Into The Unknown
“Mansfield”, the Sgt Major yelled, “come here!” At this point, 22-year-old, British-born transport soldier Duncan Mansfield dutifully trotted over to his superior. “Do you know the difference between a house brick and plaster?” he boomed once more.
Now, before we continue, it should be noted that Sgt Majors are renowned for asking tricky questions that typically lead you to perform a completely unrelated task. From moving a piano to picking up cigarette butts. It was with some trepidation then Mansfield informed him yes, he did in fact know the difference.
“Great”, Sgt Major replied, “report to the Field Hospital Unit immediately. They need another member of the field surgical team to drive their Series 2 & Series 3 Land Rovers”. And so, with no time to recover from the humidity that choked him upon arrival, Duncan set off to learn about his new role.
Setting The Scene
Duncan, like many of the British Army in Belize, touched down in Price Barracks, aka Airport Camp. Located just outside of Belize City, this site acted as the HQ of British Forces in Belize.
At first glance, it may seem weird that the British were so heavily invested in a Central American country. However, up until 1981, Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, ‘belonged’ to Britain as a colony – as it had since 1862. For years, neighbouring Guatemalans attempted to stake their claim in the land and take over. However, as a newly independent and fragile country, Britain remained dedicated to ensuring Belize survived. As a result, the government flew British soldiers over to Belize to assist in training the Belizean Defence Force.
Surgical Teams & Mobile Hospitals
In his role as part of the British Army Field Surgical Team, Duncan drove and maintained a small fleet of 109” Series 3 Land Rovers. Not only were did the army own soft-top models but also, given the nature of the role, Marshall-bodied ambulance versions. Further, each motor pulled a Sankey expedition trailer filled with tables, chairs, and much-needed medical supplies. Within each vehicle, you could also find two medical orderlies’, a surgeon, an anaesthetist, and a dentist. The Series 3 Land Rover essentially became a mobile hospital during this time.
Twice a week, Duncan and another driver headed out in a brace of 109 Series 3 Land Rovers. They made regular stops to dilapidated hospitals in sparsely populated towns, from Orange Walk to Belmopan (currently under construction at the time). The team also took the Land Rovers off-road to jungle clearings. Not only did this give surgical teams a chance to practise medicine in challenging terrain and an austere environment, but it also allowed locals in remote locations to receive free medical care.
“Throughout my five-month stint in Belize, those Land Rover’s never let us down you know?” Duncan proudly tells me today. With no radios or other form of communication to the outside world, they were in real trouble if the Land Rovers failed them.
But how do you spend a weekend in Belize?
On occasion, the harsh jungle terrain and long-distances required meant Duncan and his colleagues had to camp overnight. The rugged beauty of the jungle and its vibrant wildlife (from parrots to monkeys) never wore off. However, the plague of insects and scorpions, as well as the threat of jaguars, soon grew tiresome.
Fortunately, the hospital also owned a smaller lightweight Land Rover to make local trips. Duncan and a friend would borrow this vehicle on weekends, grab some basic tools, a compass, and a few tins of food and disappear up long-forgotten jungle tracks. On occasion, when the Land Rover got stuck, Duncan used a machete to hack his way through and clear a route. They would continue going until they could drive no further.
“I swear, those were some of the best days of my life”, Duncan tells me. “Nothing beats being miles from anywhere in a hostile environment and with an invincible lightweight Land Rover”.
From a job to a passion
This experience helped transform Duncan’s love affair with Land Rovers. Eventually, he left the British Army to join the Metropolitan Police. After that, he pursued Land Rovers at every opportunity. He even reached the finals to represent Britain as part of the 1989 Camel Trophy event. A severe crash derailed his plans though and led to his medical retirement from the police force. That’s a story for another day though!
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Stay tuned to hear more about Duncan’s adventures with Land Rovers.
Note: Duncan Mansfield served in Belize driving a Series III Land Rover from August 1984 till February 1985 as part of the 24 SQN RCT. Scarlett Mansfield wrote this article after chatting to him about his experiences/ what led to his love for Land Rovers.