Saturday, June 06, 2020

by John Stewart 56B


There is an unwritten 'barrack-room law' for soldiers, not to talk about politics or religion,no doubt because of their inflammatory potential and the entrenched views that people hold about such things. Upon joining the Army, I noted that you were either listed as 'RC' or 'C of E', while any other denomination or belief sort of 'fell between the cracks'. The only exceptions to this rule were the Burmese or Ghanaian boys of course. I now intend to kick that unwritten law into touch and share with you some of my personal experiences and beliefs.

First awakening..

My earliest 'religious' experience occurred when I was about eight years old, in Purbrook Woods, near Portsmouth. I had cycled over Portsdown Hill into the countryside by myself one glorious Saturday afternoon in high summer and, as I walked with my bike through the woods, I noticed something white gleaming away at the back of some bushes. Curious to know what it was, I crawled in under the bushes, a distance of about ten feet. I discovered it to be a badger's skull, bleached white by the elements, as I lay on my back and examined it closely. It seemed to me to be so beautifully formed, a truly brilliant design, and so perfectly crafted. I concluded that you would have to be mentally handicapped to reason that this beautiful thing was a mere accident of evolution. I lay with the sun's rays sparkling through the bushes and knew without any shadow of doubt that God was its creator. More than that, I also sensed God's presence round about me. It was for me a special moment of spiritual awakening to His existence. Only later on in life did I discover what the Bible has to say about such things. In Romans, Chapter 1, Verse 20, it states, "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen; being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse".

Life at Arborfield...

My next experience of the presence of God was at AAS Arborfield whilst on 'jankers'! I was only seventeen and very fed up. I hated the Army, having come to the realisation that I had made a terrible mistake in signing on. I had also experienced a spell in Fred Silver's nick, as a result of having 'done a bunk'. (See OBAN31. Ed.) This experience did nothing to improve my opinion of the Army. One particular night, I was instructed to clean the Corporals' Club, after they had all gone to bed. I had already fallen foul of one of the Corporals in the club and he had decided to mess me about by staying in the club for as long as possible, just to p*** me off. I had no other option but to wait outside in the corridor until he decided to go to bed. I was having murderous thoughts towards him but, more to the point, I was feeling really sorry for myself. I waited impatiently outside; it was way past 'lights out' and everywhere was pitch black. Then I looked up at the night sky and I had never seen so many stars before. Suddenly I knew that God was there again with me. But more than that - he cared about me; His peace seemed to envelop me and flow through me.

I want to say, before I go any further, that although these experiences confirmed my opinion about the existence of God, they did nothing to change my behaviour or attitude. I was still very much 'one of the lads', with all that entailed. I smoked, swore, womanised, got drunk, enjoyed pornography and lent money, at extortionate rates of interest, to the Junior Divs on camp. I enjoyed dirty jokes, stealing food from the Cookhouse and occasionally bullying those weaker than myself.

Problems with my dad...

For most of my childhood, I had big problems with my earthly father. He was one of the main reasons I had wanted to leave home. My memories of him were predominantly negative; I felt that I had been a disappointment as a son and had failed academically to reach even his minimum standards. I well remember his hidings and demeaning verbal explosions, he could say some really cruel things to my younger brother and me. All these negative thoughts crowded out any memories of the positive input he had in my life. I suppose the respect I had for him was based upon fear and I remember feeling very uncomfortable in his presence. But deep down, I now realise that I longed for his approval, therefore I needed to succeed at something. However, I was very much the centre of my own universe and repentance from this attitude was not in my vocabulary. I couldn't care less for anyone other than my mother, who I adored. Many were the times that she stepped in to protect me from my father's rages. With the wisdom of years, I can now see that I was oblivious to my own character flaws, which were legion. My conscience seemed not to bother me one iota however.

The fifth commandment...

The dire consequences of breaking 'the fifth commandment' predictably began to take their effect on my life, even though they were unknown to me at that time. This is what the fifth commandment says - "Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you." Things did not go well with me; in fact, even with the best of intentions, most things I touched turned to dust. For the sceptics amongst you readers, here are a few examples. My time at Arborfield was very unhappy and I did not enjoy the trade training. I didn't even get to go on my 56B passing out parade from the AAS, having broken my leg the previous week in Harrogate. But even these problems paled into insignificance compared to what happened next. Whilst on leave, my mother collapsed with a severe cerebral haemorrhage and died the next day, an event that totally devastated me for some time. I did manage to pass my trade test as a General Fitter, only to be told that the Army didn't want any more General Fitters! I was therefore posted to SEME Bordon, in order to be retrained as a Gun Fitter. Having wasted yet another year, training to be something I had no interest in, I then discovered I had an allergy to OM13 - the oil used in heavy artillery recoil systems. So they posted me to Paderborn in Germany, where they had no guns! I kicked my heels there for nine more months, getting more and more bored with doing nothing. So I eventually applied to 16 Para Workshops for Para training in Aldershot. I was very fit and expected to pass easily ….


"Wrong!" I slipped between the bars on one of the obstacles at the Maide Assault course. I fell roughly fourteen feet, but my injuries appeared to be only minor - I had winded myself and torn some skin off my left side. But the next day, a huge lump appeared under my armpit and my temperature soared to match it. I decided to keep quiet about the lump, fearing I would get relegated off the course. I felt very groggy, but just about managed to get through the next day. The following morning, I woke very early and noticed all the veins across my chest were bright red. The lump under my arm had doubled in size, was very inflamed - and now had three yellow secondary lumps on the top! I felt very ill and decided to get some aspirin from the MO to lower my temperature, but had decided to still say nothing about my injury. However, he ordered me to strip to the waist. The arterial roadmap across my chest revealed that I was more than a bit sick. He diagnosed blood poisoning and, in spite of my entreaties, he put me in dock for emergency treatment.

They lanced and drained the carbuncle under my arm and gave me big doses of penicillin. I recovered quickly, so they allowed me to remain with 16 Para Wksp and attend the next Pre-Para course. This I did and was doing well, until I was kicked in the face by an over-zealous participant during a team game! I had one of the lads sitting on my shoulders at the time and I fell badly. I felt a sharp pain in my lower back and could barely walk. It was the Cambridge Military Hospital again for another two weeks! The OC felt some sympathy for me and allowed me to get fit again and have one more try. I was determined not to fail this time!

One of the necessary evils of Pre-Para selection is 'milling'. Nobody enjoys it, but it's over and done with pretty quickly. 'Milling' consists of slogging it out with eight-ounce boxing gloves for just a couple of minutes, against a suitably matched opponent. Now I was six-feet two inches tall, but quite skinny. The opponent they selected to fight me was roughly as tall as me, but resembled King Kong on steroids! Consequently, he broke three of my ribs as he pummelled me on my left side. I again decided to keep quiet about my injuries and hope for the best. Unfortunately for me, the very next day they told us we were to run from Aldershot to Bordon. I got about half-way, when one of the instructors noticed that I was suffering badly. I was (or had been up to then!) a fairly good runner, so he knew there was a very good reason for my poor performance and ordered me to the hospital again. They X-rayed me, diagnosed the problem and strapped me up like a mummy, with wide strips of elastoplast. The OC told me not to re-apply for Para training for at least another year - needless to say I didn't - ever! They posted me back out to Germany with 40 th Field Regt RA. Having had no practical experience of any kind on 25-pounders, I was thrown in at the deep end and literally sank! Relationships in the LAD were at an all-time low and ex-boys barely tolerated. This posting was the worst I ever experienced and took me quite a time to recover from. I lasted just ten months and was posted back to the UK once again.

Rmc of s - and a vision of the future...

My next posting was to the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham. If ever there was a backwater, this was it. I got married and spent two glorious years doing virtually nothing again - they even allowed me to attend Swindon College of Art on day release! At this point, I made up my mind to kick into touch any thoughts about making the Army my life's career, deciding instead that my future lay in art and not in REME.

Life was fairly peaceful for a while when, out of the blue, my kid brother Trevor turned up at our house, having run away from home. Knowing what he had endured without my mother's intervention made me very protective towards him, so I told him that he could live with us until he decided what he was going to do long term. I also wrote my father a very bitter letter, listing every fault he had. My vitriolic diatribe ended by my saying that if I ever saw him again it would be too soon. But soon tensions began to develop between my wife and my brother. I found myself 'piggy in the middle', unable to please either of them. Finally I came home one day to a hysterical and very tearful wife; my brother had a bread-knife in his hand and was threatening to cut her. It transpired that they had had a terrible row in my absence. Reluctantly, I realised that my first loyalty was to my wife and Trevor returned home to my Dad. He didn't remain there for long however, for he very soon followed in my footsteps and became a boy soldier himself.

Get a grip...

The ASM in charge of Armstrong lab at RMCS was George Lorryman, a good bloke. In hindsight, I think he saw that I needed a kick up the backside and soon entered me for my A2 trade test. I protested loudly, fearing failure, but he wouldn't listen. In spite of my lack of experience, I did manage to scrape through. I also later managed to pass my A1 in TTS Duisburg, which was an absolute miracle.


I had just two and a bit years left to do and longed to serve 'somewhere tropical' before demob. Hong Kong or Singapore would have been ideal, but the good old 5 th commandment kicked in and I was sent to Aden instead. Again, there were no artillery weapons in 52 Command Wksp, so they put me in A&G - in charge of the paint spray shop, textiles shop and carpenters shop. No-one else wanted them, but I thought it was great and actually enjoyed the challenge. I had about thirty-five locals that I was responsible for, they were a mixed bunch of Arabs, Indians and Somalis. Just prior to leaving the UK, I had seen the film 'Laurence of Arabia' and I was full of enthusiasm and good intentions about how I would treat the Arab people. I did get on well with all but one of them in the carpenters shop and developed a friendship with the charge-hand, Mohammed Alwan Shamsan. However, I confess to feelings of acute embarrassment whenever we walked around the workshop together, because he always insisted on holding my hand. (For those not familiar with Arab customs, this is entirely normal between friends!)

Shortly after taking charge there, I noticed one of the Arabs continually absenting himself from his workbench. I followed him and discovered he had a secret sleeping hole in the wood store, so I gave him a verbal warning, much to the delight of his fellow carpenters. However, he didn't heed my warning and continued to skive off at every opportunity. I therefore moved his bench into the VM's shop, away from his fellow carpenters. None of the Arab VMs liked the bloke and they gave him a rough time there. In spite of his poor attitude, I began to feel sorry for him after a couple of weeks and therefore had his bench moved back into the carpenters shop again. Unfortunately, I saw no change in his behaviour. Shortly after a further run-in with him, the charge-hand took me to one side and warned me to 'watch my back'. Evidently, our misfit had begun to let it be known that he was going to kill me before I left Aden.

Shortly after this, the political situation in Aden worsened considerably and we became targets for the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Federation for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). My life became one round of IS duties after another. Our entertainment, when not on duty at night, was watching cars being blown up from my 1 st-floor window. The bad bit was that we had louvred window-panes, which were continually being broken by shrapnel from Mills grenades. And, because it was a private pad, I had to pay each time we lost a pane of glass! I quickly discovered that the workshop had some thickish Perspex, so I cut a load of it up to the same size as the panes and - 'sorted'! The shrapnel kept coming but now all it did was make holes.

Murder in malla...

All the lads living out in private quarters were responsible for protecting their own flats. It often happened that you'd finish a night's IS duties, only to go straight out with your SLR to do a further two-hour stag. The situation got worse and worse and many were the times I got spat upon whilst on stag outside our flat in the Malla Straight. On one of these occasions, I saw somebody fall on the opposite side of the road. To my horror I quickly saw that it was a very pregnant woman. As she hit the pavement, her bottom jaw came up over her nose and blood poured out from just about everywhere. She was still alive - just - but her body twitched in her unconscious agony. Then her drunken husband, who had thrown her off the balcony, appeared and tried to kick her as she lay there. She lived for just two more days. I can still see the whole dreadful scene in my mind to this day. I longed for September 1966 to arrive, when I could finally return to Blighty again.

I get to be an artist...

Because I had some natural talent as an artist, for my last six months they posted me into the drawing office at the SEE Arborfield, whoopee! I spent my time soaking up everything I could from the illustrator who worked in the office there. Then, on the very day I got demobbed, he resigned, without giving even a day's notice. As a result of this, I was offered his job on the understanding that I go to college to get qualified. They also warned me that, if I didn't pass the exams, I'd be out on my ear! I did pass the exams, with credits, and thus began a very enjoyable career as a technical illustrator in MoD. And so, perhaps you're thinking, what about everything going wrong for him then?

Well, several things did go seriously wrong. I got arrested in London for a start, and now have a police record! It happened like this. A friend and I became interested in stripping old pine furniture and then selling it at a small profit. We bought items very cheaply from auctions, demolition sites and anywhere else that we could. On our way back from London one day, we saw some old derelict Victorian houses, about to be pulled down. We didn't have time to stop right then, so decided to return a couple of days later. There were about fifteen people in the buildings when we arrived, all of them stripping out the old timber, doors etc. We were told that the site was soon to be levelled and become a car park, so a 'free for all' was taking place. We also began to help ourselves to one or two things that were left. The next thing to happen that was several policemen appeared on the scene, demanding to know what we were up to. It seems that all the other people had legged it. We were arrested and charged with burglary - because we had hammers and crowbars etc. I was very worried that I would lose my job if it got into the papers, and asked if there was any way this could be avoided. The police said that this could 'be arranged', but only if we pleaded guilty and said nothing to defend ourselves in court. Reluctantly, we agreed to their conditions and we were both found guilty and fined £100 each. That was a lot of cash in those days. With the wisdom of hindsight, we should have requested legal aid and explained to the court the exact circumstances pertaining to our 'crime'.

More disasters...

The next thing to go wrong was that my car was hit from behind by a very big lorry. It drove me up onto the pavement, crushing both me and the car into a steel lamp-post. The impact was so great that it sheared the back of my seat clean off and I ended flat on my back in the back seat, covered in glass. I sustained severe nerve damage to my neck, which resulted in a shaking head that I cannot now properly control, all these years later. Then shortly after this, my wife divorced me and moved to Lincolnshire. Losing my two sons as well was one blow too many and the doctor prescribed Valium and Librium. Little was known about the addictive side effects in those days, so I was soon hooked and couldn't do my job. Other things began to go wrong during this period of my life, but they remain too personal to share on paper. Thankfully, all these disasters seem to have been pre-ordained stepping stones to prepare me for the remarkable experiences that were to come next in my life.

Meeting with God...

To say that I wasn't coping very well would be a profound understatement. Someone suggested that it might do me good to go to church. I cannot remember my exact response to that suggestion, but it was decidedly negative. They decided not to give up on me however, and nagged me about it at every opportunity. Finally, I agreed to go once only, on the understanding that they never mention it again to me. The church was the Methodist Church in Fleet, Hampshire. Came the Sunday and, true to my word, we went together. I found the experience rather strange and I felt alienated from everyone in the congregation, especially when they raised both hands in the air to sing the hymns. "What's that all about?" I asked myself. Still, I thought, get this over with and I can escape back to normality! After the service, I edged towards the door, only to discover it blocked by the minister and his wife. They seemed to be interviewing everyone leaving the church! My turn came and the upshot was that they came and visited me the very next day. I can imagine what you are thinking - "Blooming wimp!" OK, I admit it. We talked for about two hours and the minister handed me a book as they left the house. I promised to read it very soon - its title was 'Prison to Praise', by Merlin Corruthers.

The book chronicled the life of an ex-criminal and ex-para, who met the Lord and became transformed by the experience, so much so that he became an Army Chaplain. I read the whole book in about two days and found it totally absorbing; there were so many parallels to my own life within its pages. As I read, I became acutely aware of my personal uncleanness and distance from God. It also gave me hope that things could change for the better. If ever there was a perfect time for me to read such a book, this was it. If someone had handed me it even weeks before, I would have 'binned it' without a second thought. I re-read large portions of it again and decided to speak to the minister about some of its contents. He agreed to set aside Saturday morning for a chat over at the chapel. As the day approached, I became more and more uncomfortable about everything. "What was I thinking about? What will I say to him? How the dickens can I tell him about some of the things I have been up to, this holy bloke?" My mind went round and round in circles and I felt worse and worse about myself with each passing day.

Confession at the chapel...

The Saturday morning arrived for our talk. He led me into a little prayer room at the back of the church and sat down next to me. He said nothing for about twenty minutes and neither did I, as I just sat there, feeling trapped and very uncomfortable. I kept thinking to myself, "How can I get out of this place? Perhaps I could say I made a mistake and just walk out? There again, I'm only here because I asked for it! You prat, Stewart, you are always fouling up!" The minister eventually broke the silence with, "Look John, I have set aside all today for you, so don't feel pressured, just take your time". More silence. Then he said, "It may help to tell the Lord your name, He knows it anyway". More silence; I began to sweat in panic and then I blurted out - "OK Lord, you know me, my name's John ……." To put into words what happened next is quite impossible, but I shall do my best. There is a text in the Bible, in the book of Revelations Chapter 3, Verse 20, which says: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."

I suppose that, in addressing God personally, I somehow opened myself up to him. After all, you don't talk to someone if you doubt they are there in the first place, do you? Suddenly, He was there again, but not as before, His presence was now overpowering. I was overcome with His totally-accepting love and forgiveness; I broke and wept. For the very first time, I understood the parable of the 'Prodigal Son'. Before this moment, I could never have understood the concept of a loving Father. I wept for a solid two-and-a-half hours, pouring out my heart to Him, confessing every base and sinful thing I had ever done in my life. All the guilt of causing my wife and kids so much suffering through the divorce, as well as a huge chunk of self-pity; snot streamed from my nose down onto the floor as I sobbed my heart out. Bob Salmon, the Pastor, gently patted my shoulder and whispered, "I don't think I'm needed here anymore, John. This is just between you and God, I'll come back to fetch you in a couple of hours time".

At the end of those two hours, I totally understood the sacrifice that Jesus had made on that Cross for me. I didn't deserve it at all. my life up to this point had been totally selfish. But now I knew that all my sin had been nailed to that Cross, along with the Son of God; He had willingly paid the ultimate price for me and I left that room totally transformed. I knew that I had been 'born again' by His Holy Spirit, I felt clean inside and deliriously happy. One final text that sums up my experience lies in 2 Corinthians 5 : 17 - "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

An incredible testimony...

What happened next in my life is an incredible testimony to the transforming grace and power of a loving God. It involved restoration of relationships, miracles and several adventures in Albania and Africa. I also learned that God has a purpose and plan for my life, which sometimes stretches me to the limit. I became a published author of six children's books, with six more coming out in 2006. But all that is for my next article.

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