Tom Benson Creative Writer and Artist
Tom Benson           Creative Writer                                      and Artist

1 - Across the Water

Thursday 6th June 1974

Londonderry

Northern Ireland

 

By the time I’d completed my recce, I felt this posting might not be so bad. My new home, Ebrington Barracks, had a female contingent. There were no less than three bars I’d be entitled to use, and across the road from the main gate was a chip shop.

The accommodation was better than some in which I’d lived. Okay, it wasn't as good as others, but being adaptable was a bonus. The NAAFI building was old and worn out from what I could see. I didn’t appreciate the concept on my first day, but there was also a ‘Charwallah’ on camp. Through the single small window, I could see two Asian guys fixing burgers for a queue of six lads.

Amidst the other buildings in the centre of the camp, an area of 100 square metres was excavated and foundations were in place. Whatever the new building was - it was going to be big.

During my recce, I found the Squadron bar. A large Nissen hut with a corrugated tin roof and a roughly painted, weather-beaten sign outside the door informed visitors it was The Lemon Club.

*

The barrack room I was moving into was an oblong shape fitted out for eight personnel. To make the large area feel less open, a partition wall was situated halfway through which extended half-way across the space. It worked - after a fashion. On one side, large windows featured along the room’s length, providing plenty of light.

In the first half of the room, a TV sat on a Formica table against the main wall. It felt strange seeing a TV in a barrack room because we’d never had TV in Germany. It was a small reminder to me as if I needed one - I was now serving in the UK.

When I’d arrived in the late afternoon, there were two bed spaces available. One was near the door and the TV. Another free bed-space was in the farthest corner of the second half of the room. I opted to take the space in the far corner.

The arrival of a newcomer into a room was treated with little variation wherever it occurred. I’d discovered in my career so far, the priority of those already in station, was to ascertain whether the newcomer had visited the place before and find out whence they’d come.

There had been nobody around when I first got to the block, so I’d unpacked, taken a shower, and gone on my solo walkabout. When I arrived back at the accommodation, I met a slim, southern Englishman.

“Hello mate, I’m Sam,” he said, offering his hand. “Did you arrive on the milk run?”

We shook hands. “No,” I said. “I phoned for transport, and got a lift from the Larne docks. What’s the milk run?”

Sam laughed. “It’s not a big deal mate. Have you come straight from training?”

“No, I was in Dortmund with 260 Signal Squadron.”

“The unit doesn’t ring a bell.”

“They’re attached to a Royal Artillery missile regiment.”

“Oh, fuck that for a game of soldiers,” Sam said, and shook his head. “I’d rather be in a proper Signals regiment than an attachment.”

The door opened, and two corporals entered. One was my height, but stocky with ginger hair and the other was tall with unruly dark hair and a five o’clock shadow. He was well-built, and handsome in a rugged way.

“Hello mate,” the stocky guy said as he extended his hand. “Nick.”

“Hi Nick,” I said. “Jim Faulkner.” I shook his hand, which was the size of a shovel.

“Jinx,” the tall guy said. We shook hands, and his grip was similar to Nick.

“Where have you come from?” Nick asked.

“Dortmund,” I said. “I did three and a half years with 260 Squadron.”

“Don’t they work alongside the Planks?” Jinx said.

“Yeah,” I said. “36 Regiment ... Thunderbird, surface to air missiles.”

“You’ll find life a lot different here mate,” Nick said, laughing as he lifted the TV remote. He dropped into an armchair. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to catch up with the news.”

Jinx sat on the edge of a bed near the TV, and the attention of both NCO’s switched to the Ulster Television evening news, and a reporter called WD Flacks.

I returned to my bed-space, lit a cigarette, and sat back to look around. Sam was in a space across the room from me and was undressing to go for a shower.

“Is the Lemon Club our Squadron bar, Sam?”

“Yes, mate.” He nodded and smiled. “Have you been for a walk around camp?”

“Yeah, I perform a recce whenever I arrive somewhere new. What time does the bar open?”

“Around 7 pm. The duty barman at the moment is Robbo - one of the RCT drivers. He usually goes in early to set up, but if you’re there before opening hours, knock on the door, and he’ll let you in.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Is there a NAAFI canteen around, because I missed the evening meal?”

“Yeah, we’ve got an old NAAFI building with 24-hour vending machines. You could miss the NAAFI because it looks like a low office block, and doesn’t have much by way of facilities. There’s a Charwallah on camp if you fancy a burger.”

I laughed. “What the fuck is a Charwallah?”

“Well, it’s Asian, and translated it means tea servant, but in our bases over here you’ll find apart from tea and coffee, they have burgers cooking from the minute they open the shop. There are Charwallah’s in pretty much every base of every size in the province.”

“When I passed earlier, there were a few customers.”

“It might not be big, but it’s bloody busy.” He headed off with a towel wrapped around his waist, clutching his toiletry bag. He was chuckling and muttering, “Cheeseburger with onion, Muckagee ....”

I sat on my bed, enjoying a smoke, considering my new situation. When Sam came back, as he got dressed and organised himself he told me about the variety of tasks we were expected to tackle. Working for 8 Brigade Signal Squadron sounded interesting.

My personal schedule would include a bite to eat before checking out the Squadron bar. I heard another voice I didn’t recognise in the other half of the room. It was 18:50. I lifted my cigarettes and lighter before heading out.

The bed near the room door now had a few items of clothing spread over it, and a couple of suitcases placed to one side. A guy of average build with cropped brown hair was standing talking to Nick and Jinx. The new bloke was naked except for a pair of flip-flops, and the towel wrapped around his waist. Tattoos adorned him from head to foot. I reckoned he was about 30 years old.

“Hi,” the new guy said, reaching out a hand. “I’m Sandy. I arrived about an hour ago.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sandy. I’m Jim.” I didn’t mention I’d seen him walking around the camp during my recce earlier. “I got here a couple of hours ago.”

“I think we arrived within an hour of each other, but I left my cases in my car until now.”

“I came across on the ferry from Scotland,” I said.

“Well, must go and have a scrub. I’ll see you guys later.” Sandy headed off to the showers, and before the door closed behind him, I had a strange feeling about him. For a man who looked as he did, if his voice was three octaves higher he could have been called Sandra.

“Now, there’s a strange bloke,” Nick observed without turning from the TV. “He has the look o’ the tattooed man from Borneo, but our Sandy has a dainty Manchester accent.” Nick was a Yorkshireman whose voice was as deep as a mine shaft. The observation had me Jinx, and Sam laughing, but it was an accurate description.

I said, “If any of you guys are going for a drink later I’ll see you down at the bar, but first I’m heading up to the NAAFI for a bite.”

“See you down at the bar later, Jim,” Sam said.

“See you later mate,” Nick and Jinx chorused, both turning to me briefly.

*

In the military, as the serviceman continues through his career, changing units is like changing your car. The immediate surroundings are a little different, and not every aspect is an improvement, but the mechanics are similar.

I enjoyed meeting new people, and more importantly I was getting a taste for this way of life. I had a posting behind me, and I may not have a lot of experience, but it would be more than some of the guys who were here.

The old NAAFI canteen was run down. I thrust a handful of loose change into the vending machines. A couple of meat pies, a carton of milk and a cup of tea might not be a nutritionally balanced meal, but it would keep me going. If necessary, I’d check out Cassonni’s chip shop opposite the main gates, later in the evening.

*

The Lemon Club brought a smile as I considered the squaddie humour in the name. When I first saw the place, it didn’t look inspiring, and as I pushed the door open, I was pleasantly surprised.

The entrance was situated halfway along the corrugated metal building. Once through the entrance, a four-metre square area was the hub of the establishment. In one corner behind the door was a public payphone. Opposite the door were the toilets.

Between the entrance and the toilets there were doorways to the right and left. I stepped to the right and pulled back the red curtain. Seating and tables were arranged along the two sides. The central part of the wooden floor was clear of furniture. At the rear left of the room was a raised platform with twin decks and a set of coloured spotlights on either side.

I about-turned and went through the other doorway. A few metres away the bar stretched across the width of the room. On the left of the room were three spacious booths which each offered seating for a dozen customers. On the opposite side were two similar booths and an area kept clear due to the position of the dartboard

“Hi there,” a dark-haired Brummie guy called. “We’re open.”

“Hello, you must be Robbo,” I said as I approached and extended my hand across the bar. “I’m Jim. I arrived this afternoon.”

“I’m Robbo. Pleased to meet you, Jim. Which part of the Brigade are you coming to?”

“Comms Troop ... in the Signal Squadron.”

“They’re a good bunch of lads.” He held his arms out to the sides. “What will it be?”

“I was drinking brandy and coke in Germany, but I’m determined to get back to beer. Which is the favourite brew?”

“Double Diamond, better known as ‘DD’ is the best seller, and it’s on draught.”

“Go on then, and have a drink yourself.” I handed over a £5 note. I watched the amber liquid fill the glass, and Robbo topped it off with a frothy white head. I sat on a barstool off to the right side of the bar, but not into the corner. A telephone mounted on the customers’ side of the bar had no coin-box which indicated it was internal.

“Cheers,” I said, and sipped the chilled beer. “If I were drinking pints, I’d usually have lager, but I might acquire a taste for this.” I took a longer pull. It was okay. I was the only customer so far, and I was content to watch Robbo go about his routine, setting out ashtrays and beer mats. He returned to the bar and commenced polishing glasses with a soft drying cloth.

The barman was about my height, but thanks mainly to his beer belly he was nowhere near the same weight. Robbo told me how the place started quietly. He said it picked up after 9 pm.

At 7:30 pm three lads came into the club together, laughing and joking. They all said a cheery hello to Robbo when they arrived at the bar. Each of them nodded to me.

I acknowledged with, “Hi.”

For an hour I sat making mental notes of the various customers as they arrived. It was good to see females in the place, and I could see they were part of the regular crowd. Two of the girls joined a couple of the guys at the dartboard. I tried to remember if I’d packed my darts. If I didn’t, I’d be buying new ones.

At 9 pm, Sam arrived and pulled up a barstool to join me. We had a pint together, and he told me about the regular sessions in the bar. I asked questions about the troop and the job. Like me, Sam was Comms Troop, but unlike me, he had always been a radio operator.

He told me he’d done the conversion course when the trades amalgamated, but he’d never operated radio relay equipment since. Sam felt disillusioned by the change of trade designation, which reminded me of my mate Ash back in Dortmund.

When Sam told me about the Radio Room, it was a reminder of how much I’d have to learn quickly. I’d be expected to have a working knowledge of radio networks, voice procedure, radio logs, and more. A steep learning curve lay ahead.

I’d spent a fair part of the day travelling, and after four relaxing beers I was ready to get some rest before my first working day in Londonderry. I bid Sam goodnight and headed back to the room to prepare my uniform.

*

Friday 7th June 1974

 

I’d had a relaxing sleep and started my day by going to the cookhouse with a couple of my room-mates for a hearty breakfast. I was determined to enjoy this posting. When I set off from the block to the compound, I did so with a smile on my face and my thoughts switched to positive mode.

It took less than five minutes to walk from the accommodation to the fenced compound where my troop was based. I checked in with the sentry in the small hut at the compound entrance gate. Following an identity check, I walked with an escort passed a group of four Land Rovers. The vehicles tailboards almost touched against the end wall of the Brigade HQ. I figured they parked in such a position to enable departure without delay.

As we went further into the compound, and around the corner, we entered a large courtyard. On my right was the high and long red brick and glass building which housed the Brigade HQ, and the Communications Centre. On my left, there was a long, low white building.

Between the buildings, I counted another six Land Rovers, parked two abreast. Behind the vehicles was a gap of a few metres and at the back of the courtyard, sat six trailers. Between the two buildings and towering over the vehicles was a huge mast supported on four legs. From a distance, it would resemble an electricity pylon - with an assortment of radio aerials attached high on the structure.

The space between the legs of the mast was large enough for a Land Rover to park under, though I noted there wasn’t one there. We walked along to the area near the front of the first Land Rover, to a door marked Radio Room. Next to the door through an open window, I could see the duty operator working at a console.

My companion shouted at the operator, “New arrival Sam.”

Sam turned and smiled, still clutching a handset in one hand and a pencil in the other. He indicated with a nod to the left for me to go along to the next door.

I said, “Cheers mate,” to the sentry, and I paused at the window. “I’ll see you later Sam. Thanks.” I went along a few metres to an open white door, which had a white sign nailed above; Comms Troop.

The door led into a small briefing room where eight members of the troop of different rank were chatting. I noted a short, dark-haired sergeant who had a Scottish accent. Of the men sitting in the room I had already met five of them the day before, either because they lived in the same accommodation or they had been in the Lemon Club. It was a few minutes after 08:00, which meant there were probably more personnel to arrive before the morning parade.

The sergeant turned, and I saw the nametag ‘Morrison’ on his shirt. He nodded to me. “Signalman Faulkner, is it?”

“Yes, Sarge,” I said.

He assessed my turnout and nodded, with a faint smile. Behind him, Cpl Nick Stacey pointed at my uniform and gave me a thumbs up.

All of the other guys I’d met nodded or acknowledged me with a wave.

Sgt Morrison shook my hand. “Welcome to Londonderry, Faulkner.”

“Thanks, Sarge.”

Sgt Morrison stepped back two paces and tapped on an inner door. “Staff, new arrival ....” He nodded for me to go in.

SSgt Temple turned his swivel chair and made a rapid appraisal of my turnout before he stood up. He nodded as he held out a hand. “Good morning Faulkner. Welcome to Comms Troop.”

“Good morning, Staff, and thanks. It’s good to be here.” He was a man with high standards. His uniform fitted like a glove, and his physique showed he took his fitness as seriously as his appearance.

Staff Temple sat down and indicated for me to sit in the vacant chair opposite him. He pulled a sheet of paper from his tray. “You'll find life here different to Germany, but I think you'll like it. Most of the lads do.”

“I intend to throw myself into the job Staff. If there is as much variety here as I’ve heard, I'll enjoy it.” My enthusiasm was genuine.

We spent a while discussing the radio experience I’d gained in Germany. He queried how much work I’d done with C42 radios. I said I’d had no problems on my conversion course at Verden.

He nodded, but his brow furrowed.

I told him I’d spent a couple of days on a C42 detachment before I left Germany. I’d actually sat in the back of a truck with my mate Ash having a coffee, and he’d spent half an hour refreshing me on what I should know.

I’d considered bluffing my new boss about having more experience, but instead, assured him I was a quick learner, and I’d be okay after a short practise session. I wondered if my honesty had paid dividends.

Staff Temple said, “One of the first things we’ll have to do is get you on an NIRT course, which takes a week at a place called Ballykinler, near Belfast.”

“What is an NIRT course, Staff?”

“It’s Northern Ireland Reinforcement Training, and the aim is to assist with the induction of new arrivals from outside the province. On the course, you patrol the streets with infantry soldiers. They show you how to conduct yourself on foot patrols, mobile patrols in armoured cars and Land Rovers.”

I nodded but remained silent.

“The infantry guys will demonstrate how to assist in setting up a Vehicle Check Point, and they’ll give you extra training on weapons. You’ll be trained and tested on the Greener Gun, using rubber bullets and PVC rounds. You must also complete a session on the Browning 9mm pistol.”

“I’ll be happy to do an NIRT course Staff,” I said. “Is it necessary if I’ve already completed time on the streets in the infantry role.”

“How could you, if you’re Royal Signals and were serving in Germany?”

I briefly explained about the entire regiment going on an Op Banner tour, and how our Signal Squadron worked as infantry. Staff Temple asked a few questions about the tour and my view of the experience.

“Okay,” he said. “Leave it to me, and I’ll see if I can work something out here. We’ll have to get you out to the ranges at Eglinton to complete a weapon training assessment on a variety of weapons. As long as you perform okay on the ranges, you won’t have to go on an NIRT course.”

“Thank you, Staff. I look forward to it, and I’ll make the grade.”

He nodded and made a note on his pad. “It will be Thursday or Friday of next week, but I’ll let you know by close of play today.”

I nodded.

Staff Temple went on to outline Comms Troop’s responsibilities. As an operator, I would be expected to perform Radio Room shifts and go out on radio detachment duties. I would regularly be attached to the Brigade Rover Group, which entailed going out with a senior officer in a pair of Land Rovers, or in civilian clothes around the province in cars. Staff Temple said there were occasional trips out to remote, unmanned relay sites on mountains.

When I left the office to commence my new arrival paperwork I was happy. I had been given the remainder of the day to register myself with departments and deal with any personal admin issues.

I had a free weekend, and on Monday I was to report for my first working day in the troop. As I set off around the barracks gaining signatures on my arrival proforma, I hoped I could keep my head out of my arse for a change.

A fresh start lay before me, and I was raring to go.

***

          Updates

Sunday 16th July 2017

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