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!"’’