How to Play the System…. A Parable from Military Annals

One of the chief pleasures in my life was finding a medium-sized book of military anecdotes from the then British Council library in my hometown some time in the second last decade of the last century. Some of them were very, very funny, with the wry and dry humour much accentuated by the sparkling language they were presented in. I was lucky to find a sequel too and I must have created some sort of record of the number of times I repeatedly borrowed these two books. I was so inspired that I had some sections photocopied too – and they were with me many years till the spate of movements sent to them limbo….. Alas, the ravages of time.

However, most of the anecdotes were firmly fixed in my mind, and when I began this blog, it was a fervent wish to share them with you…. but as I said, the point was in the narration too, and unless its magic is replicated, the true impact is lost.

I searched many years for the book, and thought they were close when I …. but there is no point raising painful memories. Another spark of light came with the advent of firms offering online ordering of books. Here also the first two contenders did not prove to be of much help, and it was only the third from which I somehow – after some moments of anxiety – managed to obtain the second book. And then it was the kind and gracious Ustaad, who managed to secure a copy of the first book and send it to me, and the result  – as they say – is…ummm… before you?

This was one of the best, and can be treated as a parable of how to manipulate the system from within. I will not say more and just let you find out on your own. I repeat, pay attention to the language…….

~~~~ Sergeant Peter O’Kelly of No.4 Commando was seriously wounded by a mortar bomb in Normandy in July 1944. His recovery and convalescence were prolonged. By the time he was fit for duty the war in Europe had ended. By the time he reached Bombay on a troopship as a reinforcement for No.3 Commando Brigade, which, when he left Britain, was ready for an assault landing in Malaya, the war against Japan had ended too.

O’Kelly was told in Bombay that 3 Brigade had gone to occupy Hong Kong. Shipping was overextended. His priority was low. He would have a long wait in a transit camp before he could move on to where he had to go.

O’Kelly disliked the transit camp. He also made a careful assessment of the personal position in which he found himself. He had volunteered to fight the war. The war was over. His moral obligations had ended with its conclusion. He had no particular wish to go to Hong Kong. He had less wish to stay in the transit camp. He wasn’t in all that much of a hurry to go home either and, given the size of the waiting list for places on ships, would be unlikely to get there for a long time anyway. If he could choose, what would he really like?

Well, what he’d really like would be six months comfortable relaxation in India, paid by the Army and untainted by any tiresome requirement to do any work. O’Kelly requested an interview with the commanding officer of the transit camp, a major.

O’Kelly said he wished to be RTU’d.

The major said that unsatisfactory cadets in officer training establishments could be returned to unit, but O’Kelly wasn’t an officer cadet. O’Kelly, with the menacing courtesy he used on these occasions, said he wasn’t talking about officer cadets. He was talking about the Army Commandos, of whom he was one. All were volunteers. Part of the arrangement under which they served was that they could either be RTU’d for inadequate performance or behaviour, or could themselves ask to be RTU’d if they no longer fancied the life. He no longer fancied the life. What he was now putting forward was a formal request, as was his right, to be returned to a battalion of the infantry regiment from which he had volunteered for the Commandos.

The major said this private army stuff was all news to him. Assuming it to be true, he had no status in the matter. If O’Kelly had some sort of funny contract with the Commandos, only the Commandos could release it from him (italics mine, to commemorate a line that has struck in my mind ever since I read it the first time).

To be continued….


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