‘Now what?’ I whispered, impatiently.
‘Dropped the fucking thing’ came the whisper back.
‘What fucking thing, Corp?’ I breathed into the cold November air.
‘Main spring, Sir, The spring that makes the fucking thing work.’
All soldiers swear when they talk. I used to as well, till a Corporal of Horse in the Life Guards suggested that with my education, I should surely have better command of language than have to resort to the language of the ‘common soldier,’ his words, not mine, by the way. I’ve never sworn since, so mortified was I by his rebuke.
‘Jesus wept,’ I said,
I’d been wondering about the scrabbling noise right beside my right elbow. Now I knew and it was pretty bad news.
The thing was, we hadn’t been given any proper warning. And we’d been asleep and it was a weekend and we’d just come back from another patrol. Nobody wanted to do it.
‘A fucking ambush. Oh come on, get sensible. Not us. Not now!’
Just half an hour earlier, the Police had rung up. They’d said, ‘We need an ambush party. Now! At once! We’ve just heard there’s a party of twelve IRA men coming across the border. We need an ambush party to intercept them. At once! Now!’
All this was on the scrambler line of course, so only the Squadron Leader heard it. (You have Squadron Leaders in armoured regiments, only they’re not as senior as you get in the R.A.F.)
The Squadron Leader chose me because it was my turn to do an ambush. Anyway, someone had said I was good at night firing. So guess who was turned out in the middle of a freezing November night to do the honours? Poor old Buggins, of course.
I tried pleading with the troop, then I tried threatening, finally I used blackmail. ‘I’ll tell your wife,’ I said. That did the trick and thus I assembled a scratch party of unwilling National Servicemen. There were to be just four of us, to meet and ambush a party of twelve very determined and very hard IRA men. Some chance. Laughable it would have been if it hadn’t been so bloody tragic.
We piled, the four of us into an unmarked police car and lay awkwardly on the floor. Twenty minutes later we had arrived at the spot. The border lay just across a narrow field. We rolled out of the moving police car and collected ourselves together. The police car had been travelling quite fast so we were scattered over several hundred yards. ‘Scrummy?’ I said. ‘Corporal Wanky?’ ‘Pliers? Pliers was a broken down miner, there were lots of ex-miners in the regiment, they were said to find Army life easier than in the mines.
I said, ‘Oh, thank God we’re all here.’
I forgot to ask how they’d got on, falling on the hard road from a moving Police car. You can’t remember everything, especially when you’re just nineteen years old.
‘Right,’ I said, putting on my officer’s voice, ‘now we’re all here, this is what we have to do.’ I told them about the twelve very determined and very hard IRA men coming over the border, intent on killing us.
‘Right,’ said Scrummy, ‘I’m off home and I’m not stopping till I’m back in Scouse land, where I belong.’ And the silly bugger started off with ‘You’ll never walk, alone, etc’ till I’d stopped him, mid-song, by reminding him that he’d get all of us killed, not just him, if he didn’t shut up.
We crossed the field on tip-toe and lay down in the wet grass.
And that was when the corporal delivered his body-blow to the whole mad enterprise. He’d dropped the main spring to the Stirling machine gun in the long grass. There was only one Stirling, the rest of us had .303 rifles.
You could say ‘silly me’ for trusting him with it, our main weapon and you’d be totally right, of course.
‘But too bloody late. Thanks for nothing.’
We lay there in the wet grass for about an hour. Cold, wet, miserable and scared witless, not that I was going to show it. I was the officer, right, and officers don’t show fear. ‘Don’t even feel it,
It was about then that all of us heard someone cough. In the next-door field. Where we weren’t. It sounded like an IRA cough.
‘Christ,’whispered the Corporal, ‘It’s the fucking IRA and they’re coming to kill us. ‘Me, I don’t want to die, I’m only just out of my teens.’
I whispered, in my best officer voice, ‘Actually, Corporal, I’m not so keen on dying either and anyway, keep your voice down, if you really want to stay alive.’
We waited and waited and waited, over an hour we waited, my little ambush party and me, by this hedge and all the time we were getting wetter and wetter and colder and colder, lying there in the long wet November grass.
Till we could stand it no longer.
Decision time. Time to act decisively. No-one else volunteered, so it was down to me, anyway that’s an officer’s job. To act decisively. I crawled forward and peered thorough the hedge.
And, just at that very moment, I heard the cough again.
And that was the very first time I realised, and me a country boy, that a sheep’s cough and a human cough sound exactly the same.
We beat a hasty retreat, swore an oath to each other never to breathe a single word about what happened that cold November night, near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The police car picked us up and we all went back to bed.
And that is the first time I’ve told this story in all the years that have passed since then.