A Pawn for the
Queen - By Ken Lake (ISBN 9993261114)
Ken Lake served seven years in the Royal Marine Commandos, including
serving four tours in the Northern Ireland conflict. Sniper trained,
he was accredited with being the youngest section commander in
Northern Ireland during the early 70s when Belfast went through its
darkest hours. Ken says that his experiences in Belfast changed his
outlook on life.
Recently on a peace pilgrimage back to
Belfast after 31 years, he was welcomed by ex IRA and UVF activists
in a unique bridge building exercise between protagonists of the
conflict that cost so many lives. It was the first known dialogue
between Ex British Forces and the IRA. The dialogue took place in
Andersonstown, the Falls road and the New lodge districts showing
that peace can be at long last a reality.
Some of his
accounts can be read on Britain's small wars website
A military and
freefall parachutist and sniper trained and with a career that included a being a full
time amateur boxer for the Royal Navy boxing team as well as a Ski
instructor. Ken is a fitness consultant and sports director of the Marsa sports club. He was chief coach for
the TV games 'Its a knock out for the Maltese teams.
He has worked as a fitness coach for
soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming, Water polo, boxing teams and rowing squads
He has also
worked as a bodyguard and spent some years on the oilrigs. He lives
in Malta with his family, where he operates a fitness studio.
A Pawn for the Queen is his first novel and was nominated for the
international IMPAC Dublin Literary award 2003
Charlie White is a unique young man from a deprived
family and home. Breaking away from the East End of London, Charlie
enlists in the Royal Marines and becomes an instant hero in the
Falklands War, winning the George Medal in a bloody action. Charlie,
it seems, is destined for a brilliant career until, upon the bitter
streets and the troubles of Northern Ireland, fate conspires to
persecute him. He is wrongly accused in a highly charged incident
that threatens to derail the delicate peace talks between Ireland
and Britain with the U.S.A. brokering. Without any substantial proof
of his innocence, Charlie is sacrificed as a necessity so the peace
talks can continue.
After years in prison he is released, an angry soured young man. The
IRA plots his death with the aid of a Mafia-contrived set up.
British Intelligence MI5, a devastating ambush, a beautiful Maltese
girl, action that moves from the Falkland Islands to Ireland, from
London to Palermo and Malta - are all ingredients in this deadly
game of life or death...
The Royal Marines Muscle Mechanics
We stood to
attention anxiously waiting for them to arrive. No doubt stronger
words depicting nervousness could be inserted at this juncture as
our hearts thumped wildly. Standing in three symmetrical lines
outside of the imposing building, we were immaculately turned out.
Wearing white painted plimsolls that lit up the dull morning and
this footwear matched our other brilliant white attire, socks, white
tops and long white shorts. The shorts had been starched and honed
to a sharp crease that might possibly double as a razor. We were
punctual, smart, ready but somewhat unwilling. A whole bundle of
unwilling or whatever the adjective is, if the truth must be shed.
From our white clad
wear, one might be easily forgiven for picturing a wedding or maybe
a first Holy Communion scene, and about to enter into God's
wonderful kingdom. The innocent colour of our attire that usually
depicted cleanliness or holiness was to be soon sacrificed and
brutalized. That first morning outside the building and then indeed
every other morning from there on, other particular demigods would
act as supreme beings. The Cathedral that we were about to enter
belonged to another type of religion, the body religion with gym
fitness. Gym fitness, possibly a mild word to describe the legendry
and cruel sufferings we'd heard about and apparently this brutality
materialised in the interior of the hallowed hall standing directly
in front of us.
We were Royal
Marine recruits otherwise known as Noddies. This was week one, with
7 more months of hell in the supposedly toughest military training
schedule in the world. Less than 30 percent of the 61 recruits that
started in the squad would eventually succeed in winning the right
to wear the coveted Green Beret. The hell hadn't started just yet
but we were assured that today we would witness a new experience.
Pain was apparently the key adjective and suffering followed by a
hairs breadth. Blisters, bruises and tears happening shortly, would
have been awarded short odds by any canny bookie.
instructor had marched us over to the Gym changing rooms in our
parade uniforms directly from an invigorating drill session that
almost made us feel like real soldiers. Noddies egos though are less
delicate than a chocolate micro-wave-oven in the Sahara desert at
lunchtime in an establishment such as this.
"Halt! Right turn!
Stand at ease. Stand easy.” The orders were shouted and we performed
the movements with vigour.
good effort, bags of effort today.” The drill instructor snapped and
looked up and picked out the grey clouds with his eyes and then
hunched his shoulders before he spoke again.
training, ummm.” His face could have been sucking a sour lemon as
his thin lips worked. “Good luck," said the drill instructor. “Gym,”
he half said to himself as his eyes cringed and the slightest shake
of the head was barely discernible.
“Fall out,” he
commanded then about turned and marched away smartly as drill
instructors invariably do.
We then changed
quickly into our PT kit and then been subsequently inspected by our
permanent training squad just outside of the feared building. Those
smart uniforms placating ideal parade ground soldiering now hung on
pegs, and naked without them, our vulnerability lie totally exposed.
This was another ominous psychological factor against us.
outside to wait.
of this torture laboratory feebly tried to mollify our senses with a
pleasant entranceway decorated with rhododendrons and other pretty
looking flowers but didn't crematoriums have easy on the eye
entrances? I thought cynically. Didn’t graveyards have pretty
flowers? Didn’t dentists’ waiting rooms have colourful interesting
magazines to look at, well maybe the last one was wrong, but we
still have the desire to admire the beauty of the garden.
We waited for our
first Gym training session with the same desperate trepidation as a
bandit might, as he stood blindfolded before a firing squad.
Sweating with fear whilst awaiting the dreaded metallic snick of the
rifles being cocked while the last ditch redemption hope faded.
A magpie flew by
before swooping elegantly onto a nearby manicured lawn, soon joined
by its mate. Near the middle rank, a butterfly danced, fluttering
and twisting in the humid air. A fat wasp buzzed past my ear before
landing on the back of Jones's leg in the front rank, ahhh, the
joyous normality of nature performing on a grey, overcast day. Maybe
it wouldn't be so bad after all, especially with the imminent drama
of a possible wasp sting to loosen the mood.
The nervous energy
of 61 men suddenly heightened. The Magpies sensibly flew off; the
Butterfly batted its wings and jived away. Jones twitched the wasp
off his leg before it could sting him. The clouds ganged up to
obliterate the light. The world still turned, the fish still swam in
the oceans and the trees still swayed as our moment arrived, but it
was sort of different now because he came into view.
The truth had
arrived and our bodies cringed with the knowledge of pain that would
accompany it. An immaculately proportioned figure approached us, a
man easily identifiable from the descriptions given to us. We were
now in the presence of the senior physical training instructor. He
was dressed in white shorts, white singlet with red trimmings. The
badge of the crossed red Indian clubs worn proudly on his barrel
chest mocked us. The badge depicting ultra malevolence on that
powerful chest upped our heart rates even further. Following just
behind the barrel chest were three equally and arrogantly muscled,
Corporal PTI's. We jerked very visibly at the first sight of these
super fit looking men and wondered if the frightening and fearful
rumours we'd heard about them were true. It was find out time, show
time and reality time all mixed together. We waited for the big guy
to light the fuse.
The Senior Royal
Marine physical training instructor looked to be in his early 30s,
tall, blond and wearing an impassive expression, as he looked us
over with his icy cold and penetrating blue eyes.
"Be careful of the
big, blond Colour Sergeant. I call him the chief muscle mechanic.
He's a mean one, don't upset him whatever you do." The barrack room
lawyer had gossiped royally to his attentive audience in the
accommodation corridor. We didn't have to work hard to squeeze
further words from the ‘lawyers’ mouth.
"Yeah, the Chief's
a right sadist. Apparently, he’s killed at least three recruits.
Yeah, one of them had a heart attack, pushed this young kid too hard
and then the kid just dropped down dead in the middle of the gym. Of
course the Chief got acquitted because of diminished responsibility,
but that’s the government for you." The barrack room lawyer laughed
loudly as he pocketed the money for the new looking second hand iron
he'd just sold us and then continued.
"See this iron?
Yeah, it belonged to a lad from Lincoln. Yeah, he's in hospital now.
The Chief done it to him, he did. Yeah, broke his leg he did.
Snapped it just like a rotten tree branch on the assault course.
Pushed him too hard and then." He slapped his hands together with a
crack and we jumped with shock at the noise. The lawyer from a more
advanced squad in the initial training schedule spoke like an old
soldier swinging the lamp. We questioned him further on the life of
the marines; after all he had been in Her Majesty's armed forces as
a recruit for over 3 weeks now, he should know.
We shuffled away
with the iron and ironed our PT kit with exemplary diligence but the
seeds of the new bogeyman had been sown.
The Chief Muscle
Mechanic spoke crisply whilst we stood hypnotized unable to move a
squad, a hell of a fine day isn't it?" He said amid the threatening
bulging grey clouds in the dismal morning light. The eyes dissected
"Let's start with
a big question shall we? A little verbal assessment before we start,
eh?" He graced us with a pause and began unthreading our physical
secrets slowly with his eyes. Peeling away the myth we recruits had
designed individually as self-protection. Peering at us all,
stripping through the scantiness of our flimsy training outfit with
measured glances followed by a carefully crafted, long and
uncomfortable pause that dried the mouth saliva of the men standing
"All the West Ham
united supporters, raise your hands, go." He suddenly barked out
fast making us wince.
We look flummoxed
was this, a joke? Thrown off balance, completely confused, looking
warily at each other with furtive eyes. Good oh! Safety in numbers,
no hand is raised. I wondered whether a West Ham supporter was a bad
thing or not, perhaps it was a standard marine hatred for some
obscure reason. An intense dislike of Arsenal was probably another
Corps motto, bound to be, the Royal Marines were meant to be the
best after all. Maybe he was wheedling out the rubbish before we
began. I felt vindicated at my Chelsea support and felt slightly
"Oh dearie, dearie
me. My word, not an auspicious start is it?" The Chief shook his
head slowly. We had guessed wrongly it appeared that was obvious at
the way the Chief smirked sourly and shook his head.
‘Come on me, West
ham aren't that bad, they are sort of my second team,' I thought
defensively and wondered why my hand hadn’t shot up. Perhaps our
failure in supporting the wrong football team was an ominous
warning? Ok, gottcha, funny. Obviously this was an obscure and
ancient Indian type of exercise to see who could shoot their hand up
the quickest using a silly trivial question as bait? Or perhaps a
trick type game that the marines really enjoyed. Bloody clever!
dumbfounded and perplexed until the Chief then enlightened us.
"I am Colour
Sergeant Davies and these fine bodies behind me are my staff. As
your physical training staff, we are at your service." He smiled and
turned to look at the smartly assembled Corporals behind him.
"Good, nice to
meet you all and now that you know who we are; we in turn will get
to know who you are. To simplify this getting to know each other
phase, we will categorize you into two simple groups. These two
groups are the unfit, useless, waste of time, space and money
Noddies that won't complete the training. And the unfit, useless
Noddies, but with some guts who will attempt and maybe complete the
training. As I said earlier, quite a simple choice isn't it? This
morning, the process will start and each individual can decide in
which group you want to be in.
My initial task is
to separate the men from the mice. I don't care much for mice;
rather eliminate them immediately before they contaminate the real
men. 61 Noddies will start this fine morning and to be truthful, I'm
not very confident that some of you will get through this very first
session judging by my first impressions of you all. Could be wrong,
hope I am, course, it's up to you all now to prove me wrong. I will
expect you all to give me nothing but your best effort at all times,
absolutely nothing else will be good enough, let that point become
Crystal Palace or crystal clear depending on which part of London
you live." He didn't pause for his humour to be appreciated. Or was
it humour at all? Who could tell? His introductory speech had
already scattered our senses.
His voice barked
on. "Another point before we begin. I presume you are all volunteers
and not victims of conscription, right?" The Chief didn't wait for a
reply because it wasn't a real question in the normal sense and he
went on in the same vein.
"And I suppose
you're getting paid for trying to become a professional assault
trooper, aren't you? Of course you are. So please don't
underestimate the strict training of the Marines because it won’t be
easy. This training is not designed to be or I wouldn't be here
would I? Be honest with yourselves, you don't actually look the
typical requirement of a fit and elite fearless storm trooper
prepared to serve in any situation anywhere in the world yet at the
drop of a hat, do you? You must have had some kind of inkling to
what you were getting into when you walked through those famous old
gates." The Chief pointed toward the direction of the main gate. "I
just hope your being here isn't just an act of bravado to win back
your lost girl friends," He looked at us with a wicked expression.
"That is of course, if you are that way inclined, humm it takes all
sorts? Or maybe it's too prove something to Daddy? We'll find out
soon enough, humm. Meantime, here are some of my rules. You can call
me a chameleon if you like but instead of changing my skin colour to
suit the environment, I'll adapt my attitude according to your
performance. As you can see from my well-mannered introduction, I am
behaving in a very gentlemanly and civil manner so far." The Chief
stopped to let his words sink in. "Just to remind you all, my job
is to try and get you from looking like unfit scruffy civilians and
to try and work a miracle and get you lot looking something like
potential Royal Marines. From where I look at this moment, it seems
that I have my hands full." He looked at us with his piercing blue
eyes challenging us before he continued in his rich East London
accent. "Slackers will suffer before making a painful exit. Britain
requires good quality men and that description follows my agenda,
got that? Good!
Right then!” He
suddenly stopped speaking and casually looked at each one of us in
turn. “All the non-West ham supporters' 20 press-ups go! Come on get
down. Far too slow. Stop! Stand up and pay attention. You, you sissy
looking boy, move yourself when I tell you." He pointed at a
red-faced sissy looking boy. "I'll be watching out for you, by
thunder I will." He looked at us all. "This time let's do this drill
properly, okay? Ready squad," he shouted in a ferocious way that
made the rhododendrons suddenly wilt.
"20 press-ups go."
We dove on the floor and began pumping away with our arms heaving up
our bodies. "Stop! Stand up! That was sorrowful." We stood up
feeling like failures even though I'd done my best to please him
like all of the others.
He shouted. "Hands
up all the Manchester united fans." As quick as a flash we all put
our hands soaring into the air, after the first mistake we are eager
to amend our earlier failure.
Manchester united beat West ham 2.1 recently. What's wrong with this
squad? Not impressed with your team choice, another 20 press ups,
The Chief Mechanic
shouted with his a booming gravel voice that could wake the dead,
not that an intelligent dead person would come back to life to
suffer this forthcoming torture if this appetizer was anything to go
by. We put even more energy into the press-ups and stood up smartly.
The Chief looked at us for a long moment assessing us all
individually, quickly with a practiced dead-pan-eye. Then he said
sharply. "Well, let's begin it properly shall we gentleman, and
start learning how to become Royal Marines?"
"God help us." We
silently mouth the prayer collectively.
It started slowly
enough at first; maybe the vicious rumours were just a myth? The
Chief made us spread out and began a sort of gentlish warm up, joint
mobility, light stretching. He was watching us all with a blank
expression as he worked professionally.
When we got sort of
relaxed, the torture really began and if anything those malicious
rumours were understating the case. The Chief instructor seemed to
love shouting at us and he loved to change his mind even more.
"Right, jogging on
the spot, exercise commence. Keep going, work hard, work well, and
stop. On the floor, go! Far too slow, stand up, go! Double over to
that bush, go! Come on, move yourselves. On the floor, go! Too slow,
stand up 10 tuck jumps, go! Tuck jumps, I said, go! Hey, you octopus
limbed imbecile, don't you know what a tuck jump is? Corporal Gains,
kindly demonstrate, the art of a tuck jump, if you please."
sprang into the air lifting his knees high, and level with his
chest, performing 10 quite effortlessly. The Chief rubbed his chin
thoughtfully, then pointed at the sallow looking youth. "Got the
picture now, you Octopus limbed imbecile?"
The Octopus limbed
imbecile looked ashamed and stared at the floor in embarrassment.
press-ups, exercise commence!... 18, 19 and 20. You, you Hideous fat
boy, I've got my eye on you, pathetic I call that." The hideous fat
boy had just managed two and a half press-ups before he collapsed.
"My Grandmother can
do better than that, you hideous fat boy." The Chief barked then
leapt onto the floor and easily performed the press-ups. Then he
nudged his face half an inch away from the fat boy’s wobbly,
reddened cheeks. "Lose some weight fast and don't waste my time, you
nasty fat person."
The Chief called
for some deep breathing exercise so we could replenish our empty
lungs. Hideous fat boy looked as though he'd rather be elsewhere,
his eyes looking strangely alarmed, almost as if he wasn't enjoying
himself on day one at the hands of the Chief.
"Okay, enough rest.
On your feet, go! Touch something blue, go! Too slow! Running on the
spot, go! Sprint, legs higher, faster, come on, get em up, higher."
Our lungs work treble time, we sweat gallons and our hearts try to
vacate the residence by trying to jump out of our chests. Then more
horrific words follow, it was time to meet our destiny.
"Into the gym, go!"
The Chief muscle mechanic barked.
One tall and quiet
Scottish lad went an awful looking blanched colour and knelt slowly
on the floor with his head facing the floor.
"Oh, another hero,
with time to say his prayers, eh? Good, very good, sign of respect
that, I appreciate that type of reverence," The Chief said in a soft
fatherly voice, before bellowing loudly. "Make sure you don't puke
on my property, understand, Sunny Jim? Where are you from?"
The tall lad eyes
mirror someone who’d just sucked double strength acid drops and then
he manages to speak slowly. "Aberdeen."
"For being an evil
Scotsman, 20 press ups go!” The evil Scotsman manages just one
before he vomits. "Good effort." The Chief says.
We enter the
hallowed hall nervously minus the Evil Scotsman who is marched away
by a Corporal to the sick bay. The Corporal muscle mechanics smile
benignly as we enter the theatre of pain. We hesitate and feel like
sagging like rabbits trapped by a gang of predators, but we know the
Chief won't like that negative posture. Instead, we stiffen
automatically as the Chief marches menacingly in front of us; he
positively glows with vitality and malice. We all notice his
mischievous eyes brimming with a terrible passion like an actor
about deliver a master performance.
"One down, five
minutes, day one, not bad that." His eyes scan us more thoroughly
than an x-ray machine. The eyes linger on Hideous fat boy, whose fat
red face is washed with rivers of sweat that cascade off of his
chins like a waterfall.
straighten those blasted backs. Haven't you lot got any spines?"
Shouted the Chief with his ferocious voice, which sends shivers
along our spines instead.
"Right, find a
colour spot, go!” We dash to the nearest coloured ball sized spots
scattered around on the wooden flooring of the gym.
“Running on the
spot, go! Knees up, knees up," his voice rises to a crescendo. "Get
em up higher, my great grandmother can do better than that and she’s
long departed. Come on get em chest high, chest high, I said. Come
on keep going."
Our eyes nearly pop
out of their sockets as our hearts pump crazily until we finally
hear that most lovely word.
"Stop!" He shouts.
"Stop moving, stop scratching yourselves, stop sweating, and stop
breathing so blasted hard. My oh my, tired are we? Seems that we
have some serious work to do here, eh? More work than an optimistic
man like me anticipated." He suddenly stopped and walked around the
floor with hands raised high as in praise and then spoke with a
surprisingly hushed voice as he slowly stated calmly. "This is my
Gym, my personal work theatre. Enter here at your own peril. This is
the place, the place where we shape your bodies and try and get you
fit. Try to make men out of you, men good enough to become Royal
Marines. We only want the very best men, okay and we will work you
hard, understand? And by golly you will get fit…. the ones that
survive the training. Right, good, stand by?" He looks puzzled at
our laboured breathing.
"What's wrong with
you, you're not still tired, surely? Goodness gracious me, I'm
getting seriously alarmed." His eyes look to the heavens
theatrically. We blanch and gasp for more breath.
bodies, stop fidgeting, and act like men. Remember your body is your
temple, so control yourselves now," he commands. The last simple
sentence is delivered to install self discipline. Turning his head,
he smiles wickedly at his staff of Corporals before addressing us
"Remember, it is
mind over matter.” A well used pause is inserted to digest the
words. “We don't mind and you don't matter, got that?”
Another well spaced pause. “Right, break over, form four lines, go!"
quickly organise us into four lines. We wait for the order.
"The first rank,
stand by to climb the ropes, exercise commence!" Shouts the Chief
and then the Corporals begin barking at us dementedly making a
cacophony of sound that reverberates around the walls of the large
interior. It is like a zoo with us as the animals.
We hurtle toward
the hanging hemp and race up the rope touch the high gym ceiling and
speed back down.
"Don't slide down
the rope, you idiot," one Corporal screamed at a Noddy, then
continues. "You're no good to your squad if can't hold a rifle
because you have rope burns on your hands."
One Noddy can't
hack it and falls like a sack of potatoes to the floor and lies on
his back looking at the ceiling, like he couldn’t work out a
A watching Corporal
screamed at him. "Use your legs in a crossed fashion to grip the
rope, you useless pervert, then you’ll make it to the top."
We watch with
interest as the Noddy tried again and once more slid hopelessly down
after climbing just 3 feet. The Corporal easily demonstrates a
perfect rope climbing motion then orders the Noddy to climb it. "Use
your feet correctly," he lectures. The Noddy with a steely
determination inches to the top.
"Good effort." The
Corporal shouts enthusiastically. Hideous fat boy is another faller
but stays lying down on the floor looking utterly exhausted. The
same Corporal by the ropes screams at him to get up. Hideous fat boy
staggers to his feet and stands to attention crookedly with his
scarlet cheeks and chins wobbling.
"Do you want to
become a Royal Marine, fat boy?"
"Yes Corporal," the
Corporal mimics him effeminately.
"Then try getting
your fat backside up that rope on the double."
Hideous fat boy
makes a half-hearted attempt but falls down in a heap again and lies
on his back looking all in.
"Sickbay, go, get
out of my gym, you're not good enough," intervenes the Chief. "15
minutes, day one, two down, this has got to be the worst training
squad in Royal Marine history," the Chief sneers incredulously and
then shakes his head solemnly.
The squad morale
dips lower than our drooping shoulders at the words.
vaulting over the box diving over the mat in a forward roll and then
leaping over a wooden beam. We want to do well, we want to make the
"Faster, come on,
more effort. Faster," the staff, shout together like maniacs. One
Noddy trips and lies sprawled in a heap on the wooden flooring and
the action suddenly stops.
"Oh dear, oh dear,
oh dearie me," sympathies the Chief in a soft caring voice.
"Corporal Gains, be good enough and run to the barrack block and get
a nice comfy pillow. I do believe our Noddy friend wants to have a
little lie down and take a nap. You know I didn't even realise that
it was siesta time?" He looked at his watch, shook his head and then
stared at the stricken lad on the floor. "Where are you from Noddy,
Mexico?" The Chief is really hamming it up and delivers his lines
umm, my wife comes from Manchester. That’s a fact, that's perfectly
okay then, you can begin exercising again after your little siesta,
but no hurry" the Chief croons.
"20 press-ups, you
clumsy Manchester person, go!" The Chief suddenly snaps.
We toil, we sweat,
and then we get shouted at by way of reward. We gasp and do our best
but it's still not good enough. The Chief wants more, much more.
Mercifully just before we give up and crawl to the corners of the
gym and die, the torture suddenly ends.
"Good, that was
enjoyable wasn't it? We certainly enjoyed it, didn't we staff?"
The Corporals nod
enthusiastically. The Chief continues. "To wear the Green Beret you
have to earn it. We don't want pretenders, no sir, we want real men.
Fit men, got that? You'll have to do better tomorrow believe me?
Today was a pretty damned pathetic imitation of a fitness training
session. In fact, it's the worst I have ever seen, I've seen Girl
Guides do much better." His penetrating blue eyes look like ice
chips, as he looks us over. "Do much better tomorrow," he orders,
then barks again. "3 minutes to have a shower, go!"
59 of us sprint to
the 8 showers. You didn't have to be a mathematician to work out
that the equation is not in our favour. The unlucky ones who take
more than the allotted time have their smart parade uniforms
unceremoniously chucked out of the window by the Corporals. The
uniforms, hats and boots land in heaps on the gravel outside.
Noddies look tragically on at their uniforms that have taken hours
of hard toil to lovingly prepare.
person stands with tears welling in his eyes looking at his dust
encrusted uniform lying in the gravel, in a trance like fashion.
The squad has been
strangely muted during the evening meal as the strenuous training
regime really sinks in. The guys start talking about families and
girlfriends with deep feelings, clinging on to a token of comfort
and support. Hell, day one at the hands of the Chief and already the
squad moral is completely shattered. Later in the evening after our
many chores, the ironing, the dhobying or washing of our clothes,
the polishing of boots, the brushing of the brass's and much more we
look like the beaten army. Exhausted, we eventually crumple onto our
beds like men condemned.
“Didn’t think it
would be this tough,” somebody mutters. “And it is tough.”
wonder how much my girlfriends are missing me? Must be hard for
them." One lad speaks to create a conversation as he lies in bed.
next words into a commonly used phrase. Ready? Off, fuck." One
seriously tired Noddy states seconds before the sound of exhausted
snoring reverberates around the room.
Bracknell more than I could ever imagine. I close my eyes and ignore
the aches of my tired muscles and think instead of the simplistic
and safe life with my old hometown buddies. Why did we all leave
home for this type of punishment? Why did we leave the comfortable
civilian world and want to become Royal Marines? Was it from
watching too many war films as a child? Was this experience just an
extension of our childhood fantasies perhaps? The same questions
must torment each of us until the tired eyes quickly fall. Sleep is
well earned and easily entraps our exhausted bodies, leaving us at
the mercy of our newly found nightmares that will from now on
incorporate the Chief and his wicked ways. Sleep is only a minor
extension of time until further punishment is meted out the
Many hours too
early, the bugler rudely sounds the reveille call in the corridor,
it is 6 am, and another cruel day begins for the squad minus one
man. The evil Scotsman wakes from his sleep wearing a worried
expression. Hideous fat boy's bed and locker are empty. Clumsy
Manchester person looks at the empty bed forlornly and shakes his
quickly wolfed down because time is short with many chores to do
before the day begins with a seemingly impassable inspection. At the
backs of our minds the on- coming physical training is looked
forward to with the same trepidation as several root treatments at
the hands of a slow drunken dentist with shaking hands and a nervous
“First, we’ll start
with a little loosen up with a small jog around the vicinity, then
we can progress to some real work,” smiles the Chief, looking
annoyingly fresh and full of energy.
clump, clump our boots as we run together in step. Out of the gate,
along the road past the tattoo parlour, along the front, cross the
road and then turn off the path and onto the shingle by the sea and
here the invigorating sea breeze hits us with a welcome tonic.
“It’s all about
fun, fitness is fun. So come on you miserable lot and sing!” shouts
a Corporal and he leads off the ditty.
“The sun has got
his hat on, hip, hip, hip, hooray, the sun has got his hat on and
he’s coming out to play,” we all join in, it is fun and the pain
goes away for a small moment. The Chief hands the mantle over to the
Corporals and stays silent but watches everything.
The Corporals make
plenty of jokes and a few games are played. Then the shingle running
begins in earnest and gets harder and harder and after 25 minutes of
hard pounding, we feel exhausted.
commands the Chief back in his position of king and points south.
“When you exit those Royal Marine gates, I expect you to act like
proud, fit men. I have earned the right to wear this Green Beret,
don’t ever devalue my special head wear by acting like wimps,”
states the Chief.
“We are going to
enter those depot gates acting like potential Royal marines, not
damned imitators. Okay, stand by; break into double time, double
We head back to the
camp not looking particularly professional, we are a large group
with a vast variety of fitness levels and this is clearly displayed
when we continually get out of step, no matter how hard we try. Back
into the camp, things digress during some heart breaking sprints and
Noddies begin to tire and dramatically drop out gasping for breath.
chief shouts and raises his arms in a state of complete despair.
Into the gym the
circuit training takes us to a new level of agony.
utter rubbish.” The chief shakes his head angrily. “You have to try
hard to achieve anything in life. This wishy washy attitude being
collectively displayed isn’t good enough by half.” He viciously
thrusts out his finger near the face of a slim, blond lad who looks
shattered. “Don’t tell me you’re tired. Don’t tell me you’ve had
enough.” The blond lad looks crestfallen and his head drops. “Come
on, chin up this is the real thing, not a rehearsal.”
The last few days
have taken there toll and generally morale is down.
“You think I’m
being too hard on you,” the chiefs casually spoken words instead of
a shout, shockingly this activates a different emotion from the
blond lad and a tear scrambles down his face. The lad tries to wipe
attention. If you can’t hack this easy stuff, then you get out of my
camp. But by thunder you’ll finish this session first. Stand by,
We begin another
Sympathy isn’t in
the Chief physical training instructor’s vocabulary, he is single
minded in his desire to weed out the soft core.
“I didn’t expect it
to be so difficult this quickly,” a normally quiet, easy going
recruit from Guernsey in his early 20s breaks the silence as we
gobble the hurried lunch in the galley.
“At this rate, by
the time we get to Lympstone half of us will have already failed. I
don’t know if I can take much more of this,” another lad adds and
pushes away his half eaten fish.
All of us feel
subdued after the blond lad doesn’t appear for the drill in the
afternoon and the news soon filters through that he was seen with
his suitcase wearing civilian clothes waiting for transport at the
guardroom. Another recruit will never wear the Green Beret and will
travel back home feeling unfulfilled or much worse, another original
member of the recruit family has left our home.
There isn’t time to
dwell on weakness as the pace is continually upped. Days blend into
each other and the main core of the squad slowly begin to adapt but
two more members of the squad are back trooped with injuries and
another lad takes the train back home
accelerates and we are informed that a new level of torture will
begin. The feared time eventually arrives and the PTI staff pair us
off with a fellow Noddy who is roughly the same size. Before it
begins, we mutely watch the soccer players as they run onto the
pitch next to us. We are jealous of the happy foot-balling marines
that look sickeningly content and without a care in the world
running around like puppies actually enjoying their lives. We look
longingly at the players admiring their banter, wishing our lives
could be that easy and peaceful at that moment. Maybe the Chief
would let us play instead of...
"This is your Oppo
from now on, or until he eventually fails the training, understand?"
The Chief states quite philosophically. Shunting the soccer from our
heads as quickly as one may wish to forget Arsenal's double seasons,
or these days, Seaman's 'Brazilian' free kick. We concentrate on the
"Standby, go!" The
command is barked and we set off running in a long line by the side
of the football pitch. We are carrying our oppo's on our backs in a
fireman's lift, which is unbelievably hard; a medieval torture rack
would be more appealing as a choice of punishment, at least we'd be
"Double up you
cretins," comes the familiar shout. "What do you think this is, a
holiday camp? Come on get your lazy bodies moving." Just then the
striker on the football pitch unleashes a blunderbuss of a shot that
misses the goal wildly and instead the ball accidentally thwacks the
head of one of the heaving carriers with a dull thud.
"Stop!" comes the
shout from the Chief. We are more than happy to do so. The Chief's
eyes light up with mischievous smile, a smile we already fear. We
pant away like exhausted dogs with our tongues scraping the floor.
"Don't drop your
partners." Our master barks indignantly. We continue to pant. He
marches up to the Noddy rubbing his sore head from the impact of the
"What the hell is
your name lad, Bobby blooming Moore? Who the hell gave you
permission to play football, eh Bobby?" Cries the Chief. He looks to
his corporals. "Did any of you give Bobby the permission to play
Colour Sergeant," they shout together. It is pure theatre. We enjoy
the interlude at another Noddies expense and wait for more drama.
"So Bobby, you just
decided on your own to play football without permission, did you?"
He shouts incredulously. "The Government is paying you decent money
whilst we attempt to train you. Train you to get you fit and become
part of an elite force. An elite force that might be required one
day to defend the countries shores and her tax paying people.
Taxpayer's money you pocket greedily, then spend on pints of Naffi
beer as you ogle the pretty barmaid dementedly. Meanwhile," the
Chief stops and points his finger accusingly at Bobby's bemused
expression. "All you're interested in is playing blasted football."
Watching the show with sick perversion, we lust after Bobby's blood.
Even the football players stop to gawp as a corner kick is
"20 press ups, go!"
The Chief shout almost softly, too softly. Confused, Bobby slowly
drops his oppo, then leaps on to the grass with an impressive verve
and begins the punishment with enthusiasm. The Chief looks at his
staff with a straight face.
"Would you say I'm
heartless man, staff?"
Sergeant." Shout the corporals together in pantomime voices. Bobby
finishes the press-ups speedily and springs up fast as a jack in a
box to attention, wearing a large smile.
"What football team
do you support, Bobby?"
"West ham united,
Colour sergeant," Bobby screams. We laugh at Bobby's quick thinking
candour. The Chief beams a real smile. The mood of the squad changes
"Oh very well
then, go on, double away and play your football, if you must."
Bobby shuffles his
feet nervously looking indecisive.
"Go on then, double
away and play your football." The Chief repeats and winks at the
football referee, a fellow mechanic of course. The referee barely
suppresses a smile.
runs onto the football pitch as the players part to let him through.
"Oy, what about
your oppo then Bobby? You going to deny him a game, you selfish
twit?" The Chief yells. The penny finally drops for Bobby and then
doubles back to hoist his oppo onto his back. The ball is tossed to
his feet and he runs as ungainly as a pregnant elephant towards the
nearest goal as the players watch with the smiling staff and squad
with amused interest. Bobby dribbles the ball surprisingly well
before he boots the ball toward the goal. The goalkeeper dives
exaggeratedly over the top to let it in. The referee blows the
whistle and orders Bobby off the pitch. "Foul play for unsporting
behaviour and carrying a fellow player, 20 Press ups, go!"
"Thank you for
letting me play, Colour Sergeant." Bobby says cheekily before doing
the press ups. The Chief wheels away looking strangely happy.
Who said the
mechanics was humourless? Bobby, however has just reinvented the
deflated morale for the squad; finding a chink of light in our
darkness that we will grasp and build upon. We didn't appreciate
earlier but the Chief has been looking for a 'Bobby' all along. The
training has now risen to the second psychological level. The game
is more interesting now. We are a little more armed.
30 minutes later we
eventually finish in dishevelled heaps gasping for breath, lungs
searing, hearts pumping at 200 beats per minute or more.
"You Noddies had
better get new bodies quickly," comes the quip.
We polish, we iron,
we clean, we bull our boots, we wax the floor, we dhoby our kit
dementedly, and we keep everything clean. We march, we strip
weapons, we learn about maps, we march some more, we wear different
uniforms, we fire weapons, we get bullied, we march some more, we
think of home. We enter the gym everyday.
"Right, with your
partner you will enter the boxing ring and proceed to hit each
other. The boxing gloves are cushioned so it will only hurt a little
bit. All right then, perhaps quite a big little bit. We call this
milling; it is excellent fitness training and also a fine Royal
Marine tradition. We want to see controlled aggression, come to
think of it, any type of aggression," the Chief smiles that smile
again. "Boxing," he states quite liberally. "Is a form of modern day
gladiator action? A man who has a heart will be seen during this
period. Heart is certainly a key ingredient in this camp."
Two by two we enter
the ring, unlike the ark passengers love is far from our minds as we
bash each other up for a minute of a whirlwind featuring flying
leather arms and elbows. One Noddy appears to grow a crimson
"What's your name,
Cassius Clay, eh?"
Sergeant, it's Muhammad ‘bloody’ Ali."
"Very good Muhammad
‘bloody’ Ali, excellent in fact." The Chief smiles as he appreciates
Muhammad's humour that Bobby has recently designed.
"That's the right
spirit Muhammad. A little blood won't hurt you," barks the Chief.
Muhammad smiles with a gap at the bottom of his mouth where his
tooth had been a minute before.
"Heh, good blasted
effort Muhammad." The Chief shouts with admiration at Muhammad’s
sacrifice. Then moves toward Mohammad and peels his lips back to
inspect the wound with genuinely serious eyes.
"Umm, down to the
dentist, go," he speaks surprisingly softly. When Muhammad
disappears, the Chief speaks to nobody in particular. His hushed
words are words we will never forget.
"Muhammad will make
a damned good marine. Ummm, looks like this squad has some potential
after all. Growing a little back bone." he says in a new voice. Our
eyes gleam with pride, maybe we can hack this training after all.
More gym, more
shouts, more running, more abuse, we take it all. Circuit training,
sprints, more shingle running along the beach. This is coupled with
drilling, weapon training, endless inspections, manoeuvres and
plenty else. We get stronger and better disciplined, importantly we
become thicker skinned. The squad begins bonding together, it us
against them and the rest of the world. Sometimes we feel like the
forgotten few. We have grown. We want a Green Beret, it becomes a
training period ends after 6 long weeks at Deal, we have
accomplished part I and are beginning to look and act a little like
real soldiers. The second phase is going to be longer and even
tougher at the Commando training centre in Lympstone near Exmouth.
A party atmosphere
lingers and the morale has soared to astronomical heights. To
illustrate and magnify our little success in finalizing the initial
part of training, we have a small pass-out ceremony in the NAFFI.
This consists of a few drinks and we cordially invite all the
instructors along. The evening is a major transformation from normal
barrack room life, spliced liberally with lager and rum and Coke.
The instructors entertain us with jokes and antidotes. Later, the
Chief makes a fleeting visit, he doesn't take our alcohol offer and
we admire him as he sips his orange juice. Before he leaves, he
makes a small but memorable last speech.
"You have earned
the right to tackle the second Royal Marine training phase. The
discipline you have leaned during these last weeks will be the
foundation for passing the second phase. It won’t be easy just as I
haven’t been easy on you, and done specifically maybe you won’t
appreciate it now but you will, one day. It is sometimes a tough
world and those of you who eventually become Royal Marines will
undoubtedly encounter serious situations. Being part of an elite
combat force one day the chances are that you will have to deal with
adversity and danger. The mental training to tune your toughness
that my staff and I administered to you, may well be many times
easier than the real thing. The Northern Ireland situation is
looking very nasty at the moment. I would imagine that some of you
could find yourselves in that sorry place, very soon," he shook his
head dolefully and looked at us all carefully one last time as his
eyes sparkled vividly. "Remember this and remember this well. Right
here and right now, these will be the best days of your lives and
you will never forget them, ever," The Chief laments with a smile.
"Now, I want everyone singing my hymn."
As one we begin
the squad anthem.
blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, they fly so high they
reach the sky and like West ham they never die."
We arrive at the
Commando training centre at Lympstone and are once again the new
boys. Our squad bonding strengthens as the camaraderie holds us
together as we attempt to get through the rest of the tough
training. We are united in our fear of the new physical training
staff at Lympstone but the Chief has taught us well. The training
intensifies in every way as we push the boundaries of our endurance
and resilience further back and sadly our squad numbers diminish
with each week that passes. The evil Scotsman, Bobby and Muhammad
are still with us, thankfully. The octopus limbed imbecile has moved
on to new waters, whilst Clumsy Manchester person has long gone back
We tackle the heart
breaking assault courses. We climb the 30-foot ropes with full kit
after the fireman's lift running with the oppo torture. We endure
the endurance course. Submissively submerge ourselves through the
tunnels including one filled with icy and dirty water. Why the hell
did we attempt this thing in winter? With death defying
determination we slide down the death slide and then swing through
the rest of the 'Tarzan' course. We cross the regain rope over a
tank of dank muddy water on our stomachs as our arms pull us a
cross. In the middle of the tank we are ordered to dangle over it.
Gradually, we lower our bodies underneath with outstretched arms
before being ordered to regain the rope. The unlucky ones tire and
eventually drop into the foul water, which means a complete cleaning
of all the webbing and an extra hour on the rifle. Time that could
be better used for resting is wasted. Things are tight and not a
good time to get injured.
There is the
hated speed marching, running as a squad up to 9 miles with denim
trousers, boots, rifles and our webbing weighing 45 lbs. The
mechanics insist on the singing of nursery rhymes as we suffer.
"Jack and Gill went
up the hill," we gasp together. Along the route several Noddies drop
out to vomit.
"Come on, only
another month to go," Shouts the new Chief mechanic. Another month,
but a month filled with physical tests like the 30-mile yomp and the
timed courses. It becomes obsessive now to clear the last hurdle in
our plight to obtain the right to wear the coveted Green Beret.
memories of those intensive training days fade gently away. Though
as a sentiment to those days, I picture with fondness the old Marine
gym and remember what it represented to us. The picture becomes
clear and once again I see the wooden floors, adjustable wooden
beams, the ropes, the vaulting apparatus, the dumbbells and the old
barbells. In the corner is the old worn leather punch bag. It was a
fairly standard set up for a male dominated gym of the 70s. I
remember the leathery smell that always wafted into your nostrils as
soon as you entered. The memories are wonderful testaments to a by
gone gym era. The picture dissolves again and I focus on the modern
gym of today.
large wall-to-wall mirrors, posters, drinking fountains are the
furnishings in an air conditioning environment. Quadraphonic sounds
blitz the ear. MTV is full on with all the other TV channels on
monitors that adorn the walls that are viewed by the exercisers on
the multitude of machines. There are the latest treadmills, step
machines, elliptical machines, rowers, electronic bikes and all the
varied resistance machines.
I look around at
the mixed bag of exercisers and see a diversity that I wouldn't have
believed possible from those days in the early 70s. There are
females, males, posers, single, married, all ages, all professions
sweating together. The attire worn is mostly fashionable, smart,
expensive and the shorts don't need ironing. I imagine the Chief and
his staff watching the exercisers and then shouting out.
"Come on, what do
you think this is a bloody picnic? 20 press-ups go, too slow, double
around that beam, go. To slow." Running on the spot, go. Higher,
come on higher yet, get those knees up. You, where the hell are you
from, somewhere from outer space? Goodness, are you the thickest man
on the planet? Try getting employment on Star Trek or something.
Lordy, Lordy, if you had inherited a brain cell it would still be
lonely. 20 press-ups go!"
I can still hear
his voice and the wicked taunting laughter echoing around the
interior as he worked his unique psychology yet again on another
unsuspecting new squad.
THE LAST PATROL
winning short story
my tired eyes, eyes that looked out from a throbbing head that
existed in an exhausted body. Another restful sleep had been denied
and as a result, I felt shattered. I closed my eyes again but sleep
wouldn’t comfort me, instead it became a source of torment. In
annoyance and in a symbolic act, I
rubbed the tiredness away from my eyes and found myself feeling
quite philosophical and wondering just what the hell was this thing
life all about?
At 20 years of age, my dour thoughts emulated
those of an older person. Stress and tension were the
key attributes into this behavior with too many long hard hours and
not enough rest and recovery.,,,and a few other things.
Raising my head from my bunk bed, I looked around at
the cramped, dreary and gloomy living space spiced with heavy fetid
air. The hut like accommodation had been ‘home’ for 30 odd guys and
the immediate area was shared with 9 other soldiers of my unit.
These guys were now part of my family. Family, yes something
positive had materialized and our bonding had been proven
in many ways and would last eternally. Hopefully eternity would
appear more realistic if we could get over this last day….
There, the same word had appeared in my head again.. last day,
last patrol. Like the others, the
last patrol syndrome had made me phobic.
Tomorrow, Saturday 14 April was our leaving day
after 4 long months of peace keeping duties in the province, this
year would later acknowledged as the worst in Northern Ireland’s
already sorrowful history. Tragically, our unit was already destined
to go home minus 2 members and two more would never physically be
able to play conventional football again and another would never see
the beauty of the rising sun or his new born son’s first smile.
The tiredness, the danger, and now into the last day
of a confusing role in a modern day active service that wasn’t quite
a war …. the frustration would finally end for us on the morrow and it wasn’t a day too
One tiny problem, my section in the ever changing
roster would spend it working foot patrol duties in a notoriously hot
area, one of the most dangerous in the province. Operating in such a
danger zone had created this last patrol stigma and the heavy
anxiety that abounded was plain to observe. Opposing players often worked this
unlucky final day theme into their tactics to try and make it the
last day on earth for some of us. Naturally this tactic created more
tension and some soldiers in extreme cases would find anyway to
avoid last patrols. This wasn’t a conventional war or even a
conflict, it was a misery of mind bending attrition that was
destined to never have a happy ending. This time and place was a fast burning
fuse trailing to a powder keg of conflicting human emotions leading
to an ever expanding repertoire of new ways of dying. Dying here
wasn’t a great way of immortalizing the struggle in what would
eventually be a fruitless useless waste of life against a wasted headstone
of ignominy and 6feet of soiled earth. Our role was to stay in the middle of it all and be
generally detested for our efforts, no bands for a heroes return
after serving here. European Vietnam… possibly
I continued to think out the last patrol ideology
until somebody stirred in the hut, this seemed to signal the
awakening of us all. We must all have been lying in our bunks
silently pondering, silently fretting. Without many words of
greetings, we collectively made our way through the military clutter
than lay strewn around our pathetically small and run down living
space and went outside into the ablutions hut. The washroom was
another decrepit hut that amply personified the general ambience.
“This time tomorrow.” One of the lads said light
heartedly as he lathered his face.
Strangely no quip
After a hastily and ritualistic eaten breakfast, clasping
piping hot coffee in black plastic mugs, we gathered and slipped into our pre patrol
system huddling together sitting on our small soldier boxes than
held our meager possessions. Apart from 3 days leave, the 4 months
had consisted of daily patrolling sometimes as long as 18 hours when
the anti went even higher than usual. So wardrobes of fancy civilian clothes
weren’t required in this profession. Again, the section unusually quiet
appeared reluctant to discuss this our last patrol in any shape or
The coffee mugs were put away as we prepared to get
rigged up. Rigging up was an art form with Denison smock camouflage
jackets, flak jacket, belt order, first aid pack, batons, tin hats,
riot gun and our third and most important arm, the 7.62mm self
loading rifles playing the leading role is this identity. The obvious care in handling
our personal weapons said it all, the playtime bell had long since
Superstition had never grabbed me until I came here,
but evidently we’d all developed some form of superstitious behavior
or even moved deeper into our own different faiths and beliefs.
Secret prayers were often mouthed, I would notice rosary beads being
slipped into pockets, lucky rabbit’s feet, pictures of wives and
girlfriends went into the flak jacket pockets. I fingered my
bracelet as I always did before leaving the hut subconsciously. I
stared down at the bracelet and brought back the story.
On the overnight Liverpool to Belfast ferry 4 months
previously just before grabbing the last peaceful rest for a while,
I wandered alone onto the open passenger deck to get some evening
air and contemplate a few personal thoughts. Few passengers were
about as I placed my hands on the guardrail and stared out to
observe and enjoy the night serenity of the murky looking Irish Sea.
Making the atmosphere somber, the moon was partially hidden by
clouds giving scant illumination and also a haunting tranquility. I
sucked in the salted air and spent a few moments in reflection about
the impending tour and my recent promotion to Section commander and
its seemingly impossible responsibilities in the troubled Belfast
streets. After a few minutes alone suddenly there was a feeling of
being watched and I looked away from the movement of the sea to look
behind me. In the shadows by the bulkhead I could see the outline of
a tall slim man staring at me with some interest. While observing
him, he advanced toward me without the slightest threat and I could
distinguish a priest’s collar at his neck. The Moon appeared from
behind a cloud and allowed shafts of light to penetrate the priest’s
features for a few seconds. He cocked his head at me and spoke with
a soft lilting southern Irish accent.
“These are dangerous times my son. Sad and dangerous
times indeed. You must take good care.”
I studied the speakers face and noted an unusual
bemused expression of melancholy in his features. He looked in his
early 60s with strong chiseled features and a even jaw. His vibrant
blue eyes looked away for a wistful moment at the faded grey clouds
that wisped in a straggled collection in the inky coloured sky.
His eyes burned brightly as he spoke to me again.
“You’re a young man to witness such troubled and turbulent times.”
I didn’t answer him but waited for him to speak again
knowing he’d earmarked me for some reason.
He swept his hand over the full head of iron grey
hair as he spoke in that easy going voice of his. “Those Irish
streets that witnessed love and laughter will darken with sorrow for
a long sad age before the sun eventually shines there again.”
Strangely transfixed, I felt fascinated with his words and demur it
seemed like I’d known this man as fondly as a favorite uncle.
“You are young,” he continued. “And your eyes will
witness a soup of human tragedy that seems endless in its
composition. Your efforts may appear to be wasted and in vain but a
country cries in pain and your presence will be of tremendous comfort to some. Take good care my son and
may the lord Jesus Christ watch over you and may the Peace of Christ
be with you always.”
With that blessing, he exited swiftly leaving me
alone at the guardrail and quite bizarrely I felt sorry to lose his
company that had lasted just a few moments. After a few seconds of pondering
his words, I noticed on the deck where he’d been standing beside me
at the rail a small silver bracelet. I picked it up and read the
words inscribed on the bracelet. ‘BLESS ME.'
Although I searched for the priest for nearly
30 minutes throughout the ferry I never came across him again.
Before I slept in the tiny cabin that night, I wrapped the bracelet
around my wrist fastened the clip that fitted perfectly and felt
reluctant to remove it. Since then it became instinctive to
secretly expose it and read the inscription each time we left the safety of
the base camp to go out on patrol.
I entered the operations room for the section's radio’s and a last minute briefing on the day’s activities and
patrol agenda. My second in command was an older and experienced
marine called Barry who'd accompanied me. We had developed a firm friendship and intimate
mental understanding without the need for long conversations or in
pocket socializing. We left the briefing with the intelligence
officer in the knowledge that the area had been active throughout
the morning following a series of gunshots during the night but
thankfully hadn’t produced serious casualties.
I addressed the section as we assembled around into the
armoured Saracen personnel carrier with our equipment.
“We’ve been performing this role for 4 months now in
a systematic military precision, which makes us very professional,
remember that. Today, we will see little exception in anything we
have seen, dealt with and situations we have been involved with. Keep it tight and keep
focused and everything will be ok.... It’s just another day at the
My words seemed quite assured for a 20 year old with
a background I would have rather forgotten. I’d grown up on the
streets of Belfast and learned about people responsibility and more
importantly to the others in the section, I had matured into a good
urban guerilla tactician.
“Let’s go” I ordered. We snapped our magazines onto
our rifles at the loading bay and then climbed into the vehicle.
“Home tomorrow,” Somebody said to break tension.
“It’s Friday the13th today. Let’s beat the
crap out of this patrol before we think about the ferry ride back.” A dour
but well respected lad from Newcastle added. “And then...maybe I’ll buy you
all a beer.”
“First time ever that.” Somebody nipped in. “And not that naffin brown ale stuff either
you northern jocks love.” We laughed collectively as the
driver squashed the accelerator with his sized 10 boots and
passed through the barbed wire gates and sandbagged machinegun post.
The Saracen's engine screamed its distinctive pitch as we out roared out of
the safety and into the streets of our last patrol. A hush inside
the vehicle was evident and the mood became more serious than any
that I ever recalled on the tour. The driver of the Saracen flattened the pedal
and the last patrol began
It was a grey day with grey threatening clouds that
matched the general ambience of a tortured city. Serious looking
people went about their lives walking along anxious streets in a
desperate way. The locals didn’t seem to stroll or saunter in their
everyday lifestyle, pedestrians seemed to march with chins on chest
angled at the pavements without much hope or resign, they walked
with purpose not pleasure.
The first few hours went by and I couldn't help
recalling the words of the priest on the ferry came back as we
worked through the naughty streets. ‘A long time before the
sun shines again,’ he’d said. Then I realized what his words had
The afternoon arrived and it was time to patrol
the sensitive areas again. The foot patrol away from the vehicle base comprised
of 6 men, it moved with ease in well drilled organised tactical
movements. 6 heads, 6 pairs of eyes, working as one well oiled team.
The purpose of the patrol was to signal a visible presence of force
in an attempt to deter violent acts and encourage authority. This
was a land ridden with the sorry cancer of violence blended with revenge born from
lousy politics and a sour history. Patrolling these troubled areas
where major incidents could flair or even full scaled riots could
escalate with the speed of a wind blown forest fire. Violence would
break out from the tiniest gesture between communities with the
merest insult fuelling incidents that instigated bombs, bullets and
blood. Inevitably before the sun came down the undertakers would be busy
new boxes for other poor souls. Entire streets looked cold and
unsympathetic with abandoned and derelict houses riddled with bomb
scars and bullet holes. This land cried out with a passion.
The patrol kept moving
without the intention of provoking new problems. Some streets were
so notorious for snipers and machine gun attacks that their
notoriety became legendary and strictly avoided where possible but
my duty was to keep a presence and defend the option of eliminating
The afternoon dragged slowly on but somehow or other
in my mind a tangible threat always seemed to exist, we’d
collectively sensed it though we
didn’t allow the luxury of the fear indulgence to initiate our fears further.
We were psyched up, revved up and worked with a vibrant energy I
hadn’t witnessed before. Something, somehow we knew would inevitably would happen that day,
I tried to rationalise why. Was it simply Friday the 13th
syndrome, or the last day and the last patrol phobia? No, It wasn’t
just these things, it was something else - deeper almost spiritual
instincts, something I couldn’t read or understand… and would never
understand. My understanding of this complicated life had limits
Rifle leading the way, thoughts of home away
from my head as a cold wind picked up as I lead the section toward an
exposed junction filled with derelict buildings riddled with bullet
holes, alleyways and danger.
God help me this was it…. This is where it would
happen, the cold wind couldn’t cool the sweat on my brow and
rationality wouldn’t quell the anxiety and tension. Some primeval
instinct, an extra sense made me believe there was a real chance I
could end my life here. My knuckles whitened holding the stock of my SLR, 3 men each side of the street, front men covering the forward
area, middle men the sides, last men walking backwards covering the
rear. Hard targets, don’t standstill, switching the alert switch to
full. What was the common weapon used against us?
Rifle, 39 inches long, 6.5 lb empty, 7.6 lb loaded, uses ball and
tracer ammo only, a full magazine weighs 2/10 lb, magazine carries
20 rounds, gas operated, air cooled, selector switch has 3 positions
(safe, semi-auto, automatic). Maximum range 2,653 meters, maximum
effective range 460 meters. Rate of fire, 650-700 rounds per
minute on full automatic, 150-200 rounds per minute
when reloading 20-round magazines. Over 8,000,000 M-16’s made. On
impact, the 5.56mm caliber piece of lead makes a small hole in your
front and then blows out your back as the bullet spins on impact.
Nice to know small interesting trivia like this when you enter a hot
zone. Jesus Christ please help me today as
I die in an alleyway then forgotten.
The radio crackled… a stolen car has been set
alight at a waste land a few streets away. We looked above
the rooftops to see spiraling smoke ascending majestically up to the
heavens. We have no option but to check it out, this could be a
COME ON, getting us into a killing zone, exposing us to a sniper’s
bullet or a radio controlled bomb. This was max danger time.
Orders were given with the fewest words necessary. We
moved off and soon approached the sight of the burning car from the
least obvious direction from an alleyway between rows of houses,
which at least gives us moderate cover. The car was burning like
firework night 5th November, but instantly obvious was the fact that
nobody was around to witness the spectacle. This was bad news as lack of people
commonly equates to
an incident happening, We watch, we observe in the relative safety
of the alleyway. The radio crackles again with the news that the
burning car was used in a shooting incident between the occupants
and a police patrol.
“Whiskey one, one Charlie, there could be casualties
or weapons in the car, investigate, over.”
“Shit,” I exploded with passion and quickly began to issue orders to
minimize exposure to the patrol, I made an instant decision that
only two members of the patrol are needed for the task , the rest
would cover us. Selecting one of the patrol, a guy named Terry for
the reconnaissance, the plan is to move fast in and fast out and give the
vehicle the once over. Subconsciously, I checked and rubbed my
bracelet, my heart was thumping fast, I really didn’t want to do
this with so many exposed dangers for myself and the section. I
began to try to control my breathing pattern and played forward the
impending movement strategy in my mind. The movement options, a
jinking sprint to the car, a quick visual check careful not to open
or touch anything that might trigger an explosion. The danger lay on
the run in and the time spent at the car.
I felt like vomiting. I couldn’t move for a second,
I checked my bracelet again and closed my eyes trying to suppress my
fear with prayer. I opened my eyes feeling ready and focused. I nodded
We dashed out into the direction of the car feeling
incredibly exposed, weaving to the burning car waiting for the
explosion or a few ounces of spinning lead that could easily
puncture skin and bone and sluice the life blood into a gutter. Panting for breath, I arrived
5 meters away from the burning car, Terry following closely behind
me took up a firing position a couple of meters away. I crouched
down to look underneath the car but saw nothing unusual; I tried to
see inside, bad vision obscured by smoke ruined that plan…… I would need to get
closer to the car.
“Cover me,” I whispered to Terry. Terry swiveled
around in a slow 360 turn with his rifle tight in his arms. I
sprinted toward the car and looked inside as wisps of smoke from the
dying flames allowed vision in the back seat ….nothing. I
began to move to the front driver’s door when I noticed something
shiny on the floor, it was made of silver, a bracelet just like the
one I was wearing it had BLESS ME on it. It was my bracelet, had it
fallen off ? I bent down to retrieve it.
The sound was accompanied by segments of the car
window that broke and sprinkled the interior of the car and a few
segments that fell onto me, then the driver’s window caved in just
behind where I’d been standing. Lying on the floor with the bracelet
in my hand and fragments of glass nestling in my hair; I was
stunned, almost paralyzed with shock until I Jumped to my feet with
poised. No obvious threat however my senses felt magnified with an
incredible adrenaline rush. The sound of running boots broke the
eerie spell I seemed to be encapsulated in as Barry led two more
members of the patrol toward me. Barry stopped in front of me with
wide eyes, white face and incredulous expression of awe.
Military automation took control and we followed up,
patrolled where we thought the snipers position might have been, but
we didn’t find anything. Within 25 minutes, the patrol was assisted
by the stand by section and we were ordered back to the Saracen to
Later, the patrol finally finished without any
further incident, however our immortality had been questioned and
we were all shocked at how close the grim reaper had been in
inviting us to his lasting residence.
The next day, finally, we left the province and once
on the night ferry back to Liverpool we relaxed and sighed with
relief judging by the amount of corny jokes bouncing about. After
settling into the cabins, we headed for the bar, for beer, talk of
pretty girls, backs slaps and promises of better and brighter days.
A Feel good attitude progressed intermixed with tilted glasses more
corny jokes and a general gratitude of survival. We’d taken our
bonding to a level that would never witnessed be by any of us ever
again. The overall relief was enormous and overwhelming and soon we
began to remember those that weren’t as fortunate as us, which
altered the atmosphere considerably. At this juncture nearing
midnight and feeling the need for clean fresh sea air, I slipped away from
the group and stepped up to the upper deck of the ferry. Few people
were around so I picked a space alone on the rail staring into the Irish
Sea. In this prose I tried to fathom out things spinning in my head.
It felt comfortable spending a few moments in isolation thinking
about the incident on patrol the previous day.
The word lucky pricked my conscience until a distinct feeling made
me seek out the area behind me. A figure was immediately noticeable
sitting at a bench with his back cutting a shadow against the
bulkhead. I spent a few moments absorbing the detail before stepping
across to the figure simultaneously unfastening my bracelet on my
wrist. I looked up to the night sky and inhaled deeply feeling
I stood behind the figure that hadn’t yet moved, but
they must have realized somebody was close to him because my steps had
been clearly audible.
Knowing somehow that it was me that had to break the
spell, I uttered quite evenly. “I believe this belongs to you.”
The priest turned around, his deep blue eyes boring into mine
with that same distinct melancholy expression
“No my son,” he answered straight away as if
expecting the question and smiled warmly at me. He patted my hand gently,
grasped the bracelet, looked at it and placed it into his long black
go to someone else now. For a little while, anyway.” His eyes
twinkled. “Bless you.” He said, then stood, turned and melted away
into the night.