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Raffique Shah


Panic in the city

By Raffique Shah

Lt Cecil Bernard on his way to the court martial of Raffique Shah and the other soldiers charged with the 1970 mutiny. Bernard helped persuade the Coast Guard to stop firing at the soldiers.

WE had no pre-arranged signal but when the single shot was fired from my gun as I struggled with Major Henry Christopher, the men at the bunker took that shot as the signal to attack.

They captured the bunker from RSM Frenche in a flash, even as Rex Lasalle and I were subdued, arrested and taken into the cells in the Guard Room. As we were being escorted to the cells, the soldiers, who were reluctantly preparing to take up duties, watched with apprehension. After all, we were the two most popular officers in the Regiment.

Within minutes, word of the takeover of the ammunition bunker swept through the Barracks. The men who had taken over the bunker dispatched a small group to free us from the cells. With rifles and machine guns blazing, they attacked the Guard Room. Senior officers, upon hearing the fire, either fled or imprisoned themselves in their offices or wherever they felt safe.

By the time Rex and I were taken from the cells, one Coast Guard FPB had steamed into Teteron Bay and began firing its 40mm Bofor at the ammunition bunker. Its assault was ineffective. It was also vulnerable to fire from rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons in our possession, since the vessel was no more than 300 metres off shore.

But I gave the order not to return fire, primarily because we did not see the Coast Guard as our enemy, and also because Lt Lennox "Squingy" Gordon (deceased) and Lt Cecil Bernard (now a judge in the Industrial Court) decided to persuade the Coast Guard to stop firing.

The latter was achieved, and the FPB left Teteron.

The takeover of Teteron was completed in less than an hour, without another shot being fired. Several men searched the camp for the sergeants (some of whom were liked by the men so they weren't targets), but they weren't found.

It was eventually decided to search the Sergeants' Mess, which was (and still is, I believe) a small structure not far from the Guard Room. The dormitory, toilets and dining room yielded nothing. They were about to depart when someone suggested the stock room. It was a small area, about eight-feet-by-twelve-feet, in which cartons of beer, alcohol and other stocks were held.

"Nah, all of dem cyah fit dey!" one soldier remarked.

"Shoot the %$#@ lock off!" ordered another.

"Oh Gawd! Oh Gawd! No, doh shoot, we comin out!" came a cry from inside. And from that small room, out tumbled some 20-odd sergeants, who were then marched to the cells and locked up.

Rex and I, along with a group of soldiers who had emerged as leaders (some of them mere privates, and very junior at that), having secured the camp, took a decision to attempt to get to Camp Ogden in St James, from where we could negotiate with the Government the terms and conditions of a settlement.

The army's fleet of vehicles, as mentioned earlier, was in a woeful state, with many parked at the MT division awaiting spares and repairs. That morning, so alert, enthusiastic and exuberant were the soldiers, in little time they had a close-to-full fleet on the road. Decisions were taken about who we would leave to secure Teteron and who would go into POS. Arms and ammunition were withdrawn and distributed, and we readied the convoy to leave the barracks.

In the meantime, Christopher had placed himself under arrest in the CO's office; he was in the company of Captains Norris Baden-Semper and Horace Grannum. Captains Spencer, Oliver Walker and David Dopwell, as well as Lieutenant Hugh Vidal, had fled Teteron.

Three other officers found themselves in the cells with the sergeants-Major Ming Johnson, and Lieutenants Joe Mader and Charles Hull-purely because they happened to be there when the arrested sergeants were being piled into the cells. The sergeants were either under arrest or cooperating with the rebels.

And except for a few corporals and privates who had fled to Staubles Bay or elsewhere, the mood in the camp was warlike. It was the first time the soldiers were tasting real military action, and they seemed eager to exercise the skills they had been taught.

By then, word of the mutiny had reached the Government, the police and other State authorities. Panic hit POS, as judges and lawyers hastily abandoned courts, running to the safety of their cars (this description from one attorney who witnessed it).

At Police HQ, while acting Commissioner Tony May moved to mobilise his men to meet this new threat, many policemen fled the city, some of them hastily shedding the uniforms for civilian clothes.

Some senior officers started crying: "What happen, dem soldiers ent know we have families?" Others began driving out of the city towards the east, no one knows where to. The Coast Guard's only plane, an old Cessna (9YA) piloted by Lt Gaylord Kelshall, hovered in the area, no doubt trying to assess the situation and to feed information to the Coast Guard high command.

At Stauble's Bay, a hasty evacuation was taking place. All hands piled onto the two FPBs, the Trinity and the Courland Bay, and, overloaded, they both prepared to halt the convoy's move to the city.

A crucial point in the mutiny had been reached within three hours of the takeover of Teteron, which fell into the hands of the rebels with virtually one round of ammunition fired.


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