Tag Archives: British Army

“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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War and Peace

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One night in early June, sixty nine years ago, I lay awake in bed and heard the thunder of hundreds of aeroplanes flying over my home, hour after hour, all through the night. I was six years old, and I lay there frozen with terror, thinking that Hitler was coming to get us.

My mother was not home as usual, so it was my job to get my younger sister and the baby downstairs and into the air-raid shelter when I heard the warning siren. On this occasion, there was no air raid siren, which totally baffled me, and I lay there petrified.

Reading Anthony Beevor’s study of D-day recently, I learned from it that that night was June 5, when a great armada flew across the channel ahead of the landings at dawn. Beevor described people all over the southern England in their night clothes, standing out on the warm June night gazing up at the sky, and watching with astonishment this stupendous aerial army, wave after wave, hour after hour, flying overhead. They knew that the long-awaited invasion was beginning.

Only as an adult did I realise what an anxious, nerve-wracking day that was for the whole country. Europe had never been invaded across the Channel and the men who were attempting it were facing a fortress bristling with weapons, skilled warriors and impregnable fortifications. Western civilisation was hanging in the balance, and with it the lives of unknown millions in Europe. As the army mustered in the ships and then stood in the landing craft, some smoked, some prayed, and if they were American, some chewed gum, then an unknown invention in England. Some read the Bible and some officers recited Shakespeare’s words on St Crispian’s day:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian. …
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours…

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin‘s day.

Many of these young men had never been in combat before, while the battle- weary British troops who’d been fighting for the previous five years, were now somewhat reluctant heroes. My father told me much later, that he felt his courage had ran out in Italy.

They had breakfast while they sailed into the dawn, the Americans enjoying steak, pork, chicken and ice-cream, the hard-up British, corned beef sandwiches and a tot of rum. On one ship the sailors made sure the Canadian Scottish regiment had two hard boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich to take with them… and thus fortified they all went into battle.

Back in England, every-one was on tenterhooks, knowing what a huge gamble it was. Churchill was in agony, knowing what failure meant, in terms of the dead and their families, with his experience of the carnage of World War One. He was also worried about the French civilians. 15,000 had been killed, 19,000 wounded in the bombings before the Invasion. Roosevelt had rejected his pleas to concentrate on the Luftwaffe. (One wonders if Roosevelt would have been so gung-ho about that number of American women and children dying in their homes. I also wonder if there are memorials to these dead, as well as to the soldiers who died.)

If everyone else was on tenterhooks, I wasn’t. No-one told a small girl what was going on back then. One just snatched at clues, and tried to piece things together. One of my earliest memories was of the Battle of Britain. I remember standing with my mother and a couple of other women, as they gazed up into the cloudless blue sky in the Dorset country-side , saying: “There’s another dog-fight”.  I craned to see these dogs fighting in the sky, but all I could see were silver crosses diving across the blue space with white lines trailing behind them.

I was two then, I couldn’t talk, but I could understand what adults were saying. Later, I remember people promising that in Peace-time we would have sweets, and toys, and clothes. I thought Peace-time must be like Christmas, only better. At Christmas we had an orange at the bottom of our sock, a once a year treat.

I used to peer out of the window looking over the quiet street where we lived, watching the big girls I admired, roller-skating past. I was six and they were twelve. They didn’t know I existed as I peered through the small diamond shapes on the window which was criss-crossed with wide, sticky brown tape to stop the glass shattering if a bomb fell.  This was at Weymouth, and the American soldiers who fought at Omaha left from Weymouth Bay.

As long as I could remember, the beach had been covered in thousands of khaki camouflaged vehicles, surrounded by barbed wire. There was just a tiny corner of the beach where we could use the golden sands. And in the sea were lines of cruel metal spikes sticking out of the waves to stop the Germans coming. I thought all beaches were covered in barbed wire and protected by rows of big black spikes.

And then one day they were all gone – troops, vehicles, barbed wire and spikes. No-one told me why. I was an adult before I managed to piece the story together. Today, every child knows about war. It comes into their homes every night on the TV screens. They must feel that war is normal. But my war was different. It was a monstrous aberration which we all longed to end, everyone hanging out for peace. When it came, nothing much changed for us, rationing went on into the fifties, hardship was part of our daily lives. But at least we thought we had won the peace.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

A friend gave me this recipe, which she had gleaned from another friend. It’s supposed to be for four lamb shanks, but I used it for four chicken breasts. Brown them, and gently cook a large onion until soft. Put the chicken and onion in a casserole with four chopped spring onions, six tablesp of peanut butter, four slices of  fresh ginger, three cinnamon sticks, three star anise, 80 grams of dark brown sugar or palm sugar, three tablesp of dark soya sauce, three tablesp of Hoisien sauce, and three tablesp of rice wine. ( I didn’t have any rice wine, so used a medium/sweet sherry instead).

I poured three cups of boiling chicken stock over it all, and put it in the oven at 80 degrees for twelve hours. It is melting when it’s ready. I served it with the kumara puree and parsnip and carrot puree.

Food for Thought

There really seems to be only one hope for man: not to change the world and others, but in some degree to change and improve himself. The salvation of the world rests secretly upon those who manage to do so.

Herman Hesse  1877- 1962  German poet and novelist, winner of Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946

 

 

 

 

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Hollywood, Ruined Reputations and Truth

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In the New Zealand Parliament this week the leader of one of the parties put up a motion congratulating the New Zealand  Ambassador and his second secretary for “their courageous and commendable” role in offering refuge and “significant help”  in 1979, at their Tehran embassy during the US hostage crisis in Iran.

He termed the film ‘Argo’ a “grave misrepresentation” of the part the NZ diplomats had played, which had placed both themselves, and their country’s policies and trade at risk.

The motion was passed unanimously. Ben Affleck has admitted in a press conference that he had been unjust both to the British and to the New Zealanders, who’d both risked themselves and their countries by helping the US hostages. But he said it was a better story if he falsified the facts.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be held up as a coward to the whole world, when you’ve actually acted generously and courageously. But such thoughtless arrogance  is nothing new. Hollywood has been falsifying history and making heroic war films about Americans using the exploits of British servicemen for years.

And this is why I prefer facts to fiction. The story I tell now is true, and is such a perfectly rounded story with a neat plot and unexpected ending that if it was fiction it would be said to be too neat, and therefore improbable.

It’s about my father who belonged to a distinguished cavalry regiment, and had fought in tanks throughout the war. After the war, playing a leading role in a huge military exercise, the last of its kind ever held in England, he was concerned about the lack of proper treatment of the real accidentally wounded, as opposed to the dummy wounded, and he became a whistleblower.

We all know that whistleblowers are not popular, and like many another whistleblower, he had ruined his career. So he left his regiment in which he now had no future, and volunteered to go to Malaya as an infantryman, to serve where communist Chinese guerrillas were terrorising the local populations and killing British rubber planters and the like. The conflict in Malaya was called an Emergency at the request of the planters, as otherwise the insurance companies wouldn’t cover them for losses, if it was a war!

The Chinese guerillas called themselves a Liberation Army, and received their orders from Moscow. Their leader was a Chinese called Chin Peng, who had trained in guerrilla warfare against the invading Japanese during the war. These guerrilla “freedom” fighters were ruthless and brutal in their methods of intimidation.

Vulnerable and frightened Malays and Chinese labourers living on the edges of the jungle were re-settled in safe New Villages, where they had better conditions and pay than ever before – and after British pressure, were allowed to buy land and have the vote – so they didn’t need to support the ‘bandits’ as everyone else called them. Measures were put in place to stop the bandits getting food from the terrified local populations, and since the bandits also extorted food from the Sakai’s  – the aborigines – in the jungle, the Sakai’s hated them too.

This meant that in the end the bandits could be starved out of their hideouts. A lot of thought went into winkling them out of the dense jungle, while not antagonising the local populations. Troops, who consisted of some British and Ghurka regiments, and some Malay regiments, tracked them down in the jungle. My father was in a Malay regiment, and small detachments were dropped into the jungle at the end of a rope by helicopter, to spend six weeks tracking, hoping to find bandit camps, disband them and send the demoralised and hungry bandits to rehabilitation camps. Inevitably there was shooting. But while the British authorities offered surrender, no Britons who were captured by the bandits ever survived. The military operation was called ‘Winning Hearts and Minds”….

We lived in a tiny military camp in the middle of the jungle in Pahang, central Malaya. I came home for school holidays with a large armoured car escort, in case of ambush. On this day, we had gone to the nearest village where the only grocery shop for hundreds of square miles was to be found. The shop was owned by a magnificent old Chinese trader, known as Mr Tek Seng, and when shopping there we all had to go into his back room and drink tea while our groceries were packed up.

As we left Tek Seng’s, my father, who we thought was still in the jungle, raced up to the entrance in an army jeep, and called out to my stepmother to get some oranges and hurry, hurry. When she returned with a box a few minutes later, he was half carrying an emaciated Chinese man in ragged clothes, and putting him into the back seat of our car. He sat the man down, and sat on the seat beside him, peeling an orange. He then gave the man segments to eat. When he’d finished one orange, my father indicated to the man to go on eating them, and help himself from the box. We then drove home with him.

Back at camp, the man was taken to the guardroom, and I heard later that as soon as he began eating the oranges, he began to recover. He was at death’s door with starvation and  scurvy when my father had found him in the jungle. (Early Renaissance explorers lost two thirds of their crews from scurvy, as did all the navies until the 18th century) But as soon as a person gets some vitamin C into them, they start to recover. And that was that with the bandit, I thought.

We returned to England after Merdeka – self government – was declared in Malaya in 1956, and got on with our lives. Chin Peng, meanwhile, the Communist leader, eventually retired to live in Beijing since there was nothing to fight for since Malaya achieved peaceful independence without him!

A few years later, my father retired too, and took a job in Whitehall, central London. Some seven years after the bandit had been captured and rescued from the jungle, a soldier from the Royal Signals Corps came to my father’s office, and asked to see him. It was the bandit.

He had emerged from rehabilitation camp a changed man, and had joined the British Army. He was now stationed with his unit in Gibraltar, and he came to London to seek out my father and to give him a watch. To thank him.

I love this story for its humanity and decency.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

The threadbare gourmets in this house feasted rather well today. Friends had brought us some fresh fillets of fish which they had caught this morning. We ate them with buttered new potatoes bought from a stall on the road home, and local tomatoes also bought from a road-side stall. And afterwards we had fragrant ripe figs, from another friend’s garden. They were beautiful to look at, stained with dark purple and green on the outside, and inside, pale pink and translucent green.

I cooked the fish quickly in butter and with chopped dill. I also cooked the soft little tomatoes with them so the juices would flavour the cream. When both were not quite cooked, I tipped a tblsp of brandy in the pan and let it bubble up, then added salt and pepper and thick cream and let it bubble and thicken a bit more. We ate it immediately with the new potatoes and parsley, and some green beans.

 

Food for Thought

If you lose touch with nature you lose touch with humanity. If there’s no relationship with nature then you become a killer; then you kill baby seals, whales, dolphins, and man either for gain, for sport, for food, or for knowledge. Then nature is frightened of you, withdrawing its beauty. You may take long walks in the woods or camp in lovely places but you are a killer and so lose their friendship. You probably are not related to anything but to your wife or your husband…

Jiddhu Krishnamurti  1895 – 1986 Teacher, philosopher

 

 

 

 

 

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