Dryer than a Nun’s fanny

Spent the last week on manouevres with my students. As an English teacher for the French army, I regularly have to accompany my students on manœuvres so as to ascertain their prowess in English on the ground ; Well, nowadays, French soldeirs can serve pretty much anywhere in the world, and no matter where they serve or what they do, English is the common working language. Join me for a week of exercises in the east of France, playing to rôle of an Embedded journalist. I suppose this is no more than a military road movie.

This is John King, BTV defence correspondent, and English teacher, reporting from the frontline and assessing his students in their command of military English.

After weeks of incessant rain, it’s suddenly hot, too hot. My throat is dryer than a nun’s fanny and I have nothing to slake my thirst as I bump along a potholed dusty road in the back of a French army jeep. The radio suddenly crackles into life …

Lima one this is Lima two, message, over

Lima two, send, over

Lima one, unidentified object on road, suspect IED. Stopping convoy . Over.

And the convoy grinds to a halt in the middle of nowhere. I climb down from the jeep, light a cigarette and walk aimlessly up and down, kicking up stones from the dusty road. We could be here for hours waiting for the EOD team to intervene and investigate the suspected IED.

The convoy commander, a young lieutenant, runs frantically up and down the line of trucks and APCs, screaming orders at his troops to take up defensive positions. The soldiers know the drill though, they’ve done it a hundred times before, and even before the frantic rookie officer has told them what to do, they have lazily climbed down from their vehicles and taken up fire positions.

I’m back in the jeep, about drifting off into a sweaty siesta,  suddenly  a loud metallic clang jolts me back in to life. I look to find the cause of my rude awakening.  Someone has opened to roof hatch on the APC in front of me. A shaven head emerges via the hatch – with Rayban firmly clamped to his face and a cigarette seeingly glued to the lower lip, the guy looks almost cool – born to kill. He scans the horizon for insurgents, then submerges into the depths of the vehicle. No enemy, no point in frying his crew cut  in the afternoon sun.

The rookie lieutenant barks orders in the direction of the APC. The Rayban warrior and one of his brothers in arms emerge from the back of the vehicle dragging a heavy machine gun which the lieutenant has ordered them to set up on the top of the APC. Hard work in this heat. The lieutenant screams at the soldiers to put on their combat helmets. They grudgingly oblige muttering something very disrespectful under their breath.

No sign of the EOD team. No sign of the enemy. Who’s going to attack us out here ? Lunar landscape as far as the eye can see, not a tree or a bush anywhere to hide behind. If insuregenst there are, we’ll see them coming from miles off.

In the boredom, the exercise adjudicator reminds me of the scenario – we are a maintenance  team travelling in convoy from the Divisional Support Area to grid reference  – blah blah blah XYZ – I’m crap at map reading and I can’t use a compass. I’d probably even get lost with a GPS – the adjudicatot points a gloved finger at a blob on the map. When we arrive at the blob on the map, we will set up a Forward Support Area to support the forthcoming offensive action to be led by the third or fourth or fifth armoured division in the vicinity of Alphaville in …

Basically we are a mobile garage. It is our job to get to the appointed blob on the map and set up a repair facility before the offensive begins in a few hours time. When the « war » starts it is our job to recover damaged vehicles, bring them back to our garage, patch them and send them back out to fight. And when the first phase of the action is over, we have to shut up shop, follow the troops as they advance and begin the whole bloody rigmarol all over again

In the pre-exercise briefing, the lieutenant was very good on figures, but not so hot on our itinerary. I know that in the first phase of the battle we can expect  35% to 40% losses in men and machines. The lieutenant has calculated the exact number of vehicles he should be able to repair and redespatch, BUT, he doesn’t appear to have worked out the route very well. As we sit here, frying in the sun, blocked by an object no bigger than a biscuit tin (the suspect IED), the execrise adjudicator  decides to call over the lieutenant and ask if he has not  worked out some kind of contingency plan such as an alternative route to get us to the blob on the map.

« Er…. No » comes the reply, more sheepish than a whole herd of sheep attired in thick sheepy sweaters.

Well  (hallellujah) there is an alternative route, just a few kilometres back down the road, however it will mean turning round the entire convoy on this narrow track. A three point turn ? That’s a piece of p*** !!  And so it is in a medium sized, three-door hatchback – but we have huge army trucks and several APCs – the convoy is twenty vehicles long and …

The bespectacled rookie lieutenant removes his helmet, crouches down and … it is a great moment of solitude, I get the feeling that the guy just wants to cry or scream or drive off and abandon us all. Square specs , close cropped hair and still a few pimples, the guy looks more geek than guérilla.

It turns out that he doesn’t have to do anything. The soldiers are clambering back into their various vehicles and turning them round to head back down the track. It’s impressive – my Rayban friend is now at the wheel of a huge truck – cigarette still stuck to his lower lip, he effortlessly manouvres the monster into position. All the other vehicles are doing the same, each almost turning on itself with the strict minimum of moves to face the other way.

All the while, the rookie lieutenant is being assessed.

« You have a go at him » says the adjudicator, urging me on with a cruel smile and a nudge in the ribs.

Time to do my job –  play the journalist and ask annoying questions in English.

The lieutenant is less than happy to answer

« So, what’s the situation ? Where are the EOD team ? What happens now ? »

The rookie LTN stares at me like he hates my guts and rather I weren’t there. He stares at me long and hard. I’m not sure if he is going to punch me, swear at me or just crack up. My questions are the final straw, the mean and miniscule glacé cherry on top of a shitty cake.

In the time that it might take to eat several cakes, the LTN is sillent and red (with heat and possibly rage) – suffice to say that his exercise has been going from bad to worse ever since it started and it started by going in the wrong direction. « Oh, what the f*** if we lose the war, » I’m thinking, just as long as we get back to the camp for dinner. »

« I’m afraid I can’t answer our questions for security reasons »

OH THAT IS SO SMART !!!!! I think to myself. What a classy answer.

Most of this week’s candidates have ummed and ahhed and mumbled and messed up as they try to explain the Situation, Mission, Execution, Support, Command and signal. This guy can’t tell me anything for security reasons. He deserves ten out of ten. If he gets us all back to camp in time for dinner, I’ll give him twenty out of ten.

The vehicles (including the command vehicle, minus the convoy commander) have set off without orders. Our young lieutenant, has to come with us in the observation vehicle.

The adjudicator frowns at the LTN.

« Where should you be lieutenant, »

« In my command vehicle sir . »  (Not sure with the clueless and sheepish slightly child-like rising intonation, if the LTN’s last words are a question or a pathetic affirmation) For another f*** up though, it’s a good one and it’s probably going to be eliminatory (meaning that we’ll finish this exercise well before dinner, meaning also that we can get back to camp, have a shower before dinner and be the first in the dinner queue at the mess, meaning that we might actually get some freshly-cooked food rather than the re-heated leftovers that are served to latecomers when the decent food has run out.)

Sometimes though, the food is just to « left-over » and going hungry is a better alternative than being sick. Last night, I got leftovers – fish, brocoli, cauliflower, a chocalate éclair and a wilted wrinkled apple. Yesterday was Wednesday. We had fish on Monday lunch. Wehad brocoli on Monday dinner and we haven’t had cauliflower since the weekend. How long have the leftovers been left  over ? The éclairs looked okay, but they tasted of soap, so most people left them and we got them for breakfast again this morning. « It shall be served until it is eaten » – the culinary ethos of the army since the huge defence cuts.

And here we are, back in the back of the jeep, following our convoy to the pre-appointed blob on the map and guess what folks – we’ve lost the convoy . The dry lunar road is throwing up so much dust that visibilty is down to …  dust thick as cigar smoke in a small room has reduced visibilty to pea soup fog like zéro – you’d like to see the hand in front of your face but you ain’t quite sure that you’re got hands to see.

In a very unmilitary radio procédure, the convoy commander (who as you may remember should be in his command vehicle in the middle of the convoy but is actually sitting in our vehicle well behind the convoy) gets on the radio and asks (with a long list of unpublishable explétives) « Where are you ? »

Well, I’ll tell you in another post where we were and I’ll tell you if we won the war or not.