Military Memoirs

Spec Training

Next came phase two of our indoctrination, specialist, or "Spec" training. This is where we begin to do some of the fun stuff, like running around on the hills firing blanks in all directions, playing soldiers and winning more imaginary medals than Audie Murphy could ever have dreamed of. Also, it means the departure of the dreaded bedroll (see above), and being allowed to go to the pub after training! Hoorah!

Up until this point, we'd all been lumped in together; infantry, signallers, engineers, cooks, the lot. Everybody gets the same basic training, so (in theory) at a pinch everyone can go in to combat knowing the essentials. The essentials being, how to run long distances carrying heavy things while being shouted at. Now we were split up, with the sigs and what-have-you going off to their own training routine, and the grunts (us) to ours. To tell the truth, it didn't affect our particular platoon much since we were almost all infantry recruits anyway, but some of the others were messed up quite a bit. I've no idea what went on with the non-grunts' training, though I expect there was quite a bit of Satan-worship, animal sacrifice, and ritual abuse involved. (There always is in groups you know nothing about.) We didn't get any fun stuff like that, but we did get to learn lots more ingenious ways to kill people, and how to hide from other people who were trying to kill us, ingeniously or not. The skills you learn in the army, they say, will carry you through the rest of your life, and it was certainly true in my case. I've successfully managed to hide from everybody who's tried to kill me, as is plainly evidenced by the fact that I'm not dead yet.

Now that we were nearly grown-up soldiers, we started learning new stuff. Added to our programme of running and shooting was digging. We were taught how to dig two-man foxholes, shellscrapes, machine-gun positions, and bunkers. Then we were taught how to disguise them with cunning camoflage. Then we were taught how to point out our cunningly camoflaged positions with masses of barbed wire. Oh, what fun we had with our Tools, entrenching. Once we had digging and wiring down, we were taught a little bit about mines -- laying them, and digging them back up again. Fortunately for us, most of the mine laying and clearing is done by the Engineers, so we didn't have to have much to do with them, except for Claymores. Claymores are fun (unless you're on the receiving end).

What, you may ask, is a Claymore? Well, it's a Scottish sword. Originally a two-handed greatsword (hence the Gaelic "cleaidh mhor", or "bloody great big sword"), by the eighteenth century the term had come to mean a one-handed, basket-hilted broadsword similar to military swords in use throughout Europe.
"Wow!" I hear you say. "The New Zealand army really does have some obsolete equipment on its books!" And you'd be right, it does.
Actually, the sort of claymore the army uses nowadays is an anti-personnel mine. It consists of a plastic box which is curved in a shallow arc, the concave side being packed with explosive, and the convex side being packed with thousands of ball-bearings. The thing stands on dinky little legs, or you can duct-tape it to a tree or whatever, and when it is ignited electrically via a thing that looks like a giant clothes-peg, it sprays its ball-bearings out in an arc, shredding anyone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end. Just to make sure that the right people are on the receiving end, it has "Front Towards Enemy" embossed on the front. Also, just to make absolutely sure we got the message, it came with a cute little cartoon-strip instruction leaflet, a bit like those religious tracts that annoying people wake you up early on weekend mornings to give you. Now you know everything you need to know about claymore mines. When you see those guys in the VietNam movies grabbing the clickers and pumping away at them, they're not really engaging in a spot of in-combat chest-expansion exercises, they're actually detonating claymores.

Another section of our spec training involved camoflage, which is the art of not being an obvious target so that the Bad Guys won't be able to shoot you very easily. It's an especially important part of the New Zealand Army's repertoire, since our entire anti-aircraft defence at that time consisted of camoflage nets. (I don't know what the situation is these days, but considering the very tight purse-strings of the NZ Government when it come to anything other than the politicians' own comfort, I very much doubt that they'd be willing to splash out on anything as advanced and expensive as a Bofors gun or two).
Anyway, we were marched out to sit around on a wooded hillside overlooking a grassy paddock. Some guy (I forget who) attracted our attention by chopping down a pine tree with det-cord (which is a fuse which burns fast enough to be explosive -- very handy around the home for a multitude of domestic applications), and offered a night's free booze for the lucky soldier who could point out the sniper.
"Sniper?" we asked, "what sniper?" Needless to say, regardless of our superhuman powers of observation no-one spotted the sniper and his beer money was safe as houses. He went on to give us a brief lecture on the principles of personal camoflage, which nobody listened to since we were all desperately trying to find this bloody sniper and thus become heir to a fortune in free alcohol, with maybe a spot of liver disease thrown in as an added bonus. At the end of his little spiel, he called out to the sniper to stand up -- which he did, out of the middle of the paddock! It was a very impressive demonstration of what can be achieved with some knowledge and a few bits of burlap sacking. I would have sworn black and blue that there was no way anyone could be hiding where he was. Of course, if he'd actually opened fire he'd have been a lot easier to spot, but by then it might have been just a fraction too late.

The very best thing about spec training was the time we got to fly out to a field exercise by helicopter. Those things are great, and if I had an unlimited supply of money I'd buy one in an instant. Chopper pilots seem to be pretty similar the world over, so I'll just describe an average Kiwi pilot and you can draw your own conclusions about foreigners.

Unlike some other armies, all of the flying-types the New Zealand infantry deal with are in the Airforce, and are (therefore) limp-wristed panty-waisted gay-bar loiterers whose idea of roughing it is being forced to drink anything cheaper than Chivas Regal and getting less than three showers a day. The chopper pilots, however, are a little different from the rest of the fliers. They're all completely insane, for a start, and like to fly through trees and things rather than wasting time going around them. They consider any flight from which they don't return with leaf-stains on the skids a bore, and if they can't make the grunts in the back shit their pants with fear, then they consider their mission to have been a failure. Normal pilots seem to regard them as borderline psychotics who need to be handled with extreme care, rather like nitroglycerine. I suppose it takes a certain type to actually be attracted to the idea of taking a relatively slow-moving, unarmoured flying thing roughly the size and shape of a Volkswagen van into a combat zone. Fortunately, I've never had to ride in a helicopter while it was being shot at, and I never want to, but some people actually enjoy that sort of thing. Takes all sorts, I guess.

There are a few things to be aware of when you're going for a ride in a chopper, especially one being flown by a lunatic with glands which are permanently pumping an amphetamine/adrenaline mixture into his bloodstream.

The first is that you should not try to board a helicopter while wearing an army-issue jungle hat. If you do, it will be blown far, far away, and you will never see it again, and the quartermaster will make you pay for a new one.

The next, is that contrary to intuition, those soldiers who have sensitive stomachs and who might throw up all over the place in a high-velocity spurt of technicolour vomitus should be sitting in the centre of the aircraft. Not at the side, next to the open doors, as one might first think. The reason is this: if they are sitting by the door when they they lose their lunch, the airstream will grab the ejecta and throw it all over everyone sitting in the passenger compartment, which is by no means a fun thing, especially when your next shower is ten days away. If they're inside, then only one or two soldiers have to suffer being vomited on. (I was lucky enough to be sitting on the floor on the other side of the chopper from the lunch-loser, and therefore escaped with only a mild spattering).

The last one I'll mention here is that if you're going anywhere by chopper, the most exhilarating seat on the aircraft is on the floor, with your feet dangling over the edge, with nothing holding you in except for a little webbing strap and a convenient machine-gun mount to hold on to. I thoroughly recommend it. Mind you, it can get a little chilly.

The exercise to which the choppers were carrying us was the last section of our full-time training, before we were sent back to our units all over the country. We were supposed to put together all of the training we'd done and stun the observers with our dazzling military brilliance. That was the theory. In practise, of course, it didn't work out that way at all. What we did prove was what bloody awful soldiers we remained even after all this training.

The choppers dropped us off in an unremarkable paddock somewhere out the back of Waiouru. None of us had any idea where we were, except (fortunately) for the various officers and NCOs who were running around like blue-arsed flies trying to get us in some sort of order while we milled around like politicians trying to find their way out of their own backsides. If it had been for real, in a hot LZ (Landing Zone), we'd all have been very short-lived soldiers. Fortunately for us, the only hostiles in the area were our own NCOs, and we escaped with nothing worse than a little bruising and some interesting new additions to our growing vocabulary.

It's normal practice, when inserting troops into the field, to drop them some distance from their eventual target so that they can sneak through the bush nice and quiet, and (hopefully) the enemy won't know they're there. Sometimes the LZ can be thirty or forty kilometres from the first bivouack, but in this instance we only had to march five or six klicks before we set up camp. We were setting up a company position in the edge of a patch of bush, just behind the crest of a low ridge, so our triangular platoon position formed one point of a larger triangle centred on the company command post which housed the signallers, observers, and the observing officers' whiskey crates. (Those crates, incidentally, were about the most secure point in the entire site, well-guarded by trip-flares and a 24-hour sentry. Needless to say, the precautions were very necessary there was an attempt on them the very first night we were there).

The exercise was planned to last ten days, in two sections: the first being practice in maintaining a fixed defensive position and involved digging (surprise surprise), patrolling, a little wiring (barbed wire, not electrical wiring), and laying out trip-flares and claymores (thunderflashes with electronic detonators stuffed up them). The second section of the exercise was long-range patrolling and ambush practice, covering about twenty-five klicks per day mostly uphill.

The first part of the exercise was fairly dull for the most part, since it mostly consisted of sitting around not doing anything much. It did introduce us to a new facet of military life though the horrors of ration-pack toilet paper. I don't know who came up with the brilliant idea of making it (a)shiny and (b)non-absorbent, but whoever it was deserves a terrible, terrible death. (NOTE: The over-imaginative and weak of stomach should probably skip to the next paragraph now...) The stuff came in squares of pale brown tissue, about 6" by 4", I don't remember how many per daily ration. Crapping in the bush is not especially comfortable, since it basically consists of digging a hole and squatting over it, trying to keep the flies away for long enough to relieve oneself of one's daily burden. This task was made no easier by these completely useless pieces of paper, which didn't actually remove the shit they just sort of moved it around. To make matters worse, they creased into sharp, rigid edges which were, to say the least, uncomfortable. One or two of the guys (and, curiously enough, every last one of the officers and NCOs) had brought their own bum-roll, and found their contraband very much in demand. One soldier, who I shall call Private Dopey (because he was as thick as two short planks which had just had a lobotomy; more about him later) suffered even more than the rest of us because as soon as we arrived at base camp, he ripped open all of his ration packs and scoffed all of the chocolate in one sitting. All of the laxative chocolate. At one go. Oh, how we laughed.

Anyway, I'd been designated the platoon runner, which suited me pretty well because it meant that I had to do fuck-all except carry the occasional message to the company commander, or to the various section commanders. I didn't have to do any sentry duty no waking up at three o'clock in the morning and standing in a freezing cold pit for a couple of long, slow hours and I didn't have to go out on the night patrols. Actually, that part kind of sucked, since there wasn't anything else to do and as I said before, it was pretty boring. One night I asked to be allowed to go out with the patrol, and lo! my request was granted.

We were given our briefing and issued with three mags of ammo each (60 rounds), and sent out into the night. The patrol was led by one of our platoon sergeants (we had an extra one at the time), and his 2/ic was a lance-corporal whose name I forget, but who had no intention of staying out in the cold any longer than he had to. He went down the line whispering to each of us "When we get a contact, blow all your ammo so that we can all fuck off home to bed". Wise advice from an experienced soldier. Sure enough, about an hour out we had a small-scale contact from a bunch of trees about 150 metres away, whereupon we let lose with everything we had. After the contact was over, the sergeant did an ammo count and discovered that we had about twenty rounds left between us. "Okay", he said. "That was pretty good, but you have to learn to conserve your ammunition a bit better... I guess we'd better head back in." It's a good thing it was dark, since otherwise he may have been alerted by the grin all over L/cpl Whatsisname's face.

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