Whilst sat in the cab of the low loader I could hear the menacing belch of the driver’s fart. It sounded very melodic, the guy must have been on the spicy food. He was from Brum, so he said, Dudley, on the outskirts and couldn’t wait to get out of this shit hole of a dump of a fucking country, so he said. The cab’s lights reflected off from the sweat on his face, he’d been driving a good 11 hours, more than he was allowed to. They hadn’t started regulating the numbers of hours you could drive just yet, and if they did, this was an operational requirement. Fourth Armoured Brigade Headquarter’s armoured fleet had to be north at the allotted time in the rendezvous point by 10am the next day. It was just outside Skopje, and the rumours were confirmed by the driver’s radio. BBC World Service reported civil unrest in the capital and the police were firing CS canisters at crowds to disperse them, the German Embassy had been ransacked and its windows broken.
I began to curl up and eased myself into a question mark shape on the seat, like a cat and let out a fog horn of a fart – touché.
“Here we are, Treacle. ‘Ere, Dougy. Sweet pea.” I heard this, but didn’t register this to be in the real world of existence, instead I banished the translation as a dialogue from a dream. “Hey, Treacle Pie?”
Treacle Pie? What the fuck? Slivers of light, natural and as real as the sun can give, reflected from a wing mirror and pierced my frame of reference, as fuggy as it was, it was a sharp and rude as any sweet remark from the bent driver. He must have been bent to call me Treacle Pie.
“Treacle Pie? You’ve only known me..” I looked at my watch – 5am, “Nine hours.”
“Force of ‘abit mate. Don’t worry I call me brudder Treacle as well,” he said as a matter of fact, “We got breakfast. Fucking trimmings.” I turned my head in time to see him grimace, raise a knee and let rip. He must have been doing this all night as the cab was heady with the scent of fart aroma. He looked a little like Mel Gibson from Mad Max when he grimaced and I noticed his Mexican moustache for the first time.
I jumped down from the Low Loader, well, not jump, but climbed down and jumped the last step. I might have broken an ankle if I’d jumped from the top. I joined the queue and could see several 6 foot, wooden tables outside of a tent. Paper plates, plastic KFS (Knife Fork Spoon) if you hadn’t nicked any from the cookhouse back at camp, and then there was brekkers. These guys were generous, we had Bacon, Tomatoes, Burnt Sausages, thick Beans, white bread, black pudding, and runny eggs (Egg Banjos : optional). I went for a bacon sandwich, extra bacon rashers and a couple of slices of bread. The Norwegian containers at the last table had hot coffee and tea which were both indistinguishable in taste – the coffee had this twang off bitter tea in it, fucking rats, to use Commando speak. I still drank it though. I refilled my lidded mug and we got the order to mount back up – there was another 3 hours to go before we got to the Brigade’s waiting area.
A guy called Foggy, known as Stu Ramm says he was on his way up north with the SMIS (Sergeant Major Instructor Signals) – correct me if this is wrong – the SMIS was called Tim Bellis. They were both on their way up when, on a stop, they found a Soviet made military telephone along with wires. One of them had the notion to wire this up to a Portaloo, i.e. put the wires on the seat and when someone sat on the loo they would crank this thing up and generate a charge. They ran the cable back to their Land Rover and waited for the unsuspecting soldier to walk up to the loo, shit roll in hand, cockey stride as he opened the door and didn’t even bother to inspect the seat. Dropped his kegs, and planted himself down on the cold, damp surface of the loo and began to relieve himself. “Do it! Do it!” was the frantic whisper from an excited Tim to Stu. Stu dutifully obeyed the Sergeant Major and wound the device. Needless to say, the scream that was generated woke up many people in the area, the shock of this expelled the soldier, trousers round ankles and shit on legs, out of the loo.
We got to the location which must have been some sort of car park. Tracks led off to other leaguer areas where we had the prancing Cavalry with their guitar toting James Blunt, and we had some tanks, and then there were the infantry – but they were in the woods somewhere where they belonged. The Paras would come later. There had been a first aid station set up and this was huge – I think it was 2 AFA (Armoured Field Ambulance). By the look of it they were expecting a large number of casualties.
We moved twice in this area. We set up first, using the BFT. BFT stood for Big Fucking Tent, and I’d had plenty of practice in getting this motherfucker up. It took four hours to get the circus tent up and another day to get all the shit wired in, and another fucking week to get it all working. Our Regimental Echelon was about 5 mile away in some shitty pig farm, but we, the Arty Int Cell and the Fire Support Co-ordination Cell (FSCC) were attached to the circus. Here we’d have the likes of the Commanding Officer, HQ Battery Commander, and the rest of the Brigade clowns who were the Staff. I remember one morning, we’d been there 2 weeks already, and I saw the unmistakable wizened features of Kate Adie. For fuck’s sake, I thought, you knew things weren’t going to end well when she turned up, the last time I’d seen her was in Sarajevo, 4 years before and it wasn’t good there either. I just passed her on my way to breakfast and gave her a smile, but she just phased me. Suit yourself you fucking leather faced lezza ratbag!
I was living at the front of the 432 on the hard surface. I preferred it here as it was quiet and out of the way. A lot of the guys from the Battery had heard of this and thought I was being mis-treated in some way. Well, I wasn’t; this was my choice. I’d arranged all my gear around the front under the cam net and it was a home from home. It was water proof, and the weather was beginning to turn warm.
Being Lance Bombardiers we had to do guard stags on the Brigade Headquarters. This might mean sitting at the flapped entrance ensuring people signed in, or stood outside with rifle and beret on. When Shippers got promoted to Bombardier, he informed me due to the promotion he didn’t need to stag on as he had done in the past. There was no denying he had great intelligence and talent, plus he didn’t have a love for drink, like me. He effectively overtook me in a matter of 2 years. I guess it’s a bit like an ex-squaddy going into the role of a civilian with a load of 19 years olds and climbing up that promotion ladder like an F-22 Raptor doing a vertical climb with its afterburners on. I was given the opportunity to do a Crew Commander’s course, but turned it down due to its location being in Plymouth – there’d have been a lot of swimming involved and I was absolutely shocking at swimming. Mick Lawrence told me that I’d be overtaken unless I seized the opportunity now. Good advice, but I didn’t take it.
On guard shift it often took the off-coming guard 3 attempts to get me out of my pit. The WO1 in charge of the Signals Squadron (Douglas Craig) got to hear of this and informed Blamf. Blamf gave me a verbal and warned me that he’d get rid of me if this happened again. This didn’t happen again and I’m sure this is where my fanaticism to getting up on time came in. I remember being in the back with Shippers and Blamf, the Brigade Commander walked past and Blamf farted. Shippers mimicked the Brigade Commander giving him the thumbs up which sort of tickled me and broke up the bollocking a bit.
The back ends of the 432s had these massive doors on them which swung open and we’d dock on to the BFT like a space craft docking in to the station. We’d generally have maximum light discipline which meant plugging up any gaps in the tent.
Half the life of the liney scaley back was at the beckon and call of the Staff Officers who occupied the vehicles, they’d turn up when the vehicles / platforms had already been plumbed in and prepared for communications. The Artillery and Engineers travelled with their vehicles and we staffed them ourselves.
Non-event number 1 was when Jim Davison paid a visit to the camp and I just stayed in the back of the 432 reading a book. I could see this great big wax trench coat he was wearing and that was it. I couldn’t see above his waist due to the tarpaulin that was covering the doorway.
Non-event number 2 was when the smiling assassin himself, Tony Blair, turned up with his missus in tow. I was at the entrance on stag signing people in, but he was so important that he came in another way and all I heard was the commotion and snapping of cameras. There were selfies and grinning Staff Officers posing with Cherie, who looked on with a hint of concern in her eye.
One evening, on March 31st 1999, the big screen depicted the news as it did on every evening, in the tent. The Officers stood around it to watch the news, this was generally after the Brigade Commanders daily debrief. Newsflash… A Humvee had strayed over the border in to Kosovo. What the fuck? What a fucking disaster!!
I heard a chuckle behind me. It was the ever witty Media Ops Officer, “So much for their Map Reading skills. They’re gonna be plastered all over the news tomorrow when they’re paraded in front of the camera crews.”
He wasn’t wrong. Here’s what CNN reported on the 1st April 1999:
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (CNN) -- Three U.S. army soldiers were held captive by the Yugoslav Army Thursday after it said the three men "were captured on Serb territory" and "resisted arrest." Serb television showed pictures of the three men dressed in camouflage military fatigues. One of the men had several cuts on his face; another had a cut on his nose. Serb television identified the men as James Stone, Andrew Ramirez and Steven Gonzales. The names could also be seen on their camouflage uniforms.