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
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.