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Don’t Fly

Don’t Fly


John Steed

Copyright © 2018 John Steed

Published by John Steed Publishing at Smashwords

First edition 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system without permission from the copyright holder.

The Author has made every effort to trace and acknowledge sources/resources/individuals. In the event that any images/information have been incorrectly attributed or credited, the Author will be pleased to rectify these omissions at the earliest opportunity.

Published by John Steed using Reach Publishers’ services,

P O Box 1384, Wandsbeck, South Africa, 3631

Edited by Lorna King for Reach Publishers

Cover designed by Reach Publishers



Front Cover Photo: The author with ‘Yorick’

Back Cover Photo: ‘Woofy’ on a ‘Flight of Angels’ over the Victoria Falls


For Jason, Lucy, Alice, Eva and Olivia


For Iona



Prologue - Plane Crash

1. Kenya

2. The Kenya Regiment

3. Out of the Khaki Into the Blue

4. In the Service of Her Majesty

5. Airborne at Last

6. Work and Play

7. Africa Calls

8. Back in the Air

9. Carefree Days

10. Back in Blighty

11. Call Me Sam

12. Rhodesia Calls

13. Young Love and TV

14. Airborne Again and UDI

15. Mixing Business with Pleasure

16. War Drums

17. Into the Fray

18. Deeper Into the Fray

19. Bush War - Part 1 - No Can Do

Bush War - Part 2 - Dead Weight

Bush War - Part 3 - Yorick

Bush War - Part 4 - Telstar

Bush War - Part 5 - Armed PRAW

Bush War - Part 6 - Air Recce

Bush War - Part 7 - The Search for Tim Peech

Bush War - Part 8 – In and Out of Civvy Street

20. 1980 Peace at Last

21. In at the Deep End

22. Birth of a Business

23. AWA – Africa Wins Again

24. AWA – Africa Wins Yet Again

25. Long-Distance Commuting

26. Winding Down

27. Winding Up Again – Sky Relief

28. War in Sudan - Back in the Saddle Again

29. A “Gift” from the Sky

30. George and the Rhino

Epilogue - The Sea, The Sea



The men and women who are aviators in the African bush provided the inspiration for this book.

Pilots, engineers and support staff who work and fly with dedication and professionalism under difficult conditions in dangerous terrain bring succour to tens of thousands suffering from endemic African wars. They are unsung heroes and heroines. I salute every one of them.

Words of encouragement, expert advice and friendly suggestions came from Robin Oakley and Annece Winton to whom I give thanks.

Without Iona’s encouragement, enthusiasm and dedication, the book would not have been written. I am forever in her debt.

John Steed

Prologue - Plane Crash

It was the eerie silence which followed the screeching of metal and rubber ripping across hard ground that briefly lulled my senses once my wrecked Cessna had stopped skidding on its belly after the crash. The young girl who was my only passenger sat in the front seat beside me, staring ahead in wide-eyed disbelief as the dust of Virginia Airport settled around us. The years of training kicked in and I heard myself yell, “Get out! Get out! Fire! Fire!” The aircraft was filled to the brim with hundreds of litres of volatile Avgas and the slightest spark could turn it into a horrific fiery grave.

I wrenched open the passenger door and pushed Debbie out, stumbling after her on to the airfield. The fire truck – siren howling – was already racing across the grass towards us as we scrambled to safety. Miraculously, the little four-seater, covered in foam by now, did not catch fire. Slowly, the realisation began to dawn on me – this was the only plane crash I had experienced in more than 3,000 hours of flying spanning nearly 40 years.

It is said that a drowning man sees his entire life flash before his eyes in the few moments before his death. This may or may not be true, but certainly in the aftermath of that accident, I felt a flood of emotions that evoked many of my life’s experiences flying over the African bush. But those thoughts were for later reflection. Right now I had to come to terms with a crashed aircraft and a badly shaken passenger who, creditably, was taking the whole affair very much in her stride after the initial shock had worn off.

Virginia Airport is a tiny but busy light aviation field a few kilometres north of Durban, South Africa’s second largest city. Bordered to the south by a golf course, there are residential homes to the north, while the west and east are hemmed in by a busy highway and the Indian Ocean. This is not a good place to have a complete engine failure shortly after take-off, every pilot’s nightmare. It was August 12th, 2005 and the following day I was due to fly my Cessna 182 solo from Durban to Harare in Zimbabwe, a trip I had flown many times before. Declining a lift on the fire truck we walked towards the control tower and to my surprise were accosted by a cheerful young man in T-shirt and shorts, with a bulky camera at the ready.

“Mind if I take a few photos?” he enquired.

I assumed he was part of the airport management and needed some shots for evidential reasons. Not a chance. As I was soon to discover, our photographer was a freelance journalist for the local Sunday newspaper and had been alerted by prior arrangement with a pal in the control tower. Air crashes are always good copy with high visual appeal, and the deal clearly suited them both.

There seemed little point in trying to avoid the publicity although it was the last thing I needed. The Sunday Tribune duly published the story and picture. It was not long before friends on the Zimbali estate where I live started sidling up to me, asking who that young lass was in the plane with me.

They omitted to add “you dirty old dog...” which was what they were clearly thinking. My stock reply was, “Funny you should ask. My wife keeps asking me the same question.”

Actually, there was no juicy scandal. My wife Annie knew all about the trip. Debbie was the fiancée of a friend’s son, was crazy about flying, and had almost completed a Private Pilot’s Licence course. I had been asked to take her on a flip while doing a shake-down flight ahead of my Zimbabwe flight. Still, it was fun to enjoy some temporary notoriety.

Two questions haunted me. The first was what happened, and the second was could I have handled it better? I never discovered the answer to the first one. Extensive tests after the crash revealed no malfunctions. It could only have been that some dirt or water was temporarily sucked into the fuel system.

As to the second question, picture the scene. It’s a clear sunny day at Virginia Airport with a light northerly breeze giving a gentle crosswind along the single tarmac runway. The four-seater single-engine Cessna is a plane I have flown for hundreds of hours without a single blip. The long-range fuel tanks in her wings are fully fuelled for my lengthy trip the next day, and as I go through the pre-flight checks and engine run-ups, all seems perfectly normal. I am given take-off clearance by the control tower, and when I push the throttle to full power and start the take-off run, my instruments tell me that everything is fine. I ease gently back on the controls and we are airborne, climbing out towards the ocean on our right. The runway begins to slip away below us. Then, suddenly, there is complete silence as the engine stops dead and the propeller windmills uselessly in front.

All pilots train for this moment and the standard drill is to land dead-stick as near as possible to straight ahead. To try and turn back to the runway is invariably fatal as the laws of aerodynamics will take over and the plane will stall-spin into the ground. So, OK, I do not fall into that trap, but being mindful of the homes immediately ahead, the ocean and highway to our right and left, I slam my little craft too hard into the unforgiving ground with the inevitable result. I know in my heart I could and probably should have treated her more gently, but the one thing a heavily laden aircraft does not do well is fly without power, and as the speed washes off, you have to put her down. Fast. If not, you will fall out of the air in a low altitude stall and that usually means death or at best serious injury to the occupants. I suppose it would be fair to apply the remark teachers love to make in their students’ reports – “could do better”.

In a reflective mood after this life-threatening event, I drove home to recount the day’s events to my long-suffering wife. Her reaction was swift and predictable.

“That’s it – time you hung up your flying boots and did something useful instead.”

I gently pointed out that planes had been a big part of our lives, and to chuck it all in now seemed a pity. Annie’s response was swift.

“Make up your mind – it’s flying or me!” So that seemed to be that. But I couldn’t help thinking about a distant day in Nairobi and the flight that started it all.


The pain of the tonsillectomy was quickly forgotten when my father brought me a gift.

“A little something to cheer you up my boy,” he said, handing me a tissue wrapped package.

It was a toy machine gunner, in British Army uniform of course, made of luridly-painted tin that you worked by turning a handle attached to a hidden grind-wheel and ratchet. This produced a pleasing shower of sparks from the gun muzzle and an unholy racket. For a five-year-old boy recovering in a Karachi hospital bed, this was close to nirvana. My ward neighbours were probably less impressed.

The year was 1945 and my father was nearing the peak of his career as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army which he had served for nearly 30 years. It is a common misconception that the Indian Army was manned solely by Indians. It was, in reality, an extension of the British Army and was run on entirely British lines. Of course, all the officers and some of the senior Non-commissioned Officers were expatriate white British soldiers and many of them had spent their entire adult lives in India, to the extent that they now considered it home. A gifted linguist, my father had spent three years on an officer exchange with the Japanese Army, so when Japan entered World War II, his knowledge of the language and habits of the Japanese military made him a natural choice for the job of interrogating prisoners of war, given that these were not numerous thanks to that nation’s suicidal tendencies.

Dad also kept extensive journals of his Indian soldiering days, but sadly most of them were lost during the family’s moves to Kenya and England. A keen observer, he wrote several articles for military publications and it is worth reproducing excerpts from one of the few remaining examples of his ability with the pen, to say nothing of his prescient closing observation.



by Major F.C.W. Steed, 5th Battalion

One of the first things a foreign officer notices are peculiarities in dress. The more senior officers and a few of the junior officers also have a suit of European clothes, but the majority cannot afford this. Two of the most important items of uniform are the sword and gloves. On service they carry a heavy two-handed sword which they wield with great skill, “kendo” (fencing) being their chief form of recreation. Many officers possess swords handed down from Samurai ancestors, some of which are very old and of excellent workmanship. They are greatly prized and beautifully kept.

Being freshly shaven is not necessarily considered smart, in fact to shave every day would be considered to be giving undue attention to one’s personal appearance. It is quite common for both officers and men to appear, even on a ceremonial parade, with several days’ growth of beard.

The Japanese Army is a conscript army. The period of training has been cut down to a minimum (1 year 10 months for a raw recruit); time is valuable and games consequently play no part in the life of the soldier. There are no doubt other reasons for this. It is only recently that games have been taken up seriously in civilian life and although nowadays baseball, tennis and other games play a prominent part in both school and university, only a small percentage of officers in the army have ever played games. In time games probably will be taken up to a limited extent, in fact they have already appeared amongst the men who come from the universities. These men do only six to ten months in the army, having already had some military training in their schools and universities. The infantry school, where I did my second attachment, was a bit more advanced in the matter of games. In the mess was a billiard table and also a tennis court. Here during the brief lunch hour officers would slip off their boots and lay aside their swords and gloves and indulge in a gentle game. It was noticeable how during these games, the usually stiff and very proper relations between senior and junior somewhat relaxed.

There is one sport which is compulsory for all officers – fencing. This is not unlike single sticks except that it is two handed. It is carried out with the greatest vigour and enthusiasm, to the accompaniment of fearsome noises, and the standard of skill is very high. Company, regimental and district tournaments take place annually and at the same time there are bayonet fencing matches for other ranks. A lot of time is devoted to bayonet fencing and here again enthusiasm is great and the standard high. Musketry, on the other hand, is comparatively neglected. While on the subject of games it is interesting to note the remarkable progress of the country in international sport. Games are a very recent “innovation” in Japanese life yet while in Japan I saw Hagen defeated at golf, Cochet (then Wimbledon champion) defeated at tennis, and the Canadian rugby team defeated by 30 points.

Mess life in the Japanese Army is practically non-existent. Most officers are married, all live out of barracks and the only meal taken in the mess is lunch. This, in keeping with the furnishing end appointments of the mess, is a very frugal affair and mess bills are well within ten shillings a month. Lunch is a parade and as with us at dinner, all wait for the C.O. before going in. The C.O., regimental staff and battalion commanders sit at a top table and there are three other tables, one for each battalion. After lunch, discussions often take place, chiefly on matters of interior economy. Foreign officers are sometimes asked to quit the room before the discussions begin, not that anything of a very secret nature is likely to be discussed at such meetings, but then the Japanese take no chances. Guest nights in mess are arranged on special occasions when beer and sake (rice wine) are served, but entertaining and “binges” are usually reserved for private restaurants where they can be enjoyed in the company of geisha.

A word or two perhaps are necessary about geisha as no party is complete without them. Some geishas are young, some are long in the tooth, some are pretty and others not so pretty but all are amusing and entertaining. They sing, dance and play the samisen and in the intervals move round from guest to guest, ply them with wine and indulge in much back-chat; at times too they are not above a rough house. At regimental parties the senior officers naturally get more than their fair share of attention, but on the whole the geishas make little distinction and are great hostesses. They make even the dullest dog gay and when they make their polite adieu when their time is up, the life is out of the party. At these parties all are expected to contribute to the entertainment in the way of a song or parlour tricks and foreign officers again are not exempt. The atmosphere, however, is very friendly and tolerant and anything will go down, the more vulgar the better. The average Japanese officer is normally rather stiff but after a few cups of sake at a geisha party, the most difficult is a bosom pal. There is one thing to remember on these occasions – that it is unfriendly to go home sober.

Many points in training and tactics struck me as being out of date and unsuited to the modern battlefield. This may be due to the fact that Japan has had no major war now for over thirty years and although their manuals are up to date their methods rather lag behind. Six years ago, during the retrenchment era, their equipment, too, in many respects, was not of the best. Since then the Army has been demanding and obtaining enormous sums for re-equipment. Progress in Japan, is very rapid, and, no doubt, most of the defects have now been remedied. Whatever their equipment the personnel of the Japanese Army leaves nothing to be desired. Well educated, hardy, of good physique and intensely patriotic it is a body of men for which one cannot but have the greatest respect.

My memories of India do not extend much further than that hospital bed in Karachi, except for vivid recollections of the last days of the family’s life there before boarding an embodiment of the proverbial “troopship just leaving Bombay”, the HMS Duchess of Bedford that deposited us two storm-tossed weeks later not on “Old Blighty’s Shore” but at Mombasa, Kenya, where we were to begin our new life.

The prospects facing the family were bleak. Dad had been destined for higher rank when India was handed back to the Indians, but an English officer’s shelf life and prospects under the new order were severely limited. Aged 47, with little money, jobless, pension-less and encumbered with my mother Irina, then just 30, my sister Sarah aged three, brother Mark, four and me aged six, the outlook must have seemed uninviting. Armed with little other than our clothing and a few contacts Dad had from India days, we boarded the overnight train to a cheap family hotel in Nairobi which was then a colonial outpost filled with colourful characters and freebooters on the lookout for a swift killing. The natives were mainly from the dominant Kikuyu tribe, and in those pre-Uhuru days, surly but subservient. My first culture shock was to discover that these somewhat darker-hued people did not speak a word of Hindustani in which I was quite proficient, nor did they take kindly to a snotty six-year-old ordering them about in a strange lingo.

Along with all these problems, we were also homeless until fate intervened in a strange manner. One of Dad’s old Indian Army chums, David Evans, his wife and young family, had arrived in Kenya a few years before and managed to set up a small coffee plantation in the Kiambu district, not far from Nairobi. Times were then very tough for coffee farmers and the competition from lower grade but much cheaper Brazilian coffee was pushing many of them to bankruptcy, including the Evans family. In desperation, David had somehow scraped up the cash for a passage to England where he hoped to convince some of his friends and relatives to come up with the necessary finance to continue farming. The problem was, whom could he trust to caretake his estate at Kiambu during his absence? The homeless Steeds appeared in the nick of time and one evening David arrived for drinks at our modest hotel.

The conversation, as Dad later told us, went something like this.

“Freddie, how would you like to have free accommodation, eggs and milk until you can find your feet?”

“Wonderful, what’s the catch David?”

“There are no catches Freddie. All you have to do is take care of the farm for me while we’re in the UK looking for boodle.”

“Don’t be daft!” said my father. “I know bugger all about farming and even less about coffee trees.”

“No need, the watu (Kikuyu workers) will take care of all that. Anyhow, the trees are between harvests; just needs an honest “wallah” like you to pay the wages and see the animals are fed. That kind of thing.”

So, in return for keeping the estate ticking over, we had a home for as long as the Evans’ were away.

Housing in Nairobi was in desperately short supply, and after weeks in boarding houses and lousy hotels, life on the farm was paradise for the Steeds. Never mind that the curtains were cheap blankets and most of the furniture was made from old packing cases. Soon after we had settled in at Kiambu, another of Dad’s old Indian Army chums found him a job with the Kenya Government as Deputy Director of Manpower. This was a far humbler post than the name suggests, but it paid enough to sustain our necessarily modest lifestyle and when the telegram came out of the blue from David Evans, Dad’s dilemma was short-lived. It read, in effect:


The catch was the mortgage running to several thousand pounds, a risk my father felt he could not afford, even assuming the bank was prepared to give its blessing to the deal. Coffee prices were depressed by the massive crops being produced in Brazil and the prospect of a life burdened by debt was too awful to contemplate.

The reply was, more or less:


The owners limped back to their farm while the Steeds rented a modest house on the outskirts of Nairobi. Ironically, the Brazilian crop suffered a catastrophic blight a couple of years later and Kenyan coffee enjoyed resurgent demand at astronomic prices. The Evans’ were then regularly seen in Nairobi cruising off to lunch at the swanky New Stanley Hotel in their brand new Rolls Royce. Such is the fickle hand of fate.

For us there was little spare cash for anything more than a frugal lifestyle. Not that we children were that affected. There was food enough and an acre of overgrown garden filled with unfamiliar trees: peppers, grevilleas, loquats and papayas, so we were untroubled by the stresses and heartache that afflicted our parents accustomed as they were to the privileged, carefree existence that had been the norm for Indian Army officers and their families. The garden also boasted a wooden Wendy house where my brother Mark and I kept our Daisy .177 airguns. These little weapons were ideal for potting the thousands of red-billed mouse birds that would besiege our loquat trees just as the delicious yellow fruit was ready for picking. We became expert shots – to the extent that we would hire ourselves out to neighbours afflicted with the same problem and charge a shilling for every three dead mouse birds we delivered.

The family was not alone in our reduced circumstances. It was said that when the English were booted out of India, the officers went to Kenya while the other ranks went to Rhodesia. It certainly seemed that way and our circle of friends was almost entirely made up of ex-Indian Army “wallahs” who were to be found all over the colony. One such old friend of Dad’s, Lieutenant Colonel “Dooks” Macadam, had a tiny dairy farm near Nanyuki on the slopes of Mount Kenya. His wife Tats was a gifted artist. Their son and daughter were a couple of years my junior, and during one of my prep school holidays I was invited to spend a couple of weeks on the farm. I was 10-years-old and the adventures came thick and fast. I learnt how to pick wild mushrooms and identify the edible from the deadly poisonous, milk cows, not to touch the venomous hairy caterpillars, and similar useful skills. Dooks was a true eccentric, his six-foot-four frame wracked and gaunt from the years he had spent as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

The farmhouse was a modest wood and iron affair that overlooked a strong-running trout stream. When the family sat down to any lunch that included boiled cabbage, Dooks would call through to the kitchen for the “mpishi” (cookboy – all men were referred to as boys in those days) to bring him the water in which the cabbage had been boiled, whereupon he would quaff the lot, this having been one of the greatest of treats shared by the starving POW’s during their incarceration. Dooks was an excellent shot, and from the dining room window could keep a beady eye on the Loganberry patch next to the stream that ran through the property. More than once I watched in stunned admiration as he wordlessly rose from the table, lifted his .22 rifle from its handy rack and, still chewing, pick off one of the monkeys that regularly raided the succulent berries. Meanwhile, the rest of the family carried on eating as though nothing had happened.

Kenya in the days before the Mau Mau Uprising was a natural haven for eccentrics, and one of these was a pioneer of the aviation business – a flamboyant character of mid-European descent who had flown Spitfires in the RAF during World War II. His name was Zivota Boskovic, but was universally known as Bosky. A few years after the war he started his own air charter company which still exists to this day. Bosky had a handful of very small single-engine aircraft that were chartered by any Kenyan intrepid enough to brave a flight across the uncharted African bush into ill-prepared airstrips.

The company also offered pleasure flips and flying lessons, and it was to Wilson Airport that I, as a 14-year-old schoolboy besotted by the concept of powered flight, cycled one August morning clutching just enough shillings in pocket money to pay for an “introductory first flight” that had been advertised in the local daily paper, the East African Standard.

The Piper Cub used for basic training had the two occupants sitting in tandem with the passenger or pupil in the front seat and the pilot or instructor in the back seat. The airframe of this tiny plane was made of tubular aluminium, and the entire craft was covered with stretched fabric. Primitive is hardly the word, yet there are many Cubs still flying today. Wedged into the cramped cockpit and communicating through headsets, we zigzagged towards the active runway and with little more than an “OK, let’s go!” from Bosky we roared forward for an impossibly short distance before being airborne. The aroma of Avgas and the metallic rattling of the airframe linger with me to this day.

That first flight took us over the Nairobi Game Reserve, and unrestrained by any air traffic rules we climbed and swooped among the teeming herds of impala, zebra and giraffe which galloped away in clouds of dust, startled by this noisy yellow contraption in the sky. Bosky climbed a few hundred feet and yelled, “You have control!” Above the racket of the engine and wind-stream, my mentor gave instructions as to how the ailerons and rudders turned the plane, while the joystick sent her up or down. The physical thrill of actually handling the controls and making the aircraft go where I wanted, however clumsily, had me tingling with excitement. All too soon we approached the runway and with Bosky resuming control for a perfect three-point landing, we were back to earth. I muttered my thanks and cycled away. I was totally and completely hooked. Then and there I made up my mind that flying was for me. But, as often happens, fate intervened before I could fulfil that ambition.

The Kenya Regiment

My father, Freddie, was a kind and thoughtful man, intensely private and a strict disciplinarian. English romantic poetry was his greatest passion and he would spend hours instilling a similar love in my siblings and me. Born into modest circumstances in 1899, the youngest of seven children, he went to school at Christ’s Hospital, the famous London public school founded for the sons of impoverished army officers and clergy. His father, Frederick Sherman, had been a military man all his life, joining the ranks as a boy soldier and – unusually for those days – ending his career as a commissioned Major who had fought with the Middlesex regiment during the Boer War, where he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for valour.

Thus it was only natural that Freddie joined the Indian Army at an equally tender age and spent 30 years soldiering in the glory that was once the Raj, jewel of what was arguably the world’s greatest ever empire. Still a bachelor at the age of 40 he met and married my mother Irina after a lightning romance while on a linguistic trip to Latvia. Freddie’s bride was an excellent foil for his stern demeanour. Pretty, vivacious and 17 years his junior, it was little wonder that their marriage was often stormy. Nonetheless, it survived for 35 years until Freddie’s death in 1975.

Parental discipline apart, life in Kenya was good for the Steed brood. My younger brother Mark and I were packed off to the Duke of York, a boys only boarding school outside Nairobi modelled on the lines of English public-school equivalents, while my sister Sarah went to all female boarding schools of similar ilk. None of us displayed the academic brilliance my father had hoped for by way of compensation for the university education he had always craved, and at the age of 16 I found myself on the job market with nothing more than a Cambridge school certificate. The best I could do was a junior clerk’s post in a small but thriving insurance brokerage closely associated with Lloyd’s of London.

The first thing I did after settling into the clerical drudgery was to fall head over heels in love with the boss’ daughter. Rosemary was a blue-eyed blonde, a year or so older than me, but as versed in matters of the heart as I was naïve. Our torrid encounters at drive-in movies and teenage bebop parties soon attracted the displeasure of both sets of parents, and it was not long before they collectively hatched a plan which would put an end to our passionate liaison. Dad’s post as Deputy Director of Manpower put him in sole charge of the conscription process that was in full swing following the advent of the Mau Mau uprising that engulfed Kenya in a bloody war for several years. Although the fighting was drawing to a sullen conclusion, the call-up of young white men continued unabated. At 16 I was a year younger than the normal age, but one day at breakfast Dad dropped an ominous brown envelope next to my plate.

“There you are John. I thought I would save the government the cost of a postage stamp...”

I tore open the envelope and stared in amazement. Before me were official papers, signed by my own father, ordering me to report to the Kenya Regiment Training Centre at Nakuru some 90 miles north of Nairobi within the next three months. My half-baked teenage dreams of eloping to Gretna Green in Scotland, enrolling in the RAF and becoming an ace fighter pilot were dashed in an instant. Protest or even discussion were out of the question, and so suffering the heart agony that only a callow teenage youth can feel, I found myself in the back of a draughty green-painted military lorry thundering along the road to an undesired, premature, rendezvous with the army.

Along with 90 or so similarly reluctant recruits I soon had a taste of what army life would be like for the next six months. We must have been a sorry sight for the handful of drill sergeants, drawn mainly from the Brigade of Guards. Our long hair and fashionable “Teddy Boy” sideburns were attacked by a trio of Indian barbers wielding vicious looking shears and clippers that left nothing but a square of ugly stubble on top. Once kitted out with boots and uniforms then weighed, measured and inspected by the camp doctor, we were ready for anything, or so we thought. Nothing had prepared us for the harsh regime starting at 6am with PT and a road run before a gobbled breakfast followed by a morning filled with yelling sergeants on the parade square as our scruffy rabble struggled to learn the rudiments of marching in step, turning, wheeling and drilling in every conceivable way. Any recruit who made the slightest misstep would earn a barrage of vituperative abuse.

“You, Smith, are a horrible useless little man. What are you?”

The required instant response from Smith would be... “I am a horrible useless little man, Sergeant!”

Failure to provide this reply in less than a millisecond would earn the hapless recruit a summary punishment of running circuits of the parade square carrying two sand-filled fire-buckets until sometimes literally dropping from fatigue. Most of the hardened drill sergeants showed open contempt for the motley bunch of what they clearly considered to be pampered colonial softies. But none of them was half as vicious as the fearsome and deeply loathed Regimental Sergeant Major Cardy of the Irish Guards who harangued, lambasted and punished us in a constant stream of vicious insults. Like all bullies, the RSM had a few unlucky regular victims to whom he had taken a particular dislike, and woe betide any of them who incurred his displeasure.

One of these unfortunates had been a school friend of mine, Eddie Morris, whose Bohemian habits and non-conformist approach to life made him totally unsuitable for any kind of military discipline. Eddie was a talented artist, actor and musician – but none of these skills were of any use to him in the army. All his spare time was spent on jankers – loathed disciplinary fatigue duties – in a never-ending spiral of punishments meted out for his complete inability to look, behave, let alone think like a soldier. He was regularly late on parade, dishevelled to a degree that sent RSM Cardy apoplectic with rage. In his broad Ulster accent, he would scream red-faced at Eddie.

“Yaw, yaw, yaw...are a harrrible, filty little piece of dirty shhite yaw! What are yaw?”

But instead of the required instant repetition of his shortcomings Eddie would respond with disarming innocence.

“Sorry Sir, I didn’t quite catch that. Could you repeat it please?”

This response was guaranteed to propel the RSM to new summits of incandescent fury and Eddie would be sentenced to ever increasing levels of jankers and sometimes the much feared “Company Orders” where he would appear before the Camp Commander on charges like “passive insubordination”. Inexorably, Eddie’s mischievous nature got the better of him and his fertile mind hatched a plan to avenge his continuous mortification. Every morning the four platoons of recruits would assemble on the main parade square facing a prominent white dot painted in the dead centre of the ground. When all was ready for him, the wax-moustachioed RSM Cardy would march majestically, pace-stick tucked into his armpit, through the entrance arch in a gleaming array of burnished leather, polished brasses and starched khaki, his peaked guardsman’s parade cap and regimental sash proclaiming him to be the epitome of superb soldier-hood. A deathly silence reigned as he approached his painted spot which he would reach at exactly the end of a march step in a display of consummate drill precision. He would then snap to a halt with a clatter of his steel-tipped boots, turn towards us, and with a bellowed command of “Atttennnnnshun!” proceedings would begin.

One fateful morning Eddie had been on early morning jankers and part of his duties had been to dispose of every canine turd in the camp precincts. Given that every officer and NCO appeared to own at least two dogs, these were not in short supply. He had succumbed to the irresistible temptation of placing the most noxious lump of dog shit he could find in the dead centre of the RSM’s white painted dot. He had also taken the precaution of flattening and disguising the turd with white-wash. Thus no one had noticed his heinous crime.

I had a good vantage point in the front rank of my platoon and I can still picture RSM Cardy as his boot came crashing down on the foul excrement with a dull “splotch” instead of the usual clang of steel heel-cap. On comprehending the enormity of the crime that had been perpetrated, the RSM exploded in a howl of volcanic rage. His face now puce with uncontrollable anger and his boots covered in a film of dog shit, he screamed and yelled threats of dire retribution on the whole company if a culprit was not immediately forthcoming. He had not long to wait. Eddie stepped forward in as military a manner as he could muster, and confessed in a voice of innocent bewilderment that he must have “overlooked” that one when doing his turd collecting rounds. The last we saw of Eddie was him being marched at the double between two military policemen on his way to the cells. Needless to say the court martial did not buy the “Sorry, I overlooked it” story and Eddie was sentenced to a month’s detention in army prison for his little prank. He never returned to the training course. After a few days the prison doctor declared he was deranged and totally unfit for military service. Eddie was dishonourably discharged when he had served his prison term. Opinion in the barrack room was sharply divided. Either Eddie was a half-wit or he had worked an ingenious stunt to avoid army duties. I strongly inclined to the latter view.

Once the basics of marching in step, saluting and presenting arms and so forth had been instilled in us, it was on to weapons training with antiquated but functional Lee and Enfield bolt action .303 rifles and Bren and Patchett machine guns. The firing range was strictly controlled so that no stray rounds could hit a recruit and thus embarrass the authorities.

Lobbing grenades was a different kettle of fish. Here you are dealing with a very dangerous explosive device, and the army curriculum demanded that every recruit lobbed at least one live grenade during the course. This exercise was conducted from a pit – about five feet in depth and 10 feet square – interconnected with a series of deeper narrow trenches in which we crouched in a queue, inching along to the central pit for a turn at this newly inculcated skill. The regular loud bangs and showers of debris were a reminder of the destructive power of these little bombs. No matter that hours of training and practice with dummy grenades had led up to this moment, there was a palpable sense of danger about the real thing.

The system was for the weapons training sergeant to stand in the central pit, and, one by one, do a dry run through the lobbing procedure with each wide-eyed individual. This entailed pulling out the safety pin with the left hand while clasping the Mills bomb – to use the correct name – in the right. On the order to “throw”, it was a simple matter of using a full over-arm lobbing action to send the missile towards a target area immediately to the front. Recruit and instructor then crouched in the pit until the delayed action detonator did its work producing a loud and satisfying explosion along with clouds of smoke, earth and dust. In combat a Mills bomb explodes after about a five-second delay, but for training, a slightly longer fuse is used since there is no inconvenient enemy in the vicinity to pick it up and lob it straight back at you. Just as well.

I was duly nervous as my turn drew near but I noticed that the man ahead of me was literally trembling. This soldier’s name was Kloppers, a gentle hulking Afrikaans farm lad from the deeply rural Eldoret district. Klops was not renowned for academic prowess and his command of English was less than perfect, but the gentle giant had an engaging aura of naïve innocence. From my vantage point as next in line in the trench, I could see his eyes glaze over as the instructor, Dusty Millar, a fierce, wiry, sandy-haired sergeant on secondment from the Scots Guards, went over the drill.

“Do you understand what you must do, Kloppers?”

“Ja, Sergeant.”

“Not ‘ja’ Sergeant. It’s ‘yes’ Sergeant you great idiot. Ye’re no’ a bloody Hun in the SS.”

“Ja – yes Sergeant.”

With a sigh, Sergeant Millar gave up this hopeless battle and handed over the missile. When the order to throw was given Klops had a single thought in his ponderous mind. Get rid of this nasty lump of metal as fast as possible.... His huge forearm described a perfect semi-circle and the bomb flew away. The only problem was that in his anxiety to get rid of the grenade, Klops had let go of it at the very top of the arc – so the deadly missile went straight up on a near vertical trajectory.

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