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.

Journal

It was a curiously melancholic week leaving much to reflect on. The passing of Professor Stephen Hawking attracted the kind of attention that such a full life deserved but one which will only be seen in it’s true perspective with the passage of time, and how appropriate is that. When I heard the news I resolved to write a blog post about him which would have been wholly inappropriate coming from someone who barely scraped a ‘C’ pass in physics O-Level and who hardly understood anything in A Brief History of Time except the punctuation. I was anyway only going to highlight three points. That Professor Hawking proved to us all that even the most catastrophic physical disability need be no reason to  dim the lights on the human spirit and soul, that he opened the door to science for many, many school students across the world bringing vision and excitement to the most complex of theories and of course, that it is rare for any generation to live with one of the ‘Greats,’ among us. Fortunately for my readers, my friend Ilyas Khan, who is chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, gave an appropriately eloquent and loving tribute to the man in a BBC television interview. It is well worth watching.

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

On Thursday I learned that a very old friend and mentor from my days as a young soldier and junior NCO in the RHF was moving from hospital to a hospice. We haven’t seen each other for half a lifetime but an exchange of texts, (he was unable to talk), brought many happy memories back. Happy, incidentally, is a relative term. In this case we’re talking about a shared brew in a downpour, which only served to wash away some of the week long oil and mud encrusted grime on the North German plain, a quick joke at the gates before a patrol in Armagh or our epic double act at the Battalion Christmas Concert in Hemer in 1979. It should have won a BAFTA but the judges didn’t much get round the lively regimental cabaret scene that was BAOR.

Andrew White

Andrew White

Friday and a drive down to Cirencester to attend a memorial service for another Army chum who sadly died last month after fighting a bastard brain tumour over the past two years. He saw it off for much longer than was expected but that rather summed up his go-forward never-look-back approach to life. Tenacious, bordering on obstinate, he was never going to detune his approach to the world because of some irritable health issue. The memorial service was genuinely thoughtful and therefore memorable. There were a few tears, many more light hearted moments with some moments of quiet reflection on the passing of a strong personality. His three children spoke wonderfully well. They were warm, engaging and witty. As I listened I thought, ‘Andrew, that’s your legacy right there.’ Afterward, as we chatted over drinks, I heard voices and saw faces together I haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years. At one point I closed my eyes and thought, ‘this could so easily be then not now.’ Overall, I think I rather prefer memorial services to funerals when the grief is simply too raw to engage with the family on any level. I would prefer of course, not to go to any, as would we all. I have already lost more of my Army contemporaries than is fair or reasonable. 

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Saturday saw a really rather chilly and wintry trip to Twickenham, the best part of which was the apres’ in the car park before the match. A memorial service for English rugby might be an appropriate next step but as a friend said, ‘it’s a good thing it’s only a game.’ Having deluded ourselves over the past twelve months that the dark days of 2015 were far behind us this Six Nations has been an absolute shocker. While the rest have swiftly caught up with England our team have gone into reverse. Whatever the coaches and players say our boys simply looked knackered. They lacked a yard of pace, any fizz or imagination. It is an uncomfortable truth for the RFU that in pursuit of greater revenue they, and Premiership rugby, are driving English players into the ground. Players need some down-time. What made the game more unpalatable was the £130 that my ticket cost. Thats £1.62 per minute of play and on the basis of what I watched on Saturday has no justification. Obviously, I got to sit just a few seats away from the noisiest and most animated Irishman in the ground but I can live with that. They earned their moment. I was left pondering on the way home though the wisdom of taking Mrs Flashbang to Twickenham in the snow for a birthday treat. For the same money we could have enjoyed the 8 course tasting menu with wine at our local Michelin starred restaurant. Life is all about choices.

Drum Major Ronnie Hughes RHF

Drum Major Ronnie Hughes and Pipe Major William Frame, Ronnie's friend who also recently passed away. That will be one heck of a smoker when they two get together.

Not many of you outside the RHF regimental family will know or of heard of Ronnie Hughes. He was a diamond of a man who passed away earlier this week. Ronnie followed Rosie's breast cancer updates poster here and despite his own frequent visits to hospital in the past months always dropped me an email after each post to wish her well. He was that kind of man. So sad that he just missed news of her improving situation. 

I thought, as did many others I'm sure, that he would bounce back from his latest illness just as he usually did. I didn't know Ronnie while I was with the Battalion; I was at the wrong end of the pay scales apart from anything else. I had though, got to know him better in recent years through his fast wit and enthusiastic support for small projects I have been doing. I enjoyed corresponding with him, mostly over email and reading his hilarious posts both on the regimental forum and on Facebook. His book 'Reflections,' is a Regimental treasure and should be given to every recruit and young officer joining along with the regimental history. The truth is, he embodied everything that is good about the RHF in particular and the Scottish soldier in general. I'm pleased to have known him in a small and quiet way. We lost one of the good things in our lives this week.

In 2014 I posted a piece about Ronnie and his book, 'Reflections.' Here it is. His poem, 'The Ballad of Brenda McGhee,' is just a timeless classic.

The Ballad of Brenda McGhee

REFLECTIONS; RONNIE HUGHES

Life’s not all bad, dull and dreary and as you know, here at Crumble we try and occasionally elevate matters by bringing something with a cultural bent along to feed the soul and cheer the heart. With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to what I firmly believe is a classic contribution to our nations literary heritage, the joy of which will far outlive me.

 A book dropped on the doormat this week and its no ordinary book. Just once in a while, from the many hundreds of thousands of men who rotate through the Army the odd one will commit his memories and emotions to paper and in doing so capture moments in time that would otherwise be lost for ever. Former Drum Major of the 1st Bn The Royal Highland Fusiliers, Ronnie Hughes has done just that and those of us who served at the same time are grateful that he’s done so.

In his collection of poems and short stories called “Reflections,” which he collated with the help of a friends student daughter, he’s nailed an entire Battalions rich humour and sense of collective being. I can honestly say that my formative years spent with 1 RHF were the funniest I've ever experienced. There were some not so good times but those were quickly forgotten in favour of the high points and Ronnie’s book has brought a flood of memories back for me and others who are chuckling their way through it. Thanks Ronnie.

This is my favourite;

THIS LADY IS NOT BRENDA MCGHEE AND THAT DOESN'T MUCH LOOK MUCH LIKE PORT GLASGOW EITHER

The Ballad of Brenda McGhee 

In the town of Port Glasgow there lived a young lass, in a flat overlooking the sea, 
That’s where I first clapped my eyes oan the sight, I hope never again for to see. 
The ugliest burd in the whole bleedin’ world, yes folks you kin take it from me, 
Meet Brenda McDonald McFadzean Coltrane, Fitzpatrick McGregor McGhee. 

To say she wis ugly, wis putting it mild, as she sat by her windae aw day, 
Gazing longingly oot as the world passed her by, in the hope that a boy came her way. 
Twa bandy legs, and a wee crooked nose, Ailsa Craig wis the size of her rump, 
Wi’ wan squinty eye, and a 52 chest, not forgetting that she had a hump. 

Poor Brenda wis lonely, of that there’s no doubt, and boyfriends a no- no it seems, 
As I looked in her eye, and she gave me a wink, not me pal, aye jist in yir dreams. 
It seems such a shame, as I toodled aff hame, leaving Brenda alone at her sill, 
There’s some ugly burds that kin capture a lad, of course there are some never will. 

One day came to pass, this ugly young lass, left her windae ti’ go make some toast, 
When in through the windae a burglar he came, and very soon wished he wis lost. 
Wee Brenda she caught him alone in her room, as he rifled the loot frae her hoose, 
This is ma chance, thought wee Brenda at last, as her boobs from her bra she let loose. 

Wee Joe the burglar looked aghast, his face wis as white as a sheet, 
Of aw the hooses he picked ti’ tan, and whit a god awful sight for ti’ meet. 
Aw Christ whit is this, the burglar enquired, I only came in for yir loot, 
That’s OK son, said wee Brenda with glee, only two weeks ti go, then yir oot. 

The fortnight flew in and wee Brenda wis glad, at long last she’d captured a boy, 
Virginity gone and two weeks of pure lust, the burglar wid make a good toy. 
It’s fair ti’ say Joe didnae see it that way, he wis knackered and right puckered oot, 
He longed for the day, he had to escape, doon the pawn wi’ the ugly hags loot. 

Some years doon the line, wee Joe doing time, in his cell he jist let his mind wander, 
That time in Port Glasgow he robbed the wrang hoose, aye, whit a major blunder. 
Still sat at her windae wis Brenda McGhee, she wis smilin’ for aw she was worth, 
There by her side was her 5-year-old pride, a wan eyed humpy backit wee dwarf. 

This tale has a moral, and, yes it is true, ugly hags can get boyfriends, aye, even you, 
Don’t sit at your windae, watch life pass you by, go make some toast, or even a pie. 
Remember wee Brenda, the ugliest burd, that’s ever been this side of Oban, 
Just make sure that when you leave your room, that your windae on life is left open. 

 

Historical context from Ronnie,

"Let me enlighten you as to how she found herself on the end of my pen (so to speak)  When I was growing up in the East end of Glasgow at the end of, and just after WW2, I noticed that there was a dearth of menfolk in my area, thanks to a certain wee Austrian Corporal. When the weather was fine, 'wimmen-folk' would often be seen at their window sills, leaning on a cushion or pillow. Conversations would be passed up and down the street and many even went on round corners into different streets. Now, thanks to the shortage of men (young and old) who never made it home, women just had a hard time getting themselves a laddie, and every street had a "Wee Brenda" who came up a bit short in the 'good looking' stakes, so she had 'nae' chance (until I came to her rescue with wee Joe the burglar.)  I never met the mythical Brenda, and I certainly never frequented Port Glasgow, but when I put both together, it helped my words and the poem to flow." 

 

 

General Roy Gets His Wish

General Roy Urquhart; famously advised his daughter, 'Never trust a man who buys a half bottle of wine.'

General Roy Urquhart; famously advised his daughter, 'Never trust a man who buys a half bottle of wine.'

As a postscript to that last post, just before the parade I was chatting with my Godsons grandfather. He told me his best job during his own service was working as a military assistant in Vienna in 1952 to General Roy Urquhart of Arnhem fame. General Urquhart commissioned originally in the Highland Light Infantry and served in Malta along with the actor David Niven in the 1930's. Later, toward the end of his military career, he became Colonel of the HLI but when the Army Board announced that the HLI were to amalgamate with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers, a terrible row broke out. 

The HLI had traditionally been kilted whereas the RSF wore trews. The Army Board in it's wisdom decreed that the new regiment would follow the other Lowland regiments and wear trews. General Urquhart was having none of it. This Pathe newsreel clip is pure gold and if you don't understand why these things mean so much then.... well, you just don't understand.

As it happens, the RHF are now 2 SCOTS, part of the Royal Regiment of Scotland formed in 2006. All of the battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland now wear the kilt. While some RHF veterans, and those of the other Scots regiments, struggle to get behind the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, I like to think that General Urquhart would quietly approve that at the minimum, his Jocks have got their kilt back.

A Special Day

The years rolled back on Friday when I had the joy of going to my Godson’s Pass Out Parade at the Army Training Centre, Pirbright.  So much has changed in the Army since ‘my day,’ and yet so little.

Organisationally it looks a different world. Gone are the old Divisional and Corps training Depots and now it looks as if they had a lucky dip when a civil servant put his hand in a bag of cap badges, pulled a few out and said, ‘right, we’ll send this lot to Pirbright, next......’ Gunners, Sappers, Life Guards, Armoured Corp, Signals, Logistic Corp, Int Corps; even the Corps of Army Music all train together. What hasn’t changed one jot though is the Army’s capacity to take a bunch of ragged civvies from all over the country, from different backgrounds, with varying, or indeed no interests, with different family stories and in just fourteen weeks march them off the square as a cohesive and fit group of young people with a collective and personal sense of purpose, pride and achievement.

I take my hat off to every man and women Jack of them. They’ve just joined a special club, the best club in the world and whatever else they do in their lives, no one will ever be able to take that away from them. They deserve respect and thanks. To put their hands up and pledge to put themselves in harms way on our behalf is not something that every comes easily to every citizen.

It was illuminating to watch former soldiers amongst the parents, friends and family who came to watch the parade. As they got out of their cars and heard the familiar sounds and sights of recruits being drilled and beasted around the barracks stomachs were held in, their backs straightened and they began to walk with more assured poise; home on familiar turf, it all comes flowing back.

Now, that their Phase 1 basic training is complete and the young soldiers can dress themselves and point themselves in the right direction, they will head off to their own disciplines to begin learning what their day job is all about.

As I watched the parade, which was only spoiled by the young corporal who whipped up the spectators beforehand encouraging them to shout, whistle and cheer at every opportunity, (why don’t he and his colleagues appreciate the balletic majesty of good drill with added tone from the Band of The Life Guards?; it’s not Britain's Got Talent), I thought of my own Passing Out Parade. The  parade, at the Scottish Infantry Depot, Glencorse in December 1978 went, by all accounts, very well. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it. While the lads were marching off to the Pipes & Drums I was lying in a hospital bed at the Eye Infirmary in Edinburgh having been injured by a colleagues ejected empty brass case on the last attack of the final Battle Camp at Otterburn a couple of days earlier. A 10,000 to 1 piece of bad luck. As soon as it happened, with the end of 18 weeks of basic training just 100 yards away, I fell to the ground in agony. My Platoon Sergeant from the Black Watch ran up and started kicking me screaming ‘don’t be fxcking idle sonny, get yer arse up the hill.’ He clocked that there might be something wrong when I stood up and started running in the wrong direction, blind with both eyes closed up. Six hours later, and in some discomfort,  I arrived at the hospital.

It was a bit of a lonely and worrying time. Stuck in a bed with pressure bandages over my eyes and nothing to do. I could smoke which seems a bit odd now but then was perfectly normal. The Padre came to see me with two books, Moby Dick and a Robert Chandler novel which were somewhat redundant given the pressure bandages on the lacerated cornea. My only other friend at the time was Laura the Night Nurse who I was sure looked something between Grace Kelly and Julie Christie. I never actually saw her and when her shifts abruptly changed that was it.  Eventually the eye thing heeled well enough for me to stay in the Army and life went on. Still, it would have been nice to make the parade..... and to meet Laura the Night Nurse.

Pass Out Parade at Woolwich in 1986. Few old friends there..... including Stu McFayden who was the Adjutant, sadly no longer with us and Steve Cook who very much is. 157 Gunner recruits passing out in one parade; wouldn't see that these days - Army has halved in size.

Notwithstanding the iconic Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst which was just a very special day, the next Pass Out parade I made was at the RA Barracks at Woolwich as a Troop Commander. There is something especially rewarding being part of the small team that takes those civilians in on Day 1 and marches them off four months later as soldiers, their lives changed for the good one hopes, forever. The parade ground at Woolwich is a sacred place; hallowed ground. As Busty the Mess hall porter used to proudly proclaim to visitors, ‘this is the longest façade in Europe and a light aircraft has landed and taken off from this square.’ Obviously, after 300 years as our spiritual home it was too good to be true with today's parsimonious politicians and Gunners now train at Pirbright, the rest of the Regiment has gone to Larkhill and the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment enjoy the biggest upgrade of their lives in being stationed there with the odd Guards company on public duties. 

So, we used to play hockey on that square on Wednesday sports afternoons, (that was the non football players so me and a few other girlie wimps who couldn't kick a fitba). It hurt like a bastard when the ball skittered off the ground and scudded into your knee or shins like a high velocity bouncing bomb. But nothing in life, and I mean nothing, comes close to the feeling that surges through your veins when you march on behind the Pipes & Drums. 

I'll always regret not having made that original Pass Out parade though. Sure, I did bigger and more impressive ones afterward but that one would have been special. Now indulge me here. I couldn't find a clip of a pass out parade at Glencorse, (which is no longer a training depot), so we're going to watch a clip of 2 SCOTS (RHF), who are stationed there and their homecoming parade in 2013. What can I say, there are Jocks, a Pipe Band and lots of rain so it looks and sounds the part. The square at Glencorse incidentally is, I think, one of the prettiest in the Army. Won't mean much to anyone except the half dozen afficionado's of drill squares out there and excepting that horrible new building someone has recently stuck on the East side it really is quite striking. I think I might write a book one day.... 'Famous Army Drill Squares and the Characters That Made Them So.' If they've published books on roundabouts and of fishing huts then Drill Squares will be in good company and after all, if it makes six of us happy then that's enough.

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!"’’



The Ballad of Brenda McGhee

Reflections; Ronnie Hughes

Life’s not all bad, dull and dreary and as you know, here at Crumble we try and occasionally elevate matters by bringing something with a cultural bent along to feed the soul and cheer the heart. With that in mind I’d like to introduce you to what I firmly believe is a classic contribution to our nations literary heritage, the joy of which will far outlive me.

 A book dropped on the doormat this week and its no ordinary book. Just once in a while, from the many hundreds of thousands of men who rotate through the Army the odd one will commit his memories and emotions to paper and in doing so capture moments in time that would otherwise be lost for ever. Former Drum Major of the 1st Bn The Royal Highland Fusiliers, Ronnie Hughes has done just that and those of us who served at the same time are grateful that he’s done so.

In his collection of poems and short stories called “Reflections,” which he collated with the help of a friends student daughter, he’s nailed an entire Battalions rich humour and sense of collective being. I can honestly say that my formative years spent with 1 RHF were the funniest I've ever experienced. There were some not so good times but those were quickly forgotten in favour of the high points and Ronnie’s book has brought a flood of memories back for me and others who are chuckling their way through it. Thanks Ronnie.

This is my favourite;

This lady is definately not Brenda McGhee and that doesn't much look much like Port Glasgow either

The Ballad of Brenda McGhee 

In the town of Port Glasgow there lived a young lass, in a flat overlooking the sea, 
That’s where I first clapped my eyes oan the sight, I hope never again for to see. 
The ugliest burd in the whole bleedin’ world, yes folks you kin take it from me, 
Meet Brenda McDonald McFadzean Coltrane, Fitzpatrick McGregor McGhee. 

To say she wis ugly, wis putting it mild, as she sat by her windae aw day, 
Gazing longingly oot as the world passed her by, in the hope that a boy came her way. 
Twa bandy legs, and a wee crooked nose, Ailsa Craig wis the size of her rump, 
Wi’ wan squinty eye, and a 52 chest, not forgetting that she had a hump. 

Poor Brenda wis lonely, of that there’s no doubt, and boyfriends a no- no it seems, 
As I looked in her eye, and she gave me a wink, not me pal, aye jist in yir dreams. 
It seems such a shame, as I toodled aff hame, leaving Brenda alone at her sill, 
There’s some ugly burds that kin capture a lad, of course there are some never will. 

One day came to pass, this ugly young lass, left her windae ti’ go make some toast, 
When in through the windae a burglar he came, and very soon wished he wis lost. 
Wee Brenda she caught him alone in her room, as he rifled the loot frae her hoose, 
This is ma chance, thought wee Brenda at last, as her boobs from her bra she let loose. 

Wee Joe the burglar looked aghast, his face wis as white as a sheet, 
Of aw the hooses he picked ti’ tan, and whit a god awful sight for ti’ meet. 
Aw Christ whit is this, the burglar enquired, I only came in for yir loot, 
That’s OK son, said wee Brenda with glee, only two weeks ti go, then yir oot. 

The fortnight flew in and wee Brenda wis glad, at long last she’d captured a boy, 
Virginity gone and two weeks of pure lust, the burglar wid make a good toy. 
It’s fair ti’ say Joe didnae see it that way, he wis knackered and right puckered oot, 
He longed for the day, he had to escape, doon the pawn wi’ the ugly hags loot. 

Some years doon the line, wee Joe doing time, in his cell he jist let his mind wander, 
That time in Port Glasgow he robbed the wrang hoose, aye, whit a major blunder. 
Still sat at her windae wis Brenda McGhee, she wis smilin’ for aw she was worth, 
There by her side was her 5-year-old pride, a wan eyed humpy backit wee dwarf. 

This tale has a moral, and, yes it is true, ugly hags can get boyfriends, aye, even you, 
Don’t sit at your windae, watch life pass you by, go make some toast, or even a pie. 
Remember wee Brenda, the ugliest burd, that’s ever been this side of Oban, 
Just make sure that when you leave your room, that your windae on life is left open. 

 

Historical context from Ronnie,

"Let me enlighten you as to how she found herself on the end of my pen (so to speak)  When I was growing up in the East end of Glasgow at the end of, and just after WW2, I noticed that there was a dearth of menfolk in my area, thanks to a certain wee Austrian Corporal. When the weather was fine, 'wimmen-folk' would often be seen at their window sills, leaning on a cushion or pillow. Conversations would be passed up and down the street and many even went on round corners into different streets. Now, thanks to the shortage of men (young and old) who never made it home, women just had a hard time getting themselves a laddie, and every street had a "Wee Brenda" who came up a bit short in the 'good looking' stakes, so she had 'nae' chance (until I came to her rescue with wee Joe the burglar.)  I never met the mythical Brenda, and I certainly never frequented Port Glasgow, but when I put both together, it helped my words and the poem to flow." 

 

Don't Try This At Home

One day I wandered down the corridor in the Company Lines to the showers where to my surprise, oh jings cribbens help ma boab; there was Fusiliar Mac........ standing with a tin of shaving foam and a razor and diligently removing all his body hair.

"What are you doing mate,"

"Got crabs, getting rid of the wee fxv%£s."

Well, at leat he didn't use Veet for Men Hair Removal, Read the first review....

 

British / French Defence........ It's All About Germany.... again.

David Cameron obviously doesn't hold the centuries long held conviction that Frenchmen are there for Englishmen to practise shooting arrows at.

The ridiculous defence agreement with France, which David Cameron signed yesterday, brought back some memories of when your intrepid, and at that time much younger, writer played his own small part in the Entente Cordial.

In the far off halcyon days of the Cold War, when there was order in the world and we knew who our enemy was, I took part in an exercise in Germany called Tripex. The friendly forces consisted of a battalion of Jocks, (1 RHF), a US tank regiment, which carried the nickname "Hell on Wheels," and French Artillery. Working with the French was somewhat unusual at the time because they weren't NATO members and spent most of their overseas time skulking around the darker parts of Africa. They also had a presence in Berlin  given they were one of the Berlin powers, mostly as a result of three inebriated Frenchmen hitching a lift on a British Churchill tank in Normandy and accidentally arriving in Berlin at the end of the war.

The aim of the exercise, which was politically driven because it would have been suicide in practice, was for the battle group to punch a corridor through Eastern Germany to relieve Berlin should it again be blockaded. In reality of course, the undertaking would have been like A Bridge Too Far, only we would have lasted 20 mins against 3rd Shock Army rather than the full 3 hours of the movie.

Despite being an utter nonesense I expect it ticked a few boxes in Washington, London and Paris........ just as yesterdays agreement ticks a few boxes in London and more importantly for them, Paris.

The point of the agreement has nothing to do with military capability or sensible husbandry of reduced defence spending, because even stupid people in Whitehall know that the French can't be relied upon to do anything, with anyone or anywhere unless it favours their own direct self interest. Rather, it is to give the French an alternative to the Franco-German alliance that has bestrode Europe for the last fifty years.

In European terms, the winner from the recent financial crisis has been Germany. It's fiscal discipline, sense of common purpose and strategic industrial base has seen it emerge stronger than it's European partners. The geo political centre of Europe has moved from Paris to Berlin. Germany is not without it's own internal tensions and stresses but in geo political terms, they are in the driving seat. That worries the French.

This agreement then, simply expands France's options and is a starting gesture to diluting Germany's growing political influence over the extended EU.

So, sending some special forces to crawl about in the dark with knives between their teeth is a modern version of the old Tripex exercise. That however, didn't end quite so well.

Unsurprisingly, the Jocks and the septics rubbed along together just fine and the Americans soon learned to stop leaving their shiny new bits of kit lying around. That was until.................... until we had a couple of days off and were billeted in Sennelager Camp. Soldiers from various cap badges gathered in the huge NAAFI there and everything was going just fine until one very large septic knocked down the tower of empty beer cans that the boys from C Company had been diligently building all night. Then it all went off.

The instigating American immediately had a 5'6'' Jock hanging off his shoulders and bodies were soon flying in all directions, including one or two that went airborne, exiting through the windows. Tables, chairs, beer cans and the odd REME artificer were flying from one side of the room to the other as the whole place erupted in a bar fight worthy of a John Houston western.

Unremarkably, the French were nowhere to be seen.

After a while, the scenes of carnage and chaos quietened down with the arrival of the guard, some RMP's and some over enthusiastic barky, bitey guard dogs. Of course, the Jocks and septics suddenly became the best of friends and resumed drinking, swapping tales and kit.

Note to David Cameron, families fight but they're still family. For one thing........ they speak the same language.

Tales from the Lines (1)

I alluded to that fine body of men, the 1st Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers some time ago. In that piece I mentioned David Niven's autobiography, "The Moons a Balloon." Niven writes of his time with one of the RHF's forbears, the Highland Light Infantry and by common consent, the tales of his soldiering days are a mixture of his real experiences and other regimental myths and legends. I thought I might start a little series which I'll call, "Tales from the Lines,"  in which I shall record for a wider audience, some of my own experiences and those of others..................... all true of course.......!

This is an extract which had me sputtering in my tea, from a veterans website which I reproduce with kind permission..........

"I will admit to getting off with an 'older' frauline when I was part of the 10-20 hawf litre single jocks in Iserlohne. She was not by any stretch of the imagination considered a 'beauty' and she walked with the aid of sticks and had a very pronounced limp. Back at her place she asked me to "Putten ze lichts oot" which I did, and that's when I heard a loud thump which startled me a bit, but did not sway me from my task at hand.


After climbing on her bed and proceeding with the obligatory teenage fumblings, I was stopped suddenly in my tracks and I thought, "hawd oan, there is something amiss here". Aye, something WAS amiss. A bloody leg wis amiss. I mean, it wis bloody missing!!!!. That wis the thump I heard in the dark. Her bleeding wooden leg hitting the fler.


Well, did Ronnie re-investigate the frauline with the 'missing' marching equipment? I will plead the "fifth" oan that one and leave it to your imagination. Let's just say I got a 'leg-over', but it wisnae my leg."

Aye, 1 RHF.............. they'll tackle anything so they will.

Through The Night

 

In David Niven's autobiography, "The Moons a Balloon," he recounts that when asked to write down his three preferred choices of regiment at Sandhurst, he finished with the third being, "anywhere but the Highland Light Infantry."  Of course, some wit commissioned him into the HLI. (The HLI incidentally amalgamated with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1959 to form the Royal Highland Fusiliers)

This of course was completely unknown to me when, some 31 years ago I found myself in the adjutants office at the Scottish Infantry Depot having succeeded in blowing the Commissions Board in spectacular fashion. When asked which regiment I would like to serve with prior to having a second bash at the commissions board,  I somewhat naively and arrogantly asked to go to the Black Watch, (in Hong Kong!), and in fact, "anywhere except the RHF Sir." That wasn't a clever move for on the following Monday morning I was on my way to join 1 RHF in Germany with all the trepedation usually reserved by turkeys at the beginning of December. You see, 1 RHF recruited from the City of Glasgow and Ayrshire and enjoyed a fearsome reputation both within the Scottish Division and beyond. I very much doubted I'd be making a return flight. Most friends at the Depot concurred with my dark conclusion.

As it happens, I then enjoyed two of the best and most memorable years of my service. Of course the RHF were a feisty lot but if you were one of them you endured and enjoyed together. The humour was lightening quick and no matter how miserable the Army attempted to make our young lives with their incessant interruptions in our enthusiastic pursuit of good beer and girls, the Jocks had a quick and easy way of making light of occasional hardship. It has ever been the way.

In a week when a former 1 RHF soldier, Corporal John Moore, will be laid to rest having been killed in action whilst serving with 1SCOTS in Afghanistan, my thoughts can't but wander back to my days as a Jock. 

Coincidentally, a friend has resurrected a song he wrote 30 years ago when we were young soldiers in Northern Ireland. It became a sort of anthem at the time but it still has resonance now for anyone putting his kit on and leaving to patrol in bad places. Certainly, anyone who patrolled on those dank, driecht and damp nights in the hedgerows of Armagh will recognise the sentiment. 

Dick has now morphed into a cross between a sixties folk singer and Billy Connelly but my thanks to him for bringing the memories back - feel free to pass the link on.