Shortly after my return to our garrison in BAOR I was beavering away on a job during my first day back at work after the Christmas break. I’d not bothered to take any leave since my return from Ireland. Priority always went to married men, especially those with kids when it came to allocating leave at Christmas. I preferred to remain with the unit as one of the skeleton crew who manned the workshops over the holidays. It was a quiet period and I got to spend quality time with the rest of the single lads. While the family guys were stuffing themselves full of turkey and mince pies, arguing with their wives and fighting the kids for a go on their new Meccano sets, we spent our off duty hours in the local bars, relaxing and enjoying ourselves, chasing crumpet, attending rock concerts and generally having a great time. I intended to have a week or two of leave back in England after the New Year, perhaps in the summer.
I was in a good mood that morning if a little hung over from a heavy night’s drinking with the guys. My upper body was completely immersed in the bowels of an Alvis Stalwart. It was a nine ton, six wheel drive, amphibious vehicle with an eight cylinder 6.5 litre Rolls Royce petrol engine. Working on a Stalwart was never an easy day due to difficult access caused by the jet propulsion units. Masses of heavy duty piping, armoured cabling and multiple gearboxes meant that a mechanic had to feed himself deep into uncomfortably tight spaces to be able to carry out even the most simple of tasks. Only wiry specimens like myself ever took them on voluntarily.
I was singing to myself quietly. It was a song I’d heard Paul Newman sing in the film ‘Cool Hand Luke’ which I’d watched at the cinema on camp over Christmas and I was thinking of adding it to my own repertoire. I was an amateur musician. Very amateur. Playing and singing in local bars or the NAAFI for free beer when the mood took me but I was struggling to remember the lyrics having only heard it the once, singing the refrain over and over again.
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
As long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
Through my trials and tribulations
and my travels through the nation
with my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.
If I weave around at night
and the police think that I’m tight
they’ll never find my bottle though they ask.
Plastic Jesus shelters me
for his head comes off you see,
he’s hollow and I use him for a flask.
Just as I thought I’d got it, there was a tug on my ankle which jolted me back to reality. It was one of our Staff Sergeants, a swarthy character who went by the name of Bob ‘Flash’ Gordon.
“Will! for Christ’s sake will you give that stupid song a rest, it’s doing my bloody head in!” Understandable I conceded to myself.
“And you’ve to report to the CO’s office straight away,” he went on.
“What’s it about Staff?” I asked, extricating myself from the depths of the oily monster’s engine bay.
“How the hell should I know,” came the surly reply. Looking into his deeply tanned face I could see a hint of a smirk and could tell he was well aware of why I had been summoned.
“Go on, give us a clue,” I pleaded.
“You’ll find out when you get there son, but stop worrying. It’s nothing bad, unlike your bleedin’ singing,” he replied, putting a hand out and squeezing my shoulder.
This tiny hint of affection was extremely unusual and in itself a little unsettling to receive from Flash who was not particularly well known for his soft and caring nature.
Still murmuring the song under my breath I went over to a wall dispenser and cleaned my filthy hands with Swarfega. I tidied up my appearance as best I could, wiping my face down with a clump of cotton waste then made my way with trepidation to the CO’s office, wondering what lay in store. I knocked smartly on the door and entered when told, standing to attention in front of the desk.
“At ease Will” said the CO, Captain Thorpe.
There it was again, a hint of friendliness accentuated by the use of my nickname. I scratched at the itchy scar that had formed on my forehead. It wasn’t particularly noticeable any more unless you really looked but I considered it my hard earned war wound. It served as a permanent reminder of that terrible day back in Ireland. Never being comfortable in the presence of officers I was impatient to hear what this was all about. The CO paused for a moment, reading a written communication spread before him on his blotter. Then he looked up and in his clipped Sandhurst trained accent announced,
“It appears that as a result of that action you took part in last month over in Ireland, both private Sullivan and you have been mentioned in despatches.”
“Really?” I replied. I was completely surprised. Since our return I’d been wondering whether or not I would be summonsed to take part in an enquiry about the incident. I had a feeling that Lockley would be passing the buck downward and I’d spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say. I’d expected to be caught up in some sort of witch hunt rather than have my action recognised in this way.
“Yes,” he went on. “Actually, after hearing the details of what happened I’d been hoping you’d receive a higher level of recognition but an MID is a good thing to have on your record. Congratulations. It was one hell of a situation you were put in and you acquitted yourself as well as anyone could have been expected to.”
He went on to explain what an MID was all about. After the tour our names had appeared in an official report written by our battalion commander which was sent back to Brigade HQ. The report would have described ‘the soldier’s gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy’ to quote the official handbook. Therefore, as well as receiving my General Service campaign medal sometime in the next few weeks, I would also be presented with a certificate and a bronze oak leaf to attach to my GSM ribbon. Marvellous, my dad was going to be so proud. I have to admit I was proud of myself too and I didn’t think it would do my chances of receiving that elusive first stripe any harm either. I didn’t know anybody else who had received the same distinction.
I left the CO’s office unable to control the smug expression on my face and passed on the news to those working around me. It was a good excuse for taking the lads out on the town that night to celebrate, as if we ever needed an excuse. The good news was tempered though after word reached us from England a few weeks later to say that the surgeons had been unable to save both of Sully’s legs. One of them had been amputated above the knee, the other was going to require a lot of treatment too. It was going to be a medical discharge for poor old Sully and I realised I was unlikely to ever see him again. Any news, good or bad was always punctuated by a gathering and a few drinks. That night we all raised a glass to Private Sullivan in his absence and back in my room after a good session in the NAAFI I wrote him a long, beer fuelled, heart felt letter to wish him well but I never received a reply.
I’d been prone to suffering minor headaches on and off since my return from Ireland and hadn’t been sleeping well at all unless assisted by plenty of alcohol. But it wasn’t until much later, perhaps a couple of months, that the nightmares began. At first I thought it was a one off, an understandable flashback to that horrific morning in Derry but it proved not to be. Over the following weeks my dreams intensified and became so realistic that I often awoke not knowing whether or not I had actually gone through the traumatic event once more. Night after night, over and again as I tossed and turned in my sleep, I experienced that fateful patrol.
It always began with a feeling of extreme loneliness and of being watched by a malevolent presence, unable to move and nowhere to go, the tension and fear building up. A face would appear swimming in front of me until it took the form of our prisoner from that awful day, his unwavering cold eyes boring into me like bullets. Then came the violence. Always there would be the explosion and the horrific vision of a partially dismembered body arcing through a pall of black smoke, spinning and tumbling like a rag doll. My stomach would lurch the way it does on a roller coaster, as if it was me being propelled through the acrid cloud. I’d see expressions of agony on faces drained of blood, fading and then reappearing before my eyes like ghosts.
Sometimes I would witness burning armoured cars with screaming soldiers engulfed in flames, struggling to escape, only to be clubbed to death by masked men in black. Another explosion and a shower of thick, sticky gore splattering me from head to toe would see me wake up in the early hours crying out in panic. With heart racing I would be trembling with fear and saturated with sweat. It wasn’t just the night time though. Randomly the most ordinary of occurrences such as a sudden noise or even a prolonged silence would trigger an uncontrollable panic attack.
The only solution I could rely on was to have myself a good strong drink. Brandy or whisky became my remedies of choice, rum if I ran out. I would usually have to get completely pissed before I could face going to bed and most mornings I topped up with something strong for breakfast before I could even think about taking on another day. Over the following months my behaviour and demeanour deteriorated until I appeared to be drunk more often than I was sober. I underwent mood swings changing from hysterically fooling about, through depression to violent anger all within a few hours. As a result people began to avoid my company, my work suffered badly and of course it got noticed.
Everything came to a head when I went home on leave for a week in the summer but didn’t return to my unit when I should have done. I don’t have much recollection of what happened. I remember spending an uneasy few days in the company of my parents back in Hertfordshire. Dad insisting I went to the local working men’s club with him where he bragged to his mates about his heroic son’s exploits. Mother fussing over me as if I were still a child. I’m aware of reaching the point where I couldn’t stand being there any longer and deciding it was imperative to get back to my unit again before I went completely mad.
I know I left England as scheduled OK, the proof was stamped in my passport. I crossed the channel and got on a train but I never made it back to West Germany. With plenty of time to spare I only travelled as far as Venlo, a little town on the Dutch border. It’s a place I’d visited many times before for boozy weekends with the lads and it appears that having polished off my duty free booze on the train I decided to disembark and find myself something else to drink. That was never a problem in Venlo, alongside plenty of substances of the herbal variety too. I ended up two weeks absent without leave and no memory at all of where I’d been or what I’d done during that period.
Police reports and witness statements filled in some of the blanks for me although the details were hazy and confused. Filthy and unshaven, off my head on booze I’d been chucked out of more than one bar before I got into a fight with some loud mouthed American bloke. He’d taken offence at some of my singing. Understandable I concede. In particular he’d disliked the Plastic Jesus song with him being a bible thumping red neck. Apparently I’d latched onto him and had relentlessly belittled his religious beliefs. With his feathers duly ruffled he retaliated by sounding off about his support for the IRA. Winding me up mercilessly he’d gone on to sing a song of his own called ‘Little Armalite’.
I’d heard the song before and it must have been the last straw for me in my mental state. It was a song sung at us by some of the more friendly drunks of Londonderry after they were turfed onto the streets at closing time and confronted us on foot patrol. They used it to try to provoke us into some sort of retaliation but we ignored them, maintaining concentration and watching for more serious threats.
“And it’s down in the Bogside, that’s where I long to be,
Lying in the dark with a Provo company,
A comrade on me left and another on me right
And a clip of ammunition for my little Armalite.
Sure the army came to visit me, ’twas in the early hours,
With Saladins and Saracens and Ferret armoured cars.
They thought they had me cornered, but I gave them all a fright
With the armour piercing bullets of my little Armalite.”
So it went on until I’d waded in with feet and fists to shut the American up. Between us we’d totally demolished a small bar room in the town centre before the Dutch Police had been summoned and arrived in force. They hadn’t messed about and so, stinking of alcohol and marijuana I’d spent an uncomfortable night in a cell, waking up with a mouth like a gorilla’s armpit and with what felt like Ginger Baker conducting a drumming master class inside my head. Mercifully, apart from a few grazes and minor bruises I’d not sustained too much in the way of injuries. The same couldn’t be said for the American who spent his night in a much less comfortable situation having his injuries treated in an emergency medical ward.
While I’d slept off the booze, a plethora of phone calls had been made. First the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, the Dutch version of Military Police turned up. Then after some more calls the British redcaps arrived on the scene. They filled out a ream of paperwork, hand-cuffed me and threw me into the back of their car. I was dragged unceremoniously across the border back to my unit where I spent several more uncomfortable nights in the guard house before going on CO’s orders. By that time I was pretty sober but in no fit state to make much of an impression on Captain Thorpe. Without a hint of sympathy or offering any opportunity to plead my defence he had me banged up in the guard house for a further twenty eight days.
This was the maximum punishment that could be given at that level. Anything more would have required a court martial and punishment would have been served in a military prison. I may even have been dishonourably discharged so all in all I’d survived by the skin of my teeth.
When at last I emerged from my internment, clean shaven, shorn and sober I’d had plenty of time to recover from my bender both physically and mentally. I’d been able to get on OK with the guards and the MPs during my incarceration. Everyone was aware of the fight I’d survived in Ireland and over the weeks following the battalion’s return the story had been exaggerated and compounded until I had been fêted as some sort of a hero. So while in the Nick I was treated reasonably well by members of the guard and besides, nobody was particularly enamoured with loud mouthed American IRA sympathisers.
Being locked up alone in a silent and gloomy cell for prolonged periods with only my own thoughts for company was the catalyst for a healing process I hadn’t expected. It came to me slowly as I repeatedly went over the events during and in the aftermath of my Ireland tour. The plain fact of the matter was that I was a survivor but I came to realise that survival wasn’t something that just happened at a particular point in time. It didn’t begin or end with the start and finish of the traumatic incident concerned. I was still surviving now and would be working at it for the rest of my life. There would be days, maybe weeks when I wasn’t surviving very well but there would be other periods when I coped much better. Over time some aspects of my ordeal would fade into obscurity but other memories would remain with me forever and I would continue to survive them. What had happened would of course have a bearing on the way I lived my life in the future but it didn’t necessarily have to have an entirely negative effect. I convinced myself there was a very good chance that the experiences I’d endured would make me mentally stronger in the long run.
From that point on whenever I sensed that my ‘black dog’ was about to start growling, to misquote Winston Churchill, I took a step back mentally, pausing until I could fathom out why my train of thought had wandered in that direction. Once I detected a reason I made a point of substituting fonder memories in its place. It was akin to putting a leash on the dog and taking control until the growling became a whimper. It wasn’t as easy as it reads here and there were setbacks in the form of bad dreams, but as the days and nights passed I found that I became more capable of intercepting the panic before it could take hold and control my mood until the episode passed.
What with all the drill, fatigues and physical exercise I was put through coupled with the absence of even the faintest whiff of booze I began to feel healthier and a little more like my old self again. Close but not completely. I was aware that psychologically I still remained fragile as though a veil of darkness had descended over me and had not quite been lifted. There was and probably always would be the remnant of a dark shadow. I doubted whether I would ever be able to return to being the same happy go lucky person I’d been before Derry but I hoped in time to get stronger. Now all I wanted to do was return to work and get back into the established routine I’d once been used to. Alas, it wasn’t to be for the long term.
Upon my return to work I’d pledged to Captain Thorpe that I would do my utmost to get my act together and I’d meant it sincerely at the time. True to my word I got my head down and worked as hard as I could to put things right. I convinced myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I’d just been using the booze as a crutch in an attempt to purge horrific memories but it hadn’t helped, I was well aware of that. I resolved to cut my consumption right down and had no problems doing so. I’d had little more than the occasional beer since completing my punishment. I’d also stepped up my fitness regime and this played a big part in assisting my mental recovery. The nightmares dissipated to the point that I no longer feared going to sleep.
A few weeks after my release from the guardhouse I was in the workshop working on an FV432 APC, a huge fifteen ton, nine feet wide, tracked vehicle that I had become particularly proficient on. It was always a noisy workshop. Rock music blasted from powerful speakers to keep us all entertained while we toiled away. Deep Purple, Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, these were the bands which provided the sound track of our working hours. The music had to be loud as every now and again somebody would start up a massive, unsilenced Rolls Royce engine that had been removed from its hull then reconnected with umbilical pipes and cables. It would be run at high revs to attain working temperature before servicing could be carried out. The spine tingling roar from those engines was earth shattering and I loved it, especially when accompanied by ‘Smoke On The Water’. Along with the cacophony of welding generators, power tools, thirty or so squaddie mechanics yelling to each other or singing, backed by the constant drone of powerful extractor fans, it was a lot of peoples idea of hell but to me it was home.
True to form my entire body was stuffed head first through the rear engine covers of the APC I was working on so that only my ankles protruded. At full stretch I was in the process of changing a tacho-generator in situ, a nasty little job that usually involved removing the massive power pack from its armoured encasement due to the awkward location of the device. Possessing a wiry strength coupled with unusually supple joints I was the only mechanic in the LAD’s entire compliment who could perform the job in situ, saving a hell of a lot of time and effort in the process.
Focused on the task in hand I was in a world of my own, singing along merrily to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ which was blasting out of the speakers. I felt a tug on one of my boots and above the din heard someone yell to me.
“Will! You’re wanted in the office.”
It was Flash Gordon again, my section leader who’d come to pass on the message.
“In the office. ‘Q’ Reilly wants to speak to you.” he repeated.
‘Q’ or Quartermaster Reilly was the Warrant Officer in charge of the LAD, second in the chain of command to the CO. He’d not been with us long and I didn’t know him very well as he never mixed with the blokes on the shop floor. From what I could gather he was good at his job, efficient if a little strict but I’d barely spoken to him during the period he’d been in charge.
“What’s he want me for? Can’t it wait? I’m up to my neck in it here,” I replied with an involuntary nod in the direction of the tacho-gen which resulted in my receiving a short sharp blow to my forehead. As I said, there was very little room to work within the confines of the engine compartment.
“How the hell should I know!?” came Flash’s stock reply.
“Come on, move your arse. Mustn’t keep the boss waiting.”
Cursing silently under my breath I carefully extricated myself from the torturous position I’d spent a good ten minutes wriggling into.
“It’s not easy this you know,” I whined, playing on the fact that nobody else in the workshop was able to do what I was doing. In my experience it never did any harm to let the bosses know how indispensable you were. Wiping my oily hands on a scrap of cotton waste I made my way to the front of the workshop where ‘Q’ Reilly’s office was situated and rapped loudly on the door with the spanner I was still holding, entering without waiting to be asked.
“You wanted to see me ‘Q’?”
“Ah Will, yes. Sit down.” he replied, nodding towards the tubular steel framed chair opposite his desk.
I still had no idea what it was about. He’d referred to me as ‘Will’ and had invited me to sit rather than call me Williams and make me stand to attention for a bollocking. This indicated to me that it was unlikely to be anything too bad, or so I thought. On the other hand ‘Q’ Reilly wouldn’t have called me to his office just to pass the time of day. The possibility even occurred to me that they’d changed their mind about my promotion to Lance Corporal that had come through while I’d been serving my time in the guardhouse. It had been overdue but because of the poor timing had been put on hold, understandably I had to admit. I hadn’t been too bothered about it although the extra cash might have been handy. I sat there in anticipation, all ears.
“I won’t beat about the bush.” he began. “This has happened as a result of your exploits in Holland. Despite your record and performance in Ireland the battalion hierarchy weren’t happy to have their reputation tarnished by your behaviour. You let us all down.”
He paused, staring at me for a second, scanning my face for any sort of reaction. I’d had all this already from the CO and thought that a line had been drawn under it. Now here it was being raked over again. This interview wasn’t going the way I’d hoped it would.
He went on, “I’ve been contacted about this a few times, as if I don’t have enough to do around here. You’ve been the subject of a few conversations actually and the conclusion reached was that something has to be done to ensure that you don’t slide back down into the gutter again. I have to agree although I will be sorry to see you go.”
“Yes. After consideration it’s been decided that a new posting is the way forward for you, so Captain Thorpe has put the wheels in motion.”
I felt my face flush as the bottom dropped out of my world.
“But ‘Q’, I’m over all that business now. It was just a blip and I’ve settled...”
“Don’t interrupt!” he snapped, raising the palm of his hand to silence me.
“This isn’t a democracy as you well know,” he continued. He put the emphasis on the word ‘you’ and pointed a finger threateningly in my direction, making it clear that I was pushing my luck. Despite my shock and disappointment at such devastating news, I knew I’d better keep my trap shut before he got even more irritable.
“A decision has been taken and you’ll abide by it whether you like it or not.”
There was a long silence during which the tension increased a little. Once he was satisfied that I’d calmed down sufficiently he went on.
“I did object actually. If it had been left to me you wouldn’t be going anywhere but looking at your records, a posting is just about due anyway.”
I was cut off as the hand was raised again. I was beginning to feel like I was back in front of the headmaster at school.
“The reason I’ve called you in is because your posting has come through.”
He looked at the papers in front of him, picked up a sheet with one hand as he placed his reading glasses on his nose with the other and studied the sheet in great detail as if he hadn’t already seen it.
“It’s not a bad one actually. You’re off to REME HQ Battalion LAD in Bielefeld. You’re unlikely to see much in the way of action there. You won’t be required to work in the field. They don’t even go out on exercise unless you are seconded temporarily to another unit but that’s very rare. Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea seeing what effect a little action in Ireland had on you,” he sneered.
“It’s all staff cars and light vehicles at HQ. If you keep your nose clean there you could do OK. I’ll be recommending that they reconsider your promotion after a probationary period.”
The blood rushed to my head. He’d never been anywhere more dangerous than crossing the street, the prat had no idea what I’d been through and even less about what I would consider a good posting. It took a lot of self control to keep myself from reaching over the desk and grabbing him by the throat but I kept my cool.
“I’m an armoured vehicle mechanic ‘Q’, one of the best you’ve got. I’ll be wasted over there servicing Dinky toys surely,” I said.
I was pleading, racking my brain to find a way out but knew deep down that the decision had been made and there was nothing more to be said.
“You’ve proven you can do a good job on ‘A’ vehicles I agree, but you need to broaden your experience if you want to progress in the army. It’s a good posting Will. Think yourself lucky you’re staying in Germany. You could easily have ended up in Aldershot or some other shit hole.”
He had a point. A big garrison town in England would have been a really depressing places to end up. At least in Germany I was constantly finding places and things of interest, enjoying and absorbing elements of a different culture. The novelty of being abroad had never really worn off.
With that Reilly picked up some more papers and began studying them. After half a minute he looked back up again as if surprised to see me still sitting there.
“You’re due in Bielefeld on the first of August. I’ll get the details to you officially in due course.”
That was it. I was dismissed. The interview was over and so was my time in Werl. I left the office hugely disappointed and certain that things were never likely to be the same again.