Not your everyday view of the Red Arrows!

The Eagle Formation over Akrotiri, 14 April 2011.  Image taken by Sqn Ldr Graeme Bagnall and located here:

The Eagle Formation over Akrotiri, 14 April 2011. Image taken by Sqn Ldr Graeme Bagnall and located here:

One of the many benefits to living at Akrotiri, in Cyprus, is the thrice-daily Red Arrows display in the spring!  Sitting with a coffee on your patio, or venturing to the cliff tops, residents are treated to a variety of exciting aerobatic manoeuvres as the Reds undertake their annual spring training.  However, this photo above is one spectacular view residents never get to see!


Short Diamond Loop over RAF Akrotiri. Photo located at:

Many love the opportunity to watch the Red Arrows at close quarters and away from the crowds and others (eventually) look forward to the quieter times when the Reds return to the UK!  Excitement or quiet-seeker aside, most residents agree that it is one of the wonders of living at RAF Akrotiri!

Embracing change: my experience of living in military housing, overseas

Not too long ago I found myself advising a close friend to try to be excited about a life-changing move. Her husband had accepted a job overseas and to say she didn’t want to re-locate was putting it mildly. And I knew those feelings all too well. Seven years ago, we found out we were moving to Cyprus and although I had a flicker of excitement, I really didn’t want to go. I had a great job and my family and friends were in the UK; why would I want to give that all up? But as a good military wife does, I packed up the house and went without [too much] complaint. Three years later, I didn’t want to come home as despite a rocky start, I had learnt to embrace the differences and had the most amazing time. But in the first few weeks, I could never have anticipated that…

Five hours after take off, we arrived at RAF Akrotiri as a family. This was no mean feat given that my then eighteen-month-old daughter had first been booked onto a different flight to us and then, after I queried this anomaly, the same flight, but a different seat. A few minutes into the guided tour of my first ever military house, I was overwhelmed by misgivings about this overseas house move. I should point out that I had always, until this point, chosen to live off base in civilian housing. Ed, who showed us around and had not lived off base for some years, mistook my silence for delight at how large the house was. ‘I know, it’s huge, isn’t it!’ he enthusiastically trilled. I summoned up a half-hearted smile to hide my disappointment: big it may have been but beautiful it certainly wasn’t!

The house tour got progressively worse and I could only deduce that whoever styled military houses, took their inspiration from schools and hospitals. After despairing at the hospital-style railings and doors, 1980s taste in wall and floor tiles and lurid-green carpets with matching curtains, DSC02253pelmets and sofa covers, I encountered my first cockroach. That’s right, as a thoughtful nod to its new housemates, a cockroach was languidly strolling across the living room floor. Welcome to your new home! images

And so it was that in the early hours of the morning, I found myself desperate for a pee but unable to leave the relative-safety of my bed for fear of treading on one of the hard-shelled critters. Just to compound matters, the next day I found my curiously-named welcome-in pack; detailing all the ‘differences’ we might encounter: snakes, processionary caterpillars, scorpions, cockroaches, ant infestations and ‘what to do in the event of an earthquake’. Differences: were they serious? Surely differences would have been warmer water flowing through the taps, slow-flushing toilets and heat waves; not once had I considered that I would be sharing my house and garden with scorpions and snakes! Where was that in the glossy holiday brochures? Welcome to Cyprus indeed; I gave my husband a two-week limit where if I saw one more cockroach, or anything else from the welcome-in pack, I was on a flight UK-bound.

A few days in, I discovered that the sand-encrusted carpets were laid over a tiled floor. Granted, not limestone, slate or travertine, but tiles nonetheless. I started to see light at the end of this questionably-decorated house; light in the form of proper mediterranean living with stone floors that were much more suited to a hot, dusty and sandy environment. My aspirations were quickly quashed by those-in-the-know: no stone floors for the Brits living here, no, we had to have carpets. I was, however, informed that I could go and choose some new carpets as ours were several years old and a spectrum of hope re-appeared. Not for long though: flicking through the swatches I was unsure whether to laugh or cry: navy, pink, emerald green, or burnt orange… and then I chanced upon oatmeal. This was it! A fairly neutral, unoffensive colour, that just might improve the decor. ‘I’ll have that one,’ I gushed to the Cypriot in charge. After a long and heated phone call to his colleague [Cypriots rarely talk passively on the phone, it sounds like an argument to the un-trained ear] my hopes were again dashed; they had unsurprisingly run out of oatmeal as it was the most popular colour on the base. And so I found myself ruminating over the other choices. Should I choose pink and make a home Barbie would be proud of; a Barbie dreamhouse? Or should I choose burnt orange and give our guests a strong talking point? Or maybe even navy just to finish off that institutional-styled decor? Choices, choices…

Pushing my luck, I braved asking if we could also change the sofa covers, which were a shiny nylon, tie-dye effect; just perfect for bare legs on a hot, humid day!Picture 076 After a few moments of staring at me in disapproval – I gleamed that asking for more than one change is not the done thing – he banged around in his cupboards and reluctantly presented me with the sofa cover swatches. In sheer incredulity, I pored over the rainbow of other shiny nylon, tie-dye effect colours and realised this was one futile battle. Thankfully, good fortune stepped in as our possessions arrived from the UK a few weeks later and we could say a welcome cheerio to all-but-one tasteless shiny nylon-covered sofa.

After a shaky few weeks getting used to military housing and a very different way of living, I found myself thinking ‘it’s not so bad really’ and this was a real eye opener. The old part of me was a little worried that I was losing my sense of house style, whereas the new part of me was relishing new experiences. Yes the houses had pretty bad decor, but if anything went wrong in the house, someone would come to fix it. We also had a ready-made strong and supportive community, as at some point we had all been in the same position, resulting in a highly-active social life. Other experiences left us bemused: every few months the toilets would block and the sewage team would have to come and saw tree roots out of the toilets; having completed their job – often without protective gloves – it was not unknown for them to tweak my daughter’s cheek on their way out, commenting how cute she was! Or the time someone came to check a leaking gas cylinder in the garden; complete with cigarette in mouth…things were certainly approached differently, but that was, oddly, part of the charm!

As difficult as the first few weeks were: leaving behind an old life and starting a new one, looking back I can say that it was one of the best things I ever did.  Cyprus has some beautiful, relatively-undiscovered areas and the Cypriots are passionate, warm and very child-friendly people.  I am so glad that I did not act on my early misgivings by coming home and would counsel anyone in a similar position to give it time.  In case you are wondering about whether I encountered any more of the delights from our welcome-in pack; yes I did! But it wasn’t too bad, in three years we encountered: one scorpion in the living room, one snake in the garden, a never-ending supply of ants, countless cockroaches and one earthquake. Creepy crawlies-aside, getting on that flight to come home was just as difficult as the outbound flight had been three years earlier!

Honouring 115 Squadron

It’s somehow fitting to visit the memorial to 115 Squadron in the rain.

The Memorial to 115 Squadron at what was RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire

The Memorial to 115 Squadron at what was RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire

The air is still, no-one else is around and the gloomy, overcast sky renders the perfect backdrop to allow silent thoughts about my grandad, who was a rear-gunner in 115 Squadron.  Ronald flew 30 operations in a Wellington bomber and was fortunate – the life expectancy of rear gunners was desperately short -to return home safely to meet his newborn son: my dad.

The back of the Memorial to 115 Squadron

The back of the Memorial to 115 Squadron

It is touching to learn that the Squadron still exists in the form of 155 Squadron Association and 115 (R) Squadron, Central Flying School, who have both made the journey to leave Poppy wreaths at the Memorial.

Since writing Rear gunners: a perilous and lonely war  I was honoured to receive a comment on the blog post from Ron Goldstein, a WWII Veteran who served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Egypt, Austria and Germany.  Ron’s late brother, Jack, was a mid-upper gunner who perished over Nuremberg in March 1945.  Ron’s story about his brother threw me back into my research about gunners and this story about Andrew Mynarski, a Canadian recipient of a posthumous Victoria Cross, brought home, once again, the utter bravery and selflessness of these aircrews:

Andrew Mynarski, a mid-upper gunner, was taking part in the crew’s 13th operation on 12 and 13 June 1944, when their Lancaster was hit by an enemy nightfighter.  Losing both port engines, the pilot ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft, without realising that Pat Brophy, the rear gunner, was trapped in his turret.  Andrew Mynarski slid down from his mid-upper turret and made his way to the rear escape hatch; he was about to jump when he noticed Pat Brophy was trapped.  Without thought for his own safety, he turned away from the hatch and started crawling in the cramped conditions through the blazing hydraulic oil. By the time he reached the rear gunner, his uniform and parachute were on fire.  After several desperate attempts to release Pat Brophy from the turret, with a fire axe and his bare hands, Pat Brophy gesticulated for Andrew Mynarski to leave; as the situation was impossible and Andrew Mynarski was, by this stage, a mass of flames below his waist.  There was no way to turn around in the confined quarters, so Andrew Mynarski had to crawl backwards through the hydraulic fire again, to return to the escape hatch; where he paused and saluted Pat Brophy before jumping.   Andrew Mynarski survived his landing, but later died of severe burns.  The remainder of the crew survived; four successfully evading capture and two others becoming Prisoners of War. Pat Brophy lived to tell the tale as the Lancaster’s crash landing forced the turret open and pitched him out.  Later, Pat Brophy said, “I’ll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen, so that the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend.”

Sainsbury’s Christmas advert puts the penguin in the cold; or does it?

Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, which aired last night and was produced in support of the Royal British Legion (RBL), features a poignant short film about the  Christmas truce that took place between British and German troops outside their trenches in December 2014, and has already courted controversy and sparked debate.  The advert beautifully depicts when the guns fell silent on Christmas Eve and men from both sides met in their hundreds to exchange greetings and small gifts and, reportedly, played football together.  Considering the strength of feeling this advert has provoked, Juliet and I explore the opposing sides to ask whether this advert is a beautiful and humbling message about the true values of Christmas, or, as the critics claim, a commercial venture to emotionally manipulate us into shopping at Sainsbury’s.


The exchange of greetings on the Sainsbury’s advert.

Louise…I found myself completely mesmerised by the poignant scenes, depicting the WWI Christmas truce,  unfolding in front of me on the television last night.  When I realised this emotional short film was, in fact, an advert for Sainsburys, in support of the RBL,  I felt compelled to write how much it had affected me, as I was taken aback that a major retailer would promote the Christmas values of friendship, kindness and sharing, rather than the usual adverts for the latest gadgets, expensive toys and materialistic gain.  So I was quite surprised to see that, in the thirty minutes since it had aired, critics were saying that Sainsbury’s should be ashamed to use a story from the bloodiest conflict this century to encourage visits to their store.  Were the critics right?  If this had been a one-off show of support, I might have agreed with them; but Sainsbury’s have been a prolific supporter of the RBL for 20 years.

A recent collaboration between Sainsbury's and the Royal British Legion

A recent collaboration between Sainsbury’s and the Royal British Legion

In 2013, Sainsbury’s raised around £4.5 million for the RBL, they are the only major supermarket to allow the RBL prominent stands in their stores; selling poppies and other merchandise for the Poppy Appeal and traditionally they are one of the last major retailers to air their Christmas advert: as they wait until after Armistice day, in respect of their support for the RBL .   Yes, there is product placement in the advert; but only in the form of a bar of chocolate – given by a British soldier to a German soldier – which can be purchased from Sainsbury’s with profits going to the RBL.  Which brings me to my next consideration: critics are asking why only such a small amount is being donated…

The scene with the chocolate bar

The scene with the chocolate bar

Bringing to life the bar of chocolate from the film, so that people could purchase it in store and raise money for the charity, was a very clever piece of advertising.  It is well-documented that during the Christmas truce, soldiers swapped small gifts of chocolate, tobacco, alcohol and shoulder badges.  Imagine if the film had included a more expensive gift so that Sainsbury’s could be seen to raise more money for the charity: that would not have had the same historic accuracy, it would not have fit with the message portrayed of traditional Christmas values and fewer people would have purchased it!  Charities know that more people can make low-value donations and a £1 bar of chocolate fits this bill.

But really the proceeds from the chocolate bar is not all that Sainsbury’s have donated.

It is my guess that it was intended as a way for people to feel they can get involved and raise money at the same time; not dissimilar to pouring buckets of water over our heads or taking selfies and publishing the pictures!

More importantly, this advert was aired on a prime time slot on television – during Coronation Street – when typical viewing figures are between 7 and 10 million and the advert slot can cost between £50-100,000.  That’s not factoring in the cost of producing the advert!  A charity would never spend this sum on a television advert: imagine the outcry if they did! As an ex-PR Manager for a national charity I know too well the double-edged sword of desiring that sort of profile opportunity to increase donations and consequently help more of your benefactors and yet the inevitable criticism that would ensue if you did.  That is one of the reasons corporate sponsors are so important in the charity sector!

The fact that this advert has already sparked debate, shows the power of advertising and a raised profile for a charity goes hand-in-hand with extra donations; which ultimately means more funds for their benefactors! Let’s not forget that typically after Remembrance Sunday, people lose focus on the RBL until the next year.  This advert and its associated debate could keep the charity in people’s minds until Christmas and beyond!   It is also highly unlikely that the RBL would sanction this advert without first securing the opinion of their members and benefactors and if they sanctioned it, should we really raise objections?

Charles Byrne, director of fundraising for the Royal British Legion, said: “We’re very proud of our 20-year partnership with Sainsbury’s and this campaign is particularly important.

“One hundred years on from the 1914 Christmas truce, the campaign remembers the fallen, while helping to raise vital funds to support the future of living.”

Would Sainsbury’s spend so much money on producing and airing an advert completely altruistically?   

Of course this raises their profile, of course it shows them to be a strong charity-supporter and of course this might encourage people to favour them over less-giving retailers!  But, having worked in the charity sector for a number of years, I can sadly say that very little charity support is completely altruistic; unless there is a personal involvement.  Not wanting to burst any bubbles….but there tends to be a connection between how much media coverage an event is likely to attract, as to how much celebrity support you will realise and, in turn, how much corporate support you might achieve.

In summary, I can understand how some might find it distasteful for Sainsbury’s to draw on WWI for their Christmas advert.  However, Sainsbury’s would have produced a Christmas advert anyway and surely it is better they spend that money on producing and broadcasting this advert, which advocates traditional Christmas values 1415881786455_Image_galleryImage_image001_pngand supports a very worthwhile charity, than spending it on an advert promoting the latest must-have toys and gadgets!  Some would argue that they could have anonymously donated the money to RBL if it was a truly altruistic gesture.  Yes they could, but this would not have been such a poignant tribute to a worthwhile charity, it would not have brought to life the fact that even in the darkest moments of history and the most arduous of times, there can be great humanity.  And it  would not have kept the RBL in our minds beyond the annual poppy appeal.


Juliet… 2014, fittingly, has been the Year of the Poppy, a year in which we reflect on the tragic centenary of the commencement of the First World War. This most bloody and grim event of the past 100 years has been at the forefront of the nations’ psyche, arguably the pinnacle of which has been the unprecedented flocking of hundreds of thousands to the Tower of London to see the 886,000 ceramic poppies in the “Bloodswept Seas” installation. My own home town of Folkestone has paid its own tribute at the top of the Road of Remembrance, a hilltop street which sweeps down to the former harbour, the crest of which is adorned with a majestic silver arch to commemorate the MILLIONS of young, British souls who “stepped short” down the hill to the awaiting military ships bound for Dunkerque. Many souls never returned.

So, indeed, there is room for reflection to honour and ennoble the many who died for our freedom between 1914 and 1918.

And, now, Sainsbury’s have taken their turn to remind of us of the horrors of war.

Except they haven’t. They have exploited this current vulnerability of the British psyche and are using this profound imagery to stamp their particular brand firmly into our subconscious.

Yesterday, I tuned in to view a beautiful, evocative mini-film depicting the well-documented “Christmas Day” incident of 2014 when soldiers in both British and German trenches abandoned fighting for a few short hours to play football, exchange gifts and sing hymns. The cinematic appeal of this short film was flawless – the tones of ‘Silent Night’ from the Brits mingled with ‘Stille Nacht’ from the German trenches, mists swirled about the fresh, young, yet battle-worn faces of the soldiers; two young lads compare photographs of sweethearts

Comparing photos of sweethearts

Comparing photos of sweethearts

and, at the tear jerking end, it culminated in a German boy-soldier returning to his trench to discover a simple bar of chocolate that had been gifted to him by a man he had recently, and would again, call his enemy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Then it happened…. the ‘Sainsbury’s’ logo appeared with the simple legend “Christmas is for Sharing”.

And that is when a little bit of bile came up in my throat.

It occurred to me, all too late, that I had just spent the last four minutes being cynically and cruelly emotionally manipulated.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I do understand that this advertisement was made “In conjunction with the Royal British Legion”, and one could argue that this could only be a good thing. However the fact remains, in my eyes that this, first and foremost was a blatant campaign by a leading supermarket to raise their profile by jumping on the current bandwagon and hitting the nation’s heart when it is currently, very plainly, upon its sleeve.

On one level, I have to offer some kudos to Sainsbury’s. Every year there seems to be rampant competition for retail outlets to produce the most memorable, most discussed, most breath-taking Christmas advertising campaign. The increased use of social networking has perpetuated this exponentially as so many (myself included) are charmed and endeared by these mini-movies, as they have become, that they share them across all media platforms, ultimately doing the PR work for the companies concerned. This sharing also requires that the advertising companies have to pull something better out of the bag every year, for it to reach the pinnacle of publicity.

So far, John Lewis seems to have cornered the market, with cartoon bunnies, and hibernating bears, snowmen on the quest for the perfect gift for their significant others and, this year a cutesy, yet obviously sexually frustrated stuffed penguin and his best-friend-cum-pimp of a little boy.

All the other retail bigwigs must have been wringing their hands in anguish. I imagine a number advertising executives were called in at very short notice with the demand “how the hell are we going to top that?”

Perhaps, a group of young, creative types gathered around a fancy perspex table in an advertising agency somewhere, contemplating what they could do to win the most prized of accolades – Christmas Advert of the Year – discussed something like this:

“How about a twist on the nativity?” “Nope- been done before”

“Fluffy animals and adorable kids?”  “Too late, John Lewis are all over that”

…and then, in the corner of the room, a small voice pipes up: “how about using something that’s been big in the news this year?”

…a hush falls over the conference room…. “Go on…” barks a gruff CEO.

well, erm, well.. we can’t do Princess  Kate’s pregnancy (although she would have made a lovely Mary)… ISIS is a no-go…erm…I KNOW!!!!! The First World War Centenary. EVERYBODY’S talking about it…the Poppies at the Tower of London have been massive (how did we not secure the contract on that one?)”

There are numerous murmurings across the board table…”so, exactly how are you going to link WW1 with Christmas?”

What about that fateful Christmas Day in 1914, when the guns silenced for just a few hours in honour of the Nativity? It was supposedly an amazing event – I saw a film about it once. I think it was called ‘Pipes of Peace’ by Paul McCartney”

Sounds interesting – but how does that all link in with the Sainsbury’s brand, and how do we get folk to come shopping at our supermarkets?”

Well – we could make it a huge cinematic event, engage all the emotional fodder we can muster, – beautiful cinematography; fresh, handsome actors; authentic costumes (but none of that nasty mud, blood and trench foot stuff – it is Christmas after all). And here’s the best bit – no Christmas schmaltz whatsoever. Opinion polls indicate that the viewing public get a bit over-saturated with tinsel and fairies. They want gritty realism – and sincerity – so let’s give it to them. Let’s break down the British public to a sobbing, sniffling over-emotional mess and then, while they’re on their knees – BLAM – whack ‘em with the Sainsbury’s logo which will stick in their subconscious the next time they go shopping. If people are rejecting John Lewis for their over-sentimentality, let us be “the nice guys” that they choose to shop with because we have a ‘conscience’ for the veterans.”

Only one problem – how do we convince the public of our sincerity?”

Get the Royal British Legion on board, they are desperate enough for the support that they daren’t resist us. We are one of the Big Three supermarkets, who wouldn’t want to be associated with Sainsbury’s? And, for good measure, why don’t we sell a bar of chocolate in our stores, the proceeds of which go to the RBL. And that chocolate bar will feature in the advert so people will FEEL BETTER when they buy one.”

But what if they come to our stores just to buy the bar of chocolate?”

Nobody comes to Sainsbury’s just to buy a bar of chocolate….and once they’re through the doors, we’ve got ‘em..By the wallets

Great work – and I propose that we use the tagline ‘Christmas is for Sharing’ – for, let’s face it, our Shares are going to go up after this one

  • Cue much corporate guffawing, back-slapping and exchanging of cigars and fine whiskey –

So there we have it, well at least in my cynical old head. Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, perhaps the sentiment is genuine. However did it have to be branded with the Sainsbury’s logo, no matter how ‘subtle’ the message is? Any good advertising executive will tell you that ‘subtle’ equals ‘subliminal’ and that is bad enough. And there are many out there who will be suckered into shopping at Sainsbury’s because of this ‘message’ they purport.

Maybe I have got the message all wrong – perhaps this advertising campaign, using the image of war is a metaphor for the Supermarket Wars between the likes of Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s et al. Is it just coincidence that the ‘enemies’ are German – a bit like Aldi and Lidl???

Whatever is it, I resent the vile emotional manipulation and cynical   brand-appropriation of an extraordinary moment in history. – The shameful self-aggrandisement by associating a retail brand with those who we should be honouring, not exploiting to sell our wares.

Soldiers in the trenches did not exchange a special brand of chocolate, I imagine that they didn’t give a stuff about what brand of Christmas pudding to pick for the table that year. They were fighting for their lives in dirty, bloody, terrifying circumstances.

They were fighting for our freedom.

And to distort this true event, which rose up in the midst of the fear and gore, into a “chocolate box moment” so that we can use this mythology to sell turkeys, is wrong on so many levels. It dishonours and cheapens the fallen.

How would the dead feel now to know that their strife have been reduced to a gimmick that buys in wholeheartedly to the commercialism of the festive period? Would they have stepped so willingly down that hill to their potential doom?

Don’t be fooled by the endorsement by the Royal British Legion, they were just a vehicle to allow Sainsbury’s to cash in on the surge of feeling and support for the dead of 1914-1918.

Buy a poppy, join the RBL, read about the true stories of the fallen, pay your respects.

Go shopping in Sainsbury’s for all I care. But don’t, for one moment, believe that this campaign is borne of a true conscience.




Harnessing the healing powers of the sea to help military personnel

Once you have worked in the charity sector, you may never want to leave.  As clichéd as it may sound, it really is true that your work feels more worthwhile when you know that it is making a difference to someone, somewhere.  I spent several years working as the PR Manager of Kidney Research UK and remember being surprised in my early days as to how much of the funding for scientific advances comes from the charity sector.  And how invaluable therefore the public’s donations really are!  Being the PR manager of a UK charity was never going to work logistically from an Air Force base in Cyprus, but luckily I was able to continue using my PR expertise by working for a local events committee.  We also lucked out with our house as we had the nicest neighbours, who I had the utmost respect and admiration for.  Not because they threw lots of fun dinner parties -which they did! – but because they endured so much: Shaun, the husband and dad, had to go on frequent operations due to his role as a casualty nurse.  Shaun’s experiences led him to set up a most-inspiring charity: here’s his story:

As Officer Commanding the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), Shaun and his team brought emergency care over the skies of Afghanistan, via the Chinook helicopter, to retrieve the casualties on the battlefield. Clearly the nature of the job often meant that the MERT team would also have been under fire as they set out to save people’s lives.   What Shaun and his team must have seen and felt is unfathomable and this was surely compounded for all the families by being separated for long and frequent periods of time.

Shaun increasingly found the transition on returning home challenging but, after completing a Royal Yachting Association Yachtsmaster Offshore course during his resettlement, he realised that the effect of the sea was hugely beneficial: “I felt in a better place: it markedly improved my interaction with others; delivering a new sense of purpose, value and belonging.”  Shaun decided to turn his harrowing experiences into an opportunity for other Armed Forces personnel and their families, by setting up the Turn to Starboard charity, which uses RYA sailing courses to support Armed Forces personnel – serving and retired – that have been affected by military operations.

Spirit of Falmouth

Spirit of Falmouth

In sailing terms when two boats are heading towards each other, the action of both of them turning to starboard [turning to the right] avoids a potential collision.  And this is how Shaun came up with the charity’s name: “We use sailing to help Service Personnel and their families make the right turn.  Sailing is known to provide elements conducive to the ethos of the Armed Forces; including team cohesion, the challenge of adventurous training and leadership skills.  We are a group of Yachtmasters and volunteers; civilian, ex-service and serving and most of us have experienced  the challenge posed upon transitioning from hostile conditions during military operations, to returning to normal life.  It can be hard to share and discuss our experiences; even with loved ones. But by grouping these individuals together, we provide them with an opportunity to share their experiences and begin their journey of re-adjustment. Our focus is on re-integration and re-engagement whilst providing something tangible in the form of an internationally-recognisable qualification, in a supportive and unique environment.”

The sea, a soothing and powerful force of nature, has long been thought to provide a welcome relief from stress, anxiety and tension and these testimonials say it all:

Aaron, aged 10: “My daddy came back from Afghanistan, but when we went sailing he really came back.” 

Ben: “I was injured in 2012… I have not had anybody to talk to properly and I have never been able to speak to anyone with post traumatic stress disorder, so it’s been a very lonely and extremely isolated journey for me.  Going on Turn to Starboard, without a doubt, turned my life around.  I have been able to talk openly for the first time…the week sailing was the first time since tour that I have been able to be me and feel like I belong somewhere and fit in as part of the team…I intend to continue sailing as much as possible and get my family involved.”  


Tall Ships Regatta, 2014

Paul: “The week on the yacht was amazing, for the first time since 2006 I haven’t had to apologise for not being able to keep up, or take part…I felt part of a team and that I had the ability to was the first time in eight years that I have slept well..I felt safe in the presence of like-minded people..I felt excited, exhilaration, I felt like I used to feel…I could hear the noise of the sea and the sound of the water…I felt free, I felt alive.”



Rear gunners: a perilous and lonely war

Wellington Bomber's rear gunner's turret RAF museum, Cosford

Wellington Bomber’s rear gunner’s turret
RAF Museum, Cosford

This tiny turret, right at the tail end of a Wellington Bomber, is where my grandad spent much of the war.  Squeezed into this transparent dome, Ronald, a rear gunner in 115 Squadron,  spent many hours a night flying backwards in cramped, freezing and solitary conditions.  But he was one of the lucky ones:  he came home.  For the life expectancy of a rear gunner was desperately short; estimates vary but suggest that they could expect to be shot down, or killed, within two weeks, or up to five operations.  My grandad flew and survived 30 operations, which was classed as a whole tour.

The rear gunner’s -often known as tail-end Charlie’s – primary role was to be a lookout: to defend his aircraft from enemy fighter attack from the rear of the plane and to warn the pilot when to undertake evasive manoeuvres.  This meant flying in this confined, see-through turret, enveloped by the pitch-black sky and constantly revolving the turret to scan the eerie darkness for a shadow that could be an attacking night fighter.  Daydreaming was not an option as relaxing this constant vigilance – for even a moment – could result in death for everyone on board.

Grandad's log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/04/42

Grandad's log book entry, 29/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 29/07/42

Staring at the rear gunners position on a Lancaster at IWM Duxford  [which has the same rear position as a Wellington], I struggle to comprehend how a grown man could enter and fit into this seemingly-uninhabitable small space, let alone spend up to eight hours a night, flying backwards in such cramped and surely claustrophobic conditions.

Rear Gunner's turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Rear Gunner’s turret on a Lancaster, RAF Duxford

Protruding right at the back of a huge and heavy plane, the turret’s position must have made the rear gunners feel so isolated, so far from the rest of the crew and so lonely.  I poignantly wonder what was worse; the isolation, the vulnerability, or maybe even the pressure from the sense of responsibility for the lives of everyone on board.  On their own at the end of the plane, a sheet of draughty perspex and metal between them and the surrounding darkness; they were completely exposed and bitterly cold in their transparent turret.   They would have known that their position often put them first in line for elimination by the enemy fighter planes, who tended to attack from the rear and under the belly of the bomber, so that they could attack without fear of being shot at.   According to Yorkshire Air Museum,  20,000 rear gunners lost their lives during WWII.

A recruitment video from WWII, left me with the sense that each role on board these planes was inter-dependent on each other.  They most likely had complete trust in each other and probably felt rather helpless or vulnerable when the operation was out of their hands.  Whether it was the pilots hearing gunfire from one of the gunners and not knowing exactly what was happening; or the front gunner handing over to the rear gunner, or vice versa, as the enemy plane veered by; or one of the gunners telling the pilot to take evasive action, their lives depended upon each other.  Imagine the susceptibility the gunners must have felt from their detached position as the plane dived to escape an enemy fighter; or was hit by enemy fire and spun out of control: smoke and flames pouring from its crippled engine.

Grandad's log book entry, 02/07/42

Grandad’s log book entry, 02/07/42

And yet, reading this entry from my grandad’s log, it just seems like another day at work.  How humbling that such a – surely terrifying – moment can be summed up in so few words.  As Mark, a friend and author of  Caribbean Volunteers at War, poignantly said: ‘Within those few words, lies an entire film.’

My grandfather died when I was at University and as most young people do, I paid scant interest in his wartime exploits.  I fondly remember him showing me some of his wartime memorabilia in his garden shed and I treasure my grandmother’s Wings that the wives were given.  But my dad says he rarely talked about his wartime experiences.

Ronald, my grandad

Ronald, my grandad

I do remember his effervescent personality and now as I stare at this turret at IWM Duxford, I wonder if his wartime experiences led to that zest for life, or perhaps he was always like that, which might help explain how he endured so many hours in such a lonely place.

And I remember my grandmother and her sister saying how us young people don’t know how lucky we are: how they didn’t see their husbands for up to a year, or more, during the war.  Whenever I have felt a bit low during my husband’s deployments, their words ring true in my mind; after all, what is a few months, compared to a year or longer?


Grandma's Wings

Grandma’s Wings

Scaring new neighbours away

Our Guest blogger Iona is worried her sons have chased her new neighbours away:

Neighbours come and neighbours go…. rather more frequently for the military family than a civilian one. We are in a rather small quarter, and with three growing boys – the eldest of whom is now taller than me, when even in the highest of heels [me not him, I should point out] – we are all rather on top of one another at half-terms and holidays.

New neighbours arrived this half term.  As they have moved from overseas they have had a long and slow move in, with the usual hiccups from the various departments that deal with military housing, compounded with their stuff arriving from overseas, and furniture being released from storage.

My sympathies are with them; I have been in that position twice and it is an emotional affair, especially arriving at a small quarter and realising nothing will fit. Most wives I know in this patch have burst into tears, at some point, within 24 hours of arriving. For me, it was when the removal man brought another box into my tiny kitchen and asked where he could put it.  I couldn’t answer him, because every space was full and so I sobbed ‘I don’t know’.  At this point he made me a cup of milky sweet tea and reassured me it would be alright, everyone did this!

Back to my new neighbours: they have been friendly and don’t seem to have been overwhelmed by the move; even when their heating didn’t work, they seemed to take it in their stride.  Apart from today…I arrived back to see them leaving to return to their hotel. They didn’t look happy at all, nor did they look me in the eye, or even acknowledge me… it must have gone badly today I thought.

It was then that I heard the bagpiping, emanating at top volume from my house. No 1 son had been practising whilst I had nipped to the shops. Could this explain their bad day? I wanted to run after them and say ‘sorry’ or something to that effect, but I was too late, they were driving off around the corner.

If it is any consolation to them,  my boys go to boarding school; they can take some comfort that the bagpipers only return on half-terms and holidays and most of the time can’t be bothered to practise. I can just imagine how novice bagpipers at full volume must have been the icing on the cake during the chaos of an overseas house move…but at least when you get your next quarter allocation, you know the house next door to me is occupied…. for now!

Confession time (sent in by anonymous)

I love this confession sent in by an anonymous blogger!  Have you any funny, or embarrassing, or cringeworthy confessions you would like to share?  

Calpol confession….

I love the slot on the Simon Mayo Radio 2 show where people confess their extremely funny and sometimes cringe-worthy past sins. In homage to Simon Mayo’s confessions, here is mine.

Regimental life in the army is demanding on the soldiers, but also on the family. Whilst my husband was commanding his regiment in Germany, the battalion organised a wives exercise as a morale boost. For the uninitiated, this is where the wife becomes solider for the weekend and the husband takes on the children. When the training team approached me with the proposed date I enthusiastically gushed that although I would really love to come, I would sadly have to decline as I was taking No. 1 son back to boarding school that weekend.

A couple of weeks later, back came the news…. the weekend had been changed and what’s more, they had checked with the Commanding Officer and I was indeed free that weekend! The fixed grin, that I had learned to adopt, when I became the Commanding Officer’s wife, was fully deployed, as I gushed my appreciation at their thoughtfulness. 😀

I immediately set about recruiting some other wives to come along; after all, if I was doing it, then I was going to make sure others would suffer too! The day came, rumours had been abounding about the weekend: apparently we were going to be searched when we turned up, raided at night and all sorts of other delights. This was going to be grim! However, with the game-for-a-laugh friends I had recruited, I thought we would get through it alright; especially if I packed a morale boost for the long, cold night ahead of us.  Although chocolate normally works for me, I felt the occasion required something stronger and searching the house, I came upon a bottle of home-made sloe gin; perfect, although as the bottle was so huge, I would need something to decant it into. Time was short and the only thing I could find was a bottle of out-of-date Calpol, with some dregs in the bottom. Rather pleased with myself, I rinsed it out, and filled it with sloe gin, wrapped it up in a pair of socks and packed it in my bergen (army speak for back pack).

We turned up at the exercise with some trepidation and to a lot of rather amused soldiers who were unable to stifle their smirks. Off we set in the minibus, to a weekend in the wilderness. All my fears were unfounded and the weekend proved to be great fun. We embarked on off-road land-rover driving, we fired rifles in the laser range and we built our bivouacs – although there was the option of a tent – we decided to really go for it! My favourite part was the army survival expert, who had set up a stand of food he had collected in the wild: elderflower cordial, rabbit stew, and various types of insects he had prepared in interesting ways; such as caramelised crickets and meal worms sautéed in brandy etc. Nobody could stomach the thought of the cooked insects, so I thought I should lead from the front and tried meal worms and then cricket: apart from the legs, which were a bit weird, it was not as bad as I had thought! That evening, an amazing spread appeared, as if from nowhere, food and wine flowed in abundance. And my little bottle of sloe gin remained in my rucksack; largely forgotten…

Despite being full of food and wine, none of us got much sleep, as we had a snorer in the bivvy. So by the end of the next day, after mounting an infantry attack, complete with camouflaged helmets, rifles, and two magazines of blank rounds, we were all pretty tired. When I got home, I had a lovely bath and shunted the rucksack to one side. On Monday, my soldering experience was a happy memory, it was back to the routine of being a mum, and getting sons No. 2 and 3 ready for school.

Lovely Barbara, my domestic assistant, arrived for the morning and being so amazingly helpful, unpacked my rucksack and sorted everything out. The Calpol bottle was restored to the medicine cabinet, and forgotten.

Some months later, I was in London for the weekend, at a study day for the degree I am trying to do whilst juggling everything else. I had also met up with some university friends and we were having a great time, apart from the constant calls from my darling husband; who being a big tough soldier, has never really played much of a part in the day-to-day running of the children’s lives.

The ‘phone rang again. What drama now? Well, apparently this time, No. 3 was ill. I was a little sceptical, as No. 3 can sometimes magic up a sore waist (which is apparently totally different to a sore tummy) when mummy is going somewhere he doesn’t want her to go. I advised my normal practice would be to shove the electronic ear thermometer in, and try and persuade No. 3 that there was nothing actually wrong with him, unless the thermometer told me otherwise, in which case to give him a dose of Calpol.

The phone rang 10 minutes later. There was indeed a problem.  No temperature, but apparently the Calpol was off, as it had made No. 3 immediately vomit. Lots of ranting ensued about the quality of Calpol and how ridiculous this was.

The cogs started to whir in my brain.  I had never heard of Calpol going off before….. and suddenly the penny dropped. He had given No. 3 a spoonful of sloe gin rather than a spoonful of Calpol…. aaaaaaagh! I remained largely silent, not wanting to exacerbate the situation by suddenly confessing it was all my fault.  I made the odd sympathetic muttering, and suggested the Calpol should be disposed of, so that it didn’t get mixed up with the good medicines.

So my confession is now out there. I will beg forgiveness from No. 3, when he is a little older, and he will hopefully see the funny side. However, I will not beg forgiveness from darling husband, as really, by child number No. 3, he really has no excuse for not knowing what Calpol smells like!!




A new chapter: leaving the RAF

Next year I will be swapping military life for civilian life.  After fifteen years of a nomadic lifestyle; with one or both of us moving around the country, or world, every few years, we will be settling down in the same place; living together.  That sounds perfectly normal for many people, but when living apart has become your normality, it can also sound perfectly odd!   If I am honest, even though we chose this,  when we first got the news I mostly felt a sense of sadness and nostalgia for the lifestyle we will be leaving behind.  Fast forward several weeks and this news is mostly welcome now; but I am still not entering into it without trepidation:

How will we adjust?  A husband coming home every evening is not something I am all that familiar with: the closest we came to that was in Cyprus, but even then he would have the odd week or two elsewhere.  For the past year we have barely seen each other: living apart during the week and then four months complete separation.  We will have to be mindful of each others needs for space and different routines…

Will my husband be happy doing a normal 9 to 5 job; without all the excitement of the military?  How will he cope without his jollies –  sorry – I meant adventurous training!

And will our children remember their amazing experiences?

  •  Sitting in on a Red Arrows briefing, watching their annual practice from Cyprus’s clifftops and sitting on the wing of their plane, surrounded by the pilots.
  • Going to family days at RAF bases and clambering on board military helicopters and fast jet planes, or watching awe-inspiring displays by the Chinook helicopter.

    Awesome air display

    Awesome air display

  • Laughing with their friends at being momentarily knocked to the ground by a low-flying Eurofighter’s noise and downdraft during a flypast.
  • Living overseas and experiencing different schooling and cultural differences.
  • Watching father Christmas arrive on a helicopter or a khaki-coloured fire engine.
  • Watching the RAF sniffer dogs in action at family days: sniffing out the drugs that a willing child has had planted on them.
  • And the indescribable excitement of seeing daddy after weeks or months away.

Aside from all the amazing experiences and opportunities the military has given us, perhaps the thing we will miss most of all is the people and the amazing community spirit.

But now the children will have a dad at their birthday parties, a hopefully less-stressed mother who isn’t having to think about and do everything by herself, a dad there for bedtime; rather than a talking head on Facetime.  And a dad making it to parents’ evening and actually knowing who their teachers are, as well as being able to pick them up from school from time to time.

It’s exciting, yet daunting.  Swapping the exciting, living-on-edge, independent lifestyle for the safe, routine and dare I say it, sometimes mundane.  But at long last we can decide where he works and where to live.  Ultimately this decision was about the children and for the children; to give them a stable upbringing, like the one they have craved since we chose to live off base nearly five years ago.  It is a new chapter and we are certainly used to those.  If the past fifteen years have taught us anything, it is to embrace change, nothing is set in stone and to go with the flow.

A totally shallow thought to end with and one which I suspect will have a whole blog post of its own in the coming weeks: what will I do with all my evening dresses and high heels, they certainly don’t have a place in this new chapter!

Daddy’s Away again – Ops Normal

So the husband has deployed ‘indefinitely’ on Op GRITSTOCK.

What is Op GRITSTOCK? Well – it’s the UK’s response to the EBOLA crisis in West Africa. Clearly, when I first found out – I had a cry… My doctor friend explained the disease to me – and the risks. Hubby has reassured me that he won’t be taking any risks, yet this week I know he has travelled to Liberia, Sierra Leone to see an Ebola treatment centre, Guinea and back to Ghana.  Last time he went away for 6 months to Afghanistan, he told he wouldn’t take any risks, but recently I found out he was shot at and he’s never told me the story…so I’m not so sure he’s not keeping out of danger. Especially, as every day passes, more and more cases of ‘westerners’ being affected and infected hit the media – though why an American freelance video cameraman is more newsworthy that the thousands of Africans currently dying from the disease is somewhat distasteful.

I know that my husband has every reason to come home – us. I know that he is the best person to do the job he’s currently assigned. I know that if the United Nations fails in its mission to support those in need, then the risk of epidemic and the global knock on effects are substantial. I know it’s right for humanity for him to be doing this.

But away indefinitely means our house moving efforts are on hold, and continued mother living in our dining room. It means I’ve postponed his 50th birthday party.  It means that I’ve just booked to take our son away for his birthday and planning for hubby to not be around.

And yet, when he face timed tonight, he was confident he’d be home within the month…I’m not so sure. In fact I won’t allow myself to believe it until I know he’s on a flight home. Maybe its a defensive mechanism.  Maybe its pragmatic. Maybe its just fear of disappointment.  For me, it’s the best strategy.

After all, at home it’s gotta be Ops NORMAL!