Once our C Company had absorbed all the training that Chatham had to offer we were posted to a Field Company to learn the more arduous arts of field engineering, and there met a Sapper Michaelis, also a recent addition.

I don't think we ever knew his first name but with a patronymic like his he had to be called Mike. Yet despite his Greek sounding name, in appearance he was a typical sun-tanned Anglo-Saxon. His voice was neither British regional nor overlaid with a foreign intonation. His hair was prematurely grey. But that meant nothing. We had seen many others so characterised.

He was just as fit and as active as any of us, but as we youngsters suspected, he must, at least be pushing thirty: middle-aged. Yet he was companionable and easy to get along with, drinking, swearing, skiving and behaving just like the rest of us. No better. No worse.

As in all army units, one never questioned another person's background. If anyone wanted you to know, they'd tell you. But after a jar or two some of the lads would boast of past exploits, usually embroidered feats of erotic conquests, most of which we would laughingly dismiss as wishful history. On one occasion Mike claimed that he'd once done a bit of gunrunning around the Greek Dodecanese Islands. But this too we good-naturedly dismissed as typical Army bullshit: just harmless, beerstained boasting.

A passing oddity, we noticed much later when in the Middle East, was his refusal to accept promotion, for he was a most capable man and someone it was always comforting to have around.But refusing promotion was not unusual among those who preferred to stay together with their own mates, rather than having to order them about; often a natural enough decision in a company of small tightly-knit units.

War was well under way and the Michaelis enigma became somewhat clearer to me when we were sailing in convoy in the Aegean Sea. A few of us, including Mike, were leaning over the rails of the elderly Polish tramp steamer watching a Royal Navy escort destroyer signalling with an Aldis lamp in rapid Morse code. Mike was muttering under his breath. "What's that, Mike?" I asked.

"That bugger over there's telling that corvette," pointing, "to keep station further to starboard."

"You mean, you can read Morse code?" I asked.

"Well, yeah. More or less, I suppose so."

"But isn't that lot too bloody fast?"

"Only a bit, being Navy. But it's like riding a bike. Once you've got it, you've got it."

Naturally I was anxious to know more, but the social stigma of prying kept me silent.

We were back in the desert, where Colonel David Stirling had already started raiding behind the enemy lines with his LRDG (Long Range Desert Group). Manned entirely by hand picked volunteers, their exploits were soon to become legendary, the unit eventually becoming the nucleus of the SAS.

At the time, our company base was near theirs, and occasionally we would watch them loading up their jeeps and other desert-adapted vehicles with water, rations and ammunition for the masses of weapons they carried. Then off they'd drive into the real desert, to spend a week or two causing havoc where it would do most good.

Then whether by guile or more probably because of his fluency at Morse, as well as his familiarity with firearms, Mike managed to get himself accepted by the LRDG and for a time we lost sight of him. No need to adjust the company's nominal roll, we were told; it would probably only be a temporary assignment. But who knew, with that bunch of irregular tearaways?

One day I returned to our camp with some of the lads from a job we'd been working on further up the line. Entering our tent I saw Mike sitting on his bedding. Slowly he was packing his kitbag. I was too shocked at first to say anything because Mike's whole body was wracked with huge sobs while tears were streaming down his cheeks. "Mike, what's up?" I asked eventually. "Can you tell me?" I continued, as soothingly as I thought the occasion demanded. Dammit! He was still a sapper of my section. I waited.

He looked up. "Some shit back at records has discovered that my real age is fifty-two. They tell me I'm too bloody old for this lark. I've just been discharged from the Army and now they're sending me home. Where the hell do they think my fucking home is?"

He was the second, and fortunately the last man I was to see in such an emotional state on being discharged from the Service.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007