Airborne Engineers Association

Roll of Honour



A Tribute to Neil Westbrook by Tom Downie


When asked to write a bit about Neil Westbrook I thought where do I start and I think it best if I give you some background.

I arrived at 9 Indep Para Sqn RE at the same time as another great mate Fred Robson. Fred was a big charismatic guy who people took to. I had already played football for an East African Army Team and was a L/cpl (which I had to relinquish when I joined the Sqn).
Fred and I went through Pre-Para and Parachute Training together and after completion of the course we joined 1 Troop (shiny one). We had made it - we were in! We were made men, as they say in the Sopranos, but the Sqn. was full of characters that treated us like the sprogs we were. It must have been a year or more before we were actually accepted as being a part of the Sqn, and that was the norm, I know because that's how we treated later arrivals.

Then two years later, into the Sqn arrived a Legend, Neil Westbrook. Of course we didn't know that at the time, to us he was just a young naïve guy who was too good looking to be a paratrooper, and looked good in anything he wore, which was a bonus for Neil because what he wore didn't always come from his own locker. I was fortunate; my kit was either too short in the leg or too big round the waist. Fred was the opposite, too long in the leg and too skinny round the waist, so we never had to search his locker for something of our own to wear.
I can't remember a single member of the Troop who could stay mad at Neil for any length of time, even when he borrowed items that they were just about to wear, although the angry cry of 'Westbrook' was quite a common sound in the billet.

In fact Neil had an effect on all facets of Sqn life, good and bad, depended on what rank you held or what Troop you were in.

Neil, Fred & Tom on the occasion of Neil's wedding

Neil served 18 years in the Army, and did a number of different jobs, including doing the Commando Course and serving with 59 Commando, of which he was justifiably proud. But if asked, he would always say 'I was in the Sqn' and no matter the job, whether part of a Section or part of a Troop, he did the job to the best of his ability, and in times of intense pressure or stress, Neil was the guy you wanted by your side.

Now you would think that being a good soldier and always doing a good job, and looking the part, would bring the reward of promotion, and it should, and does on most occasions. But Neil had a quirk, he couldn't handle down time, of which, as you know in the Army there are lots. He was like one of those hyper active kids, who at the first chance, starts looking about to see what he do next.

Of all the Sqn guys I know, I'd bet each and every one has a favourite Westbrook story, and we wouldn't repeat ourselves. To be fair to Neil, he never did any of his deeds out of greed, envy or spite or any of those negative feelings, it was sheer devilment, or just to see if he could. You know he made more nocturnal visits to the NAAFI than Marie, his wife, did during opening hours. Big Fred always reckoned Neil should have been paid by the NAAFI for consultancy work, because after a visit from Neil they always upgraded their security systems.
Don't think this was a one man operation by any means, Big Fred and I were on a lot of his visits, in fact, prior to Neil joining the Sqn, Big Fred was classed as public enemy No.1 by the Sqn Sergeant Major.

I was playing football for the Sqn and the Corps by this time, and it was OK for me to be their pal, as I was a good influence on them. HA!
Neil loved telling the story of the day he arrived straight from Abingdon to the Sqn. As he got off one 4-tonner another was leaving with two guys in the back, and a crowd cheering and waving it off. He thought they were going on demob, but it was Big Fred and me going to do 7 days in the RHA nick. I don't suppose he realised what was ahead of him, or me for that matter. I vowed never to get caught again.

Neil was no saint by any means, but he got blamed for far more than he ever did. He was always the first to be questioned when something happened, but to be fair to him, he never cried foul, he just laughed that dopey laugh of his and let it go right over his head. I must hold my hand up and say sometimes I thought he was guilty as charged, but I didn't pursue it because he was my pal.

Neil had another side to him, one that drove you crackers. I would have hated to share a house with him with only one bathroom. He took longer to do his ablutions than any two women I know. Shave up/shave down/lotion here/lotion there. Shower, shampoo, shave, and everything else that starts with a SH. I wouldn't mind, but he came out looking exactly the same as he went in. Smooth and looking good.
We used to tell Neil we were getting the 6 o'clock bus to town just to be sure of getting the 7 o'clock one. He was also a futterer. After a week of sharing a two-man bivvy with him, you would be cutting your wrists. Then again he was a bit of a hypochondriac. He had more pills and potions than Boots the chemist, he loved taking his pills. If you didn't love him you would hate him.

Having said all that, he was my pal and I loved him. Neil was young and naïve when he first joined the Sqn, but when he met Marie, boy were those two made for each other. He used to pinch a 4-tonner and drive to Marie's and take her out for the evening, and she thought this was normal. But they did look good together, and produced three terrific kids and a grandson that he doted on.
Latterly I always maintained that you could tell exactly were you were in the Sqn, even with your eyes closed, just by the way his name was spoken:
Westbrook: With a touch of reverence. I wish I had done that: The "AVIARY"
Westbrook: Generally accompanied with spittle and bulging veins in the neck: Sgts Mess /SSMs Office.
Westbrook: With weary resignation, what has he done this time: Officers Mess.

Sometimes Neil and I went long periods of not seeing (or speaking) to each other, but once together it was like we had spoken yesterday. I'd like to think it was being in and a part of the Sqn that cemented our relationship, or maybe we three, Me, Big Fred and Neil just clicked. The phrase `thick as thieves' springs to mind, very apt when you think of our later escapades. Kind of ironic when you think his son is the Old Bill, and is as good at his job as Neil was at his.

You know, when Big Fred passed away earlier this year, Neil broke his heart, but the two of them are up there together again, can you imagine the conversation. 'Well what do you think Fred, shall we go and do God's NAAFI? Nah lets wait for Tommy.

More memories of Neil can be found here in an article written by Ronnie Hadden, which was originally published in two parts in the April 2011 and August 2011 editions of the Journal



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