Working here is like a big therapy session

Former soldier Andy Corbett
Former soldier Andy Corbett
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HE cut a lonely figure as he trod through the deserted prison yard, his body hunched, his hair thin and grey.

Deep sunken eyes, bushy eyebrows and a gaunt complexion had replaced his former sturdy, dominating physique.

He had once been a revered figure, idolised by millions of his people. He had once been Deputy Fuhrer.

Yet through the eyes of 23-year-old soldier Andy Corbett, who trained at Glencorse Barracks in Penicuik, Rudolf Hess was nothing but intimidating as he guarded him in prison from 1985 to 1987.

“The hair on the back of your neck would stand up when you were around him,” says Andy, now 49. “Knowing what he was like, and what the Nazis had done, it had this effect on you.

“If you were a young kid like me, it was enough to scare the life out of you.”

The experience of guarding Hess in Berlin’s Spandau Prison, patrolling the hostile streets of Northern Ireland’s South Armagh, and dealing with the aftermath of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing are among the tests endured by Andy throughout his career.

Tests that eventually led to post-traumatic stress, breakdowns and alcohol abuse, which he battled for more than 20 years.

A veteran of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Andy, from East Craigs, has just become the first of 90 servicemen and women to feature in a national campaign highlighting the 90th anniversary of the Scottish Poppy Appeal and the work undertaken at its poppy factory in Canonmills.

Growing up in Ruchazie, one of the worst areas of Glasgow and home to the notorious HMP Barlinnie, Andy escaped at 17 to join the Royal Highland Fusiliers, spending his 18th birthday on a flight to Belfast, just months before the infamous prison hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands, broke out.

“On the flight from Germany to Belfast I was sitting next to two infantry commanders,” he says. “One had half his hand blown away from a previous tour in Northern Ireland. He said, ‘don’t worry son, it’s not that bad’. I could think of 1000 better ways to spend my 18th birthday.”

Within a day of Andy’s arrival in South Armagh, one of his colleagues was killed. Much of the tour involved gruelling patrols and hunting down escaped prisoners – experiences he would never forget.

Halfway through his two-year tour, Andy was posted to the School of Infantry in Warminster, Wiltshire, to train in communications and then returned to his battalion, which had been transferred to Berlin.

“Believe it or not, Berlin was a tour and a half. We were in Montgomery Barracks, of which the bottom 500 metres of the camp was no man’s land as it was on the border.

“We would guard the Berlin Wall where the British military train went through the border to Hanover and back.

“We also guarded Spandau Prison when Hess was there. He was the only inmate in the whole prison – the only one left of the Nazis kept there.”

Andy describes a surreal setting where Hess wandered around the empty prison, by then 40 years after the fall of the empire he built with Hitler and the Nazis.

“It was quite eerie guarding a huge prison with just one man in it. Part of the prison was actually crumbling, but at the rear, where he was kept, he had his own summerhouse and the grounds were well looked after,” he says.

“It was quite strange. He had quite an aura about him. He was a tall guy, slightly hunched, with these big bushy eyebrows and sunken eyes.

“He used to try to entice the guys into giving him fags and that kind of thing. There were others who’d gone to jail because they’d given him cigarettes, or at least because he’d said they had.

“It was a lot of expense for one man. Even when he fell ill he’d be taken to the British military hospital and they’d clear a whole wing for him. They’d use several ambulances so no-one knew which one he was in.

“It was a strange time, but we just got our heads down and got on with it.”

After several years in Germany, Andy returned to Edinburgh’s Redford Barracks in 1987 and met his future wife, Frances.

“We met in the Colinton Inn, a nice wee place, and that was the first time I set eyes on Frances. I can always remember her vividly. I’ve never looked back since,” he smiles.

Andy and Frances were settling into family life at their home in Oxgangs when a call came into the Royal Highland Fusiliers headquarters on December 21, 1988, reporting that Pan American Airways Flight 103 had crashed in a small town east of Dumfries.

Leave was cancelled and Andy and his battalion were sent to respond.

“I still struggle to this day,” he says. “It was horrific. By that time I’d been in the forces nine years but that was something that nobody, no matter how much training you do, is prepared for.

“We were due on Christmas leave the next day but we were sent to Lockerbie and spent three days picking up bodies.

“My brothers are both in the ambulance service and one of them, Eric, was at Lockerbie as well. I think he lasted a day or so. But the ambulance service had things in place for them, and I suppose although it would be hard for anyone, they were a bit more used to that kind of thing than we were.

“I got home on Christmas Eve and the first thing my step-son said was that he’d seen the vehicles on TV and asked had I seen any bodies? That was it. Something up here cracked and I crawled into the bottom of a bottle for a very long time.”

Andy left the army several months later, and although he was able to use his communications skills to secure a good job with BT, he struggled for the next two decades to cope with what he had experienced in the forces. He was made redundant from two engineering jobs and the once successful car valeting firm he ran with Frances went under after four years.

“I found it very difficult to cope with Lockerbie and it stuck with me for a long time.

“I also hadn’t really set foot on civvy street since I was 17 and it was hard,” he says.

“A lot of my colleagues suffered the same.

“It’s 2011 now and it’s still there. I still have nightmares and bouts of serious depression. For years I didn’t speak about it at all.”

His condition, linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, came to a head in 2009 when his mother died from cancer.

Andy drove his car into a wall not far from The Jewel, but survived and was given 200 hours community service by Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

Those 200 hours saved Andy’s life, for he discovered Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory, where he now works full-time.

“I did the community service and I’ve never left since,” he says. “Working here, because we’re all ex-forces and have seen things that have left a mark on you, it makes things so much easier.

“I love the work we do. The money we raise makes a difference to armed forces veterans. Even when I’m done I sit and home every night in front of the TV and make poppies. My wife has even started too.

“Working here you don’t need a psychiatrist, it’s like one big therapy session. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

“Perhaps one day I’ll see that sheriff in the street and shake his hand and thank him.”

rory.reynolds@edinburghnews.com