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Old warhorse Tom misses the action
WHEN Tom Sargeant joined the Grenadier Guards, he fully expected to take part in the Trooping the Colour ceremony. He just didn’t expect to do it in Libya.
In the baking, fly-infested heat of the North African desert, his batallion performed the entire regal birthday ritual. The regimental band played, and the troop manoeuvred and saluted the flag, for all the world as if they had been back on Horse Guards Parade. Only King George VI in person was missing from the scene.
Tom, now 80, and living in Eastwood, remembers that bizarre ritual as Libya once again becomes the focus of the world’s attention.
“It’s all action out there in that country right now, but it was the opposite back then,” he says. “We were there for three years and nothing happened.
“We got one riot to break the monotony and that was it. Even the riot was dealt with by the local police. We didn’t have to do anything except guard the local post office.”
It sounds a cushy number, but Tom, who had seen real action, hated the experience.
“It wasn’t proper soldiering,” he says. “Nobody could work out why we were there at all.”
The guardsmen had just two responsibilities. One was to guard the oil terminals, much as they guarded Buckingham Palace back home. The other was to escort prisoners from the local jail down to the beach for clean-up operations.
“They used to cut slits in their boots and stick any dog-ends they found on the beach in there to hide them, to smoke later,” he says. The Grenadiers turned a blind eye.
Tom says: “They might have been murderers or some other terrible thing for all we knew about them.
“But they were also leading lives of terrible monotony, just like us, poor devils. We even used to give them cigarettes sometimes.”
Things got so dull that one of Tom’s mates decided to shake things up.
“There was no action so he decided to create some,” Tom says. “He set off on guard patrol round the camp, and then we heard shots break out. We had this little sergeant, horrible little git he was, and he just went to pieces. He rang back to the base, saying: ‘We’re under attack, send reinforcements, send more ammunition’.”
Tom thinks of that night as the best time he had during his three years in Libya.
It was all very different from the Palestine Mandate, where Tom had previously been stationed, his first field posting after joining the Guards in 1946.
The situation was incendiary. Tom saw a colleague, guardsman Taylor, shot dead alongside him. “We lost mates out there, but I preferred Palestine to Libya,” he says. “That was real soldiering. That was what you joined the Army for.”
Much of the action in Palenstine consisted of dodging snipers, and sometimes a soldier would get unlucky. “They would shoot at anything that moved,” he says. “Even the baker went on his rounds with armour on his cart, and on his horse.”
Tom came under fire while guarding an Israeli police station. He says: “There was this little shop on the other side of the road.
“When we got paid, we used to go over there to buy chocolate. Me and my mate Taylor were just heading back.
“We were just counting our change, when he got shot. There was an Arab sniper firing from the mosque down the road. Taylor just managed to get to the steps of the police station and he died there.”
Bloody though the conflict might have been, there was still some light to be enjoyed, at least from a soldier’s perspective. Tom’s unit had to guard the commanding general’s house.
He says: “At the back of the house was a ravine, protected by barbed wire. We were told we could shoot at anything that went near there.”
One day, a man approached the no-go zone with a donkey. Two large canisters were attached to the animal. Assuming that the canisters were bombs, the Bren gunner on the roof let loose at the donkey.
“He missed,” says Tom, drily.
Next day, a message was relayed from the commanding general. “Thank you for being so alert, but next time, let my milkman through.”
After his north African tour of duty, Tom returned to a more traditional role in London. He stood guard at the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, and St Jame’s Palace.
Tom reveals a few truths about a guardsman’s life that may surprise the tourists peering through the railings of Buckingham Palace.
For instance, on double duty – two soldiers guarding the Queen in residence – the soldiers have to reflect each other’s moves with absolute precision, like mirror images.
“But of course they can’t talk to each other,” says Tom. Communication issues are overcome by a system of finger language, invisible to spectators, but clearly visible to fellow guards. Guardsmen are kept on their toes by a pair of expert eyes, sharp beads which may be focused on them at any moment.
“The Queen, she’s always looking out of the window to check up on you,” Tom says. “If anyone’s not up to standard, slouching or anything, she’ll ring down to the guardroom herself and tell the sergeant.”
Tom left the Army in 1953. He had worked as a welder before he joined the Grenadiers in search of action, and he spent the rest of his working life in this trade.
“But it was a mistake to leave the Army,” he says. “Worst thing I ever did. I just loved being a soldier.”
Tom Sargent never knew his own father, but believes that his dad too may well have been a soldier, because the military gene is so strong in the family.
Tom’s son and grandson both chose to become professional soldiers. His grandson is now headed for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Anyone who believes guardsmen are just parade ground soldiers should meet the old warhorse Tom Sargeant. He doesn’t miss the regimental or ceremonial side of the Grenadiers at all, but he does miss the flying bullets.
“My grandson is about to return to Afghanistan,” he says. “I just wish I could be there with him. What’s happening out there now is what I call soldiering.”