PC 182 Guns and Carnations

You may recall my conversation with Ron outside the tiny hamlet of Eagle in Alaska (PC 43 written in 2015) as he filled our hire care with petrol.  “What do you do?” he had asked, having already nailed his opinions to the mast of gun ownership.

I had felt that an expression of a liberal view would not go down well: safer to be succinct and, talking to someone I guessed would be an appreciative audience, I said was an ex-military man.  “Oh! Well! So you know how to shoot!” he said, visibly relaxing; “Of course only the criminals in England can get a gun! Here, you can walk into a shop, choose a gun from any number of types, buy a box of slugs, walk out the door and  …..”  I thought, “start shooting innocent people in Charleston”, but didn’t say it aloud! (Ed. This was days after a chapel shooting in Charleston in 2015)

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A British Sub Machine Gun circa 1950

A recent newspaper article explored whether, when push comes to shove as far as guns as concerned, there is an innate reluctance to kill a fellow human – despite the fact that in the UK 60 and in the USA 11,000 die each year from gunshot wounds. It seems the majority of us would find it difficult. Historical examples are numerous – after the American Civil War Battle of Gettysberg, fought over two days in early July 1863, of the twenty seven thousand muskets recovered 90 per cent were found to be still loaded. Six thousand had 3 musket balls in their barrels, suggesting that the soldiers had spent the battle loading their muskets, rather than firing them. George Orwell observed that during another civil war, this one in Spain in the C20th, most combatants always tried to miss!

We can all recall photographs of international demonstrations against the involvement of people in war – and the odd flower stuck down the barrel of a rifle. In Portugal the overthrow of the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano in 1974 became known as the Carnation Revolution as carnations were the flower of choice (In Georgia it was roses, in Kyrgyzstan tulips).Browning 9mm Pistol

The British Browning 9mm pistol (standard officer weapon!)

This article got me rummaging in the grey matter as to what guns I had fired, although I immediately realised none in anger. At school I belonged to the Combined Cadet Force; it was a welcome distraction from academic studies – and we were all trained to use a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. They were heavy and old-fashioned.

Then I enrolled for my Officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Here the standard rifle was the SLR (self-loading rifle), with a calibre of 7.62. At the end of the 10 mile Battle Fitness Test not only did you have to carry your buddy 100m, climb a six foot wall, jump some ditch but also fire off a magazine of 20 rounds and get a qualifying score. We did have fun firing the General Purpose Machine gun …….. but it ate ammunition at an alarming rate and someone had to carry it!

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Before embarking on a three day exercise in Belgium as an officer cadet, we had to carry a lot!

At the Royal Military College of Science we studied other nations’ firearms – the Russian Kalashnikov AK47 and Israeli Uzi for example.

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The 25 Pounder we used during Young Officer training at the Royal School of Artillery

Then I joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was introduced to proper guns. My choice of arm meant I was teased by my Uncle Bill, who had had a career in The Somerset Light Infantry. As a young lieutenant during the invasion of Normandy in 1944, his battalion had suffered many casualties in the battle for the French city of Caen – often as a result of our own artillery fire falling short of its target – hence the rather snide moniker for the Royal Artillery of ‘drop shorts’! When I finished my training I joined a regiment in Devizes; in the Officers’ Mess was a cartoon of an elegantly uniformed artilleryman surveying the battlefield, with the infantry engaged in muddy hand-to-hand combat. The caption read: “Artillery brings a degree of dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar infantry brawl.” I thought of my Uncle Bill.

This regiment was equipped with towed field guns of 5.5 inch calibre. They had been used in the Second World War and were large and unwieldy but were, for their time, accurate. We didn’t wear any ear protection in those days and if you were too close to a gun when it fired, you couldn’t hear anything for hours. This of course gave rise to another infliction – ‘gunner ear’!!

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The classic 5.5 inch Howitzer

The regiment moved to Germany and was equipped with another medium gun, the M109

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The M109, a self-propelled 155mm gun

Having served all my regimental time with ‘field’ artillery ie surface-to-surface, it was obvious to those who ran the officer posting system (AG6) that I should command an Air Defence Battery!! Lloyd’s Company was equipped with a ‘command-to-line-of-sight’ SAM system called Blowpipe that was fired from the operator’s shoulder; it had a range of about 3 kilometres. It was to the credit of the training of the soldiers that two Argentinian aircraft were destroyed during the Falklands War when the Battery was deployed in support of The Parachute Regiment.*

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Blowpipe Operator at San Carlos Bay, Falklands 1982

Fourteen of my soldiers were on a rotational six-month deployment to Belize in Central America. During my time in command I had to visit them …… and we conducted a practice live firing from a deserted caye tens of kilometres off the coast. Just us, the sound of the sea, pristine clear warm tropical waters; such hard work!

By the time I joined the sales force of Short Brothers, Blowpipe had been replaced by Javelin. The first name often made me think of natives in Amazonian jungles looking for their next meal. As a missile manufacturer based in Belfast, there were often unsavoury characters sniffing around, anxious to get their hands on one. Peter Brookes in The Times had a wonderful cartoon of two IRA thugs on the streets of Paris, negotiating to buy one, with the caption: “Seamus. Which end do you blow through?”

Apparently in the USA today liberal as opposed to republican Americans have been buying guns like they might go out of fashion. Their desire for gun ownership is driven by the effect the Coronavirus pandemic is having on society and a negative perception of what might happen; for this to make news in The Times last week suggests it’s serious! Three days later an African-American George Floyd is killed by a policeman in Minneapolis and it seems the difference between peaceful and violent demonstrations is a hair’s width touch on a trigger finger. One of the justifications of gun ownership in the USA is the fear of federal intervention in state affairs. Now, what is the President proposing? Using the 1807 Insurrection Act as his authority to deploy the US Army into State’s affairs.

Richard 4th June 2020

Note * I took over command during the conflict, did not deploy to the South Atlantic, but took part in the intensive debriefs of the operators.

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