Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 5 One flew over the Officers' Mess

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 5 One flew over the Officers' Mess

by Stuart Crawford
article from Tuesday 28, April, 2020

IT’S HARD TO EXPLAIN why and when things sometimes just exploded, often literally. It could happen because it was someone’s birthday, or somebody was being posted away or leaving altogether, or sometimes just because the stars aligned and it was that time. To put it into context, we were young, single, fit and trained for something we all hoped would never happen, that is confronting the vast Soviet tank armies just across the border in East Germany. We were also far from home with time on our hands. To paraphrase another time, we were overpaid, oversexed, and over there.

When all sense of decorum broke down the resultant behaviour could be outrageous, inexcusably destructive, and sometimes downright dangerous. On the plus side, most of the times were, and are even more so with hindsight, excruciatingly funny. Oh how we laughed.

Things usually started to go astray at dinner. We had a privileged and luxurious lifestyle in the Mess, and by virtue of being overseas we were paid a local overseas allowance (LOA) on top of our salaries. In addition to this we had a certain tax-free status – a carton of 200 Benson & Hedges cigarettes cost £2, and a bottle of Taittinger champagne, our favourite at the time, could be had for less than £3 a bottle at one point. I remember quite clearly one night when there were 25 young officers at dinner, and each of us had a bottle of Taittinger in front of us. When we ran out of champagne a 4 tonne truck was despatched with driver and the Mess Steward to Reims across the border in France to get some more. Happy days indeed.

An early sign of matters going further awry might be the sight of officers returning to the Annexe carrying crates of beer. The 4 RTR Officers’ Mess beer of choice was Carlsberg, not the sort of rubbish in cans that you get in the UK these days, but the real McCoy, in small bottles, from the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark (accept no substitute would be my advice). The empty bottles lent themselves to a number of pastimes. The most innocuous of these would be Carlsberg skittles, wherein the lower corridor of the Annexe would constitute the bowling alley, the bottles were the skittles, and the balls were usually croquet balls liberated from the croquet lawn. It was great fun, if a little noisy and destructive (of the bottles). I liked to think of it as recreational recycling, and it was very therapeutic.

More entertaining by far was the game known as “Jeux Sans Frontieres Carlsberg”. Most of our bedrooms had two or three windows, and the format was this; after a few of the Carlsberg bottles had been emptied via the usual means, each person present was in turn blindfolded and handed an empty bottle. One of the windows was then opened fully whilst the others remained closed. The player was then spun around several times whilst still blindfolded and then had to throw the bottle where he best calculated the open window would be, with fairly predictable results. It’s a great game, and may be adopted entirely appropriately across the UK at this current time of lockdown. Fun for all the family.

Pyrotechnics also played a large part in our after dinner (and weekend) antics. When in the field on exercise with our tanks we were liberally supplied with various pyrotechnics to add realism to the training. We were meant to hand all the unused ones back to the RQMS at the end of the training period, but of course we never did. The Annexe therefore became a veritable arsenal of military grade pyrotechnic devices just waiting to be put to alternative recreational use.

Three devices in particular were particularly popular, the smoke grenade, the thunderflash, and the Schermuly. Smoke grenades were jam jar sized devices where you unscrewed the top and then yanked it firmly, whereupon brightly coloured smoke gushed in abandon. They were useful for smoking out friends who were being “boring” by hiding in their rooms behind locked doors, or entertaining “guests”. Knock a quick hole in the skylight above the door, pop in a couple of smoke grenades, and after 20 seconds or so the door would open and half clothed guests would scurry away down the corridor, their hair and bodies dyed deep red and orange from the smoke. Or, more subtly, tie the grenade to the underside of a friend’s car, unscrew the top and then tie it to some unmoveable object. The victim would then be followed by a plume of smoke billowing out behind when they next drove their car. Top bantz!

Thunderflashes produced a loud bang and puff of white smoke, ideal for waking up those who chose to sleep in late or more generally for enhancing any sort of party. They came with a 5 – 7 second delay once the fuse was lit, and were pretty loud – 119dB at 12 metres (whatever that means) – particularly within the confines of a room. They also had the added benefit of occasionally blowing out the windows, an early form of air conditioning much in evidence in the Annexe.

The Schermuly, on the other hand, was a “single use disposable parachute flare that produced an 80,000 candle power light (ie pretty bright, pictured  that burned for about 30 seconds at a height of 300 metres” if launched vertically. Ideal for lighting up the scene, and enhancing the mood, at any party when it got a bit dark. Better than that, however, was that some genius had worked out that you could tape three thunderflashes to a Schermuly, light their fuses, then launch the flare into the Heavens where it would go off with a humungous bang at about 1,000 feet, rattling the windows for miles around. It was like being in an air raid, as those of us who experienced the Scud rocket attacks in Riyadh in 1991 will know, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. This is for a later episode (or buy my book, Sending My Laundry Forward: A Staff Officer’s Account of the First Gulf War, Troubadour 2014, ISBN 9781 78306 4182. A real bargain at £16.99 from Amazon, if I say so myself.)

I could go on for ever. You could be woken from your slumbers by an officer on his trail bike (actually, it was Nick Horne, no denying it I’m afraid) entering your room, riding it over your bed, with you and anyone else who happened to be in it at the time for that matter, and then leaving again from whence he had come, not a word being spoken. It wasn’t mentioned again, just as if it had never happened. Or you, your bed and mattress, with you in it, could be hoisted out of the window just for fun at any time of the day or night. Thankfully this latter activity was confined to those on the ground floor, which made a top floor room very attractive.

I mentioned cars previously, saying that we weren’t particularly into them except as bonfire fuel. “Torching” a car didn’t happen that often, but when it did it usually involved the vehicle of some brother officer who was away on leave or on a course somewhere. These “car-b-cues” usually involved old bangers, but you had to be careful what you were doing; more than once others’ newer cars were blistered by the resultant infernos, including the senior member’s Porsche. Most famous of all, and just before my time to be honest, was the occasion when the brigadier’s wife, after a formal function at which they were the senior guests, commandeered the old mess banger, drove it round and round the garden, and finally deposited it in the ornamental pond. And then threw a lighted match in the petrol tank. Good game, good game!

Getting cooler on the Mess verandah as the sun begins to set?  No problem, just pile up the garden furniture and set it alight to keep you warm. To be fair, this was one occasion the QM and the CO didn’t see the funny side, and there was a bit of a downer on those involved thereafter (so I’m told). Not that it excuses any of the destructive behaviour, but the damage was always paid for by the perpetrators, sometimes with a “voluntary donation” to the RTR Benevolent Fund on top.

That’s probably enough of this, for I wouldn’t want the casual reader to think that Britain’s defences on the Iron Curtain were in any sort of jeopardy at such times, or that the young officers of the #BARITWE were dissolute, pampered and privileged rakes. Far from it, I think, but it’s all a bit hazy to be honest.

In 4th Tonks, to paraphrase George Harrison, if you can remember Munster you weren’t really there.

To come in Part 6, a jaunt through Regimental history and some observations on our cavalry cousins.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

#BARITWE – Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever

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