E Troop E21/R241
Establish a rear link from The Gambia to DCN Stanbridge, UK
14 Signal Regiment was possibly the first British army unit to deploy to The Gambia since the deployment of the Africa Rifles Regiment during World War 2. Officially, the exercise was to do flood relief contingency planning should the River Gambia flood, it appeared to us to be purely a public relations exercise to impress the local population and the aristocracy connected to the British High Commission. On visits up country, the local population thought we had come to put down an insurrection! We also attempted to boost the local economy by drinking as much beer as we could in as many bars and hotels as we could fit in between each shift.
Preparations for this exercise appeared very unusual as we were instructed to keep Cabin 4 as empty as possible until told otherwise. At the very last moment a delivery vehicle arrived at the Norton Barracks equipment garages. It was full of strange packages and cool boxes! “Items for The High Commission” we were told. We proceeded to pack Cabin 4 with such articles as Black Pudding, Ham, Honey, Jam and lots of other UK delicacies (including several crates of beer) that were apparently unavailable in The Gambia. Strange!
The E21and crew were loaded into three Hercules for the outward direct flights from Lyneham to Yundum Airfield (Now Banjul International Airport!) just outside the capital Bathurst (the name was changed to ‘Banjul’ later the same year). Local vehicles were used to move the cabins and gear to site.
The normal hectic rush to set-up and test the equipment followed. As usual the temperatures and terrain did not make for easy erecting of the 80ft masts and ‘Sloping-Vee’ antennas. Once the equipment was up and running, the off-shift crews went to find the accommodation. In this case it was to be in a police training camp on the outskirts of Bathurst.
We were given some unfinished married quarters to live in, which were very basic (just somewhere to put our personal gear, sleeping bags and camp-beds really) but did the job.- SNCO’s upstairs – OR’s downstairs! Thankfully there were showers and toilets in a nearby block which improved the situation a little.
The camp itself was only 5 minutes’ walk from the coast where the local kids fished from the rocks.
The admin and logistics were left to Ray Heeley to sort out. He was just like a character out of The Great Escape. If Ray couldn’t get it then it wasn’t worth getting. He was the sort of person that you would want with you if you were ever in a tight corner but the chances were, he put you there in the first place! The Admin Team had set up the cookhouse and field kitchen in a disused building on the camp, close to the accommodation. A ‘refreshment area’ was soon in operation with the off-shift card school a daily feature. For those first-timers on exercise with Ray, playing in these games could prove expensive and old hands tended to give them a miss.
A Communication Centre, run by Sgt Fred Almond, was set up in a classroom in the barracks. As the radio equipment site was a little distance away from the Comcen and accommodation area it was necessary to install lines between the site and camp. The ED team under Sgt Earl Ferguson took responsibility for laying these (over half a mile of D10 wire). Although Earl was of African ancestry, he misplaced his hat and suffered the embarrassment of sunburn on his balding head for several days after.
There were no major equipment problems and the exercise seemed to go well with the shift pattern quickly settling into a steady routine. The crews, although predominantly from D Troop, were augmented by some E Troop who were attached, and a smattering of ‘new faces’. Everyone fitted in well though, and off-duty time was enjoyed.The Gambian Government re-valued the currency by 25% just prior to our arrival (Was it to take advantage of the sudden increase in visitors?), which gave us a few monetary problems as the LOA had not been set to account for it. However this did not interfere too much with our time there.
One of the major exporting industries of The Gambia at that time was Peanuts (groundnuts)! We assumed small nuts for locals, medium nuts for Europeans and, of course, big nuts for the American market. A feature of this industry was the huge brown piles of the things drying and awaiting shelling and packaging. They seemed to be everywhere.
Tourism and package holidays to The Gambia were a very small industry in 1973. Most of the European tourists were Scandinavian and were accommodated in the two modern hotels in Banjul (Fujara and Sunwings Hotels). It was here, whilst getting refreshments in the poolside bars after a relaxing swim, that the off-duty crews could admire the blond, topless young ladies sunbathing. Watching the topless water polo matches was also a very rewarding pastime!
Not all off-duty was spent in Banjul, many of the team got involved with other things. Two of the crew, Chris Edler and Chic Moir, felt adventurous and thought it would be a good plan to canoe up The River Gambia to do some exploring and began to organise some boats and guides, unfortunately The British High Commission put a stop to it on ‘Health & Safety grounds. (Too much danger from the crocodiles was the reason given!)
Dave Poole and Brian (Ethers) Etheridge were tasked with putting up a copper wire antenna at the High Commission House to improve reception of the BBC World Service. The High Commissioner gave Ethers a packet of fags and both of them a Tenants beer, saying that our OC had got these for him. Surplus stock from Cabin 4, no doubt!
Tab Hunter, Chris Whitehead and Ethers walked into a local village trying to find a bar. They were greeted by several of the elder men. Chris noticed that a supposed poor country they all seemed to be dressed in designer jeans, Nike trainers and Manchester United football shirts. That should have been enough to scare them off. They were taken to the Chief of the village who introduced them to his 12 daughters and hinted that for a couple of Goats and a six pack of Herforder it would be our lucky day.
A full tour of the village followed, which included a trip down to the beach to meet the fishermen. The smell of rotting fish lying on the beach covered in flies made them feel like throwing up but to avoid insulting the Chief, managed to hold it back. Just when they were thinking that they could get away and get on with their search for a pub, the Chief decided he would invite them to dine with the elders of the village.
They were all sat down on the floor when the villages brought in a large bowl of rice. So far so good but then to accompany the rice in came a huge dish of the very same stinking fish r seen earlier on the beach. Finally they were given something to drink. Unfortunately it had no alcoholic content. It was warm curdled goat’s milk that was spiced up with fruit to take away the rancid taste. Chris made up some excuse that his religion forbade him to eat fish or drink milk but was allowed to eat some of the rice. Tab who had travelled the world, was quite at home and got stuck in with his hands just like the locals and Ethers would eat anything!
As the meal progressed you could see that Tab and Ethers were struggling to keep the food down. The crunch came when they both took a large swig of the curdled milk and the trio had to make a rapid exit. All that could be heard from the back of the building was Tab throwing up which set everybody else going. Ethers just licked his lips and wanted to go back for seconds.
Other Troop members had similar experiences. Having watched the local kids fishing off the rocks, using string with a hook and silver paper or feathers and catching small fish, Orph Mable joined them for an afternoon. An essential part of Orph’s exercise equipment was his beach caster rod and reel which made him a bit of a hero amongst the kids, who were great fun to be with. Eventually he did catch a fish of some size and decided to give it to the family who lived in the quarter opposite our accommodation. In return, the husband insisted that Orph join the family for dinner.
Not knowing what to expect, Orph went, recalling other’s experience with curdled goat’s milk, taking a couple of bottles of beer for the bloke. The meal was excellent, a type of (fresh) fish curry. The family did not eat until Orph, as the guest, had eaten sufficient. After the meal, the bloke, a serving policeman, explained about his life in the police and showed pictures of his girlfriend (NOT his wife – very strange).
Fred Almond had a scary experience when he took photographs of a local group working in paddy fields. They thought he had captured their ‘spirit’ and would have been beaten up had he not taken out the film and destroyed it….advised to do so by one of the group who had worked in UK. Another time he went to visit a ‘church’ in the capital Banjul only to find it was a brothel….and got chased by a horde of women looking for his services (and money). Well, it did have a cross on the roof!
Fred and a small team of lads, went up country to the Senegal border and helped the locals dig a well. Fred was later invited by the local Imam to sit on the dais and take part in the birth of Mohammed celebrations. He didn’t understand a word of what was going on but stayed there for 24 hours as he didn’t wish to offend, but did give Batutes (loose change) ensuring that he didn’t part with any Dalasias (notes). Apparently he was only the second ‘white’ man to be invited to do so and the first was in the early 1900’s and he was converted! Fred was later praised on Gambia Radio as ‘the white man who comes from London and gives to the poor of The Gambia’.
As part of the public relations the British High Commission laid on a garden party. All off-duty personnel were expected to attend. The military were tasked with supplying the alcohol and the BHC would organize the buffet. Once again Ray Heeley somehow managed to arrange for numerous barrels of beer and lager to be delivered along with bottles of spirits. It was all funded by the MOD. I don’t think the Embassy had heard of the regiment’s reputation for enjoying their selves and we cleared the buffet and drank most of the alcohol.
The next morning, and very hung-over, we were all ordered with full kit to parade outside. Somebody had stolen the BHC Flag and the local police inspector who had been at the garden party had concluded the culprit must have been a member of the regiment. Ray Heeley had fiercely defended our reputation for honesty and to prove his point insisted that the police inspector searched every member of the regiment that had been at the party.
Stood out front with his familiar brown leather briefcase, he made us all empty the contents of our rucksacks out so that the police could walk round checking. Eventually the police inspector admitted that he could have been wrong and maybe one of the locals had taken the flag. Several weeks later, after we had returned to the UK, the BHC Flag appeared on the Crew Room wall next to a brown leather briefcase and Ray Heeley with a big smile.
At the end of the exercise, the equipment was packed up, and with all our accommodation stores, taken to the airfield to await the arrival of the three Hercules. Everything was ready by mid-morning, but we were then informed that the planes had not yet set out from Lyneham. The OC, making an executive decision, took the troop to the beach to await a new arrival time. Unfortunately, Orph, who was responsible for the crypto, and an ED had stay with the kit. Not best pleased, having to sit on the side of the runway through the heat of the day without shade, the two settled down for a long wait.
Waiting was surprisingly soon over however, as planes came into view flying in formation and approaching the airfield. After landing and learning of the situation, the aircrews were far from chuffed! There was also ‘bad news’ for the OC, as there would not be enough room on the planes to take everyone and some would be going back on a later flight. While the loadmasters plus the two troop members loaded the equipment using our single landrover, accompanied by lots of huffing and puffing, the senior pilot went off to try to locate the Troop.
The aircrew insisted that we rush as they had to be back in UK that evening. The planes were fully loaded and fuelled when the beach party finally got back, so we set off immediately. Whilst the rest of the troop that had found room were confined to the noisy and uncomfortable hold of the aircraft, Orph and the ED were treated like royalty, with seats on the flight deck of the lead aircraft for the whole flight. Boxed sandwiches (death-packs) were given to the troops, but Orph and the ED were given spare flight crew cooked meals, with tea and coffee on-tap. Justice served!
On arrival in Lyneham, we went through an unusually rigorous customs check, despite the lateness of the hour. Unfortunately, Cabin 4 was not completely ‘empty’; much to the embarrassment and cost to the OC Squadron. Once back at Norton Barracks, the Crew Room had yet another trophy. It appeared that Ray Heeley had also ‘liberated’ a very rare (at that time) Gambian Flag from the flagpole at Yundum Airfield.
The single guys ‘volunteered to be the ones who would be on the later flight home and would stay in The Gambia. Not expecting to be out there any longer and Orph having won most of the remaining money we all had, including somebodies watch, none of us had any money left.
Back in the barracks, penny-less and playing cards for matches, somebody was having a moan and mentioned that Ray Heeley had even left a box of 12 bottles of Bacardi for us to take back for him. That was it – the party began and they soon polished off the lot. To avoid them arriving back to an immediate bollocking they filled all the bottles up with water.
When they did arrive back at Lyneham a couple of days later, Ray was waiting and wanted his box of Bacardi so that he could pay the customs duty on it. They didn’t have the heart to tell him he was paying for a box of water. At the next troop do, a smiling Ray announced that he had a surprise for us and produced a box of Bacardi. He said it just happened to be left over from the Gambia’s High Commission party and as a treat he had even paid the duty on it. We had to pretend all night it was really strong stuff, and all Ray kept saying was it was a bad batch and just tasted like water to him!
Memories – Fred Almond, Brian Etheridge and Orph Mable