A Lion ‘Shoot’ With Consequences!
I think I can lay claim to two military records – the shortest time between promotion and demotion in the British Army and, together with two fellow ‘squaddies’, the most unusual misdemeanour charge ever covered by the Army Act!
The year was 1950, when I was doing my National Service as a clerk with the RASC Inspectorate of Mechanical Transport at GHQ Nairobi, Kenya, rejoicing in the rank of Private. A few weeks before the above-mentioned charge I had been informed by my CO, the gentiemanly Lt.Col.G.V. Isles, that the inspectorate’s establishment specified that the post of clerk should have the rank of Sergeant, so he had recommended that I be promoted accordingly.
My promotion was confirmed on Friday March 31 1950, and the next day, April 1 (quite significant as things turned out!) I was due to start seven days’ local leave. I planned to spend the Monday collecting my Sergeant’s chevrons from the Quartermaster, sew them on my uniforms, write home to my parents announcing my rapid promotion and, in the evening, have a celebratory drink (or three) with two of my pals, Fred ‘AT May and ‘Porky’, plans which, as will be seen in the light of subsequent events, never saw the light of day!
I would mention here that, try as I might, I cannot remember ‘Porky’s’ real name. Fred acquired the name ‘AT because of his constant impersonations of A1 Jolson, whose life had been the subject of the film The Jolson Story a year or two earlier.
One of the perks of being based at GHQ was that personnel could hire army trucks for a small fee at weekends for recreational purposes, with an Askari of the King’s African Rifles acting as chauffeur.
Al, Porky and I had reserved a vehicle for Saturday April 1 to visit Nairobi National Park, so early that morning we set off on safari armed with sustenance for the day by way of cheese and bully beef sandwiches, along with ample supplies of the local brew, Tusker Lager!
After touring the park for several hours viewing various specimens of wildlife such as giraffe, zebra and antelope, we were disappointed at not having seen any lions. Eventually we came across a game warden in his truck, who informed us that there was a pride of lions nearby. Following the directions he gave us, we soon spotted a circle of civilian vehicles surrounding a group of lions.
We were determined to take at least one photograph to add to those already taken, but with our simple cameras (primitive by today’s standards) this proved impossible from inside the vehicle.
Park regulations decreed that visitors had to remain in their vehicles at all times, but after waiting so long to find lions there was no way Al was going to miss this opportunity.
Having no camera of his own he grabbed mine, nipped out of the passenger side door, leaned across the bonnet and took two quick snaps. It was all over in a matter of seconds, and A1 flopped back in his seat, a huge grin on his face! After watching the lions for a time we started our return to camp.
On the Sunday morning we were having a lie-in, listening to the BBC’s Overseas Service (Billy Cotton’s Band Show, I think!) and making plans for the day when our reverie was suddenly shattered by the arrival of two very large, uniformed gentlemen with red caps accompanied by the camp’s RSM.
One of the Red-Caps barked out our names, demanding to know if we’d been in Nairobi National Park the previous day, to which question we answered ‘Yes!” in unison. He then informed us that a witness had reported to them that we’d alighted from our vehicle to take photographs, a charge readily admitted by Al while stressing that Porky and I had remained in the truck.
The RSM then announced that we were to present ourselves before the Camp Commanding Officer at 09.00 next morning to answer the charges brought against us.
Shortly before the appointed hour, we three accused were paraded outside the OC’s office, RSM by our side, preparing to hear our fate. In true military fashion we were marched into the office at light infantry pace, with much brawling of: “Left, Right, Left, Right!” and the mandatory stamping of boots so beloved of the British Army until we were face to face with our judge and jury.
We didn’t have long to wait before learning from the OC that our offence was to be covered by that all-embracing section of what were then King’s Regulations, “Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline”. This was followed by legal jargon to the effect that we’d contravened the park’s by-laws by alighting from the vehicle.
Once again Al pleaded guilty, while Porky and I denied the offence.
The OC then read the statement from an RAMC officer who, apparently, had been in a private car with his wife and children among the vehicles surrounding the lions. According to his statement all three of us had left the truck, and our actions had caused some of the ladies present to panic and have hysterics! He further alleged that we’d made his children cry inconsolably!
Allowed by the OC to give our own version of events, we suggested that the Major had confused us with some other army personnel in the park. We completely denied the allegations of panic-stricken, hysterical females and weeping and wailing children, but the OC said that the vehicle registration number in the statement corresponded to that on the truck we’d hired.
It was obvious that in asking for our account the OC was simply going by the book, and that he’d already accepted his fellow officer and gentlemen’s statement as gospel.
Finding a punishment to fit crimes committed by British Troops serving in countries of the Empire posed a problem for officers. To emphasise the supposed distinction between races, all mundane tasks such as guard duties and fatigues were carried out by the local native troops (in our case the marvellous King’s African Rifles) which left very little scope to provide punishment for minor offences committed by white troops.
The final verdict was that I would be demoted to Private, forfeit the remainder of my leave and spend ten days confined to camp only. In Porky’s case this didn’t mean a lot because he was due to return to Britain on the Thursday for demob!
As the OC couldn’t think of any jobs we might perform during ten days’ camp confinement, he passed the buck to our immediate superiors to give us “suitable tasks”.
When I notified LtCol.Isles of my sentence he was far from pleased to hear that, after
he’d gone to so much trouble to arrange my promotion, I’d been ‘busted’ so quickly. At first he too was at a loss to think of something to keep me busy for ten days, until he came up with the idea that I should supervise the Askaris who cleaned the offices each evening, and lock up the premises afterwards. This task was performed by all office staff on a rota basis, so those who were scheduled to do it
for the next ten days found themselves relieved of the duty.
Al’s officer couldn’t come up with any ‘suitable tasks’ at all, and simply told him to make himself scarce for ten days! Porky departed for Mombasa on Thursday en route for Blighty, and the one and only letter we received from him some weeks later indicated that his sentence hadn’t followed him on board ship.
My last sight of A1 was in June 1950, as the
train taking me to Mombasa and demob slowly departed from Nairobi station. True to form he was on his knees on the platform, arms outstretched, giving a rousing version of Toot, Toot Tootsie Goodbye in his own intimi table Jolson style, to the amazement and amusement of the indigenous population present, and the disgust and flabbergasted looks of their white ‘masters’!
I only hope for Al’s sake that the RAMC Major wasn’t on the platform that day, otherwise he could still be doing time!.
Lawrence ‘Lol’ Price