There’s another clumsy post, in which I detail how I once tripped over a tree. Which has strangely disappeared from this blog. Annoyingly. This was whilst I was a member of the Cambridge University Officer Training Corps. Unfortunately, for myself and the taxpayer, my clumsiness wasn’t restricted to tripping over trees. No, I once broke a 105mm Light Gun.
They’re capable of sending a shell around 17km through the air, with devastating results. They’re immensely fun to crew, and make a lovely big bang every time. Really, playing with stuff like this and getting paid to do it was a dream come true for me. Funny thing is, I was in the Royal Engineers Wing, having followed my maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, so I was really just helping them out.
Funny that. Bet they wish I’d never been so willing to help out. The whole point of these guns is that they can be towed to a firing position, deployed, and be up and firing quickly. They can then be limbered back up and toward away before – supposedly – the enemy can start thinking about lobbing shells back in their direction.
However, the narrow wheelbase prevents the ordnance rotating the 3200 mil (180°) required to ‘unfold’ the gun. Because of this, the gun features a knock-off hub on one side allowing the ordnance to be rotated by removing one wheel. With a well trained gun crew, this contributes approximately 30 seconds to the time required to deploy the gun.
Note the highlighted words. Knock-off hub. Well trained gun crew. You can see the right-hand wheel has a big nut on it. My job, as part of the deployment was simple. As soon as the nutter driving the towing vehicle had stopped, I was to help unlimber the gun, help swing it round to point in the direction that the shouty man was shouting (the technical term for shouty man was ‘Bombardier’), and then remove the wheel. Once the wheel was removed, I had to rest it on my thighs whilst they did things to the gun, then pop the wheel back on. Simple. All to be done as quickly as possible, and whilst being shouted at by scary shouty man.
Only, they’d had us tramping all over the bloody place doing squad- and platoon-sized assaults, ambushes, counter-ambushes, sleeping out in the snow, and I was also an HGV driver, driving a truck with a fuckload of high explosive in the back. So, poor widdle me was a little tired. Everything was going fine right up to the point I got my big, bad-ass mallet, lined up my shot, and took one hell of a swing at the very large but slightly wet nut in front of my.
The blow was great, probably the hardest I’d ever hit anything if I’m honest. Mr. Scary Shouting man was screaming and literally frothing at the mouth as he drove the gun crew to the max. Unfortunately my aim was shit. Completely and utterly shit. I struck the nut a glancing blow and slammed the mallet into the wheel. Mr. Scary Shouting man was practically apoplectic as he stormed over and asked me to ‘Please hurry up and remove the wheel dear boy, I want to make my big gun go bang-bang.’ Only he wasn’t so polite. Or reserved. To be honest I thought he was going to smack me around the head with his Land Rover if I didn’t comply.
Steeling myself, and taking a deep breath, I twatted the thing as hard as I could. And again. And again. It was, typically, rather well put on. One great gargantuan effort later, I hit it square and true, the thing span round, I popped it off, grabbed the wheel and heaved it off onto my lap. You can see from the picture of the Irish soldiers, that the wheel is somewhat weighty, which gives you an idea as to how fit I was in those days. Or not.
As I knelt there, Mr. Scary Shouting man now screaming at some other poor tosser, I thought I could hear a hissing sound. STANTA wasn’t, as far as I knew, home to many snakes. In fact the United Kingdom has fuck-all exciting man-killing snakes. It just has the adder, I didn’t think that an adder would be anywhere near so stupid as to be in a field with students trying to fire a big-ass cannon. So, my tried brain finally concluded that the hissing must be coming from the wheel.
Imagine if you can, the gamut of emotions that ran through my body as I realised that the wheel was hissing at me. Wheels only hiss when they have holes in them. I fervently hoped that the wheel had been hissing before I’d pulled it off. Finally, Mr. Scary Shouting man’s exhortations had convinced the gun crew to get their act together and it was time for me to put the wheel back on. That’s when I realised that the inner tube valve was no longer sticking out, and that there was a great big hole where it used to be. Putting two and two together, I quietly wept as I realised that I’d punched the damn thing back into the tyre. I’d broken a 105mm light gun with one solid smack from a mallet.
Wheel back on, I have to admit that I toyed with the idea of saying nothing and blaming it on some bloke I didn’t like. However, I didn’t. Slowly, my hand shaking as I raised it, I called out for Mr. Scary Shouting man to come over as there was a problem. It seemed at that moment that the whole universe had paused. Silence descended. The birds stopped singing. Those in mid-flight hung motionless in the air, and Mr. Scary Shouting man’s jaw hit the soft, sodden turf.
“What’sthefuckingmatterSylvesteryouwanttogopottyandcantholditinbecauseyourmummydidn’trainyou?” It’s a God-given truth that all senior NCOs and Warrant Officers are not only able to completely reduce even the hardest soldier to a sobbing mess, but that they’re able to string whole sentences, nay paragraphs, together without taking a breath and whilst drawing upon a supposedly inexhaustible supply of put downs, insults and swear words. I honestly believe that out there is a training manual full of the things.
“The wheel’s hissing Bombardier. Looks like the valve is missing.” At this point time stood still. Those birds that were hanging in mid-flight exploded, their body parts scattering to the four winds and until they too hung motionless in the sky.
“YoustupidfuckingcuntI’vebeeninthearmyforovertwentyyearsandnotoncehassomefoureyedspeccytwatbrokenmygunhowthefuckarewesupposedtotowitoffyou……” I swear he didn’t take a breath for the next minute. By the time he had finished I was drenched from a shower of body temperature spittle. I like to think that he used his anger to hide the fact that not only was he impressed with my titan-like strength, but that he was also desperately trying not to cry. We were miles from anywhere. If the gun was truly bust, he was going to have to call in some favours. And be the brunt of many a joke.
In the end I saved the day by suggesting that there was a spare wheel on one of the trucks and that we could just use that. However, I truly believe that at the time he would have been more than happy to tie me to the barrel and fire a shell, like in the picture to the left. Fortunately, there were a) too many witnesses b) a shed load of shells that needed to be fired c) I was the only HGV driver he had. Kill me and they’d have all been stuck.
Needless to say, he never forgot this and at the leaver’s dinner, was a complete and utter cunt about the whole thing. That, or I’m being over sensitive. Nope. I broke his toy and he never, ever forgave me.