It’s good to see Rupert Stevens making the headlines. Rupert was our Adjutant in Afghanistan – a key figurehead in any Regiment and the Commanding Officer’s right hand man. I owe him big because he delayed his own R&R so that I could return to the UK in time for Alfie’s birthday, but it was his very low opinion of the RAF that I remember most:
“I RETURNED TO the barracks to find a group of soldiers standing around their bergans, like so many girls at a school disco, quietly chatting and smoking, their cigarettes glowing in the dark as they patiently waited for the transport to RAF Brize Norton. A voice addressed me from the shadows:
‘Good of you to make it, Chris.’
It was the Adjutant, Captain Rupert Stevens. Rupert had been one of the first Grenadiers I’d met almost two years ago and although he’d always been supportive of my ambition to mobilise with the battalion, that didn’t mean he was averse to a bit of squaddie banter. He informed me that our trooping flight was scheduled for 07.00 the following morning but as this was ‘Crab Air’, army slang for the Royal Air Force, this was not a departure time but a ‘no move before’ time. In his opinion it was anyone’s guess when we might eventually take off.
Rivalry and deep cultural differences between the armed services ensured that Rupert, like all self‑respecting soldiers, did not have a kind word to say about the RAF. Still there was some truth behind his comments. The RAF was trying to maintain a busy air bridge between the UK and Afghanistan using an ageing fleet of Lockheed Tristar aircraft. These had first come into service in 1978 as commercial airliners operated by Pan American Airways who subsequently sold them to the RAF shortly after the Falklands War.
After 34 years of service the Tristar was showing its age and, a bit like myself, was only just about fit for purpose.
Troops had become resigned to long delays in the journey to and from Afghanistan. It’s also fair to say that the RAF, unlike the aircraft’s original owner, is not a customer focussed organisation and puts little thought into the welfare of its passengers. We would all spend many hours experiencing RAF hospitality and it was never enjoyable. Disparaging comments not only helped to pass the time but also managed expectation.
Some months later a much publicised visit to Afghanistan by James Blunt and Catherine Jenkins was cancelled after the Tristar in which they were travelling was forced to abort and return to Cyprus, not once but twice, with first an air leak and then a problem with the undercarriage. James Blunt, himself a former soldier, was not impressed and wrote an uncomplimentary article in The Telegraph which delighted the rank and file but angered the top brass, who disputed his claims of military incompetence. For Rupert, who had been tasked with organising this visit and who had boasted for days about his self‑appointed role as Catherine Jenkins’ personal assistant, this would only serve to confirm his already very low opinion of the RAF.
Ironically, despite his obvious frustration, the RAF had actually done James a favour. So far as I could tell, Rupert had invested considerable time and effort preparing a detailed and comprehensive visit programme for Catherine in which he intended personally to take care of her every need and desire. By contrast he’d assumed ‘Blunty’ would doss down in the honking transit accommodation and sort himself out.”
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.