Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 4 Work, idleness and hedonistic madness

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 4 Work, idleness and hedonistic madness

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 22, April, 2020

WHAT FOLLOWS BELOW is an attempt to describe what it was like being a young-ish, single, junior officer in a Germany-based Scottish armoured regiment in the 1980s. I hardly know where to begin to be honest, there is so much to cover. I have also had to be cautious with the detail in some of the anecdotes; many of the better ones could possibly lead to separations, divorces, or indeed defamation actions in the courts, so I have omitted some of the very best stories – for now, anyway.

Perhaps the best place to start is with a brief description of 4 RTR’s barracks at the time of my joining, York Kaserne, in Munster. Briefly, they dated back to the 1930s and had, we were led to believe, been occupied by a Luftwaffe flak battalion during the Second World War. There was no sign of their previous occupation, no statues, regalia, swastikas or the like, but the buildings were recognisably Teutonic, solid, brick built and with extensive cellars. The base was arranged around a parade square with a rectangular road round it, on either side of which were the buildings occupied by our personnel and vehicles.

Of particular relevance to my account here were two buildings which were sited in one corner of the set up near the main gate, namely the Officers’ Mess (pictured above) and the Officers’ Mess Annexe, separated by a single tennis court and some garden. The Mess building held the dining room, anterooms, bar, a couple (I think) of bedrooms upstairs for senior single officers, and a cellar wherein the billiard table lurked. Together with terrace, garden with ornamental pond, and pleasant entrance hall it was in pretty good order.

In contrast, the Mess Annexe was a shambles, a chaotic jumble of subalterns’ rooms on two floors, assorted bits of cars and motorbikes, and the occasional girlfriend threading her way along the corridors through the broken beer bottles. This is where all the real action took place, of which more later. Very occasionally an overly zealous CO would announce his attention to inspect, and there would be a flurry of activity as said motorbikes, car parts, girlfriends and broken bottles were removed, but for most of the time it was reminiscent of a battlefield. Nowadays the environmental health police would close it down.

Everyday life for a junior officer at that time consisted of about 20 per cent “work”, 70 per cent idleness, and 10 per cent hedonistic mayhem, proportions which could shift significantly from time to time, usually to the benefit of the mayhem. A normal working day would start with breakfast in the Mess, individually cooked to order and brought to table by the Mess waiter (pictured below - notice the beer), followed by first parade at 8 am, when you met up with your troop on the tank park and discussed the day’s business. The tank park was the preserve of your Troop Sergeant, and he didn’t want any young officer hanging around for too long distracting the boys from their work, so we usually took the hint and disappeared after about 10 minutes or so.*

Next came coffee break at 10 am, held in the officers’ coffee room in the RHQ block. Many young officers avoided this altogether, for it was a perfect opportunity for you to be “bubbled” (ie nominated for some unwelcome task) by the Adjutant who would seek out the unsuspecting there. Thereafter there were two long hours to fill before lunch, again held in the Mess and at which it was not unheard of to consume four or five beers in preparation for the rigours of the afternoon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was much sneaking back to your room for a nap before afternoon tea was served at 4.30 pm or thereabouts, at which more beers might be consumed as well as tea and toast. There then followed another long three hours before dinner, a formal event for which we dressed in suits during the week and jackets and ties at the weekend. In exceptionally hot weather we might adopt “Planter’s Order”, in which jackets were dispensed with but shirt sleeves remained firmly rolled down and ties were properly worn. 

Dinner could be great fun or tedious, depending mainly on the personality of the senior officer present, who presided. If he was a good guy it was great fun, if he was a bore or a bully, or sometimes both, it wasn’t such good fun. In either case, Herculean amounts of alcohol were consumed. Then we went to bed, eventually, and repeated the whole process the next day. With the benefit of hindsight I think we were all teetering on the edge of alcoholism, but we were young and foolish and it was all one big laugh.

As you may have surmised, there were huge amounts of downtime, and those hours were filled by a variety of pursuits. Some played lots of sport, tennis, rugby and squash mainly. 4 RTR had a historical tradition with motorbikes, and there were always two or three parked outside, and oftentimes inside, the Annex in varying states of repair and reassembly. We weren’t hugely into cars except when torching them (see next episode). The more intellectually minded officers (always viewed with a bit of suspicion) wrote and painted, and some played musical instruments. I had my guitar, which some saw as decidedly dodgy and a sure sign that the Regiment was going to the dogs.

There was also much going downtown to the various bars and tearooms that Munster had to offer. The Germans do kaffee und kuchen extremely well, right up there with their skills at building cars and invading neighbouring countries. As there was a big student population, we also thought that it might give us an opportunity to chat up the pretty female students we saw everywhere, but the military was not popular amongst them and most attempts crashed and burned before we even got to the flak and searchlights, if you know what I mean. Wie schade!

Occasionally you would be Orderly Officer for the day, or sometimes for the week, fortnight, or even month if you had transgressed excessively. It was hardly an onerous duty, but necessitated being in uniform all day – service dress up until 6 pm then patrol blues thereafter – and carrying out various duties at the behest of the Adjutant. Armouries were inspected and weapons counted, soldiers under sentence (ie in the guardroom for some misdemeanour) were visited (“No requests or complaints, Sir!”) and food sampled at the boys’ mealtimes in the cookhouse. Breakfast was a particular favourite of mine as it allowed me to sample the sausages on offer; we didn’t get them in the Mess as they were deemed “not officer food”. Finally, and as previously noted, you would mount the guard at the guardroom at 6 pm and visit them during the wee small hours, the timing of which was decided by the roll of a dice (die?) on the Adjutant’s desk when you reported for duty that morning.

And that just about sums up the 20 per cent work and 70 per cent idleness that was the lot of a young officer in barracks. In the next part I shall endeavour to do justice to the remaining 10 per cent of hedonistic madness, which was the best part of all. 

To come in Part 5, strong drink, military grade pyrotechnics, and high jinks; life as a young(ish) subaltern in the Officers’ Mess

© Stuart Crawford 2020

* During the handover of the troop from the wonderful Stig Jenkinson to me, I asked him what I should do now that first parade was over. He replied. “If I were you I’d just go back to bed”. I have never forgotten his sound advice.

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