Author: Tomislav Šulj
Translated and adapted by Michael Durgo
The world is increasingly taking notice of the phenomenon of the foreign nationals who fought for Croatian freedom in the Croatian War of Independence. Unfortunately, the subject is still underrepresented in the media. This state of affairs is understandable in the light of the fact that many volunteers who fought in the Croatian army and the Croatian Defense Council did not live to tell their stories. By the same token, those who survived the war returned to their homes, unwilling to advertise their exploits. I have invested a lot of time and effort, as has the editor of the Vojna Povijest magazine to bring the stories of a number of foreign volunteers to the attention of the general public. It has to be pointed out that the individuals in question were wounded multiple times during the war and suffer from various disabilities as a result. They have successfully overcome these obstacles and adapted to civilian life.
On the other hand, many other foreign volunteers have not been able to successfully make the transition from the realities of war to those of being back in civvy street, mainly due to the difficulties pertaining to their physical disabilities and PTSD. The indifference they encounter in their respective societies regarding their experiences inevitably exacerbates the psychological problems induced by PTSD. Some former volunteers have decided to seek solace in alcohol and narcotics. A number have died from drug overdose or alcoholism related diseases. The Englishman Simon Hutt has successfully conquered all his demons and overcome his physical disabilities. He didn’t try to cop out by committing suicide, unlike many of his former comrades. The story of Simon Hutt and that of the other volunteers is not so much a tale of war and its horrors as it is a story about the sad destinies of most of the men who adventurously travelled to Croatia to fight against the imperial aspirations of Serbia.
At one point Simon Hutt realized that he had hit rock bottom, mainly due to problems related to his PTSD. He clearly saw that the tons of medication his doctors prescribed could not keep his suicidal tendencies at bay. And he was smart enough to recognize that there were better ways of dealing with the affliction. He started to paint and write. The output regarding the latter activity is truly prodigious. He wrote and published his memoir titled Paint – A Boy Soldier’s Journey. In the introduction he colorfully describes the inner struggle with his demons: ”In early 2007 I was having problems. I had lost another job and had no money, I started to take it out on my family, and the shouting and the aggression came to the surface. My family had never seen me like that before and for the first time ever I saw fear on their faces. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is like that; the slightest crack becomes a landslide in minutes, taking over and overwhelming you with the darkness.”
Hutt was born in 1973 in the town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Even as a kid he was drawn to the military profession. When he turned 16 he talked his parents into signing the parental consent form so that he could join the armed forces. In July 1989 he moved to nearby Bramcote where the military school The Junior Leaders Regiment Royal Artillery was located. To be sure, he wanted to join the infantry but due to his outstandingly high scores on the recruitment and selection test he was sent to the artillery school. He soon found out that the school was a world apart and he thrived in that environment. He scored high in every test and already in his first year he was the Orienteering champion. Upon the completion of his training he and one other recruit were invited to join the 39th Regiment Royal Artillery. Elements of the Regiment were at that time stationed in West Germany. In the fall of 1989 Hutt was transferred to the Sennelager Training Area in West Germany. This is what he writes in his book about that period of his life: ”It was a strange time to be part of British Forces Germany, the Berlin Wall had come down in late 1989, and various quiet revolutions and attitude changes in Eastern Europe meant that our so-called enemy of Communism and the Warsaw Pact no longer existed. World War Three wasn’t going to happen here and despite the fact that we no longer had a natural enemy we had just received brand new heavy artillery equipment in the form of the MLRS.” Hutt continued to score high in every test. Despite his young age he was assigned the duties of Signaler. The professional aspect of his life was very exciting but, on the other hand, he also became familiar with the tedium that inevitably accompanies the life of every soldier posted abroad during peacetime. He spent his free time with his comrades drinking cheap German bear in the local pubs, always on the lookout for adventurous local girls. Then the Gulf War happened. The news that the Regiment would be placed under the command of the 1st Artillery Brigade as part of the 1st Artillery Division completely electrified everyone at the training base. The British army had a month to prepare for participating in the liberation of Kuwait. The 39th Artillery Regiment went into high gear, preparing and training for war. Hutt and his fellow 18-year-old recruits were suddenly faced with the unexpected prospect of participating in a shooting war. Hutt became a radio operator in the Fire Direction Centre. In spite of his young age his superiors felt confident in giving the youngster such a responsible assignment. Hutt was to receive and relay information from the field. He would be responsible for processing information, anticipate the location of targets and relay the processed information regarding the coordinates of targets to the launchers. Needless to say, the speed of information processing would be of the essence. He was a member of a 7-men crew working out of a FV 432 Armored Personnel Carrier. Their task was to roam around the battlefield and collect information about the enemy’s movements for the purpose of designating targets for artillery and launchers. The crews were formed and trained. The vehicles were painted in desert camouflage and shipped to Saudi Arabia. The members of the Regiment were granted leave to say goodbye to their friends and loved ones. When Hutt arrived in Nuneaton he was the center of attention everywhere he went. The leave period was soon over and before he knew it Hutt found himself in Saudi Arabia. Time at the base passed slowly. Finally, after the allied air offensive broke the back of the Iraqi army, the ground troops moved in for the kill. The British army attacked on the left flank. The code name of that operation was ‘Grandby’. The main task of Hutt’s regiment was to provide long range artillery support for to the 7th and 3rd Armored Brigades. The ferocity of the onslaught was such that the Iraqi troops in the path of the British army’s advance simply disintegrated. Hutt was baffled by the obvious desperation of the defeated Iraqi soldiers. These Iraqi POWs were a sorry sight. They were obviously not professional soldiers. They were young men in their early twenties, or younger, conscripted unwillingly into the army and sent to fight against a vastly superior and highly motivated enemy. Most of these POWs were malnutritioned and suffering from hypothermia. Their officers had abandoned them to their fate when the Allied ground offensive commenced. But, Hutt had no time to feel too sorry for the POWs. His unit, as well as every other unit that was advancing eastwards, had been in continuous action for three full days. The soldiers ran on pure adrenalin, and copious amounts of black coffee. The British army continued to pursue the fleeing enemy. The remnants of the Iraqi army in that area retreated towards northern Iraq and the city of Basra. Hutt witnessed, for the first time in his life, the horrors of war. His vehicle almost hit an unexploded artillery shell, he saw charred bodies and body parts of Iraqi soldiers hanging at all angles from destroyed armored vehicles. Finally, he was ordered to radio most disturbing news to all the British troops engaged in the operation; by mistake British troops were strafed by a flight of American Fairchild A – 10 Thunderbolt II bombers and 9 British soldiers were killed.
The Iraqi army was overrun. After a few months the victorious British troops returned home to England. Hutt received a hero’s welcome in Nuneaton, his home town. However, he soon realized that civvy street did not agree with him at all. Everyone around him was simply too polite, too artificial. It seemed to him that everyone made it a point not to ask him about his experiences in Iraq. And nobody seemed willing to accept the fact that the war had not been waged on account of the poor Kuwaitis but on account of oil. His response to that attitude was aggression. He started picking up fights left, right and center. He rarely went to bed sober. It became painfully clear to him that once baptized by fire soldiers ceased to belong to civilian life. Hutt had indicated to his commander that he would probably not extend his contract with the army due to the traumatizing scenes he had witnessed in the Gulf War. Now, completely disillusioned with civilian life, he changed his mind. In May 1991 Hutt turned 18. He was legally of age. He signed up for another six years in the British army. He could have opted for a shorter period but he simply did not know what else to do. In the critical period of his life, his formative years, he only had the army as a reference point to anything. He was transferred to Germany again. The tedious routine of the regimen at the base drove him crazy and ram home the realization that he had made a mistake by signing up for six more years. He had too much time on his hands and no real idea what to do with it. Drinking was the only activity that made sense to him. Then the war in Yugoslavia started. The reports from the war-torn country were all over the news all the time. Hutt remembers: ”We watched TV pictures of Yugoslavia falling apart; first Slovenia then Croatia and Bosnia, different states of Yugoslavia, breaking away from the dominant state of Serbia. Slovenia, because of its geographical location, gained independence after a week or so, war raged everywhere else. The Serbs, who had control of Yugoslavia’s infrastructure, weapons and the bulk of the Army attempted to crush the Croatian fight for independence. The Croats had no access to weapons and had to build an Army from scratch. The UN considered it a civil war and imposed an arms embargo so no weapons could get in and Croatia struggled to defend itself as the UN sent envoys to urge sides to ‘talk’. On TV I watched Serb artillery shells hammered at the ancient port city of Dubrovnik, in Eastern Croatia scruffy, bearded Serb men in long greatcoats marched slowly through the Croatian town of Vukovar which, after being under siege for several months, finally fell. The bearded men were a far cry from the pathetic Iraqi conscripts I had seen before, these men seemed evil, even carrying a skull and crossbones flag into the town. Later, reports appeared of two hundred people being murdered after seeking sanctuary in Vukovar Hospital. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used, referring to the Serb method of dividing the previously ethnically mixed towns of Serb, Croat and Muslim and ‘getting rid’ of the non-Serb population, usually innocent civilians. At around the same time the civil war in Rwanda was in full swing and reports of boy soldiers, high on drugs, were using machetes to maim and murder their neighbors. The more I heard the more disgusted I became, not at what they were doing, but at what we were not doing. I felt used by my country in that we could slaughter thousands of Iraqi conscripts in the name of oil but not stop a civil war and its ethnic cleansing by either arming the good guys or physically stopping the bad guys. Maybe my notion of bad guys and good guys was naive, but either way I had begun to lose my love for the British Army and my Country and its system. The big killing machine that had rolled through the desert was a politicians tool, brought into life only when we had something to gain, human life it seemed, had no worth. So we sat, impotent and confused watching men in suits talk on TV about ‘resolutions’ and ’embargoes’ while villages were ‘cleansed’ by bearded Serbs or Rwandan boys with machetes. I was now becoming disillusioned and angry, many of the others felt the same way.”
At the beginning of 1992 alcohol was not enough of a distraction from the tedium of his existence anymore. He started using light drugs. Nobody at the base noticed that Hutt had a serious substance abuse problem because his tasks were simple and consumed very little of his time. He was an alcoholic and a habitual drug user. Even the news that he had been picked for a course that would upgrade his status did not prompt him to mend his ways. One day he was caught smoking a joint with a number of his buddies and was put in the Glasshouse for 30 days. Being locked up cleaned him up. After he was released he was transferred to another unit. There he felt isolated. He was distressed. At that time he saw a news report about the concentration camp in Omarska and starter seriously contemplating desertion. Like everybody else at the base, he was exposed to news reports about soldiers from the western countries fighting for the Croatian side in the Croatian War of Independence.
Hutt somehow thought that if he deserted and joined the Croatian army the ramifications would not be serious. He reasoned that the British army would welcome him back with open arms because of his combat experience in Croatia. It didn’t take him long to make a decision to desert and sign up for another shooting war. The irony of the situation was not lost on him; soldiers usually deserted the British army to avoid combat and things military and there he was, planning to desert just so he could join another army and fight in a war. He didn’t have to wait long for an ideal chance to desert. His unit was picked for a mission in the Canary Islands. Before departure all the soldiers were granted a short leave. As soon as he left the base he knew that he was a changed man. When he got home he didn’t go out drinking. He knew exactly what he wanted and he wasn’t afraid to come to terms with reality. And the reality was that he was not yet 19 years old, he had seen combat and had no education. He was unemployable and had no desire earn a high school diploma, especially because most of his friends were in college or had already joined the workforce. The leave period was over and Hutt boarded a train for Southampton, the regiment’s staging area for its mission in the Canary Islands. But he had no intention of participating in that mission. He bought a pair of Doc Martens boots, because he had left his equipment at the base in Germany. The other essentials for the trip to Croatia included cassette tapes of U2, Joshua Tree, and Depeche Mode, heaps of batteries for his walkman and one way plane ticket – destination Vienna Austria. He had no courage to call his family and tell them about his decision. Instead, he mailed a letter to Peter, his best friend from the army, explaining everything. That way both his parents and the unit commander would know what the story with him was. During the flight to Austria Hutt was in a somber mood, questioning the rectitude of his decision.
When he boarded his train to Zagreb he realized that he had lost his wallet with some of his money and military ID in it. When he stepped off the train in Zagreb he felt like a complete idiot. He had planned his desertion carefully, but he had not given a single thought to what he would actually do when he reached his destination. One uniformed man approached Simon at the train station and addressed him in English, saying that he figured Simon for an Englishman, judging by his boots and rucksack. When Simon confirmed that he was indeed from Britain the uniformed man introduced himself as Peter van Ekeren, from the Netherlands. Peter was a veteran soldier of the Dutch army, with a lot of combat experience in the Croatian War of Independence. He had mastered the Croatian language during the course of his soldiering in the country. Peter told Simon that he was waiting for a train that would take him to the frontline. He also offered to accompany Simon to the HQ of HOS. The HQ was located close to the train station. Hutt accepted and some minutes later he was telling his story to the interviewing officer at the HOS HQ. The officer simply did not believe that the man in front of him was a professional soldier. Simon’s explanation that he had lost his military ID actually reinforced the officer’s belief that the Brit was full of crap. Simon’s youthful appearance did not help either. Peter put a stop to the comedy of errors by inviting Simon to travel with him to the frontline. He assured Simon that he would be welcomed with open arms by the HOS unit deployed there. Peter explained that since the signing of the Vance plan in Sarajevo the situation in Croatia had been relatively peaceful but that there was a lot of fighting in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in the region of Posavina. When they arrived in Osijek Hutt immediately noticed that the city had sustained a lot of damage to artillery fire. Already on the train he had felt the gradual change of atmosphere and mental disposition of passengers as they neared Osijek, from relatively care free to positively psychotic. They spent a few hours in Osijek and then made their way to the Babina Greda border crossing. There they crossed the river by boat and following directions given them by military policemen at numerous checkpoints, their journey punctuated by the occasional sounds of small arms fire, reached the village of Domjanovac some time after nightfall. At the village he met two British soldiers fighting for the Croats: Roy Crawford ‘Smiley’ Crawford and Tony. Hutt again: ”Terry explained how the system worked; there were three separate teams of eight to ten men that protected our section of the front lines which consisted of only a couple of houses. Twelve hours on, then twenty four hours off, one of the teams was made up of all the foreigners lead by Miran the Slovenian, whose English was ‘shit’ according to Terry.”
Hutt joined the 2nd HOS Battalion Ante Paradžik. He was surprised when he realized that the Dutchman Raymond van der Linden was actually one of the unit’s higher ranking officers (the deputy commander of the battalion). The Dutchman had only recently joined the unit. The battalion acted as an independent unit despite the fact that it was formally part of the 104th Brigade of the Croatian Defense Council. Hutt quickly learned that he arrived at a very inopportune moment because the relations among various neighboring units were strained and tense. His fellow Brits explained to him that the best thing was to keep themselves apart from all the ‘native’ squabbles. The commander of the 2nd HOS Battalion, Stojan Vujnović ‘Srbin’ had been recently killed under shady circumstances and the controversy of it all only exacerbated the already onerous state of affairs. The commander’s death had a detrimental effect on the relations between various units in the area but also, and more importantly, on the combat effectiveness of all the Croatian troops as a whole. The unit that according to the original order of battle was supposed to play an offensive role now simply refused to launch attacks. Hutt describes the area in some detail: ”The front line was a village called Lijeskovac, a derelict place bisected by a canal. This position was several hundred metres into no-mans land, as the actual front line belonging to 104 Brigade HVO was well behind us. The canal separated the enemy and us; there was a road that ran over a bridge linking the two sides, though the bridge was covered in huge anti-tank mines. Our side consisted of half a dozen buildings, either half built or half destroyed. On the left hand side of the road facing the canal were only two houses, one of which was used as our forward position. The right hand side was slightly more built up and therefore had more houses to use as cover, although there was one main building that was always used. On the other side of the canal was the main part of the village itself, also almost half destroyed although the buildings were closely packed together providing plenty of cover for the enemy.”
Hutt checked out an AK 47. The weapon had belonged to a soldier who had been killed in battle. Hutt soon met the unit’s other foreign volunteers. Apart from the Dutchmen and the two Brits, there was a Yank, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne, Joe ‘Farmer’ Sidway, four young Germans: Andreas Buhner, then a man everyone called Rommel, Norbert and Gustav. There were two Slovenian guys, Miran and Saša and also, strangely enough, two Muslims, Mahmud and Murat, from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, respectively. They wore green berets, the flashes showing the Bosnian flag. Three Romanian volunteers would often visit the village. Not long after Hutt arrived a Hungarian guy named Laslo Ellias joined the unit. Sometimes other British volunteers who were serving in other units of the Croatian Defense Council in Bosanska Posavina showed up for a visit. One day blurred into another. The usually routine was viciously disrupted when Andreas Buchner and a number of Croatian soldiers were killed – they were out on a patrol and one of them stepped on an anti-tank mine. The foreigners in the HOS felt ever more insecure, ever more afflicted by the negative atmosphere around them. They kept to themselves and many local soldiers resented the attitude. Some changes had to be made. It was decided that the unit should be deployed elsewhere and another unit consisting of Croatian soldiers brought in to replace the foreigners. The trick was to make the switch in a manner that would not leave any room for later recriminations. The night before the foreign volunteer unit was scheduled to leave the foreigners fired a number of RPGs at the Serb positions. The Serbs responded and a vicious fire fight developed. Hutt fired on two Serb soldiers who were trying to locate the foreigners’ positions, probably killing one of them. The action imprinted itself on Hutt’s memory and later in his life he would have recurring nightmares about the incident. After the engagement the foreigners, except the Slovenes and Germans, turned in their weapons and equipment and joined the 106th Brigade. Everything went without undue recriminations thanks to the efforts of Marko ‘Tigrić’ Matič. This is how Hutt remembers Tigrić: ”Marco Tigrić carried a lot of influence in the area; he was local, from Domaljevac, in his late twenties and had previously fought in the Croatian Army. At some point he had been captured and tortured by the Serbs, spending time as a POW and losing one of his kidneys in one of their regular beatings. He was the local hard man, which his huge homemade tattoos testified to. Maybe it was because this was his home and he realized that we had come to fight for it, or maybe it was just because he liked Terry that he had risked his life, either way, at that moment he was a heavily tattooed angel in human form.”
The foreign volunteers joined the 2nd Battalion of the 106th Brigade of the Croatian Defense Council. The Brigade was deployed in the village of Matići. After a few days the Germans from the 2nd HOS Battalion Ante Paradžik joined the 106th Brigade too. With them came Ivan Farina, an Irishman. ”The village of Matiči was a quiet, grey front line village just like all the others. The civilian population made the best of their situation whilst the front line was only a few hundred metres south from the outskirts… In the HOS unit I only had only a Russian made AK and some grenades. At 106 we checked out brand new Chinese Aks, RPGs, and zolyas- anything we could carry!” Hutt remembers. The foreign volunteers were told that they would act with a group of local scouts as an intervention and reconnaissance group. Hutt again: ”The leader of the first Intervention Group was called Crny, or Gypsy. He had dark olive skin and jet-black shoulder length hair making him look more like a Native American Indian than an East European Gypsy. There were six others in his group and all of them looked to be about eighteen, though their eyes looked older. They were local lads and knew the area inside out. At Crny’s house his men had just woken up and were already chain-smoking on the sofa that doubled as their bed as coffee brewed. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ said Crny, the only one who spoke English, ‘I’ll take you around the front lines then the others will meet us and we go on patrol.’ It was only a five-minute walk down the road to the HVO trenches and it couldn’t have been more different than the shattered houses that served as HOS’ front lines. Running left to right in front of us was a five foot deep and three feet wide trench, which zigzagged off into the distance. At every other front facing point in the zigzag was a fire position cut into the trench, at every other rear facing point was a bunker. The whole place was reinforced, sandbagged and had branches and logs in front as cover from view. The regular soldiers of 106 Brigade sat in the bunkers drinking coffee and playing cards, Matiči was probably their village. It was fantastically organised and engineered, it was the first sign of professionalism we had seen and we were impressed. At the edge of the field some way in front of the trenches was a hedge then, Crny explained, another small field, another hedge then a field with the Serb bunkers in, in total the Serb lines were just a couple of hundred metres away. The road we stood on went ahead of us into a forest where the hedge was, then continued to a Serb held village a mile away.”
The first recon mission, at least from the perspective of the newcomers, was highly dangerous. Hutt vividly describes the action in his book: ”We walked carefully around the mines and tripwires and into the small wood and the second hedge line, we were now in no-mans land. On the other side of this hedge a hundred metres away we could see through the trees a row of around a dozen badly camouflaged bunkers. Crny quietly explained that they didn’t have trenches only individual bunkers and it was hard to know which were occupied unless they had a fire going inside. We could hear talking and laughter from the Serb lines as well as an engine starting in the distance and plates or tins rattling. I was suddenly totally switched on as more adrenaline pumped through me, I could hear every movement whilst the Germans sounded like elephants crashing through the small forest so I gave them an angry stare. We crouched down and waited, watching the Serb bunkers for any movement or action. I wanted to get people in to some kind of all round defence and explain arcs of fire, just sitting and waiting in no-mans land was against everything I had learnt and made me even more aware of the sounds we were making and how exposed we were if we got ‘bumped’ by an enemy patrol. Nobody else seemed to give a shit though. Crny had a brief chat with one of his team before splitting us into two groups to go to the edge of the Serb lines and beyond, behind their bunkers. I was lumbered with the Germans, maybe I was seen as some kind of controlling influence after the little firefight in Lijeskovac, either that or just because we were in the same age group. I used hand signals to tell them to shut up, before tapping the side of my head to tell them to stay alert. Terry, Smiley, Farmer Joe and Peter along with Crny and another of his men went first, scurrying back to the road before following the hedge line across the fields. As we waited I tried to explain arcs of fire to the Germans using hand signals, I think I was wasting my time but at least they were quiet. After ten minutes of waiting and listening to the Serb soldiers eat their dinner it was our turn. One of Crny’s men led the way followed by Gustav, myself, Norbert and Rommel, another one of Crny’s men stayed at the rear.
We skipped over the mines again before scrambling behind the hedge and ran, crouching, across the field parallel to our own trenches. It took us about ten minutes of half jogging, stopping occasionally to regroup, before skidding into a deep, wet ditch almost half a kilometre to the right of the road where we started. We sat in the ditch and got our breath back, before giving the thumbs up sign that we were ready. Using hand signals, the leading scout told us to wait before he slowly walked forwards in the ditch that ran parallel to the road, forwards into the Serb lines to meet up with the other group.
He soon returned and waved us forward, staying in the same line and crouching as low as we could, we quietly plodded through the wet overgrown ditch. Like most of the last couple of days I felt totally unprepared and felt the need to be ‘cammed up’, to have my face covered in camouflage cream and foliage hanging off me to break up my silhouette. I thought it was just meant to be a quick look at the bunkers. We walked for ten metres then stopped to listen before moving slowly forwards again and for once the Germans incessant chatter had stopped, the noises from the Serb lines were now louder and their individual voices could be heard. The ditch became wider and deeper and we met up with the other group who sat against the steep sides of the bank, Terry giving me a thumbs up. Crny waved his arms to attract our attention before pointing to areas on the sides of the bank and in the ditch. Spiky Serb mines could clearly be seen poking out of various bits of undergrowth. I looked around at all the serious faces, silent despite the adrenaline that was fuelling us. The dozen men sat in the cold, damp overgrown hollow surrounded by Serb mines, listening, eyes darting everywhere, breathing shallowly and silently. The scene reminded me of when I was a boy, playing soldiers as a child with my friend Matthew, hiding in building sites and waiting for the other kids who we were playing war with that day to appear then hurling stones or mud at them before running off. I tried not to laugh at the comparison.
Crny waved us forward, thankfully stopping any nervous giggle before it started. The other group stayed as they must have already been up and had a look and our group crawled forwards into another ditch that eventually rose and flattened out until we were at ground level and crawling through wet undergrowth and around tree trunks, occasionally stopping and silently listening. After around twenty minutes of crawling and stopping, the undergrowth became sparse and turned into a forest floor carpeted with pine needles and wet brown leaves. Crny skipped behind a tree and we all followed, each picking individual trees. Crny pointed to the area that we had just gone past. My heart was hammering.
In front of us only twenty metres away was the rear entrance of the Serb bunker at the end of the line. We had gone past the end of their line and were now in the wooded area behind their last bunker. Crny put his finger to his lips before pointing further ahead. Ahead of us a figure with his back to us leant against a tree smoking a cigarette. He wore the dark green camouflage Serb uniform and had his rifle slung over his shoulder. Crny moved forwards closer to the Serb soldier, as if it was some kind of competition, I suddenly thought that Crny was going to kill him and was overcome by a claustrophobic panic. This was no longer a recce mission just to have a look, Crny had the chance to kill a Serb, it wasn’t like playing war as a kid anymore and we wouldn’t be throwing some mud before running off.
Crny was now ten metres from the Serb soldier and slowly drew a long-bladed knife from its sheath. I suddenly realised I was trapped behind the Serb lines and if the shit hit the fan I would be screwed, ‘please don’t kill him,’ I thought, as my base instinct to run away tried its hardest not to kick in. A voice in the distance shouted to the smoking Serb who in turn laughed and shouted something back. We were wide-eyed and frozen to the spot, there was a few minutes of banter between the two Serb soldiers before he threw his cigarette away and walked off, laughing, away from us and towards his unseen conversation partner, thankfully without looking around. Crny and the rest of us had turned to statues at the sound of this private conversation and Crny, putting his knife back in its sheath, realised it was time to go. My panic slowly eased as we shuffled backwards back the way we had come, my body still screaming at me to run. The Serb would never know how close he came to having his throat cut. We left the area as quietly as we came in and with each step closer to our lines the better I felt.”
The intervention and reconnaissance group was engaged in similar actions over the course of the following few days, in preparation for ”the big push”. The commander had been planning an attack on a large scale for quite some time. The intervention and reconnaissance group would attack, supported by armor, the enemy’s fortified positions and bunkers and thus enable the other strike force, commanded by Crny, to rapidly advance through the breach and envelop the enemy’s positions. Hutt remembers: ”We had a good nine-man team now without personality clashes or any internal aggravation… Farmer Joe, Smiley and Peter were the older, experienced members of the group. Peter and Farmer Joe often rubbed each other the wrong way but managed to get along and nobody envied Peter in his leadership role, Farmer Joe was happy enough going with the flow as long at it suited him. Smiley, Farmer Joe’s comedy partner, was the inscrutable, chain-smoking northerner who got on with it, he was made of stern stuff but any questions about his life back home would be swatted away with a ‘Nema, nema, polarko.’ These three smoked like chimneys and liked a drink, often finding some Rakija from somewhere to drink themselves into slurred conversations and slow motion arguments before passing out in the front room. Terry and I, and Ivan when he arrived, liked a few of the sweet Croatian beers but knew that heavy drinking and weaponry surely couldn’t be a good cocktail, it was all about control. Any time not out on patrol was spent doing our own thing; Farmer Joe found a pig was tethered in the rough patch of ground at the back of our house past the toilet and spent much of his time enticing it with leafy green vegetables and the mantra, ‘you gottaeat your greens,’ until eventually its owner caught Farmer Joe feeding the pig and screamed at him for making his animal have violent diarrhoea. Peter wandered around doing his leadership thing; trying to scrounge equipment and what could be described as ducking and diving, though we turned a blind eye. He was also making contacts with everyone he could find who were more to do with ‘business’ than friendship. Terry and I, often with Smiley and Ivan, walked into the village if just to say hello to the locals, we were determined not to be the ‘strangers’ in town that they all saw us as, the foreigners that brought the war with them…
After around a week of patrolling the Serb lines and getting the lie of the land from Crny and his men, we considered ourselves ready for the ‘big plan’ of attacking the Serb lines. As if on cue and before we could start to get bored, we heard the familiar squeaking rumble of a tank outside the house. We ran outside and watched the T-62 tank roll up the road, menacingly churning out black fumes, its crew waving to us as the long-haired commander and some more of his men followed up behind, the tank turned off onto the field opposite as it reached our house”.
Smiley asked the driver if he could take the tank for a spin and the commander agreed. The opportunity was too good to pass up. The foreign volunteers drove around in the tank and even fired a round at the Serbs’ positions. A few days later Tony left the group. He had been saying for a long time that he’d had enough. Hutt explains: ”Terry broke the news to the others that morning and they looked almost as pissed off as I was.”
Terry left on the 13th and the next day the long awaited big operation started. Hutt describes the events of that day vividly in his book: ”The dawn mist was still clinging to the ground and the sun was just starting to rise as we boarded the lorry, still half asleep and without the black coffee wake up call we were used to. Crny and his men were already in the lorry, along with several other new faces. We stood holding the roof straps as we moved off, swaying and juddering through every pothole and gear change. We were in a convoy of about four trucks, all carrying men armed for the unknown. I looked around me and the faces looked serious and somehow older, there was no joking or laughter now, this was the real thing, this after all was what I had come to do, fighting for a Bosnian village. The thought helped me focus, this is my job, I don’t do anything else, it’s what I’m here for. The words went over and over in my head trying to convince myself that it was the fear that keeps you alive, but in the pit of my stomach the uneasy feeling remained. We drove through a few built up areas and villages, all still sleeping, but the nearer we got we noticed the quieter it became.
After half an hours drive we reached the edge of another village, the sign said Vidovice. The convoy of trucks were pointed in different directions to park up and we waited, men got out of the cabs and there was a discussion between various commanders. In hushed voices one of them came to the back of each truck, ushering men out into a holding area before pointing them in the general direction of where they were meant to go. It was done quickly and quietly, seventy soldiers standing in a car park would make a good target and we didn’t want to hang around. It was our long-haired commander that came to the back of our truck, he simply said, ‘Come.’ We followed him into the part of the village nearest to us, looking around I could see that this wasn’t like most of the frontline villages we had seen so far, they usually looked like they had been left to crumble for years, with overgrown gardens and thick layers of dust. This one was different, there were lots of unbroken windows and the gardens looked like they had been cared for recently and on one wall I saw a spray painted Serbian cross; graffiti, Serb style. We were in the garage of the nearest house as our long-haired commander spoke to Crny and his men, pointing and talking before they nodded and headed off to the right hand side of the village. Besides us there were six or seven other men ho were already in the garage and by their appearance they had been here since yesterday at least. Unshaven and with a layer of grime and dust, one of them had a fresh bandage around his head, blood seeped through it above his ear. They were wide-eyed and clearly shaken, they wanted out of there more than I did and looked like they were happy to finally see the sunrise and fresh troops, they had done their bit. From the garage I could see the village was built around one main road, on the other side of the road were farm buildings. The garage we were in was on the outside corner of a sharp bend in the road; to our left the road swayed through the centre of the village, to our right and ahead of us a few hundred metres away the road bisected the last of the farm buildings exiting the village and went through a cornfield to the Serb held village a mile away in the distance. Vidovice looked like it had been evacuated in a hurry only recently; pots and pans lay everywhere, milk carts stood by the side of the road, a building off to the left still smouldered with the occasional red flame flickering from one of the windows and I could see a dog running around wildly, barking at shadows. It seemed like the village itself was holding its breath, awaiting the storm.”
Before the firefight developed in earnest Hutt got hit in the abdomen while trying to find a suitable position to fire his M80 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade from. He was wounded by shrapnel from a rifle grenade. Hutt was taken completely by surprise because he was not expecting an explosion – rifle grenades do not make tell-tale sounds. He was hurting all over but in reality he was extremely lucky. Most of the shrapnel hit his leather belt, pouch and a full 40 round AK 47 magazine Tony had given him. A number of projectiles did hit flesh and the wounds hurt like living hell. Hutt managed to return to the village where he was given medical help. Other foreign volunteers accompanied Hutt to the rear but when the doctors assured them that Simon was only lightly wounded they returned to their positions. Smiley remained with Hutt to be around should Simon need help with anything. Simon’s luck that day was not destined to hold. A tank rolled into the village. The crew was trying to find a suitable firing position. Hutt’s account of what happened next is breathtaking: ”A tank appeared at the far end of the road, going at quite a speed, it was obvious it wasn’t just maneuvering into a safe position. The sun glinted off the glass periscopes on the turret, dirty smoke squirted out from the exhaust as it changed up the gears and I could hear the familiar loud squeak of track on paved road. I still leant against the doorway with my rifle and belt in a pile on the floor, my jacket open and my trousers undone at the waist with my hand pressing the pad into my painfully stinging hip.
The tank came closer at speed, it had been spray painted all dark greens, browns and black and on the side of the turret the letters HVO were printed in large yellow paint alongside a painted Croat red and white squared panel. The tank commander and his driver both had their heads out of the vehicle looking in the direction of the Serb village as they sped onwards, their faces stern and hard, eyes focused on the enemy village in front. I could sense an evil fear coming back and felt sick, the closer the fifty tons of metal war machine got the worse I felt, it was bringing my bad feeling with it in all its noise and fumes and oily steel.
It was almost opposite us when the tank commander shouted to his crew, his eyes still focused on the village a mile in the distance. The tank changed down the gears and slowly juddered before gently rocking forward on its tracks to a halt. It was right next to us on the road only twenty metres away, facing the Serb held village down the road… Seconds after the tank fired its third round, we could all hear a faint whistling and the cheering was cut short. The whistling got louder and louder as it came closer, over our heads a black smudge flew through the sky, the pitch of the whistle became deeper before the smudge dropped hard into a building out of sight much further up the road to our right, the whistling ending in an almost inaudible explosion. The sound muffled by the walls of buildings. Dust and dirt were thrown in to the air and a wall fell down, the soldiers spoke animatedly to each other discussing whether to head for cover. It was the inevitable retaliation, a Serb mortar trying to hit the tank. It probably needed to be a direct hit to destroy the tank but it would be enough to make the tank back off and at the same time maybe take a few infantry casualties. I watched the mortar shell fall and the tank fire with the strange detachment of a man who had come so close to death already today, I felt like an objective observer, I had already pulled the short straw and it was now somebody else’s turn. I wanted to be away from this place but had become transfixed by the sights and sounds, the pressure wave as the tank fired, the whistling and screeching mortars, louder, closer, the men cheering. The power of the tank firing its rounds that flew faster than the speed of sound and the explosive power of the Serb heavy mortars. The soldiers were cheering like madmen, aware now that the tank was in a duel with a mortar, one would back down or be destroyed. The tank was exposed and it had to fire as many rounds as it could before the mortar found its range.”
One shell exploded only a few meters away from them. Hutt knew he was hurt badly, but he was in a state of shock and unable to do anything. Smiley was wounded too, but not nearly as badly as Simon. Medics quickly showed up, along with other foreign volunteers who were shocked by the scene. They watched their heavily wounded comrade and his shattered thigh. Simon was in real danger of bleeding to death. He was promptly evacuated and operated on. The operation was difficult and at one point during the procedure Simon almost died from lack of blood. His leg was broken in five places from the thigh bone to the knee. He was in constant pain. The injury was, in and of itself, terrible but it was also dangerous because there was a danger that many other debilitating conditions could develop from it. After a week spent in intensive care, and after a number of crises induced by complications where his life literally hung by a thread, Simon’s condition finally stabilized. His comrades visited him at the hospital and told him that Smiley had walked away relatively unscathed, being wounded lightly in the buttocks. From Ivan he found out that everything had gone wrong on the day he was wounded; the attack, due to an error, had gone ahead without artillery support. A few days after the visit Ivan participated in another attack where everything also went haywire – Ivan received a serious head wound. In the meantime Hutt and another wounded man with similar injuries were transported to Zagreb. During the ride the other man, maddened by his injuries and pain, frantically pulled out the catheter from his penis. At that point Hutt realized that he had been lucky and that his wounds would not drive him crazy and he knew he would not have to live out his life as a vegetable. But he was not out of the woods yet. His leg was infected and there was a real danger he could lose it. Hutt, in his book, has nothing but praise for the hospital staff: ”The doctors and nurses at the New Hospital were great. They did everything humanly possible to save my leg. Everybody there, even the patients and wounded soldiers from the other wards were considerate, appreciative of the fact that I had come to Croatia to fight for their country. Their friends and loved ones, when they came to visit them, were extremely polite towards me, telling me that I was in their prayers. Never has so much caring attention been lavished on me, before or since. I felt like I was at home, despite the terrible pain from the wound. I was a content man. I knew my happiness would not last though; I knew I had to return to England to face the music.” Hutt’s transplanted vein burst while he was defecating and despite all their efforts the doctors couldn’t save his leg. Hutt’s recovery was quick, but as soon as he was well enough he was, on October 13, 1992, transported to England as a prisoner of the British army.
Tough times were in store for Hutt. In the military hospital in England he did not get even a fraction of professional care and attention he had enjoyed in the Croatian hospital. After a long recuperation period at the hospital he was released and put under house arrest. He was still a prisoner. He started the rehabilitation process, adjusting to the orthopedic aids. The process was quick and soon it was time for his court martial. He expected a light sentence but he was mistaken. The powers that be were hell bent on making an example of him, as a warning to all would be deserters with ideas to join the armed forces of another country. Hutt describes the court martial with unbridled bitterness: ”I move to the chair next to me and sit down, still in the middle of the room with my back straight and arms locked, my hands clenched into fists on my knees as I try and concentrate on the coat of arms and Queenie. All eyes are on me, I’m surrounded by people who don’t know me but are about to judge me. Mouth shut, look up, remember it’s all just bullshit. The prosecution Officer starts outlining the details of my offence. For a second I wonder who it is she’s talking about. She starts describing the devil, a murdering mercenary, a disgrace to Queen and Country, bringing the British Army into disrepute and putting British UN troops at risks. Is this me she’s talking about? I want to scream again and tell her that it’s not me. I try not to listen but I can feel everyone’s eyes burn into me. Then she starts reading parts of my statement and I immediately start to crumple, she reads the sentences verbatim and it’s like the final twist of the knife. It sounds like somebody posh is trying to talk in a Nuneaton accent; lots of ‘dunno’, ‘aint’, ‘ar’ instead of yes, ‘nah’ instead of no, ‘int it’ instead of isn’t it, ‘like’ at the end of sentences. It sounds so common and ridiculous in her educated voice as each ‘ain’t’ is pronounced perfectly. She makes me sound so stupid as well as evil. Tears start to roll down my cheeks. I try to stay strong but there’s no strength left, my eyes drop to the floor instead of the coat of arms. They’ve beaten me. The humiliation is complete and my personality has been ripped to shreds, why do they need to do this? Is this the example they wanted? Tears stream down my face and drop to the floor between my trainer clad feet, my fists are still clenched but my body sags, bent over, broken and hollow. Being shot in the back of the head and being buried naked in a ditch would be less humiliating. I feel like I’ve been mentally raped.”
He was sentenced to 90 days in prison. However, the British army treated Hutt gallantly; instead of receiving dishonorable discharge Hutt was given a medical discharge from the British army. That meant that he was entitled to an invalidity pension. After almost five years spent in the army Hutt was back in the civilian world. At that point he embarked on years long struggle with his demons. He started drinking and taking drugs again. He was only 22 years old and he hit rock bottom. He moved out of his parents’ house and spent his days drinking, dealing unsuccessfully with his nightmares, completely isolating himself from everyone. Even though he had been proclaimed physically stable during his trial and rehabilitation process by the army doctors, civilian doctors diagnosed him with an advanced stage of PTSD that had developed after the trial. Hutt confronted his demons and there was a marked improvement in his condition but it did not last. He went to night school, earned a high school diploma and enrolled in college (social studies, Economics and Russian). But the beast within him returned with a vengeance. He sent a letter to a local store, trying to extort money from the owner. The owner called the cops and Simon was arrested. The judge had no pity and sentenced him to seven years in prison. It is interesting to note that the sentence was harsher than those routinely given for rape or second degree murder. Ironically, the sentence was a blessing in disguise. Simon was in dire need of being in controlled isolation. He decided to be a model prisoner, hoping that the sentence would be reduced on account of his good behavior. He took a job in the prison library, attended the art workshop and discovered that he had a talent for painting. That discovery compelled him to enroll in the art college. During that time Simon’s father died. Hutt was released after serving only three and a half years, in July 1999. He turned a new leaf but on the other hand PTSD and his temperament continued to determine the volatile nature of his existence. To avoid mixing with young students he quit college and attended various art courses instead. He drifted from one job to another, unable to spend too much time in one routine. The only constant in his life since he got out of jail had been his family. He is married to a girl who loves him for who he is and does not care about his disability or his past. In his darkest hours she is always there to soothe his emotional pain and keep him on the straight and narrow.
A few years ago he visited Croatia but decided not to visit the village in Posavina where he had been wounded. He concludes: ” It’s only in the last few years that I have started telling people that I lost my leg in Bosnia rather than a motorbike accident and until I started this book I have always thought that I was part of Croatia and Bosnia’s past, not its present. During the writing of this book I have made many friends and returned to Croatia in November 2008 with the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Homeland War. Returning to Croatia was one of the most moving things I have done. My memories of seeing a country torn by war, its overgrown unharvested fields, sandbagged windows and bullet scarred buildings were gone. Croatia is now a vibrant country, its children don’t remember the war but are always reminded… I like to think I stood up for what I thought was right in fighting in someone else’s war and in doing so I have left my mark on the world. The only problem is the mark it has left on me, but I manage, quietly. I no longer feel that I made a mistake in fighting in Bosnia, it is now something I am proud of. While others watched atrocities on TV, I wanted to do something about it and almost gave my life for it.”