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OK, so it wasn’t a resounding success at first…

WE all know the story of the Wright brothers – the Americans who flew the world’s first powered aeroplane in 1903.

It’s a fascinating and romantic tale which has spawned books and films and turned the pair into US – indeed world – icons.

Deservedly so – what they achieved was amazing.

There’s just one problem: the real story of flight starts on this side of the Atlantic (and it is told in our book of ludicrous national self-biggage, So THAT’S Why They Call It GREAT Britain.

Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) is the real ‘Father of Aerodynamics’.

In 1849, he launched a glider at Brompton, Yorks – it was the world’s first flight. Wisely, he employed an unnamed ten-year-old boy as his test pilot.

(If Monday Books were building aircraft, then, being terrible cowards, this is the strategy we would employ.)

200px-George_Cayley

Cayley: wise

(Sir George, a Scarborough baronet and MP, was a prodigious inventor who also worked on self-righting lifeboats, caterpillar tracks and seat belts).

John Stringfellow was a tool-maker from Sheffield who moved to Chard in Somerset to work in the lace industry.

Slightly eccentrically – it was 1842, and airliners were many decades away – he dreamed of setting up the world’s first international airline.

With engineer William Henson, he set up the Aerial Transit Company and commissioned brochures which showed aeroplanes carrying passengers on sight-seeing trips over exotic locations like the Pyramids.

You can’t fault them for thinking big, but unsurprisingly they failed to attract any serious financial backers.

The disillusioned Henson emigrated to America, but Stringfellow (1799-1883) continued undeterred, working out optimum wing shapes and materials, and calculating the surface area of wing needed per pound of weight to produce lift.

He built a working aircraft, which had a three-metre wing made from silk with cane struts, featuring a rigid leading edge combined with a looser trailing edge, and a steam engine which powered two propellers.

However, it was so delicate that outdoor flights proved impossible – the silk became heavy with atmospheric moisture and gusts of wind could be disastrous – so early attempts at flight took place inside a large silk mill in Chard.

Finally, in 1848, Stringfellow’s machine took to the air, unmanned. Although it travelled less than 10 metres, this was the world’s first demonstration of powered flight.

Perhaps disheartened after his years of labour for little reward, Stringfellow – the modern-day, straggle-haired lap dance guru Peter of perpetually confused mien is descended from him – put his machine on ice.

A model of his aeroplane is on display at the Science Museum.

The quest for manned flight remained.

In 1899, the British engineer and glider pilot Percy Pilcher (1867-1899) came very close to being a household name and scooping the Wright brothers by several years.

Pilcher had earlier designed and built a glider called Hawk, and had set a gliding distance record of 250 metres near Eynsford in Kent.

Then he set about developing a powered aeroplane, and settled on the idea of a three-winged triplane (multiple wings give extra lift without the huge increase in weight that a single wing of the same total area would need.) Power came from a small internal combustion engine.

He had arranged to demonstrate his triplane to the public on September 30, 1899, at Stanford Hall near Rugby, Warwickshire.

Unfortunately, it was not ready and, so as not to disappoint the crowd, he decided to fly Hawk instead.

Conditions were very blustery, and the glider’s tail snapped off in flight, sending it crashing to the ground, killing Pilcher, then thirty-two, ‘as the result of a rapid and unforeseen reduction in the distance between his homemade wooden glider… and the well-kept lawns’ below.

This was a bit of a downer – for everyone except Orville and Wilbur Wright.

PercyPilcherPilcher: downer

In 2002, BBC’s Horizon commissioned the construction of a replica of his triplane at Cranfield University.

It flew for over a minute and was a better machine than the Wright Brothers’ ‘Flyer’, but today almost no-one remembers him while the Wrights enjoy top spot in the pantheon of flight.

A monument to Pilcher was built on the spot where he crashed; the original Hawk is at the Museum of Flight in East Lothian, and a replica can be seen at Stanford Hall.

Not to downplay the brilliance of the Wright Bros, and the pioneering spirit and outstanding bravery they showed – characteristic of our American cousins – but this does appear to be a resounding win for Britain!

Number One in a series of lots, designed to allow uppity Brits to win petty arguments, at home and abroad. Please feel free to comment – we’re open to correction from outraged furriners (or locals). Do let us know where we’re claiming stuff we shouldn’t, or forgetting stuff we should.

 

Digital proof copies of ANIMAL QC, the forthcoming book by Gary Bell QC, arrived today.

We think it looks pretty good (bearing in mind the final version will be a hardback).

Gary digital copies

 

 

We all know the truth about Iraq – it just depends on your point of view.

But to have a point of view it helps if you’ve actually been there.

Colin Freeman went to Baghdad in the early post-war days, and he did it in the hardest way for a civilian – living with no security in a backpacker hotel (the Al Dulaimi) well outside the relative safety of the Green Zone, with the daily risk of kidnap, torture and death.

To get to Iraq, Colin gave up a safe, reasonably well-paid but ever-so-slightly dull staff job on the London Evening Standard, where he doubled as the paper’s pothole/roadworks correspondent and a showbusiness ‘doorstepper’, and travelled as a freelance.

No income, no contacts, no guarantee of work, no security guards – just a few dollars he’d saved up, and his wits.

The anti-US, anti-British uprising was in full swing, and every day could quite easily have been his last. People he knew were taken by jihadists (and later, in Somalia, Colin himself ended up Kidnapped, too).

Out of this nerve-wracking experience he eventually got a job as a Sunday Telegraph foreign correspondent and a book, which we published.

The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and Other Half Truths From Baghdad is, I think, one of the best books produced about this troubled country and its poor people in that awful time.

If I could change one thing it would be the cover – my idea, it looks terrible, and I’m sure it adversely affected sales.

Here’s a free extract – Colin decides to put Fleet Street behind him for a while after a moment of truth one Christmas Eve:

THE PATH TO IRAQ – for me, anyway – began on Christmas Eve 2002, on a sunny pavement outside Cheryl Barrymore’s house.

Cheryl lived in a block of maisonettes in a posh street in Swiss Cottage, a part of London that ‘boasts’ – as we journalists like to say – more celebrities in a few square miles than the rest of Britain put together. Like many who have spent time in the lower echelons of British journalism, I’ve visited a lot of them – generally getting about as far as the doorstep, where I’d pitch camp for as long as my editor wanted me to.

‘Doorstepping’, as the practice is known, is no more than legalised stalking. The idea is that if you hang around outside somebody’s house long enough, they will eventually talk to you just to get you to go away. Or throw something, which always makes a good picture.

The trouble is that this seldom actually works. These days, even the thickest, most publicity-addicted Big Brother has-been is media-savvy enough to say ‘No comment’ or ‘Call my PR’ if he doesn’t want to talk. In all my years hanging around outside celebrity addresses – and it probably does add up to years – all I’ve ever got out of it is a skin as thick as a rhino’s and a collection of extremely banal celebrity anecdotes.

Liam Gallagher from Oasis told me to fuck off.

The late George Best said something similar, I think (it was unintelligible).

Various nonentities have called me a ‘ghoul’, a ‘vulture’ and a ‘sad, sleazy little twat’.

A few minor royals have called the police.

Cheryl, of course, was the ex-wife of Michael, the TV ‘entertainer’ whose life has resembled a sort of slow motion car wreck in recent times. Yet another unflattering tale about her ex-husband had appeared on the front page of the Sun that day, and my newspaper, the London Evening Standard, wanted her reaction to it.

I’d got to the office at five o’clock that morning – despite having the word ‘Evening’ in its title, the Standard‘s first edition actually comes out at around 11am. I’d had a heavy night at a Christmas party and could barely see as I was briefed by Mike Leese, the paper’s deputy news editor and unofficial newsroom enforcer.

Most newspapers employ at least one hard nut like Mike to keep the reporters on their toes, and they give the place a permanent frisson of danger. I read an interview once with a former warden at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital: he said most of the time everything was fine, but the moment you dropped your guard someone would try to stab your eyes out with a Biro. It’s a bit like that in newspapers.

Mike had stood over my desk under the harsh office lights, puffing on a strange plastic cigarette he used during his periodic attempts to quit smoking; judging from the ferocity of his drags, he had some way to go.

‘Get down to Cheryl’s, see if you can get some reaction,’ he had muttered, brandishing the front page of the Sun. ‘Take a photographer with you.’

Then he was gone. News editors rarely hand out detailed briefs, preferring you to use your alleged skill and judgment as a reporter to work out the finer points yourself, and Mike was no exception.

So there I was. Sat outside an eight-story mansion block set back from the road behind a high brick wall.

December 24th. Early morning. No sign of Cheryl.

It looked like a long wait.

The concierge refused to tell us which flat she lived in, whether she was in, or even if we had the right address, which we weren’t sure of. Newspapers’ information on celebrities’ whereabouts isn’t as accurate as you might think. It’s not unknown to spend several days on a doorstep only to find that your intended victim has been coming and going all week from a house round the corner, or has just been photographed at a movie premiere in Los Angeles.

The photographer, Cavan Pawson, and I sprawled in his car for a while, drinking coffee, moaning, and getting bored, like we were stuck in a stake-out scene from a bad episode of Starsky and Hutch (playing supporting roles, obviously).

By about 9.30am, we had weighed up the options. There were at least three possible entry and exit points to Cheryl’s block. Which meant that if she left the building and we didn’t spot her we could hardly be blamed. Not much, anyway.

‘Starbucks?’ asked Cav with a yawn, starting the engine. I nodded. Out of sight and out of mind, with any luck we could spend the rest of the day doing nothing and then knock off early for Christmas.

Unlike mine, Cav’s star was in the ascendant at the Standard. For a while he’d been a journeyman like me but on September 11, 2001, he’d been in America covering New York Fashion Week when the news broke that two aircraft had just been hurled into the World Trade Center.

With only around half an hour until the Standard’s final deadline, he jumped in a taxi and got close enough to reel off several brilliant shots of the towers before they collapsed. The photo on the Standard’s front page won him the British Photographer of the Year award, and Cav’s fortunes had been transformed. He’d gone to New York to photograph skirts and dresses, but came back as someone who could handle himself in a Major World News Story.

As a result, Cav was now off to war.

Nobody knew exactly when the much-talked of invasion of Iraq was going to take place, but by December 2002 there was little doubt it would happen. All the whispers from government to the Standard’s political and defence correspondents suggested it was cut and dried.

After all, Britain and America were already sending 250,000 soldiers out the region, something they wouldn’t do if they thought it’d be resolved diplomatically.

What was even more certain was that I wouldn’t be there to report on it. The Standard was planning to send a whole team of journalists to cover the war, but it would be the usual coterie of their most favoured news and feature writers. Of which, it was fair to say, I was not one.

To my intense frustration, and despite working as hard as I realistically could, I’d never quite made it to the top rung at the paper.

The only assignment I’d ever been hand-picked for was to cover London’s roadworks. With its large commuter readership, roadworks were a subject the paper was obsessed with, but reporting on potholes every day was less exciting than filling them.

I’d made the mistake of doing a good job at it, assuming I’d get rewarded with something more interesting after a few months. Instead, they’d mistaken my eagerness to please for genuine enthusiasm, and now refused to let me palm the job off on anyone else.

So while Cav would be out covering the biggest story of his life, I would be revealing that the A23 through Streatham had been dug up because of a gas leak.

‘When are you off then?’ I asked, half-hoping he’d say, hadn’t I heard, I was going, too. The roads were going to be bombed to shite in Iraq, after all.

‘Sometime in January,’ he said. ‘We fly out to Kuwait, then follow the Brits in when the invasion starts. But that might not be till February or March.’

‘Scared?’

‘A bit. I’ve never done a war before, I suppose. But I might not get another chance.’

‘You lucky bastard.’

There was a silence, while we slurped our coffees.

‘Didn’t you put your name down for the war team?’ he said.

‘Nah.’

‘Why not?’

‘Already been decided, hasn’t it? The team’s picked already, plus all the reserves. I’m not even on the subs’ bench.’

‘Have you asked?’

‘No point, is there? Not flavour of the month, me.’

Cav looked at me. ‘If they won’t send you, why don’t you just go yourself?’ he said. ‘As a freelance?’

Freelance? To a war?

‘Why not? You don’t even have to go Iraq itself. Once it starts, it could spill into all the neighbouring countries. Turkey, Syria, Jordan. The Standard will want their own people there as well in case anything happens. And you could work for other papers too.’

I mulled it over, briefly. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I could see myself turning up wherever nothing was happening and getting precisely nowhere.

‘What have you got to lose?’ he said.

What had I got to lose? Well, my job. My savings. And my life.

Cav gestured back up the road towards Cheryl’s house. ‘You might be still on that doorstep in ten years’ time, wishing you’d done it,’ he said.

Jesus Christ.

Saddam Hussein or Cheryl Barrymore.

Two hours later, we wandered back up Cheryl’s flat. Still no sign of life. We rang the office and got permission to knock off for Christmas. A few days later I heard she’d been in Spain the whole time.

 

* * * * *

Curse Of The Al Dulaimi Hotel_Al Dulaimi cover jpegOne of our best books, with one of our worst covers: mea culpa

Cav’s words echoed round my head later that afternoon as I sat in the pub with Max, my ex-girlfriend. We’d gone out together for eighteen months before splitting up in the summer. It wasn’t that we didn’t get on well – just that when the question of getting married and having children came up, I couldn’t get enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, with no problems in our relationship other than its lack of long-term prospects, we’d continued to spend nearly all our time together. Until two weeks ago, that was, when Max had given me an ultimatum. Either we started going out properly again, or, with New Year beckoning, we made a resolution to stop seeing each other.

‘How was your day?’ she asked, draining a glass of pinot grigio.

I debated whether or not to tell her what Cavan had said about Iraq.

In all practical terms, his suggestion of going to Iraq as a freelance seemed about as feasible as going there as a mercenary.

I had a full-time, salaried staff job on a proper newspaper in London, even if it was a bit crap. Wasn’t it a bit silly to give all that up?

Yet I couldn’t deny the spark of hope inside me, the thought that, somehow, my stagnating career might find direction again.

Best to keep quiet though, until I’d actually checked out whether it was possible or not.

‘Max, I’m thinking of going to go to the war as a freelance.’

Well, I never was much good at keeping my mouth shut.

‘Which war?’

The war. How many are there? The one in Iraq. The one that’s going to start in the spring.’

‘Yes, yes, I know. But isn’t a bit difficult to get into Iraq?’

‘I thought I might base myself in one of the neighbouring countries. Saddam might invade them or something. Or, er, fire chemical weapons at them. Then I’ll be right on the spot.’

A less understanding woman might have stressed the potential drawbacks of this but Max was both a fellow journalist and at the end of her tether: she’d heard me whingeing about my stalled career so often that she was like a probation officer stuck with a persistent re-offender. Any new resolve, in no matter what direction, represented potential progress.

‘So which countries might you go to?’ she said, an encouraging expression on her face.

‘Er… dunno. Jordan, maybe, or Syria.’

Max knew even less about the Middle East’s geography than I did.

‘Are they next door to Iraq?’

‘Er… Jordan is. And Syria is, too, I think. To the left, and down a bit.’

‘Will they let you in?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Would you get any work?’

‘Dunno.’

‘What sort of stories would you do?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Where did you suddenly get this idea from?’

‘Dunno. Well, Cav suggested it outside Cheryl’s today. I… I need to look into it a bit more, obviously.’

Max had met the crackpot barstool explorer in me before. Last January, in a fit of despair at work, I’d suggested we both resign and backpack across Africa for six months. She sensibly dithered, while I actually got as far as handing in my notice. Then, forced to think about it properly for the first time, I realised I’d get fed up within about a fortnight. There were only so many epic bus rides, vibrant markets and historic temples that I could handle before I’d get crashingly bored. Humiliatingly, I’d asked for my job back, and returned to work.

I tried to make my case. ‘This wouldn’t be like Africa, though. I’d be working, so I wouldn’t get fed up. And if it didn’t work out, it’d just be like backpacking with a difference. But yeah, I doubt it’s possible. It’s probably a daft idea.’

‘No, it’s not,’ she said. ‘It’s exactly what you need.’

She also knew what else it meant. Unlike Mission Africa, this particular birdbrained scheme would potentially mark a final parting of our ways.

‘So we won’t be getting back together, will we?’ she said.

I stared at her, pouring white wine into my mouth where profound or soothing words should have come out.

‘No.’

She smiled. ‘I don’t mind, you know. I just want you to be honest.’

We headed off to spend Christmas with our respective families.

Six hours before, the Iraq war had been something to discuss while killing time outside Cheryl Barrymore’s. Now it was shaping up as my future.

George W Bush had better not cancel it.

 

* * * * *

 

I rapidly realised that one big drawback to my new plan was that I knew nothing about war reporting whatsoever.

I’d seen it done on TV, by people like Martin Bell, the BBC man with the ‘lucky white suit’ who got shot in the Balkans. You’d see them crouched down in a trench somewhere, explosions and gunfire going off around them. Occasionally their colleagues – Spanish cameramen or Japanese sound guys – would get killed.

They came across as earnest, serious individuals, who enjoyed great respect for the bravery and integrity of their reporting. They were the polar opposite of anything I did. Interestingly, even the big names complained that the reports they risked their lives to get were being chopped to make room for more ‘news’ about celebrities – the kind of rubbish I was trying to leave behind, in fact.

If I knew little about war reporting, I knew even less about the Middle East. The Standard covered international news, but we rarely sent staff on anything but the biggest of foreign stories. Most of rest of the time we relied on the Reuters and Associated Press wire services, rewriting their copy in the office and running it under the byline ‘By our foreign staff’.

I was an unchallengeable expert on the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991, and my Mastermind specialist subject might have been The Love Life of Anthea Turner, but virtually all I knew about Iraq was from watching a bit of TV coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991, when I’d still been at university. We’d had a party the night Operation Desert Storm began, beers and spliffs in hand as if it was a football match.

After a couple of hours of watching green explosions, we’d got bored and switched channels.

The only way to find out how to freelance out there was to ask around, but that would be tricky in itself. For a start, people with war zone experience weren’t exactly thick on the ground in Kensington. I’d also have to be careful that nobody at the Standard found out I was making inquiries. I was already a marked man for having resigned and then un-resigned the year before. Any further evidence, rumour or otherwise, that I was thinking of quitting again would be seen as a further sign of disloyalty.

Over the first few weeks of New Year I asked around. I vaguely remembered that Allan Ramsay, a New Zealander who’d left the Standard recently, had tried freelancing during the Balkans wars in the early 1990s. I rang him up and arranged to go out for a beer.

Allan’s tale of war started brilliantly.

‘Another Kiwi hack just rang up one day and said, “There’s a bunch of us driving down to the war in Bosnia, do you wanna come?”’ he said. ‘I figured I could work for the Standard and freelance for some of the Kiwi papers, so off we went.’

‘Excellent. How did it go?’

‘When we first got there we stayed in some tower block in the middle of a small town. Then during the night, a huge firefight broke out, with one half of the town firing at the other. It was bloody terrifying, actually. You could hear injured people screaming.’

‘Blimey,’ I said. ‘The Standard must have loved it.’

‘To be honest, mate, I was so frightened I couldn’t write a thing. And they weren’t interested anyway. That sort of thing was happening all over the place. Just because I’d seen it myself didn’t make it a story. In the end, I decided it wasn’t for me, and went back home again.’

‘But at least you tried, though. Must’ve raised your standing at the paper?’

‘Not really. When I got back, the news editor just asked me if I’d enjoyed my little bit of war tourism.’

At least Allan had been able to get to where the action was. The more I asked around, the more it seemed that going to Iraq itself was completely out the question.

‘Not really a place for freelancers, mate,’ said a Daily Telegraph photographer I knew, who’d just come back from Baghdad. Iraqi government officials had made it impossible for anyone other than staff correspondents to work there, he said, because of their desire to screw as much money from everyone as possible. Not only did they charge you astronomical rates for a bugged hotel room, you coughed up hundreds of dollars a day for Ministry of Information ‘minders’ to watch you, hundreds in visa ‘renewal fees’ every week or so, and hundreds to ‘rent’ a telephone line. All for the privilege of being there when America flattened the place.

‘You want to try Kurdistan,’ he said. ‘That’s the Holy Grail for freelancers. Great access, but very difficult to get in.’

‘Yes, good idea,’ I said, having no idea where Kurdistan was, or whose side they were on.

A session in the Standard’s cuttings library revealed all. Kurdistan was a small, mountainous enclave in northern Iraq which had broken away from Baghdad’s control after the first Gulf War.

The Kurds loathed Saddam for massacring 5,000 people in a gas attack on the Kurdish Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988. Now they were hoping to get revenge by helping the Coalition stage a northern assault on Saddam’s frontlines. The assault would be spearheaded by the Kurdish peshmerga militias, whose name translated as ‘those who willingly face death’.

It was potentially even more perilous than being in Baghdad: because of his long and nasty history with the Kurds, it was widely predicted that Saddam would unleash the bulk of his feared chemical weapons arsenal against them. Maybe it was a Holy Grail for the combat-hardened, but it looked a bit vertical, learning curve-wise, for a novice.

Still, I looked into it. As Kurdistan was a NATO protectorate, rather than a proper country, it didn’t really exist, diplomatically-speaking. The only way in or out was via its other neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Because they had restive Kurdish populations of their own, they were reluctant to recognise Kurdistan officially, and therefore rarely gave permission to foreigners – especially journalists – to cross the border.

A few freelancers had somehow managed it, either by smuggling or bribing themselves in. But when I emailed them asking for tips, I got no response whatsoever. It gradually dawned on me that I was, potentially, their competition. The only people who could really help me, in other words, had a direct interest in not doing so.

Eventually someone put me in touch with a guy who’d been to Kurdistan before and was planning to go again for the coming war. Marcus Bleasdale was exactly how I’d imagine a war zone photographer: wiry and serious, with a heavy growth of stubble on his face. I’d never met this kind of photographer before, which wasn’t surprising since he seemed to spend most of his time in places like the Congo or Afghanistan as opposed to drinking coffee outside Cheryl’s.

He generously agreed to meet up for a beer to answer any questions that I might have. Like, how to get to Kurdistan, where I did I stay, how did I find stories, and how did I avoid getting killed.

To his credit, he didn’t snort contemptuously when I grilled him. It could be done, he reckoned, even by someone without experience. You could get into Kurdistan via Iran, as long as the Iranian Embassy in London would grant you a transit visa.

Then, once the war started, you just stuck with other hacks at first and didn’t take too many risks. But it would still be seriously expensive. Translators and drivers were at least £30 a day each, as was a hotel for the night.

For communications with the outside world, I would need a satellite phone, which cost around £1,000 and a dollar-a-minute for calls. Plus a laptop, flak jacket, helmet, gas mask and chemical protection suit, coming in at a further £3,000 minimum.

And that was just for starters. Once the fighting got underway, war zone economics would kick in. Translators and drivers would demand danger money, doubling or trebling their charges. Hoteliers, shopkeepers and purveyors of virtually every other commodity would do likewise.

I did the maths.

Even if I was lucky enough to be able to share drivers and translators with some other freelancers, as Marcus suggested, my bills could easily be £200 a day – £6,000 a month.

The flak jacket, satphone, laptop, flights and so on would push it to around £10,000.

Worst of all, because Kurdistan had no functioning banking system, your entire money supply for the trip had to be taken with you, in $100 bills.

I’m the kind of bloke who gets nervous withdrawing £50 from the cash machine in case I’m mugged. Taking half my entire life savings and wandering around with them in a war zone didn’t seem like a good idea.

‘What happens if you get robbed?’

‘Make sure you don’t.’

‘But if every journalist is carrying that kind of cash around, won’t all the locals realise that you’re a target?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there anything you can do about that?’

‘No.’

I thanked Marcus for his time and said I’d buy him another beer if I ever saw him in Kurdistan. He smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I suspected he’d lie low the moment he heard I was in town.

A couple of weeks later, I headed down to my favourite beach in Devon for a surfing break. The weather was beautiful, spring sunshine lighting up the mist off the waves as it streamed over the sand dunes. I savoured every moment. Never in my entire life had my future seemed more up in the air. It was now late February, and some time in the next month or two the war was expected to start. I’d applied to the Iranian embassy for a transit visa, but so far I’d heard nothing back from them. And the closer the invasion got, the more likely they were to seal the border altogether. Overall, the odds on getting out there seemed about as promising those on Saddam winning the war. Sooner or later, though, the call would have to be made. Either give up the job, lash out vast amounts of money, and leave my old life behind, or stick it out at home.

When I got back that weekend my mind was made up. Come what may, I’d give it a try.

First I told my parents. To my surprise, they didn’t seem horrified at all. If anything, they were a little too encouraging.

‘You’ve been so down in the dumps recently, dear,’ said my mum, breezily. ‘If it cheers you up, I think you should do it.’ It was as if I had announced I was joining a local church group.

The Standard, when I told them, seemed equally blasé. All they asked for was a week or two’s notice.

Anyone would have thought they were happy to get rid of me.

 

 

Sean Binnie – an only child – was a young sergeant who died in the most heroic circumstances in Afghanistan.

He was charging a Taliban firing point to save the lives of women and children nearby; while he managed to kill the insurgents, he was himself fatally shot and died in his boss’s arms a few minutes later.

His story is told in At the Going Down Of The Sun, and we were very pleased to be able to include the following very moving letter Capt Ollie Lever wrote to Sean’s parents about their son’s death:

OLLIE LEVER LETTER 1

OLLIE LEVEL LETTER 2 - Copy

If losing your only son were not a big enough blow, Sean’s mum, Jan, has now been told that she cannot attend a service of remembrance at St Paul’s Cathedral because there isn’t enough space.

I think we can guess the names of a few people who will be there, though. None of them gave their children, of course.

Meanwhile, Aaron McCormick – who is also featured in the book – would have been twenty-seven yesterday.

Sadly the young ‘Vallon man‘ was killed five years ago by an IED in Afghanistan.

He left behind a grieving family and many, many friends.

It’s nice to see that his memory still burns bright, as some of the comments on our Facebook page show:

Aaron 3

Aaron 2

Aaron 1

Colour Sergeant Jim Harkess CGC is being forced to sell the medal he won in Iraq.

CSgt Harkess received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross – second in rank only to the Victoria Cross – for three actions, and was kind enough to tell us his story for In Foreign Fields.

He had joined the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters after first working down the pit as a miner, and in 2004 – with the ‘Woofers’ merged into the recently-formed Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (PWRR) – he found himself in southern Iraq, battling the shia militiamen of the Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdī, or JAM).

By then, he was a senior NCO in C Company, and spent most of his time commanding a Warrior – an armoured fighting vehicle which carried infantrymen in the back and was armed with a devastating 30mm cannon and a machine gun.

It was Harkess’ third deployment to Iraq…

We got small contacts from day one. Patrols were kept to a minimum, so as not to incite the locals, but we had to cover supply convoys and we’d go out to the local police stations and make sure they were all up and running so that when we pulled out they could take over properly. We’d take a lot of incoming mortars and rockets, mainly at night, but we had no casualties early on.

Out of Al Amarah town, it was OK, but once you got to the outskirts you could feel the tension, and the atmosphere got nastier every day. There was more graffiti on the walls than there’d been before, and a lot of it was in English, saying things like ‘British Forces Get Out’. And while we’d been quite friendly with the police before, you could see them start to take a step back from you. A bit more distanced. They wouldn’t do any joint patrols, which they had done on TELIC 7. Interpreters didn’t want to come out on the ground with us, which was also telling us something. But we still went out ourselves; it was about freedom of movement, which we were saying we had.

We would be stoned as we drove, but you don’t mind that too much because, generally, if you’re being stoned you’re not being shot at. That said, they’d do things like mix a few grenades in with the rocks, and if one of those gets down past you and into the vehicle, you’ve lost the vehicle. So the turret commanders like myself would constantly be scanning the crowds; your adrenaline is up and you’re extremely alert.

You trust your gut a lot. We’d be at a police station and if I felt it was alright we’d stay a fair while; if not, we’d be in and out in ten or fifteen minutes. If trouble’s brewing, you can sense it. Say there are normally kids around, and suddenly there are no kids. Or there’s no traffic coming up or down a given street. The police aren’t hanging around outside a particular police station. Then you start seeing cars blocking off the road, and you start to think about routes out of there to avoid contact. There may be no other way, it may be that you have to smash the cars out of the way, which is what we did in one major contact. You’d try to avoid this, because you’re going to have to go back the next day or the next week and you don’t want to needlessly wind people up. You try to have a bit of courtesy towards them. But if they refuse to move, we move them.

On May 23, 2006, CSgt Harkess deployed in a strike operation against a Mahdi Army stronghold.

The day hadn’t started well, there was something in the air. My platoon of three Warriors had been out on a patrol to a police station in the morning, with another platoon just outside the town covering us as a QRF in case it went off. And straight away it was wrong. We actually changed our route about three times as we came into town, though we arrived at the objective without any real bother. But there was no-one out on the street, and the police had all vanished as soon as they saw us coming. My boss and the platoon sergeant went inside – very dangerous, no-one knows what’s waiting for them in there – leaving us covering the frontage. I put dismounts up on the roofs to cover them, and look for snipers or other potential danger. Cars started blocking the ends of the street, at which point the interpreter jumped straight back in the vehicle. I got in after him and asked him what was going on. He’d overheard a conversation between a taxi driver and the police, saying there were two snipers on their way.

I passed this on to my boss, and he was back out within a few minutes. We remounted up and started to move out and we were confronted by about 150 people and a full-scale riot, with lots of bricks and stones being thrown. The baton gun came out and I popped a few rounds at targets, trying to disperse them. We managed to break out and we stayed out of town for a good couple of hours after that. But clearly the mood locally was a bit feisty.

That afternoon, we were tasked to support 7 Platoon who were going to go into a particular shanty town-type housing estate on the northern side of Al Amarah, which was known to be full of JAM. They went up one side of the town and we mirrored them on the other; the net was full of reports of heavy stoning but our side was quiet. They had to cross one of two bridges across the Tigris – we called them Green 2 and Green 3 – to get to their location, and we were to stay on our side of the river and be available in case of trouble. It was well known for ambushes, and even before we went static I started hearing contact over the net.

A heavily-armed, fifty-strong group of Militia had attacked in an attempt to isolate the lead elements of the Company; CSgt Harkess ignored a torrent of heavy fire from small arms and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] to take and hold a position to allow his comrades to extract.

Sgt Geordie Davison, callsign M1-2, was reporting. I’ve known Geordie for fifteen years, he’s probably my closest mate, so my ears pricked up and the hairs on the back of my neck started standing up. Straight away, I stopped the platoon, all gun turrets turned, and asked him what he wanted. He was about a kilometre away, on the other side of the river and inland by about 600-800 metres. He needed us to cover the bridges for his extraction so we pushed down there. And we got contact straight away. They threw the lot at us – RPG, small arms, heavy machine guns and even mortars. I sent my two front vehicles down to support one bridge and reversed by myself to cover the second; not knowing which way he was going to extract, we had to cover both. They were about 800 metres apart, you could just about see one from the other and we could support each other, too.

I could hear rounds hitting the back door, AK and heavier stuff, so I traversed the turret across the river which was where the fire was coming from. But we couldn’t ID anyone – there was a crowd of forty or so people milling around, and no obvious gunmen, so we had to sit there and take it. It was one of their favourite SOPs – the crowd parts, the gunman fires and the crowd closes again. It’s a high stakes game for them to play, but they know our rules of engagement. Of course, it’s very frustrating; we could have hosed them all down and the problem would have been solved. People ask why we don’t do that, just open fire and claim we have located the shooter. But if we were like that then we wouldn’t class ourselves as British soldiers, and the British Army would not be what it is today. Could I live with that on my conscience? No, I don’t think I could.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that the Iraqis, wrongly, perceive it as a sign of weakness, and that encourages them. If you can respond to aggression with more aggression, they respect you for it.

I noticed that the crowd were massing around the end of an alleyway, so you knew the shooters were around there somewhere. Then an RPG was fired. You see the flash and you know it’s incoming, but you’ve no chance of getting out of the way – you just have to hope. The grenade dipped onto the back deck of the Warrior, very close to me, and skipped away, so I was very lucky. I got the driver to start jockeying left and right, trying to lure the RPG boy out to have another go so that we could get him. As we’re doing that, another RPG hits us from behind and explodes. The vehicle is designed in such a way that the shrapnel should fly upwards, so it wasn’t particularly dangerous to me, but it’s obviously a bit unsettling. So you don’t think about it. You go into your own world. You know everything that is happening around you, but you’re just thinking about what you have to do at that moment in time.

By this stage, we started to locate the shooters across the river. I put my chain gun on to three or four targets and the gunner, ‘Chappers’ Chapman, got on with them. He’d been a dismount on TELIC 4, Chappers, so he knew the score; he found a lot of targets and kept a lot of our boys alive throughout this tour. On this occasion, he’d quickly dropped three or four, which knocked the stuffing out of them a bit. Once they see what a chain gun can do – I mean, it will just cut you in half, or take your arms and legs off – they’re a bit less keen to have a go. While all this is going on, I’m still conducting everything on the net with 7 Platoon and passing reports back to my OC and sitreps down to my platoon commander so that everyone was kept informed.

7 Platoon were in heavy contact; their dismounts were on the ground, also in heavy contact, and time was marching on. The longer these things take, the worse it is, because the enemy pins you down and starts encircling you and then it’s only a matter of time. We ourselves were now caught in a 360 firefight, and we couldn’t break contact because of 7 Platoon on the other side of the river. My gunner was identifying targets and taking them, as I was with my rifle. There was a stoppage on the chain gun, and I saw seven guys and two RPG teams move into a building, slightly to my rear right. I shouted down to my platoon sergeant, Sean Wardle, that he needed to take them down, because it was too close to use the 30mm [cannon]. At that range, the shells would just keep on going and explode somewhere else, and we’re not here for that. He opened the back door, stepped out and managed to put two or three of them down. But then another RPG came in – luckily, it landed short and exploded on the bank – and he had to get back in. It was pointless him being out there that exposed. Mind you, it’s bloody bad enough being in the back of a Warrior in these situations, with rounds pinging off the back door. You feel very exposed and helpless.

The gunner got his chain gun cleared and started concentrating on taking targets down. 7 Platoon had started to extract slowly and we could see enemy reinforcements trying to cut them off. The fire intensified: some of them were just charging us, running towards the Warrior with their AKs blazing. You wonder what possesses them, but they’ve been brainwashed and a lot of them are given drugs and told it’s some sort of invincibility potion. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work.

Despite hundreds of incoming rounds and grenades, Harkess held the vital ground under prolonged pressure from the enemy. Eventually the Company safely extracted. “His action prevented the isolation of British soldiers, and denied the enemy the opportunity to close,” says the citation. “He regained the initiative and almost certainly saved lives.”

Eventually, Geordie and his lads broke clean, so we set about extracting ourselves. I started to move forward, picked up my other two vehicles and headed down the Yellow routes. As we came back round on to the main street, lorries had been parked to block us off. We just rammed through them – a Warrior weighs 25 tonnes, and it just dented the bar armour a bit.

We hit a small ambush but just diverted off down a little track we’d found, which ran alongside the river. That took us to Black 11 where we got ambushed again. It doesn’t take long for them to set one of these up, they’ve all got weapons at home and they just get on their mobiles and say ‘They’re coming down your way.’

So we fought through that and then had to stop to change batteries in our ECM gear [electronic counter measures, to defeat radio-triggered improvised explosive devices]. We realised that we’d lost certain parts of the ECM in the various contacts, which meant Geordie had to come and take us back, so we were within his ECM bubble. It was only a couple of kilometres back to camp and before long we were back.

You check to make sure that all the blokes are alright, clean weapons, check ammo and see how much has been fired. Interviews then have to take place. Who fired at what, how many rounds were fired, how many enemy killed? It’s a big demand, and it has to be done straight away, while it’s fresh, to cover us in case of complaints.

I spent a bit of time chatting to my boys, making sure they were OK. A couple of my young guys were very nervy. They’d never been in a major contact before, they were only eighteen or nineteen, and it’s a lot to ask of them. I’d tell them, ‘No matter what happens, no matter how bad it is, I’ll always come and get you. I will come and find you.’ And that was some comfort, I think.

We later got a message back from the JAM via some intel source, saying, ‘We tried you, we tested you, you are strong, you didn’t leave. You are better this time.’ May 23 was their test. They wanted to see how we would respond. We knew from that point that the attacks would get heavier and heavier, and they did. And my lads of 9 Platoon always did me proud.

On June 11, 2006, C Company conducted a major search operation in Al Amarah.

We had been taking some heavy mortars and rockets – big barrages of thirty or forty plus, daily – so we launched a search operation to find them and take them out. Around the same time, a Lynx chopper had been shot down in Basra and men had been moved down there, so we were short of blokes. My platoon had been stripped – we were left with two dismounts per vehicle, so I’d been refilled in the back with the search team and the snipers.

We had target areas north and south: 7 Platoon was tasked north and 8 Platoon was tasked south. My tasking, 9 Platoon, was to drop off the snipers for target area north and the search teams for the south. My second tasking then was to satellite and deter. Meaning cover the searches to interdict and deter any insurgent attacks.

We started out in the early hours of the morning. 7 Platoon went off first and, as they started hitting Black Nine, prior to turning left to go down the Reds to their target area, they were contacted. Fast and furious, but they were coping OK. I had to go down that way, to drop the snipers and search team off for that location.

We broke down Black Nine, heading towards target area north. We were getting reports of enemy snipers and RPG teams up on the rooftops and, sure enough, once we got into the built up areas and got near to 7 Platoon, all the rooftops and alleyways just opened up on us, like it was bonfire night. I pushed my two lead vehicles forwards and started fighting the alleyways. I also got two of the lads up on top cover in the mortar hatches and they started engaging people to the rear and watching the alleyways after we’d gone by, making sure someone didn’t step out of the shadows and hit us with RPGs from the back. Myself and the gunner dealt with the front. It was dark, still about 3am, but there was street lighting; we didn’t take it out, because we were still moving, and we were wearing night vision, which gave us an edge.

We got out of the contact area and I reached Geordie, who was pulled over at a sort of crossroads, with alleyways either side. We had a quick face-to-face and he told me his turret system and comms were down. His platoon had pushed on and he was covering these alleyways for the rest of us coming through. So we continued, encountering one or two more contacts, till we reached the target area. Then we chucked the snipers out and set off down to target area south to drop off the search teams.

We made it OK, though there were reports coming through all the time, contact, contact, contact. We dropped off the search teams, about-turned and set off to carry out our second tasking. We got sidetracked by reports of a flat-bed truck which had been used to fire mortars somewhere around the prison, but we couldn’t find it, so we carried on. And for a while, things were reasonably quiet – just the odd bit of small arms fire here and there.

Then a Warrior bogged, leaving it stuck and highly vulnerable. CSgt Harkess quickly secured a key junction, a pivotal position he held in the face of a series of determined attacks.

7 Platoon reported they had a vehicle immobilised in a ditch. There were massive open sewerage ditches running down the centre of the streets and the bank of one had crumbled as a Warrior had been turning, and it had slipped in. It was literally in the shit – obviously a nice, big, static target – and we needed to get it out.

The position was very vulnerable. We could be attacked from either direction along the road in question, there were alleyways and junctions leading down to where we were and lots of overlooking buildings, including a large mosque. We knew the enemy wouldn’t take long to find out what had happened and they had lots of cover from which to attack. We got the Warriors set up covering the position as best we could, with mine covering two approach roads that intersected with the one we were on.

The 7 Platoon dismounts had fanned out around the mosque, and they started taking fire. We could see figures flitting around in the shadows, and you’d see muzzle flashes; we located, identified and dealt with a dozen or so guys, I’d say. And then it really started.

The ensuing battle lasted six hours, and was the largest and most intense in Iraq since 2004. Over 200 Mahdi Army soldiers assaulted the British troops, using the narrow alleyways and roof tops as cover as they engaged with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy small arms fire, snipers, blast bombs and grenades.

It was absolutely knackering. Like a fool, one of the alleyways I’d chosen to cover was the main one they were feeding themselves down. Within about five minutes, I was in another 360 battle. It was constant. There was no let up, and I was firing all the way through.

I’d say my vehicle and crew took down fifty enemy in total, easily. There was me with my personal weapon, the gunner and two guys in the back with Minimi [light machine gun] and UGL [underslung grenade launcher]. We all went out with 240 rounds of 5.56, and the Minimis had 800, plus 10% spare in the back, and by the end of it all we were pretty much out. I had 54 rounds of 7.62 left out of 1600 for the chain gun, and I’d used up all my 9mm pistol ammunition as well. They were coming at us in waves – at one stage, you could see bodies stacked up where we’d been killing them. Guys would jump up on rooftops above you, only five to ten metres away, and start firing down at you, so you’d put them down… then some more would be there a minute later.

RPGs were a constant threat. We later worked out that between fifty and sixty were fired at our vehicle alone. I remember there were four RPG teams in particular – a team is a firer and a spotter with an AK. They were in a hardened area, a building off one of the alleyways about 600 metres away. We’d put SA80 in there, Minimi, waxed them a few times with the chain gun and UGLd it a couple of times, and we just couldn’t get through to them. So I said bollocks to it and we let them have the 30mm cannon. We put half a dozen shells down and that was that. One of my guys in the back had a bit of a problem with that for a long time afterwards – he’d been looking down his sights and he saw the enemy basically exploding, which can’t have been very pleasant.

As it wore on, local people started coming out and we had crowds of non-combatants getting in the way and preventing us returning fire. But we had a Lynx chopper from 847 Naval Air Squadron overhead, flown by a US Marines Major on exchange, William Chesarek. He kept flying past, low and slow, drawing fire and luring the gunmen out, as well as acting as a Forward Air Controller for the fast air and letting us know what he could see. He did me a lot of favours… ‘You have men appearing now on the rooftop in front,’ and so on and so forth. Bearing in mind this was only a few weeks after a Lynx from the same squadron had been lost in Basra, it was pretty brave. Well, very brave. He was up there for five hours in total, and was nearly RPGd on at least one occasion. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for that, the first American to do so since WW2, and it was well deserved.

Harkess’s citation says: “Communications were poor, and Harkess exposed himself to enemy fire in order to dismount, speak to, direct and reassure his men. He led repeated counter-attacks, (and) opened up (his turret) so that he could maintain situational awareness and simultaneously engage roof-top gunmen with his rifle. Strike marks peppered his vehicle, yet he refused to take cover. His example inspired others and demonstrated immense courage in the face of the enemy.”

It was noisy, obviously, and at various times I had to get out of the turret and stand on the vehicle to shout to the lads on the ground, to either reassure them or direct them. In my citation for the medal, it talks about this being evidence of ‘immense courage’, but to be honest anyone would have done exactly the same, and they probably have at various times. It wasn’t as though we even had time to be nervous or scared. It was so intense… man left, bang, RPG right, bang, AK to the front, bang… you just don’t have time to think about anything else.

And I’ve always said to the boys, and I believe this, when your number’s up, it’s up. It’s going to get you one day, here, or somewhere else in fifty years’ time. So don’t worry about being shot, don’t worry about being blown up, worrying might make you hesitate and that will get you killed. Plus you could get through all this, go home and then get run over by a bus. Are you never going to cross the road again?

The ammo situation got concerning, particularly as there were people getting to within a few metres of us. But if we’d been completely out we’d have just run them over – they were never going to get to us. And it started to calm down at the sort of six-hour point. I think we’d taken so many of them out that they were being neutralised. We’d been identifying them too quick and eventually it must have sapped their will. We recovered the bogged Warrior and got ourselves extracted back to base.

It was only then, when the adrenaline started to leave you, that you sat back and thought, Crikey. There were strike marks and blast marks all the way around the Warrior, loads of them within inches of where I’d been standing: you felt that someone, somewhere, had been looking out for us. The men I fought with that day are some of the bravest I’ve had the pleasure to know. The two guys who’d been in the back were completely in shock, so I gave them twenty-four to forty-eight hours off.

They were quiet and completely withdrawn. Doing that much fighting, for that length of time, seeing first hand what a 30mm shell can do to a human body, taking grenades, RPG, heavy machine gun, taking small arms coming in all the time, while you stand there exposed… they were only young lads, and it had taken it out of them.

We were worried about Ian Page, too. (CSgt Page had been shot in the face during the fighting, and his life had been saved by the female medic Pte Michelle Norris MC, who had climbed out onto his Warrior, under fire, to administer emergency first aid.) At that stage, nobody knew whether he was dead or alive, and he’s a good mate. But, luckily, thanks to the work of the young girl medic, he was OK. He was casevac-d back to Shaiba log base and then back to the UK. It’ll take a long time for him to fully recover from that day, but he’s a fighter and he’s on the mend. Good luck, Ian.

On July 30, 2006, CSgt Harkess was deployed as part of a night-time Company operation protecting a re-supply convoy; as the convoy approached the town of Al Maymunah the enemy sprang a complex ambush on him and his men.

It was a major convoy, 200 vehicles or more, bringing in food and water to Abu Naji and also beginning the process of extracting our kit out as we prepared to hand the base over to the Iraqis. They’d ambushed the last convoy which had come in, this one was an even bigger target and we needed to go out to escort it in. The rest of the company would be on that, and my task was to leave the camp late, re-clear where the lads had already moved through to make sure that nothing had been placed in behind them, and then hide up in the desert outside Al Maymunah, about ten kilometres south of Al Amarah. Once the convoy was past, I would shoot down into the town and picket the area to look for any enemy.

Al Maymunah had been a little sleepy town, nothing ever happened in it. But as they went through, the guys got bottled, bricked and blast bombed and the OC was injured. So we knew the convoy was going to get hit. I got a call on the net to get back into town and get the dismounts out to start covering the alleyways, and so forth. 8 Platoon were coming in from the southern side to do the same.

We were about 300 metres from them when we heard them get contacted. They were out of sight, round the road and among some housing, but you could hear a weight of fire suddenly start up and then the reports began coming over the net.

I had a new platoon sergeant, a gleaming lad called Ferguson. I said, ‘Get the boys out, dominate the alleyways while we hold the main road with the three Warriors.’

We pushed one vehicle back, sent one forward and I stayed in the centre. The dismounts got out and as soon as they’d closed the back doors we started taking sniper fire. There were three of them set up, and unfortunately we had stopped in their main killing area – wide and flat, with waste ground either side of the road, well-lit up with street lights, because it was pitch black at the time.

“It was a complex ambush,” says the citation, “and with fire coming from all directions the situation was confused. Despite enemy fire, CSgt Harkess accepted that he could not withdraw his Platoon without exposing the convoy to greater danger, and he repeatedly exposed himself in order to find the enemy in the face of machine gun and sniper fire. He was steadfast under extreme pressure and he led his Platoon with real bravery; his gallantry and leadership were critical in ensuring that the convoy got through.”

We couldn’t move, because the convoy was coming through. 8 Platoon were still in their own contact down the bottom of town. We had no comms with camp, which was fifteen to twenty kilometres away, so we had no air support. The other platoon couldn’t come to help us, because they were covering and protecting the convoy, which was now three or four kilometres away. I’m wondering what to do, and the fire starts intensifying – now there’s a bit of AK and light machine gun fire too. All the dismounts were pinned down fully.

Fergie couldn’t move – every time he tried to he would get rounds landing very near to him. The thing is, ordinary small arms aren’t that much of a drama. I know that sounds ridiculous, and obviously if an AK round hits you it can take your arm off, but I’ve seen literally thousands of rounds fired at us over the course of my time in Iraq and it tends to be point-and-spray stuff, hardly anyone actually does get hit. Snipers are a different matter. You could hear the shots, single, aimed, probably using a Dragunov, a pretty accurate rifle loosely based on the AK. When they weren’t trying to pick off the lads on the ground, they were having a go at us – a round would ping off the turret next to you and you’d hear the crack!

Once again, we’re in a bloody 360 degree battle. Which I was getting tired of by now.

At least the guys were used to it and they knew what to do, which was locate and kill. They were fighting their own little battles, up and down the alleyways, so I decided to concentrate on the snipers. I stood up in my turret, trying to draw a bit of fire, hoping to see the muzzle flash.

Rifle up, managed to locate one, put the 30mm straight on to him and neutralised him.

We located another three or four people on the rooftops who were firing down on to the boys, we waxed them a couple of times and no fire seemed to come from that location again. The gunner was clearing all the rooftops and balconies, using the 30mm or the chain gun, depending what was needed.

The two guys on top cover in the back were fighting another battle to my rear left and rear right. My main concern was the other two snipers. I was taking quite a bit of heat from them, had a few come past my nose, so I wanted to find the bastards.

But I couldn’t see them. It’s quite hard to find people, in contact and at night, but I just caught sight of one of them moving, like a bent-over run, on the parapet of a roof to my right. He was trying to get a better position on me, or on the guys on the ground. I turned the turret around and let him have the 30mm. The rooftops all have thick walls round them, they can be hard to get through with a rifle or even the 7.62, but the Rarden just goes straight through.

I saw him blown over and crawl around on the roof, a bit disorientated, maybe looking for his weapon. Then I saw him come back up again. The gunner had already flicked the turret back and was engaging elsewhere, so I took the guy with my rifle.

I couldn’t locate the third bloke for a while. He was somewhere over to my left but I wanted to get him, because I’d called Fergie on the net and told him to get his lads back inside, they were too exposed. And I didn’t want them picked off as they got in. Most of the dismounts managed to get back to their vehicles, but my boys were completely pinned down in an alleyway to my side and in doorways. Every time they stepped out, they were getting fire coming down on them. Most of it was coming from rooftops opposite, so I said to Fergie, ‘I’ll put a load of 7.62 tracer up there to keep their heads down… as soon as you see that, move.’

But when he did, he had to dive for cover again – they were firing AK at him from a point almost directly above him. I told Fergie, ‘I’m going to send three rounds of 30mm straight above your head… stick your fingers in your tabs, it’s coming hard and fast.’

The 30mm did its job and they were able to extract out, with a small running battle till they reached the Warrior.

My main concern then was the last sniper. I started to move my vehicle back and forward, to draw him out, tease him with a target he couldn’t resist. So we moved forward, moved back, moved forward, moved back… and, sure enough, he started firing. The gunner dealt with him and as he was doing that Fergie, down inside the back of the vehicle, started tapping me and telling me we were taking fire from the right. So I turned and dropped another one there with my rifle. I was out, so I popped down to change mag, and a guy with an AK just stood up right near us, out of nowhere. I was like, ‘FUCK! Where did he come from?’ I dropped my rifle, pulled out my 9mm and basically emptied it into him.

Then we heard fast air arriving. They came over low, dropping loads of anti-missile flares which lit the area up. As that drifted down, the guys were able to identify groups of men moving on the rooftops and take them out.

It was a free-for-all, and that really finished their plans off for the night, I think. Shortly after that, day broke – there’s no dawn to speak of out there, one minute it’s pitch black, then you get a quick, yellowy-pink sunrise, and then it’s daylight and it starts to really warm up. And the fighting pretty much stopped, apart from one or two optimists with AKs rattling off half a mag here and there.

The convoy came through, having been held outside the town until it was safe, and we tagged on the end and were back in base half an hour later.

Once again, no-one killed, which felt like a miracle in some ways.

And again, check ammo, check the vehicles, clean the weapons and check on the lads, who were all feeling the after effects of a long and very dangerous contact, under sniper fire, at night, with rounds skipping off walls next to them. But they were a fantastic set of lads, some of the best men I’ve ever worked with, and they’d all coped brilliantly.

The citation says the three separate actions, were “each worthy in their own right of the highest recommendation for bravery in the face of the enemy.” Jim Harkess himself is less sure.

It wasn’t till much later I found out about the medal, and I’d have preferred a crate of Guinness, to be honest.

I was upset that more of my blokes didn’t get anything. I wrote quite a few of them up and I think they all earned my medal, not just me.

Actually, if I could just say to them, to the men of C Company, you are the finest men that I’ve ever had the privilege to work with and fight with. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’, be proud of what we’ve done and what you’ll do again. To my lads, of shiny 9 Platoon, boys, you are the best. To my crew – Chappers, Reevie, Steve, Chris, Fergie, Stan, Richie, Butler – thank you for everything. To the boss, Lt Lyons, we always made a good team, good luck in the future. To M3-3 and M1-3, thank you for everything.

People ask me what it was like going to Buckingham Palace. Honestly? Crap. You go there, you get rushed in, you get split away from your family, they get stuck in a hall where they have to sit for two and a half hours, you eventually get called through, have your two or three minutes with the Queen, your medal’s pinned on, then you’re straight out, you get your medal taken off you and put in a box, you’re pushed back round into the hall and then they rush you back outside.

It’s a bit like a fast food operation. Don’t get me wrong, it was a proud moment, but more for my family, my mum and dad, than me. For me, I’d not joined the Army to win medals. I’d joined to do this sort of thing, to get out to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was just doing my job.

Another thing people ask is how has it all changed me? Well, I basically don’t give a fuck anymore. What can people throw at you? Your attitude does change. You can’t experience what we have and not be changed. There’s something wrong with you if it has no effect. Little things that might have wound you up before, now it’s like, So what?

I enjoyed my tours, and I’m looking forward to going out to Afghanistan soon. I love being in the Army, basically. I love the camaraderie with the lads – during some of the major contacts, me and Geordie and others would be laughing and joking with each other… ‘Your turn to get the coffees on,’ or ‘Am I coming to save your fat arse again?’ Lots of banter, amid all the contact reports. Which I think helps keep the blokes calm.

To me, it’s like being down the pit all over again. I just changed from an orange suit to a green one – the danger was there, with gas and collapses, and the craic with the lads, having a laugh and going out for beers, is the same. Although PWRR being a southern outfit, they’re mainly shandy drinkers. Apart from that, it’s one of the finest regiments there is. The guys are second to none.

 

Here’s a lengthy extract from Picking Up The Brass, the horrifying tale of a gormless young lad from Manchester, and his fateful decision to sign up for a life in green in the dark days of the 1980s.

Be warned… it may have 170+ five-star reviews, but it’s not for everyone – as Mr George Clarke points out:

PUTB Sweary reviewThat said, Mr George Clarke is a man who buys guide books to give him something to talk about to his own family:

George reviewSo his views may not be entirely representative.

Anyway, Eddy has just arrived on the train at Harrogate, bound for the Army Apprentices College and wearing his Frankie Say No War! t-shirt. He is, naturally, terrified:

As I lumbered down the concourse, I noticed an elderly man in army uniform. He was holding a clipboard and directing some of the lads who had got off the train before me to go outside. As I drew nearer, I saw that the old codger had a name-tag that read ‘Lang’ on his chest. He also had a black cane with a metallic end under one arm and a black armband emblazoned in red with the letters ‘RP’ on the other.

I looked him up and down discreetly. He had the gaunt, craggy features of Old Man Steptoe.

Before I could speak, the old coot looked up and barked, ‘Name?’

‘Eddy. Eddy Nugent.’

He scowled at me, and shot back, ‘Eddy Nugent, what?’

I panicked, thinking he wanted me to give him more details about myself. ‘Eddy Nugent,’ I said, ‘from Manchester, er, Sir.’

‘SIR! Fucking Sir! I’m not a fucking “Sir”, Nugent. I work for a living. Do you understand?’

No.

‘Yes.’

‘Yes, fucking what?’ he screeched, pointing at the single chevron on his right arm.

I wasn’t stupid, and I knew that he wanted me to call him by his rank, but I didn’t have a clue what it was. My stomach was in knots: I’d only been off the train for five minutes and I was in the shit already. So I just pulled a rank out of my head.

‘Yes… Corporal.’

Just about the only others that I knew were Squadron Leader, Admiral and Centurion.

‘That’s more like it you horrible, lazy bastard. Now get on that fucking green bus in the car park, and I’ll be watching you, lad.’

I shuffled outside and climbed aboard. The coach was spartan, with uncomfortable, thinly padded, green bench-seats that had metal rails for headrests. Everyone had a double seat to himself, and nobody was mixing or talking to anyone else. I found a seat and soon after a chubby kid sat down next to me. At least there’s one guy I can beat on a run, I thought. It’s amazing what gives you comfort when you think you’re in dire straits.

Once the bus was full, the driver started the engine and the old corporal climbed abroad. The pneumatic doors closed behind him with a hiss and he braced himself in the aisle. When what little conversation there was had died down, he sneered,

‘Right, you little fuckers! You’re in the Army now! So when I speak to you, you will call me “Corporal”. Do you understand?’

‘YES, CORPORAL!’ came the loud reply, in unison.

Except for one lad, who deviated from the required response. A tall bloke, two seats in front of me, had also noticed Lance Corporal Lang’s similarity to Steptoe Senior, and instead of shouting ‘Yes, Corporal!’ with the rest of us, he called out, ‘You dirty old man,’ in the manner of Harry H.

Unfortunately for the would-be comic, by the time we had said our bit, his lone impression was still in full flow, and the ‘old man’ part trailed away into silence. Then he realised just how badly he had fucked up. Lang turned scarlet with rage: he was about an inch away from having steam coming out of his ears, to the accompaniment of the noise from a locomotive whistle. The bus was deathly quiet aside from the occasional suppressed snigger, but the majority of us were shocked into wide-eyed silence. I was just thinking that this would be a smoke screen for my minor altercation, when Lang took a step forward.

‘What’s your fucking name?’ he bellowed at the joker.

‘Smith, Corporal.’

‘Right, Smith. Me and you are going to have fucking words.’

Then to our surprise, Lang just sat down and the bus pulled out of the car park and headed towards camp.

I stared at my troubled reflection in the window as we wound through the light stone houses of the town and out into the dark greenery of the countryside. We climbed a foreboding hill and then headed down a lane with a small housing estate and the huts from Tenko on the right. Shortly after that, the camp perimeter came into view on the left. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, making it extremely open to the elements.

The bus slowed and we turned through the gates, me gawping at everything – even the guy on gate, because he’d passed basic training and I hadn’t. I was snapped out of my gawping by the bus jolting to a stop outside the guardroom.

Then Lang stood up and shouted, ‘Right, Smith! You funny fucker! Get off the shagging bus!’

Smith didn’t move at first and just looked around the bus as if one of us would offer some advice, but we were all as scared as each other and could be of no use. Then Lang called out again, ‘Come on, you cunt. Get the fuck off the fucking bus now!’

Smith slowly stood, and Lang harangued him all the way down the aisle. ‘Take your fucking time, Smith! Don’t hurry whatever you do, you cunt. I’ve got all shagging day!’

Smith sped up and jogged along the aisle and down the steps. Once outside and on the tarmac, Smith was subjected to Lang’s full arsenal of insults. Then, to my horror, he was marched into the guardroom jail at a ridiculously fast pace. A minute or so later, Lang came back out of the building and got back aboard the bus.

He looked very smug. ‘Any other comedians?’ he shouted.

When there was no reply, the bus set off again, passing a large boiler house with a chimney and a strange round building with a sign saying ‘NAAFI’ outside it before a series of four storey accommodation blocks came into view.

We stopped at the corner of two blocks. Lang read out a list of names. ‘You’re in Scott Squadron’ he said. ‘Now get off the bus.’

As soon as the Scott Squadron guys filtered down the steps, they were verbally set upon by a group of young junior ranks yelling shouted, ‘Hurry the fuck up!’ and ‘Sort your fucking shit out!’

I watched as they were then herded in to one of the blocks and out of sight.

Then Lang read out another list of names; when mine was called out, my heart skipped a beat.

‘Right, you lot are Rawson Squadron, so get the fuck off the bus.’

We all stood up and made our way down the aisle. As soon as we hit the Tarmac, another group of blokes, a year or so older than me, sprinted out from the block and started to shout abuse at us.

There was a mad scrabble for our cases from the belly of the coach. As soon as I had my baggage, I just turned and followed the person in front of me. There were so many NCOs shouting so much abuse, and so loud, that – as we clambered up the stairs of the block – the hollering seemed to form one unintelligible downpour of swear words and threats.

I didn’t dare look at any of the instructors, for fear of some unspeakable reprisal.

When we reached the first floor, we were directed through some brown double fire doors. We were told to give our names and lined up along the wall in alphabetical order. We were stood perfectly still and looking above the heads of the NCOs, but they still shouted at us for some imaginary crime, all the while stalking the corridor and eyeballing us menacingly. Before long, another coach-load of recruits turned up and were integrated into our group through the same medium of loud swearing.

We were each assigned a bed – eight of us per room – and then herded back downstairs into the quadrangle formed by the accommodation blocks.

After the palaver of trying to form three ranks, we were turned to our left and marched to the cookhouse for our first taste of Army cuisine. None of us were in step and the ripple effect of our pathetic attempt at marching resembled the legwork of a drunken millipede.

After a short while, we reached a covered walkway, the approach to the cookhouse. One of the instructors called for the squad to halt, and numerous comedy collisions took place, with some stopping dead and others continuing to march. Our woefully disorganised state earned us more grippings.

‘You useless bastards! You cunts can’t do fuck all! Now line up against the glass wall on the right, and get in single shaggin’ file!’

The desperate, scrabbling transition from three ranks to single file was mayhem, but we sort of made it. I ended up in the middle of the line, and we started edging to the cookhouse.

Inside, I sneaked a brief look around. There was an illuminated hot plate with a line of cooks in stained whites standing behind it. Some of the tables had soldiers sitting around them. These blokes looked across at us and laughed whilst making the odd comment about us being a ‘bunch of wankers.’

One of the NCOs caught me looking and was immediately in my face. ‘What the fuck are you looking at, you cunt?’

‘Nothing, Corporal!’ I replied. Luckily he had the same rank as Lang, so I knew what it was.

He pointed to the guys in uniform who were already eating. ‘Don’t you fucking dare look at them! You’re not worthy!’

I don’t know what he expected me to do. If I wasn’t worthy of looking at anybody who was out of basic training, I’d be spending most of my time with my eyes shut. Surely this would raise some serious safety issues, especially when undergoing firearms training. But I just looked ahead of me and said, ‘Yes, Corporal!’

Then he was away to grip someone else for an equally trivial crime.

After a while, I bore down on the hot plate. The meal itself resembled a school dinner, with the usual staples like chips, sausage, pies, beans etc. But the people serving it were very different.

As opposed to the red-faced, friendly dinner ladies I’d known in school, these people, while still red-faced, were cantankerous borderline psychotics with all manner of skin disorders. I made a mental note to stay clear of the cornflakes at breakfast.

As I moved along the line, I was met with scowls from the chefs to the point where I began to feel they must personally hate me. I just got my scoff as fast as I could and took it to an empty table where I began to eat at a leisurely pace.

I was halfway through my meal when the NCOs stood up and shouted, ‘Right, Rawson Squadron Recruits. Get outside now!’

Not one of us had finished our food, and we looked around at each other in dismay. But the instructor who had just shouted the order, reiterated his point. ‘FUCKING GET OUTSIDE NOW, RAWSON RECRUITS!’

Spurred on by the level of the NCO’s rage, we all dashed for the exits, even blokes who were just coming off the hot plate with a tray full of food.

Our first lesson had been learned: Get your food eaten as fast as possible, because the NCOs went through first, and as soon as they had finished theirs it was time to leave.

This lesson meant that, come the next meal, there was plenty of physical jostling for a good place in the queue. If you were last to get served, table manners were suspended and you ate as you went down the hot plate.

Once back outside in the walkway, we were put into three ranks again and ‘marched’ out past the back of the accommodation where the bus had dropped us off.

From there, we went back down the road in the direction of the guardroom, looking like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

On passing the boiler house again, we turned right down towards a large, derelict-looking building and came to a shambling halt at its doors.

I noticed that the word ‘CINEMA’ above them – an ambitious claim, I thought.

To the left of the main entrance was a wall-mounted poster, informing us all excitedly that Trading Places was coming soon. It was only three years after everyone else had seen it.

I still wasn’t used to the constant yelling, and jumped a little when one of the instructors roared, ‘Front rank, file in.’ There was a picosecond’s pause, before he screamed, ‘Get a fucking wiggle on, you lazy fucking gobshites.’

Harried witless, the front rank did as it was told, followed by the middle and rear, under constant vocal bombardment.

Glancing timidly left and right as we went through the foyer, I could see that, as cinemas went, it was a bare-arsed affair. Dour shades of purple and blue reigned, with none of the usual accoutrements like a popcorn stand, or a gorgeous, thick-skulled ticket lady.

We were herded down the central aisle to the front and were instructed via points, threats and grunts to file into the first empty row.

Sitting down in those surprisingly comfy seats was bliss, regardless of the abuse, and I took the liberty of having a quick look round.

On the wall to my left was a collection of dark wooden panels, listing, in gold lettering, the names and tenure dates of all the Commanding Officers of the college.

On the right were similar boards giving the same information for the AT RSMs.

Once sat down, our numbers seemed quite impressive. With the four Squadrons’ intakes combined, there were about 400 of us. The NCOs lined the back wall, glaring. One of them caught me looking over. ‘Can I get you a fucking choc-ice?’ he sneered.

I turned round quickly and tried to sink into my seat, just as a huge man came striding down the aisle.

He was at least six-foot-three and he marched so purposefully that he made it to the front in about eight paces. He turned and regarded us grimly. A hush descended, to a new level beyond mere silence.

He opened up in a Glaswegian baritone which sounded like he’d been gargling glass.

‘Good afternoon, gentlemen.’ Without waiting for a response, he continued. ‘My name is Company Sergeant Major Hendricks of Penney Squadron.’

He turned to stare at the Penney Recruits who were sitting to his left near the back.

‘Those of you in my squadron will get to know me very well over the next two years. I’m not very good with names, so those of you whose names I can recall will either have done something to impress me, or acted the cunt. Either way, you’ll remember me.’

Hendricks was scaring the shit out of me at a distance of forty feet. This was getting to be a like a bad joke: every newly introduced member of the DS was worse than the previous one. It was both well-choreographed and utterly depressing.

His voice shook me out of my fugue.

‘The rest of you will meet your Company Sergeant Majors soon. They are all as nice as me, so you won’t be disappointed. You’re here now to meet the two most important men in your life for the next two years. You will be addressed first by the RSM, and secondly by the Camp Commandant. When the RSM walks into the room, I will give you the command, “Sit up!” You will then sit up so straight that all your vertebrae will fuse simultaneously. Understood? Good.’

He moved to the side of the cinema, and stood, poker straight, with his eyes looking expectantly towards the entrance.

There was utter silence, punctuated only by a tiny, nervous fart from someone in front of me.

Then I heard the foyer door being pushed open and glanced at Sergeant Major Hendricks just in time to hear him shout his command.

The entire room stiffened, four hundred sets of peripheral vision trying to clock the RSM as he boomed down the aisle.

As he got to the front, he executed a perfect parade ground halt, no doubt doing additional damage to an already threadbare carpet.

He then spun round, in a perfect about-turn and slammed his right foot down to complete the movement, almost putting it through the floor.

It was a full three seconds before he spoke and he cast his gaze critically on a sweeping panorama of the room.

He wasn’t as tall as Hendricks, but he was built like an all-in wrestler. His stable belt was wrapped round a prodigious beer gut, which was straining to escape both above and below it, his pace stick was jammed tight under his left arm, and his boots were shinier than it was possible for non-metallic objects to be. He obviously subscribed to the little man-big hat school of thought, and he peered at us from under an enormous peak, denying us eye contact and increasing his aura of danger.

His voice, when it emerged, took us by complete surprise.

‘Good afternoon to you all. My name is Warrant Officer First Class, Regimental Sergeant Major Banning, of the Coldstream Guards.’

There was a trace of a Cornish accent, but his tone was light and almost too quiet to hear clearly.

‘I am responsible for your discipline and well-being whilst serving at this training establishment. I am an extremely fair man, with high standards both given and demanded. If you try your hardest and endeavour to honour the words in your oath to Her Majesty the Queen, you will find me to be no enemy.’

That sounded fair enough to me. His delivery was calm and measured and made me feel that perhaps there were small pockets of sanity existing in the place.

But, of course, there was more, and it made my dread return immediately. He removed his pace stick from under his arm and pointed it in our general direction.

With no change in his manner, he said, ‘However, if any of you besmirch the good name of this College, or bring the smallest aspect of the Army into disrepute, I will stick this pace stick right up your arse. It will need two strong men armed with bolt croppers to retrieve it, and when they do it won’t be me that cleans the shit off it.’

It was at that supremely inopportune moment that someone coughed loudly. The result was predictable. The RSM turned to face him, and asked him quietly, ‘Do you think it’s polite to interrupt a Regimental Sergeant Major while he’s speaking?’

The guilty lad was beyond speech, and simply sat and stared, and waited for whatever was coming next. The RSM raised his voice to the Senior NCOs at the back of the room. ‘Sergeant Bolton, please remove this man to the guardroom and ensure that he understands his folly.’

For the capital crime of performing a reflex bodily action, the guilty party was ordered in to the aisle and marched away, probably forever.

As if nothing had happened, RSM Banning made a polite enquiry. ‘Would anyone else like to cough?’ He took our terrified hush as a No. ‘There you have it in a nutshell, boys. Stick to the rules and you’ll have no problem. Fuck me or any of my staff about, and you will receive no quarter.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘The Commandant will be entering the building shortly. I will give the same command to sit up that Company Sergeant Major Hendricks gave you earlier. Make sure your response is equally observed.’

He moved to stand by CSM Hendricks and adopted an identical pose.

Despite all the fear that they’d managed to instil into me, It was at this point that I started laughing at my predicament – internally, of course. They looked such a pair of cunts stood there. You’d have thought God himself was about to walk through the door, if their chin-jutting expressions were anything to go by. I got the sneaking suspicion that thinking this way was going to be a useful release valve.

We were all anticipating the sound of the doors opening, and when they did, we made ready to brace ourselves up after the RSM’s command.

‘Sit up!’

From the back, it must have looked like an attempt to break the ‘most people being simultaneously executed in Texas’ record as the Commandant moved quietly down to the front.

As he neared the RSM, Banning sprang to life and made a show of marching three feet towards the Commandant before completing another exaggerated drill movement. In tones barely higher than whispers, the RSM informed the CO that the new intake were awaiting his instruction.

The RSM then retreated to his initial position by the stage after being thanked by the CO.

Whilst this short pantomime was being enacted, I checked out the Commandant. He was shorter again than the RSM, probably about five foot seven, and his build was slight. He was in Number Two dress and looked pretty snappy. A pair of well-polished, brown shoes finished the look.

The only person I’d ever seen dressed like this before was the Brigadier from Doctor Who.

The CO removed his hat and turned to face his audience, knocking us completely off-guard by producing a huge smile.

‘Sit at ease please, boys,’ he invited. I only relaxed a fraction, letting my shoulders slump slightly. He continued to smile without speaking, as though mentally preparing an off-the-cuff speech. After a few seconds, looking up and down the rows of shell-shocked faces, he began.

‘Good afternoon, and welcome to Uniacke Barracks, home of the Royal Corps of Signals Army Apprentice College Harrogate. My name is Lieutenant Colonel De La Tour and I am the Commandant of this fine establishment.’

His accent hovered somewhere near ‘wannabe aristocrat,’ like he was putting it on a bit. At school, I’d once had to drop off a note at the staff room and I’d gone in, after knocking, to find Mr Lever talking to his bank manager on the phone. When he was teaching us French he had a slight West Lancashire accent, but the bloke at Barclays must have thought he was talking to a minor royal. It seemed like De La Tour was labouring under a similar verbal idiosyncrasy.

He looked at the RSM and then back to us. ‘By now, you’ve met a couple of the personalities that make up our little family. The thing that you must always bear in mind is that we are here to help you in your undertaking to become trained soldiers. None of my staff are paid to mess you around unnecessarily and they will endeavour to help you find your way without having to resort to threats or punishment.’

Now I was confused. This didn’t seem to tally up with anything we’d experienced so far.

‘However, if you are failing to achieve the standards laid down by me, then I fully expect my NCOs and Senior NCOs to encourage you – along, perhaps, with some gentle chiding.’

The RSM’s face was totally inscrutable, but I could see that Hendricks was cracking into an almost imperceptible grin. Just like the Queen supposedly thinks the world smells of fresh paint, the Commandant had a slightly lopsided view of ‘his’ College. As soon as he was around, the shouting and abuse stopped and was replaced by constructive criticism.

‘There will be times when some of you feel homesick or that you are simply unable to continue, for many reasons. If you find yourself in this position, inform any permanent member of staff and you will receive a sympathetic hearing.’

The light chuckle coming from the line of NCOs at the back, was quickly strangled by a ferocious look from the RSM.

‘Don’t forget to try and enjoy this experience. You are embarking on an adventure that will see you emerge in just under two years as trained soldiers and tradesmen in our esteemed Corps. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and no doubt a few of you will fall by the wayside, but those of you who complete your training will have gained something to be fiercely proud of. I’ll now leave you in the capable hands of the RSM, and would just like to congratulate you all on choosing a career in the Royal Corps of Signals. Carry on RSM.’

‘Sit up!’ bellowed Banning, and we complied immediately as the Commandant took a leisurely stroll back up the cinema aisle, smiling.

As soon as he was through the double doors and out of earshot, the dark cloud that had temporarily been dispersed returned with vigour. Of course, it was Army policy that none of the NCOs or the RSM would publicly disagree with anything the Commandant said, particularly in front of junior ranks. Nevertheless, the sniggers and grins made it quite apparent, to anyone with the tiniest amount of perception, that they all thought he was spouting utter bollocks. He probably thought we were going straight back to the block, from the cinema, for a big sing-song with the staff.

We hadn’t been sat at ease since the Commandant left, so the RSM left without requiring us to stiffen up theatrically. When he’d gone, CSM Hendricks waited for a few seconds and followed him without another word. The second the doors closed behind him, the braying returned immediately. We were ‘encouraged along’ and ‘gently chided’ by the NCOs until we got back outside the cinema.

Once again, they optimistically tried to get us to march as a squad, presumably to give them some more abuse ammunition, as if they needed it.

When we made it back in front of the block, we were halted in the quadrangle facing the Squadron offices.

At this point, all of the AT-NCOs gathered in front of us. This was one of the things I’d never be able to reconcile myself with throughout my time at the College.

I’d love to have met the bright spark at the MOD who thought it was a great idea to put seventeen-year-olds who’d been in the Army a year in charge of their younger colleagues. It was a revelation of man-management, straight from the William Golding school of social studies.

They loitered around, eyeing us up for an excuse to give us an ear-bashing. But we had already learned to avoid eye contact and to say fuck all, unless something was asked of us.

Then, after a couple of minutes, what looked like a werewolf in a dress and a tramp in uniform came out of the Squadron offices.

The tramp spoke. ‘Good afternoon, gents. I am Corporal Timms and I am in charge of the Squadron stores. So when you get your webbing, your lids, and all that, you will get it from me. I will also give you all of the shit that you need to keep the block clean. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, Corporal!’

He pointed a shaking hand to the cross-dressing lycanthrope. ‘And this lovely lady is Dawn. She is the Squadron Clerk, and will deal with all of your administrative problems. So you will treat her with respect. Is that also clear?’

‘Yes, Corporal!’

Timms really was a scruffy bastard. His uniform looked like he had just pulled it off a dead body, and he himself had the appearance of having been on a dirty protest with nothing to keep him company but a year’s supply of meths. His ensemble would have been complete if he’d been using a length of electrical flex to hold up his trousers. My blind respect for anyone with rank had just taken its first knock.

Dawn seemed like a nice enough girl. Although a bit timid, she was of a pleasant disposition. But, fuck me was she hairy. Not the downy ladies’ fluff that’s noticeable on some women if you catch it from the wrong angle; no, this woman had whiskers you could light a match off. If she’d have been a man, she’d have been charged for not shaving.

Following the introductions by the cast of Carry On Screaming, two other permanent staff came out of the office. They were both medium-sized men, again in uniform, but they were carrying pace sticks and wearing a blue sash each that ran diagonally across their chests. They looked like also-rans from a military beauty contest. Both also wore forage caps (more commonly known as ‘Twat Hats’), with the peaks running straight down their faces, thus compressing their noses and obscuring their eyes. They had to tilt their heads back and look down their noses at us to speak.

The one on the right spoke first, out of the side of his mouth.

‘Gentlemen!’ he boomed. ‘I am Sergeant Atkins. And this,’ – he gesticulated to the other sergeant with his stick – ‘is Sergeant Bailey. Soon you will be split into different Troops. One of us will be your Troop Sergeant, and from that moment forth, you will fucking hate us. Do I make myself understood?’

‘Yes, Sergeant!’ we hollered. But amidst our call, a single, whining, unlucky voice could be heard saying, ‘Yes, Corporal.’

All the instructors, both permanent staff and junior soldiers, heard it, and in a flash had congregated around a pencil-thin kid who looked a bit like a girl.

‘What the fuck did you call me?’ screamed Atkins.

‘Corporal, Sergeant,’ replied the quivering youth.

WHY? Do I look like a Corporal?’

‘No, Corp… er, Sergeant.’

Atkins stepped forward until he was almost nose to nose with the unfortunate youth.

‘What’s your fucking name?’ he hissed through gritted teeth.

‘Rose, Sergeant.’ He was close to tears.

‘Are you sure it’s not Pansy? Do you play any musical instruments, Rose?’

‘Yes, Sergeant. The guitar, Sergeant.’

‘Bollocks, you play the fucking pink piccolo. Or is it the blue-veined flute? You’d better sort your fucking shit out and stark fucking sparking, Pansy. Or you will end up in a world of hurt.’

With that, Atkins, Bailey and all the other non-recruits moved off to the sides, and the final introduction of the squadron hierarchy took place.

Three men walked out. The first, who was also wielding a pace stick, had a badge on the sleeve of his right arm. The other two had their rank atop their shoulders. The first man, with the stick, screamed a word of command. ‘SQUA’, SQUAAAAAAAAA’, CHAAA! Standstill!’

This unintelligible noise was like a sound effect from a karate film, but it made all the other people in uniform spring to attention.

Then the smallest of the three men stepped forward, his rank denoted by a crown on his epaulettes.

He spoke in 1950’s BBC English. ‘Ah, yes, gentlemen. Welcome to Rawson Squadron. You will soon learn that this is the best Squadron in this College, and that to let the standard slip would be a terrible error on your part. I am the Officer commanding the squadron, Major Tatchell. (He pronounced it ‘Tetchell’). This’ – he pointed to the other Officer – ‘is Ceptain Bessett, my second-in-commend.’

Bassett was much older and bigger. He had a badly-broken nose and he looked like he had been in the Army since the Battle of the Bulge.

Finally, Tatchell gestured to the third man who had come out with them, and who had made the strange shouting noises. ‘And this is Sergeant Major Horton. You will get to know him very well in the future, gentlemen. Just make sure that it is for all the right reasons.’

SSM Horton could have been Tatchell’s brother. They were both short, slender men, with hook noses and hooded eyes, and each radiated an air of a wholly unpleasant persuasion. Like a couple of evil Smurfs, or a pair of goat-bothering trolls.

Tatchell looked up and down our group of scruffy youngsters, then he sniffed the air, spun on his heel. ‘Carry on, Sergeant Major!’

‘SAH!’ replied Horton, as he snapped up an immaculate salute. When both officers had gone, he turned to Sergeants Atkins and Bailey and told them to get us processed. Then he, too, returned to his office.

The two sergeants had a conversation with the junior instructors and Dawn, who then went up into the accommodation block.

Then Bailey spoke. ‘Right, gents. When I fall you out, get your lazy arses up into your shaggin’ rooms and get the documentation that you were told to bring. Then be out in the fucking corridor before I arrive, or there will be hell to pay!’

He paused, sucked in a lung-full of air then made the same kind of noises that the SSM had made earlier. ‘SQUA, FAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL, ITE!’

As soon as he had given the word, the junior NCOs started shouting and herding us up the stairs, occasionally slipping in an assisting boot up the ring.

We sprinted up the corridor, panting and frantic. The corridor itself was split into three parts, each separated from one another by double doors, and containing three sleeping rooms, one set of toilets, one drying room and one set of showers and sinks.

I was in the middle room of the corridor, so I got to my kit quite quickly. Luckily I had stashed my documents at the top of my bag, so I got back out in to the corridor well within time. The NCOs had wedged the double doors back, so the corridor was open to its full extent and I could see Dawn at the far end, sitting behind a table laden with files.

When Sergeant Bailey came up the stairs, there were still some lads rummaging frantically through their kit to find their documentation.

Bailey went mad. ‘WHAT DID I SAY? WHAT THE FUCK DID I FUCKING SAY? BE OUT IN THE CUNTING CORRIDOR, WITH YOUR FUCKING DOCS, BEFORE I GET UP HERE. AND YOU CAN’T EVEN FUCKING GET THAT RIGHT! YOU FUCKING WANKERS! THIS IS A VERY FUCKING BAD START, GENTLEMEN, VERY BAD IN-FUCKING-DEED!’

I felt a wave of collective trepidation sweep through us. Bailey waited until the last man was out in the corridor with his papers. He then told us all to turn to our right, and the first man at the head of the line then dressed forward with his birth certificate, and Dawn processed him into the Army.

After what seemed like an eternity, I was next in line. I gave Dawn my documents, she yawned and scratched her chin. It sounded like a path being swept with a stiff broom. I closed my eyes and shuddered, but all I could visualise was a big pig, rubbing its side up against a tree. I was pulled out of that hideous mental picture when Dawn told me my Army number. ‘Don’t forget it,’ she said.

I returned to my room, repeating it over and over in my head; it helped drive out the last remnants of the swineful visions.

I’m never quite sure whether these promotions are worth entering, but that for AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN seems to have worked.

As I write, it’s currently the No1 book in the Afghan war category, and No1 in Royal Marines related books, too. (There are a number of Marines featured, but it’s mostly about the Army.)

The current price – £1.99 – jumps back up to nearly £7 later today, so now is a good time to buy if you’re umming and ahhing.

For an idea of the content, click on this link to the story of Aaron McCormick – there’s more on each of the nineteen other chapters at the links at the bottom of that page.

I doubt you’ll have a more emotional read this year.

 

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