Many moons ago, back when I was about 17 years old (I am now 73 to put this in context), I had joined something called the Territorial Army, which was a sort of British version of the National Guard, or to put it another way, a weekend soldier. The Territorial Army, or TA as it is better known, is an ancient and noble British Military Establishment, going back quite a few hundred years I believe and as such is a valiant and important part of the protection of the British Isles against any and all foreign invaders. Well at least that is the idea.
The reality – as is often the case – is rather different. Or at least back then in the 60’s of the last century that was the case. We were supposed to be valiant warriors standing ready to defend Britain with our field artillery pieces (25 pounders for those among you who know about these things) but in fact we were a rather shambolic bunch of very elderly veterans of the second word war, and me, a 17 year old, bearded and long haired kid who had joined simply to be able to ride a military motorbike around the place.
Remarkably reminiscent of the British TV series Dad’s Army….. If you have seen that program, I was definitely the one called Pike!
The regiment I belonged to was called, wait for it… Queen Mary’s Surrey Yeomanry, and had been in existence ever since (logically enough) the reign of Queen Mary sometime in the 17th Century, and had a long and illustrious history of killing people on behalf of the British Royal Family.
Every so often we all headed off in an enormous convoy of guns, trucks and other military things to the nearest artillery range to get in a bit of practise with our guns. This was of course our whole reason for existing, and was also a high point in our otherwise drab and dreary lives.
As a field artillery regiment we had two tasks, one was as an anti-tank weapon, in which case we could actually see what we were shooting at (tanks obviously) or as a howitzer regiment, in which case we were lobbing our shells as far as they could go, with our cannons, that was about 5 or 6 miles as I recall. and obviously in that case we could not see where they landed. To deal with that problem we had what was called an OP, or Observation Post, near where the shells were supposed to land. This was manned by a couple of soldiers, one an Officer the other a Private to operate the field telephone, who gave the people on the gun their instructions and told them if their shells had actually hit anything.
All well and good.
My work in the regiment was as a Dispatch Rider, which actually meant I rode around on a huge antique motor bike, fetching and carrying for the Officers mainly. Things like their packed lunches, bedrolls and similar, and on very rare occasions even getting to carry a dispatch or some really military things… Oh bliss!
So now we come to the point of this entire essay, my finding out what it feels like to be right where a large number of high explosive shells are landing.
On the day in question, before the shooting started, I had been sent back to the barracks to fetch one of the Officer’s bedroll, which entailed driving along a long straight stretch of road right were the shells would land once they started shooting. The idea was that I would have returned to the gun positions long before the shooting had started.
But as so often with things military, they decided to start shooting long before I returned along that stretch of road, and to make matters worse, the idiotic officer (If there was ever an Oxymoron it is that!) who was supposed to be watching where the shells were landing was sound asleep, as was the Private as well… It had been a hard night of drinking the night before!
So, I duly arrived at this stretch of road, got about half way along it, when all hell broke out. Shells landing all around me. Not a good situation to be in. So I discovered at that point that my theoretical training about how to get off a motor bike while it was still going along had been effective. I leapt off my bike, landed on the ground beside the road, and before I had managed to make myself as small as possible, I remember seeing my bike happily going along the road all on its own. It actually went about 100 meters before finally toppling over I discovered later.
So there I was, doing my best to dig myself underground as those damn shells kept arriving with a terrifying noise and then exploding deafeningly nearby. To be honest, I was scared out of my mind………..
One of the problems with artillery is that one never knows when they have finished a target shoot. They send a few shells off and then await the corrections from the OP guys, and then shoot off some more, and so it goes on until all concerned feel that enough shooting has been done to justify their presence on the range, and then they pack up and go off to the nearest bar…
So I found myself lying there, with shells landing and exploding all around me for a few minutes, and then silence as they sorted out their aim, and then off it went again, with the shells landing in a slightly different area, but still a damn sight too close to me for comfort. Altogether a very scary experience – and noisy too. Though funnily enough, I have no recollection of the noise, simply the fear.
After what felt like a thousand hours, a truck came along the road, which told me that the shooting had now stopped, and so I could safely get up, go and find my bike and carry on. Which I duly did.
Once I reached the artillery lines, where the guns were I told the Officers in charge what had happened, and suggested that perhaps the Officer in the OP should be taken out and shot. To my disappointment, this suggestion was not acted upon, nor was any sort of punishment dealt out to that idiot Officer, and I was told to keep my mouth shut and forget it ever happened.
Got to love that philosophy, High Ranking individuals are always right!!!