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).
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,
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.'
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,
‘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.