In my early twenties, I was posted to Lahr, Germany. Initially I was a transportation platoon commander in Supply and Transport Company in 4 Service Battalion in the Canadian Army. To put it simply, I had a platoon of 30 soldiers who drove MAN 10-ton trucks (these bad boys, as seen below)
which would carry supplies: ammunition, water, rations, various needed items, and spare parts for forward fighting troops and other support units within the Brigade. During peace time, we conducted training operations such as weapons use, field exercises and fitness competitions to improve morale, esprit-de-corps and to prepare for future deployments. As the Platoon Commander, I routinely conducted all manner of administrative duties, personnel evaluations and reports, test and inspection readiness, subordinate training, orders groups, equipment maintenance checks, and many other duties in accordance with my rank and position.
For the weapons aspect, a couple of times per year, we would all dispatch by military road move (huge convoys of jeeps, light and heavy trucks, trailers, kitchen trucks and the like) to a Gun Camp in Valdahon, France for two weeks of training on the shooting ranges.
While there, we were assigned to a room and a cot in one part of the camp. The other two-thirds of the place was inhabited by French and German units. We shared the mess hall with them and as such, had opportunities to observe them. Our uniforms kept us together as a unit but apart from them. It was interesting to consistently see and remember this all this time later, that the Germans were the physically largest of us all. The French were the smallest and we, the Canadians, were right in the middle. The female soldiers were almost always the smallest of all and there were only a few dozen women there in total, myself included.
As an illustration of one aspect of being a female officer, while there, one of my colleagues, a fellow officer no less, decided he would make a move on me. I hadn’t yet started to date Dean (the guy I was completely in love with but hadn’t been able to solidify a relationship with…yet) so this guy figured he could go for it. He cornered me in my barrack room and started to physically block me from leaving. He had this creepy look on his face. It dawned on me that I was alone in this huge old building with him. I was going to have to get defensive if he tried anything. So, with two hands on his chest, I pushed him back and told him I wasn’t interested. He seemed surprised. He didn’t bother me again, but, can you image thinking that that tactic would work?
So back to the story at hand…
this one day, I was on the rifle range with a couple dozen soldiers. I used to really enjoy shooting on the range. The controlled breathing. The focus. The single-mindedness of it. There was nothing but the trigger and the target. Nothing. I would take position. Take preliminary aim. Exhale slowly. Hold it. Confirm aim. Squeeze the trigger. Check. Repeat. Writing this in my fifties, I am there again.
There was a sergeant who was in command of this particular range, of which there were many in this training area. Technically I outranked him but on shooting ranges, the ranking soldier is the one in command of the range and wore an arm band indicating this. He had done a specialized course to be qualified to command the range. This guy was a know-it-all, loud mouth with an attitude from Cape Breton, as was apparent by his accent. I have always found the Cape Breton lilt to be endearing. Not on this guy.
Anyways, we were there shooting our C7 semi-automatic assault rifles and I, my Browning 9 mm pistol as well, and enjoying a hot, very dry day. It was so bright that it was actually hard to see our targets and the holes we made in them, from where we lay in a line in prone position. Then Sergeant Attitude says he’s going to get out the tracer rounds in order to be able to see our target shooting better.
It’s too dry for tracer! I thought, with alarm.
Tracer is a training round that has a small, burning, highly visible pyrotechnic flame coming out of its back end. It is like shooting lit matches down the range. The kind of matches that don’t extinguish easily.
Alas, I didn’t say anything to dispute the idea and then someone shot tracer and started a field fire almost instantly.
Next thing we know the whole Battalion is out chaotically fighting fires in acres and acres of dry-as-tinder hay. We worked for hours, burning and blackening ourselves, ruining uniforms and boots and breathing a lot of smoke. Water trucks eventually showed up but the village was ill equipped for such a huge fire. I recall a water tank truck with a little garden hose type attachment spitting out drops of water. Grampa Dalton would have said, ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job‘. He was usually referring to a trick in the nightly card games of Euchre but, that’s what I thought when I saw that water truck. Finally, proper fire trucks arrived from a city and we were stood-down. We ate, drank a few beers, showered and hit the rack (army-speak for bed).
I pondered the hours of fighting the field fire and the exact moment I found my command voice. When I would see a soldier not knowing what to do, or not moving fast enough to help, I would loudly encourage him or her to
‘COME OVER HERE’!
‘TAKE THIS RUG TO THAT PATCH OF FIRE, SOLDIER’!
And… they responded to me. Little ole new-to-the-Battalion me. It was invigorating and felt right, like I was falling into step. Again I realized that there are some of us who need to lead but, there are more of us who just want to follow.
As far as I know, nothing was ever investigated about the use of tracer rounds on a hot and dry day in Valdahon, France in the ’90s.
I often wondered though if the fire would have happened had I just opened my mouth.
(Pictures found on google images. Thank you.)