The Hotel Macedonia looked like a spare prop out of a survival horror movie. The windows were all taped up to prevent them from shattering in the event of any incoming rounds… if the Serbs did manage to throw something accurately this way then I’m sure a lot of people would be wondering what equipment they had. We were over 100km from anything remotely dangerous. We were more at risk from Cockroaches.
We were fenced in and there was a guard posted on the front gate to monitor vehicles coming in and out. They were mostly contractor vehicles delivering food and taking away shite and rubbish. People flock to where the industry is, and this was the industry of war, we paid good money to the LECs (Locally Employed Civilians).
I met the rest of the Artillery Intelligence team (trio) in the Hotel. They were putting together radio equipment and computer.
“How was the trip?” Shippers asked.
“The toilet was blocked. Nearly shit myself,” I said and Blamf gave a laugh, then the expression changed.
“Did you get lashed up, Dougy?”
“I had a few. Y’know, a going away do.”
“Your reputation precedes you,” Shippers said, and this was probably the only real part of this conversation I remembered. He was right, of course, but I didn’t realise it at the time.
Blamf swore and dropped a spanner. “Fucking BATES kit. Shite!” I nodded in agreement. Couldn’t agree more.
We were to stay here for another two weeks until moving out. By that time I’d managed to get a new girlfriend (this only lasted 3 months though), ditched a girl back in Traz (Osnabruck) and witnesses the catastrophic destruction of the 204 Signals Squadron accommodation tent (fucking hilarious).
As a Lance Bombardier I’d be doing guard shift due to the lack of Signallers and Gunners and Craftsmen, but this didn’t bother me. I think I was at an entrance to the Hotel and there was this other girl, she was signing people in. I must have been the muscle to help in case she needed help. I remember not being in the mood for talking, but we started talking and agreed to go out for a run with her.
I had to keep the pace down and the area was pretty undulating with its small hills, plus she wasn’t physically fit either, she was out of breath by the time we were 100 metres from the perimeter of the hotel. The 432s were lined up by the hotel providing data and a constant feed of information from the radios to those who were on stag inside. We walked a little way to the crest of the first little hill and looked back at the Hotel. It was surrounded by tents and vehicles, all khaki and in drab. The owners of the Hotel Macedonia were getting a fortune out of us staying here and I doubted anyone stayed here for holidays. The landscape beyond was dark and brooding. The land seemed to weigh heavy here, there was no crops to be seen, it was as if we’d took the wrong train and got off on the Yorkshire Moors.
There were days when it rained and it didn’t stop. The Signallers hadn’t tied down their accommodation tent and it collapsed. Luckily the collapse occurred in the afternoon though in that gloom it would have passed for 8pm. The metal poles that held up the centre pieces to army tents had come crashing inwards and pierced cot beds and other things. People could have been killed as these metal poles would have easily crushed skulls.
We chuckled to ourselves whilst watching the muttering and cursing scaly backs rebuild their tent in the rain.
“Apparently it’s shit when that happens,” Dave Tribe told us and we howled, because one of the Signallers had heard him and scowled.
Each day we’d service the vehicles and check our radio equipment. For Artillerymen we spent most of our time in oil and grease and with radio antennae. The average civvy joe, would expect us to be elbows in artillery cannons and humping shells. I didn’t do any of that shit, that was for the bunnies to deal with. We were taking AS90 with us to deal some nasty 155mm High Explosive death on any Serbian Battery that decided to shell us. We had three Batteries with us and that equated to 18 Guns. War establishment stated that we could man 24 Guns with 3 Batteries, but that was just plain horse shit on paper. We were lucky to man 6 Gun Batteries, never mind 8.
We had an AFV432 with the VRN of 04FA52 – I still remember the vehicle registration. I got the chance to drive it even though I never had a license, but hey, this was ‘war’, wasn’t it? That’s what the media were telling us. The media said we could lose a lot of people if we crossed the border before Belgrade agreed it. Numbers of casualties were hundreds in their estimates. We couldn’t hear the bombing of Serbia, but we were told we had another 5 days before moving out.
It would be exercise time soon and we’d set up a kilometre from the Hotel to get ourselves limbered up for the shooting match the news reporters were hoping was going to happen. I’m not sure if this was the right exercise but I remember a guy called Joe and he got the nickname crypto Joe after this little incident. But on this certain little exercise which lasted a little over four days, he gave a thing called the whiskey bottle to a subaltern (another name for a 2nd Lieutenant or a Lieutenant) and never saw it again. The whiskey bottle was part of the Cryptographic equipment that transferred the codes across to other devices. The whiskey bottle was full of it and it was handed over without any receipt or signatures.
A frantic hunt was on for this device. It lasted days. Vehicles, bergens, tents and bags were searched. The exercise area was combed within an inch, but this device couldn’t be found, and I’m not sure what the subaltern said, but this device was never turned up. Not sure on the classification, but I’d hazard a guess it was Top Secret. I’m surprised the media didn’t get a hold of this, perhaps they did. Needless to say crypto Joe was never the same again. If he got the whiskey bottle signed for, then I’m sure he’d have been in the clear, but it was a case of, ‘It’s alright, here you go, go and fill your radios, Sir. Just bring it back, yeah?’ and the officer would have smiled and replied, ‘No problems, Sarge’. And that’s all it took. How many times did that happen without incident? The equipment goes back to the originator without the hassle of signature?
We were seldom visited by film crews who loved that shit, us on exercise, because we’d be there and we’d put on a show for them. The Brigade Commander wanted us to look ready for the camera, so that Milosevic and his crew from Belgrade got to see us as ready as ever.
The last evening before leaving, the lads and lasses from the Signals Squadron watched Episode 1 The Phantom Menace and I remembered a guy called Foggy telling me about this new film called The Matrix which was ‘fucking awesome I shit you not’, his words, not mine. We had pirated versions of just about every film you could think of in that hotel. As we were about to leave on the last day, we had chogees, appearing out of the woodwork, trying to sell us porno cd’s, films and music etc.
We got in our armoured vehicles and filed out in single column formation, up this great big hill. It must have been on a 45 degree angle, because I thought we were going to slide back down the fucking thing. We manage to get on to the road where the Low Loaders would take us in to Skopje and then north a little way toward the border; our final location prior to crossing.
The Low Loaders were civilian and we sat in the cabs with the RLC drivers to head on north. We travelled through the night and we heard rumours of riots and protests against the NATO incursion. Rumours of violence, petrol bombs and bricks being thrown… sounded like fun!