Soldiers check bags at the Olympic Park after stepping in to fill the gap left by G4S. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
The mood at the Ministry of Defence has been a strange mix of weary elation all week. Like parents who have watched an ungrateful child leave home, and then had to bail them out of a crisis, commanders have been shaking their heads, in a knowing way, as they have got stuck into trying to retrieve the situation. “We’re here to help,” said one senior official at the MoD, barely able to keep a straight face. “The armed forces will do everything they can to keep the Games safe.”
As the defence secretary admitted only a fortnight ago, when he announced details of sweeping cuts to the army, the morale of the British military is fragile at the moment.
After a decade of war, and mass redundancies to cope with as well, the top brass have been feeling unappreciated in Whitehall, and they will hope the fiasco of the past week will translate into some kind of advantage in the coming months.
The police service too – which has provided support to a lesser extent than the military – is saying: “I told you so.”
Rank-and-file officers — accused of being intransigent by everyone from the home secretary to Tom Winsor and the Conservatives’ favourite police policy guru, Blair Gibbs – have expressed their feelings on Twitter, barely disguising a sense of pride in being called in to clear up a mess left by G4S.
“We have seen the best of the British military and police service. We have dropped everything and stepped into the breach,” said Ian Hanson, chair of the Greater Manchester Police Federation.
“Our masters are the community, whereas for G4S their fundamentalraison d’etre is to make money for their shareholders.”
The federation is urging the police service to make capital out of the events of this week.
“We are making the point to senior officers to take to the government, that this is what we joined the job for – to help the public,” said Neil Bowles, chair of the South Yorkshire Police Federation. “Despite morale being at rock bottom as a result of the Winsor review and the prospect of 16,000 officers being cut, officers have stepped in with no complaint.”
Soldiers’ sleeping quarters in a disused shopping centre in a former tobacco dock in Wapping. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
But there was tangible resentment bubbling under the surface among the many troops marching in informal platoons between venues at the Olympic Park in east London. Wearing battle-worn camouflage fatigues and regimental plumes and badges that jarred with the tracksuit tops of the “Games makers”, the commandos and Royal Marines sent to make up for G4S’s shambles hardly blended in.
The troops have been widely welcomed but that appears to be small compensation in some cases for bruised pride and frustration.
“No,” said one Royal Marine commando sharply when asked if he was happy to be working at the Olympic Park.
“One of us was supposed to be training for Afghan, another for Cougar [a response force task group based in the Mediterranean].”
He said he was camping at Hainault Park in Essex where 5,000 men and women from the army, navy and RAF are being put up in tents and prefab huts for the summer.
“They’ve put a fence up and tents and gazebos,” he said. “It is pretty basic.”
Another soldier has told her parents the camp is beset with midges and 16-hour shifts are being demanded. Many of the troops are moving to a disused shopping centre in a former tobacco dock in Wapping which has been configured as if it were a forward operating base.
At the Olympic Park this week, working at one end of the checkpoint x-ray machine, a sailor straightened bags and kept warm by an electric heater. Asked if this was what she expected to be doing this summer, she gave a resigned look: “No, I’m a navy medic.”
Another female sailor agreed: “I’d rather be out at sea.”