More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 44

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

The British army made itself as comfortable as possible in the grounds of the school at Vitez. All the national elements in the UN force had their own acronyms. The Dutch were known as CLOGBAT and BRITBAT soon became known as MUDBAT as the squaddies settled into what seemed to be a permanent sea of mud as playing fields disappeared under the rain and snow of Bosnia.

Soldiers are quite good at making the best of things. “Any bugger can be uncomfortable,” is an oft-expressed piece of army wisdom. The secret is how to make yourself comfortable.

I remember a rare occasion when the British Ministry of Defence did its best to make the troops happy. On an already warm August evening in 1995, 500 British soldiers packed the improvised ‘theatre’ in the garage of the REME workshops at the Vitez base.

Lynn ‘The Lynx’ from Manchester, her sister, Christina, and dancing girls, Under Wraps (Tamsin, Megan and Ruth from Glasgow), strutted their stuff and stripped for the British squaddies of the Devon & Dorset regiment the night before they were sent to the front lines above Sarajevo. The atmosphere was already hot and steamy even before the girls hit the stage.

The show was put on by CSE – Combined Services Entertainment – the modern-day replacement for ENSA (‘Every Night Something Awful’). But, I could authoritatively report, things had moved on in leaps and bounds since the days of Dame Vera Lynn. Buxom Lynn was about as far removed from Vera Lynn as Vera Duckworth is from Marlene Dietrich.

The girls were real troopers. They stripped to the bare essentials for fire eating routines, magic acts and pictures with the boys. But the really big hit of the show was when the girls stripped out of UN uniforms and did interesting things with those blue berets . . . I’ve truly never seen any audience more enthusiastic about anything.

Sixties pop group, The Searchers, appeared in the second half of the show not looking too much the worse for wear thirty years on and pepped up the boys with Love Potion Number 9 and Sweets for my Sweet. Then it was all over and the ‘boys’ and girls left the stage to Land of Hope and Glory. Probably the most memorable night at the theatre I’ve ever had.

In the Bosnian war, all sides had their own way of winding up their troops. The Croats tended to use LSD tablets, the Muslims smoked dope which they grew around Mostar and our boys had Lynn and company. At 6am the next morning they clambered into their transport to the front above Sarajevo fired up by the power of the girls of CSE.

As one squaddie put it: “They probably don’t know what they did to me – after all, it’s three months since I saw my wife.” Some of us were fortunate enough to prolong the encounter in the relatively cloistered calm of the officers’ mess.

War and romance have ever been inextricably linked. Or so it might seem to generations raised on Hollywood and paperback fiction. But sometimes those liaisons passionately forged in The Winds of War come back to haunt the participants in a rather more sterile ambience – like Norwich Crown Court where one Squadron Leader Nicholas Tucker, it was determined, did away with his wife after a passionate affair with his 21 year-old Bosnian interpreter.

Extraordinary allegations emerged in the courtroom in 1997 – of missions and patrols abandoned in central Bosnia “at the whim” of the Squadron Leader’s interpreter. These may seem to imply a certain recklessness – if not exactly in the face of the enemy then at least prejudicial to good order and security. Yet, truth to tell, passionate – usually transient – relations of this kind were far from exceptional.

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