It was 1965 in the jungles of Borneo. In the tropical rain forest we lived in a constant sauna. The temperature was the same at 2 in the morning as it was at 2 in the afternoon.
As a young subaltern, my first independent command on active service was small, but we were certain we were elite. Well, after all, we were Royal Horse Artillery.
My single gun crew were all Glaswegians. The Sergeant was a big taciturn Kentishman. I had a battery surveyor, a signaller and a gleaming, well-oiled 105mm howitzer which we made no effort to camouflage. We fired it regularly in support of C Coy, 3 RAR with whom we co-habitated on a little ridge a few feet above the mangrove swamp, and we believed in advertising our presence. Thus we spent three months, never more than fifty miles from the Equator, and never more than fifty feet above sea level.
After seven weeks of this untroubled existence (stress-free because we were forty miles across untracked virgin forest from Battery HQ, and the BSM) we were to be visited in our base by the Director Royal Artillery. He was a wonderful old fellow out from London to visit the only Regiment in the British Army, which was on active service that year. We assembled in our immaculate gun-pit, stripped to the waist and in our Hats, floppy, but with polished brass and our boots gleaming.
My last briefing to the troops, as the General's helicopter landed, was to tell them to speak when spoken to. "Don't hesitate to say what you think if he asks you a question." I was well aware, of course, that Sergeant Smithers had already threatened dire things if anybody moved a muscle.
The dear old chap was overweight and drenched with sweat, but he carefully inspected us all, had a word to each, and then stood us at ease. He then asked if there was anything he could do for us.
Gunner Wilson, the layer, was from the Gorbals. Even after many weeks he was still blue-white in colour. Somewhat flat-chested and with a rather prominent adams apple, he did not look too capable of much initiative in such circumstances. He was however, as I was well aware, the Regimental featherweight champion. I had seen him very effectively deal with a well-muscled Australian who took him at face value, in two rounds.
Well, Gunner Wilson immediately snapped to attention, cleared his throat, and, looking fixedly into the middle distance, belted out, "Sir, when our beer comes in it is too hot." Sgt. Smithers seemed to lose two inches in height, his jaw muscles slackened into rictus, and his eyes rolled to heaven.
The DRA blanched, but only slightly. He wasn't a General for nothing. He knew he could do nothing for Gunner Wilson, but, with only the barest pause, he came up with a response none of us ever forgot. Reaching back to his subaltern days on the Indian sub-continent, he said, "Well, I remember, when we had that problem we would hang the bottles in the trees, and the breeze would blow, and cool our beer."
There was a frisson that rippled through the little group in the gun-pit. An eyelid flickered, a face muscle twitched, but they were British, by God. Unlike any bunch of Kiwis who would have fallen about laughing, they held themselves erect until the General's helicopter lifted off. Then they fell about.
For the rest of our tour, the answer to any question, or the reaction to any complaint was "Just hang it in the trees, and the breeze will blow, and the beer will be cool." I loved the Brits.
John Masters, April 2001