A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 28 June 2013

Hooptedoodle #89 - Robert and the Missile

More ancient tales from the pub...

Since the spam seems to have eased off and I’m feeling a lot more upbeat, I have decided to end my temporary rest/sulk and do another post – just to see how it feels.

Things are still very busy around here, but I have arranged an ECW wargame for next week – it’s in the diary – and am really quite elated at the prospect. More of this in a later post, I think – the intention is to stage a game based on the Battle of Nantwich, so I’m doing some reading and general preparation for that, and I’ve painted up a suitable church specially for the occasion. I even had a look at the actual church on Google Maps - such is my commitment.

On Sunday I was at a very wet barbecue in Edinburgh, and enjoyed meeting up with some former work colleagues. Somebody mentioned another ex-colleague we had, Robert, who was not present, and a number of very amusing Robert stories were recalled. One in particular has had me chortling occasionally this week, so I thought I would trot it out here, in a spirit of suitable bonhomie.

I must mention that I am unsure of the exact details – no doubt some Cold War period expert will be able to correct the story as necessary – but I have no doubt of its truth; Robert was never the sort of chap who would make anything up. I would bet a lot of money on that. It is also possible, of course, that this story is otherwise well-known and exists in alternative versions based in other countries at other times, with other equipment. If the tale is, in fact, bollocks then I offer my humble apologies, but I will certainly be surprised.

Robert was an absolute treasure. He worked for me from about 1987 to about 1991, and we recruited him from the British Army, where he was serving as a major at the time he left. He was ex-Sandhurst, and had a very active service life until a helicopter crash in Northern Ireland left him with injuries which forced him to retire to the Army’s IT operation. He had no previous experience of life or work outside the services, and he was frighteningly enthusiastic to get started. His life-long devotion to the Army was eventually killed by having to have his car checked for bombs every morning in Germany before his kids were driven to school. That would do it, right enough.

Robert’s greatest value to me was that he was used to getting things done. Different mindset. If he was asked to do something, he expected to crack on with it and make a good job of it. He had not got the hang of the more common approach of his new civilian co-workers, which was an instinct to spend two weeks preparing excuses for why we had failed to deliver something which would have taken a week if we had just done it. The bit he found most difficult was understanding the context he was now working in. He found it unbelievable that anyone would agree to do something and then not do it – an everyday situation in our firm – and he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there wasn’t much he or anyone else could do about it. No, I used to tell him, we can’t put them on a charge, unfortunately – what we have to do is convince them up-front that they will get something out of it. Yes, I used to tell him, I realise that Jeannie in the corner is not the nominal manager of that department, but she is the one who makes the place work, and she is the one you need to get on your side – the theoretical hierarchies here work differently, and in more subtle ways. Robert took all this on board, but found much of it strange.

Apart from his energy and his positive approach, Robert was also valuable because he was an excellent chap who came from an interesting and (to us) alien world, and had real-life experience of combat and other life threatening situations, which was more exciting than we were used to. Some of these life threatening situations, it has to be said, were a result of the manic approach to recreation which seems to be a characteristic of young military men. A pint with Robert was always worthwhile – he had a fund of fantastic stories, and many of them became legends among his colleagues. It was very common for Robert stories to feature in the pub, even when Robert himself was not present, and that, gentlemen, is fame indeed.

Today’s story from Robert’s army days involves the Honest John missile. Robert was still recovering from his helicopter accident at the time, and was mostly involved in ceremonial and other light duties, when he and a good friend were ordered to attend a NATO test firing of an Honest John. Now, this was a big deal. Many servicemen had been trained to serve with these missiles, and had even been through launch drill (as had Robert and his pal), but they were frighteningly expensive, so that no-one knew anyone who had ever experienced a for-real launch. They were actually going to launch one, which was an exciting prospect for all concerned, and Robert and his colleague were duly delivered to a clearing somewhere in the Ardennes, all togged up in their ceremonial uniforms, as part of an international guard of honour. Everyone who was anyone in the top brass of NATO was there, and a lot of work had gone into constructing very smart, wooden seating galleries – there was carpet and white cords everywhere. No expense spared.

With everyone suitably tensed up, and the guard of honour at attention, the Belgian launch crew selected for the test duly arrived and went into their drill. It was a wet, overcast day, but they were really very impressive – crisp and assured, under scrutiny from the field-glasses of the High and Mighty who were watching from a safe distance. As the moment approached for the launch (and remember, these boys hadn’t actually fired one before, either), the clamps which held the missile to its cradle were opened, and a lot of adjustment and shouting of commands was going on when Robert’s colleague quietly drew his attention to the fact that the crew did not appear to have released the 4cm thick steel securing bolts which held it in place. Shortly afterwards, the missile fired. The noise was unbelievable, apparently, and the ground shook before the missile, with very large truck still attached, rose from the ground and disappeared into the low clouds.

Robert told us that his strongest recollection was of the strange silence which followed. He could hear the odd, strangled sound of the guard of honour trying desperately not to laugh, and the indefinable, though very real, sound of general embarrassment at a strategic level. The gathering broke up very quickly, with appropriate levels of harrumphing, and everyone was rushed away in staff cars. The joiners had even started to dismantle the seating before the guard of honour received a very short briefing.

This did not happen, they were told. Anyone who mentions this – ever – will be in more trouble than he could ever imagine. And thus this event which had never happened was blotted from the records.

It seems that the missile did pretty well – it landed about a kilometre away, in a field, though of course that hadn’t happened either. Naturally the British contingent could not leave it alone. The Honest John kit came with a dedicated range computer, which could print out range tables and settings for a variety of payloads and situations. Some bright spark printed off a special range table headed up HONEST JOHN MISSILE – WITH LAUNCHER ATTACHED and sent it anonymously to Belgian HQ. Robert said that he was interested to see if there was any come-back, considering that the original event on which the joke was based had never happened.

They never heard anything further about it.

I believe Robert is in the consultancy business now – I bet he is still good value in the pub.


  1. All ex-servicemen have trouble getting used to the way civilians 'operate', and all ex-servicemen have a stock of stories, the trouble is civilians struggle to believe their veracity due in no small part to the fact that in the forces our 'everyday' status was/is one of 'extraordinary', so when something extra-ordinary happens. it's often quite spectecular...in civi-street if a milkfloat knocks a bollard on the way out of a cull-de-sac it's a 'story'.

    Hugh (on a guest PC with no spellcheck!)

    1. The differences in culture were kind of predictable, but the size of the gulf was a surprise. Early in his time with us, we decided to get rid of a load of old Assembler business software (because it was becoming unmaintainable and because we could no longer find or afford elderly guys with the necessary programming experience to work on it) and invest some effort in replacing it with nice, clean, modern, *documented* COBOL. This looked like just the job for The Major, so we put him in charge. Within a month, there was a general wailing from the techies about ridiculous timescales and very high quality standards. One of the senior designers confronted Robert on behalf of his colleagues - "This is terrible, Robert, the guys can't take much more of this stress!"

      Robert just looked at the fellow, and said

      "But they get to go home every night, they are getting well paid for it, the working conditions are top class, and it's important for the future of the Company. No-one has been killed, no-one is in any immediate danger of being harmed - Dave, I have seen stress, and this is not it."

      Different planet. They were both right, of course.

    2. With me it's the honesty/loyalty thing, no-one in business seems to say what they mean, and they're all trying to jump-ship behind your back?!!!

      Send 'em all to Colchester, I say!

    3. Hugh

      There's maybe a touch of generalisation in there, but I know what you mean! In my own experience, what you could expect in the way of honesty in the commercial world depended on the circumstances, which isn't reassuring anyway.

      If things were sensible in business, and everybody had to work hard to be successful, everybody just on with it - I was lucky to work for a rather boring, old-fashioned, paternal employer, and everyone kind of understood that we all depended on each other. Then we got very successful, rates of pay increased, and suddenly the place was crawling with bright young things from the Home Cynties who had read in the Sunday Times that Edinburgh was the new place to live. We had new people with job titles I never even understood - Internal Communications Consultants, People Developers etc. There was a discernible demographic shift away from lifers towards people who were passing through to polish their CV. And then things got nasty in the early 2000s - solvency problems, and a succession of redundancies - we got to the stage where people would not help each other, because the other guy might look good if you helped him, and he might get your job if things got tough. That's when the lies start to take over. That's when you understand what loyalty used to be.

      I suppose in its own way it's just another kind of fear, but greed-based. Not pretty.

      Regards - Tony

  2. Outstanding - made me laugh out loud... so pleased your back....!

  3. A great story that certainly deserves to be true and may very well be. Certainly puts any of my old navy stories to shame.Well worth a beer.

  4. Well, that's one way of getting your missile launcher from A to B in a quick-smart fashion! :)

  5. Splendid stuff! Maybe back in the Cold War we could have saved a load of money on expensive missiles and just kept a stock of old lorries to fire at the advancing Russians? It may not have much of a burst circle but you have to admit that a 2.5tonner landing on your BMP could fairly spoil your day.....

  6. I've actually attended a missile test firing (I used to be CFO of a guided missile company) and - whilst not in the class of your colleague's experience - it did pass off without incident. However, I shan't tell you what happened; quality material like that needs to be saved for my own blog.

    In a different job I worked with an ex RA officer and he told me a story with the same starting premise. The missiles were so expensive (speaking as a former supplier I both know this to be true and also know why it's true) that you would only expect to fire one during your entire tour of duty to that particular arm of the Royal Artillery. His firing took place, I think, in the Outer Hebrides, but what happened in their case was that the missile shot off about a kilometre or so - by which time they had emerged from their bunker to watch - when it turned round and came straight back. There were a number of injuries caused during the scramble to get back into the bunker, but nothing major because, understandably given all these stories, missiles aren't test fired with live warheads.

    I think that the two stories plus my own as yet unrelated experience pretty much corroborate each other.

    1. Er, please excuse the narcissism of replying to my own comment, but that should of course read 'did NOT pass off without incidence'. Those double negatives are tricky buggers aren't they? Even my notoriously dull blog would struggle to make much of a story that went: missile fired, missile hits target, the end.

    2. Tricky indeed. We would never believe that the missile hit its target, anyway - stretching the bounds of credibility beyond disbelief. Bugger it - there's another of them.

      For no reason, the subject of double negs reminds me of a Glasgow chap I knew who used to say "...but irregardless of what you say..." which I thought was pretty good. He also made occasional mention of insinuendos, but I've heard of them elsewhere.

    3. Another munition firing you didn't get to do that often was grenade throwing, as a result - it being a hazardous experience at the best of times - a platoon grenade lobbing afternoon usually involved several episodes to have your grandchildren yawn at!

      Then there was the time we got to fire our only 84mm round, and Sutherland, a private from the D&D's managed to shoot the arse-end off a sheep, we hadn't even seen it; thousands of square meters of tussocky grass and he shoots the only sheep for miles-around!

      Lt Kingsbury went after it with his Khukri for a coup-de-grâce, but it had so few nerves at that end, it didn't appear to know it was mortally wounded, and every time he got near it, it would lift its head, toddle off a few yards and go back to eating grass. In the end we left it...some of those farmers claims are genuine you know!

      'Shuthers' was trying to hit a Saladin hulk about 50 yards away.

    4. Brilliant - excellent story - shame for the sheep, mind. I'm a terrible coward with things that go bang. I live on a farm, and every winter they have big pheasant shooting days. I hate it - have to go out for the day. The man who lived in this house before me once came home to find a wounded pheasant had smashed in his dining room window and completely wrecked the place. Pheasants, as you know, do not fly well - I suspect they are bred to be like that...