Saturday, 22 September 2012

Storm in a T* Camp

Image By John Buchanan

When I look back through my life and remember places I have lived in they generally fall into two groups; places I liked and places I didn’t. There is however one place that was so uncomfortable that I feel it is unfair to taint all the other places I did not like by placing it in the same group as them. This place was a port in Croatia called Ploče, the year 1995.

The area surrounding the port was little more than a dumping ground for dead animals, toxic waste and anything unpleasant that someone didn’t want to pay to dispose of. The Royal Engineers reclaimed a sizable tract of land from this mozzie infected, swamp riddled, dump and turned it into a mozzie infected layer of white hardcore (which reflected the suns blinding light and scorching heat). It was here that a tented camp housing several thousand British troops was built. My lasting memories of Ploče include;

Accommodation was sparse; initially a couple thousand troops were crushed into a warehouse which had been shelled during an earlier raid on the port. Each person (male or female) had the width of their roll mat plus 2 feet to turn into a home. Once sufficient land had been reclaimed we moved into a tented camp which was more spacious, but came with its own issues. Towards the end of the tour (as winter approached) some Corimec (portakabins) arrived (pure luxury and as with all things of that nature ‘too little too late’).

Bordering the complex was a factory which belched choking smoke over us 24/7. It was rumoured that it was burning asbestos brake linings although that was hotly denied. That said a significant proportion of the force suffered from really unpleasant respiratory problems of one sort or another during their stay.

For the majority of the tour the living conditions were so bad there that there was a constant need for innovation, and ISO containers, shipping pallets, cardboard boxes and any other item not physically strapped down, quickly found itself being turned into part of a home improvement scheme.

Keeping thousands of troops clean in such a place was next to impossible, the Royal Engineers came up with the idea of using the cattle sheds as showers, The sheds, which had been used to keep cattle in until they were loaded on to ships had water pipes overhead, the Engineers found that a strategically placed nail every meter or so was sufficient to make a cold shower for a couple hundred folk at a time. Later in the tour a Territorial Army Bath and Laundry unit deployed and were quickly elevated to hero status along with the Posties and some of the Chefs as they bought with them the capability of producing a somewhat irregular supply of hot water.

I guess the presence of the French Foreign Legion was perhaps the greatest indicator as to just how unpleasant Ploče was.

The following poem outlines an event which I believe will be seared onto the mind of anyone who was there. It was this event that ultimately earned the camp its nick name ‘Ploče Death Camp’.

Storm in a T* Camp

MET said the wind would be high that night
airframes would need tie downs
Two thousands troops in the tented camp
were going to be blown around.

The sound of ratchets and sledge hammers
was a common theme that day;
as teams of sweating soldiers
toiled to square the camp away.

The tents were lashed inside and out
and nailed to the ground
with two foot long metal spikes
So they’d not be tossed around.

The girls in the tent next to us
were working on their tans;
we offered to assist them
but that wasn’t in their plans.

That night’s storm was vengeful
it hit hard and lasted long
and from the tent next to ours
came a noise most forlorn.

As four bronzed ladies struggled,
to bang stakes into the ground,
to stop their tent taking off
leaving them half drowned.

To venture out was lethal
as sharp debris flew around.
The generator kept failing,
and cables sparked upon the ground.

A sentry had his arm shattered
as he patrolled the camp that night.
The church had broken loose
and it hit him in full flight.

The cook house, a large big top,
was rent from floor to ceiling
its wooden posts were split in two
and through the air sent reeling.

The camp latrine made quite a mess
as the tanks bobbed from the ground
then tipped their fetid contents
into the water flowing round.

Things got very lively
as we fought against that storm
and kept our kit above the flood
whilst holding canvas down.

A hurricane lamp fell to the floor
and everything went pitch black,
the scent of kero on the wind
caused a mild anxiety attack.

Howling wind, lighting flash
driving rain and thunder
flapping canvas, shorting cables
and now the fear of fire.

That night lasted an eternity -
dawn bought an eerie calm
over the stinking cess pool
which our home had become.

The cooks’ stoves were under water
which meant it was three foot deep.
It also made them hard to light
So breakfast was real bleak.

While the water subsided
we broke out the canoes
to keep tired and hungry troops busy
and stop them blowing a fuse.

As soon as we were able
the clear up began full tilt
but it was several days before
the camp was totally rebuilt.

The storm was not the only one
that we endured that summer.
It left its mark upon that camp
Oh and what a bummer.

The camp had been called Red Dwarf
before the first storm hit,
but the troops re-named it‘Ploce Death Camp’
after it had been covered in shit.

Now, if you’re planning on camping
I have some tips for you
they were learnt the hard way
but, they come free to you.

Listen to the Met man’s forecast.
Build cess pits above the water table.
Shelter comes before the tan.
In high wind even churches fly.

But, perhaps the most important
The lesson I’d heed most
take this seasoned camper’s advice
and - Book into a hotel.

John Carré Buchanan
21 September 2012

10 comments:

  1. Oh, those were aweful, John. And so tragic for the sentry. Did he live or die? As I was reading your poem, I could see the events unfolding before my eyes, as if I were in a theater watching a movie.

    I have so much respect for you, soldiers. You go through so much during your tours. You are my heros.

    I probably cannot stomach having to wade through "shit" infested waters. Did any of you get sick from being exposed to the infested water and other stuff?

    I admire your humour in your poem inspite of this aweful, aweful event in your life.

    Happy Saturday,
    Tasha

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tashabud,

      Thanks for your comment and your support. Apart from the broken arm the sentry was fine, infact his accident report actually said something like;'On turning I was hit by the church", which showed he was able to laaugh about it.

      Quite a few folk had short to medium term health issues surrounding the respiratory problems I mentioned. There was also a few that suffered from D&V but that was more likely to be the fault of people not staying on top of their personal hygene.

      Ploče was a horrible place to be based, but It was home and in light of what was going on in that region at the time it was a relief to return their at the end of a trip up country.

      I guess the important point is to remember that our troops often do hard and dangerous jobs in unpleasant places. We forget that even though they may be in the comparative safety of a base they are not always comfortable, but they will do their best to have fun.Perhaps I will have to write a poem about a regimental dinner night we held in that same 'Big Top' cook house on another stormy night;-)

      What is important to remember is that Service men and women are trained to make the most of a bad lot. Their inherent sense of black humour helps make light of the dark and the bonds formed in such situations mean they are seldom alone. They are remarkable people who deserve our respect.

      Delete
  2. You have a way with words...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yikes! You've reminded me that I can't complain about simple things like not having hot water. I can't even imagine any person living in an environment like how you describe so eloquently in your post and your poem. I definitely have a renewed appreciation and respect for soldiers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Samantha,
      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that my post and poem had that effect on you. Our soldiers have to put up with a huge amount. One positive thing about Ploče was that there was a lack of hostile shooting in the area; I know that those currently serving in Afghanistan have to put up with their share of natural problems but also the constant threat of people trying to shoot them or blow them up. They earn our respect every day and I’m particularly aware of this as I watch politicians who live in the lap of luxury slug it out in the States for control of the nation that started it all. Once again thanks for your comment.
      John

      Delete
  4. John, even after all this...................it was still a pleasure to share a tent with you at PDC. Yours aye Mark Harrison (Captain Retd) and the best looking one in the command team, including you, Ridley, Jim, Lizzie, Susie & the SSM!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mark, Great to hear from you. I can assure you that the feeling is mutual, we had a lot of fun back then. It would be great to catch up with you some time. All the best. JB

      Delete
  5. I was there at that time, felt sorry for the Royal Anglian's as they got flooded out totally twice, the RE built their camp on a really bad place

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, Yes it was pretty grim for them. A good bunch of lads though.

      Delete

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