Watching the cross country skiing at the Winter Olympics has given me a chance, not only to, as us sailors say, to ‘swing the lamp’ but to remind myself why I was put off skiing for life.
It was in the mid 1950s and at the height of the ‘Cold War’. I was a Midshipman in the Royal Navy at HMS Vernon, the Navy diving school in Portsmouth being taught underwater demolition.
That sets the scene – a sailor – a diver – recently having qualified as a rifle marksman at HMS Phoenix. It’s all a long while ago but as far as I can remember the only thing that I ever volunteered for was to a diving course. However someone had earmarked me for Special Forces beasting and I found myself at the special school for mushrooms where they keep you in the dark and keep throwing manure at you.
Thus twelve specially selected, hairy-arsed animals consisting of five members of the Royal Navy and seven Royal Marines found ourselves parade on the square at Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, known as HMS Victory. The buzz going round the other inmates was that we were in training for the Field Gun Competition.
If anyone believed that they surely must have been puzzled as to why we wore all-in-one white hooded alpine ski suits and why were spending hours on the polished black tarmac of the parade ground being taught how to turn while wearing Telemark cross-country skis, without standing on the inside ski and tripping over.
My wife often berates me for swearing like a sailor and I tell her ‘that’s because I am a F…ing sailor’. I now realise that this was the very point where I honed my colourful language skills.
I learned that our training course had been the brainchild of Lieutenant Colonel ‘Blondie’ Haslar DSO, OBE, that famous ‘Nutcase’ who led the suicidal ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on Bordeaux in WWII. We found ourselves being landed from a Navy Frigate in a Norwegian Fjord, before daylight and in a snowstorm. We were dressed in white hooded onesies, carrying a 56 lb Bergen Rucksack and a Lee Enfield rifle, on cross country skis. We were to climb up to a high level route and ski 50 kilometres into the town of Bergen to meet the Frigate we had just left.
Yes, that makes sense in this man’s navy. (Expletive deleted) Blondie Haslar and his bloody stupid ideas. This long boring slog was enough to make a lifetime vow that I would never, ever don a set of skis again.
We did have a highlight during the high-level routine when we sheltered in some rocks just below the tree line for a ‘smoko’ and our Major (RM) No names no pack drill, disappeared for a call of nature. After a few minutes we were alerted by some very loud, very colourful language from the Major. It appears that he had pulled down his hooded onesie to squat behind a rock and promptly dumped in his hood. A fact that he didn’t realise until he had finished pulled up his suit and flicked the hood over his head.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – nasty – trust me the last place to suffer such an indignity is in front of such a crew. As the Major had insisted before we left; there are no ranks here, no salutes, no sirs. You may call me Boss! So it was “Christ Boss, I think we may be in the shit here!” “Hey Boss, do we all have to black up?” “Something in the State of Denmark stinks, or are we in Norway?” “Is that why latrines are called Heads in the Navy?” and “Boss can you give us the heads up on the route?”
And so began the start of six months of hard specialist training in Arctic Warfare. Snow – mountains – ice – more snow. All of which set me in good stead for the rest of my service in Malaya, Suez, Aden, Lebanon, Ceylon, Cyprus.
In other words: prefer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim, which translates as Be patient and tough; some day this pain will be useful to you. Only a daft sailor could believe that.