In The Line of Duty - Part 2: Fire Away by Mike Cavanagh
Between bouts of raucous and silent rebelliousness, we cadets were occasionally allowed to shoot the 303 rifles in mock anger during the annual camp away. While we were obviously not provided with live ammunition, we did each get three rounds of blanks to fire. Prior to getting our grubby little hands on these, however, we were most sternly lectured about the dangers of blank rounds, including a very effective demonstration by the Sergeant Major who shot the end out of an empty baked beans can with a blank round. Afterwards we students discussed how much cooler the demo would have been using a full can of beans, but we never got to test that theory. Yet.
The purpose of the blank rounds was to assist with realism when we were out on practice patrols through the bush, hunting the other patrols, who were the ‘enemy’. Of course the other patrols were similarly briefed, so we were the ‘enemy’ to them, which if I’d had wits enough at that age I could have long ruminated on the deep, philosophical things that implied about war, and human conflict in general. Still, we duly learned during the demonstration that 303s, even with only blanks, packed a heck of a loud and tin-busting wallop. Baked beans cans of the world beware. We’d previously fired them on the rifle range, but that was always while wearing ear muffs, so hearing one shot crack out from only yards away and thunder into unprotected ears was startling, to say the least. Pants-wetting if you were so inclined and terribly unlucky.
We were under strict instructions to only fire a blank round when we sighted an enemy more than 50 yards (approximately 150 feet) away. Any closer and we were instead to yell,
“Bang!” while pointing the rifle into the air.
We all saw the sense of that. More or less.
After the blank-shot-through-a-bean-can demo, our unit of five cadets was sent out on our seek-and-destroy mission, kitted out in full uniforms, day packs and 303s loaded with blank rounds. We were under the control (OK, pretty loose interpretation of ‘under control’) of Corporal Smith, who in ‘real life’ was one of the senior school prefects. Crouched down, we four privates stumbled along behind our fearless leader in single file like drunk crabs with the heebie-jeebies as we threaded our way silently through the dense bush.
Now, the ‘bush’ in Australia is a harsh thing; a dry, scratchy, stick-in-the-eye, face-slicing thing. Add flies, leeches, snakes, spiders, ticks and swarms of ravenous mosquitoes and traipsing through it in full, thick, hot-even-when-you’re-standing-still woollen khaki uniforms was apt to stress one just a tad. Hence our ‘silence’ was liberally dosed with,
As a branch recoiled from being caught in someone’s back pack.
As it sliced the following cadet’s cheek.
“Owwww! Bloody hell! Watch what you’re doing, Koflowski!”
“It’s not my fault, Amadio! You’re following too close behind!”
Guffaw! Guffaw! from all others.
“Oh you poor baby, Amadio!” opined Private Barnard.
“Shut up all of you!” hoarsely whisper-shouted our erstwhile and rapidly losing his patience leader, Corporal Smith.
The corporal motioned his right hand in the stop motion. We duly did. Well sort of.
“Watch it!” yelled Private Cavanagh.
“Get off me!” retorted Private Czynovicz.
…as half the unit complied and the other half took no notice and the twain met with careless and clunky abandon.
“Bloody Jesus Christ you lot!” catholic school boy Corporal Smith swore.
“Oooo-wah, Corporal! That’s three years in Purgatory right there!” said Private Czynovicz.
Much guffaws, chuckles, sniggers. Then,
The retort from a 303 rifle exploded and all five of us hit the ground like bags of rotten wet potatoes.
I had two thoughts as I lay flatter on the ground than a lizard drinking.
No. 1: Am I alive? Rapidly followed by,
No. 2: Did I wet myself… or worse? Quick check and relieved ‘Whew!’
All present and accounted for on both counts then.
We peered up, both shaken and stirred. Corporal Smith rose onto his haunches, his head flicking left-right-left again. All clear it would seem. He motioned with his right hand: one, two to his right; then one, two to his left. With nary a quip or grunt, we split as instructed to flank him either side at exactly three metres as we’d been trained to do. When we were in position, Corporal Smith inched forward and sidled up to the bole of a large gum tree in front of us. His eyes darted left, right, left again, re-checking our positions, when,
...yelled the Sergeant Major Brother Someone-but-I-forget as he leaped out from behind the other side of the tree and ‘shot’ Corporal Smith.
OK, freeze frame the action here to pause for thought.
I mean, really, does this seem anything like a clever thing to do? Jump into someone’s face, yell ‘Bang!’ loudly, while that already nerve-wracked someone is carrying a loaded 303 rifle? Oh well.
Our brave leader Corporal Smith did what anyone else would have done. Jerked his rifle up and,
…but for real.
The detonation of the 303 blasted through our heads and fried every one of our unsuspecting neurons into pants-wetting, lip-quivering shock.
It could have been so much worse, but fortunately in his haste, our brave corporal’s aim was off. None-the-less, the 303 blank round exploded like all Hades less than half a metre from the Sergeant Major’s left ear. With its now nicely perforated left ear drum the inevitable consequence.
Which promptly put an end to the whole shebang; pun absolutely, bleeding-well intended.
* * *
“Mission Report, Corporal!”
“Yes Sir! Sergeant Major deafened in left ear for a month. Exercises immediately suspended. All blank rounds confiscated forthwith. Sir!”
“Jolly good job, man, jolly good job.”
Shooting blanks, huh?
Believe me, don’t trust anyone who tells you that.