whale breached some 100 metres away from the ship. The animal launched out of the ocean to some half of its body length and slapped back down in a spectacular show of strength and beauty. It continued to do this for some time, with the wildlife guy next to me, hastily taking pictures for all he was worth.
The ship docked in Stanley harbour (shallow hull meant it could enter quite safely) and we traipsed down the gangway to be met by a line up of soldiers preparing to get on board. The jeers and name calling they gave, quickly confirmed to us that this was not to be the choicest of postings, 6 months and 10,000 miles away from home. The time I was to spend there was to be filled with adventure, boredom, pain, hilarity, anger and sheer frustration. And its story is coming your way in the next blog!