PART 1 – The Man
Two hours was the normal stint, in the dark and the rain, and the cold, after dragging yourself out of a warm sleeping bag in the early dark hours, and crawling out from under a perfectly dry ‘bivvi’ sheet.
Two hours of waiting for the enemy to attack. A fictional enemy, who hardly ever came ….. but might! Possibly not the real enemy, the actual Soviet hordes, perhaps another Royal Marine, pretending to be Ivan. There was nearly always an ‘exercise’ enemy, and you never knew when they might pop up and try to embarrass you, capture you, or steal your rifle.
Two hours was more than enough outside, the neck slowly shortening, a defence against the creeping cold, then it was somebody else’s turn, their ‘watch’. Nobody got out of doing a watch. We all hated them, and being late for your watch could damage a good friendship.
It was a job which needed to be done, an important job. The job of watching over your mates so that they could sleep easy, allowing their bodies to heal from the relentless physical epic of the previous 18 hours. Miles and miles of snow covered mountains and fjord sides, with a plank of wood tied to each foot, and a giant rucksack on your back. Endless falls in the snow pinned to the ground by your enormous pack, leaving you floundering like an upturned tortoise, or suffocating with your face driven deep into the snow.
We all relied on the man who was on watch. They relied on me, and I relied on each of them when I slept. All soldiers did this, had always done it, and yet still we all hated it. Soldiers over the ages were united in this. There was nothing good about getting out of a warm bed and standing in the dark and cold? What sort of person could possibly like that?
When you are tired, cold and fed up it’s an effort to scan the dark landscape. To go through the routine of scanning the near ground, closest to you, from left to right, and then to shift to the middle ground, scanning the other way, from right to left, then the far ground, left to right, and then finally back again along the horizon. Then listen for a minute. Then do it all again.
……. Near ground … Middle ground … Far ground … Horizon.
All night long, missing nothing. Stopping only if you heard a sound, holding your breath for a few seconds, then continuing.
……. Near ground … Middle ground … Far ground … Horizon.
It was difficult to stop the mind wandering, on watch, stood there on your own, bored out of your skull. It wasn’t the glamorous life the recruiting posters had promised. Not a single one of those glossy posters sported a picture of a hunched up mummy of a man stood on his own, in the middle of a dark, wind swept, god forsaken peat bog, rain drifting past his face and dripping off the end of his nose.
It was difficult not to think about all the places you’d rather be, the things you’d rather be doing. A hot shower, nice food, crisp clean white sheets, the pretty girl that had smiled at you on your last leave, and that you were too shy to talk to. You idiot Lane, she was lovely. She could be your girlfriend now if you weren’t such a prat. You could be in a warm bed with her.
But here you were.
Watching, but not staring, because if you stare at something static for long enough in the dark, it will move. Many a young marine has raised the alarm, got 30 or more blokes out of bed in seconds, springing to his side, ready to do battle, only to discover that the enemy sneaking up on him was a rock, and had been there all the time, possibly for centuries. A human’s night vision is actually very good, but then again so too is his imagination. And it’s difficult not to stare at something you think might possibly be a threat.
You would never hear the end of it for the rest of your career, and beyond. The story of the attacking rock, or the marauding bush. You had to be very sure when you called the lads out. Sleep was always in short supply. Sleep was sacred. You didn’t get the lads out of their ‘slugs’ for no reason.
I loved all this boys own adventures in the outdoors, like being in the scouts again, or getting up to mischief with your mates exploring abandoned houses, or derelict woollen mills. Most of the time I couldn’t believe they paid me to do it. What a life! Adventures, great mates, free food, camping, free clothes, ships, and helicopters. I loved helicopters. I had no idea what kept them in the sky, but I still loved them. There was just this one thing I could have done without. This standing around in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, your abandoned sleeping bag only yards away, in the dry, gently cooling.
And then I went to 45 Commando and it looked like this standing around in the cold was going to get much worse, because ‘Four-Five’ was a Mountain and Arctic Warfare Unit.
I had joined the Commandos because I hated teacher training college, and because I loved being in the mountains. I discovered from a fellow student, my climbing partner, who also was an ex-marine, that the Royal Marines had dedicated Mountain and Arctic Warfare Units which went to Norway every winter, for 3 months. It sounded ideal. And which overly active small boy didn’t fantasise about being a Commando? So I joined up, I joined the Marines, just so I could go into the mountains, and back to Norway.
I’d already been there once, and inside the arctic circle too, with the Yorkshire Schools Exploration Society, to an ice cap, but during summer. I studied ‘post glacial solifluction lobes’. I had immediately fallen in love with the country, its magnificent fjords, and its people. I even taught myself a bit of Norwegian, well at least a Yorkshireman’s approximation of Norwegian. Encouraged by the knowledge that 75% of Yorkshire dialect is pure Norse, I stupidly thought I was already half way there. Fortunately most Norwegians speak better English than me, and are very polite.
So here was a job in the mountains, which got me to Norway for free. Perfect!
Apart of course for standing my watch, at night, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, and now in excruciating, knawing, penetrating, arctic cold.
Two hours was the norm for a ‘watch’, but here you did only one hour, otherwise you’d get frostbite, or worse. We constantly checked each other for frostbite and for hypothermia, forcing ourselves on anyone who went quiet, or who resisted, or acted out of character. Asking them questions to check their response time, thrusting your hand inside their clothing to check if their neck was still warm if they hesitated, going eye to eye, inches away, looking for a normal response, that the lights were still on, and that there were no ice demons in there. It’s easy to die in the arctic, even surrounded by your mates.
In Norway after only 15 minutes on watch, you’d had enough, already drunk your flask of hot coffee, the one you’d promised yourself you wouldn’t touch for at least half an hour. And then it was an endurance test until your relief turned up.
At least it didn’t rain there, and you could hear people coming for miles, the sound travelling along the smooth surface of the snow, their ski poles twanging. But it was hard, a hard life. “If you wanted an easy life, you shouldn’t have joined the Marines!”. That’s what everyone delighted in saying when they witnessed another man’s misery. They were right of course. We were all volunteers. And you had to be determined to get through the training.
We put on every bit of clothing we possessed, to go on watch there, and stood on bits of old sleeping mat to slow the ingress of the cold into your soles. I’m sure it helped, but it didn’t feel like it did, staring into the monochrome wastes, feet slowly turning into wood.
……. Near … Middle … Far … Horizon.
PART 2 – The Enemy
One night, when I was on watch somewhere out in these ‘arctic wastes’, I spotted movement in the half-light on the horizon, an ‘exercise’ enemy crossing the hill about a 500 metres away, dark shadows moving across the snow in formation, intent on attack. I unzipped my jacket to get the binoculars out, and the cold air flooded in to replace them. I needed to confirm the sighting before I raised the alarm and called the lads out.
I spun the focusing ring in the centre of the binoculars and the blurry image suddenly became pin sharp.
It was wolves!
What a wonderful sight!
A full pack of wolves!
Worth all those nights stood out there in the cold.
And it was just me and the wolves. We were the only ones awake.
I had spotted them before they spotted me, the scanning technique had worked.
Suddenly they all stopped, a telepathic command passing between them, and stared directly at me, unsure what they were looking at. They’d probably never seen a shivering marine before, even though there were a couple of thousand of us scattered around the arctic north.
I stared back.
It was a magical moment.
And we all wondered why I was there.
Once they were satisfied that I was neither an easy meal, or a foe, they casually changed direction 90 degrees, and romped on, silently along the horizon, almost playfully, silhouetted against the grey sky, like it had all been scripted into a film.
I wanted to join them, run after them, not stand here freezing my bollocks off.
It was a one-off, a rare thing, and the next day all the lads wished they’d seen the wolves too.
We had enormous admiration for anything which lived out there full time, even for the stupid little lemmings we often encountered. Nobody ever harmed one, and we were sad when we saw one frozen solid in a Birch tree, or dead on the ground.
They would endlessly and mindlessly run between their home and a Birch tree nearby, their winter food source. So we sometimes built little twig bridges for them across our defensive trenches in the snow, or they were scooped out of the bottom of a trench and ferried across in the cupped hands of some giant of a marine that you would never mess with. We were the best arctic warfare soldiers in the world, the toughest, but we couldn’t match the survival skills of a tiny rodent. We eagerly consumed up to 6,000 calories per day, a standard daily arctic ration for very active men in this environment. Lemmings managed to survive by nibbling frozen twigs and bark. They didn’t go back to a warm barracks after a couple of weeks. They stayed out there full time. They are unbelievable little creatures.
PART 3 – The Sky
A month or so later we were doing the same sort of thing, but in a different place, ‘manning the ramparts’, still guarding the ‘Northern Flank’ against a possible Soviet winter invasion.
The lad who was on watch came into the snow hole to give me a shake, to wake me a couple of minutes before my watch. It was about 2 am and I was his pre-arranged relief. I was still liking the job, loving Norway, but still hated the watches. I’d much rather be running around, or better still, skiing around. I was good on skis, a natural. Who would have thought it, a raggy arsed kid from Leeds?
We slept fully clothed, boots on, ready for a possible ‘crash move’, so it was just a matter of sitting up, committing yourself to semi-consciousness, and fighting the urge to lay back down ‘for just one more minute’. The unzipping of the toastie warm sleeping bag was left to the last possible second, and then it gave birth to a fully dressed Royal Marine, scooping up his vacuum flask as he staggered out.
Stooping, I bounced down between the walls of the entrance tunnel of the snow-hole, sugary ice crystals showering down with each shoulder scrape, my eyes still closed, brain on auto, delaying the moment when I would desert my dreams, and force myself to be fully alert for my watch.
As I burst out into colder air I opened my eyes, and it was much brighter than it should have been. I was confused as we were nowhere near a full moon. Head still down, I put off my concern, anxious not to be a second late, and staggered, still groggy, towards the waiting sentry. He didn’t wait for me to get there. He’d had enough. He was constantly reminding us that he was a ‘sunshine’ Commando, and that jungles were his thing, even though he was from Norfolk, and had never actually seen a jungle.
“Bugger this for a game of soldiers” he said pushing past “its got to be below minus 20 now Andy!”
He’d hadn’t mentioned the light so I thought I’d better check it out.
I tilted my head back and looked up to see the cause of it, and was instantly transfixed.
Directly above me was a vertical sheet of shimmering light, physically impossible.
A translucent silk drape, pastel blues and greens, somehow woven with cascading glitter, stars showing through from behind, curling and folding as if someone was waggling a giant curtain at one end and sending deep, slow motion waves along the fabric, its bottom edge dissolving into nothing, and dripping away onto the snow, all suspended against the darkness of deep space.
It was right above me. I could almost touch it, but strangely my eyes couldn’t focus on it. It filled the night sky, and it filled my head. The snow, and my white camouflage suit, gently changed through a range of pastel greens and blues. You could have easily read a book without a torch.
There was nobody else within 20 miles, with big mountains inbetween, and all my mates were asleep.
The Northern Lights were mine!
PART 4 – The Relief
Since I was a kid in the scouts several people had mentioned the ‘Northern Lights’. They sparked the imagination. ‘Fire in the sky’ somebody once called them. They had become mythical to me. As a budding young mountaineer I’d heard tales from older men who had stories of avalanches, horrendous storms, epic struggles, running out of food, of climbing ropes that were inches too short, and of the Northern Lights. Most had caught glimpses of the phenomenon in the distance, on the horizon, but they were always difficult to describe, and impossible to explain. I often tried to imagine them but nothing adequate ever appeared in my head. Of course I’d always wanted my own Northern Lights story, but never really thought it likely. Yet here I was, in them, part of them, bathed in their fluorescence, and mesmerised in perfect solitude.
After about 10 minutes of gazing into the arctic sky I heard a noise behind me, someone stumbling up the trench, and assumed that my grumpy mate had forgotten something, and was coming back for it. I twisted around and noticed that it was a different dark shape, a different man. It was my relief walking towards me.
Nobody turns up early for a watch in the arctic. You milk the last seconds in your ‘pit’. Something was wrong!
“What are you doing here?” I said, “Shit the bed?”
“You’re lucky I am here Lane, you didn’t shake me, are you alright?”
“What do mean?”
“I’m ten minutes late, you didn’t give me a shake.”
“No mate, you’re almost an hour early, go back to your pit, I’ve only just come out”
The cold could affect equipment, so we deferred any blame, and instead compared time-pieces for errors. We leaned inwards and checked our watches, then we checked each others. There was no difference. We had the same time, and he was indeed 10 minutes late.
I’d been outside for an hour and ten minutes, motionless, and I hadn’t even touched my flask.
“Are you sure you’re alright Andy?”
“The Northern Lights!” I said enthusiastically, pointing upwards.
There was a pause as he leaned forward, stared at me, examined me for hypothermia, or some other cause of temporary insanity.
“You *****ing love all this stuff don’t you Lane?” he said accusingly.
“Why can’t you be normal like everybody else?”
“Cheers Mick, see you in the morning!”