Part Three: Chapter 2 – Radio Check

 

Thursday 13th June 1974

I went out to Eglinton Ranges with a handful of other guys and two range qualified NCO’s as our officials. One of our officials was Sgt Morrison from Comms Troop. It was the smallest range detail I had ever seen – less than 12 people.

We fired the 9mm pistol, the SLR, SMG, and Greener Gun. I had no issues with any of the shooting practices, and I impressed with my firing of the pistol and rifle.

Sgt Morrison said, “I’m pleased to see you’re handy with the 9mm, young Faulkner. You’ll be carrying one of those often.”

“Thank you, Sarge.” The Troop Staffy would find out when he queried how the range day had progressed.

It may have been the intimacy of so few people or the chance to fire such a variety of weapons in one session, but it was a great day out, practising on an area a few hundred metres inland from the estuary of the River Foyle.

*

Monday 17th June 1974

Since arriving in the troop, I had taken the precaution of spending half an hour in the Radio Room with each operator I’d seen on shift. I’d seen four different men on the task and all of them had their individual way of dealing with the job. Like anything, some appeared more competent than others.

My first session on the Radio Room shift would determine whether I could back up my boast of being capable at one of our primary roles. The Radio Room rota involved four operators, organised into shifts of two days working, followed by two days off.

I had an early breakfast and reported half an hour early for my first shift. I sat on a stool nearby and observed Taff Kerrigan, the off-going operator. He’d previously told me he’d stay with me for the duration of my first four-hour session. It looked daunting at first, but I knew I was in good hands. Taff was reputed to be the best operator in the troop when it came to Radio Room. The job required organisational skills, and his showed.

At 07:55, Taff lined up the four radio logs and handed me the pencil. I signed on to each log. After I’d signed on, Taff signed off shift. In this way, there was never a time without a person taking responsibility.

“You’re all set now mate,” Taff said. “Would you like me to carry on a while longer, or do you want to sit in the hot seat?”

“I’d like to get straight into it,” I said. “I’d appreciate it if you kept an eye on me for an hour.”

“I’ll be happy to hang about for the full shift.”

“No mate,” I said. “You’ve done eight hours. I’m not having you sit there all morning.” We swapped seats. I got settled into the swivel chair behind the console, and Taff climbed onto the high stool I’d been using.

I spread my four radio logs in line on the table and placed the individual handsets on them to help me get accustomed to the different networks. I checked the clock and made my first collective call at 08:00.

“Hullo Charlie Charlie One, this is Zero Charlie … Radio Check, over.”

I received responses from each of the five infantry control rooms on the main network and responded with the confirmation. “Zero Charlie … okay, out.”

I entered the details in the appropriate log. I placed my pencil on the desk, and my first incoming call occurred.

“Hullo Zero Charlie, this is One Four, vehicle check, over.”

“Zero Charlie, send, over,” I said and lifted my pencil. I held it over the radio log.

Taff chuckled. “And … off we go ….”

I took the details, read them back, and used a different radio to contact the DVLA in Coleraine. I passed on the details, logged my call, and put my pencil down – for two minutes.

Apart from heading to the small ante-room to make a brew, Taff was content to sit and monitor my progress. When the airwaves were quiet, I received the occasional handy tip, and I would be using most, if not all of them.

Taff stayed with me until 10:00. By the time I signed off from my first shift at 12:00, I felt as if I’d been performing a physical task all morning, but I was looking forward to my next shift.

*

My second shift started at 16:00, but I was in the Radio Room at 15:45. I wanted to be up to speed on anything which might be underway before, or during the changeover. Jeff Walker, better known as JW, was the off-going operator and he was pleased to see me. The afternoon shift had been quiet. JW was looking forward to getting away for a bite to eat and some shuteye. He’d be back to relieve me at midnight to perform the ‘dogwatch’ shift – midnight until 08:00hrs.

JW said, “I’ll get back in time for us to have a brew together before the handover. Have a good one mate.”

“Thanks, mate,” I said. “Enjoy your break.” The main door closed behind him, and I heard a noise in the ante-room. The door on the other side of the small room led into the Troop offices. I turned to see the Troop Staffy standing with a brew.

“Hi Faulkner,” he said. “Is this your first solo?”

“Yes Staff, but I’ve got it covered.”

“Good lad.” He nodded, turned, and headed back to his office.

I’d already made the hourly collective call at precisely 16:00 as JW left. I looked around my workspace and arranged everything for my eight-hour stint.

On the wide window ledge to my left were the external and internal telephones.  To my front was the main console; a locally manufactured hutch-style unit built onto a large desk. The console ran along the four-foot length of the desk. An intercom appeared on the left where the unit touched the wall. Hanging from equally spaced brackets to my front were four radio handsets. On the desk were the radio logbooks.

I checked the equipment from left to right and rearranged the positions of the two phones. I’d noted the phone with outside line was used more often, so I wanted it closer to hand. I had observed others who liked to slide around on the swivel chair, but I preferred to have everything within arm’s reach. I was in control, but not comfortable … yet.

The handsets were hanging on brackets in front of me, but cable remotely connected them to radio sets situated against the two main walls of the room. I got up and made a check to ensure all radios were on the correct frequency and the tuning dials locked.

Radio logs must be completed in pencil, and for this shift, I came prepared. I had a decent pencil, sharpened at both ends. From my drawing kit, I brought a sharpener and a clean, soft eraser. I lifted the blunt stub of pencil and chunk of dirty eraser JW had been content with and dropped them into the top drawer. Personal preferences.

Satisfied with the general set up, I went into the small ante-room and made myself a mug of tea. As I walked back to the console, I heard a click, followed by a call on the intercom.

“Radio Room.” It was the unmistakable, ‘well-educated’ accent of an officer. The Duty Operations Officer was on shift in an office within the Brigade HQ – the large red-brick building across the courtyard.

I pressed the button. “All systems Okay, Sir.”

“Thank you. Who have I got down there this evening?”

“Signalman Faulkner on my first solo shift, Sir.”

“Thank you. Hope we have a quiet one, eh?”

“Ready for anything, Sir,” I said, and heard a chuckle from the intercom before it clicked off.

When I’d taken over from JW, one of the items we checked together was the Browning 9mm pistol. I checked the fit of the magazine, and ensured the weapon’s action was okay. I emptied the rounds from the magazine, counted them, re-loaded the magazine, and placed all pistol related items in the drawer.

In the second drawer among other things, I uncovered a handbook on Radio Voice Procedure. As a radio relay operator I’d used VP, but it was a simplified version which was sufficient to do the job. On the two-week conversion course, I’d attended in Verden in 1992 I’d learned radio VP, but had never used it.

The job I had now would require a much greater grasp of the subject, whether I was in the Radio Room, on the road, or in location. I’d use quiet periods of my radio shifts to study the manual. I replaced the book in the drawer and dealt with the call for a car registration check.

At 17:30, Staff Temple came through on his way out. “All okay mate?”

“Fine, Staff. I’ve got the numbers for Rover Group team and the Lemon Club in the case of issues. A couple of the lads said they’d be on call to help if needed.

“Alright, see you tomorrow Faulkner.”

When he’d gone out the front door, I got up and set the latch on the lock. The door gave access from the compound, but for security, it was kept locked from the end of the regular working day. The 9mm pistol in the drawer provided extra security.

During my shift, I started reading the VP manual. A few car check requests and some minor incidents occurred on the other side of the River Foyle, in Londonderry. I acknowledged the calls and relayed the relevant information to the Ops Officer via the intercom.

When the Ops Officer was up to his neck in decision making; he would depend on the Radio Room operator’s accurate records and updates to keep him up to speed. Apart from keeping on top of car registration checks and making regular checks on the radio nets, I’d be the Ops Officer’s radio PA.

I wanted my study of voice procedure to remain secret – the manual would stay in the drawer, and I’d read it while on shift. I figured the 16:00 – 23:59, and the 00:01 – 08:00 would be the ideal periods for my covert self-education.

My first long shift passed without drama. JW turned up for his midnight shift at 23:45. We had a brew and a chat before I left him for the night shift or dogwatch as it was known.

Within the first two sequences of shifts in the Radio Room, I was comfortable and in control.

*

When I met Mowgli for the first time, I was alarmed at the man’s appearance. Steve ‘Mowgli’ Hall was 28 years old. He weighed about nine stones, walked with a slight stoop, and wore an old-fashioned pair of black framed glasses. The nicotine-stained forefinger of Mowgli’s left hand was continually raised to push his glasses into place. A better fitting or slight adjustment would have cut out the irritating habit.

On seeing the man’s frame, his ghostly pallor and listening to his gravelly voice, I thought Mowgli could pass for a man of 40 or more. His greasy dark hair was always having a comb run through it, but never appeared tidy.

I queried the nickname at breakfast one morning.

“Sam, why is Steve nicknamed Mowgli?”

“Have you seen Jungle Book?” Sam asked, and raised his eyebrows.

I nodded and put down my mug of tea before I spilled any.

*

While I was on shift in the Radio Room one day during regular working hours, Mowgli came in through the unlocked front door.

“Hi mate,” he said. “I thought I’d drop this in to brighten up your shift.” He handed me my mail, which consisted of a single letter.

“Thanks,” I said, and I glanced at the handwriting before placing my mail on the window ledge. I was too busy for distractions. I didn’t recognise the handwriting, but the letter had been re-directed from Germany.

Mowgli was renowned for his inquisitive nature, and the unnecessary delivery of my letter was an excuse to visit the Radio Room. My visitor was leaning over the console waffling on about the renaming of the Lemon Club when I received a radio call from the DVLA at Coleraine.

A female voice with a soft accent came over the speaker. “Hullo Zero Charlie, the suspect vehicle’s number is registered as a yellow-coloured JCB road digger.”

I noted the details into the log and responded. “Oscar Nine Zero this is Zero Charlie … I readback … yellow JCB road digger, over?”

“Correct Zero Charlie.”

“Zero Charlie, Roger, and thank you. Out.”

All the operators on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority network were female. Speaking to them was a pleasure. The only part of their calls based on voice procedure was the use of call-signs. All of the other speech was polite conversation.

I had been waiting for confirmation of the details of a vehicle involved in a cross-border car-chase. The vehicle concerned was a red Ford Cortina Mk 2, and the pursuing infantry patrol had noted the registration number. The occupants of the car crossed the border at Buncrana and the relative safety of County Donegal, in Eire; the Republic of Ireland.

My secure radio net to the local infantry battalions was next to burst into life.

“Hullo Zero Charlie, this is Five Three, I have details of the mystery body in the Foyle, over.”

“Do you want me to get it mate?” Mowgli asked as he reached over the console.

“No, I’ve got it,” I said, concealing my irritation. I’d seen Mowgli’s hand move, and I reached the handset before him.

“Zero Charlie, send over.” I listened and wrote the details straight to my secure network log. A man’s overcoat had been discovered floating in the River Foyle earlier in the day, and the owner’s details appeared on a label inside. Documents on the recovered body showed a match to the coat.

I buzzed the Ops Officer and gave him the relevant details.

Mowgli was standing on the other side of the console, itching for an excuse to take part in my shift. “I’ll put the kettle on and make a mug of tea if you like.”

“Not for me,” I said. “I can’t stand condensed milk.”

“Why don’t you try black coffee?  Do you take sugar?”

“Go on,” I said. “If it’s hot and wet I’m game to try something once.”

I’d tried coffee made in a variety of ways and never acquired a taste for any of them. Notably, I’d never tried the drink without milk or cream. Five minutes later I was drinking my first black coffee with sugar, and enjoying the taste.

Between messages, I was taking a quick swig from my large blue plastic mug. At one point, I stared at the mug and thought, only a squaddie could drink from such an obscene item. Long after Mowgli left the Radio Room the aroma of coffee hung in the air – mainly because I was having a black coffee on the hour.

When I was alone, and all was quiet, I checked the postmark on my unopened letter – Paisley.  Who the hell did I know in Paisley?  Jock Sullivan, one of my room-mates from basic training was from there, but we’d never exchanged addresses. I didn’t recognise the handwriting either. I left the letter on the window unopened until my shift was over. I cursed Mowgli for being so helpful.

*

I got back to the accommodation after my morning shift and sat on the edge of my bed. I opened the mysterious letter and as had happened back in Germany on a couple of occasions – a passport photo fell out. I picked up the snapshot to gaze at a girl with shoulder-length blonde hair. I didn’t recognise her but wished I did. I flicked to the back page of the letter.

‘Hope to hear from you soon, Diane xx.’

I turned back to the first page; intrigued. Diane had submitted her contact details to the British Forces pen-pals page of the Forces Weekly Echo in March. It was May before she received any responses, and she’d chosen mine.

When I checked the date of Diane’s letter it was evident I’d responded to her ad while I’d been at my lowest point before leaving Dortmund. Her reply to my letter would have arrived in Dortmund around the time I was leaving. It was a well-known issue our internal post in Dortmund wasn’t efficient when it came to redirecting mail – especially if it was mail intended for a member of the Royal Signals. The postal orderly was usually Royal Artillery – no love lost either way.

I read Diane’s letter again, slowly. I looked at the photo, thought about it for five seconds, and decided I’d get in touch.

*

Wednesday 3rd July 1974

I’d been a part of the Radio Room shift system for two weeks, and I’d reached the stage were a discussion between several visitors could take place on the other side of the console, and it wouldn’t affect my ability to do my job.

On more than one occasion I’d found myself dealing with three messages on different handsets simultaneously, but without undue panic. I used correct voice procedure, stalling one message while I noted the next, and prioritised by queuing the call-signs. I was confidently logging all of them.

Sgt Morrison stepped into the Radio Room from the compound. He stood on the other side of the console, grinning as I completed a call and wrote up my log.

“Hi Sarge,” I said and took a gulp of my black coffee.

“You look as if you’re enjoying yourself.”

“I am, and I like the two-day shift system. The two rest days together gives me time to relax and catch up on other things.”

“Have you been out of camp socially yet?”

“No, I’m afraid my Op Banner tour is too fresh in my mind, and I’d have difficulty going out in civvies unless I was armed and doing the job.”

“How do you occupy yourself in camp?”

“I’ve got back into two favourite pastimes, reading and drawing.”

Sgt Morrison told me he enjoyed reading, and while the radio networks were quiet, we chatted about the types of books we both read. He asked about my artwork and said he’d like to see examples some time. I said I’d bring recent sketches on my next shift.

“As much as I don’t want to inflate your ego,” Sgt Morrison said. “I thought you might like to know you’ve impressed the boss.”

“Staff Temple?”

“Yes. Apparently, Staff was in his office a couple of days ago. While he was mulling over a problem, he became aware of almost continual conversation in here. He thought there might be an off-duty operator in here chatting and using the place like a coffee shop.”

“One person comes to mind,” I said, and Sgt Morrison smiled, knowingly.

“Staff Temple told me he stepped into the adjoining doorway and watched you for a while. He told me you worked steadily for about fifteen minutes, unfazed by the pace of the calls.”

“I remember the shift,” I said. “It felt as if I’d continually replaced one handset and lifted the next one.”

“He was impressed because between the radio calls there were car registration checks over the phone, and intercom messages to give to the Ops Officer.”

“I’m glad he was pleased.”

“Keep it up. I know you were originally radio relay, which means you’ve done bloody well to reach your present standard in this job.”

“Thanks, Sarge.” The phone rang, and Sgt Morrison winked and left.

After the phone call, it was quiet, and I thought back to the shift Sgt Morrison had been describing.

*

The four hours had passed quickly because it was busy. I recalled seeing the Troop Staffy in my peripheral vision, but I didn’t know how long he’d been there. At the time, my activities calmed for a minute, and the boss entered the Radio Room.

I recalled, Staff Temple approached and stopped short of the console to watch. I was logging a series of messages regarding a shooting incident and car chase. I’d paused while writing my records.

“Coffee, black, two sugars please Staff.”

Staff Temple smiled and left the Radio Room. To my amazement, he brought me a coffee. He said, “I was caught up in how much you were doing, and I came in to offer you a hand. Don’t tell anybody about the coffee.”

We’d both had a laugh about it as I accepted the steaming mug.

*

Thursday 11th July 1974

Staff Temple and Sgt Morrison entered the Radio Room together through the main door. They both waved a greeting to me because I was dealing with a radio message. I held up an envelope delivered a few minutes earlier. The two men stood in the Radio Room in front of the console as Staff Temple opened the mail. He read the single sheet of paper and handed it to Sgt Morrison.

“The new Troop Commander arrives next Monday Andy. I’ll give him a briefing and intro to the troop, and I’d like you to set up a tour for him.”

“Wilco,” Sgt Morrison said. “I’ll nominate a couple of the lads to go with us, and we’ll go around the city on the Troop Commander’s second or third day.”

“Ensure the Ops Officer is briefed, and check we don’t have any major operations taking place in the city on the day.”

“No problem.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this guy arriving. We’ve been without an officer for four months, and though life can be easier, we’ve had a few issues.” Staff Temple headed to his office, and Sgt Morrison went off to organise the guided tour he’d be conducting.”

*

Monday 15th July 1974

The front door of the Radio Room remained unlocked between 07:30 and 17:30, and it wasn’t unusual for the Troop Staffy to use it regularly throughout the day. It was mid-morning, and I’d taken the opportunity of coffee and a smoke between calls.

When the door opened, and Staff Temple came in, I greeted him cheerfully as usual.

“Hi, Staff.”

“Good morning Faulkner,” Staff said, and he stepped back to hold the door open for a blond lieutenant who was with him.

I stood, and forced my arms down by my sides. “Good morning Sir.”

The officer saluted in response and said, “Good morning.”

“This is Signalman Faulkner Sir,” Staff Temple said. “He’s here about a month, and settling in well.”

The officer reached out his right hand. “Pleased to meet you young Faulkner. I’m Lieutenant Foulkes, the new Troop Commander of Comms Troop.”

As we shook hands I said, “Pleased to meet you, Sir.”

Lt Foulkes and Staff Temple headed through the ante-room to the offices.

I remembered from my days in Dortmund how things could change with the arrival of a new officer. Officers were always an unknown quantity. They invariably wanted to make their mark – sometimes amending systems which worked. However Lt Foulkes wanted things done, we would be in for fun times.

I thought about conversations I’d heard in the bar. The lads of Comms Troop had become accustomed to life without an officer, and they liked Staff Temple running the show. The last officer to lead the troop had been posted to Germany. For operational reasons he’d gone to his new unit at short notice and Comms Troop had been left without an officer.

A shooting occurred at one of the border checkpoints and I busied myself logging the calls and assisting with the passage of information. I was vaguely aware of a movement in the ante-room doorway, but I ignored it and continued with the job.

Lt Foulkes spent his early days as anybody would. A detailed tour of the camp took place, a visit to the Firing Ranges at Eglinton, and a tour of the city. A four-day trip on the streets with an infantry battalion was held.

The priority for Lt Foulkes was to get to know his men, and he set about meeting and chatting with every member of his troop. As the Troop Commander he’d be responsible for every task we performed, and as expected, he was keen to investigate.

On the Radio Room shift system at the time the four operators were: Jim Kerr, Jeff Walker, Danny Smith and me. Lt Foulkes spent a short time with each of us during one of our shifts.

Staff Temple stopped by on one of my last shifts. “The boss wants to spend a bit of time watching the job in here mate, and I’ve suggested he sits in with you.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment Staff. Thank you.”

He laughed. “Do your job the way you normally do, but be ready for questions.”

“Wilco Staff.”

“Good lad.”

Before my shift ended, I had the company of Lt Foulkes for an hour. It was a good period for both of us because I was left to get on with my job, and my new Troop Commander saw what it entailed.

I didn’t receive a pat on the back, but the enigmatic smile when he left me was good enough.

***