Night manoeuvres with the Bootnecks

While serving in Malta I got caught up in a number of exercises concerned with the Mediterranean Fleet’s Admiral’s Inspection. One of the exercises associated with the inspection was to test the security of the naval airfield at Hal Far against attack.

The gunnery officer wanted three volunteers to guard the Ground Controlled Approach Radar installation, situated right in the middle of the airfield. No one was keen to volunteer because, as we all knew, the airfield was being attacked by Royal Marine Commandos of the Special Boat Section, a very rough bunch of desperados who had trouble distinguishing between a real war and an exercise.

We all knew the radar installation would be a vital target, and that the marines would attack it with determination and probably knock six bales of shit out of anyone who opposed them.

However, the gunnery officer decided that the three of us who had been ‘on holiday’ in Sicily could guard the radar.

On the night of the exercise, Poney Moore, Ginger Fail and I drew webbing belts and gaiters, steel helmets and whistles on chains. I had a Lee Enfield .303 rifle and five rounds of blank ammunition. Ginger Fail was issued with a Sterling sub-machinegun but no ammunition and Poney Moore with a Shermuly signal pistol, one parachute flare and three red flares.

Unwillingly, we marched off to the building we were to guard and settled in. At about 9.30pm, the gunnery officer came round to check up on us and left a couple of flasks of coffee and a packet of corned beef sandwiches with pickled onions, but at that stage we were too scared to be hungry. By midnight, however, when nothing had happened and the exercise was just an hour from finishing, we were beginning to relax. We opened the sandwiches, poured some coffee and sat down to eat on some rocks at the back of the building.

Then Ginger thought he heard a noise around the front. “It might be the gunnery officer come to tell us to knock off. I’ll go an ‘ave a look,” he said. He wandered off with his sub-machinegun slung nonchalantly around his neck, a corned beef sandwich in one hand and a pickled onion in the other. Poney and I poured more coffee.

A few minutes passed as we chewed, and it was only when I was getting stuck into my second sandwich that I began to think that maybe something was wrong.

“What’s keeping Ginger?” I said to Poney.

He grinned. “Perhaps the marines have got him.” We laughed and I checked the time.

“It’s after 1 o’clock,” I said, “The exercise is over now. We were worried about nothing. Those marines never made it to the radar. I’ll go and see what’s keeping Ginger.” I grabbed the last sandwich and strolled around the building towards the front. Then I heard a strange noise, like a muffled cry of pain and a definite thump. I stuck the sandwich in my mouth and pulled the rifle from my shoulder. Quietly, I worked the bolt and pushed a blank round into the chamber. Then I released the safety catch and sprang out of the darkness into the half-light at the front of the building.

Ginger was lying on the ground, very still and apparently unconscious, with two indistinct camouflaged figures kneeling over him. I tried to yell a challenge but all that came out of my mouth was the corned beef sandwich.

“Hands up,” I spluttered at last and inadvertently pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang and a bright flash, which took me by surprise and blinded me for a second. When I blinked and looked again, Ginger was alone and the two figures had disappeared around to the rear of the building to deal to Poney Moore. But as my night vision returned, an indistinct apparition materialized between Ginger and me, which I soon realised was a Royal Marine Commando sergeant in camouflaged battle dress.

Instinctively, I levelled my rifle at his chest and worked the bolt to reload. “Hands up, Sergeant,” I said, in a squeaky voice I didn’t recognise as my own. “You’re my prisoner.”

Even as I said it I realised how stupid it sounded and that I had made a big mistake in pointing a loaded rifle at a commando. But it was too late to back out then. I was committed. The sergeant raised his hands, which made him appear about 3 metres tall. As he moved silently towards me and smiled, I realised I’d bought into a fight I could not possibly win. I racked my brain for a way out and took two steps back.

This was another mistake.

The sergeant’s almost friendly grin turned to a sneer of contempt at my obvious cowardliness. My only chance to avoid a severe beating was to give up and surrender without making a fight of it. “Okay, Sergeant, you win. I give up. I’ll be your prisoner.” I threw down my rifle. His expression turned to one of disgust and he advanced on me quickly, grabbing me by the whistle chain around my neck.

It was only then, when I realised there was no avoiding a bashing, that I found a bit of courage. Only the week before I’d been a spectator at the Mediterranean Fleet wrestling championships and was impressed by one of the throws I’d seen. One of the wrestlers was being forced backwards and seemed to be losing the bout, when he suddenly turned defeat into victory by using his opponent’s own momentum against him. He held onto his attacker as he went down, got his foot up into the other man’s stomach, and propelled him over his head and right out of the ring. I decided to try it on the sergeant.

Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that I may have been a bit confused at the time. I should have realised that trained-to-kill commandos are aware of tricks like that. As I fell backwards I did manage to grab the sergeant by the neck and get one foot up into his belly, but he anticipated my pathetic attempt to throw him and stiffened up, dragging his feet along the ground and allowing his considerable weight to bear down on my leg, buckling it painfully onto my chest.

As we hit the ground, the rear edge of my steel helmet struck the unyielding ground, and unfortunately the sergeant’s face struck the sharp, equally unyielding front edge of it, causing a nasty cut across the bridge of his nose. So, I could claim — and often have — that first blood went to me, although second blood was obviously the sergeant’s. I think he was so disappointed to have his good looks marred by a dim-witted, cowardly armourer that he felt entirely justified in taking it out on my face. He pulled my head up by the whistle chain around my neck, then wham, bang! I think I remember the whistle chain snapping under the force of the first blow but then my lights went out.

I did meet the sergeant once, much later, in Valletta. He and another Bootneck came into the bar I was in and he recognised me and came over. Although I’d only met him briefly, in moonlight, I knew him immediately by his voice and the scar on the bridge of his nose. He said, “Hello there sprog. You given up playing at soldiers have you? When you grow up you ought to join the marines; we’ll make a man of you.”

For some reason the two of them thought the sergeant’s sad attempt at humour was hilarious and laughed their socks off, while I quietly fumed.

“Damned commandos. Damned sergeant. I should have shot the bugger when I had the chance.”

 

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