Henry Bodkin reports for The Telegraph that there is no hot water or central heating for the Guardsmen on duty at Buckingham Palace.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Queen’s guard and they routinely put up with much worse but it’s symptomatic of the state of disrepair and neglect that is undermining our Armed Forces.
I WAS WOKEN by the alarm on my smart phone which told me it was 6am. The touch screen briefly illuminated my surroundings before I reflexively stabbed the dismiss button and was once again plunged into darkness. I lay on my back, disoriented by sleep, momentarily uncertain of my surroundings. It was bitterly cold and as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom I could see my breath condensing above me. I was tempted to roll over and go back to sleep when an enormous bald head came into view. The enormous head was attached to an enormous neck which in turn was attached to an enormous torso and two enormous, heavily tattooed arms. The head spoke, revealing enormous tombstone teeth:
“Sir, you snore like a fucking bastard. If it wasn’t so fucking cold last night I would’ve got up and fucking strangled you.”
I didn’t doubt him for a moment. The man mountain was Glenn Haughton, the Regimental Sergeant Major of the First Battalion Grenadier Guards. Glenn appeared part human part beast, caught in a perpetual semi‑transformative state between Dr Bruce Banner and The Incredible Hulk, at the point where his clothes no longer fit his outsize body but just before his skin turns green. I’d first met Glenn in Canada the year before and I knew he had a temper to match. Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. I was prepared to go to enormous lengths to avoid antagonising the big man and made a mental note to find alternative lodgings as soon as possible.
It was December 2011. I had driven up from London in freezing fog the night before to the Stanford Training Area in Thetford to join the Grenadiers for the last phase of their collective training. This would be the final OPTAG assessment before the headquarters team, of which I was a part, would deploy to Afghanistan in January 2012. It would also be my first opportunity to meet the new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel James Maurice Hannan Bowder, MBE.
It was gone midnight when I reported to the guardroom at Wretham Camp. From there I was driven to Smokers Hole FOB, a purpose built Forward Operating Base on the training area which housed the battalion operations room and would be my home for the next few days. I was shown to a large tent, already occupied by a dozen or so somnolent figures, and invited to make myself comfortable. Inside the tent it was well below freezing and pitch black. With encouragement from some of the anonymous figures in the dark to shut the fuck up, I did my best to silently extract my sleeping bag from my bergan and find a space to get my head down.
After my encounter with the Sarn’t Major the following morning, sleep was beyond me and so I quickly pulled on my combat trousers and Helly Hanson fleece top in an attempt to conserve body heat. As I fumbled with the laces of my boots with fingers numbed by cold I noted that since my last outing with them the Grenadiers had been issued the new multi‑terrain pattern (MTP) uniforms which were now being worn in Afghanistan. I would not be issued with the new clothing, which was a much lighter shade of green than my own, for another couple of weeks. In the meantime I was going to stand out like a sore thumb, further highlighting my reserve status amongst these full‑time soldiers.
Wash and shave kit in hand I went in search of the Puffing Billy, otherwise known as the M67 Army Liquid Fuel Immersion Heater. This is a genius piece of kit, originally of US design, dating back to 1943. Nicknamed the ‘Kitchen Mortar’ by US troops it consists of an old metal dustbin filled with water to which is clamped a diesel fired drip fed immersion heater with an enormous chimney. The Puffing Billy can produce a good quantity of hot water suitable for washing and shaving purposes, albeit with a greasy slick of diesel on the surface, but it takes a brave man to light one.
The preferred method being to throw a lighted match down the chimney and run like hell.
Sadly there was to be no hot water that morning. Not because there was no man brave enough to throw the match amongst these battle hardened soldiers but because it was so cold the diesel had started to wax and would not flow. I resigned myself to a cold shave and wandered over to a bowser where a man was breaking the ice on its surface to get to the water below. We both collected a bowl of frigid water and shared a wooden trestle table to wash and shave in silence. The ground on which we stood was still white with frost but this did not deter my companion from stripping to the waist to complete his ablutions. I felt no desire to follow his example. Keeping my Helly Hanson zipped to the neck, my own administrations were far less thorough. It was only when the stranger beside me pulled on his shirt that I noticed the distinctive Crown and Bath Star rank slide that denoted his status as the Commanding Officer.
It was my new boss.
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.
‘The best book by a soldier concerning the Afghan War that I have read’
Frank Ledwidge, bestselling author of Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood
‘SPIN ZHIRA vividly conveys the disjointed essence of modern warfare and the impossibility of balancing the adrenaline of combat with ‘normal’ life. This book brims with authenticity and dark humour.’
Patrick Hennessey, bestselling author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club and Kandak
‘If you want to read about political and military success in Afghanistan, this book isn’t for you. If you want a fresh perspective from someone who is not a career officer and who is brave enough to bare his soul, then SPIN ZHIRA is a must read.’
Lt Col Richard Dorney, bestselling author of The Killing Zoneand An Active Service
SOLDIER The official magazine of the British Army
‘A journey of love, service and adventure. Excellent.’