That two week acclimatisation period had been wonderful, with colourful nights that seemed to go on for ever, and extravagantly-lazy days, with nothing to do but eat and sleep and swim and relax. Now, though, that was over, and the military exercise was about to begin.
We hopped over to mainland Malaya in a Charlie One-Thirty, otherwise known as a Hercules transporter. Many thought it the most versatile aircraft in history, but I always thought it the most uncomfortable transport plane in service, apart from the Beverley. You see, a Hercules would take off from uneven surfaces, around a football pitch length, and, if that wasn’t enough to shatter the nerves, pilots didn’t so much land it, as drop it from a great height and stop on a sixpence.
The ride was always made doubly uncomfortable, because TCW boasted active paratroopers, and we often carried large quantities of equipment. Consequently, the exercise planners only allotted planes that were equipped for such sheer insanity and lowly cargo.
Our Charlie One-Thirties were usually fitted with metal seats, running along either side of the fuselage, with safety strapping, or more often netting, providing stability and security at either end of the flight. Vehicles and other heavy equipment, which shifted alarmingly during turbulence and the aircraft’s famed short take-offs and landing, filled the bulk of the interior.
The take-offs and landings were simple enough. In the absence of strapping, you clung to the netting until your fingers went blue, closed your eyes, prayed to whatever God you worshipped, and waited for a badly-tethered vehicle or technical cabin to splatter you against the fuselage.
You see, with non-commissioned ranks, the Air Force only ever catered for the lowest common denominator. As parachute drops only involved expendable men, with drained faces and white knuckles, who were never there to endure the uncomfortable and nerve-wracking landings, the Air Force saw little point in wasting money on fittings. Neither did they see the need to pander to an unappreciative and uneducated clientele of erks and the hoi polloi.
I am sure that many, having just read the drained faces and white knuckles bit, can’t believe that jumping out of an aircraft could ever frighten a macho parachutist. I am equally sure that many believe that modern-day parachute jumping is a doddle; performed by everyone from aged grandmothers to dare-devil thrill seekers. So, allow me to enlighten you.
Jumping from a static line ain’t the same as skydiving. Forgetting that there may be people trying to kill you, the standard military chute is cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre; or it was then. Not only that, but the drop is often just a few hundred, rather than thousands of feet. This means, if the main chute doesn’t open, the ’chutist will be scraping himself off the ground before he has time to realise the problem, pull the cord, and allow sufficient descent for the reserve chute to fill.
Secondly, apart from large areas of Salisbury plain and a couple of fields outside Abingdon, the drop zone is often uneven, and sometimes jagged and hostile. Thirdly, there are the problems associated with having a damn great canister hanging between your legs during descent. Lastly, there are all the dangers inherent in stick jumping: everything from candlesticks of silk that refuse to open, to tangling with other chutists, to droopy-loops of static-line, flapping alongside the aircraft and just waiting for some poor sod of a para to jump through and hang himself.
Which is why para’s have more to worry about than the way they’re facing, or cushions, or legroom. So much so that if they see anybody sitting alongside, with anything other than an ashen face and white knuckles, they will steer clear of that individual, and should the individual somehow muster a smile, they will refuse to jump with such an obviously-deranged lunatic.
But back to my cramped and uncomfortable seat on the Hercules, which was now on final approach at a temporary landing strip a few miles inland from the Strait of Malacca. The pilot dropped us on the grass runway from fifty feet, and then slammed on the brakes and reverse thrust; so severely that I had marks, on my neck and down one side, for over a week. It took an hour to restore the circulation to my fingers, but at least we were down and I was still in one piece.
Everyone filed out of the back of the plane and took a look around the jungle clearing. We had brought a fair amount of specialised equipment with us, and the rest was already there. To one side the temporary motor pool comprised a couple of three tonners and a dozen Landrovers. There was a pile of jungle green twelve-by-twelve canvas tents, a couple of technical, or KT, cabins, and a stack of composition rations. Last, but not least, a couple of nervous-looking Ghurkha riflemen stood guard over an armoury of SLR’s and SMG’s, stowed beneath camouflage netting.
I was stretching my limbs and restoring circulation, when I saw it; a Mirage jet, from the Royal Australian Air Force, coming straight for us, at no more than a few feet above the trees.
It fascinated me, because I’d never seen a Mirage that low or that close, and so I took a moment to study it as it swooped in, buzzed us, and then turned away. At the risk of sounding like a music hall act, I won’t say it was low, but I could see the pilot mouthing the words ‘Pommie bastards’ at us. We gestured and shouted back, as the fighter screamed low over our heads, and then watched as the pilot pulled the aircraft into a steep climb, before heading away to the west.
“That’s it. You’re all dead. You’re all dead.”
He was a British Army Warrant Officer, I could see that much from the insignia; short of stature, slight of frame, and narrow of mind, but I had no idea where he had come. He was obviously not directly involved in the war games, or not as a player, because he carried a clipboard and wore an armband, marked in red with the word UMPIRE printed in bold letters. He wore an immaculately-pressed battledress, with an immaculate S.D. hat, immaculately-starched collar, and immaculately-knotted tie. An immaculately-buffed webbing belt, and immaculately-bulled boots with mirror-finish toecaps completed the apparition. Lastly, and obviously to demonstrate his immaculate authority, he carried the obligatory pace-stick tucked immaculately under and at precisely ninety degrees to his upper left arm.
All in all he would have been more at home parading his pint-sized perfection along the Mall, rather than a Malayan jungle clearing, hundreds of miles from civilization, but he seemed oblivious to the incongruity. His only concession to the dangers of the jungle, was a pair of immaculately-wrapped puttees, to seal the gaps between trouser legs and gleaming boots.
Most of us looked blankly at him, a few grinned good-naturedly, someone sniggered, and a couple of comedians fell to the ground, feigning death throes and clutching imaginary wounds. For his part, in this slightly-bizarre confrontation, the pint-sized Warrant Officer continued to rant.
“What on earth were you lot thinking, just standing around like that? Why didn’t you run for cover when you saw the aircraft? You do know you’ve just been killed, don’t you? Well that’s it; it’s all over. I’m not joking, you know. I’m deadly serious. You’re all going to have to head back to wherever you’ve just come from. I’m sorry, but that’s all there is to it.”
“Fuck off; we’ve only just got here.”
That had been Slim Hollister, a Cornishman from Penzance, who was an affable twenty-stone member of Base Comms, and one of the most experienced among us. For a concerned moment, I seriously thought the pint-sized Warrant Officer would have a heart attack. His eyes bulged, and his face went bright red, as he considered the comment. Then he began to splutter.
“Fuck off. Is that what you just said to me? Fuck off?”
He had expressed his disbelief and outrage in a strangled scream, directing both question and hostile glare at the affable west-countryman. Slim ignored both. The gentle giant turned his back on the spluttering features, nodded to the aircraft, and said.
“Come on guys, this lot won’t unload itself.”
The spluttering Warrant Officer was beside himself with rage. With two undersized legs going at nineteen-to-the-dozen he raced across the grass to confront the affable Slim. This confrontation was comical in itself, because Slim was six foot four, twenty-stone bone-dry, and in complete control of his faculties. A thankfully now only a reddish-pink around-the-gills Warrant Officer was five feet seven, in his shiny boots, eight-stone dripping-wet, and literally shaking with rage.
“Did you hear me, Soldier, did you hear me? I asked you a question. Now then, did I hear you just tell me to fuck off or not? Did I, did I?”
Slim looked suitably bored, as he gazed down and into outraged features.
“Yeah. Oh, and incidentally, I’m not some bloody pongo. . . I’m RAF.”
“What do you mean? I don’t. . .”
Slim pointed to his shoulder, and the shabby blue beret rolled up inside the epaulet. The RAF cap badge was buckled and tarnished, but almost garish when viewed against the combat gear’s jungle green. A brief study of the pompous Warrant Officer’s confused features confirmed that such unexpected and unwelcome information simply didn’t compute.
“R.A.F? R.A.F? What do you mean R.A.F? What are you people doing here? You’re not supposed to be here. Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here?”
Somebody chose to further enlighten him.
“Thirty-eight group, Mate.”
He was off again; the tint fluctuating between red and redder, as he digested and processed the information, before wheeling around to address whoever had spoken.
“Mate? Mate? I’m not your mate. Bloody insubordinate rabble. I am a warrant officer in this man’s Army, and you call me, Sir. Do you hear me? You call me, Sir.” He had obviously remembered something relevant, because he furrowed his brow and said. “Hold on, wait a minute,” he carefully consulted his clipboard, “You’re not supposed to be here; you’re supposed to be over at Penerak.”
The last time that so many barbs hit their mark, the military exercise had been Agincourt.
“Get away.” “Are we really?” “It’s lucky we brought some transport.” “I knew it began with P.” “He may be a short-arse, but he can still see over a clipboard.” “I told the pilot to turn left at Hong Kong, but he wouldn’t listen.” “Thank God you were here, we could have starved to death.”
The pint-sized Warrant Officer failed to see the humour.
“Don’t you take that tone with me, you insolent bloody rabble. Anyway you can’t go now, because you’re all dead. I’ve got it marked here on my board, and that’s the end of it.”
It fell to the enviably good-looking Joules to explain the logistical and economic facts of military-exercise life, to the alternately confused and spluttering features.
“Look, Wack, we’re Thirty-Eight-Group, and if we don’t get to Penerak at some time today, unload, get the commcen up and running, and start communicating with all those poor bastards out there by first light, there’ll be no friggin exercise; just a bunch of pongos running around the jungle with their dicks in their hands, and some seriously pissed-off strike aircraft flying around in ever-decreasing circles, and firing missiles up their own arses.
“Now if that happens, it will mean that someone,” he nodded pointedly, “will have to explain to SEATO that they just blew thirty-million friggin dollars on an exercise that didn’t happen. All because some friggin Aborigine fly-boy flew over the wrong landing zone at the wrong time, and some pongo meathead sent the main field communications centre back to Singapore.”
An outraged Warrant Officer bristled at the insubordination, but then became lost in thought. You could almost see the wheels going around, as he assessed the potential fallout from this. It was the affable and generous Slim Hollister, who offered a solution.
“Look, Pal, from where I was standing that Aussie pilot timed his run all wrong. He overshot the target. I reckon he must have missed us by a good hundred yards or so. What do you think?” He winked and smiled, as he offered the olive-branch. “I’m sorry; what do you think, Sir?”
Somebody else chipped in.
“Yeah, typical bloody Aussies; just like their pace bowlers; never could get line and length right, well not at the same time anyway.”
The undersized Warrant Officer was still deep in thought; obviously wondering how he could disentangle himself, from what was rapidly turning out to be a fiasco, without in some way losing face. He finally glared at the enviably good-looking Joules, and said.
“How come your hair’s so long, Soldier?”
“It’s airman, not soldier, and the Judies like it that way, Wack.”
“I don’t care who likes it, it’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace. You’re to get it cut. Do you hear me, you ’orrible little man. And you don’t call me wack, you call me, Sir, do you hear me?”
We could all hear him, loud and clear; even the ’orrible little man’, who was in reality six-feet-three-inches tall. I couldn’t believe my ears. Despite his self-inflicted predicament, the pint-sized Warrant Officer was behaving like a caricature from The Army Game. It was the less than subtle Frankie Aps who mimicked the comment and started to snigger.
“Orrible little man? Is that what he just said? Did you hear that? He’s gotta be having a laugh.”
Slim tried to pour on the oil. He shook his head in disapproval, and motioned for Aps to shut-up, then turned to the once-again pink-around-the-gills Warrant Officer and said.
“Sorry about that, Sir. So can we get on with unloading the aircraft now, uh, Sir?”
I had to feel sorry for the beleaguered Warrant Officer. He stood in indecision for some further moments, studying each of us in turn and shaking his head in disbelief at the collective scruffiness and insolence that stared back at him. I had to agree with his overall impression, though, because we did look like a rabble; particularly when compared to his immaculate presentation. Unfortunately, for our pint-sized and pompous Warrant Officer, he had painted himself into a corner, there was no easy way out of; other than to either risk the considerable wrath of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, or humiliatingly capitulate. He wisely chose the latter.
“Get out of my bloody sight, you scruffy-looking rabble.”
Two hours later, with convoy loaded, we did just that. The convoy consisted of the two three-tonners, packed with masts and canvas and radio gear and generators and composition rations. Three Landrovers behind them, with technical cabins attached. Four Landrovers leading, with most of us piled in. Four more slotted in toward the back, with the balance of the party and more equipment, and two nervous-looking Ghurkhas; guarding the weapons and bringing up the rear.
Which was fine, because our main problem wasn’t the loading or sequence of vehicles. It wasn’t even that we had positioned our most experienced jungle fighters and guides at the rear, with enough firepower between the two of them to defend Singapore. The problem was that Frankie Aps had somehow managed to install himself behind the wheel of the lead Landrover.
Now Aps had shown himself to be an insensitive oaf on more occasions than I care to recall, and the fact that we allowed a moronic and inexperienced point-man, without so much as a driving licence, to lead our convoy through hostile jungle terrain, spoke volumes for the rest of us. At best it was poor judgement. At worst it was sheer lunacy.
In mitigation, we did have Slim Hollister sitting alongside him, with the map, a compass, and a degree of common sense. Unfortunately, Slim wasn’t the man behind the wheel.
Of course Aps immediately began driving far too fast along the uneven jungle track. It was too fast for an experienced driver on a decent surface, let alone an idiot whose only experience of driving had been chasing rabbits across Tangmere airfield at night. He drove so fast the remainder of the convoy, having their speed governed by impact-sensitive, high-tech equipment cabins, and lumbering, fully-laden Bedford three tonners, was unable to keep up. They soon began to lose sight of the lead Landrovers, which wasn’t good news for those lagging behind without a map.
On the upside, however, it probably saved us from a multiple pile up, when Aps suddenly swerved off the road and hit a tree.
“It wasn’t my fault. It was that fucking snake.”
We were surveying the damage to the Landrover, which wasn’t good. Neither were the various injuries, to the moronic Aps, a bloody-faced and disgruntled-looking Slim Hollister, and three of the four guys who had been sitting in the back of the Landrover. Slim had been lucky, he’d got away with cuts and bruises to the affable features, but Frankie Aps had a broken arm. The three men, who had started off in the back of the Landrover and finished in the front, had numerous cuts and abrasions, two broken ribs and a broken collarbone. An incredulous voice asked.
Slim Hollister glared across at Aps, and then shook his head in anger and frustration.
“Bloody idiot was zapping cobras. I told him not to. I told him to slow down, and stop being stupid, but he wouldn’t listen. I hope it’s a compound fracture; serves the little shit right.”
Rory Walters chipped in.
“OK, so maybe he was going too fast, and maybe it was a stupid thing to do. Let’s face it, everybody knows he’s a wanker, and as thick as two-short-planks, but I still don’t see why he had to swerve off the track like that?”
Frankie Aps tried to defend an indefensible position, only to turn it into a hopeless one.
“Wasn’t my fault. . . The bastard moved.”
We suddenly realised what had happened. It fell to the enviably good-looking Joules to sum up our collective opinion.
“I don’t believe it. You utter prat. You total friggin tosser.”
The problem was that we had been travelling through thick jungle in the middle of the day. The winding track, which led from the airfield before crossing the tracks leading south-west to Penerak and north-west to Kuala Lumpur, had been the only place where the rays of the sun had penetrated an otherwise densely-populated undergrowth.
Now snakes of all kinds love to lie out in the warmth of the sun’s rays, and so you would find dozens of them curled up in the middle of the dirt tracks. Passing drivers would rarely notice them, because if they were quick, and the driver travelling at a sensible speed, they could slither quietly away. However, if for some reason that didn’t happen the unfortunate creature would often be sadly, but unceremoniously, squashed.
Cobras aggravated the problem, because the kings are so much bigger than other snakes, with some stretching to eighteen feet. Not only that, but as they heard the drivers approach, they would do as cobras habitually do when threatened. They would rear up in the middle of the road, and open the cobra’s famous hood; providing a tempting target for an idiot with a lethal weapon, or in this case Aps and the front of a Landrover travelling at speed.
Ignorant, stupid, senseless, immature, cruel, unnecessary, moronic, contemptible, and sad, are some of the many adjectives that come to mind. Hindus might add, blasphemous. However, in Aps case one could add absurd and insane, because one of the cobras had reared up in the centre of the track as it heard Aps approach, before realising discretion to be the better part of valour. As the snake hurriedly retreated to the safety of the undergrowth, a fool and his Landrover followed.
You see, Aps being Aps had been so caught up in his moronic objective to squash as many snakes as possible that he swerved to catch the retreating reptile, and promptly lost control of the Landrover. The result of that little moment of madness was four casualties and a written-off vehicle, while a fleeter and wiser king cobra lived to boast about it to his grandchildren.
What made matters worse was that, because Aps had been charging along like a lunatic, in his efforts to decapitate cobras, we had lost contact with the three-tonners and the Landrovers pulling the technical cabins. Not to mention the other four Landrovers behind them, and the two nervous looking Ghurkha riflemen with the weapons cache.
The Chief calmly put everything into perspective, when we finally limped into camp.
“So let me recap, Lads; just so I can fully understand this before I have to explain it to the Wing Commander. Four hours ago you landed safely at the temporary airfield. You loaded up the trucks, formed into a column, and travelled here to the communications centre site. En route you sustained four casualties, three of them serious enough for a casevac, wrote off a Landrover, lost half your men, all your equipment, two three-ton Bedford trucks, seven other Landrovers, three KT cabins, the armoury, and the two Ghurkha riflemen guarding it. Is that right, or have I missed something?” Somebody nodded. The Chief exploded. “You only had to travel twenty miles.”
It was a disconsolate looking Chief who reported the sorry state of affairs to the Flight Lieutenant, and two even sorrier looking men who subsequently presented themselves at the Wing Commander’s tent. We sat around waiting for the inevitable fallout, which came some minutes later when the Chief returned looking sheepish.
“How did he take it, Chief?”
“The Wing Commander said that perhaps he ought to wire Hereford and tell them not to bother sending the SAS to attack us. He said we’ll probably all be dead long before they get here. Then the Flight Louie reminded him that we couldn’t do that, because we’d lost all the communications equipment. I think, all in all, you’ll find the Wing Commander’s not best pleased with you.”
The Chief started to walk away, but then turned back toward us and said.
“Oh, and by the way; the Wingco also said that he’d received a field telephone call from operations headquarters. Something about a bunch of long-haired yobs dressed in RAF berets and combat gear, who’d had a quiet chat up at the airfield with a Warrant Officer from the same headquarters. The Warrant Officer levied a formal complaint, and requested we bring charges against the long-haired yobs, for insubordination and refusal to comply with a direct order. He also claimed the long-haired yobs used the terms ‘fuck off’ and ‘pongo meathead’. . . Nice one, Lads.”
It seemed our immaculate pint-sized Warrant Officer had undergone a further narrowing of mind, and decided to make an issue of it. At that moment our future looked decidedly bleak, but just as the Chief began to walk away the answer to our prayers arrived. To be precise; two three tonners, three Landrovers pulling KT cabins, four more Landrovers and two nervous-looking Ghurkha riflemen. As they rolled into camp, the Chief shook his head and grinned as he said.
“You lucky bastards.”
“Look, he was being a prat, Chief. He wanted to send us back to Singa’s.”
Slim Hollister had blurted the mitigation. The Chief looked quizzically back at him.
“The friggin pongo meathead.”
That had of course been the enviably good-looking Joules.
Slim related the tale of the Mirage and of the arrival of the pint-sized Warrant Officer, while the Chief listened carefully. At the end of the explanation the Chief looked pensive, weighing up the arguments and counter arguments for some moments, before saying.
“If you shower can manage to get this place operational, and that means everything up and all the radio checks completed before twenty-one hundred, I’ll have a word with the Wingco, OK?”
Unsurprisingly we didn’t hang around, and were in fact up and running, with all checks completed, thirty minutes early. When the chief returned he brought the Wing Commander with him, who congratulated us on getting up and running so quickly and then added.
“Oh yes, and as for that unfortunate incident over at the airfield. . . On the record I have to say the RAF will not tolerate insubordination for any reason, especially when directed at officers from other branches of the service. You would do well to remember that.” He started to walk away, but, as he reached the entrance to the commcentre tent, then added. “Off the record I have to say well done, Lads, but let’s try not to make a habit of it, OK?”
It was a popular Wing Commander who floated out of the makeshift commcentre, with a cacophony of cheers, and a sycophantic thank you, Sir, ringing in his ears. Now all we had to do was survive the perils of the Malayan jungle, the Australian armed forces, and the S.A.S. on a diet of composition rations, and half a canteen of water a day, for the next three weeks.
The Wing Commander’s popularity wasn’t unconditional, though. The next day a contingent from field catering arrived and set up facilities next to the officer’s quarters. They also installed a makeshift shower, which was slightly galling because we didn’t have a sufficient ration of water each day to even wash our faces. It wasn’t until that first lunchtime, however, when I came to witness the true extent of the great divide that exists between RAF officers and other ranks.
At the time, I was sharing a dead tree-stump with a colony of ants, and nervously eying a rustle from an adjacent bush. I was eating lukewarm tinned-meat stew, which I’d heated myself, scraped off the blackened base of a billy-can with the screwdriver attachment from my Swiss-Army penknife, and then hooked out with a folding fork. While swallowing the chunks, I looked across the clearing to see our noble commissioned officers; sitting down to a full three-course luncheon, served on a long trestle table. Covering the table was a spotless white tablecloth, with white linen napkins, silver cutlery, water jugs, bread rolls, and all the necessary condiments precisely laid out.
Expertly cooking the officer’s meals were two chefs, complete with white-jackets, chequered trousers and toque hats; presumably seconded from the officer’s mess in Seletar. White-jacketed waiters were scurrying around the table, and plying their ‘silver-service’ skills, for the sole benefit of those same officers.
As the mouth-watering aroma wafted across the clearing, to where I sat, the incongruity of it all reminded me of a scene from a Carry-On film. At any moment I half expected to see a rotund Joan Sims get an inquisitive python up her skirt, or hear an emaciated Kenneth Williams saying, ‘No, don’t do that. No, stop mucking about.’ But, instead of listening to a feminine shriek followed by a lecherous Sid James’ chuckle, or hearing one of the endearingly-camp Kenneth Williams’ catchphrases, all I heard was. . . “How’s it going, chaps?” Followed by another voice saying. . . “Well, it’s clearly not ideal, Sir, but I suppose we’ll survive.”