Many of my fellow Civil Engineering students at Heriot Watt University who were about to graduate in the summer of 1973 had decided to join local Government, state-owned utility companies, contractors or consulting engineers. I had decided that a life with Argyll County Council Roads Department or George Wimpey could be put on hold for a while.
I wanted to do something more exciting before I settled down. My Dad had joined up to fight the Hun in the Second World War. As a native of Musselburgh, ‘the honest toun’, his local regiment was the Royal Scots, the oldest foot regiment in the British Army (“First of Foot, right of the line” as my Dad would proudly say – it took me 20 years to find out what he meant as I never had the heart to say, “Eh?”).
He talked fondly of his days at Sandhurst, his time in the Commandos and his subsequent posting toEast Africawhere he met and married Mum. It was therefore only fitting that I too should consider a life in the services and a Short Service Commission seemed the ideal way to do so.
Three years in the RAF flying fighter jets was my preferred option initially until I discovered that no one was going to spend thousands of pounds training me to be a jet jockey if I was going to flee the coop after three years. Seven years was too much of a commitment for something I saw as being temporary. The Navy had never appealed. Sunday walks along the wind-blasted beach at Cullen with the grey North Sea raging had seen to that. So, the Army it was.
I chose the Corps of Royal Engineers because I thought a three-year Short Service Commission in the Corps would stand me in good stead towards my Chartered Engineer qualification when I left the Army. The fact that I didn’t particularly want to be an Engineer didn’t seem to register with me at that time. So the ‘Sappers’ it was.
One of the advantages of a University degree is that you become eligible to do a Short Service Commission in the Army with seniority backdated to when you went to University. Not only that, but you got one pip on your shoulder straight away as a probationary Second Lieutenant. Even better was the fact that you got to wear the uniform of your chosen regiment from day one, and finally, basic officer training at Sandhurst lasted six months, as opposed to two years for Officer Cadets joining direct from school.
They do not let just anyone into the Army on a Short Service Commission you know. There is a rigorous selection process, starting with who your father was, where you went to school ….. I jest . Sort of!
In my case (long-haired, spotty-faced student from the back of beyond) the process started with an interview by the local liaison officer of the Royal Engineers. This turned out to be none other than Lt Col Coltart, my Structures lecturer! Thankfully I had not been too late on too many occasions for lectures and my paper aeroplanes had gone unnoticed, so I got the green light and a slap on the back with a “Good luck laddie” to boot.
The next stage in officer selection was the medical. This was carried out by a crusty old medic somewhere in Edinburgh. “Cursory” is the first word that springs to mind. They obviously were not expecting me to have malaria, tuberculosis, mad cow disease or any other raging lurgi because if I had, Colonel Quack would not have detected it. He did however stick his finger up my bum, which came as a surprise to me and obviously did not appeal much to him either, because he gave a “Yuch” on retrieving the offending digit. I am not sure what the purpose of this exercise was. I suspect he was trying to ascertain the elasticity factor of my fundament, a slack orifice being a sign of “degenerate lifestyle”, automatic rejection from the Army, but a recommendation for the Navy. I joined the Army.
Next up was a pre-Regular Commissions Board (RCB) weekend at Glencorse Barracks outside Edinburgh, home at that time to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the ‘Kosbies’. We were given a combat jacket and trousers to wear over our own gear and given an idea of the physical and practical tests awaiting us at RCB. It was a doddle, but none of us were too confident and it quickly became apparent who was likely to succeed and who wasn’t. If someone had asked me at the time I could have saved the Army quite a slosh of dosh, but no one did and on we went a month later to Westbury in Wiltshire and the Army’s Regular Commission Board.
Westbury lies on the Western flank of Salisbury plain, the British Army’s Training ground in Britain and expectant young men have been traveling there for years and years in the hope of becoming commissioned into the British Army. It is a daunting experience not so much for the tests themselves, both physical and mental, but for the fact that you are being assessed for the very first time in your life as a complete human being. The fact that you are done so side by side with others for comparison purposes adds a starkly competitive edge to the process. The spotlight is on you and there is no reprieve for five days.
I was a nervous young man on the very first morning. I had travelled down by sleeper from Aberdeen, it being the Easter holidays, 1973. The student garb had been replaced by a smart tweed jacket and grey slacks, but I suspect the hair was a giveaway. I had had it cut especially, but subsequent discovery of my squad photo some years later confirms that any self respecting Sgt Major would have had a blue fit if I had walked across his doorstep. Suffice to say it probably hadn’t done me any favours in the selection process. It was clean and tidy, don’t get me wrong, and short(ish) in the context of most students, but the demon barbers of Marlborough, Wellington and Oxbridge obviously had sharper scissors, and besides, I had another term to go at Uni and the ridicule of my fellow students was a greater concern by far.
There was a huge range of background, experience and indeed capabilities among the candidates despite the pre-selection process. There were Generals’ sons from Eton, bankers’ sons from grammar schools, NCO’s from several regiments and students from Oxbridge to Aberdeen, all determined to become high profile cannon fodder. We were a wary, uncertain bunch on that first morning.
The Mess Manager briefed us on the admin points, time for meals, sleeping arrangements, etc and then it was lunch and into the business proper. There were mental aptitude tests and general knowledge tests; physical tests, races around the combat course, and practical team-work tests (you know the sort of thing; get a team of four of you across a make-believe river using only one plank, a sewing kit and a match, not forgetting the tiger, cabbage and goat you have to take with you).
It was a wonderful feeling to realize that I could hold my own with the best of them and that a triple-barreled name and an Eton background meant nothing when you are up to your scroticles in tigers, goats and cabbages, standing on a plank in the middle of an imaginary raging torrent while darning a hole in your socks and trying to keep the match dry.
That evening we retired to the bar before dinner and while some of the more protected types dipped into their purses (did I say purses?) to purchase a half pint of shandy, Dick Williams, a sturdy Welsh Fusilier-in-waiting, ordered a pint of the local brew then bought a round for those standing next to him. It was a spontaneous, magnanimous gesture that broke the ice and made me realize that this was going to be OK. Dick and I were to meet up again at Sandhurst some months later.
As a Direct Entry Short Service Commission Officer I had to be accepted by my regiment of choice, in my case The Corps of Royal Engineers, before being asked to attend RCB. I was therefore mixing with aspiring Gunners, Gurkhas and Guardsmen, Sappers, Signallers and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It was all new, fascinating and a bit scary, but water soon found its own level and little self-support groups soon established themselves.
I joined the beer-drinking, ‘hale fellow, well-met’, isn’t-this-a-lark school. There is a serious lesson for life here. Find people who are on the same wavelength as you, communicate with and support each other and life is easier. The converse also applies. Beware the loner, for beneath that, “He was very quiet, never bothered anyone, kept himself to himself” exterior lies a serial murderer trying to get out.
The four days went quickly and before I knew it I was heading north again; clickity click, clickety clack. The official brown envelope duly arrived. I was in! Gulp.
The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst lies to the west of Camberley in acres of woodland interspersed with playing fields and low-rise buildings. There were three Colleges;OldCollege,NewCollegeandVictoryCollege. University graduates attended the latter.
It is a place full of tradition, the first one being the haircut. I will never forget it. Every one of the forty-odd souls who bowled up on day one of ‘Direct Entry 3’ in October 1973 had to march off to the demon barber for a “short back and sides”. I do not know who suffered most, the Eton/Oxbridge Guardsmen with smooth manes cut to perfection by Charles in the Dorchester, or hairy old me who had had two inches of thatch removed prior to arrival, leaving me chilled and hairless, but soon to discover that there was another inch to go.
Boy did we look stupid. All of us. But that was exactly the point. We were all reduced to a lowest common denominator, feeling foolish and exposed.
It was the same with uniforms. As probationary Second Lieutenants already accepted into our Regiments of choice, in my case The Corps of Royal Engineers, we would be entitled and expected to wear our Regimental uniform while at Sandhurst. For the first few weeks however we all had to wear exactly the same gear; jumper olive green, shirts brown itchy, trousers barrack room, boots duty moulded sole, socks olive green nylon, beret black voluminous.
Some people looked quite acceptable in theirs, as if they had been wearing it all their lives. I looked a complete plonker in mine. My beret looked like a black felt bag on my head. [The career NCOs whose task it was to abuse and humiliated us had berets that seemed to have been tailor made for them; moulded, tight-fitting and shapely; works of art]. My jumper was shapeless, tight but long like a sausage skin; my trousers were the correct leg length and fitted, sort of, at the waist, but the cut was, shall we say, a tad generous, like the bottom half of a diving suit. Boots is boots. Clumpy. The general ensemble made me look like a cross between Frank in ‘Some Mothers Do Have Them’ and a circus clown, except Betty was a hairy-arsed Drill Sergeant and no one was laughing, least of all me.
We were drilled, shouted at, belittled and generally made to feel that our career choice may have been something of a mistake. We were incarcerated without break for three weeks. It was hell. It was also hilarious, at times.
At the end of that period the Army regulation barrack dress gave way to regimental berets, soft, cotton, officer-style shirts, tailored brown service dress and brown veldtschoen shoes. Those daft enough to have chosen a life among a bunch of wild Jocks wore their Regimental kilt, Glengarry hat and shoes black, highland pattern. The wooden tops (Guards) wore brown berets. The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders wore grey-blue jumpers with their kilts. The aspiring Gurkha officers wore cross belts and cap badges adorned with the famous crossed kukris. Royal Welsh Fusiliers wore a red and white loo brush in their black beret, while the Gloucester Regiment wore their cap badge on the back of their head. Do not ask me why.
I can however tell you why the Welsh Fusiliers wear a black ribbon hanging down the back of their service dress uniform. It is to stop the uniform getting dirty from their tarred pigtails, which were apparently de rigueur at some stage in the Regimental history. That is the wonderful thing about British Military uniforms. They are riddled with historical trivia masquerading as tradition. On the one hand it seems silly; on the other it is what provides the glue to our regimental system, which is, or at least used to be, unique on this earth.
I got my first glimpse of a real, live Gurkha at Sandhurst. A platoon of them in fact, all camouflaged, with painted faces and covered in bracken. I had obviously heard of them before – wee brown men from the mountains of Nepal with big knives and more VCs than you could shake a stick at – but I had never really imagined what they might be like in real life, face to face. I can tell you now that as an awkward, self-conscious, officer cadet with an ill-fitting uniform and awkward webbing (military jargon for the straps and buckles that carry your gear) they were an awesome sight; small, tough, immaculate, stony faces staring straight ahead; but it was the sheer military efficiency and professionalism that struck me.
A single word command, which was quite incomprehensible but reminded me of something familiar (it later turned out to be English), was all it took for a string of quick, co-ordinated actions. One minute they were standing at ease, looking straight ahead, the next they had stood to attention, then dropped into a firing position, guns raised, machine guns loaded. Even although it was merely a demonstration by the ‘Demo Platoon’, the first of many we would see over the next 5 months, it was mighty impressive. The thought started to grow on me that serving with Gurkhas might be fun.
On completion of the Sandhurst course I attended Royal Engineer Young Officer Course No. 54 at the Royal School of Military Engineering, Chatham. Here we learned to do and then immediately undo, various military engineering tasks, like lay mine fields and lift mine fields, build bridges and demolish bridges, lay barbed wire and clear barbed wire, prepare Improvised Explosive Devices and clear IEDs, build various kinds of temporary and semi-permanent buildings and then blow ‘em all up again.
There was a constant danger to those with a bad hangover, i.e. most of us at one time or another, that we might forget which lesson we were in and after a hard day’s graft end up at back where we started that morning. It was all tremendous fun. After a few months my Sapper colleagues and I were invited to indicate a preference for our first regimental postings. I unhesitatingly chose the Gurkha Engineers in Hong Kong. After an interview in the MOD by the Colonel-in-Chief, Major General Bill Jackson, I received another official brown envelope. I was in! Gulp. Again.
The flight to Hong Kong, in an RAF VC10 with the seats facing backward for safety reasons, in the company of my new boss, Lt Col (now Brigadier retired) John Edwards, took a day and a half. We stopped off to refuel and change crews at Cyprus, Gan island in the Adu Atoll in theIndian Ocean, and atSingapore. It was a dark, warm and humid, and very smelly evening when I arrived inHong Kong. A Gurkha driver in a Landrover collected me and we drove north and west into the New Territories. An hour and a half later I was deposited at the British Officers Mess at Perowne Barracks, shown my room, introduced to my fellow subalterns and handed a cold beer. This was my first ever Tiger beer – I have drunk several since.
I woke the next morning, jet lagged and hung over, to the unfamiliar sounds of an air conditioner and the happy chatter of Gurkha orderlies.