Happy Days

Exam time again

It's exam time again and students at schools and universities up and down the country are doing their best not to go into exam meltdown but to hold it together and get themselves through to the holidays and their bright futures that lie ahead. I couldn't wait to leave school. I finished one week and the next I started recruit training at the Scottish Infantry Depot at Glencorse in Midlothian. It was the Army or Royal Marines for me and given the Army course started sooner the decision was made. My plan to go through recruit training and then have a bash at the Regular Commissions Board at Westbury seemed a good idea right up to the point that I walked through the gates at Glencorse where I was jettisoned into a world closer to 1958 than 1978. While not easy it was obviously doable if uncompromising. It was though good experience and stood me in good stead later in my Army time, not least at Sandhurst.  

Memories of happy days, (first 2 minutes)

The first two minutes of the clip above, of a pass out parade at Glencorse in 1984, which I saw on the Queens Own Highlander page on FB, hurtled me back to that time. Young, fit, proud and ready to take the world on it was the best of days. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, quite comes close to the sensory overload you feel when marching with your fellow Jocks to the Pipes & Drums and I would give anything to go back to that time. 

Uniquely, having passed out as a Queens Own Highlander, (well on paper anyway having missed the actual final parade for reasons explained here!), and which I remained for the next 3 years, because I was a potential officer I never served with them. I was sent off to the Royal Highland Fusiliers and Gordons until I eventually scrapped my way into Sandhurst and from there I was again surprised to be commissioned into the Gunners. The Army likes to surprise. Wouldn't have missed any of it it for the world though.

March of The Cameron Men

Brian Hopkins, singing The March of the Cameron Men (in Gaelic and English) 

I came across a piece of music this morning on a Regimental Facebook page which I would like to share. Although somewhat eclectic for some tastes the joy of this being my own blog is that I can post whatever I please. So I shall. 

The clip above is a recording of Brian Hopkins, made when he was a member of the Queens Own Highlanders regimental Band. The Queens Own Highlanders of course were the young offspring of the forced marriage between the Seaforth Highlanders and Cameron Highlanders, an amalgamation among many that happened in the period between the late fifties and late sixties following the 1957 Defence White Paper. Some regiments such as the Cameronians chose the abyss of suspended animation or disbandment rather than amalgamation. Having taken their pain early the Queens Own Highlanders took another political sucking chest wound when they amalgamated with the Gordon Highlanders, another fine regiment, in 1994, to form The Highlanders. Then, ten years ago all the Scottish regiments were brought together to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and Royal Scots amalgamating to form one regular battalion of four in the RRS, (plus two reserve battalions) with the Argylls reduced to company strength, (Balaklava Company). 

(picture by Graham Bonnyman)

If you are losing track don't worry. It's been difficult enough for former members of regiments to keep up with the rapid change both to Scottish regiments and others throughout the Army. However much we wish it the clock is not going to be turned back and we all are duty bound to get behind and support the young soldiers of the new entities. Some new regiments such as The Rifles have succeeded following 'buy in,' from all their constituent parts from the retired cadre of more individual regiments than I could possibly remember from the Devon & Dorsets to the Durham Light Infantry, to the newest recruits. Others will take longer. That is probably the case in Scotland, which is historically more tribal, but there are deep seated cultural and historical reasons for that. 

One other consequence of military downsizing, (the Army is now 50% of the size it was when I first enlisted), is that the military and pipe bands have also been compressed in size. The Royal Regiment of Scotland for example has been reduced from one military band in each of the old seven regiments to just one regular band. Does it matter? Well, not to anyone in government, of whatever hue, and certainly not to anyone in the Ministry of Defence. I happen though to think that it does matter a great deal. 

Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland

I'm firmly in the camp that believes the MOD has been misguided in downgrading military music over the last 20 years. The failure to appreciate it's positive impact on the Army way of life, it's ability to strengthen the bond between civilians and military and as an aid to recruitment has been unhelpful in every way. Moreover, the musicians were always the unofficial custodians in battalions of deep seated and hard won tradition through music, song, poetry and with some traditions, dance. Importantly, they sustained and renewed those traditions by writing new music but it tended to be music that maintained the cultural thread with the home and hearth of the individual battalions recruiting area. In this regard, pipe tunes such as The Barren Rocks of Aden, The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain and The Sands of Kuwait spring to mind. I have no doubt the current band of the RRS do a fine job and are very fine musicians but the game has changed for it cannot be the same. As an aside and of passing interest, much American Bluegrass, Country and Gospel music has it's roots in Appalachian ballad singing which has a direct line through Scots emigrants to the style and tradition of the song above.

My view from the cheap seats then, is that recordings such as the one above by Brian Hopkins are something to celebrate, not just because it is a fine and gentle melodic piece in its own right but also because it echoes with rich history and deserves to be remembered. I'm told that Brian taught himself the Gaelic with help from native Gaelic speakers in the Pipes & Drums and that another Corporal from the band, Tommy Graham, taught himself the clasarch (small harp) to accompany the song. The song would often be given a formal rendition after dinner at an Officers Mess dinner night. With so few bandsmen available I wonder what they do today? Put on a CD? Or perhaps the Adjutant makes the youngest subaltern learn and sing it which, however painful it might be to hear, would be better than letting such gems fade from the collective memory. 

The Rev Dr Donald MacDonald

Finally, as you sit there reading and wondering what all this blether about amalgamations is all about and why it is an emotional subject, may I direct you to a previous post about the Cameronians amalgamation which offers one of the finest pieces of oratory I have ever heard by their regimental Padre, the Reverend Dr Donald MacDonald. For good measure, this was the response of the Massed Bands of the Scottish Division after the announcement.

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

Scottish Independence; Words From The Wise

One of the best pipe bands in the world playing one of my favourite tunes. The word dignity springs to mind. The Queen's Own Highlanders Association Pipe Band in Cameron Barracks, Inverness, 2010. The 79th's Farewell to Gibraltar. 

The speeches are done, the marches, the meetings, the doorstepping. Those of us beyond Scotland look back and trust that sense and pragmatism will prevail for none of us want to see an economic and social darkness overcome family and friends to the north. 

Here then, are some words from a bloke who knew a thing or two about these British Isles.

Extracts from a speech given by Winston Churchill on receiving the Freedom of Edinburgh on October 12th, 1942.

I have never before been made a freeman of any city, and although since the war I have been complimented by a number of invitations which I greatly value, your freedom is the only one I have felt myself so far able to receive in the hard stress of conditions.

It seems to me that Edinburgh, the ancient capital of Scotland, enshrined in the affection of the Scottish race all over the world, great in memories and tradition, immortal in its collective personality-Edinburgh stands by itself, and therefore I am here to-day to be refreshed by your very great kindness and inspiration and to receive the all too flattering tribute from my old friend William Y. Darling, the Lord Provost.

The old quarrels, the age-long feuds, which rend our island have been ended centuries ago by the union of the Crown and by the happy fulfillment of the prophecy that wherever the Stone of Scone shall rise the Scottish race shall reign.

I have some ties with Scotland which are of great significance, ties precious and lasting. First of all, I decided to be born on St. Andrew's Day, and it was to Scotland that I went to find my wife, who is unable to be present to-day through temporary indisposition. I commanded a Scottish battalion of the famous 21st Regiment for five months in the last war in France. I sat for 15 years as the representative of Bonnie Dundee, and I might be sitting for it still if the matter had rested entirely with me. Although I have found what I trust is a permanent and happy home in the glades of Epping Forest, I still reserve affectionate memories of the banks of the Tay.

Now you have given me a new tie which I shall value as long as I live. We call ourselves in our grand alliance the United Nations. Here, indeed, is an example of national unity.

And so the country is pulling together better now than ever before in its history. Cruel blows, like the loss of the original 51st Division in France, have been borne with fortitude and silent dignity. A new 51st Division has been formed and will sustain the reputation and avenge the fortunes of its forerunner. The air bombing was endured with courage and resource. In all the Services, on sea, land, and air, on merchant ships and in all the many forms of service which this great struggle has called for, Scotsmen have gained distinction. 

Surveying both sides of the account, good and bad, with equal composure and coolness, we must see that we have reached a stern and sombre moment in the war which calls in a high degree of firmness of spirit and constancy of soul. The excitement and the emotion of those great days when we stood alone, undaunted against what seemed overwhelming odds, and single-handed saved the future of the world, are not present now. We are surrounded by governments and nations, all of us bound together in a solemn unbreakable alliance, and all of us bound together by ties not only of honour but of self-preservation.

Deadly dangers still beset us. Weariness, complacency or discord, squabbles over petty matters will mar our prospects. We must all drive ourselves to the utmost limit of our strength. We must preserve and refine our sense of proportion. We must strive to combine the virtues of wisdom and of daring. We must move forward together, united and inexorable.

Thus with God's blessing the hopes which we are now justified in feeling will not fade or wither. The light is broadening on the track. And the light is brighter, too. Among the qualities for which Scotland is renowned steadfastness holds, perhaps, the highest place. Be steadfast, then; that is the message which I bring you, that is my invocation to the Scottish nation here in this ancient capital city, one of whose burgesses I now have the honour to be.

Let me use the words of your famous minstrel-words which have given comfort and renewed strength to many a burdened heart:

"Keep right on to the end of the road, 
Keep right on to the end."

Churchill

Commanding Officer, 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1916.

Evolution!

 

 As a result of a glorious and completely predictable failure at the Regular Commissions Board at Westbury at the age of 18, I subsequently enjoyed three years as a Jock and JNCO in not one but three different regiments, (Queens Own Highlanders, Royal Highland Fusiliers & the Gordon Highlanders), in the then Scottish Division in three years.

Of course, this groundbreaking approach to career development was sadly ahead of it's time and my tour around the Division was brought to an abrupt end when, somewhat to my surprise and everyone else's involved, a catastrophic failure of diligence at the RCB at my second attempt allowed me through the gates of the RMA and off for another enjoyable adventure with, much to the relief of Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Artillery. Some enquiring minds have noted that oddly enough, the post Suez British Army reached it's zenith at round about the same time. 

This week, one of the Crumble Kids secured an Army Sixth Form Scholarship at the age of 16 which gives him a place at Sandhurst after University. 

Perhaps the family DNA is improving over the generations.......

 

 

Update from 4 SCOTS in Helmand

 

Apart from one or two notable examples, operations in Afghanistan are woefully reported by our media. Indeed, our television and newspapers reported the Vietnam conflict more comprehensively than they do events in Helmand. Most people, and I include myself, couldn't tell you with any accuracy how our forces are currently faring; the only barometer in the public consciousness being the frequency or otherwise of corteges going down the High Street of Wooton Basset.

This very recent uplifting update then, from the Commanding Officer of The Highlanders, 4 SCOTS, is of particular interest and is a must read, for those both in and out of the Regimental Family, with interest in events and concern for our soldiers.

As it happens, I have more than a passing affection for this regiment given, I joined them when still a teenager when they were known as the Queens Own Highlanders and before they amalgamated with the Gordons, (another terrific regiment). 

We wish all in the Battle Group, God speed and a safe home.

"Update letter from Lt Col Alastair Aitken MBE – Commanding The Highlanders 4 SCOTS

 I write to you on the occasion of my third year in Command and what is sadly my last.  It has been a distinctly unusual and incredibly frantic period that has unfolded for the Battalion over the course of the last twelve months. It has been dominated by the preparation for deployment to and execution of operations in the Central Helmand River Valley throughout the course of summer 2011.

Our preparation period of "Mission Specific Training" was more intense, complex and thorough than any I have encountered in my rapidly approaching 24 years in the Army.  Much of the cycle you would find familiar from preparation for Northern Ireland in a steady progression from individual All Ranks Briefings through to Commanders' Cadres and Final Text Exercises.  What is different is the myriad of other training courses that take people away from barracks to train on the enormous variety of equipments and capabilities that we are required to operate, from Counter IED equipments, vehicles, weapons and communications.  Add to this the requirement to make sure that everyman has a very high degree of first aid skills and a high degree of tactical knowledge combined with above average fitness and shooting skills has meant a large amount of time away from camp.  A Brecon qualified NCO would average ten weeks away from home before we even started our collective training.  In all we have spent the best part of eight months away from home prior to the tour.  Our biggest problem has been ensuring that we were not tired before we deployed and keeping our long suffering families on side.  Suffice to say that we completed the training in good order and with an extremely good report from our final test exercise as part of 3 Commando Brigade.

We have now deployed to the area of Lashkar Gar District in Central Helmand.  Despite taking our name from the District Centre of Lashkar Gar, we do not operate in what is now a thriving town, but have our focus on the outlying rural areas.  The Battalion has formed the only non-3 Commando Brigade Battlegroup based around the three companies reinforced by Support Company, an Armoured Infantry Company from 3 MERCIAN and a Squadron of the SCOTS DG in the Infantry role.  In addition we have a battery of guns, two missile troops, Counter IED teams, search teams, dog teams, combat engineers, and more ISTAR operators than I know what to do with.  A total of nearly 1,000 men. 

The operation is very fluid and there is a real sense of optimism about the progress that is being made, a sense of momentum is very apparent.  Our area is by far the largest and most diverse of any in the Task Force stretching 70kms from east to west.  The challenges appear from one end to the other and to meet the threats individual Multiples are moved from area to area to join different companies from the ones they deployed with.  At least two of the companies are entirely mixed with 4 SCOTS, MERCIAN and SCOTS DG soldiers, so it is difficult to tell who is who.

Bravo Company is deployed in the heart of the Green Zone in South West Babaji where they have excelled in keeping the momentum going in turning one of the most kinetic areas in Afghanistan into the quietest.  Delta Company currently operate in North Bolan, a mixture of Green Zone and desert but are about to move again to take on some major clearance operations in another part of the area.  Alpha Company are the Ops Company and as such have been to almost every part of my patch from the high IED threat area of Loy Mandeh through to the largely uncleared and untouched Koshkawa and Surdigar areas to the east of Lashkar Gar.  I also have 4 SCOTS platoons working with the other companies in the eastern regions of Surdigar and Puplazay and as far east as into Maiwand Province supporting US operations north of Band-e-Timor. 

The HQ is based in Lashkar Gar itself where we have the pleasure of riding the roller coaster that is the Transfer of Lead Security Authority to the Afghan National Security Forces.  Despite what you may have read in the papers the Afghan National Police in our area are highly effective and most of the commanders have been fighting battles for the past thirty years; I learn more from them than I ever could hope to teach or mentor.  We fight and live together with them and they are increasingly setting the pace and direction for the way that they wish the campaign to go - a hugely positive step.

We work amongst the Pashtun people and although Helmandis have their own slightly nuanced version of the pashtun approach and code, they are essentially the same people that our grandfathers fought alongside, on the edge of the North West Frontier.  They are an instantly likeable people with a straight forward approach to life, with a fierce sense of loyalty, hospitality and warrior like spirit that is instantly recognisable to any Highland soldier.  Officers and NCOs have been quick to form bonds with them and have recognised that as a people they like to laugh as well as fight.

So far we have managed to keep the much heralded Insurgent "Spring Offensive" on the back foot through a combination of a frenetic pace of operations and the increasing support of the population.  When we are required to fight it is intense and we face an enemy who is quicker than us and who is adept and try to get behind us and outflank us when he can.  He is not afraid to stand and fight and the more that we press into his traditional strongholds the harder he defends.  In one incident the firefight went on for nearly six hours with continual missile strikes and Attack Helicopter support adding to our ability to wear him down.  A lot of soldiers are growing up extremely quickly. 

Our casualties have been light so far with the majority being shrapnel wounds from RPGs.  We have also been lucky with a number of IEDs failing to function properly or sharp witted Jocks finding them before they step on them.  Operating in the high IED threat areas, particularly in Loy Mandeh (an area where just 800m from Alpha Coy, 42 Commando have had two double amputees this week) is a nerve jangling and exhausting process as patrols move slowly checking the ground whilst always being alive to the threat of small arms fire.  Being contacted in an IED belt is one of the most difficult tactical problems a young commander can face.

The conditions are also staggeringly harsh.  The temperatures now average 43 degrees making patrolling during the heat of the day nearly impossible.  The body armour is now very comfortable, but extremely heavy with plates at the front, back and sides and integrated pouches.  Ammunition, batteries, radios, weapons and of course water add to the weight making it one of the most physically intense experiences any man (and especially a Lt Col in his forties) could face.  Helmand is also one of the most irrigated sections of land in the region with a criss-crossed lattice of drainage ditches around and across every field.  Ditches are full of water and are deep to allow the water to flow.  This means that as a patrol moves it will encounter ditches every couple of hundred yards, all of which require a soldier to climb, wade across up to his waist and then climb out; which when carrying well over 100-130lbs of kit means doing an assault course every 5-10 minutes.  Added to this, ones feet are almost constantly wet and the boots have hardly dried out when it is time to push out again. The weight is falling off everyone as the body mass begins to be eaten away.  It makes pushing through hawthorn bushes in South Armagh (as I did as a subaltern) seem like a pleasant holiday.

The Jocks are on good form; their constant irrepressible humour and professionalism has been a joy to see.  They have found innovative ways to be comfortable even in the most extreme places and they are of course happier to be deployed (to these less comfortable locations) rather than the better Company location where they are under the beady eye of the CSM and RSM.

There is still a long way to go on the tour and there are many plans that see another increase in the pace of operations that will have 4 SCOTS at the heart of them.  My final address to the Battalion before we deployed was after our farewell Kirk Service with the colours draped over the drums.  One of the points that I was keen to make to the Jocks was that our tour was just one in a long line that linked them back to their forefathers at Assaye, Waterloo and Dargai all of whom would have gone through the same emotions as they were now experiencing.  Our aim was to continue in the tradition of all those that had gone before and to be worthy of our glorious collective past.  I am still confident that we are upholding the good name of our historical ancestry.

May 30th 2011"