The term ‘Basic Training’ for many, conjures up images of fitness training, marching on a parade ground, assault courses and shooting. It depends on which movies you’ve seen and which books you’ve read, whether you have a reasonable understanding of the subject.
Having a lengthy conversation with somebody who has undergone military basic training would still leave it difficult to grasp the reality. It’s hard to relate the experience.
I was better off than some of my peers, because I had no preconceived ideas. I felt I just had to give it everything I had. What I wasn’t so sure about was how it would go when I had given everything. Most of the lads in the troop were worried about certain aspects of the training. The knowledge that you’re not alone in worrying is sometimes enough to keep you going. I was away beyond the others – I was worried about all of it.
The syllabus unfolded and in the first days, we had lessons on foot drill, weapon handling, PT, first aid, map reading, and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) warfare. We only had rumour and movies to help us with regard to NBC, because there was very little information going around. The phrase ‘gas chamber’ was always somewhere in the conversation. Without any prior knowledge of NBC, we were all shitting ourselves. There were ‘blood agents’, ‘nerve agents’, and many more. None were pleasant ways to die.
PT was a subject that was going to produce new horizons for my recently amended view of how much pain and discomfort I could handle. Since the age of 12, I had cycled regularly and gone out on longer trips when I reached 15.
I would tackle a cycle trip of 20 miles in a day but I had never run further than 50 yards in one go. I remembered that playing football in school, which I wasn’t good at, never produced more than short bursts of energy from me.
‘Enthusiastic but lacking skill,’ was how the teacher summed up my efforts in soccer. Now here I was, about to run a whole mile without stopping; or was I?
What was so crucial about the mile in 6 minutes 15 seconds? Wouldn’t it be simpler I thought, to extend it to 10 minutes, and it would surely be much easier to measure. Even with a few periods of training in the gym, I knew I wasn’t ready for the run. I couldn’t see a relationship between press-ups, sit-ups, circuit training and the ability to run.
I had somehow survived the sessions in the gym so the Basic Fitness Test (BFT) couldn’t be much worse. Had I been wrong recently?
When I arrived at the finishing line feeling sorry for myself, it didn’t make it feel any better when I saw guys coming in five minutes later. I had failed the timing by about a minute. Where some of the other guys on a different test?
I was going to have to work on this running thing, and I wasn’t going to be alone by the look of it. I noticed Andy standing with the group who had completed the distance in time. He looked as if he hadn’t done anything. I then remembered, he told me that he played soccer for a Sunday league team back in his hometown. We had to have a chat about running.
As the days went by, we all got to know each other, and if anybody had a weakness, it was noted. We got to know the loudmouths and the quiet retiring types. There were those who it was thought probably wouldn’t make it, and they stood out from early on in the proceedings. Then there was the general population whose only short-term aim in life was to get to the end of the eight-week course. I was taking it a day at a time.
I knew I had to evolve, because it seemed that in a military environment, the quiet, insecure types were not going to make it. I had to shake off my shyness and lack of confidence. My aim was to maintain interest, even if it became painful at times. I could only face going back home as a soldier. Running it seemed was my personal weakness. No, let’s be honest, it was my main personal weakness.
NBC warfare we were told; was a subject worth taking seriously. The theory lessons in the classroom were hard enough, but the films we saw depicting the effects of the available gases and substances scared the shit out of everybody. We all paid attention.
Our first lesson with the respirator, or ‘gas mask’, made us apprehensive about the next lessons. We were shown the correct way to put the thing on, how to adjust the straps, and how to change a canister. The circular, screw-on canister we were told was effectively an air filter. I looked around. It seemed that I was not alone in believing that black rubber contraption was uncomfortable and difficult to adjust.
Our instructor was Cpl Flanagan. He looked around the classroom, grinning as if he could read our thoughts.
He said, “If it is even a little loose, the respirator will allow gas to get in.”
A glance at my fellow trainees assured me I wasn’t the only one in the room trying to stop the blood flowing through his face. I had the straps so tight it hurt my entire head.
Cpl Flanagan said, “If the respirator is too tight it can also allow gas to get in.”
“Jesus Christ, how do you judge it?” was one muffled response.
A wider grin was the instructor’s silent response. Bastard. I fucking hated him.
There were times when I felt that I couldn’t go on, and one of those was during the first gas chamber lessons. We had all heard that the instructors believed that every trainee should ‘experience’ the gas. They were simply a bunch of sadistic bastards.
We were in a secluded section of the camp, far away from any buildings. Cpl Flanagan was dressed in his NBC protective suit; hood pulled up and gloves on. He was also wearing his respirator. He looked around at us and then he entered the tiny brick building. We could hear his steady breathing from the canister as he walked between us.
When the NCO emerged from the building he seemed to be okay. He quickly closed the door behind him to lock in the grey mist that was trying to escape, and then he looked around at us. Apprehension is not a strong enough word to describe the general feeling.
When the bastard, sorry, I mean, the NCO first went into the small building, there was no grey mist. Had he lit a small fire in there? Even before we got our masks on, we got a whiff of the mist and it wasn’t any kind of smoke I had ever tasted. My heart rate increased, just as I was sure was happening to all my fellow recruits.
Once fully equipped in our NBC protective suits and respirators, with gloves on and our hoods pulled up, we were all led into the small brick building. We were shitting it.
Immediately the door was closed, the mist seemed to become dense, and I felt sure I could feel a stinging in my eyes and my throat. It must be nerves, I thought. I had to get a grip of myself. Whilst I was trying to convince myself that I couldn’t taste the grey mist, one of the lads raced for the door, coughing and spluttering within his mask. He was stopped by the instructor.
Cpl Flanagan’s muffled voice told the panicked trainee to calm down. The door was pushed open and the unfortunate guy dived out, headlong onto the grass, still coughing and spluttering. He was trying desperately to rip the rubber mask off his face. As the instructor closed the door again, it was attacked by another three trainees. It looked like I wasn’t the only one not enjoying the ‘experience’ of the gas.
My eyes were watering badly and my breathing wasn’t quite as it should be, but I was determined not to panic. I was intent on handling this grey mist. Standing in the gloom I was definitely sensing a stinging, burning feeling in my eyes, nose, and throat. Oh bollocks.
I heard a muffled voice explain, that if anybody felt any sort of breathing discomfort they were to raise a hand to alert the NCO. I did, and noticed that with perhaps two exceptions, all the remaining recruits had also raised a hand.
By that time, I could barely make out the shape of our instructor, but I made my way forward. I gave a wide berth to the smouldering CS gas pellets in the middle of the floor. At the closed door, I was stopped by a hand on my shoulder.
A muffled command came from within the man’s mask.
“Take a breath,” Cpl Flanagan said. “Remove your respirator, and call out your number, rank and name … then you’ll be allowed out of the chamber.”
I stared at the sadist through my widening, water-filled eyes. As I blinked and stared, I could see moisture on the inside of the lenses of my respirator. I swore under my next painful breath that I would kill this man before the sun set.
Even as I loosened the cord and pulled my hood back, I tried to take a breath and knew this was going to go badly. I took a fraction of a burning breath and tore the respirator from my stinging, itching face. Could I remember my regimental number? Could I bollocks!
There was no way I could get my scrap of paper out of my pocket. If I could, I wouldn’t have been able to read the bloody thing. A coughing and retching fit took hold of my body as I tried to comply. I spewed out random numbers and only just remembered to include my rank and name.
“Two … five … six … one … Signalman … eight … four … Faulkner … three … two … nine … fuck it … nine ….” God only knows what it sounded like.
After what seemed like hours, but was actually about half a minute, I found myself kneeling on the damp grass outside the tiny building, puking and coughing. All around me were the previous escapees. Every recruit had a red face with streaks down the cheeks. They all stood silently with their respirators and gloves in their hands.
Yes, we all wanted to be big, battle-hardened soldiers, but right at that moment we were all feeling very sorry for ourselves. An old phrase came to mind; something about ‘making omelettes’ and ‘breaking eggs’. The instructors had a few more eggs to break with us, but that didn’t mean they had to be sadistic.
I knelt there on the grass, my discarded respirator on the ground in front of me. I peeled off the rubber outer gloves and the white cotton inner gloves. My hands were saturated. As I wiped my stinging eyes, nose and mouth with my sweating hands, I heard Cpl Flanagan’s voice from somewhere behind me.
“Whatever you do gentlemen … do not touch your face ….”
That was not what I needed to hear. As if the words had activated the tiny particles, my entire head felt as if it had been set on fire. If these guys were trying to put us off the Army as a career; they had another convert. I did not fucking need this.
It was a few days after the gas chamber episode that we went on the firing ranges with our SLR’s to do our first live firing. There was a lot of excitement, because we were all quite young. We had all been to a fairground and shot the helpless little metal ducks at two paces with an air gun. This would be a fun day out, and we all fancied ourselves as snipers.
The Self-Loading Rifle (SLR) was on first handling, a heavy, uncomfortable piece of equipment. By the time we had done two lessons of weapon training in the early days, we could all strip it down to basic parts ready for cleaning.
Those of us with anything resembling a memory could put it back together. We also had to remember that it was a weapon. In times of conflict, if we took care of our weapon, it would take care of us. Quite an incentive.
It was worth noting that the SLR was the personal weapon issued to the majority of British soldiers. We were all happy to find out that we would be taught at a steady pace. There were so many questions being asked to confirm our grasp of the subject that we remained keen.
The Sub-Machine Gun (SMG) we discovered was a short, lightweight weapon. In terms of service, it was the personal weapon of the female soldier and some of the male soldiers, depending on their wartime role. I didn’t like it. We would be taught other weapons but these would be the main ones. That was good enough for me to be going on with.
Safety was the key word in everything we did for the first half hour on the firing ranges, and nobody had fired a shot. In one way it was frustrating, but in another, it was reassuring. We were numbered off into groups of twelve and I found myself on the first detail. I have to admit, I was quite excited.
I stretched out flat on the ground in what I thought was an accurate portrayal of the prone firing position. I held my rifle pointing down the range towards the targets. I say ‘pointing’ rather than ‘aiming’ because ‘aiming’ a weapon requires skill.
My left arm was forward of my body, elbow on the ground, and the fingers of my left hand were gripping and supporting the stock from underneath. The butt of the weapon was pulled well into the right shoulder. My right elbow was on the ground and my right hand had a good hold of the pistol grip. I practised raising my right thumb up and down to touch the safety catch. I also moved the right forefinger in and out of the trigger guard to feel the position of the trigger, as if it was going somewhere ….
I lowered my head so that my right cheek rested on the narrow section of the wooden butt, and my right eye had the rear sight and foresight lined up. I would now see if any of my weapon training had stayed in my head. I really wanted to do well at this. Shit, I wanted to do well at something; anything.
I lifted my head slightly to look down the range at the harmless brown paper and wooden targets. The soldier depicted on the target looked mean, and for some reason I noted the helmet they wore looked vaguely like the helmet used by the US Army. Oh well, tough.
I lowered my head again and looked at my target through the sights. I controlled my breathing, or at least I thought I had. I pulled the butt of the weapon further into the right shoulder and waited for the word to fire. The targets were four feet high. It had to be easy.
Cpl Cameron shouted, “Section, 100 yards, five rounds grouping, in your own time … carry on!”
Like most of the other lads, when the word was given I fired immediately. There was a fusillade. Not one of us applied the principles. There was no first pressure on the trigger, no controlled breathing, no stopping of breathing for just an instant. Just, squeeze and bang.
It sounded like a scene from ‘Zulu’ as the entire firing line of weapons opened up. Michael Caine and Stanley Baker would have been proud of us.
Even though we had been told to expect a bit of a kick from the weapon, there was no way that I was prepared for it.
I thought I had dislocated my bloody right shoulder, and as for the question, ‘Where do you think that shot landed?’
“Somewhere up ahead of me …?”
I did improve after my first few shots because I remembered to apply the marksmanship principles that our instructor had spent so long hammering home to us. At the end of my first live-firing session I was astounded and pleased to find that I was an average shot. For now, average was good enough for me. I felt like running around telling everyone that I was average at something. Could things be looking up, I wondered.
Foot drill according to our instructors, was ‘an extension of walking’. Further to that, they said that drill was ‘the basis of teamwork’. Of course it is. What they didn’t tell us was that by the time we’d been doing drill in our new boots for an hour, our feet would feel like all the bones had been broken, and our toes would be bleeding.
Our boots were new and they hurt, but the humour that was produced by the NCO’s when they were teaching us drill kept me amused. Little amuses the innocent. There were one-liners being thrown at us that must have been around for years. I felt sure that I would remember many of them for years to come.
Every part of my legs and feet hurt, from the hips to the toes. At least in that respect we were all in the same boat. I instinctively knew my left from my right and if somebody shouted loud enough at me, I did as I was told. Those factors combined with a sense of direction kept me at an average level for foot drill. I could live with that.
First aid and map reading both seemed a bit heavy duty to me during the first lessons, but I felt I could get interested. I had finally discovered two subjects that held an appeal for me right from their introduction. Time would tell how well I would do when tested. Current Affairs, or as it was called, the Army in the Contemporary World (ACW), was hard to bear and created an issue with keeping our eyes open.
Never having ironed any of my clothing, or shaved prior to arriving in Catterick was to make even those relatively simple tasks an area of worry. I had to remind myself that there were other people being shouted at for the same reasons on a daily basis, but that wasn’t the point. I had to take care of myself first.
Away back on the second day of training I had been manually dragged from the barrack room to the washrooms by a corporal, to shave ‘properly’. There had been fluff on my chin. Of course there was fluff on my chin, I had only every shaved once and that was the night before I left home. The hair growing there was so blonde only an NCO could spot it.
There were three of us in there at the same time, all of us thinking we were taking part in some ritualistic blood sport. That morning I got my first opportunity to administer first aid … to myself. I had to adjust. Fortunately, I knew I wasn’t alone, so it was made easier with that knowledge.
Back in those first two weeks, I cut myself shaving every morning. Even if I could afford to have an electric razor it would be pointless, because we weren’t allowed to use them. In my new, revised way of looking at life I figured I would probably cut myself with an electric razor anyway. It was just one more thing to endure.
The military instructors were a strange breed. The verbal communication always seemed to be understood, but with a cross section of young men from around the country, the difficulty was for the recruits to converse with each other.
I took an interest in accents and learned to distinguish a wide variety quickly. The Londoners were the hardest to work out because they differed by district. Then there were a couple of guys from counties like Kent who to most of us just sounded like Londoners.
In their own way, accents or local dialects can be a hindrance. It was because of the disadvantages of my own, that I decided I would make an effort to ease away from my broad guttural Glasgwegian.
Introducing myself to Andy I had introduced myself as Jimmy as most Scots would, but during training I was referred to by most of the English guys as Jim. As training progressed, I was happy to accept being called Jim. When I thought about it, the only people who had ever called me James were my schoolteachers; a part of my past.
Whilst I was still a civilian I had joined the ‘208 People’, the Radio Luxembourg fan club. I took the opportunity to become a member so quickly that my number was within the first 1800 issued.
As a member of the 208 People I was able to use my membership to have ‘Priority Requests’. I could have the song I requested, within an hour of my specified time slot, on the appropriate evening. On two separate occasions 7 Troop got a mention on the radio. The guys in my room spread the word for everybody to tune in. On both occasions the guys in my room had their names mentioned which was a real morale booster. The feeling of camaraderie was increased just a little.
My first experience of dealing with bullying within the troop had occurred after about three weeks. Scouse Sherry, the wiry, dark-haired lad with bad acne felt the need to stamp his authority on certain people.
At first I didn’t know why I was one of his victims, and one of the others was a lad from Birmingham. It occurred to me that Scouse’s problem wasn’t that he had a strong regional accent, like us, it was because we were among the quieter recruits in the Troop. In my case at least, I had gained some popularity with my sense of humour and my radio requests. I got on with everybody – except Scouse Sherry.
Sherry had decided, I thought, that bullying a couple of quiet guys, would enhance his credibility. When he turned his attentions to me I was just beginning to gain some self-confidence. He wasn’t going to be a great help to me. That point wasn’t lost on any witnesses to his outbursts.
Unless you had been a victim before it would be hard to recognise bullying, because there were no actual threats made. Sherry happened to be seen by various people, accidentally walking into one of the lads that he’d taken a dislike to. He would jump the queue in the cookhouse or shoulder charge his way along a corridor. His aim was confrontation. I didn’t need his attentions. I had enough to deal with already.
Brummie Johnson was the Birmingham lad that Sherry also picked on. He was quiet, overweight, rosy-cheeked and further down the ladder of success than most. Brummie’s priority in life was to be a part of the Troop when it went on parade each morning. If this meant that he would have to put up with verbal abuse from one of his fellow recruits, then so be it.
The big, good-natured lad had already confided in me that he thought being in the military was a mistake. Brummie was amazed he’d gotten through the medical. He shared room 118 with three others, all of whom were like him in character. Every member of that room was in the wrong company and in my humble opinion, the wrong career. Of course, who was I to talk about anybody else’s chances? Every day was a challenge to me.
I had seen bullying first hand in my schooldays. I had been on the receiving end of it on more than one occasion, but I didn’t relate this to my new comrades. I had never been a violent person so in the early stages it had taken little self-control to ignore the jibes and constant attentions of Sherry.
As time passed and the training got harder, it felt as if one person was ruining my new life. There was no master plan, but when the time came to take action; I did. Sherry, our troublemaker from Liverpool, was just another hurdle. I wasn’t about to let him screw up my chances.
On the day in question, the troop spent time on so many different subjects that some of us couldn’t remember what day it was. Glad to be indoors again, the four of us in room 119 sat chatting, reliving some of the days training.
We were all laughing and glad it was over. The door opened and in walked the mouth of Liverpool. He stopped in the middle of the floor, but started a verbal assault on me for no apparent reason. He then stepped towards me again, ignoring my roommates.
“So, yer Jock gobshite, are yer gonna show us how fuckin’ hard yer are?” He advanced towards me. “I’ve heard, yer’ reckin yer a fucking hard-man.”
I said nothing. I was sitting on the edge of my bed polishing my boots. I didn’t have to look, to know the eyes of all of my room-mates were on me. Sherry had left our door open so there was a steadily growing audience along the length of the corridor. A glance to the side of my tormentor was enough. I could see heads popping out of room doors.
There was no gut reaction. I didn’t leap from the bed like a coiled spring. My mind had started to react when Sherry appeared in the doorway. All the pain and torture of the training and the verbal abuse I had taken over the previous couple of weeks had been building up inside me.
I now had the embarrassment of this arsehole coming into my room. It was a private space shared with three lads that I’d come to know well. We had all had our share of consoling each other. As Sherry walked through the doorway, I knew that if I was ever going to do anything about him it would be now. Deep down I knew the solution. I placed my half-polished boot on my bed and stood up.
As I stood up, Sherry took a step forward and started another mouthful of abuse. His hands were on his hips and his spotty head cocked to one side as he grinned at me. We were standing within arm’s reach of each other and I looked into his eyes. I cast my mind back to the evenings when my dad would put boxing gloves on me and my brothers and make us fight in the living room. That had started when I was about 12-years-old. He timed the bouts so we had to fight for at least a minute before a break.
My dad had boxed for his regiment in the Royal Air Force, and was keen for his sons to defend themselves. I would never be a boxer, but one of the things my dad taught us was, ‘If you can hit somebody on the nose before he hits you … you’ll close his eyes.’ I reckoned these were the right circumstances.
I stood silently staring into Sherry’s eyes. The lads in the room were still wondering what was going on when my right fist flew straight up from my waist and struck Sherry’s nose. I didn’t realise how much I’d hurt myself at the time. When his hands reached up to his face, I hit him in the gut with my left fist, and he bent over.
Seconds later, I found myself punching him rapidly and deliberately about the head alternately with a left, then a right with my small clenched fists. I wasn’t aware of my own breathing, my beaming face, or the increasing pain in my knuckles. The voice I was vaguely aware of didn’t feel as if it belonged to me, but it did; apparently.
“Ye want hard ya Scouse bastard,” I screamed, “ah’ll gi’ ye fuckin’ hard.” It was as native Glaswegian as anyone had seen or heard. The polite, quiet guy had disappeared and I was possessed. Jock Taylor, from a nearby room was delighted. He was from Renfrew and proud I was a fellow Scotsman. Up until then I had been ‘too quiet’ according to him. Oh well, I remember thinking, as long as I’ve impressed somebody.
I continued to rain blows on Sherry until he fell to a kneeling position. I stopped, but it wasn’t because of the pain in my hands, it was because I was grabbed by one of my roommates. Mick Martin, a farmer’s son was a big lad. He stepped up behind me and wrapped his huge arms around me. He told Andy and Jacko to remove the bleeding Scouser into the corridor.
My breathing was erratic and I was shaking uncontrollably. It was part adrenalin, but partly because I knew that somewhere down the corridor an NCO was probably already on his way. I was a nervous wreck. My new career was over. I stood there with my fists still clenched, covered in blood. I was trembling, looking down the corridor at all the gaping faces looking back at me, their eyes wide and mouths gaping.
As expected, there was an NCO on duty and it was Cpl Cameron. He had been in one of the other rooms demonstrating how to iron denims when he heard the racket. He walked casually along the corridor, and at each room sent the audience back inside. He’d made his way about half-way along the corridor when he paused to speak to Signalman Sherry.
Cpl Cameron said, “Get cleaned up and stand outside the Troop Office.”
“Yes Corporal,” was the muffled reply from behind Sherry’s bloodied fingers.
The NCO continued into our room. He stopped at the doorway and shook his head as he looked at me.
He said, “Whoever else was involved is to be outside the Troop Office in one minute.” Without waiting to see the result of his command, he turned and headed back along the corridor. He might as well have told us what day it was, he was so casual.
I didn’t know how rapidly we would be dealt with, so I didn’t tidy myself up. I made my way along the corridor. I still had blood on my knuckles. As I went passed the rooms I was aware of the faces appearing to confirm who the second combatant was. I became vaguely aware of quiet words from the guys.
“Well done mate.”
“He fucking deserved that, well done Jim.”
There were many more, and all had the same message and were of the same tone.
I watched Sherry march into the office. It pleased me that he still wasn’t composed. Whilst I waited, I could hear the NCO’s raised voice. I wondered if I would be allowed to stay overnight and pack in the morning. Maybe I’d just be told to share a taxi with the Scouser and we’d be sent on our way out of Catterick Garrison immediately.
Sherry was in the office for maybe three minutes. At the end of his interview, he opened the door and came outside to wait.
Cpl Cameron called, “Faulkner!”
“Corporal!” I screamed and marched into the office. I hoped I would get a chance to explain myself. I got my chance.
I mentioned the verbal abuse, the torment of doing nothing for fear of it affecting my place in the troop, and I mentioned that I had been through similar bullying at school. For good measure, I also opened up about my concerns regarding training.
Cpl Cameron made it clear that it was out of order to get involved in brawls and said on this occasion it would go no further. As for training, if there were any problems all I had to do was ask for help. He explained that I wasn’t the only one who needed help. That was reassuring. Once he’d interviewed me he came out to speak to the pair of us together.
He said, “I don’t give a shit if you two try to kill each other once you’ve completed your training, but if I hear anything like this again I’ll have both of you kicked out of the Army inside 24 hours. Now shake hands then get out of my fuckin’ sight.”
As one, we replied loud and clear, “Yes Corporal.”
“Well then?” came the response.
The pair of us put forward our right hands and shook briefly then we marched back to our rooms. After the brief event with Sherry I felt that I had gained some credibility.
The days turned into weeks, the training intensified and the boys of 7 Troop slowly and painfully became rudimentary soldiers. We reached the stage where we felt that we could actually march properly, and not only that, we were carrying rifles whilst performing drill. Here we were, practising our final rifle exercises, mainly the ‘Present Arms’. Once we got that sorted, it was to be constant practise of the Passing-out Parade.
Was it only six weeks ago that we did that first drill lesson in the tennis courts? That would be an enduring memory.
That first day of training, first time in uniform, wearing new boots and being made to ‘walk naturally’ around the perimeter of the old tennis court.
As time went by, the theory of teamwork had been instilled into all of us with every lesson. It was done during drill on the square, map reading around the training area, and doing a stretcher race while wearing respirators, as part of ‘endurance’ training. It was even mentioned when doing the most basic of all, marching as a squad between lessons.
Everything seemed to be teamwork and competition.
I was an average recruit. I wasn’t especially good at anything but like so many other lads, my main weakness was physical fitness. I was also one of only six men in the troop that was a non-swimmer. I could swim about five strokes or tread water for a short while but I couldn’t swim three lengths of a pool then tread water for five minutes.
With only two visits to the Garrison swimming pool the Physical Training Instructors (PTI’s), decided that six of us would be listed as non-swimmers. They didn’t have sufficient time during training to get us through the compulsory test. I could live with that. I didn’t want to fail basic training because I had drowned.
All of the various subjects had to be tested and like any other way of life, whilst in training, a certain standard had to be achieved. On top of everything else, we seemed to spend every spare minute on the parade square practicing for the Passing-out Parade.
In 1969, the method of assessing a man’s ability in basic fitness terms was for individuals to run the BFT, a measured mile in 6 minutes 15 seconds. I had, like everybody else, attempted this feat only a couple of times. On those occasions I had completed the distance retching, coughing and feeling nauseous. Ten other lads were in a similar condition, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The swimming could wait and be taught at some later stage in our career, but the BFT could not wait; a pass was compulsory.
Monday 15th December 1969
As I ran I could hear the others behind me. Like me, they were breathing heavily. Sometimes one of them would stumble then regain his footing and continue. Someone was running flatfooted, too tired to lift his feet. A couple of times I allowed myself to think about the pain and the fire within my legs and chest.
I told myself it would be easier to just stop and face the music. Was going on really worth the pain and discomfort?
Something deep within me screamed back, ‘Fucking yes!’ so on I went.
My throat was dry and I couldn’t produce saliva. When the final road junction came up I didn’t look up, I ran across still marginally in front of the other tail-enders. A heavily built man with a blue zippered top and green denims was standing, his arms akimbo, observing the scene. Suddenly he shouted.
“Over there quickly,” As he shouted at me, he pointed to the end of a line of garages.
I turned at the end of the garages and continued. It had ceased to be running and I was more like a badly strung marionette. I was exhausted and could faintly hear numbers being screamed out.
“Six, two … six, three,”
The numbers should have had some significance, but I couldn’t remember it. I had to concentrate on running without puking. The numbers were getting louder.
“Six, seven … six, eight,” They were being called out by somebody with a deep voice. “Six, nine,” It was somebody nearby, but I couldn’t focus on a source.
I tried to make out a person but all I saw were masses of white and red and green. My vision was blurring and I wanted to retch. The voice became clearer and the source became clearer, a large black man with a white vest and green trousers.
“Six, eleven … six, twelve,”
Suddenly a large hand slapped me so hard on the back, I lost my balance and went headlong onto the ground, retching, trying to breathe and focus. My entire body was in spasm. I wondered where I was and what had happened to me.
Strong, large hands pulled at my shoulders and a gravelly voice with a familiar Caribbean accent bellowed.
“Git ope yo’ snivallan’ littal Juck toe-raag,”
On that day, I passed my BFT and so did Jock Taylor. Neither of us by more than a couple of seconds, but we didn’t give a shit; a pass was a pass. Four other lads were given a final opportunity the following day. Two passed. Two were relegated to the next intake.
During the final week of training three people managed to raise the £50 necessary to buy their freedom. For whatever reason they, like Brummie had done, paid to terminate their service. It was referred to as Discharge by Purchase (DbyP). Leaving the military in this way was done with a ruthless efficiency. The actual discharge took place after a short interview and the signing of some documents. Of our initial intake, six lads paid for their own discharge. Four were relegated to the next troop, and one was kicked out of the military.
Tuesday, 23rd December 1969
It was Passing-out Parade for 7 Troop and 8 Troop of 11th Signal Regiment. Throughout the period of our training, we had been in competition with each other at various stages, on PT, sports, assault course, shooting, drill and various other activities. We of 7 Troop won the overall competition, though it wasn’t by much of a margin.
On the parade with all the competitions and rivalry behind us, we would work as two halves of one large team. For the one and only time, these two groups of people would all be dependent on each other. We would be marching onto the parade square with pride, though none would have admitted to that at the time. The parade square was our stage.
Out on the square there was the saluting dias, a small platform which was situated in a central position, at one side of the square, facing inwards. Directly behind and stretching the full length of the square was seating for the guests, which included VIP’s, relatives of the two Troops and relatives of the instructors. Also in attendance were some of the instructors who had taken part in training us in skills other than drill.
We were formed up in three squads, out of sight, a short distance from the parade square. At the front was the band, then 7 Troop, then 8 Troop. Sgt Brown, our Troop Sergeant reassured us one more time, as he walked casually along the side of the Troop.
“Relax lads, take a deep breath, then we’ll show them what you’re made of.” We rarely saw Sgt Brown throughout training, but we saw him often enough to believe in him.
The bandmaster rapidly raised and lowered his mace when the practiced loud and clear voice of Sgt Brown echoed over the area.
“Paarrraaaaade … by the front … quick march … left, right, left, right, left,”
Following the words “quick march,” came the first two drumbeats, sounding off simultaneously with the pace of the words left and right. This ensured that every man on the parade including the band, stepped off together, on the same foot, at the same time.
Only a few yards had been covered before the sergeant’s voice could be heard again, but this time only loud enough to address us; his own troop.
“Heads up, shoulders back, chest out, stomach in, force the left arms front to rear, clench the fists, press down on the thumbs, pull those rifles into the side with the right arm, force the chests forward, lean back from the waist … and dig those heels in.” Then he allowed himself a barely concealed smile.
We performed a variety of drill movements during the parade, with and without musical accompaniment. Some were necessity and others simply because they were a spectacle and demonstrated our ability and teamwork. When we marched off the square, we were all mighty relieved. Okay; and a bit proud.
Following the parade, there was a celebration in the NAAFI lounge where instructors, recruits and guests all mingled happily. A buffet was laid on and most people took advantage of the drinks on offer. Andy, Mick, Jacko and I were standing together in a corner of the bar taking in the sights around us and reliving various incidents from the previous few weeks.
“Excuse me lads,” a voice said. “Jim, all the best for the future mate, just in case we don’t see each other for a while.”
The voice and outstretched hand belonged to Signalman Scouse Sherry. I shook his hand and nodded to him. We would never meet again.
I would forever remember my first short visit back home. I looked at my family differently that week. On one occasion, I went to the local pub with my dad. I wasn’t a drinker so I had two pints compared to the six or seven he had. It was only when he had a few drinks inside him that he openly admitted his doubts about my decision to join up.
“I told your mother that you’d be back in a couple of weeks,” he admitted.
“I know,” I said, “and that was one of the reasons I pushed myself harder.” That was the end of that conversation. On the way home he made another startling statement.
“Don’t worry about us,” he slurred. “Go ahead and enjoy your new life.”
“I will,” I remember saying. There ended another meaningless conversation.
When I was leaving, my mother asked if I wanted company on the journey to the station.
“No thanks,” I said. There were no regrets as I left home again. I was heading off to go on my military trade training.
I felt excitement at the next challenge and thought, if this is the way the future is going to be then I will be a happy man. It was my choice.