Part Five: Chapter 1 – Places to Go

Sunday 12th January 1986

I was settled into a lifestyle which to most soldiers would have been fine, but there was something missing, and it was eluding me. I had the choice of walking,  cycling, or driving to work, and as a corporal with two men on my crew my detachment was always in great shape and ready to go. I’d finish my day at work and go home to my lovely wife and young son.

Occasionally I had a 24-hour guard duty, but I would be the guard commander. It wasn’t a hardship if the shifts were set up, everybody pulled their weight and there were no major issues.

I represented my regiment in hockey and orienteering, and my running ability was founded more on pleasure than effort. I had set myself a structured plan which involved gym work and the discipline of running on a variety of surfaces, over various distances.

As I had been doing for some weeks on Sunday mornings, I drove into camp from home and parked on the main car park. I was standing not far from the car stretching and warming up when I was approached by Dave Gartland, one of our generator maintenance guys. He was dressed like me, in running kit.

“Hi Jim, are you sure you don’t mind me tagging along?”

“No, mate,” I said. “You’re welcome, as long as you’re happy to run ten miles.”

Dave nodded and joined me in a few exercises to loosen up and warm his muscles. At nineteen, Dave was a little over half my age so I was looking forward to pitting myself against him on my personal training route.

I said, “My usual strategy is to take it gently for the first two miles to wake up the cardiovascular system and then I put in a good effort right to the end.”

“I know you told me a couple of days ago, but I’ve forgotten your average for this route?”

“On a calm, overcast day like this I’d be happy with one hour, ten minutes. You could add five minutes if I take it easy on the two big gradients.”

“Sounds good, mate,” Dave said as he stood upright and stretched his arms. “I’m ready when you are.”

We hit the road and continued idle chat as we ran for the first two miles. We didn’t run in silence until about the half-way point. At various places I told Dave how much distance remained.

“One hour, twelve minutes,” I announced when I clicked my stopwatch at the end. “Not bad.”

“I’m pleased with that, and man it felt good. Thanks for letting me tag along.”

“If you want to join me on a regular basis, if I’m not on duty or out on exercise I set off from here at seven o’clock every Sunday morning.”

“It’s a date.” Dave jogged off to his accommodation for a shower before breakfast. I stretched for a while before driving home.

By the end of February I was regularly joined on my Sunday run by any one of three guys who all wanted to raise their game regarding fitness. As we went into March there were mornings when four of us were seen heading out of camp on our ten-mile run.

After one of the sessions, we all headed down to the NAAFI canteen and got ourselves some vending machine teas. Unsurprisingly, at about half past eight on a Sunday morning the place was empty except for us.

“Are you seriously going to try for 216 Signal Squadron, Dave?” I asked.

“Yes, but I want the ten-mile distance to be second nature before I make my application to the Para Squadron. I’ve been doing a lot of gym work and swimming too in preparation.”

“It might be an idea to do extra weapon training,” Ray Brooking said. “I’m aiming to transfer to the Royal Marines, so apart from fitness training I’ve got one of the guys taking me on extra training with rifle, pistol and machine gun.”

“What about you, Brummy?” I said. “You must have an ulterior motive for wanting to be extra fit?”

“I’m pinning my hopes on passing the selection tests for 264 SAS Signal Squadron.”

“Fucking hell,” Dave blurted out. “I thought I was being ambitious.”

The rest of us laughed, but he was right. Joining the SAS wasn’t an easy option, and the SAS Signal Squadron was a step in the right direction. It was a couple of levels above that of the average Royal Signals soldier.

“You’re keeping quiet, Jim,” Ray said. “Surely you’re not keeping up your personal training programme simply to be a better sportsman?”

“I’ve never talked about it openly,” I said. “I’m keeping fit and biding my time. If I manage to get my third stripe I’m intending to request a job as a military training instructor.”

“I’ve been to your first aid lessons,” Brummy said. “You’d be a natural if you could get in more courses and get the posting.”

“You could apply for the job as a corporal and maybe you’d get promoted to sergeant on posting,” Dave said.

“Nah,” I said. “I want to earn my third stripe performing my trade, and then I’ll apply for an instructor’s job as a sergeant.”

“I like your train of thought,” Ray said. “I’ve got nothing against the guys who get promoted into the role, but I can see how your credibility as a sergeant would feel greater if you earned it at trade.”

Dave and Brummy both nodded in agreement.

“First, of course, unlike you guys,” I said, “I have the small hurdle of gaining another stripe before I can take my dream any further.”

Ray was a lance corporal. Both Dave and Brummy were signalman (private), so none of them required to be any higher to strive for their personal goals.

When we got the opportunity during the regular working week I was happy to help the other three guys with a little extra first aid and map reading training.

We were all involved in radio exercises during March. While in location when possible, a couple of us met up and went out on long training runs. As usual, if one were available, a Land Rover was supplied to take us to the nearest barracks to have a shower after our training.

In late March, Dave received the letter he’d be waiting for, and set off for the UK to make his bid to join 216 Para Signal Squadron. If we didn’t see him return within two weeks we’d know all was going well for him.

*

Wednesday 2nd April 1986

I was summoned to the office to see the troop commander. In the back of my mind I wondered if I might have to lose the luxury of having two crewmen. I tapped on the open door and threw up a salute.

“Good morning, Sir,” I said, and half-turned to the right. “Good morning, Sarge.”

“Good morning,” the boss said, and Sgt Berkeley nodded to me.

I laughed. “Would I be right in guessing that my crew will be changing before the next exercise?”

“You are absolutely spot on, mate,” Lt Frost said. “We wanted to explain the reasons to you, but in the last ten minutes the RSM has asked to have a word with you. You’d better get over there before we tell you about the crewing amendments.”

“Shit,” I said. “What the fuck have I done that the RSM wants me?”

“It’s a mystery to us,” Sgt Berkeley said. “You can tell us when you get back. Nip over to RHQ now before he phones again. He’s fucking fuming, mate.”

“Wilco,” I said and threw up a salute before scurrying away to the RHQ.

I entered the long corridor and saw two guys standing outside the RSM’s office. One bloke was Bill Nesbitt and the other was Jason Connor. Like me, they were both corporals and they nodded as I approached.

“What the fuck is going on, guys?” I whispered.

“We haven’t got a fucking clue, mate,” Jason said. “Knock and let the man know we’re all here.”

I knocked twice, short and sharp on the RSM’s door.

“Enter,” was growled from within. Darth Vader had nothing on the RSM.

I pushed the door open. “I’m reporting as requested, Sir, and so too are Corporal Nesbitt and Corporal Connor.”

“Get your arses in here and shut the bloody door,” the RSM barked.

I stood beside the door while the other two guys marched in and halted smartly in front of the RSM’s desk. I closed the door, turned, and took a step forward. I drove my right foot to the floor to come to attention. The three of us were in line abreast.

“Right you three fuckers,” the RSM said. “I want to know when you were last on duty as guard commander.” He nodded to me.

“Two weeks ago, Sir.”

“You didn’t face any difficulties or security issues during your duty?”

“No, Sir. As I recall it was a routine 24-hour duty.”

He nodded to Bill. “What about you?”

“I was on duty last Monday, and same result, Sir”

The RSM turned finally to Jason. “What about you?”

“I was on duty last Friday. Nothing unusual occurred, Sir.”

“Well, none of you will be performing as guard commander again.” He scowled at us for a few seconds, and pulled open a drawer. He withdrew three envelopes which he dropped on his desk. “None of you will be the guard commander in future … because you’ll be performing the role of Regimental Orderly Sergeant.”

The three of us looked from the RSM to each other before any of us dared to smile with relief and joy.

The RSM stood up, grinning, and came around his desk where he handed each of us an envelope which contained a set of three chevrons. He shook our hands.

“Congratulations, Sergeant Faulkner, Sergeant Nesbitt and Sergeant Connor.”

“Thank you, Sir,” we all gushed.

“Well done all three of you. Now get your arses down to the tailor and get yourselves tabards organised so you can wear your proper rank. I’ll expect to see all three of you in the Sergeants’ Mess at lunchtime.” He chuckled as we filed out and closed his door.

“Bastard had me going,” Jason said.

“I was shitting myself,” Bill said, and all three of us laughed as we set off to the QM’s department to see the tailor. We waited together, and chatted as sergeant’s stripes were stitched onto green sleeve tabards for each of us.

We all stood there grinning as we undid the epaulettes on our shirts and pulled the short, khaki, sleeve-like tabards into place. We shook each other’s hands and went our separate ways, all being from different squadrons.

I was on a high as I marched smartly back to the troop office. I had hearty congratulations from Lt Frost and Sgt Berkeley when they stopped laughing at their wind-up about the RSM being fuming.

I went home to bring in more uniform to have the new rank stitched on.

When I got home I could hear children playing in the house. I went indoors to find Avril and two other wives and half a dozen youngsters running around. I popped my head around the living room door.

“Hi, there,” I said.

“What are you doing home in the middle of the morning?” Avril said.

“I had to pick up some uniform.”

Avril’s brow furrowed and she shook her head in bewilderment.

“Oh yes, there is something else,” I said. “I have to attend a mess meeting this evening.”

“I thought the Corporals’ Mess had their meeting next week.”

“They do,” I said and stepped through the doorway. “I’m attending a meeting in the Sergeants’ Mess.”

Avril dashed across the room and gave me a hug and her friends all cheered.

I gave Avril a quick peck. “I’ll get a lift home later this afternoon and I’ll leave the car in camp.”

“Okay, see you later, Sarge,” Avril said, to the amusement of the others.

In less than an hour from leaving the RSM’s office I had a shirt with chevrons stitched onto it, so I was able to slip the tabard into a pocket. My new rank no longer looked temporary.

*

My promotion was reinforced with a couple of landmark decisions. On most occasions, when a corporal is promoted to sergeant he is posted to another troop. The premise is that if the man remains in the same troop he might not be effective because he’d be working alongside the same bunch of guys as before.

The phrase, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ was always banded around in such cases. Personally, I’d always said if you had gained the respect of your peers they would be professional enough to respect your position if a promotion came along. When I’d been promoted from lance corporal to corporal back in Verden I’d been retained in the same troop.

I was summoned to the office.

Lt Frost said, “As you know, Sergeant Berkeley is due posting at the end of May, but rather than lose you and then Sergeant Berkeley, I’d like you to consider whether you could continue to work in the troop?”

“I’ll be able to handle it, Sir,” I said. “I’ll go around the detachments and have a coffee with a couple of the corporals who can put everybody straight on the subject.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Faulkner, and a heads-up for you … you’ll be the Recce Sergeant on the next exercise.”

“What will Sergeant Berkeley be doing?”

“He’s taking some time off to organise his packing and suchlike ready for his move. He said he’ll go through his maps and highlight any possible issues regarding locations.”

“No problem. Thank you, Sir,” I headed to the garages and did exactly what I had suggested to the troop officer. Neil Jackson and Bob Craven were two corporals I knew I could trust to have a word with the crews.

As usual we had our briefing in the big office before going out on the radio exercise. I’d heard that the training wing were likely to try their luck at live ‘attacks’ against radio and complex locations. Prior to the briefing, I told Lt Frost about an idea I’d had, and he was reluctant at first, but then he agreed.

“If there are no more questions, gentlemen,” Lt Frost said after summarising, “Sergeant Faulkner would like to enlighten you with his new strategy for dealing with live attacks by the training wing.” He nodded for me to continue.

Every eye in the place was on me, and a couple of the guys smiled, knowing my opinion of the training wing’s methods.

“Right, guys. The first thing we need to make this idea work is secrecy.” The expressions on the faces told me I had their attention. “When we get into the woods and we’re all in location, I’d like each of the five relay detachments to send one of the crew to the Trunk Node complex.”

“Sarge, wouldn’t that leave us a bit light on the ground if we’re expecting attacks on the individual detachments?”

“It will, Corporal Bailey, but they learned their lesson the last time they tried to tackle our detachments. I’ve heard an unofficial whisper that they want to capture one of the personnel from a Trunk Node.”

Frowns and furrowed brows abounded and many of the guys were shaking their heads.

“Don’t get despondent, guys,” I said. “My plan is to fight fire with fucking fire. I want total secrecy because this idea will not work if any of it leaks out and word gets to the training wing.”

I waited until every eye was on me again before I continued.

“I’d like the detachments to do two things after they’ve set up. First of all, I want trip wires or string or whatever set out in the undergrowth at a distance all around the individual detachment locations. We know it worked the last time. When that is done, I’d like one man from each crew to report to me at the command vehicle in the complex area. Those five men will be my secret snatch squad.”

“Secret snatch squad?”

“Yes, Corporal Bailey. I intend to double the sentry where a sentry would be expected, which will let the training wing think it’s our way of increasing defence. We’ll be seen to have done something. What they will not know is, I will be hiding in the woods with five of you guys.” I paused. “While a few of our guys in the complex are firing blank rounds and pretending to be the defence, our snatch squad is going to capture one of the training wing bastards.”

The yelling and cheering echoed around the room.

“Fucking count me in, Sarge,” Bob Craven said.

“Me too, Sarge,” Neil Jackson said.

“We’re going to have a new motto when we’re on exercise,” I said. “Do unto others as they would do to you, but do it fucking first.”

The lads and the boss all burst into laughter.

Before we’d finished the briefing I had my snatch squad and we had a much happier bunch of soldiers preparing for the radio exercise.

*

After the exercise our troop officer was called away for a regimental debrief, and when he returned to the troop he nodded to me and closed the door.

“What’s up, Sir?” I said.

“I’ve just had my balls chewed about our little caper on the exercise.” He smiled as he removed his hat and sat down. “I took it on the chin and said I was proud of my men for tackling a threat and trying to gain some intelligence from the enemy.”

“I bet that went down well with the training wing,” I said and laughed.

“The training officer said he could see that we were trying to do what might be done in reality. When the incident was talked about in front of the other officers it was an embarrassment to the training wing.”

“I hope you took credit for it, Sir.”

“You’re fucking joking,” he said, and laughed. “I told them I had a recently promoted sergeant who was out to show how we’d treat anybody who fucked with us.”

“Ha, I love it.”

“When everybody else had gone from the briefing room, the training officer quietly said I was to say well done, but he said you should watch your back. It seems you’ve upset a couple of people.”

“That’s fucking tough, Sir. I’ve been upsetting people throughout my military career, and I don’t see me stopping anytime soon.”

“I’m glad you stayed with the troop.”

“Coffee, Sir?” I said as I crossed the office to our kettle and brew kit.

“Yes, please, mate.”

A few minutes later we were sitting drinking coffee and going over the plans for a training day I’d proposed.

Lt Frost said, “I’ve mentioned this training day to the other troop officers and they’d like us to make it a squadron day.”

“That’s easy done. We simply multiply the rations by three, and adjust a few timings. The other troops can arrange their own transport to get the guys out to the location, which isn’t far from here.”

“How do you plan to organise the training sessions if the men are all setting off in patrols of four or five?”

“I’ve already cleared it with the instructors within the squadron so we can have five of us out there in our own little scenarios. I’ll be assessing first aid and my location will be at a small group of trees where a Land Rover will be parked as if it’s crashed. I’ve booked a resuscitation doll and I have spare combat kit to dress it.”

“Okay, I think I’ve got it now. The squads will be spread out across the training area and as they follow their patrol route they come to the various scenarios?”

“Yes, Sir. There will be first aid, NBC, fieldcraft, and a river crossing using ropes and barrels. Map-reading will be tested, because they will be given a grid reference to aim for as they leave each location, but they’ll have a detour where they’ll find an initiative test to deal with each time.”

“How are we going to fit in the live-firing part?”

“As long as everybody is doing as they’re told and they don’t cock up the map-reading, we’ll have them all arriving at the firing ranges in time to complete the weapon training aspect.”

“I like it, and it’ll be a good day.” He sipped his coffee. “How are things progressing with your application to work in Harrogate or Catterick?”

“I’ve cut down my options, Sir. I was trained in Catterick and I feel if I was an instructor there I’d fit in better. The Army Apprentices College at Harrogate has trainees who are not far from school leaving age, and working with them doesn’t appeal to me.”

“I know you’ve been asked before, but are you sure it’s what you want to do?”

“Yes, I always said I’d only do it if I achieved my third stripe working at my trade. If my application is successful I’ll still be with the troop until after the summer.”

“I know these things take time, and the longer it takes for the training unit to accept you, the better.” He laughed.

The training day took place and was dubbed a success by all the people I would have wanted to impress, and importantly, all the guys who attended the day qualified for their annual training assessments in all the subjects.

It was bright and sunny and everybody felt good being away from barracks and enjoying training sessions which were far from any classroom.

*

Sunday 22nd June 1986

“Hello guys,” I said as Ray and Brummy approached me in the car park. “Are we ready to do a sixty-minute ten miles?”

“Hi, Sarge,” Ray said. “Yeah, I reckon we’re ready to try.” He laughed. “I won’t be doing many more by the way.”

“Has your application been accepted?”

“Yep, I’ve been cleared to transfer to the Royal Marines and I’ll be leaving in the next few weeks to head for Lympstone in Devon.”

“I’m delighted for you, mate. Have either of you heard from Dave?”

“Yes, he’s doing well,” Brummy said. “He sailed through the intake tests as we hoped he would. He completed P-Company and went on to gain his wings and maroon beret. The flash bastard sent me a postcard from Cyprus last week.”

“It’s down to you and me now, Brummy,” I said. “I’ve applied for a job as a military training instructor with the recruit squadron in Catterick.”

“My application has gone and now it’s a waiting game. I’ve decided it’s all or nothing for me so I’ve given up the booze and stopped smoking.”

“Well done, mate. I’m proud of you.”

We cut out the chat as we ran and completed the ten-mile route in less than sixty-five minutes.  All three of us were close to exhaustion, but we agreed it was a great run.

Within the next six weeks, Ray left for Devon to prepare for the demanding course to be a Royal Marine Commando. Brummy got a date for his selection course for 264 SAS Signal Squadron, and I got a letter from the Commanding Officer of 11 Signal Regiment, Catterick. All systems were go for all three of us.

*

Friday 22nd August 1986

“Here we go again,” I said to Avril as we set off for the port of Zeebrugge and our cross-channel ferry to the UK. Unlike the way we left any other unit, this time we were towing a caravan.

“I must admit, I’ve enjoyed our time in Germany, but I’m looking forward to a couple of years in the UK. It will be good for our lad too.” She nodded towards Norman who was in the back seat, engrossed in a book about dinosaurs.

“I’ve booked us into a camping and caravan site a few miles north of London. When we reach the other side we’ll only be driving for a couple of hours.”

“Should we have a meal on the ferry and we’ll be good to go when we land at Dover?”

“Yes, and when we reach the camping site we’ll set up the beds, have a brew and get a good rest. Instead of setting an alarm we’ll take it easy in the morning and set off at our leisure.”

“Knowing you, getting up and setting off at our leisure means we’ll have had breakfast and be on the road by six o’clock.” We both laughed. She was right.

“It was great that we handed over yet another married quarter and no bills to pay,” I said. “You have to take a lot of the credit for it, again.”

“You have to take credit for stripping and reassembling the cooker.” She shook her head. “Talking of married quarters … I wonder what the flat will be like in Catterick?”

“At the moment I don’t know if it’s a flat or a house. When we’re close to the area and we have the caravan parked on a site we’ll take a drive up to the garrison.”

“I’ll be happier when I know what the place is like.” She turned and smiled. “l’m glad you’re not going straight into work.”

“Well, I’m taking over our quarter on Monday, but I’m not due to report for work until Wednesday. If the removal guys get their act together, our boxes and furniture will arrive on Monday or Tuesday and we can get a fair bit of unpacking done.”

The journey across Germany and Belgium went well, and our crossing of the English Channel was smooth. We made good time from Dover to the caravan site west of Cambridge.

The next day was superb for a steady drive with a caravan on tow and we stopped twice for a brew and a snack on the way up the backbone of the country; the A1. I’d driven and hitch-hiked up and down the A1 on many occasions, and it held many memories for me; some good and others not so good.

We arrived at the planned caravan site a couple of miles south of Catterick. It took fifteen minutes to set up the caravan and we had a brew before we drove off to the garrison for a look around. We located our next quarter easily. Avril was delighted it was a house with upstairs rooms. We also had an enclosed rear garden

Following a drive around the garrison to familiarise myself with a place where I’d done most of my training, we visited Richmond, the local town. We had a stroll around and a brew in one of the cafes.

*

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