THINGS THAT GO “BOOOOOOOOOM” By Justin Fidler, B Coy 2/4 RAR
Circa 1993 at the High Range training area in Townsville I was a digger in 5 Platoon and was part of a great bunch of blokes with whom I’d end up deploying on operations to Rwanda in 1995. We were training in the high-range training area to the north-west of Townsville and had been there for close to two weeks. During this time we had the privilege of having to dig in to Stage 3. For those unaware of this terminology, it is basically digging a fighting pit that can accommodate two soldiers. The pit should be deep enough for the soldiers to stand whilst their weapons are at ground level. This is to minimise the target they present and provide cover from enemy fire. To both sides of this fighting bay are areas that have also been dug out to the same depth and to the length of the soldier using it. They also have timber bearers placed across the pit to create and support the corrugated iron that forms the roof. This is then covered with sandbags full of earth. This is to serve as protection from the likes of artillery, mortars and reportedly from air strikes. They also serve as an area that the soldiers can sleep in at night and store their equipment.
So as the exercise was progressing, the weather was turning terrible. The rain had set in and the area that was normally a hot, dry dustbowl was quickly turning to mud. For us northern soldiers it was also getting a bit chilly up there on the plateau. We were still doing active patrolling during the day and returning to our position late afternoon so we could dig some more. We had to have all the soldiers’ pits down to the required depth. Once one was down, if another still needed to be dug, we would rotate through to help out. This constant state of wakefulness, hard physical activity and minimal food was just the type of training that was supposed to bring out your best.
We were nearing the end of our exercise by this stage and the weather had not let up. We were fortunate enough that the rain had eased to a drizzle and wasn’t filling up our sleeping areas. We had finished the digging phase and were afforded some well-earned rest whilst not patrolling. It was at this time that my most embarrassing and potentially career-stuffing incident was to happen. With about three or four days left to go, we had just come back from a lengthy patrol and moved back into the safety of our defensive position. I was in the position of scout so my pit was located slightly to the rear of the forward pits but well in front of CHQ. The defensive area was flat all around and only sparsely vegetated, offering minimal concealment. We did blend in well, however, as the rain and low cloud offered poor light and everything started to blend in with the one brownish-green colour. My fighting bay was a beautiful sight to see after a long patrol and I took the opportunity to jump straight in and have a smoke. It was getting towards the end of the day and as the sun wasn’t out, STAND TO was coming up quickly. I decided that I would start a little hexamine stove and grab a hot brew whilst I had the chance. I had a cut sandbag over the entry of my sleeping area to cover any light and the fact that the bottom of the pit was around five feet below ground, it was the perfect spot to get a brew going.
It was around 1630 to 1700. Blokes were getting their shit together, having a feed and doing general maintenance. The digging had finished and we were just sitting down, taking in our beautiful country. My 2IC had moved over to my pit and delegated me to give him a hand to do a resupply on water and food. I obliged, jumped up and headed off with him to the centre of the defensive position towards CHQ. The No 2 scout that shared the other side of my pit was also out of our pit manning the gun. We made our way to the centre of the position and CHQ and I were standing next to my 2IC alongside the CSM, QSM and a few of the other section’s resupply crew when all of a sudden… BOOOOOOOOOM.
We all hit the ground, everyone turning to face the possible direction of the attack. There was already radio chatter and the hierarchy was starting to prepare for an attack. The CSM called STAND TO and we all raced back to our pits.
As the company defensive area was rather large, it was some distance back to my pit. I moved quickly alongside my 2IC and we made it back to our PHQ. Our Platoon commander and sergeant were talking and trying to identify what it was and where the loud boom had come from. I was taking this all in and looking towards the area of my pit. I was just staring out there, absorbing the scene when something caught my eye. It was just a flash but then I saw it again. I mentioned it to my 2IC and was trying to point it out but then we all saw it.
My pit was approx 40 metres to my front. It was still empty as the other soldier was on gun piquet but there was definitely a party going on in my pit. It was getting easy to see where the noise and light were coming from now. The flames were creeping out of the pit and lapping upwards towards the sky.
I then realised exactly what was happening. I got up and ran towards my pit. As I got closer, it was evident that my pit was well and truly alight. I reached it, jumped right in on to the other side and attempted to extinguish the fire. I threw dirt, kicked dirt and stomped on the sandbag. I ripped my pack out that was snugly packed into the sleeping bay and had to put that out as well. What seemed like forever (but was probably only a minute) had passed and I’d managed to get the situation under control.
In all the confusion the company had been stood to. Everyone had moved to his respective pit. But by now the Pl Sgt had moved over to my pit, knowing full well that there was no need to stand to.
In my haste to help the 2IC with the resupply, along with the fatigue and the biggest factor of being a fucking lid soldier, I had just done the unthinkable. Whilst making a brew in my sleeping bay, I’d left the hexamine stove going, unattended. Usually, this probably wouldn’t have been too big a drama but as some of the hexamine fuel block had been wet, it tended to crack and explode when burning. This apparently had been the case and as my pack was right next to the stove, this was the first thing to catch on fire. It must have smouldered for a while before reaching my sleeping bag that was a lot more flammable. So as you can see, it had well and truly taken alight by now and was heading for my ration pack.
So as the chain of events unfolded, the fire engulfed my pack, and the ration pack with the tins of food were now exposed to the flames. It wasn’t long before they heated up to the point that at least one exploded and sent the coy defensive position into 100% STAND TO. This explosion also seemed to add fuel to the fire as the sandbag covering my sleeping bay caught on fire. This was what caused the flames rising out of my pit to be seen from pretty much everywhere in the fading light.
So, to wind up a long story quickly, the following was the end result:-
1 x pack – half burnt (unusable)
1 x winter weight sleeping bag (toasted)
1 pair socks, 2 ration packs and 1 water bottle – all melted.
It was just fortunate that there was no ammunition or pyros in the pack and that the other soldier was not in there. Maybe if he had been, he might have been able to save it before it went crazy. I managed to avoid being charged but had a few weekends to enjoy the honour of guard duty. I can safely say that this was my only ever fuck-up in my time but I made it a cracker.