Category Archives: Life as a Paratrooper

Paras in Ulster (pt 2 of 2)

The Parachute Regiment’s most significant moment in Northern Ireland, however, came on January 30, 1972, when paratroopers of Support Company 1 Para shot dead 14 unarmed civilians.  The events of what was to become known as Bloody Sunday were to have vast political repercussions for the province, the most significant of which was that they triggered a huge recruitment of young, fresh minds to the IRA and handed the control of Nationalist sympathies from the civil rights organisations to Sinn Fein.

Even before the events of that day, it was argued – and still is – that soldiers of the Parachute Regiment were unsuitable for what amounted to a peace-keeping role and should never have been sent to serve in the province in the first place.  Paratroopers are the army’s most aggressive troops. From day one of basic training, recruits have it drilled into them: ‘Close with the enemy and kill.’ When I first joined the regiment, seven- and-a-half years after Bloody Sunday, it was regarded as some sort of battle honour. The attitude throughout the regiment was: ‘That’ll teach the Paddies to go throwing stones at paratroopers.  As training went on, though, it soon became apparent that 14 unarmed civilians lying dead in the street had something about it that wasn’t right.  ‘Whatever you -think, you have to say that it was somewhat over the top,’ said Mick Quinn.     ‘Although, if I’m honest, I’d also have to say that if it had been us in 3 Para who were there in the same circumstances, we would have done exactly the same thing.’

Over the course of the regimental reunion. I spoke to more than 50 current and former Paras, and asked what they believed had happened in Londonderry.  Every single one was adamant that the soldiers of 1 Para had come under fire first.  And if there is anyone to blame for what happened there, they believe it is the politicians who made the decision to send 1 Para from Belfast to Londonderry that day.

The IRA’s response to Bloody Sunday was swift, brutal, and set the tone for what they considered to be legitimate targeting.  On February 22, 1972, a bomb exploded at the Parachute Regiment’s Officers’ Mess in Aldershot.  The blast killed six civilian staff and Captain Gerry Weston, a Catholic army padre who, only the week before, had been awarded an MBE for gallantry for services in Northern Ireland.

Despite the murder of six civilians, the IRA high command described the attack as ‘a successful retaliatory operation’.  For the Paras who continued to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland, it was to be business as usual:   ‘Immediately after Bloody Sunday, it made no real difference to us.` said Quinn.  ‘We treated the locals as we had before.  What did change, though, was the attitude of the locals to us.  When Paras moved into an area, a lot of baddies just moved out.  They didn’t want to know. On the other hand, some of the hard men stayed, trying to gain the extra kudos you get in the IRA when you take out a Para.’  The British Army was exonerated by the Widgery Tribunal – which even seasoned Paras concede contained ‘enough white- wash to do the Taj-Mahal’ – but the Blair government, in the interests of the current peace process in Northern Ireland, opened a new inquiry in April into the events of Bloody Sunday.  Public hearings are scheduled to open in Londonderry next February.

‘So what?’ said one 48-year-old ex- corporal somewhat matter-of-factly when asked his opinion.  ‘Blair’s going to apologise for it. But it ain’t going to change anything. It ain’t going to bring none of them back. And so who cares? It means nothing.’

His view was by no means unique. No doubt a few regimental brigadiers and generals will fire off volleys to the letters page of the Daily Telegraph, but for most paratroopers past and present, it’s something that’s over and done with. That state of apathy would rapidly change if the new inquiry finds the soldiers of 1 Para who were in Londonderry that day guilty of anything – particularly, guilty of murder. As was proved by the recent case of paratrooper Lee Clegg, imprisoned in 1993 for the murder of 18-year-old joyrider Karen Reilly, when the chips are down the Parachute Regiment sticks up for its own.   After a build-up of public opinion, stimulated when senior retired members of the regiment stopped writing letters and started banging on doors, Clegg was released in 1995 and is now back serving with 3 Para. Although the case provided an opportunity for the regiment to demonstrate one of its great strengths, it also provided an opportunity for the Paras to show what they are, and always have been, appallingly bad at.

At Christmas in 1990, the then leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock, made a flying visit to Northern Ireland to meet the soldiers of 3 Para.  (Television celebrities visit children’s hospitals on Christmas morning, politicians visit soldiers in Northern Ireland.)  Just three months after the shooting of Karen Reilly, a photo opportunity presented itself when Kinnock sat down in the Naafi at Palace Barracks in Belfast with a mug of tea in hand, to have an ‘all boys together’ chat with the troops.  Unfortunately, as part of their seasonal decorations, some ‘jolly japers’ in 3 Para had made an almost life-size cardboard cut-out of a Vauxhall Astra (the model of car Karen Reilly was shot in), rounded off with a bloodied dummy slumped out of the driver’s side window. The collage was on the Naafi’s back wall with the caption: ‘Vauxhall Astras.  Built by Robots.  Driven by joyriders. Stopped by A Company.’  Naturally enough, the TV news crews and photographers couldn’t believe their luck and, the following day, paratroopers in Northern Ireland once again made the headlines.  For the Paras, the collage rated along- side the black humour found in hospital operating theatres, in which you make a joke out of death in an attempt to accept it.  But why didn’t someone have the sense to pull the thing down before the cameras arrived?  Surely someone with pips on their shoulders could have made an on-the-spot command decision.  But no.  When it comes to PR, that’s the Parachute Regiment for you.

I’ve seen a senior officer in the Parachute Regiment state categorically on the television news that no soldier in Northern Ireland ever patrols with a ‘cocked weapon’, that is, a gun with a bullet ready and waiting in the chamber.  I spent a year to the day in Northern Ireland and, whenever I went out to patrol the streets of Forkhill or the surrounding countryside, my weapon – and everyone else’s in the patrol – was always cocked.  Despite what we were told during special Northern Ireland training, and what was written on one of the many Dos and Don’ts cards that we all carried in our top left-hand smock pocket, we felt we had a legitimate reason for going our own way.  We were carrying weapons for a purpose – that we might just have to use them.   And if such a situation ever arose, then the extra second that cocking a weapon takes before you can return fire could make the difference between a plot in the garrison cemetery back in Aldershot or another beer in the Naafi that night.

So when the senior ranks get economical with the truth about Northern Ireland, are they lying or are they just out of touch with the reality of the situation on the ground?  Well, as with most things in life and death, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.  I was never once ordered to cock my weapon before going out on patrol, but on my first day in Forkhill, when I was the ‘new boy’ of a four man patrol, the three other soldiers had all cocked their weapons, so l just followed.   As for how high up such a blanket rejection of the rules was known, I don’t think it was far.

One afternoon, half-way through a three-day country patrol, we were joined by a senior officer and his adjutant for an ambush we were to lay that night on a bridge.  When nightfall came, we formed a line for a last equipment check.  The senior officer gave us a quick run-down on why it was so vitally important for us to spend the night lying out in the rain watching a rail-way bridge, followed by his order to ‘cock weapons’ (which was officially acceptable before setting an ambush). The senior officer and his adjutant cocked their rifles, and then… well, there was an embarrassed silence. Finally, our section commander said: ‘We’ve already done that, sir.’.

At the Trafalgar Arms, a staunch Para pub in Aldershot, I met Roy jones, a 68-year- old who had volunteered to join the regiment during his National Service, for very sound reasons. ‘Pay then was two guineas a week, but Paras got an extra 28 shillings, which was over half again, so I signed up, didn’t I.’  From the inside pocket of his regimental blazer, Roy took out a black-and-white photograph. Faded and creased by too many trips to regimental reunions, the picture captured his Mortar Platoon section when he first joined 3 Para in 1955.  Looking at the pot belly and double chin that were him today, it was hard to identify Roy in the photograph, so he helped out. Around us in the bar, other Roys and Franks and Micks and Clives  (and, I dare say, Kens) carried on drinking in the way only Paras can, and looked just like Roy and his mates in the photo. Over those beers in the bars of Aldershot, the memories and photographs of Northern Ireland mixed easily and naturally with those of the men like Roy: Palestine, Suez, Borneo, Aden, Cyprus, and scores of other foreign place names, now forgotten by most, where paratroopers once served.  And killed.  And died.

The last paratrooper to die in Northern Ireland was 20-year-old Private Marc Ramsey of 1 Para, who, maybe somewhat ironically, died of natural causes in Dungannon Camp on August 21 last year. Between Private Ramsey and Sergeant Michael Willetts, the first paratrooper to be killed there, and the posthumous recipient of the highest peacetime award for bravery, the George Cross, lie some 27 painful years, and another 50 soldiers of the regiment killed in the line of duty in the province.  In Aldershot on the afternoon of the reunion, I met a 16-year-old Army cadet sergeant, Lewis Bishop. He doesn’t yet wear the coveted red beret of the Paras, but he does wear the cap badge and he has it all mapped out to join the regiment proper next year.  To me, Lewis looked about 12, and it seemed almost unbelievable that the boy before me could, next year, find himself on the streets of Ulster.  All we can do now is hope, for everyone’s sake, that neither Lewis or any of his comrades become paratrooper number 53 to die there.


Paras In Ulster (pt 1 of 2)

When the Paras first went into Northern Ireland, they quickly earned a reputation for toughness, not to say brutality.  Now, many of the men they helped put behind bars are being released and the soldiers are left wondering what was the point of it all.  Night & Day sent ex-Para KEN LUKOWIAK  to talk to them about the peace process – and the 52 comrades they lost in the Troubles.  Their views are not for the faint-hearted.

(first published Mail on Sunday’s Night & Day Magazine  August 1997)

In June 1997, past and present members of the Parachute Regiment gathered in the British Army’s home town of Aldershot.  For many of us, it was the first opportunity to catch up with old comrades with whom we had ‘marched, fought and won’ in the Falklands War, 15 years ago.  On the Saturday night, after the presentation of new regimental colours by the Prince of Wales, the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief, four of us found ourselves drinking on a veranda of the Second Battalion’s corporals’ and sergeants’ messes.  We were talking, as most of us did that day, of things regimental and pondering the future for such aggressive units as the Paras in a world which requires soldiers to act as social workers rather than trained killers.

One of the former sergeants ventured, somewhat drunkenly, that the walls of the mess were a disgrace.’  ‘In what Way?’ I asked.  ‘All that Falklands bollocks they’ve got up everywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s like a museum in there. You’d think the battalion had done nothing else over the past 50 years.’  This launched a bitter and resentful tirade against the way we gloried in the Falklands campaign and, as he put it, ‘whined on’ about the dead we had left behind ‘down south’.  Our small group bridled as he spoke; this was dangerous talk, deeply offensive to those of us who had lost mates there. Our chippy friend had served with the battalion for more than 20 years and had been on attachment to another unit in the spring of 1982 when the Task Force set sail for the Falklands.  But there was more to his argument than personal pique: as he said more than once, the year before the Falklands, the battalion had completed a 22- month tour of duty in Northern Ireland in which seven men were maimed for life and 21 killed – including 18 in the infamous Warren Point bombing on the day Earl Mountbatten was murdered. In the 25-day Falklands campaign, by contrast, the battalion fought two major battles, at Goose Green and Wireless Ridge, and only – though that can never be the right word – lost 18 men.

The Paras’ war in Northern Ireland has been going on for 28 years now, almost half the regiment’s 57 years, and has cost it 52 lives. In that time, the regiment has become synonymous with the troubled province. The withdrawal of the Paras from Northern Ireland in April seemed, at the time, an optimistic symbol of the beginning of the end of the Troubles. So it is a measure of the delicate balance of the peace process that the regiment was sent back in response to the Drumcree crisis last month.  Most people I talked to within the regiment genuinely hope that this is the end of the violence.

‘It’s just been going on too long now. It’s time it came to an end,’ said former Sergeant Major Frank Pye, whose tours of duty in Northern Ireland stretched from 1972 to 1991.   ‘It’s a terrible, thankless job and the blokes have just about seen enough of it.’

Andy Moodie served with the regiment between 1974 and 1986 and completed five tours of Northern Ireland.  His father and three brothers all served in the regiment and his mother packed parachutes for it during the Second World War. ‘I hope the people on both sides of the divide in Ireland want peace.  Though, really, now it’s all in the lap of the gods.’

But what one hopes for and what one gets are not necessarily the same thing, and when I asked whether soldiers believed that this time it really is the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most were unsure. What they were sure of, however, was that the peace condition of early release for ‘political prisoners’ was totally wrong.

‘I feel terrible about it’, said Mick Quinn, another former Sergeant Major who saw the first of 12 tours of duty in Northern Ireland in 1971.  ‘Okay, the young lad caught moving a pistol – in the interests of the peace, give him a break.  But what people seem to be ignoring is that some of these men are mass murderers.  Some of them planted bombs that killed 20 or 30 people.  You let them out and the struggle is all they know. It’s dangerous because I don’t doubt for one minute that they’ll be right back bang at it again.’

I asked several former para- troopers born and bred in Ulster if they believed that the current tentative peace in Northern Ireland would last.  Their answers were depressingly similar and to the point: ‘No chance’, ‘No way’, ‘Are you joking? It’s not just because of the IRA either. The problem now, as they saw it, is bringing into line the Protestant paramilitary groups. ‘If that lot ever get going,’ said one of these Paras, ‘they’re going to make the IRA took like a bunch of kindergarten kids. Believe me, they are armed to the teeth.’

In the early days of the civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, most British units appeared happy to walk the political line of appeasement.  But the Paras arrived on the offensive, earning a reputation for toughness and what some describe as ‘brutality’ almost from day one.

‘When we first got to Belfast, we didn’t mess around,’ recalled Mick Quinn. ‘The units before us had put up with no-go zones and allowed themselves to be kicked around, left, right and centre. No way were we going to put up with any of that. We were the first to put men on the ground in four-man foot patrols and take the battle to the terrorist. Before we got there, all the “hats” had ever done was drive around in armoured cars or, if they did patrol, they did it in platoon strength. Of course, they were getting blown up every other day.’

Besides a reputation for toughness, the Paras also quickly earned a somewhat surprising reputation for fairness.  ‘It wasn’t only the Catholics who hated us,’ explained Frank Pye. ‘Most of the Prods did as well.  Unlike some of the jock regiments, who had more of a handle on that Prod-Catholic thing, and certainly had a bias for people who came from the Orange part of the map, our blokes were straight down the middle; with all of them.  A little old Catholic lady I passed on patrol in Belfast one day summed it up best when she said: “You Paras are bastards, but at least you’re bastards to all of us.”’

In 1972, a patrol from 3 Para mounted the first ever raid on a Protestant Orange Lodge.  Clive Walker, a sergeant with the battalion at the time and now a successful seaside restaurant owner, led the patrol. ‘Until then, no one, for basically political reasons, had ever dared to raid an Orange Lodge. Everyone knew that they had guns, but it was thought by the head shed [high command] that they would never turn them on British soldiers – which, as we all knew, was complete and utter rubbish.’  Earlier that year, one of the biggest gun battles that ever took place in Northern Ireland occurred when a patrol of Paras was fired on from the Shankhill Road.  The resulting firefight lasted five hours and left six terrorists dead.  ‘None of them was IRA,’ said Walker. ‘They were all Prods.’

Walker had received a tip-off from a particularly reliable informant that a large cache of arms was being held at the Orange Lodge on the Shankhill Road. ‘We couldn’t get permission to raid the lodge directly and I knew I’d be in big trouble if I did, so what we did was hit the house of the caretaker who lived next door. We knew that he had a partition door that led into the lodge proper and that was going to be our way in. We weren’t in the caretaker’s place more than two minutes before we uncovered three three-inch mortars stashed away in the roof. After that we entered the lodge, and the very first cupboard we came across had a 9mm pistol in it. ‘As soon as we found it, I got on the radio to brigade I-IQ and requested a search team to come to turn the place over properly. To my amazement they refused, ordering me to leave the lodge. I told them, “Look, We’ve already found weapons,” but they still insisted that we shouldn’t have raided the place.’ So what was a soldier to do? ‘I just did what any other paratrooper would have done in the same circumstances – I ignored the “hat’ idiots, radioed 3 Para battalion HQ and got one of our own search teams in.  Our CO was over the moon – though God help me if we hadn’t found anything.’

In all, Walker and his men discovered 147 weapons that night, one of the largest arms caches ever uncovered in Northern Ireland.

Paras in Ulster Part 2


‘Soldier, Soldier’ (pt 2 of 2)

‘Soldier, Soldier’  (Part 2)

Some of dad’s war stories I once wished I hadn’t heard before.  In fact, back when I was able to use “I’m a paratrooper” on my quest to get between girls legs, I had no sympathy for him whatsoever when he talked about the time he surrendered.  It use to get to me the way he would say, “it was during Holy Week”, as if Holy Week was the reason it all happened.  The only person in the tale I could feel any sympathy for was one of dad’s officers, a lieutenant, who took his own life with a hand grenade rather than throw in the towel.  He was apparently a staunch Nazi.

As a British Paratrooper I had been taught to believe that surrender was something that happened to the weak.  It also meant defeat, and if it did ever happen, say if you were wounded (“Yeah, or had run out of ammo and couldn’t fight no more anyway”), then the last thing your self-respect would allow you to do is talk about it.  Never mind to your own son.

Now that I have no need to believe in the wisdoms of the Parachute Regiment (and I concede that at one time I really did need to), I am able to see that there’s no real loss of respect in saving your own life.  In dad’s case they had been on the receiving end of Allied artillery for two months and were left with nowhere else to run.  With dad though there was more, because after his surrender he changed sides.  Something that I could never imagine doing even now as a civilian.

But then I could never imagine how it was to be Polish and in the German army.  Dad’s problems began in May 1939 when Hitler’s over-efficient Nazi government held a national census.  To help the cause of ethnic purity, there were four questions that placed people into categories, ranging from blonde haired, blue eyed member of the master race to only suitable for railroad cattle trucks.  The black type asked:  What religion are you?  What nationality? What was your mother tongue? And, of what country were you a citizen?

Dad was a Catholic.  Which was ok – Hitler was a Catholic (and one, dad would point out in his Jehovah’s witness days, who was never ex-communicated by the Roman church).  Dad’s citizenship was also ok – it was German.  Where he scored badly was on his nationality and mother tongue:  both Polish.

And just in case dad wasn’t already aware of his predicament, five days after German tanks blitzkrieged into Poland, has father was arrested by the Gestapo and shipped to a concentration camp.  Which is the equivalent of me fighting in the Falklands, while at home my family is rounded up and imprisoned.

His father had been arrested and shipped off for being no more than a voice within the Polish community in Kirchlinde.  With the help and advice of his battalion officers, who were all “good Wehrmacht men”, dad wrote a letter addressed to “Mein Fuhrer”, asking, as a faithful soldier of the Fatherland, for the release of his father.

The reply came from no less an animal than Heinrich Himmler himself.  Short and sharp, it said that his father would be released. (Dad kept Himmler’s letter as a memento, but in the final months of the war it was looted from the family home by American soldiers).  On his next period of leave dad travelled home to find his father thin and silent.  For everyone’s  good in the family, the arrest and internment were to be forgotten, never spoken about.

To show just how life twists and turns, a year after his surrender and change of sides dad took a group of German prisoners himself.  He stumbled across them in a wood in Holland, and says that at first he tried to shoot them, but his gun jammed.  Luckily, they didn’t want to shoot him and were only too happy to surrender – even to a jammed gun.

Like father like son, I took some prisoners in the Falklands, at Goose Green and on Wireless Ridge.  I didn’t do anything brave – they just kept appearing with their hands up.  Like dad’s prisoners they were also only to happy to surrender, especially the wounded ones.

Except that one Argentine soldier didn’t get to become a prisoner because unlike dad, my gun didn’t jam.  I came across him in a trench.  He still shouldered a rifle and with no hesitation I moved my finger, it squeezed a trigger, and then he died.  By then the war had been officially over for almost an hour, but I don’t think he had heard, and I don’t think that I was prepared to risk the time to tell him.

Before I went to the Falklands another thing dad would say – something that used to rub against my, kill, kill, Para grain – was that a soldier’s shovel was worth as much to him as his rifle.  I mean, whoever heard of being able to kill someone with a shovel?

Shovels are something you hate.  They’re heavy and awkward to carry.  You dig trenches with them – three in the morning after a 10 mile march, digging into slate in the pisssing wind and rain.  Shoulder fucking deep.  Then I was sent to the Falklands, and I tell you, after the first shell at Goose Green I was digging free of charge.

We were on the way somewhere and had stopped to look at a map and have a smoke.  Me? I was getting below ground.  I dug in.  We all dug in.  It became as natural a thing to do as to breath.  And if “worth” is life – then my shovel was worth more to me than my rifle.  I’ll grant you that it didn’t kill anyone, but it saved me from being killed – which enabled me to tell dad just how right he had been after all.

Dad’s war finally ended in August 1944 when he was injured by grenade shrapnel in Holland.  He was shipped back across the Channel to England and then on to a hospital in Scotland.

By the time of his discharge from hospital the war in Europe was almost over, but dad was to make one final journey.  As a newly promoted Second Lieutenant in the free Polish army, buttons polished, cap and tie straightened, he set off to return home to Kirchlinde on leave.

It took him 5 days, hitch-hiking across the Channel into liberated France, gettings lifts in jeeps from jubilant GIs, sleeping nights in stations where trains had no timetables.

Over two years had passed.  His family had learned via a card from the Swiss Red Cross that he had been captured in Tunisia, but after Holy week, 1943, they  knew nothing.  There was no way for dad to tell them that their lost son was coming home.  So he walked the streets he had played as a child, up the stairs that led towards his old front door, and knocked.

And then there was a joyous, terrible confusion.  He held his dad and his sisters again.  But discovered that his mother had died of cancer in his absence.  My poor dad.  Grandad was as proud as vodka punch though to have a returning son who was an officer in the Polish army.

Dad visited his mother’s grave on the first afternoon and on every day of the week that he spent in Kirchlinden.  He also visited the local Nazi who handed in the list of names in 1939, the man who had got his dad sent to a concentration camp.  “Oh, I gave him a fright,” dad says today, smiling.  Though he never drew his revolver.  Just tapped it’s holster.

Back in my short hair and short trousers days, I travelled with dad to Germany.  The first time I went I was 9: grandad would have been maybe 80.  Dad knocked on the door, it opened, a lot of people all appeared at once, and then everyone started crying.  Dad was hugged and kissed and wept on and laughed at – even by other men.  At meal times someone would remember the family’s past, their bottom lip would quiver, tears would follow, and then the whole table would join in the sorrow.  Or was it joy?  I was too young to know.  I was just embarrassed by it all.  Older now, I understand the years they lived through to reach that dinner table.  And I realise it was all both a joy and a sorrow.

Grandad in Germany is dead now but his son is still alive.  He’s sitting in the room next door.  I know because I can still hear him.

So I try to wonder if it was the same for him, when I bang, bang, banged on a biscuit tin as he maybe thought of a field and a potato in Russia.  Or the same for him when he needed to cut my meat for me because it was much quicker, less trouble to watch.

Maybe one day I’ll remember my war and hear a voice say: “I know dad, you’ve told me about the Walkman batteries before.”

‘Soldier, Soldier’ (pt 1 of 2)

(first published GQ magazine July 1996)

Soldier, Soldier

In 1940, as an infantry private in the German army, my father invaded France.  Four years later, as an officer in the Free Polish Army, he invaded France again.  In the years between, he also got to invade Russia, march into Belgium (twice), advance into Holland, and fight with the German Afrika Korps in Tunisia.  He was fit, tough, prepared.

Fifty years on he’s sitting in the room next door.  I know because I can hear him.  He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and with an annoying repetition his hand taps the arm of his chair, or rustles his clothes, or rattles anything he’s holding.  The noise, and the helplessness of it, sometimes drives me mad. It nearly always drives him insane.

“I feel like a wanking dog,” he once said to me.  Which is a sad thing for a son to hear his white-haired father say.

Life allotted dad a space in the ranks of the German army, because he was born 79 years ago, of Polish parents, in Kirchlinde, a small town in the industrial heartland of the German Ruhr.  Though German inhabitants, the family lived in a Polish community, and at home and to friends and to God, Polish was spoken.  Dad calls Polish his “mother tongue” and says, because of it, “I am Polish”.

Once, I said to him that if was born in Germany, educated in Germany, first worked in Germany, and first went to war as a German soldier, then that made him German.  “Face it, dad,” I said, “You’re a Kraut.”  He replied: “If a cow is born in a stable, it does not make it a horse.”  He had me on that one.

In The late Fifties and throughout the Sixties, we lived on a Swindon council estate, in the red brick house that I was born in.  Dad made a living selling Betterwear household cleaning products from a suitcase, and held things together spiritually by being a devout and proselytising Jehovah’s Witness.  He did both door to door.

In the school playground at the time, along with my fellow under-tens, I sung “We won the war in 1964” (because it rhymed) and played at World War Two with sticks and stones and water-filled washing-up liquid bottles.  Most of the other kids had plastic toy guns, Johnny Sevens if they were lucky, but as a young Jehovah’s Witness dad never allowed me to play with replicas of things that killed people, so none were ever bought for me.  But still, we acted out “Best Death”, which involved charging at a pretend German bunker to get pretend killed by pretend weapons for marks out of ten.

How much any of us knew about the war we played at, I’m not sure.  I’m not even certain when it was that I discovered exactly my own father’s role in it.  I think quite early on that I knew about his time in the Free Polish Army, when he was on our side, the good side, but it wasn’t until much later that I learnt about the times when he stood under Swastikas with his fellow baddies.

We only knew a black-and-white war.  Right and wrong.  Good and evil.  There were no grey areas depicted on the bubble-gum cards we swapped, no moral dilemmas contemplated by the soldiers who fought battles on our families rented black and white televisions.  Even our action men couldn’t talk and were years away from having real hair.  It also happened a long, long time ago.

Dad’s back to being a Catholic, and the times I played out his war in short trousers, in and around the bushes at the end of our street, start to feel like they never happened.  Maybe it’s because I now have memories of a real war.

My war was in the Falklands in 1982; it was 37 years and 8,000 miles away from dad’s one.  Before I sailed, he travelled through the night to see me.  When he reached my camp in Aldershot, what he said surprised me.  “If the Argentines are anything like the Italians I knew when I was in the Afrika Korps, you have nothing to worry about, son.”  I’d never heard my father say anything so macho before.  Certainly not about war.

Father and Son

Father and Son

In the end, he was right.  The Argentine army was pretty much like his Italian one and in those early days, in victory, we were the boys: “British Parachute Regiment mate.  God bless Maggie and don’t fuck with us.”  Also, my war lasted only three weeks.

“Three  weeks!” Dad once teased.  “I spent more time clipping my toe nails in my war”.  “Yeah,” I replied, “but how many times did your batteries run out on your Walkman?”  My turn to have him.

The first dead thing I saw in the Falklands was a horse, lying in a field on our approach to Goose Green.  It was about an hour so before I saw my first dead man, the horse had been killed, I guessed, by artillery fire.  When I got close to it, I stopped, looked down, thought “fuck” at what shrapnel can do to flesh, and then had a memory of my dad.

He was sitting in his chair, I was standing next to him, and together we were flicking through an old album of small black-and-white photographs.  I remembered that one of them captured a pile of dead horses that had lain rotting on a battlefield in France.  The photograph had been taken by my dad during World War Two.

I didn’t carry a camera in the Falklands, though I’ve wished many times since that I had.  I could have taken a picture of my dead horse and put it next to dad’s one with a caption reading:  “Things don’t change much, do they?”

Though I wonder how much our memories have changed us.  It’s now nearly 13 years since the Falklands, and I’m a twenty plus a day, 36 year old.  I look out of my window and see trees and fields in Cornwall.

When it was 13 years on for dad he would have been 42 and looking out on to that council estate in Swindon.  There would have been a wife and 3 children in the kitchen next door, a suitcase of samples in the hall, a bible on the table.  So much to look back on.

And not only the war.  His childhood had passed through the great German depression.  Times when wheelbarrow quantities of money couldn’t buy you a pea.  Times when his mother and father didn’t eat so that he and his sisters could.

The early hunger left it’s mark as much as any later shell did.  So much so that I’ve never once seen my dad throw food in the bin, and even today he maintains a level of respect for potatoes like only true Eastern Europeans and the Irish can.  He still has a small plot of potatoes out in the back garden and it gives him great pleasure to harvest them.  He holds them up, smiles, and then builds a memory around them.  Like when he was in a trench on the Russian front and saw a potato sticking out of the earth a few yards from his trench.

I’ve heard this one before, so I say: “I know dad.  You’ve told me already.”  But maybe because his hearing aids are switched off, or because that’s what I’m there for, he carries on, and tells me again how he crawled towards it and tried to scoop it up, but couldn’t because it wasn’t a potato but the knee of a dead man.  He says he still thinks about it nearly every time he sees a potato.

I must have heard near enough all of these stories by now.  Stories of his first day as a young German recruit, through to his time in occupied France and Russia, to his surrender in Africa, right down to his demob as a Polish officer.  The details though – a particular shell, a damp field they crossed at dawn, even a corpse they created – didn’t come out until I returned from the Falklands.  I guess it was because, for the time, we could confirm to each other that it really hadn’t changed that much.

When I told him how some of the shells at Goose Green had landed with no more than a harmless plop because we were fighting on marshy ground, dad told me about artillery fire in France that had screamed into hard ground, and threw skyward hundred-foot plumes of white chalk dust.  The fear was exactly the same.

I talked about a wounded Argentine boy I saw take a burst of bullets in the back from 10 feet.  He told me how his Free Polish patrol in France came under fire from a German defensive postion.  How one of his men was hit.  How he picked the wounded man up, put him on his back and carried him towards safety.  How he felt the impact.  How when he put the man down he was dead.

“They shot him on my back” were the exact words he used when he first told me, and then he nodded, and stared at nothing, and sighed “yes”.

I asked dad once, with no more than a fellow soldier’s cover of curiosity with bravado, what was the most gruesome thing he had seen in his war.  He replied that it was a dead black soldier he had seen lying under a stone bridge in France.  The soldier, a now very ex-American GI, had his trousers around his ankles, was being eaten by maggots, and stunk the way only rotten death can.  He also had a large erection.

He’d certainly never told me that before.

Part 2…..

Para Normal? (pt 2 of 2)

I often heard said of Parachute Regiment basic training, that during it they break you.  Then once you are broken they build you back up the way they want you.  If I had a problem during basic training it was one of aggression.  I lacked it.  Severely.  I remember clearly the morning that all changed.

The day had begun, as it always did, with a quick two miles around the barracks.  Then it was breakfast, that you could never get enough of, and back to the block for an hour of room and kit inspection.  At nine we paraded for a 10 mile battle march.  “T-shirt order”, 30 pounds of sand in our webbing, no weapons.  The weight we carried was always checked by the platoon Corporals, who walked amongst us with sets of butchers scales.  As the checking went on we stood to attention with our webbing on the floor “to our front”, and our two water bottles, with caps removed, in our hands, held out so the level of water could be seen.  It was a freezing morning.  When the corporal got to me my offence was so obvious that he never got around to weighing my webbing.  One of my water bottles had room for at least another half inch of water.  He took  the offending bottle from my hand and slowly poured the cold water over my head.  He then pushed the empty bottle into my stomach, leaned forward into my face and told me to: “Go and fill the fucking thing up”.

I broke ranks and ran off to the washrooms.  By the time I got there I was close to tears.  They were sorry for me tears.  Four or five weeks had passed by and I didn’t think I could take it anymore.  I just didn’t belong.

Basic training 03

Recruit Platoon 459 Ken Lukowiak (2nd from right)

The march that followed turned out to be the normal 10 mile nightmare over the tank tracks of Aldershot.  The last mile back into the camp took us along the banks of the Basingstoke canal.  As normal, during those early weeks, the previous nine miles had strung the platoon out.  But I was OK.  By the time we reached the canal and broke from “double march” into the slower “quick march”, I was up with main group and trying to get my head together for the one where they run us right up to the barrack-room door and then turn around and say: “Only joking.  Let’s go for another five miles”.

The corporal who had poured the water over me appeared at my side as we marched and asked:  “How’s my mummy’s boy?”.  Then he pushed me into the canal.  As I hit the water I broke ice.  I screamed with the shock.

When I climbed out of the canal , shivering with the cold, the corporal was standing on the bank, hands on hips, laughing.  On my knees, I looked up at him and with no thought to the consequences, I shouted to his face that he was a “fucking bastard”.  This just made him laugh harder.  Then he leaned over, smiled and whispered:  “Why don’t you come and fucking kill me then?”.  Then he kicked me back into the canal.

As I hit the water for the second time I lost the plot completely.  I didn’t care who I was.  I didn’t care who he was.  I was going to hurt him.  I jumped from the canal screaming with rage.  The corporal, still laughing, ran off.  I ran screaming after him.  I ran flat out for nearly a mile and as I ran I pushed any platoon stragglers who blocked my path into the canal.  I was in a rage of temper.

I eventually caught up with the leading elements of the platoon just as they slowed once more to “quick march” and entered the barracks.  By the time we came to a hault on the parade ground I was beathless and my temper had subsided to a mild hatred.

As we waited for the stragglers and the “left behinds” to catch up, the platoon sergeant told us all about them.  We were now here where we had to be.  They were not.  We were now ready to fight the enemy.  Those wankers, the ones still moaning and whining and hobbling along a mile back, were not ready.  Because of them we were not at full strength.  We had more chance of being killed when we faced the enemy because there were now less of us.  Less men, less weapons.  They had risked our lives.  They had let us down.  They were weak-willed wankers.

While the sergeant’s morning reading from the sacred book of Para continued, the corporal who had pushed me into the canal came over.  I braced myself in anticipation of at least a punch in the teeth for my earlier out-burst.  But it never came.  Instead he put an arm around my shoulder, playfully pushed his fist into my stomach and said:  “That was better.  Good man”.  Then he gave me an “all-boys together” punch on the shoulder and walked off.  I felf 10 feet tall.  I belonged after all.

Two and a half years later, I ran flat out again for another mile.  This time it wasn’t into a training barracks but into the centre of Port Stanley.  And I was not alone.  We were all there, two whole battalions of us, minus dead and injured, as one, together, ready to fight again.  In Argentina the families of the not-so-well trained prepared for the funerals.

So I have to say that what was done to me during training was necessary, because if it had not been taken to such extremes I could have died.  And death is very serious.  I know.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve even caused it.  And what was really done to me and continued to be done to me once I had joined my battalion, was that I was turned into a British Paratrooper.  The toughest, fittest fighting soldier in the world.  And this I say with no bravado, I really do believe this, and in this lies the real difference between paratroopers and soldiers from other regiments.  Other soldiers may say it but their bricks have not been rearranged enough for them to really believe it.  Paratroopers have no doubt.

But then what do I care.  I’m a civvie now.

Footnote:   Private Clegg’s murder conviction was quashed in 1998.  There was a re-trial in March 1999, at which Private Clegg was cleared of murder, but convicted of a lesser charge of “attempting to wound” the driver of the car, who was also killed in the incident.  This lesser conviction was also overturned on appeal in January 2000 and Private Clegg returned to the Regiment.


Para Normal? (pt 1 of 2)

(first published Guardian, 7th June 1995)

In early 1995, I was commissioned, by the Guardian’s G2 section, to write about Parachute Regiment basic training.  At the time Private Lee Clegg of 3 PARA was in jail, serving a life sentence, for the murder of a joy rider in Belfast in 1990.  The following was not published until the June of 1995 and coincided with the release of Private Clegg on licence.  Three days later, on June 10th, It was also published in the Irish Independent.

Para Normal?  The Making of a Fighting Man

Jailed paratrooper Lee Clegg was trained in the army’s hardest boot camp.  As KEN LUKOWIAK recalls, that means being taken apart and put back again the Para way.

By Chance I returned to Aldershot last week.  Ray and Dave, both ex-Para, both “down south” – the Falklands – with me, needed a lift to the outskirts of the town to pick up a repaired car.  I was driving to Cornwall anyway, so it was no hardship to drop them off.

Along the M3 I put up the idea that as we were so near why didn’t we go into “The Shot”.  Visit a couple of Para pubs.  “No, I’m a civvie now Luke, don’t mean a thing to me anymore”.  “Yeah, it’s behind me now, that Para shite.  Over.  Gone.”  So, I dropped it.  I’m a civvie myself.

Then Ray told us about this Argie prisoner in Port Stanley who had been found walking around with his dead brother in a kit bag.  I said I thought that was touching.  Ray and Dave agreed.

Our route took us past Browning Barracks, headquarters of The Parachute Regiment, where we had done our six months basic training.  As nightmares go, the three of us could all come up with a few based in and around that place.  So we did.  And what we had been told at the time turned out to be true.  We laughed about it.  By the time we reached the turn off the decision had been made; we wouldn’t go into the town – just go past the old prison.

As we drove past the main gate Ray asked if we’d seen the “hat” (Para speak for any soldier not in the Paras) who looked about twelve, with a weapon standing on the barrier.  I told him to stop being stupid.  There was no way a crap hat was going to be guarding our Reg Headquarters.  “I’m telling you Luke, there was a bloody hat standing on the gate.  It’s all different now.  That defence cut-back bollocks, we have to share the place with the hats.”

Dave hadn’t noticed the hat either.  He’d been too busy looking at the two captured Argentine artillery pieces on the lawn.  “You wouldn’t think they were the same bastard things that were at Goose Green would you?”  And we wouldn’t.  So we all told a story about a shell.  One that had exploded near us and had been fired from one of those polished things that sat over there.

The argument about the hat was settled when Ray shouted  “What the fucks that then?”.  Walking on the tarmac that we marched our pass-out parades on was a whole gaggle of crap hats.  Chewing their little girl sandwiches and sipping poofy Ribenas.

There was only one thing for it.  Stop the car and go over and rip their throats out for daring to even think about walking on hallowed ground.  Never mind eat their bloody lunch on it.  Then the three of us laughed at how “airborne” we were and I remembered the first time I marched into the square.

This season I will be  mainly wearing 'Crow' by QM!

This season I will be mainly wearing ‘Crow’ by QM

A group photo had been taken that day and later pinned to the platoon noticeboard.  There were 63 of us in it.  Six months later only 13 remained.  As people dropped out, a cross was marked on the photograph.  We were told that the ones with crosses weren’t man enough to become paratroopers.  And at that time that’s what it was all about for me.  I joined the Parachute Regiment to become a man.

We next passed Bruneval Barracks.  The place we marched out of to board the coaches that took us to the ship that took us to the Falkland Islands.  So, we talked about the day we left for what we had been trained for, and about the day we returned.  And we remembered the friends who had not.  By the time we had remembered all the dead – though not weeping about it, you understand – we were in the town centre. We thought we might as well have a drink in one of the Para pubs.  We chose the nearest, the Royal Exchange.  In our day the Exchange had been a Para Engineers pub.  Airborne is airborne, but it wasn’t a Para Regt pub.  It was now.  One hundred per cent Para drinking whole.  Hanging everywhere were photographs and paintings and plaques dedicated to paratroopers.  Past and Present.

As soon as we walked in we belonged.  Drinks were ordered with a “Yeah, the three of us were in the Reg.  2 Para mate.  We were down south together”.  Then we drifted off in different directions to study the photographs and, although not admitting it, look for faces that used to be us.  Dave found his first.  A company photograph taken on June 15th 1982, outside the church in Port Stanley.  The three of us remembered the other faces and tried to put names to them.  “What’s his name?  Micks blew him up in Ireland.  You remember?”

And we did.  In a bar-cum-museum-cum-mausoleum in Aldershot we couldn’t stop ourselves.  And it felt like it was all only a few months ago.

In the end we took in another three pubs.  We met friends we hadn’t seen in years and heard about others dead, alive, working in South Africa, fighting in Bosnia, diving in the North Sea, even married with three kids and working as a postman.  The topical topic though, was the number-one most famous paratrooper at the moment – Private Lee Clegg, 3 Para, doing a life stretch for “whacking” a joy rider.  “Call himself a paratrooper, he deserved life, he only got off four rounds!”.  And once more we laughed at how airborne we were.

Then to show how grown up, and un-airborne and civvie-like we now really were, we had a go at talking about Clegg without any paratrooper bias.  And we agreed that basically, all boys together, if some joyrider crashes through on you, you open up.  It’s what you’re trained to do and it’s not right that he’s banged up, and it could have been us, and after all Belfast anit’ Blackpool, and a lot of us got killed there, though fair is fair, we run around all day playing big bad arsed paratrooper, so if we get blown up, well, we can’t go whining on and complaining about it, but likewise, if someone goes nicking cars and crashing through army checkpoints they shouldn’t complain to much when they end up with 40 bullets coming through the rear windscreen.

Someone asked if we’d read in the Daily Mail about old Cleggy getting on his knees every night, in his cell mind you, and praying for the mother of the joy rider he’d killed.  I can’t tell you how hard we all laughed.

And I shouldn’t have.  Because five years earlier, I had prayed for the mother of a soldier I saw killed on the Falklands.  And Christ only knows what it must have been like to be told that you pulled the trigger that fired the bullet that took the life of a teenage girl.

I think we all took moments, between the Para bullshit and the civvie make-believe, too stand and think.  You know that you don’t want to harp on – the Falklands and (hand on brow) “Oh, the war”, so you try not to.  But stood amongst it all again it was just impossible.  So I wondered about having once been a Para.  What it meant.  What was done to me, with my own consent, to turn me into one?

 Part 2