Royal Marines

This is the start of my ‘career’ as a soldier and I’m the first on the left on the bottom row. Of this group, only six went on to get their Green Beret.

‘He’s a streak of piss’ is what the NCOs called me at first in Lympstone. But after a while, it changed to ‘he’s a bit lean’, which was a good thing.

At 17 and a bit, I was working in a bank’s FX department and not enjoying it. So one day I went along to the Royal Marines recruiting office, as I wanted to do something that was different, testing, fun and possibly have some adventure.

The old sweat of a sergeant behind the desk told me: ‘they were full up and not recruiting so come back next year’.

‘Full up, come back next year, but it’s only June!’

As I was standing outside deciding what to do next he came out for a fag and saw me there looking a bit lost. He called me over and said: ‘why not join the RMR (Royal Marine Reserve) and then transfer over when we’re recruiting again.’

‘RMR, never heard of it’.

Anyway, I did just that and got my Green Beret in the RMR – also my parachute wings – and eventually got to leave my steady job in the bank and ‘go regular’ under a test scheme where they allowed us to volunteer for service, with different units. As part of this, I deployed to Norway with 42 for Winter and Arctic Warfare training, Canada with 43 and then out with 42 again to Hong Kong to sit on the Chinese border.

I also went on various courses and deployments around the UK and with the Dutch Marines in Holland. It was a good way to see the world and do exciting things. I only have a few photos from this time as most of us couldn’t afford a watch never mind a camera.

Me at a friend’s wedding wearing my Blues.

Here are a few from Hong Kong

Me coming up through one of the fort doors. These forts were spread along the Chinese border to act as strong points if anything happened. If it had all kicked off and the Red Guard stormed the border and took Hong Kong back by force, we would all be dead on the first day.

One of the forts on a hill looking like it’s a bit part in the film Apocalypse Now.

The Red Guards on the other side made sure that we could not talk to the labours working on the road.

Mark Maskell trying in a very British soldier’s way to make friends with the ‘enemy’ on the Chinese border.

Smile, throw sweets and then smile again. Might work?

They just stared back at us in what I think was complete incomprehension as to why we were throwing sweets at them, smiling and then trying to talk to them. NO smiles or talking on their side of the fence and no picking up the offering either. Well, not in daylight.

We lived in the forts, out in the paddy fields, on top of mountains, in tents and above shops in the villages of the New Territories Military Zone.

In the New Territories before a night patrol.

Some thoughts on why we were there and remember ‘the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there’.

This year (2017) I meet an ex-Grenadier Guard who was in Hong Kong just before my time but was there for two years as part of the garrison battalion. The Garrison was there for 2 a year stretch and mixed with the Chinese in the New Territories and Hong Kong itself. Because of this, they were used for more humanitarian problems. We were there to catch people and send them back – due to the massive influx of the ‘Boat People’ and Illegal Immigrants crossing the border. He and I did a little reminiscing about the China Fleet Club and all the fun side of it – as soldiers do.

We touched upon the reason we were there, to keep out illegal immigrants who were trying to cross the border to get a better life. It was not a pleasant job, as we were sending people back who would then have a terrible time for trying to escape the ‘workers paradise’. Looking back at what we did it was clear that it was not part of the liberal world we both live in now. And it is not something we are proud of or discuss with anyone else unless they were there and had lived in that time and place.

I could joke about how it makes me feel a bit like the German who ran the railways and said ‘all I did was carry out orders’. But as a joke, it’s a bit close to home.

On my return from Hong Kong, one of my deployments led me eventually to take up diving and try to get a job as a commercial diver.

After returning from Hong Kong I volunteered to work with the SBS on exercise in the Scilly Isles and Cornwall and it gives you an idea of some of the things we trained to do.

We spent this time training to see if ‘ordinary’ Marines can be trained to carry out specific missions under the command of the SBS. There was an SBS Sergeant in charge of three Marines and we would make up a new four-man team. Small unit stuff and my team’s mission was beach recce.

We spent a week training on a deserted island in the Scilly Isles and were supplied by parachute drops at night out at sea. These drops were interesting in that you went out at night in a Zodiac and waited for a darkened Hercules to fly near, signal and then follow the parachutes down until they hit the sea. You then pulled these on board and headed back to the ‘home island’with the supplies. As I said interesting stuff. My team spent a lot of time learning to canoe, navigate at sea and to recce a beach at night. The canoes were for two men and could be folded – so it’s man-portable. We had to be able to carry these, our dry suits and all we needed to survive in a hostile environment. That was a lot of weight.

We did the beach recce by putting on a dry suit, and then two of us went out from the beach reeling out a line behind us. Every ten yards there was a bead on the line where we stopped and measured the depth by dropping anther another line. Then we marked this on a sheet of glass with a nail. After 100 yards we returned to the beach and reported back our findings. The wire, glass and nail stuck me as a very primitive way to do this and I can only guess/hope they have a bit of high tech kit to do this now.

After a week of this, we were taken by landing craft to just off the Lizard in Cornwall and, to avoid detection, we canoed ashore. We found a place to hide just a couple of miles inland from the beach which we had to recce. Throughout the exercise, we were to be invisible to the ‘natives’ and the police were warned we were there and to report if they had seen us.

After sleeping during the next day we set off at night by canoe and made our way to the beach.  It was a moonless night, blowing a Force 4 and we had to swim out on a heavily surfing beach with our drysuits letting in water from small tears in the seals. I remember cracking the small bottle of oxygen we had to increase buoyancy in the suit and trying to work out how long we had to finish the task before we disappeared under the waves. Back on the beach, we lay upside down to allow the water to run out of the ‘dry’ suits before getting into the canoes and returning to our hiding place. Cold, wet and a bit pleased with ourselves.

We then moved cross country at night to meet up and be evacuated by a Hercules. This being the Royal Marines, it was in the back of a four-ton truck.

After this, I decided that I enjoyed small unit work and I volunteered for the Reserve Squadron of the Special Boat Service (SBS).  I passed the selection course and as I already had my parachute wings, I went next to the Open and Closed Circuit diving course at Poole.

If you don’t know, the closed circuit diving system allows you to re-breath your expelled oxygen through a carbon dioxide filter which is held in a rubber unit on your chest, with two small cylinders of compressed air on your side. They only carried 14 minutes of air, and we aimed to stay down for 80 minutes – by rebreathing our exhaled air. It was a pretty basic bit of kit that hadn’t changed in design since the second world war and it took a very controlled way of swimming underwater so that you didn’t burn much air. Navigation was by compass and all ‘attacks’ were at night. The whole aim was to dive at night in a harbour so that we could attach a mine to a bottom of a ship and then get away undetected. We also fitted in a couple of parachute jumps into the sea.

I didn’t pass this but I didn’t fail. I had to do it again as they wanted me to have more diving experience. So I told them to stuff it.

It was the first thing I had not passed since joining the Marines, and I thought they had this wrong. With hindsight they were right, but hey, when you are 20 you’re allowed to be a bit of a dick. I came out after doing four years in the RMR, including over a year on deployment.

I then spent some time on commercial hard hat diving courses at Fort Bovisand to get enough experience to work in the North Sea. I also went to BOC in Enfield and learned to weld, as you not only had to dive, you had to do something when you were down there! On one of these courses, I experienced what it was like to live in a decompression chamber and I had a severe attack of claustrophobia. I’d always known I was slightly claustrophobic and had gritted my teeth to get through it. I realised that I couldn’t live in a compression chamber for weeks on end, so that was the end of that.

I’d spent the last year trying to find something to do that was exciting and fun and I couldn’t settle down to a 9 to 5 routine job.

England in the late 70s and early 80s seemed to have no economic future and one previous Prime mister had even advised ‘that if I was young I’d emigrate.’ The country seemed to be run by men in old-style suits and there was nothing here for me. I still wanted adventure and looked around to see where I could get it. So I joined the French Foreign Legion.