Corporal Ronnie (Annie) Oakley RHF - Obituary

Annie2.jpg

We all recall men or women of influence from our younger days. People who perhaps gave the right advice at the right time, who helped steer us on the right path or who bailed us out when things went astray. When then, all these years later we hear news of their passing we find ourselves being hurtled back to the memories of the heady exciting days of our younger selves. What days they were. What people we have known.

One such figure in my life was Corporal Ronnie ‘Annie’ Oakley of the 1st Bn Royal Highland Fusiliers who recently passed after a short illness. The epitaph ‘Legend,’ has become so overused that it’s efficacy as a testament has come to be diluted. Not so in the case of Oakers. While every battalion has its list of ‘Regimental Legend’s,’  Ronnie was special and held in high regard by everyone who soldiered with him.

Meeting Ronnie with 1 RHF, then stationed in Barossa Barracks in Hemer, BAOR, was not part of my life plan. Far from it. But then plans have a way of unwinding at the first hurdle. Mine did when a premature stab at the Commissions Board at the age of 18 left me with what they called a ‘deferral.’ What they meant was ‘go away, grow up and come back and have another try.’ When I arrived back at my Depot at Glencorse near Edinburgh the only advice I received was from a Queens Own Highlander major who said, ‘why don’t you take a banana boat to China and see the world?’ He could have been speaking ancient Aramaic. Of course, he was suggesting I do what would now be called a gap year. I piped up and said ‘I would like to go to a battalion Sir.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘I’ll speak to the Adjutant.’ The next morning I pulled my feet in and reported to the Adjutant, a Captain Ewan Loudon of the RHF. It was a short meeting. ‘Report to 1 RHF in Hemer on Monday morning,’ he said, ‘get your travel docs from the clerk.’ I walked out stirred, shaken and stunned. I had entertained delusional visions of going to Hong Kong with the Black Watch but here I was heading to 1 RHF. You see, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, recruited wholly from Glasgow and Ayrshire, did not just enjoy a fearsome reputation in the British Army, it held true within the Scottish Division itself. Chastising myself for being really very stupid and wondering how I would survive in the cauldron of the RHF while trying to hide the potential officer label threw me into despair. Sympathy beers from mates in the NAAFI that night served only to darken the mood. It really did feel like the end of days.

As it transpired, my two years with 1 RHF was the most memorable and enjoyable time of my early life. I look back with great affection for the people I met, the life lessons I learned and the laughs we had. Those two years created the bedrock of my life in no small part thanks to the people around me. Men like Annie Oakley.

Oakers joined the battalion in Fort George in 1969 by way of the Merchant Navy. They say that pressure makes diamonds. He was an orphan with no family so the Commanding Officer was his next of kin. The battalion was his family. It still is. (quotes in italics are from fellow RHF soldiers).

There will be much said about him from everyone. I knew him from the first day I arrived in Singapore, he was asleep in the shower after a night on the Anchor beer. To say Ronnie was a character defies the word. He was larger than life and was known and liked by everyone in 1 RHF from the Commanding Officers downwards. He had his fair share of misdemeanours but was always open to giving a helping hand/advice to anyone. I knew him in various ways as a sportsman battalion goalkeeper, as a very fit soldier/NCO in A Coy, as a babysitter and as a friend. After his discharge from 1 RHF he was always involved in veterans activities/events. There are lots of parts to Ronnie Oakley but he always told me THE RHF IS MY FAMILY and he continued to say that to the end.
Ronnie at a friend's wedding

Ronnie at a friend's wedding

The sad thing about perusing veterans sites and Facebook groups is that one reads of the passing of many old faces. Never though, have a read so many notes of genuine respect and affection as I have seen for Annie. The ‘great and the good,’ don’t get the airtime that he has. He earned it. His tough early start to life didn’t stop him from having a warm, friendly, good hearted and generous nature. He always had a kind word of encouragement for newcomers to A Company, a ‘tap’ of 30 DM’s for someone short before pay day or some friendly banter when someone had some bad news. He was a father figure to many a young Jock and a source of wise words for newly promoted junior NCO’s or newly commissioned officers. As one of the many posts said,

RIP to the best Section Commander I have had the pleasure of working alongside. Booted your arse when you needed it then sat and had a drink with you after it, always there to help his guys when they needed it. A thing I always noticed was that CO’s listened to RSM’s, OC’s to CSM’s, Plt. Comd’s to Plt Sgt’s, but everybody, listened to ‘Annie.’
Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Ronnie wasn’t just a good guy to know. He was a very, very good soldier. Some infantrymen get to where they need to be through hard training and application. Some get there through luck and blagging their way through training. Some though, are born to it. Was there ever a more natural infantry NCO than Ronnie? Ronnie wasn't quite cut out for a drill instructors course but no one instilled more confidence on the ground than did he, be it in urban or rural environments. A friend reminded the other day about Ronnie patrolling in the Ardoyne; he wouldn't let anyone turn a corner without first scanning the streets, windows and shoot-throughs with his bino's. They didn’t teach you to use bino's on street patrols at NITAT (Northern Ireland Training Advisory Team), but then NITAT didn't have Annie Oakley instructing there. He instilled confidence in all around him and was completely dependable when ‘on the job.’ As young Jocks, we all respected his soldiering skills and his judgement in the field. Gaining his respect for our abilities was an aspiration for us all.

I wrote this in a previous post before I heard of Ronnie's illness, 'It is of course entirely normal for one generation of soldiers to look out of the window and think things have changed for the worse. It was ever thus. Back in 1980, after many hours waiting on standby in some side streets in Lurgan during the Hunger Strike riots, we got the order to move in and take over from the RUC who were taking a bit of a battering. As we moved forward a more experienced Corporal turned to me and said, 'Dinnea sweat it, this is nothing like as bad as the Ardoyne in '72.' I thought to myself, 'well a brick in the face or a sucking chest wound probably feel just as bad whichever postcode and time you happen to be in.'  That Corporal, 'Annie' Oakley, was incidentally, one of the best infantry soldiers I ever came across. He moved like a cat and had a natural understanding and affinity for his environment, whether on the streets or in rural areas.'

Since I heard of Ronnie’s passing I have struggled with how I would say “Stand Down” to this influential man. Ronnie was a very likeable guy, you couldn’t help but be enamoured by his look on life in the RHF, to most it was a vocation to “Be The Best”, to “Annie” as we all remember him it was learn as you go, do your job but don’t forget to enjoy your life, and Annie had a good life full of work and fun in equal measure. The respect he has been shown in the comments I have read make me feel I haven’t lived up to what it means to be a Fusilier. I was what is called a late developer only achieving entry to the WO’s and Sgts Mess at the end of my stint. But because of people like Annie and others I served with in the RHF I had a whale of a time.

Ronnie recently reminded me in a text exchange when he was in the hospital of a comedy sketch we did together at the Battalion Christmas concert in 1979 at the Globe Theatre in  Hemer. I described it as ‘the beginning, climax and last act in my stage career. We got a few laughs though.’ He replied, ‘I would say a standing ovation.’ That it happened at all was a surprise given the absence of any planning, script or rehearsal. He came to me a few days before the show and said,

The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

‘Have you got a suit Davy?’

‘Yes Ronnie, why?’

‘I’ve got an idea for a sketch. You’ll be the interviewer and I’ll answer the questions, it’ll be brilliant.’

‘OK, have you got a script and when do we rehearse?'

‘Dinnae worry about all that Davy, we’ll ad-lib, it’ll be a cracker.’

We got away with it but only because of Ronnie’s infectious charm and native wit. Being the straight man was easy given as soon as we walked on stage Ronnie had them eating out of his hand.

Ronnie died peacefully with close friends from the Battalion at his side. He planned his own well attended funeral even paying extra to have the crematorium service on a Saturday, ‘so folk didn’t have to take the day off work.’ That was typical of the man. He gave more than he took in life and that is the mark of a life well lived and of a gentleman. I shall remember him with affection, respect and genuine thanks for making my life a better one to live. He was the very best of men and soldiers that Scotland produces.

The world is now a sadder place with the passing of Ronnie Oakley. Ronnie, Annie, Oakers and goodness knows how many other names he was called touched the hearts of an entire Regiment, that included our wives and children. We were his brothers, sisters as well as an uncle to our families. He made me proud to be a Fusilier just as he was. Ronnie you brought a lot of joy and happiness to the Royal Highland Fusiliers. You have touched all our hearts. I’m sure we’ll met in another place sometime in the future. God Bless You Old Friend.

Time of the Month

I arrived home last night after a hum drum day to a quiet house. It’s that time of the month. The Coven was gathering for their alleged monthly ‘Book Club,’ get-together which was surprising because the skies were quiet and subdued. On the evening of last month’s Circle we witnessed the biggest lightening storm in the south for years which was much more aligned with my deep seated suspicions. There was a note, ‘food in the fridge.’ She left me a mackerel. I wish she hadn’t. Now I would be the first to agree that mackerel are a fine and unfairly underrated fish but sometimes a man just needs more than a mackerel and some salad. A glass of wine cheered things along but a quick look at the television soon dampened the moment. My televisual tastes tend to be eclectic so I watched ten minutes of Australian Masterchef for inspiration before returning to my mackerel. Boy those young Aussie’s can knock together some decent scran. Their Asian-fusion-cooking-thing was way above my pay grade; impressive but why do they get so emotional? What is happening to that country? It’s only food, not a cure for cancer. In the end I gently fried my fish in butter, ate it with the pre-prepared salad and mused over the old days. What wouldn’t I give for a waltz down the old hotplate in the cookhouse?

Private Chris David at Patrol Base Wahid, (Helmand 2011) He and other chefs had to conjure up three meals a day for around 140 hungry troops against a backdrop of almost unbearable heat.

and in the good old bad days; 1 RHF in Crossmaglen in 1977. Conditions were cramped to say the least.

In my time the jokes about Army catering, which were anyway a hangover from National Service days, were misplaced. I always though the Catering Corps worked miracles with the modest budgets they had to work with and on operations what they produced from the smallest of facilities was nothing short of brilliant. As a young soldier I had no complaints and as a young officer life just got better. Except when on duty as Orderly Officer. One of our duties for the day was to attend meals in the Cookhouse with the Orderly Sergeant, check the food was of a good standard and take any complaints from the boys. It was an arcane task probably left over from the Crimea or the Haldane Reforms, who knows? I found it a bit embarrassing and intrusive standing watching the lads eat and rarely were there any complaints. Except if there were no chips; that could cause a riot. No chips and no tea and the British Army ceases to function. I wish I could break the habit even now but I don’t think I ever will. In Food Top Trumps, chips beat salad every day of the week. If only Mrs Flashbang could grasp the concept….

Army cooks themselves were a resilient bunch who took and gave stick and banter across the hotplate all day long. Oh and they could shift a trolley load of beer and perform with the rest of them in their down time. And didn’t they just. The night when on guard duty as a young Jock L/Cpl, when we caught a drunk cook rogering the Officers Mess Christmas turkey, still gives me episodes. You couldn’t make it up….. Anyway, here’s the Crumble tribute to Army cooks, bless ‘em..

Through the Night

Dick Davidson with a song he wrote 35 years ago in NI. Loving the Roy Orbison / George Harrison look there Dick.. Cover picture by the way is a patrol from 3 Pl heading out for a 3 day bimble around the countryside, heavily armed of course).

SF Base, S Armagh 1980 and no, I can't believe it's me either. Won't be seeing a 28'' waist again anytime soon...

We're at that time of year when we give pause to think and reflect. For anyone who has served, and their families, its a time of mixed emotion. There is pride, sorrow, regret, relief, sadness and yes, there is humour although it comes in strictly limited portions. Although the coming week is when we publicly remember the fallen it is also a time for intensely private and personal memory and reflection. We think not just of those who we lost in past generations on active service, and during our own time, but of friends and contemporaries who died in training accidents, in military RTA's or who have checked out since leaving, through mental or physical ill health resulting from service or just circumstances since.

Over to my old friend Dick then. We did a tour together a lifetime ago with A Coy, 1RHF. He's not saying anything more than we were young, sent to do a job in somewhat trying circumstances and we looked forward to coming home. It was ever thus.

 

 

Time to Help Albert!

Some thirty six years ago I recall wandering into the television room at Glencorse Barracks in August 1979. The usual banter and joshing was absent. NCO's just stared at the television in silence, not believing what they were hearing. Mountbatten was dead. He was murdered with others in the atrocity at Mullaghmore. A serious incident involving the Parachute Regiment had also occured at Warrenpoint resulting in many casualties. Just how many quickly became clear. 

Lt Col David Blair, QO Hldrs

Soon after, Queens Own Highlanders of all ranks at the Depot were called to the cinema. We were told that the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Lt Col David Blair and his signaler, L/Cpl MacLeod, had also been killed in the secondary explosion at Warrenpoint which detonated as the Colonels helicopter was landing. The shock was palpable. Even though I was far away from South Armagh, the grief that pulsed through the Regimental family was very personal. It was my first experience of death in service.  It wasn't to be the last but thankfully I was spared the heavy casualty counts that some have witnessed. I've never forgotten that day, or the others.

RHF Veterans visit the Memorial Garden to remember members of the 1st Bn killed in NI

The memory of the 692 British soldiers killed in Northern Ireland as a result of paramilitary action, and the 6,116 wounded, is of course kept very much alive by their family and friends, their former comrades and their regiments and corps. Unfortunately, as I've written in the past, the sacrifice of a generation of soldiers who served in Northern Ireland has mostly been airbrushed from the contemporary collective memory. That process was started by Tony Blair and successive politicians have done little to make amends. It's just easier to let it be it seems. 

That is, unless you happen to be a gentleman called Albert Owens. Albert isn't a man given to doing things by halves. Nor does he take to the idea of letting the names of the 692 dead, and  those from other conflicts, be lost in the fog of history. Albert and his fellow volunteers have created a haven of peace and pilgrimage in the Palace Barracks Memorial Garden in Northern Ireland. The one and a half acre site commemorates those killed in Northern Ireland and other conflicts over the past 50 years. 

Albert Owens MBE; Memorial Custodian

'To see my dream and designs come true has become  a very special place not only for me but for all the families, friends and comrades of the soldiers who are remembered here, in the Palace Barracks Memorial Garden. In addition to maintaining the garden itself , I also keep in regular touch with  the families and friends of those  Men and Women of our Armed Forces  who are remembered here and arrange visits for them to the Garden  should they so wish.'

On the Memorial Garden website you will find list of those killed in action. Please take a moment to dip in and have a look. If you can, pick a name, any name from any regiment and quietly remember it, now, on November 11th and beyond. 

We should all remember, and mostly the country does with dignity on Armistice Day every year. Do though spare a thought for those killed in the conflicts beyond those which catch the media's attention. My own thanks to Albert for his efforts which are loyal to the memory. Please do visit the site or the Facebook page. His enthusiasm and commitment deserve  acknowledgement.

“As long as mist hangs o’er the mountains And water runs in the glens The Deeds of the Brave will be remembered” Caber Feidh gu Brath

Tales from the Lines; Whisky Galore 2

Listening to Norman Wisdom on Desert Island discs, (recorded in 2001) the other day, I was struck when he said his six years in the Army in India were the happiest and most carefree of his life. That was true for many of us and some of the experiences, well, you just couldn't make them up…… 

Way back when, well; 1974 in fact was the year of the protestant workers strike against the Sunningdale agreement in Ulster. They were turbulent times. A million workers went on strike and the Province very quickly ran out of foodstuffs, fuel supplies, and even more drastically, heaven forbid; booze. Spirits were still plentiful but beers and lagers, draught or cans/bottles quickly disappeared from pubs and clubs and more importantly, from the soldiers 'Choggi-Wallahs,' (the equivalent of a roadside burger van inside the security bases in Northern Ireland run by Pakistani gentlemen under very trying conditions but who served the soldiers needs at all hours). Here then, is a story from those days of the strike and the resultant drought, passed on by a friend from the Pipes & Drums of the Royal Highland Fusiliers and participant in events.  

 “This would test resolve to the limit as Regiments throughout the Province reported a massive rise in church attendance, as thirsty squaddies sang their hearts out in the hope of receiving a wee wafer and a glug of wine. Our very own Jock Regiment, (1 RHF) felt the "drouth" more than others, and a bunch of "Blue-noses" from the 'Soo-side' changed their name from the Thornliebank True Blues to the "Thornliebank Temperance Tank-Rule Loyals" 

The lack of public services, especially rubbish removal was causing problems in the security bases, and the CQMS's (Company Quarter Master Sergeant), had to find ways to sort out the problem. Many things were tried but proved to be of no use until someone decided that 'incinerating' the rubbish in a skip would quickly get rid of the problem. Our support company CQMS soon became a 'dab' hand at the 'Towering Inferno' lark using keroscene to jolly things along, until one day.....one day, he took his duties to new heights.

 The CQMS was going about his business, standing by watching our rubbish going up in smoke. Our foot patrols were out and about our area chatting to the goodies and the baddies, just letting everyone know that we were there, and our mobile patrols were doing their thing further afield, mainly ’snap’ VCP’s between Woodburn and Twinbrook.

With the rubbish well ablaze in the skip there he was, standing by, perhaps adding a few pieces of cardboard here and there, when…………”BOOM!” “Whit the fu?!” First thoughts were that we were under RPG or mortar attack and everyone stood to. Now, just after the explosion, there was a period of complete silence. No shouting, no running about like headless chickens, just complete silence. Then it started, slowly at first; Clang!....Clang!.... Clang!... Clangety –Boing!-Boing! Kerplunckety.. Clang! As, from the sky there fell all around the base, Stewartstown road, Blacks Road and the homes across from our base, hundreds of empty beer cans.  I kid you not, the whole area around our base was littered with empty cans. Long Life lager, Tennents Lager, McEwans beer and lager, Carlsberg, Tuberg and many others. No-one was hurt, but remember, the whole province was dry and had been for many weeks.

Where did we get the booze? We kept that to ourselves until we were leaving (the P&Ds had to leave early for KAPE tour), then we passed the location on to the ‘Chunkies’ (Assault Pioneers), but the Mortars had eventually ‘found’ our source themselves. I will never say where it was, although it was 40 years ago. Things did go ‘quiet’ on the ‘booze,’ run for a few days but thirst became a priority again after nothing was found in any of our accommodation blocks (but no one could ‘search’ the wee “Tea stop” I had right across from our base). I had the back door key to the house, to use at any time day or night. So there you have it , yes, we were ‘dry’ after the “Big Bang!” but only for a couple of days. 

CONTACT! Wait out!

“Hello zero, this is 55c CONTACT Blacks Road wait out!”
“Hello zero, this is 55c, we are being bombarded with missiles from the sky over!”
“Hello 55c, This is zero, we seem to be under attack also, take cover, and go firm where you are, over”
“Zero, this is 55c Wilco, out”

Ops officer shouts for CSM. “Sergeant Major, where is all that smoke coming from?”
CSM: It is coming from our ‘rubbish’ skip sir”
Ops Offr: “Why is our rubbish skip on fire Sergeant Major?”
CSM: “Today is the day the colour sergeant ‘incinerates’ our rubbish sir” Due to the workers strike, we do not get our rubbish uplifted, so the CQMS just, sort of, sets it on fire.”

OC: Sergeant Major, we have never had this problem before, so why now?”
CSM: “Once we put the fire out sir, we found the remains of a Calor gas cylinder. I know the troops were told not to put them in the skip, whether they were empty or not, but someone slipped up this time.”

OC: “Er sergeant major, where do you think all those empty beer cans came from?”
CSM: “I don’t know sir, but I will be having words with our ‘choggi-wallah’ ASAP sir”.

55c: “Hello zero, this is 55c, things have gone quiet out here and we only have one injury, sustained when one of my section thought he would ‘show off’ to the local kids, by trying to ‘head’ one of the empty beer cans as it dropped from the sky, but unfortunately for him, it was not an empty can, someone had mistakenly thrown away a ‘full’ can. Is it OK to RTB?”

Zero: “55c, return to base now and after ‘clearing’ your weapons, report to the CQMS stores where you will collect brushes and shovels and help clean up our part of “Andytown!”

55c: (without transmitting) “Clean up Andytown, fur fexsake the only thing that would clean up that shithole would be an A-10 Tomcat or a B-52 dropping bucket loads of Napalm!”
“Right lads, after we finish this ‘clean up job’ report to my room for a wee ‘swally!”

“Yeehaw, let’s hear it for 55 Charlie”……….”Cheers”..….psssshhhtttt (that is the sound of a cool can of lager preparing to disappear.)   

I often wondered what the RHF NIREP (daily Battalion report), would have read like up at Brigade HQ in Lisburn. I can just see the Brigade commander chatting to the Brigade Ops Officer. "Clarence dear boy, what is this nonsense from the "Jocks" in Andersontown?" "The company based at Woodburn Camp Belfast, came under attack from 'Airborne' frigging BEER cans, are you having a laugh Clarence?" Anyway, how come when the whole province is 'gasping' for some light refreshment, the only people with access to any booze are some musical "Bootlegging" Jocks!" "But sir........!"......."Never mind the 'buts' Clarence, get your backside up to Andytown and source their 'supply', I am fed up at "Mess Nights" with the PMC ringing the bell, and all we can frigging pass is bloody MILK!"’’