Sardinia – June/July 1975

12th June – 1st July 1975

Memories of a Dawn Patrol

From Tom Haddock

We all know what it was like at 14 Sigs Worcester, there was lots of travel. Well 1973-74 wasn’t so good, OPEC had organised an oil embargo and the MoD decided flying our travel club around the world would use too much of the juice.  Our jaunts were mostly to Droitwich during this period.

I was lucky to get a Belize trip and returned to Worcester in 1975 and joined Alpha Troop again.  The next major exercise for the troop was Ex Dawn Patrol in Sardinia where we were to provide a rear link from 3 Commando Brigade, RM to their headquarters via HMS Forest Moor.

We did some preparation training with the kit to make sure it was all serviceable and then it was time for the trip down to Lyneham via 29 Regt at South Cerney. We flew first class freight on Hercules aircraft to Decimomannu Air Base, north of the city of Cagliari.

Combined Sardinia_edited

That was an interesting place to start the exercise.  Shortly after we had landed, one of the F104 Starfighter pilots inadvertently (so we were told) tested his cannons whilst on the ground; there was a certain amount of “excitement” at that.

The Italian Army had provided the road transport to tow our kit to the exercise location.  As we left the airbase, the guardroom veranda was manned by what looked like extras from Viva Zapata; weapons strewn about the place and everyone sprawling around on chairs or benches.  Anyway off we went at a slow pace.  Driving through the countryside viewing the “NATO out” and Communist party graffiti along the way (a tad foreboding I thought).  We stopped for a rest break and duly purchased Cokes, choccy bars and some chewing gum, passed over our dosh and received our change in – sticks of chewing gum, the currency was still Lire then and 1700 Lire to the pound. We arrived at our location, a barren, undulating field in apparently the middle of nowhere.  The drivers helped us position the cabins and platforms and then said “Arrivederci” and off they went.

The troop set about getting sorted, you will be familiar to the drill with the kit so I will move on.  Anyway, at the end of the day we decided some sort of ablutions was required, but where?  Then we found a fire hydrant with a short piece of hose on it.  We rigged it to shoot a stream of water upwards so it landed on the concrete slab and all of us stripped off and began “showering”.  What we hadn’t seen is that a road ran nearby and we were in full view of any passing traffic.  Now it wasn’t the M1 and what was probably the only car to go by that day screeched to a halt, there was some loud and probably indignant Italian shouting and the car moved off again.  Oblivious to local sensibilities, we showered on.

The main body of the exercise troops arrived a couple of days later in a large, massed fleet of vessels.  Everything from an American nuclear powered aircraft carrier to small anti-mine measures vessels.  It was all quite impressive.  From that time onwards there seemed to be aircraft in the vicinity most of the time, practicing all their roles in an amphibious landing.  Our immediate area was out of bounds to them because of the 80 foot masts, but we still had a lot of activity to watch.

The dining facilities were al fresco, all of the units mixing in together to eat whatever the RM cooks provided.  One surprising aspect was that watered down local wine was provided as the cold drink for lunch and evening meals.  A long line of the chrome style tea urns was placed on GS tables, each urn filled with wine with ice added.  The Marines used their black plastic mugs and drank with relish! At the exit from the dining area, the Royal Engineers had created a large rubbish pit for all the garbage from the cookhouse. It wasn’t unusual to see a Marine or some other person (after over-indulging in the chilled refreshment) being rescued from this pit.

We had another smaller pit provided near our location.  At first the REs brought a standard JCB to dig the pit, it couldn’t make much progress.  It was discussed whether to blow a pit using explosives (the REs eyes lit up at this suggestion) but we pointed out it was too close to our equipment and could cause damage to the cabins.  In the end a larger excavator was brought up and duly dug the hole.  The provision of this means of waste disposal would prove to be a painful choice for one of our guys at the end of the exercise.

The exercise settled down for us into the usual routine, shifts and rest days.  On one day we played a football match against the Italian armoured training regiment, which was the resident unit.  The pitch was like concrete with drain covers liberally dotted around it.  We were beaten 5-1 and then invited to their communal mess for refreshments and a meal.  Our hosts provided the first round of beers and we settled down for the meal.  One of our guys bought the second round of beers, they were not expensive as they were subsidised by their Army.  We all ate and drank and our boys waited for another round to come our way, alas it didn’t happen. A few enquiries were made and we found out that the Italian soldiers were all conscriptions on national service and not very well paid.  They had pooled their cash to buy the first round.  Anyway we then proceeded to buy the beer as grateful guests.  Most of the Italians had a couple more and then retired for the evening. Not wishing to see waste, we finished the beers and returned to our location.

I remember the Foreman of Signals from the Brigade Signal Squadron arriving at our site and asking for some help with sorting out an FFR Land Rover which was blowing fuses.  Apparently his techs were spread out all over the place and this vehicle was assigned to one of the Commando hierarchy.  I had a look and explained that to trace the cause I would have to disconnect all the harness boxes and then reconnect in order to isolate the errant unit.  The FoS said he didn’t have time for that and asked to borrow a large screw driver.  He then removed the largest fuse from the distribution box and jammed the screwdriver into the fuse holder.  A large flash followed by copious smoke; the harness was burnt out! He didn’t have to worry about time after that – the FFR had to go back to base workshop.

We had two Royal Marines attached to us, the elder of the pair was called Ray (I forget the younger guy’s name).  Ray was an old hand and been up and down the ranks all his career, currently being a corporal.  The Commandant, RM decided to visit us and we were all to be on best behaviour, we even had to wear uniform, on or off shift.  The Commandant duly arrived with his entourage, had a quick look around and then came to meet the troops.  As soon as he spotted Ray he made a bee line for him and then we found out that when he was on his first posting as a Lt. with Ray his troop corporal!  The rest of us were duly forgotten as they discussed their escapades in the Far East, the Med and I think they mentioned Suez.  Eventually his staff officers had to remind the Commandant that the American admiral was waiting on his flag ship, so off he went.

Apparently the year before the Commando did not make the exercise and our Paras filled in for them.  They were a bit too enthusiastic with their drinking and caused a fair amount of bother with the locals.  At first there was talk of banning all military personnel from the local towns, however somehow this never applied to us.  We had a couple of runs ashore as the Marines say, off shift personnel going into Porto Pino for meals at a local restaurant.  To show us their gratitude for looking after them while their mates did all the amphibious stuff, Ray and his mate volunteered to stay on site with the crypto cabin while we all went into town for our end-of-exercise meal.  We returned to camp to find them sat on the ground, back to back drinking local wine from their black mugs, completely wrecked.  The wine cost us about £5 for a water can full, it took ages to get the smell of wine out of the empty cans.

Returning to our rubbish pit.  When we flew out from the UK, the Hercules loadmaster advised us to get rid of all our insect repellent before loading for the return flight.  The RAF boys didn’t like having opened boxes of the stuff on board.  During the location clear up, we were instructed to place all rubbish in the pit and then burn it, stressing that the bottles of repellent had to be opened and the contents emptied. Now this was a bit of a pain as there were over 200 plastic bottles to be opened and squeezed to empty them.  Towards the end of this thrilling activity, someone decided “sod it just chuck the box in and cover it up” (no one ever owned up!).

Once we had put all the rubbish in the pit, the task of pouring in some petrol and burning it was given to one of our EDs; Sandy Sandford.  He poured in the petrol, lit a rag and threw it in, then poking the top layer with a long pole to get things going.  A few seconds later there was a muffled bang followed by a scream.  The repellent bottles which had not been emptied had exploded and covered Sandy’s upper torso in molten plastic.  His shirt protected some of his skin but we had to send him to HMS Fearless for medical attention.  When he returned he was suffering with quite bad burns and covered in dressings; it took a while for him to get over it.

At the end of the exercise we were told everyone appreciated our signals support and that was it. Pack up, load up and fly to Lyneham.  Tom Haddock 2018 

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