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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Learning Again

During my tour of Northern Ireland I was sent back to the UK for a specialist course. The army has literally hundreds of different courses that pretty much anyone with a good reason can apply for. I've yet to get a place on the "Basics of Golf" course!

I was sent on the "Assault Pioneer" course. The aim of this course was to train a footslogging infantry soldier in the arcane arts of the Royal Engineers albeit to a very basic level.

The course was split down into various different modules each covering one of the basic Engineer skills.

From Day One however all anyone wanted to do was to learn how to "Blow Sh*t up" as one of my fellow course members delighfully put it........

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Spot The Quote

Who said the quote below my blog name? Answers on a postcard to the comments box! I'm currently trying to think up a classy prize.

Sticks And Stones

I was only ever involved in one "public order" incident during my time in Northern Ireland. We'd spent yet another day sat around in our LandRovers waiting to do something. Marches were ongoing and there had been some trouble. Understandably, and rightly so, the police always tried to deal with everything themselves. When we got the order to move there was a collective cynical groan. This time though we didn't stop at another police station. We kept going. Sat in the back with equipment piled all over us there was little we could see. When we stopped and debussed we were in the middle of a housing estate. Smoke was in the air - subsequently we found that some innocent family, and for the life of me I can't remember which side of the divide they were from - had been burnt out of their home. There was a small crowd waiting to see what we would do. We formed a wall of shields across the road and then waited. According to the training this is where we would get petrol bombed or worse. Two hours later and we were still there - the worst that had been hurled at us was some colourful language. Eventually everyone got bored of the situation. The crowd opposite us drifted away - Eastenders was probably coming on the TV. Finally we left - my legs were sore from standing for so long and my head ached from the weight of the helmet. A sense of disappointment pervaded the LandRover as we drove home - was this as exciting as it got? I don't think any of us spared a thought for the now homeless family.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I Predict A Riot

There is a joke in Northern Ireland that says that the Loyalists have a different calendar to the rest of the world - January, February, March, March, March. They march that much there is even a "marching season".

Whatever the whys and the wherefores of the marches they were a major pain in the arse for us.

In the build up to the marching season we trained and trained in how to deal with "public order situations", as they are delightfully described.

And then we waited......

Suited and booted in our finest riot gear we'd be sat in our Land Rovers hours before the marchers left their homes. We'd frequently still be sat there hours after they'd gone home again. Sat in a Land Rover for 8 hours wearing body armour isn't a past time I'd recommend.

Occasionally we'd scream out of our base - a long line of Land Rovers snaking their way through Belfast - we'd arrive at a police station or another army camp and then sit there for hours before snaking our way back again.

At least it broke the monotony.

(If you want to know more about the marches Wikipedia has a good article)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Lost In Translation

We were about to start patrolling in an area we were unfamiliar with to support another unit. The resident unit was Scottish and very Scottish at that. We were to go on a familiarisation patrol with them. I was in the four man English team and there were another two four man teams from the Scottish unit.

We attended the usual pre-patrol briefing which detailed where we were going, what we were going to do and what we hoped to achieve by it.

I came out of the brief mystified, hardly having understood a word.

"Did you get any of that?" I asked the Corporal in charge of the team that day.

"Ummmm - I was kind of hoping you had."


Apparently we speak the same language.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Are You Shooting At Me?

As a rifle bullet passes close by you it makes a sharp cracking sound. The more traditional "bang" comes from the business end of the weapon.

One day we were out on patrol in a hardline estate in West Belfast. The ceasefire had not long been broken and everyone was on edge. Not just us but the local population as well. They'd become used to streets unadorned by army patrols.

There were four of us patrolling down the street, two on either side, taking it in turns to swing around and walk backwards for a while to cover the rear. We'd been out on patrol for maybe half an hour when it happened.

A sharp crack and me and the Sergeant in charge of the patrol droppped to the ground quickly taking cover behind garden walls. I spun around to see if either of the blokes behind us had seen where the shot had been fired from. One of them was smirking and the other was almost rolling on the floor with laughter.

A car had driven over an old Coca Cola bottle right next to us. The result - a sharp cracking sound.

Sheepishly we stood up and continued our patrol.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Saddest Thing I Ever Saw

One day we were driving around a hardline republican area of West Belfast. I was on topcover, standing up in the LandRover with my head poking out. We slowed down to go around a sharp corner and I saw a father with his young son. The boy was 2 or 3 years old.

"B*****ds", the father says pointing at us. "B*****ds", he repeated.

"B*****ds", the child mumbled searching for the word his father had just used.

And people wonder how hate can pass from generation to generation.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Murphy's Laws For The Army Number Six

It's not the bullet with your name on you need to worry bout, it's the one addressed "to whom it may concern" you've got to think about.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Top Cover

After the Lisburn bombing and the end of the ceasefire we resumed limited patrolling on the streets of Northern Ireland. One of our main jobs was escorting the civilian police around in our armoured Landrovers. The basic idea was this - there is a danger that someone might try to shoot at us or blow us up - if there is a gun pointed in their general direction they might think otherwise. The solution - the top cover sentry. The armoured landrover had a hatch in its roof - a kind of sun roof with a purpose. Two lucky souls would stand up inside the landrover and lean out of the sun roof pointing their weapons in a menacing manner. The downfall, it always rains in Northern Ireland, well maybe not always - just 90% of the time. Top cover sentry usually involved getting very cold, very wet. If the weather was good then the insects would be out - and you'd end up looking like the front windscreen of a car - swallowing a fly at 50 mph isn't much fun I can assure you. Whatever the weather though I prefered being stood up and seeing what was going on rather than sat cocooned in the back of the vehicle waiting for something to happen.

Friday, August 19, 2005


On October 8th 1996 Irish republican terrorists managed to get two carbombs past security at the army's headquarters in Northern Ireland. The first exploded close to an education centre while the second exploded a short while later out the medical centre. The second bomb was aimed at killing those who had been injured in the first explosion and also those helping them. One man died as a result of the attack.

At the time I was standing guard at another camp close enough to hear the bang. I thought the noise had come from the dock yard and didn't realise it was an explosion. We didn't find out for about half an hour that something had happened.

But the ceasefire was over and now we had real work to do. Whether that was a good thing or not was another matter.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Marking Time

I spent nearly my first year in Northern Ireland doing nothing. Well doing nothing might be a small exaggeration - we trained, stagged on, went out, miserably failed to get into any decent nightclubs, and spent the occasional week or two back in Blighty. Repeat the above ad nauseum and you have my life for a year. After a while I even removed the "failing to get into any decent nightclubs" from the schedule - I just stopped going out. At the time things seemed to go by so slowly - we weren't doing what we had trained, and continued to train, to do. No one was getting blown up, shot and even the knee-cappings were down. In a sick sort of way many of us wished for an end to the ceasefire - we wanted some action. We should have remembered the saying - "Be careful of what you wish for."

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

So What Do You Do For A Living?

We'd got past hello, what's your name and fancy a drink?

"So what do you fellas do for a living?"

The moment of choice was upon us - divulge we were squaddies and take the chance of revulsion or admiration - or make something up and hope for the best. None of us sounded like we were from Northern Ireland.

"Errm - we're lighthouse painters. It's quite specialist really - that's why we are over from the UK. You've got some lovely lighthouses over here."

"F**k off d**khead - heard that one last week - do you think we're stupid or something." And they left clutching the drinks we'd just paid a fortune for.

One of the major pains in the arse when I was in Northern Ireland (and it's very different now) was getting into pubs and clubs. A bunch of lads out by themselves with English accents stood no chance of getting past the bouncers. The option was to sneak in one and by one - and risk the chance of some of your mates not getting in - or alternatively to try to chat up some girls in a pub you could get into and then persuade them to get you in where you really wanted to go. An English bloke walking in with a Northern Irish lass was usually ok with the bouncers.

So admit to being a squaddie or lie and try to persuade the lady you were something else? A tricky question. What follows are some of the more imaginative occupations that either I or someone I know has tried to blag:

  • Dolphin trainer - works well with the more sensitive lady although it helps if you know just one or two basic facts about dolphins - like they live in salt water (not everyone I work with is very smart).
  • Lighthouse painter - ok it didn't work for us but it has for other people.
  • Driving for the Moscow State Circus - worked a treat for a fabulous month that the circus was in town.
  • Airline pilot - the only person I know who tried this was met with "You're an airline pilot - what the f**k are you doing in this s**thole?"
My all time favourite is the "Free Fall Welder" - I never saw this happen although I've been promised it is true. Bear in mind that this guy had been a welder in a previous job and was a keen sport parachutist:

"Well love it's like this - sometimes these big Jumbo jets get little cracks in their wings when they are flying from here to America. So what we do is fly out in a fast aeroplane until we are above them and then we jump out with our welding gear - we freefall down and then land on the wings - we use big suckers so we don't fall off. We do whatever welding we have to and then when they get over land we let go of the suckers, open our parachutes and come down nice and gently."

I don't know why but everytime I think of this image the bloke is talking to someone like Britney Spears.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Can You Just Fetch Me...................?

"These tyres aren't balanced properly - what we need is a long weight - that'll sort it out. Can you just pop over to the Quartermasters' and get me one?"

I'd now been in the unit for a while and this question wasn't aimed at me. I don't know why but I'd never been singled out for a wind-up like it.

The idea behind the long weight gag (if you haven't worked it out already) is that everywhere you end up trying to get one you hang around for ages only to be told, "Sorry mate can't find one - how about trying..........." Eventually someone takes pity on you and educates you on the two versions of weight in the English language.

These types of wind ups are common, especially with new 'green' soldiers. Other people I know have been sent to get some camouflage paint, a short stand (a quicker version of the long weight), or have been dispatched with a sealed letter for someone important. The last one hinges on the fact that the unsuspecting victim is told to expect a reply from the person they are delivering the letter to. The reply the individual gets is usually much more vitriolic than expected as the sealed letter reads along the lines of "If you don't come over here and kiss my arse I'm going to crap on your desk."

My all time favourite prank was played on a friend of mine - before I joined up. Taking part in some arctic warfare training in Norway he spent over an hour in the freezing cold going from tent to tent trying to get the vital ingredient for cooking dehydrated rations.....

"Can you try the other tents and see if they've got any dehydrated water - we're totally out."

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Universal Soldier is off to sunnier sandier climes for a few weeks and probably won't be posting. That's right I'm on holiday and the only fortified position I expect to find myself in is a sandcastle with the two little troopers.

Murphy's Laws For The Army Number Five

If your attack is going really well, it's an ambush.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Sangar Life

A Sangar is a fortified position and in Northern Ireland these could be quite sophisticated affairs. It seems almost poignant at a time when the government has announced a large scale down of troops in Northern Ireland and the removal of various watchtowers and sangars to comment on sangar life.

It is also where I had got up to in my story, so poignant or not I was going to be posting this anyway.

With a ceasefire in place and not much happening we did very little during my first few months in Northern Ireland. When I say we did very little I mean we did very little of what we had trained for during the previous 3 months. What we did was train a lot, do various irksome minor duties a lot, and stag on - a lot.

Let me take you back to a night on duty....... (BEWARE SOME OF THIS ISN'T PRETTY)

I've been on guard for about 17 hours now - just the 7 to go. We did 6 hours stagging on and 6 hours on misnamed "rest" - the rest seemed to involve nearly as much work as the work. It is 5 hours into my 6 hour period of stagging on. I have now been standing up for 5 hours without sittin g down. My feet and knees ache. I've been wearing my helmet and body armour for 5 horus - my neck, head and shoulders hurt.

It's just turned 2am and my body is reaching its lowest ebb in the 24 hour cycle that all of us abide by.

It's getting cold and I'm sorely tempted to turn the heater on - Oh yes there are electric heaters in these sangars. But when I first walked in I think I caught a slight odour of semen. Now I get as bored as the next man endlessly staring through a small slit at nothing going on in front of me. I still can't understand how someone can be that bored that they have a wank. Even if I could understand this I can't understand how someone can be so selfish as to ejaculate all over the electric heater. If you've never smelt it then please try to avoid it - superheated sperm doesn't smell nice.

I check my watch and it's only half way through my stag. Someone is walking past my sangar - outside the wire - now I know they aren't a terrorist but it's human activity - I look at the woman and wonder where she is from, what she does, where she is going, is she in love? I make up my own version of her past, her present and her future. This passes another 15 minutes and now I'm ending my time on stag. The closer it gets to the end the slower the time passes.

I'm now listening avidly for the sound of a Land Rover bringing my relief. My joints know that soon I will be sitting down and thankfully the aches seem to disappear.

Eventually a whole 93 seconds late the Land Rover arrives. My handover is brief and to the point - the guy taking over from has been here before and my one piece of advice is "Don't turn on the heater". I retire to the Land Rover and feel the luxury of taking the weight off my feet. If I'm lucky I'll be sat down for 30 minutes now before I have to go and patrol the perimeter fence........... Top of the British Blogs