Thilo

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 32

"What do you think he meant when he talked about sending a report of the Home Office, Jimbo?"


We were all sitting around sipping mugs of tea and occupying whatever space we could find in Pete's room when Alun popped the question.

Breakfast was a while away yet, and the last couple of days of early starts had screwed with our body-clocks.

"I'd have to ask my old chap, Al.

Best guess? We're issued with firearms, - we take to the hills and are expected to use them to defend ourselves and the powers that be in Whitehall, who probably think we'll go on a shooting spree, raid banks and hold folk to ransom, need to be pacified."

"So, you've no concerns then?"

"No. Should I? It makes sense if you think about it. Check regularly to make sure some collection of delinquents aren't misbehaving themselves or if they've taken Cumbria by storm then declared it a republic, otherwise disarm them!"

"I guess so, but the thing is, I feel comfortable doing this now, it doesn't feel like it's out of the ordinary to be carrying."

"And that troubles you, right?"

"No, but after everything calms down and we have to hand them in, I think I'll miss it."

Thilo, who had been listening intently to this exchange, decided to pitch in with his own views on the matter.

"First, I get the feeling we're some distance from there. I'm sure the powers that be are doing everything they can; after all, there's nothing to be gained by sitting back and waiting, but we've not heard anything since we got back, so I think we're a while away from being stood down."

"That brings with it its own problems though.

What if, once we've done with our finals next year there's still no real outcome? We'll be going our separate ways, and as individuals we'll be vulnerable. There'll be no one to turn to, no backup and no intelligence to help us."

"I don't believe that's going to happen. My belief is that whoever it is will become so frustrated that they'll do something crazy and launch an all-out offensive before too long.

I also believe that the authorities think this is likely which is why we're getting all this training. Why else do they move most of the school to Shap-whatever it is, suspend us from all formal education thus putting at risk decent exam results if they had the situation under control?"

"True, but neither scenario has me jumping for joy!"

"Have you ever seen anyone here jumping for joy?"

"No!"


Breakfast over. Mediocre at best, but it was better than Combo rations, and we made our way across the grounds, assembling in the Brigade room where we were met by a very hungover Mr Collins.

"Pushed the boat out last night, and I feel like shit!"

I bit my tongue. I wanted to show the new 'me' and keep my mouth shut.

Mr Collins looked at me before speaking again.

"Aren't you going to comment, Steve?"

"No Sir, but you do look rather grey."

"Is that it?"

"For now, Sir."

"Come on. Get it out of your system, man!"

"In that case, you look like a cold turd, and given the choice, I'd rather eat a warm one...... Sir."

"That's more like it? Normal service is resumed!

Okay then. Today is going to be gentle. I think that we've done enough rough stuff for now, so what is on today's agenda is driving training. We're going to teach all of you how to handle our Sherman and, for those of you who didn't drive it yesterday, - the half-track.

Questions?"

Charlie Spencer-Patterson raised his hand.

"Problem Charlie?"

"I've only just turned fifteen Sir."

"And?"

"I'm not allowed to drive for almost two years."

"Don't you mean legally drive?"

"Yes…… I guess."

"I won't be asking you to hit the public highways, but what might you do if say, James took a bullet in the stomach? You're unable to completely stop the bleeding. He needs hospitalisation if he's to survive.

Next to you is the only serviceable vehicle to hand but, oh dear. James will have to snuff it because I don't have a driver's licence."

"Give me the keys!"

"More attitude. I like it!

Oh God, my head hurts!"


We had been told to make our way behind the Brigade room to the building that housed our half-track and elderly Sherman tank.

Inside were three men dressed in army coveralls who were head deep working on the Sherman, and another, a Corporal, who was sitting at a table sifting through some papers.

He looked up from his work as we walked inside.

"Our lads for diving instruction, are you?"

Henry, who had lead the way, answered him.

"That's us, like lambs to the slaughter!"

"Piece of piss, honestly.

Who's the senior rank?"

I moved to the front and introduced myself.

"Steve Broadhurst, WR2.

Behind me is Staff Sergeant Thilo Roker, Sergeant Alun Rhys-Jones and the rest don't count 'cos they're a bunch of wankers!"

"I'm Corporal Tom Ainsley and I'll be your driving instructor once the lads are happy that the Sherman's okay. Lance Corporal Ted Spires who will be along in a moment, will take those of you with little or no driving experience out with the half-track, but while we're waiting, take one of these forms each, fill out your details and the extent of your experience so I have a better handle on how we split you up."

Julian, Henry, Charlie and Cliff all had a little experience but said they lacked confidence behind the wheel, the rest of us thought that the half-track shouldn't pose a problem, but everyone apart from me who had driven a digger, had no experience when it came to something like the tank.

Like track laying diggers, the Sherman was steered by using joysticks, but then, you're up in a cab with good visibility in a digger, whereas in the tank, you have to look through a slit about fourteen inches wide by three inches tall if you were in a combat zone, and with a massive diesel engine thundering away inches behind your head, I didn't admit to having any experience at all!

We watched as the half-track took off over the parade ground towards the barren fields that separated the school from the Fells; the boys would have a lot of fun today and I envied them. My nervousness of large vehicles such as the John Deere seemed so very childish now. I was going to drive something that dwarfed it like wondering if you could actually eat all of the twelve-ounce rump steak you'd ordered only to find that you had no option but to eat an entire thirty-two ounce one complete with chips, onion rings and a sizable side salad or get sent to Hell and Damnation for all eternity.

Sod it.

That was probably where I was headed for anyway.


We had to wait around for about another half-hour before the engineers were happy that the Sherman wouldn't run out of puff in the middle of nowhere, so during that time we were treated to a short training video that went into some detail about the Sherman's controls.

Everyone on board had to wear helmets with in-built headsets and microphones so we could communicate between ourselves.

Over open ground, and all assuming we weren't met by hostile forces, a crew member would sit up top in the turret and guide the driver left or right, slow down or speed up, but once in action, the thing was buttoned up, and tank commander held sway guiding the driver as he looked through a periscope.

We had to experience everything, so if one of our number was injured, the gunner had to be able to drive, the driver had to act as the tank commander and so on.

This, being the first day of a two-day course, was spent familiarising ourselves with the machine. How to get in and out, the layout and function of the controls, basic engine checks and crucially, how to refuel the thing.

Inside, there were four machine guns, - two either side of the turret cannon. The ones on the extreme left and right were 0.3inch calibre able to fire in a 130degree arc with elevation capability of 90 degrees. To the front on either side were much the same weapons but with a larger calibre of 0.5inch. These had better vertical movement but were restricted horizontally due to the main armament, the turret-mounted 75mm cannon.

Our Sherman, one of over 55,000 built during WWII, was an M4, a later model powered by a Wright-Continental R975 Nine Cylinder Radial engine that developed 400hp with a maximum speed of 24 mph and a range of about 100 miles weighing in at 30 tons.

No getting away from it; this was serious shit fire-power but with one tiny problem.

The main cannon was obsolete as no shells were manufactured for it these days, but that still left us with the machine guns if they were still serviceable.

We made our way back into the shed where Corporal Ainsley joined us having been talking the engineers.

"Do you know when it was last run-up?"

James thought he remembered seeing it used four or five years ago.

"Well, the fuel injectors are past their sell by date and we need to replace them.

Is there a phone I could use?"

"Over there in the Brigade office. Press one for an outside line."


He reappeared a short time later with the good news.

"There's a set being couriered to us for nine tomorrow morning, so you might just as well stand down for today. The lads will get everything prepared ready for when they arrive, and with luck we should be able to begin your training by ten in the morning.

Do you have any questions having seen that video?"

I put my hand up.

"Just one. Why should we need this training?"

"I can't answer that. You'll have to ask your RSM. We are based at the Military museum in Aldershot and head up the team that specialises in the restoration of military vehicles. A nice little number if you ask me!"

"Sounds like it! If I was any good at that type of thing, that's just the sort of job that would be very satisfying.

My friend and I managed to get my Dad's old Willys Jeep running this summer…… I say we, but he's the engineer. I can drive the thing, but I haven't the first idea how it works!"

"I must have a chat with him tomorrow then. We'll have a bit of time while the boys work their magic, and if he likes, I'll run him through some greater detail."

"I'll talk to him tonight. I think he'd jump at it as he loves getting his hands dirty."


We were left to our own devices that evening. Both Mr King and Mr Amos were over at Shap and Mr Collins had gone with the three guys from Aldershot to show them their hotel. He thought that he's probably stay and eat with them, - get reacquainted with army life before getting a taxi back later.

James and Mark joined Alun in slipping into Keswick to buy all of us pizza's rather than going to all the bother of cooking, but Mr Collins had to sanction the use of the half-track as Al's car was back in Malvern.

"Yes, by all means take it. But just remember that if you get stopped by the police, you're armed under Article 18 of the Strategic Defence (Security Operative Personnel) Act of 2007, so make absolutely certain that they understand. You are licenced by the highest authority in the country so don't let them fuck with you."

While we waited for them to get back, I told Thilo about the conversation I'd had.

"I think I dropped you in it this afternoon. Sorry."

"What on earth have you done now, Steve?"

"Nothing that's going to smash crockery, so hold on a bit!

He was talking about his posting and that of his two engineers. He's based at Aldershot and they restore old military vehicles, so I told him about the Jeep."

"Okay. Then what?"

"I mentioned what a genius you were with mechanics, - that's all?"

"There's more, isn't there!"

"He just said he'd like a chat with you tomorrow while the tank's being fixed. He said he would give you a better insight as to how it ticked and stuff."

"Are you sure that's all?"

"Don't you trust me?"

"I love you. I never said I trusted you!"

"You did once. I seem to recall you gave me half a billion dollars on that understanding!

No, seriously. That's what happened. And anyhow, if we have to take it out in earnest, it would be good to know that someone knows a little about how it works, wouldn't it?"

Thilo turned from me, his shoulders shaking with laughter.

"You don't improve, do you?

First you can't handle criticism, next you can't do compliments, and then, to top it all, you rear up when I take the piss!"

"I fire off if confronted, I'll admit to that. No. compliments make me feel uncomfortable, but you, taking the piss out of me, scares me."

"I can't imagine why? If I didn't like you, or God forbid, we'd fallen out, I wouldn't waste my time taking the piss. I'd just blank you.

What would you do if I pissed you off that much?"

"I don't have a Plan B 'cos that's never going to happen."

"Sweet!

Do we go to bed now, or have a drink then go to bed, or have a drink followed by some pizza followed by a couple more drinks and then go to bed?"

"Shit! I never revised those questions so I'll have to guess!"

"Come on, loveable idiot!

I smell gin and tonics."


It turned out that the lads who'd been out driving the half-track had thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and as we'd been held up by the problems with the Sherman, they were going out again in the morning. This was great, but it did bring me back down to earth with a thump when Henry told us that it would be easy to stretcher people away who were injured using it rather than relying on some other method.

For a few short hours, I had forgotten that this was set up deliberately in an effort to provide us with transport or boost our capability, and for a moment I found myself back at Malvern the morning I shot and killed two men at close quarters.

I was interrupted by Tom Ainsley.

"Your mate Thilo is neck-deep in an engine and surrounded by two enthusiast's eager to pass on their not inconsiderable knowledge, so could we have a chat?"

"Sure. The Brigade office should be okay."

We took a chair each before he continued.

"Last night over supper, your RSM told us a little about what you're up to. Nothing specific, but enough to answer the question of why you're all carrying weapons so openly.

You are all Article 18, and that's serious stuff, but the why's and wherefores aren't my business.

All I wanted to say was, here's my card and if you have any concerns about running these two vehicles, then call me and we'll try and help you."

"Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Can you tell me something?"

"If I can?"

"Just how good are those bits of kit? They're old, and I wondered how reliable they might be."

"The half-track is in much the same condition as it was when it rolled off the production line. We've serviced the engine, replaced a couple of track runners, otherwise she's in great condition.

As for the Sherman? We'll have to wait and see."

"Yeah. I can appreciate that, but given you've had the opportunity to inspect it, aside from the engine, what are its chances?"

"Well, if it ever saw combat, it came out on the right side so far as damage is concerned. It's complete and looks to be in reasonable shape. There's goo in the hydraulics, but nothing we can't clean out. So, all assuming we can get the motor running, you should be in the possession of a working tank by ten tomorrow morning."

"What about the armaments? I know the cannon is obsolete, but what about the machine guns? That's probably an unfair question if you're not gunnery experts, but you're engineers, and might be able to tell just by looking at them."

"I wouldn't want to try firing them without an expert giving me the nod, but everything can be restored, guns included.

Again, best have a word with your RSM and see what he thinks."

"Thank you. You can have no idea how good it is to hear someone answer questions clearly and concisely for once. I know you don't know what's going on, but ever since this kicked off, we've heard nothing but bullshit and platitudes. It annoys all of us, especially me. I'm not exactly famous for my mild manner and gentle disposition!"

"I have heard!"

"Yes, well.

Thanks Tom. We owe you."


Thilo was gone before I woke. The talk with the engineers had him fired up with enthusiasm and he'd made an early start so he could help then get things moving.

There was a note by the bed.

'Gone to get down and dirty with a radial engine. Going to grab some toast on the way out, but once you're up, could you make me an egg sandwich?? XX'

It was still early, but I could do better than just an egg sandwich, so I got out of bed, dressed in my last clean set of fatigues, and bundling all my dirty ones together with Thilo's, made my way down stairs to the laundry room and dumped them into a washer-dryer before switching it on and leaving our room key on top of the machine.

We did this because once the cycle was finished, if someone else needed the machine, they could remove the washing, fold it and put it in a laundry basket together with the key so we could identify who's were who's.

Next was a visit to the kitchen where I made up a plate of ten bacon and egg butty's, two for each of us plus our engineers. I covered the plate with cooking foil, and happy with my work, I set off towards the vehicle shed.

My efforts were appreciated and we sat in the office pigging out on my shite cooking before one of the lads brewed coffee.

"Hey Steve? This is fun! That motor looks like nothing I've ever seen before, but these blokes have shown me that actually, it isn't that scary after all!

God, I could easily get hooked on this!"

Under the table, and out of view from the other guys, I placed my hand on the top of his thigh and whispered, "Just don't forget that I need you to have the occasional hangover?"

Thilo almost choked over his coffee.

"Trust me. I haven't forgotten!"

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