Monday 20th September 1971
It was a sunny but chilly day and, most of the lads were in the compound preparing vehicles and equipment for the upcoming radio exercise. A few crews had driven their detachments outside the working area onto the spacious sports fields. Our detachment was on the edge of the sports fields.
According to Dave, my boss, the exercise would be a week of communications, but with regular movement between locations. We could set up and, test the radios, but there was little point if conditions were always perfect. It was our first exercise since arriving in Germany and, my first training exercise with the unit.
We’d be going out as a sub-unit without the company of the Royal Artillery. Depending on the task to be performed, a radio relay detachment in our Squadron would use one of two main equipments. I’d mentioned this before but did so again.
“I know we’ve got a couple of detachments of C41’s,” I said to Dave. “If we have them, I’m amazed we have an old radio to work with a missile regiment.”
“Well,” Dave said. “The B70 might be a bit strange looking and, old, but we use it for a reason.”
“I’ve never considered how old it was,” I said. “I just accepted it wasn’t taught any more back at Catterick.”
“It was used as far back as the 1940’s in the Mediterranean. If memory serves me correctly, it was employed in Sicily.”
“Fucking Hell,” I said. “You’re joking?”
“No, it’s a good piece of kit for what it does.”
“I remember you told me the Squadron’s equipments were the only kit which would pass the data for the Artillery. It’s all to do with the deployment of the Thunderbird missiles.”
“Yeah, until they develop a better surface to air missile there’ll be a need for the B70.”
“Do you think every detachment will go out on this exercise?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Our troop and, Y Troop will all deploy. When the bosses are happy we’re working okay, we’ll have a TEV set up somewhere between the two formations.”
As we set up the equipment, I continued asking questions. I knew a few of my queries were being made for the second or third time. Sgt Ferry approached in his usual ambling stride. He was the quietest Senior NCO I’d ever seen, but he was effective.
“Hold the fort for a while, Jim,” Dave said. “I’ve got to nip across to the troop office.” He glanced in the direction of our sergeant. “Don’t worry if Sgt Ferry or anybody else drops by for a chat.”
“No problem,” I said, and pulled out my cigarettes.
All the crews had been given the same briefing, which was to set up equipments and test every radio and cable.
The tall, dark-haired, Sgt Ferry was never in a hurry, but he got things done. I watched this quietly spoken, unflappable man and, I couldn’t remember hearing him raise his voice. His manner, combined with his control impressed me.
He wandered from detachment to detachment, checking a piece of cable at one of them, having a chat with a crewman at another and, moving on. He was visiting every X Troop detachment. The one disconcerting thing about Sgt. Ferry was, apart from being quiet he rarely smiled. He was an enigma.
I considered myself a newcomer, so concentrated on trying to figure shortcuts in setting up the detachment. It occurred to me if there were any, Dave would know.
“Howzit goin’ Jimmy?” The broad Glasgow accent was unmistakable.
“Hi Mick,” I said. “I’m happy enough with this stuff, but as I said to Dave earlier, I can’t believe they don’t teach the B70 at Catterick.”
“The B70 hasn’t been shown in Catterick since before Ah’ joined the Corps,” Mick said. We chatted for a while, and he told me a couple of short, funny stories about things occurring on exercise. I enjoyed Mick’s company.
Mick was in his late 20’s but looked a lot older. I wondered if he’d had a hard life, or if his craggy, lined features were the result of his heavy smoking and drinking. Whatever, there was always an easier solution if Mick was consulted.
“Ah’ll need tae get back to Steve before he fuckin’ blows somethin’ up,” Mick said.
“There’s nothing can be blown up on this stuff,” I said.
“You’ve never worked wi’ Steve,” he said and nodded towards his crewman 100 metres away. “Ma’ fella could blow anythin’ up.”
We both laughed.
“Before Ah’ go,” Mick said. “Are ye comin’ doon tae the bar t’night?”
“Does a bear shit in the woods?”
“If ye fancy some company ye could join Stevie and me.” He paused. “Ah’ heard there’s talk aboot buildin’ a proper bar doon in the cellar and, Ah’d like opinions.”
“Surely building a bar would cost a lot?”
“Aye it would mate, but that’s why it’s no’ been done yet. Ah’m havin’ a wee chat wi’ different people an’, if we can get enough interest, we’re gonna get the funds and dae it oorselves.”
“Do we have people capable of building a bar?”
He used a forefinger to push his glasses up from the bridge of his nose.
“Ye’d be surprised Jimmy. Would ye like to help if we get the go-ahead?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d like to be involved.”
“Right,” he said. “Don’t go doon there until we give ye’ a shout. Remember we’ll be expectin’ to see yer stayin’ power on the Amstel.”
“Okay,” I said and pulled out another cigarette.
Dave was returning from his visit to the office and, I noticed him nod and smile towards Mick, who was still on his way back to his detachment.
I had everything set up and, had packed away all the excess equipment. To get into practise, I packed away the wooden containers into the Land Rover. I was sure I had everything the way Dave liked and, around the Land Rover and the trailer was tidy.
“How are you doing?” Dave asked as he inspected the set up.
“All okay, I reckon. Mick came over for a chat, but I was finished.”
Dave waved across to Mick’s detachment and shouted.
Mick looked up, smiled and gave a thumbs-up.
“Mission accomplished,” Dave muttered and smiled, which I thought was an odd thing to say.
Friday 8th October 1971
“Hullo Two this is Four, Radio Check … Over,” burst from our speaker.
I reached for the handset.
“Two Okay, Over.”
The Scouse accent of Alan Smart came back on the airwaves.
“Four Okay, Out.”
The routine radio check brought me back from a reverie. I hung the handset on the buckle of the Land Rover canopy, noted the time in my notebook and, resumed my position at the base of the tree.
It was 15:00. I made myself comfortable and, pulled out my cigarettes and lighter. I started thinking about the bloody girl in Nottingham again. It was her who’d caused me to take up smoking. The relationship may be over I thought, but by God, she’ll be difficult to forget and, not only because of her chest.
I leaned back against the tree and focused on a distant wood across the valley. I knew it was where Alan was with his detachment.
The scenery was a bonus for us because the B70 had to have ‘radio line of sight’. It was a bonus, I thought, as long as the weather was pleasant. The operator could sit outside the vehicle provided he could hear the radio speaker. The situation was good for me because it gave me time to think.
It had been a year since I was with the detachment of men down in Hereford performing sentry duties for the SAS. So many things had happened in my life since then.
There had been ups and downs, but as I considered things in the solitude, I decided I’d try to settle down. I thought of the missing nights where I’d probably spent the evening in the bar. I’d have to get myself down to Dortmund.
A few of the lads went downtown at the weekend instead of spending time in camp and, according to the stories it was quite a place. Tales abounded of the ‘lovely ladies’ of Linienstrasse, the ‘official’brothel in the middle of the town. It was approved by the German authorities – not the British authorities.
I’d been in Dortmund nearly four months and had never even seen the place. I wouldn’t mind the thought of all those wasted days and nights if I’d actually been enjoying myself. I hadn’t enjoyed any of it. I’d been feeling sorry for myself.
I owed it to myself to get out and away from the barracks.
I thought about the night I’d gone down to the bar with Mick and Steve. It was the best social night I’d had since arriving in the place. For some reason Steve didn’t get down straight away, but once he joined us it was a good night. I remembered going back upstairs to my room, which was a first in a long time.
Mick had ordered the first bottles of Amstel. He’d suggested I could drink Bacardi and Coke if I wanted, but he wanted me to try the bottled beer for a change.
“Before Stevie joins us, Jim,” Mick whispered, which was unlike him. “Would ye mind if Ah’ offered ye a wee bit of advice?”
“Ah’d like ye to hear me out an’, efterwards, if ye want to change who yer drinkin’ wi’, fine, but t’night Ah’d like ye to stay on the Amstel.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Cheers,” we both said, chinking our bottles together.
Mick took a pull from his Amstel before speaking again.
“We sometimes have a night where we only drink beer, an’ sometimes Bacardi. Ah’ve tried brandy a few times, but mainly we drink beer.”
When I took a swig, it wasn’t like the sweet tasting poison that I’d come to enjoy, but I was willing to give it a go. I could trust Mick.
My countryman leaned forward and spoke slowly in a confidential tone. This was unlike the man people knew, but then this was a quiet evening. He could become loud and abusive later if he felt like it. The guys in the bar liked his humorous banter.
Mick told me the story of a lad leaving Glasgow some years before, keen to be a soldier. The young man had hardly completed his training when he found himself in Germany in a working unit.
“This lad thought it necessary to fit in wi’ the crowd,” Mick said. “He was led to believe he should become a part of the scene, or he’d become a loner.”
I took another swig of the Amstel. It tasted better than the first mouthful. I watched Mick’s expression as he continued. I couldn’t remember seeing him serious.
“In the case of the young lad Ah’m tellin’ ye about,” Mick said. “He became a part of the crowd,” Mick grinned, before taking a long swig of his beer.
“In essence,” he continued. “By accident, this guy became a drunk withoot realisin’ it. The chance of promotion came and went, bit wan constant wiz the fun wi’ the lads. He completed tours of duty in two regiments in Germany before bein’ posted back to the UK. By then, he’d decided to finish his contracted service an’ leave the army.”
“Did he never think of cleaning up his act and, getting on with the job?”
“Nah,” Mick said. “His career as a soldier had never really gone any further than the bar. It didnae’ matter whether it was a bar in camp or downtown.” He stopped again to take a drink.
“Through the years,” Mick continued. “He got better at the job and received praise, but he was recognised as a person incapable of goin’ too far wi’ responsibility. This lad continued an’, wi’ 18 months to go, he was promoted to lance corporal.”
“Surely it’s a start,” I said. “Getting the first stripe must have been hard, but worth it?”
“No’ really Jimmy. It was too little, too late. He’d reached the dizzy heights of lance corporal, but awe’ his experience wiz for nothin’. He decided he’d leave the military life. He’d achieved nae’ mare than a drinkin’ habit.”
Mick paused again to take a swig of his beer. He locked his gaze on me and, I sat transfixed. This man was only ever known to smoke, drink, and laugh. He pushed his black framed glasses up with a forefinger, an idiosyncrasy for which he was renowned. He finished his story rapidly.
“The fella in ma wee story only has wan claim to fame Jimmy. Sometimes, when he hasn’t had too many beers he can spot somebody who’s gonna end up the same.”
It was only then the glaring confession hit home.
“Don’t say anythin’ out loud,” Mick said. “Take a look at me. Dae’ ye’ want to end up like this, or dae’ ye want to hiv a career?”
The two of us remained silent for a short while. I didn’t know what to say, although I knew the answer to the first part was no. I took in Mick’s pale, haggard face, nicotine-stained fingers, and rheumy eyes. He looked more than 27 years old.
I felt as if somebody had just pulled me from the path of an oncoming train.
The silence was broken as Steve dropped onto a chair beside us.
“My fucking cigarettes and lighter were in my fucking shoes,” Steve said. “I don’t know how the fuck they got in there. Are you two guys ready for another?”
Mick had a stupid smirk on his face but said nothing.
“We’ve only just got these, thanks mate,” I responded.
“Correct answer Jimmy boy,” Mick said.
While Steve was at the bar grabbing a drink, Mick tapped a finger on Steve’s pack of cigarettes. “Note the lazy bastard only found these because he gave up searchin’. He was mare intent on comin’ doon here.”
The two of us were still laughing when Steve sat down with his bottle of Amstel, bemused at our expressions.
It had been a good night and, I remembered it in the morning. I screwed the end of my cigarette into the grass and mused over what I was missing. I pulled out my packet and lit up another. After a long, thoughtful drag on my fresh smoke, I decided I was definitely checking out Dortmund when I got back.
I felt better as I surveyed the greenery around me. To look at my expression now, an observer would probably think there was something other than tobacco in my cigarette. Naturally the resolve to sort myself out made me feel better.
The exercise had gotten underway soon after the night in the company of Mick and Steve. I didn’t drink for the two nights before the exercise, and I realised I had a lot to thank Mick for.
I wondered how long it would take before I’d be able to stop using cigarettes.