“You say you’re absolutely certain that this is the end of it Corporal Woolf?”
I was attending yet another interview with the CO in his office. Captain Garret had not been a happy man since since my release from custody a few weeks before and the transfer of the man I now knew of as Patrick Duffy, Provisional IRA enforcer, to a high security prison in Hamburg to await his fate. It hadn’t taken long for the military police to discover that he was a wanted man on several counts, not the least of which was suspicion of murder. Later, word got back to us that he was suspected of involvement in the Birmingham pub bombings back in ’74 too. The calibre of the assassin who had been dispatched to deal with me sent shivers down my spine whenever I thought about it. I was well aware of how close to death I’d been on that day although still puzzled as to why he hadn’t just done the deed immediately in the car park rather than try to abduct me.
Duffy hadn’t been in possession of any firearms at the time of his arrest. I could only assume that he was acting under orders and there had been other plans for me. I shuddered at what might have occurred if Dave hadn’t waded in when he did. As it was, Duffy was saying nothing and the fight we’d had in the car park was as far as my involvement went, apart from a ticking off about using an inappropriate level of force.
This rankled with me in the same way that the ‘Yellow Card’ always had. A card with strict rules of engagement printed on it which was issued to all troops deployed on active service in Northern Ireland. It specified when minimum or lethal force should be used and the criteria to be followed before deciding which was appropriate. Yeah right. It was obviously a well thought out ploy allowing the buck to be passed downwards in the event of a cock up. In this case I’d been trying to deal with a man twice my size and strength with obvious murderous intentions. Being considerate hadn’t been an option and once he was down I had to make sure he wasn’t getting up again.
Thankfully, the level of force I’d used on Duffy wasn’t dwelt upon for too long and he hadn’t sustained permanent injury. I didn’t let it get to me. So apart from having to give a highly detailed statement about the incident, I was told I wouldn’t be needed as a witness while the investigations continued in preparation for his forthcoming trial.
As Captain Garret kept repeating, since I’d arrived on the scene in Soltau I had been the target of not one but two serious incidents involving the Provisional IRA. Despite the fact that I had been a victim rather than the cause, I seemed to have gained a reputation for attracting trouble. My previous record and references from Bielefeld as well as my years with the Paras had been scrutinised in more detail. Other more minor incidents had reared their heads including some I didn’t even know about, so I kept my trap shut as the CO brought each one up in turn. My conclusion was that he was looking for an excuse to wash his hands of me. Despite my capabilities on the workshop floor and in the field, my name had become synonymous with disruption and violent occurrences at a unit that had been calmly going about its business efficiently before my arrival.
“It’s been one hell of a mess I agree,” I replied. “I wish I’d never set eyes on Kathleen all those years ago back in Belfast but at the time I thought she was the best thing ever to have happened to me. I’m convinced that my wife’s family are out of the picture now though, at least the most dangerous members. I don’t see why anyone else would come after me. Of course, nothing is certain I suppose.
I came here to Soltau with the intention of starting with a clean slate sir, and I’ve made a real effort to knuckle down. You have to admit that all of this has been beyond my control.”
I was pleading, knowing that my days at the LAD were numbered and wondering yet again if my nightmare would ever end.
Captain Garret continued, “What concerns me most Corporal, is that the press have made such a meal of the whole thing. Your name has been mentioned publicly several times and your exploits in Ireland with the Parachute regiment have resurfaced too. I’m worried that others of the same ilk as the O’Brien brothers or this Duffy character will seek you out.”
To be honest, I’d been wondering the same thing.
“I realise you’ve only recently joined us and I can’t fault your capabilities but for your own safety and those who work alongside you, I think it would be best if you were transferred somewhere else. It would be better for everyone if your whereabouts were less well known.”
He was right of course. Since the abduction attempt, despite me doing my best to maintain a low profile I’d had more than one journalist try to contact me and even had people stop me in the street. I’d been desperately hoping that it would all die down but even if it did, the risk from Ireland would always haunt me. Those guys didn’t like losing. I was beginning to feel as though I had a target on my chest.
“HQ have suggested a posting back to Blighty, it could be worth considering. There’s the possibility of an instructor’s position in Bordon. You certainly have the expertise and with a bit of extra training I think you could do well. I would certainly have no hesitation in giving you a good reference if you applied.”
I was surprised that I might be given a choice. Army postings didn’t usually work that way, however the circumstances were far from usual. Bordon though! This suggestion hit me like a slap in the face. I detested the place and couldn’t think of anything worse than helping to churn out fresh sprogs at the REME trade training facility in Hampshire. Passing on to them everything I’d worked so hard to learn so that they could go off and have the career I still longed for. Captain Garret must have read my reaction correctly because he had a second suggestion.
“There is an alternative that I’ve come across,” he went on. “I spoke about you to some of my contacts at HQ and the REME higher echelons. Yours isn’t a unique position to be in you know. People have been dispatched to all corners of the world in an attempt to keep them under the radar. All sorts of suggestions were put forward but one in particular caught my attention which I believe could be right up your street. Tell me what you think,” he opened a folder, extracted a sheaf of type written sheets, took the top one and read it to himself.
I was impatient to find out what fate had in store for me next. I no longer wanted to leave the army, at least not until I’d had a chance to fulfil my potential. Whatever it was that had fuelled my interest in joining up in the first place was still smouldering inside me, so I was reassured by the fact that the option of a discharge hadn’t been put forward. Not yet anyway.
“What do you think of the Royal Marines?” said Garret.
I was gob smacked. Before I could pull myself together and express my interest he continued, “There is an eight week course starting in June at the Marine Commando Training Centre in Lympstone. It’s in Devon,” he slid some of the papers across the desk.
“Read that lot later, it’ll give you more details. Basically, the course is for members of any units attached to the marines. Obviously they have requirements for REME personnel. On completion of the course, if you’re successful you earn the right to wear a green beret and the commando dagger insignia on your uniform. From that point onwards you’ll have the opportunity to serve with Three Commando Brigade.”
I was immediately flushed with excitement, still too surprised to put a coherent sentence together so held my tongue while Captain Garret continued.
“I’ll tell you now though Corporal Woolf, this is not an easy option. I’m told the Royal Marines expect fifty percent of all entrants to either drop out or be dismissed before they complete the training. There is a four week preparation course prior to entry which should bring you up to an appropriate standard but prior to that, if you decide to apply then you should begin some extra physical training right away.”
My mouth had inadvertently gaped open. I looked up at the ceiling for a second, gathered my wits and eventually managed the semblance of an enthusiastic reply.
“This sounds perfect sir! When do I start?”
A hint of a smile played across Garret’s face. He appeared to be as pleased with the prospect of moving me out as I was about the potential of becoming a marine.
“The preparation course takes place in the weeks immediately before the main course begins so you have about a month left here and you’ll need every minute of it I can assure you. To that end, knowing that you’d jump at this opportunity I’ve already had a word with Q Muncey. You’ll be relieved of some of your day to day duties. You can spend the extra time preparing yourself physically and mentally, and make sure you read up on field craft too. I’ll get your application under way and see you again nearer the time. Any questions?”
Clearly, all would be done to make sure I buggered off as soon as possible. I didn’t mind, I was floating on air. Captain Garret fired a final warning shot as I left his office, “Try and keep out of trouble for the next few weeks Corporal Woolf.”
I’d heard nothing from Chloë since the ‘dear John’ letter she’d sent and I’d made no attempt to contact her. The way she’d expressed herself had left me in no doubt that it was all over between us and there was no point in pursuing the affair further. The young Peter Williams would have found himself running around, begging her to reconsider but the newly resurrected Frank Woolf had a thicker skin. She was right, I had changed more than just my name.
That evening I composed a letter to Dave Pacey, updating him with the news about my forthcoming application to the Royal Marine training course. I could just imagine his reaction, he’d think I was off my head but writing the details down in my letter helped to make them seem more real to me. Dave was sure to pass on the news to Chloë so I wrote a final paragraph with her in mind, expressing my disappointment over the way things had turned out between us but agreeing with her decision. I told Dave I was going to abide by her request not to contact her directly but would keep in regular contact with him, so if she wished she would be able to keep track of what I was up to in the future.
Once I’d posted my letter I headed for the NAAFI bar with the intention of getting well and truly plastered. That night I found myself professing my undying love for the highly receptive Rusty, only evading a fate worse than death in the form of a marriage proposal by the skin of my teeth. It was to be my last night of excess before I embarked on a month of self inflicted hell.
The next few weeks passed without further incident as I prepared myself as best I could for what was to come. Our workload in the LAD had eased significantly during May and the CO was true to his word, allowing me an extra hour in the mornings and the occasional half day off. This gave me time to put myself through a rigorous endurance training regime. Some of the other lads had their noses put out of joint by this apparent preferential treatment but nobody said a word to my face.
I took Jack Horner as a running partner when he could make it and we ran long distances over the rough and unforgiving terrain of the surrounding Soltau ranges. Via a contact of Jack’s I obtained permission to use the assault course as well as a comprehensive gymnasium at a Dutch army barracks on the other side of town. The PT instructor there, a sergeant with the physique of a Rottweiler and a temperament to match, put me through my paces in competition with members of the Dutch army’s boxing team who also trained there. Very soon I was physically fitter and stronger than I’d been in my entire life.
As spring gave way to early summer, the day came for me to bid farewell to the few friends I’d made in Soltau. To my surprise, on my last day of work Bruno presented me with a small pewter tankard with a good luck message and my name engraved on it. The lads had done a whip round for me, an LAD tradition apparently. Rather embarrassed at their generosity considering the short time I’d been in Soltau, I accepted the gift gracefully and produced a crate of beers I’d stashed earlier to mark the occasion and handed them out. A Frank Woolf tradition. Captain Garret wished me luck although his pat on my back felt more like a shove in the direction of the railway station and that was it. I departed for England very early the following morning, going by train and boat and train again to London and from there directly to Lympstone in Devon.
I’d travelled alone, not wishing to make conversation with anyone on the way down from London but upon stepping from the carriage onto the platform, about a dozen or so other wary looking soldiers joined me, each with identical kit bags to mine, all wondering what would happen next. After the train pulled away and resumed its journey west, the station reverted to a state of tranquillity broken only by songbirds chirping their welcome. A pleasant warmth radiated from the concrete platform helping to strengthen the heady aroma of manicured shrubs and early summer flowers.
Having never been to Devon I hadn’t known what to expect but when we trooped out of the station and into the village I was pleasantly surprised at how picturesque it was. Lympstone consisted of an estuary harbour nestled on the bank of the river Exe, surrounded by quaint old picture postcard cottages. In their midst, dominating the skyline stood an unusual, Italianate red brick clock tower. A thatched roofed pub and an attractive church building completed the scene. I could see no sign of anything that looked like a training camp so sought directions from a local man on the street. I couldn’t decipher a single word that he said and he didn’t appear to understand me. It was worse than when I had arrived in Germany for the very first time. Just then a Bedford RL four tonner drew up and the driver called for us to pile in the back. We drove a short way along the bank of the river and very soon the truck swept into the training centre where a team of green berets awaited our arrival. It reminded me of the zoo at feeding time.
‘Here we bloody go,’ I thought.
The preparation course was designed to bring all of the volunteer recruits who had converged from many different units and military backgrounds, up to a common standard of basic skills and fitness which was required before we could start the main ‘All Arms Commando Course’. The training I’d put myself through back in Germany proved to be worth every torturous moment as we were thrown into a regime of non stop physical lunacy. Everyone on the course had made their own preparations but even so, three men dropped out on the first full day of training. Before even embarking on the AACC our numbers had decreased alarmingly. Personally, I came through pretty well and looked forward with enthusiasm to the main event.
If I’d harboured any thoughts about being fit enough to take anything they could throw at me, I soon had cause to think again. Over the following weeks I was systematically taken apart both physically and mentally. The first weeks were hectic but bearable as we were instructed in core military skills including fieldcraft, tactics, defence and attack at troop level. We learned map reading, navigation, health and first aid, all interspersed with a steadily increasing regime of physical training. There was great emphasis on group cohesion and teamwork. We were transformed from a disparate group of individuals into a band of brothers who were determined to do their level best to get themselves and almost as importantly their new comrades through everything our tormentors could hurl at us.
Then followed commando skills training and the tempo increased dramatically. Helicopter drills, amphibious assault, cliff assault, any kind of assault imaginable. When each unit of the course concluded we were tested rigorously. The entire process was carried out with us wearing full combat kit despite the warm weather, and carrying fighting order weighing between twenty and thirty pounds. This weight easily increased to forty pounds or more once the kit got saturated as we plunged through rivers and mud holes. We never went anywhere without taking our personal weapon, another ten pounds or so of SLR. Course members began to drop like flies but I gritted my teeth and persevered, plumbing depths of endurance I didn’t know I possessed. The final week included five consecutive brutal days of commando tests which made the previous couple of months seem like a boy scouts camping trip.
I had been worried about how strong I was mentally, having suffered so badly in the aftermath of my tour with the Second Queens in Northern Ireland and also during my ordeal in the Cascades. However this time at least the torture had been expertly conceived by professionals and subsequently evolved over many years. I and my fellow course members were taken as low as we could possibly go and it was at that point that my previously exposed failings might well have been exposed. Yet this time, due to the intense training I had already been given I was able to I overcome them. There were moments when I wished I’d never been born. When I reached rock bottom, after I’d given everything I thought I possessed, the instructors took even more.
True to predictions, more than fifty percent of my fellow recruits failed to complete the course and were returned to their units. None of those who made it into the final week escaped it without some kind of injury. I had excruciating pains in my knees and ankles as sinews and ligaments were stretched beyond normal limits. My feet swelled and split, I lost nails and grew blisters the size of grapes but I learned the importance of self medication and maintenance. My dodgy shoulder began to weaken and I feared it would prove to be my Achilles heel but somehow I endured everything. When exhaustion became too much, just when we thought we would fall apart completely, the instructors set about reconstructing us in a fresh mould. As a result my mindset strengthened and my will became unbreakable. I was remoulded in the shape of a marine commando and I passed.