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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Fear of Fear (2)

Continuing with the times in my life when I've been really scared.


I'm not talking about a mild apprehension or even a frisson of icy chill down the spine. 

I'm talking about times that I knew I was going to die.
The loosening of the bowels, the cold sweats, the pounding heart. 

Almost like getting married.
Run you stupid bastard, before it's too late

There was one evening in my Army days.  We were on a night exercise.  Our company had been split in two, one half designated as attackers, and my half designated defenders. (I wasn't commissioned yet, and was just a basic soldier)

We settled ourselves down into our positions, laying out our magazines of blank rounds.  Even the Army wasn't daft enough to issue live rounds during  night exercise with newly trained troops. This was back in the early 70s, and night vision goggles were definitely not available to us. We had some flares, thunderflashes (very,very,big bangers) and some parachute rocket illumination. This last bit of kit was normally called a Schermuly, and was stored in a ready to fire condition in a plastic tube.

Two Schermuly Illuminating rockets in their carry cases

We didn't have a lot of confidence in our new commander, a young and chinless wonder of a second lieutenant.  He didn't exactly exude confidence, and seemed to have great difficulty in coming to any sort of decisions.

Then the other half attacked. It was all quite safe, we were only firing blanks after all.  Lots of bangs and flashes all around us, and our poor little sod of an officer was screeching out commands which made no sense at all.  It was a little bit scary, with all of this noise in a pitch black night, and our Sergeant fired off a Schermuly illuminating flare.  This shot up to about 1000 feet, and started to float down on its parachute.

The attackers were commanded by an experienced Lieutenant, and we could see them under the glare of the parachute flare advancing towards us.  We kept on banging off the blank rounds, no real problem, then it all changed.

The attackers first threw some smoke grenades in front of them, semi-obscuring them. 
Our parachute flare guttered out, and I could hear our sergeant cursing behind us as he found that his expected stock of Schermulys had disappeared.
The attackers began a charge, screaming at the top of their voices.

And then we discovered where all the Schermulys had gone. They'd all been nicked by the attackers when we had split up earlier, and now they were firing them at us.

Regulations say that these rockets should only be fired vertically, but those bastards were holding them on their shoulders and firing them horizontally.

It ceased being funny in any way at all when one of those rockets flew between me and the other bloke in our fighting position.  We were only about 3 feet apart, and the missile made a strange crackling/whooshing noise.  It could have easily have hit either one of us, and seeing that it contained a mixture of magnesium and phosphorus for the flare component, would have been like getting hit by a flamethrower.

The bastards kept firing these rockets at us, and our prat of an officer panicked. The panic spread to us, and within seconds we were a howling mob, running away from those bloody rockets, which were still screeching about.

I've never been more scared.  A mixture of mob panic, adrenaline high, genuine bollock-clenching terror of being hit by one of those deadly missiles.

Usually after an exercise such as this, we'd all get together and do a de-brief and all is forgiven and forgotten between the two temporarily opposing sides. 

But not this time. 

We, the defenders (who by now were well over our panic of the night before) were by now absolutely f*cking furious that:

A. We'd been beaten
B. That the f*cking idiots had been firing those lethal rockets straight at us.
C. We'd panicked

We had to be separated by some other troops in the area, but not before we had made our displeasure plain to see, mostly by physical blows to face and groin.

The Lieutenant in charge of the attackers had a court of enquiry regarding his misuse of the Schermulys, and the bugger got off.

He got a little hand-slap on his record about "Lack of adequate safety preparations" but he also got a huge boost with a "This officer shows grim determination to achieve his objectives, and disregards everything in their pursuit", which for an Army officer is like getting a big gold star on a report.

Well done, you cheating bastard.
I've never panicked to that extent since (with one exception which I will relate on a later post, and is the real reason for this little series on fear), so I suppose the experience was positive overall, but it did teach me a few lessons.

  • Night amplifies fear.
  • Panic is dangerous.
  • Fear is contagious.
  • Bad command leads to bad troops.
  • Life's not fair, and don't always expect the wrongdoer to get punished.

 Next.  Scary things that didn't.


  1. I would have soiled myself. Would have sort of made me like Comeinyourpants.

  2. No. With you the shit is at the other end.

  3. No. With you the shit is at the other end.

  4. See that is the reason I'm glad as we were filling in the forms for me to signup my Dad said "Son you sure about this?" I said "I'm only going in as a bandsman, walk up and down playing an oboe, brilliant"... "er - you might want to check that out"... Quick chat with the officer at the Army careers place indicated "basic weapons training" was needed and I'd be a "stretcher bearer" if the shit hit the fan... which is did a year of two later in a Falklands and I watched a tv report showing two poor sods trying get a guy on a stretcher whilst under fire... that could have been me. My Dad asked just the right question at the right time there you know

  5. Jaysus, that is not cool. I hate it when people act like jerks with explosives.

  6. And I want a Panic and Run Away sign!

  7. Richard: I might have done the same myself. I cannot quite remember.

    TC: HA HA HA.
    TC: squared

    Furtheron: Wise move. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time, I was equally glad to get out.

    Patience_Crabstick: It's not the fooling about with explosives that bothered me, it was having them POINTED at me that really upset me. All my guys just wished we'd had live ammo.

    Austan: I'm a teacher. We have that sign engraved on our psyches.


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