Note. First published in the Life after Boy’s School section of the RAOC
Junior Leader’s site. John McGuiggan was on No 16? Phot 2/2A course (Hist579)
and on No 16 Phot 1/1A course (Hist559). When asked
how a photographer became a Barrister
at Law at law in Dublin he said “It
just developed that way”
This time, a fairly lengthy
attachment with the Royal Navy. In bonnie Scotland no less. On the windswept
flatlands of the Scottish North Eastern Coast. Lossiemouth. It was a Royal Naval
Air Station and almost brand spanking new, with the most outstanding buildings
and facilities, massive state of the art aircraft hangers, a newly laid and
enormously long runway, pristine accommodation with about 6 to 8 men in
comfortable centrally heated rooms full of light and attractively furnished. A
NAAFI bar and nightclub that would match anything, anywhere in any town or city
in the country. A few thousand matelots and a fine body of WRENS, or was it a
lot of WRENS with fine bodies. The later I think.
We were just a few army lads, all RAOC, and all with a bit of time under our belts, pongos they called us, cast adrift from the Corps, amongst the Fleet Air Arm’s finest.
They were operating and training on Buccaneers, great brutes on the ground but wonderfully sleek predator fighter/bombers in the air. Not a particularly safe aircraft as about four or five went down during the attachment, although that might have been inexperience on the part of the trainee pilots. The crews of four of the aircraft safely ejected but the fifth flew straight as an arrow, fast as a bullet, and smack into the hard Scottish earth with both pilot and navigator lost. They were flying round the clock, night and day, day and night. More often than not there was an Aircraft Carrier out in the North Sea and they practiced endless approaches, endless landings, and endless takeoffs. Hairy work.
We were photographers
and did a fair old bit of flying ourselves. Air to Air work. Air to ground work. We flew in a wide assortment of naval aircraft, including the Buccaneers. In effect we were made honorary matelots for the attachment period and were obliged to partake in all the Navy traditions. For example, we were forced, under the threat of naval discipline, to drink tots of rum every single day. We were equally forced to take our due ration of Navy fags, a form of currency on the Air Station.
We fitted in rather well and suffered no obvious discrimination despite being but a few in khaki amongst so many in blue. There was an amateur dramatic group on the Air Station, the Buccaneer Theatre Group, and I was induced, by the presence of so many lovely WRENS, to become an actor. We went into immediate rehearsals for a searing dramatic production set in 1950’s Australia called “The Shifting Heart” written by Richard Beynon” I was cast in the part Detective Sgt. Lukie, a hard bitten, hard drinking Australian policeman who reduces a murder suspect, at the end of Act 1, to a quivering wreck. The Act was to close with me having grilled the suspect into a pathetic confession, then as I left the interrogation room, at the door, turning back to the broken suspect, and saying in my best Australian accent “..Trouble with you mate, is you’ve got a bloody chip on your shoulder as big as a bloody battleship..” Critics of the play, and there were many, suggested my Australian accent was not quite genuine or that I sounded like a Scotsman recently immigrated into Australia. There was some truth to this, for my favorite accent has always been that of a Scotsman – but one must put up with such critics in life.
My performance on the final night was somewhat marred by another ancient mariners tradition that we were forced to endure. The compulsory drinking of tots of rum was occasionally enlivened by a practice, as old as Nelson, known as sippers. This was triggered whenever someone on your mess deck had cause for celebration, perhaps the birth of a child; a birthday; an engagement; a promotion, a divorce – the list was somewhat lengthy and rather flexible. I cannot recall now, at this distant remove, what was the occasion that obliged me to take sippers on that eventful afternoon. It may well have been just because it was the last night of the play. I resisted too many sippers, on the grounds that I was to perform later that evening, not just in the final night of the play but also on the night when the Scottish Amateur Dramatic Society Association was to make an adjudication of our performance for the annual National Dramatic Society Championship competition. My protests only encouraged more sippers to be pressed upon me. But I kept it within reasonable limits. Or so I thought.
Critical voices were later to say that on that final night of the play my Scottish/Australian accent was slightly blurred. That would not have particularly mattered, as I was in fact supposed to be both a hard-bitten and a hard drinking Aussie detective. But at the end of Act one, with my murder suspect suitably cowed, broken and quivering , I walked towards the door of the interrogation room to make my dramatic exit, I turned:- “…Trouble with you mate” I said, “is that you’ve got a bloody battleship on your shoulders as big as a bloody chip..”
A lesser man would have given up Amateur dramatics after that. But I am made of stupider stuff, and would go on, in the years to come, to perform in several military dramatic groups ending my career with the fabulous Tidworth Players. I had discovered that such groups facilitated meeting with very attractive women. Indeed in Tidworth I was once cast in a love scene with the very slim wife of a cavalry colonel. The scene involved a great deal of snogging and the snogging required endless rehearsal, both on and off stage. I probably snogged the colonels wife a lot more than he ever snogged her himself….I believe there was gossip in the mess…
Meanwhile, back in bonnie Scotland there were, I’m afraid, no snogging scenes. In fact after the final night (in which we did not win the National championships) I was never cast in any part again and was relegated to working with props and lights. I was not entirely devastated as the Theatre Group continued to attract the loveliest of the WRENS, but I did rather lose my taste for rum. Not difficult to do whilst living in Scotland, for all who reside there, either permanently or just on attachment, eventually and inevitably succumbed to the superior joys of whisky.
We were required as part of our final photographic portfolio to prepare industrial architectural photographs - interior and exterior, close up macros, tabletop still life’s, landscapes, character studies, photo “stories”, aerial photographs, and amongst other things, to make a film. My own final submission included an aerial photograph of a whisky distillery, architectural studies of the interior and exterior of the same whisky distillery, close-ups of fermenting grain, table studies of a range of bottles of whiskey, a fine portrait of a barrel maker and a great landscape of the fast running river that supplied water for the distillery, together with a film, of the ancient process of making whiskey. And they were all in focus. To this day I remain a world renowned whisky connoisseur. And I have a wonderful Scottish accent.
Another article by John on winter warfare in 1968 again first published in the RAOC Junior Leader’s site
“In Norway I was tasked to make training
film of military equipment operating under winter warfare conditions – short
clips of, for example, modified grenades that didn’t sink into the snow,
sledges adapted for anti-tank weapons, winter engine covers for helicopters and
so on. http://i139.photobuc...wigged/3Flt.jpg
Cold intense work involving a lot of contact with different types of combat units. I was billeted in a shared hotel room in Voss, a noted Norwegian ski- resort, taken over by the military as the centre for NATO winter warfare training.
By comparison with the poor bloody
infantry, or come to that the poor bloody artillery and every other poor bloody
sod, we had a most comfortable time of it, for they, poor sods, were out there
in the bitter incessant cold with little respite from the discomfort of wet ice
and snow. Although Voss had become a virtual military garrison with
the slopes being used to train soldiers to ski and the small hotels and guest
houses taken over by headquarters staff there remained a great deal of civilian
workers and residents. There was even a good attendance of Norwegian holiday
makers, although it can’t have been too nice a holiday venue with the
streets full of military vehicles and soldiers in winter camouflage suits. http://i139.photobucket.com/albums/q306/bewigged/B0000298.jpg
I was out in the field and up in the mountains most days, returning to Voss late in the evenings. I would eat with the units to which I was attached, more often than not at the Voss Airfield where the Army Air Corps were ensconced and with whom I was being transported around the various units.
Of course, I fell in love again. Gunn was her blunt sounding Viking/Lutheran name, a student working in the Hotel for her winter vacation. She was tall, as only Norwegians are tall, blonde as only Norwegians are blond, with the most beautiful blue eyes and Wagnerian breasts. There was a Beatles song around at the time, Norwegian Wood, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…” I chatted her up by asking her if she wanted to be in my movie, although exactly what role a tall Norwegian Wagnerian breasted blonde could play in a training clip of military equipment operating under winter warfare conditions was not entirely clear. I used to sing the lyrics of the song to her while we danced the slow numbers in the hotel disco. “She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere..” I even sang them in a slightly Scottish/Norwegian accent, but it was of no use. This Norwegian wouldn’t. It’s their strict Lutheran upbringing that keeps them off the booze and out of your bed. But she was very nice and we remained great friends. After we left she wrote to me for a year or so and her English had a poetic quality, somewhat like that of the French Manchester United player, what was his name, Cantona,. She was a poet in the Cantana sense. Here’s one of the cards we exchanged. http://i139.photobucket.com/albums/q306/bewigged/dearscoop.jpg
Scoop, I should confess, was a nickname I had acquired on foot of my photographic adventures, a bit daft I know, but it sounded terribly sexy in her deep Norwegian Viking accent. “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh, I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath, And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown…”
But there was plenty of adventures out in the field.
An infantry unit, might have been the Marines, was testing wire guided anti tank missiles up the high mountains. The camera was trained on the missile operator and I followed the missile exiting the launcher and panned as it flew towards its target, camera swings back to the operator, who for some reason was frantically thumbing the wire guiding trigger in a bit of a panic, back to the missile.. It had performed a complete U-turn and was now flying back straight back down the range towards the firing position. Fortunately the operator regained control and guided it safely into the snow long before it reached us. Made a great training clip though.
A helicopter, a Scout, flying slow and low, following the path of a frozen river. Me on the river-bed, thigh deep in snow, filming the winter skid pad modifications. As it flew towards me it disturbed a small heard of great Norwegian Moose who panicked in a wild stampede, straight towards trembling me. The pilot saw the danger and used his machine to shepard the beasts into a panic stampede in the opposite direction. Training clip a bit too shaky to be of any practical use.
We all came home from Norway with deer skins, the officers with polar bear skins, lots of us had funny sealskin boots and traditional, rather silly, Norwegian cardigans and there were troll dolls on every locker in Tidworth, just to remind us that Norway was once again, safe from the Soviets… “