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Used to work for AVIVA offshoring IT to India.  Now retired through ill health, writing my life story as a series of blogs chronologically from birth to current time.  At www.jw-alifeofsurprises.blogspot.com

Friday, 24 September 2010

To Shave or not to Shave, that is the Question! - 1981

The drill, along with the kit and room inspections and general bullshit was building to a crescendo after 6 weeks or so and we approached a parade wherein we would march across the square in front of Colonel Addison, the College Commander. Every quarter, a new intake would arrive and an intake would leave (pass out) the college and head off to their Regiments, by way of the rigours of 3 Training Regiment based in Camberley Surrey. As noted in previous blogs, the final term at Chepstow consisted of supreme amounts of drill and military bullshit and required an even greater level of determination to pass muster, given that the inspections were meticulous in their detail. An age old custom for those passing out of Chepstow, a stage called the Trained Soldiers Cadre (TSC), took place in their final week of the TSC and consisted of those elder statesmen (all 18 year olds) rounding up anyone they could find from amongst the new intake and in the dead of night delivering unto them what was known as a “beasting”. This usually took the form of dragging those unable to hide or beat them off, out of their beds, in pyjama’s or less, covering their faces in boot polish or cam cream (the green, brown and black stuff you see on soldiers faces in the movies), and marching them barefoot around camp, drilling them on the square and extracting tears where possible (which resulted in further insults and beatings for the unfortunate sod). The night before the passing our parade, they would again gather as many bodies as possible, running amuck through the barracks and then marching the throng around camp, taking in the various regular soldiers bars and messes. After visits to the Corporal’s, Sergeant’s and Officers Mess’ were complete, with the patrons of each mess coming out to review the group, they were then marched to the Commandants house. When I was amongst the sorry bunch, Colonel Addison even came out of his house to inspect us. Our group was presented to him by the Apprentice Regimental Sergeant Major and the Colonel congratulated all the Cadre present on a job well done. It is also worthy of note to say here that by the time I came to leaving, all “beasting nights” were banned, more of that to come! On the day of the TSC Passing Out Parade, parents, girlfriends, partners and other members of the Cadre’s friends and relatives would arrive at camp and watch from the stands as their pride and joy marched across the square to the sound of the Band, presenting Arms to the Officer in Command, and then marching past. I quite enjoyed the marching side of things once i had mastered it, as the sound of the Band, the noise of boots slamming into tarmac and the crack of hundreds of hands smacking their rifles at the Order to “Present Arms” would always fill my chest with pride.

Early 1981, and we finally moved from initial intake training to take up our chosen apprenticeships and with the exception of 1 or 2 military instructors, most the instructors in the trade shops were civilians and they were fairly relaxed. Our workshop was across the road from the Bricklayers and next door to the Carpenters. The “brickies” soon picked up the derogatory terms for the Painters and Decorators and wasted no time in ensuring we knew them as well. The term Painter and Decorator was shortened to P & D, or as the brickies said it “Puh & Duh”. Another “funny” was the saying, “if you can piss you can paint, if you can masturbate you can decorate”, my how we laughed. We relied on calling them “Thicklayers”, as if it mattered! Days were filled from this point on with fewer inspections (the odd surprise inspection by a bored Corporal) and were more about learning our trades. Evenings consisted of the bar, music and the disco at weekends. Occasionally, we’d try and get served in the Ferry Pub located just outside camp under the Severn Bridge, but you were in trouble if your Sergeant was there and he spotted you, as we were still under the legal drinking age of 18 and therefore drinking illegally outside the camp confines. Down by the trade shops, (I say down, as they were in an area probably 30 feet below the level of the rest of the camp) was a pie shop, where we would congregate at morning break. There was always a mad rush to get out of work as soon as the bell rang, as there were never enough pies and pasties to go round, and although they weren’t that nice, it was food. There were myriad ways in which to get into trouble, from your appearance, (kit not pressed, scuffed or dirty boots, dirty kit, unshaven chin, talking whilst marching, answering back, the list goes on) and I must have been a Corporal and Sergeants dream come true, as I was getting caught for all of these reasons and more as the months passed by and inevitably, patience ran short and the charges started to come along. Depending upon the severity of the “crime”, the punishments were varied and meant to instil discipline and act as a deterrent. Other more serious crimes, (theft from others, theft from the army, fighting others, going absent without leave) attracted even greater levels of punishment, including jail (in camp). If really bad, punishment could mean jail in Pirbright Barracks in Colchester (similar to a civilian jail, but with massive amounts of bullshit) and being kicked out of the army altogether. I am pleased to reassure those reading this that I never reached or even came close to qualifying for any of these heady punishments. Such was my lot that I attracted the attention of my seniors on a regular basis and was punished either with a fine, restriction of privileges or both. Restriction of Privileges (ROP’s) consisted of appearing in various items of dress, (overalls, PT Kit, Work Dress, Number 2 best kit etc) at various times during the day, designed to restrict as much as possible the chances of food, sleep, rest and raise the prospect of catching you out and thereby failing an inspection and being charged again, and so the cycle continued.

An example of a day on Restriction of Privileges is as follows: -

0600 – Parade at Guardroom in Works Dress. Kit, personal inspection and be clean shaven etc.
0600 – 0730 – Cleaning the camp, general work detail.
0800 – 1200 – Trade Training
1230 – 1330 – (Lunchtime) Parade at Guardroom in Overalls, general work detail, kit and personal inspection and you had better be clean shaven, so shave again before parade.
1330 – 1700 – Trade Training.
1800 – Parade at Guardroom in Overalls, be clean shaven so shave again. Up to 3 hours of general work detail
2230 – Parade at Guardroom in best Number 2 dress, still clean shaven.

If you failed any inspection, you were sent away to rectify the problem and return for re-inspection (usually within a timeframe of too few minutes to really make a difference). Let the record show that Potential Apprentice Weaver held the record (as at 1982, so probably still stands) for ROP’s at Chepstow (64 Days) and fines (£+300).

There are a few stories worth relating about my time on ROP’s, the first involves being told at the 1800 parade to go to the cookhouse to work. There were five of us and when we arrived the Quartermaster (QM) Cook (top Chef) assigned me to chopping Parsley, two catering sized boxes of Parsley. Having taken cooking at school and having worked in butchery for a time, I was quite useful with a chopping knife and set about my task with confidence. Within an hour, I had completed the job and presented myself back outside the QM’s office and knocked on his door. I told him I had completed the job and he scoffed at me and said (paraphrasing) “bollocks", I had probably done a crap job and had had better go back and do it again. I begged to differ and he walked over to where I had been working. No sooner had he seen the amount I had chopped and the fact it was chopped as required, than he had shouted out for the duty Cook (a Corporal) and tore into him. Basically, he was livid that a mere “Puh and Duh” had managed to do in an hour, what it took nearly 2 days for a “trained” army cook to do. But mainly because they had been found out to be lazy on their duty nights, probably spending most of the time smoking and drinking tea (a common military pursuit). He then said that all duty cooks would get a box of Parsley every night to chop and it had better be perfect the next day or else. The look the duty cook gave me could have killed a bull; I was dismissed for the time being and sent back to my block by the QM, whilst the others carried on working. Safe to say the next day, my name was mud in the cookhouse and I was ripped into by every cook for some time afterwards and I avoided eating anything I did not plate up myself for even longer! But that was typical of me, trying to do the right thing, but not looking at the bigger picture.

Another episode involved a Corporal who was in charge of Guard Duty one night when I was on ROP’s. At the last parade of the day (2230), he said that I had not shaved. I said I had and he told me to run back to my block and shave, which I did, shaving as fast and as best as I could in the 5 minutes allowed. I went back to the Guardroom (running both ways) and he inspected me again and said I had not shaved, I said I had, and we went through the whole rigmarole again. I returned to be told a third time that I had not shaved and I was given one last chance or I would be charged so this time; I intentionally drew blood as I shaved to prove a point. I made it back and he inspected me and again he said I had not shaved, what a prick I thought. He told me I was being charged for “stating a falser” (army speak for lying) and I told him that he should be charged for impersonating a Corporal (this did not go down too well). I was already on 4 days ROP’s for whatever reason and the prospect of more did not excite me at all. The following morning I was marched into the office of Major Cobb (Company Commander) an Australian and a Marine. Being charged involved being quick marched into the office, being brought to a halt, stood to attention and the charge(s) read out, (citing the Military rules broken). You were not allowed to wear a beret and had to salute the officer who sat behind his desk, the person bringing the charges had to attend to act as witness and say why they had decided to charge you. Major Cobb looked at in exasperation and sighed as the charge was read out. He asked the Corporal to explain, which he did and by the time he’d finished you’d have thought I had murdered someone. I was asked for my comments and simply said that I could have cut my head off and would have still been charged for not shaving as the Corporal obviously had a problem with me. Major Cobb was a decent chap and agreed that failing four times in a row to shave was stretching the limits of credibility, but said that insulting the Corporal as I had, could not go unnoticed. He did say that if I was to get anymore ROP’s, I would probably never leave Chepstow, so he fined me sixty pounds (over a weeks’ salary) and dismissed me.

My apprenticeship was going fairly well and I excelled in Colour Scheme work. Our attempts at scaffolding had proved less successful and nearly killed a few of us, as the whole 3 storey scaffold had not been tied into the building (an old drill shed by the parade square)correctly and had toppled over. That resulted in another charge for all those involved I think! I was also quick to learn how to get out of most things by signing up for every sport I thought I would (a) be good at and (b) enjoy. Sport has always been big in the Army. The Army likes winning things as much as anyone but the commitment was beyond reproach and they allowed anyone who was in “a team” time off to develop and compete. They even supported those who enjoyed the more “hobby” type sports and every Wednesday was half day sports day. Seeing this as a chance to disappear, I signed up for Football (Soccer), Gymnastics, Weightlifting, Body Building Club, Potholing (Caving) Club, Sailing Club and Climbing Club. I stopped the Caving after my first try, as I found I got a little claustrophobic not 5 feet into the cave! Sailing club was great (in the sunshine), but when it blew too hard I decided it wasn’t for me either. Body Building was a good laugh, one of the PTI’s thought he was God’s Gift, when he entered a competition in Newport, we all went along to support him and he came last and I thought it was a bit pants anyway! Gymnastics was run by a short, quirky Scottish WO2 PTI, who was a real task master so I soon slipped out of that one as it was too much like hard work. I stuck with the weightlifting as a hobby, rather than competitively and concentrated on the Football and the Climbing Club. A year after arriving I was really settling in (everyone else had settled in 6 months earlier!), I was playing lots of sport, had some good mates, few enemies, an eye on a girl at the Disco who I wanted to go out with and a sudden desperate need to lose my virginity for some reason. I would do both pretty soon, but not necessarily in the order I anticipated!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Those are my Nipples you know! - 1981

The intake group I was part of, nicely reflected the youth of the day (1980/81). There were, New Romantics, Mods, Skinheads, Rockers and a general group of guys who looked to the Army as a career and had come from a background of Army Cadets and other affiliated groups. Among the New Romantic brigade, (among which I counted myself) were, Mark Bakewell (the runner), Mark Ashley, both who wore flamboyant clothes when not in their greens, Ashley even carried a cane and wore a hat and was quite the Dandy! I was not quite in that league, but we all liked similar music, OMD, Depeche Mode, China Crisis, Ultravox, Visage, Kraftwerk, The Human League, as well as Heaven 17, among others.

And here we are, all clean and scrubbed up, puts faces to names

My closest friends were Mick Hayes a David Bowie fan, who was very Army orientated and went on to become Apprentice Company Sergeant Major, Jon Moss, part time Romantic, nicknamed Wingnut, due to his unfeasibly large ears that stuck out more prominently due to our heads being shaven, Ian Clayton, who was a Geordie and not a Romantic, Kevin Atkinson who was from Liverpool so was nicknamed Scouse (how original)), Mark Madden (Madge), Rick Manning, who wore his jumper tucked into his trousers better than anyone I knew (it was the fashion, come on!), Garry Cuddy, from Barry Island in Wales and a strong Romantic fan, Jon Steed, a comedian amongst us, and Mark Cassar, (Casper), who was really into Soft Cell. There were others, whose names unfortunately slip my mind, but we made a fairly good group of mates, who were supportive of one another by and large, until promotions started to happen, then the colour of another’s cloth really stood out.

After 3 weeks of our induction we were taken on our first exercise. Normally, whenever you went on exercise, rifles were taken. I do not recall carrying my rifle around on that exercise, but the 7.62mm Self Loading Rifle (SLR) and I were to have a difficult relationship once we met, as I was useless at cleaning the bloody thing once we’d fired them. Weapon inspections, in fact all inspections, of any kind and of anything, became the bane of my life to say the least! We set out on our exercise, all dressed in our camouflage combat gear, with weighty backpacks made of canvas, that attracted and held water better than any sponge (Waterproof Bergen’s were not allowed nor issued), our webbing belt with various pouches for carrying everything from mess tins (another bane), spare rifle magazines, water bottle, mug and clothing such as a change of grots (underwear) and socks.

Clambering aboard the Bedford 4 tonner, we set out towards Monmouth, smoking and chatting away. We arrived at a camp which was amongst the ruins of an old castle or church and set about building bivouacs using our capes, which were sheets of plastic coated nylon, with a hole in the centre for your head and studs running up the sides. These could be adapted to create a shelter, big enough to get your sleeping bag under, just! All this was done in pouring rain, after which we then moved off into a field, where Sergeant Deveraux then had us sit in a group and took us through the 24 Hour Army Ration Pack (Summer). Back then, 24 Ration Packs came in two types, Arctic and Desert. Sgt Deveraux said that the stores guys normally issued Arctic rations, (which used large amounts of water or melt ice to rehydrate the contents) in the summer and the Desert Ration Packs in the winter as they required no water whatsoever to make them edible, when there was in fact an abundance of the stuff!

We thought he was joking, he was not, we were given Summer Packs and it was December in Wales! After we were each given a pack, he then took us through the contents, item by item. Each pack contained a plastic pouch holding tea bags, coffee, powdered milk, sugar, a can opener, matches and striker. The packs contained enough tinned food for a day, 3 meals, consisting of breakfast, a snack and dinner. Breakfast consisted of a thick oat biscuit, which could be crumbled, mixed with water and sugar and turned into porridge (or tiling grout if needed); Bacon Grill came in a can and was a processed meat product, somewhat like spam, pork based, with a large splat of greasy fat around it.

This could be sliced and fried in your mess tin and once cooked would stick to the tin and no amount of scrubbing would remove it. “Lunch “said Sergeant Deveraux “was a selection of Biscuits Fruit and Biscuits Plain, Ham roll and the dinner is a selection of meals in cans which could be boiled in the can or scooped out and cooked in the (by now crusty) mess tin”. He fished each article out of the box and held it up, then with either a positive comment of “this is good keep it” he would drop the item at his feet, or say “this is crap, bin it” and would toss the item as far away as he could throw it. “Beef Goulash (seriously; they had that in a tin) good”, drop, “Chicken Curry, good” drop, “Surprise Peas, what’s the surprise, they are fucking shit, that’s the surprise” and he launched the pack of dehydrated peas. I thought that was quite outstanding actually, a bit of honesty.

All chocolate became known as “Bars of Nutty”, why I do not know, and there was a Mars in each box, along with Toilet Paper (tracing paper) which gained the unfortunate nickname of Arse Wipe, as did one of the other lads, who would lick around the Sergeants’ and Corporals. We were invited to launch (throw) any item of food we did not want, but I decided to retain all mine, as (1) I was hungry and (2) I wanted to try all of it, to ensure I was not missing out on a feast. I should have chucked the lot. The packs also came in boxes holding enough rations for 10 men and we had one Lance Corporal (Lynsey Horten) in Germany, a Paratrooper/Royal Engineer (9 Engineer Regiment), who would add curry powder to every meal no matter what time of day or the ingredients. Everyone in his team would suffer a poor diet, desperate wind and the hazard of following through whenever they were on exercise. No one complained as he was a tough character, he once threw another guys washing machine out of the block window, (3rd storey) as it was making too much noise!

Cooking the contents of the tins and packets was a fun thing to do. We were provided with a Hexamine Stove, (a small, steel box that folded open to provide a stand on which you’d balance your mess tin) and Hexamine Blocks, strong smelling fuel tablets. I cooked something apparently nutritious and each guy’s meal was inspected by the Sgt, for quality, colour and taste! None of the three was ever found! The first night on exercise was pretty much the usual sort of thing you might expect; learning to read a map at night, patrol, and standing guard. Guarding against what I don’t know as the Russians were miles away; we did not have guns to shoot a marauding army so apart from a few drunken Welshmen coming home from the pub we were pretty much on our own.

Nonetheless, we all drew stag duty which was typically an hour in duration and meant wandering around the perimeter of the camp, smoking. I cannot recall what time I was on guard, but I do know that when I did get into my maggot (sleeping bag), I tied the cords around the head end tightly, pulled the hooded top over my head and tried to shelter from the rain under my cape. I must have been asleep for a while, but I woke up screaming my head off as I had inadvertently tried to strangle myself on the cords of the sleeping bag. Screaming like a little girl, I struggled to get out of my bag, not realising I was stuck. Sgt Deveraux wandered over and delivered a well aimed kick to my midriff, told me to stop bleating and walked away.

By this time I was wide awake and sobbing quietly to myself, embarrassed and in pain. What a tit! We broke camp the next day and went back to Chepstow, after cooking a hearty breakfast of Bacon Grill and dipping our Oatmeal biscuits into hot tea. I noted previously that anything cooked in mess tins, tended to attach itself to the steel of the tins, and it would take a small nuclear device to dislodge it. I later learned to my betterment that anyone with any idea of what they were doing (everyone else), used a separate set of tins on exercise and kept a pair for best (inspections). Not me, I persevered with scourers and various cleaning products and even wire wool, to no avail and within a day of being back at barracks, a kit inspection was called, at which we would lay our gear out on our perfectly made beds, and it had better be shining as bright as a new pin.

Starting at the head of the bed would be a Bed Pack. This consisted of our two bed sheets, folded and pressed to an approved thickness of about an inch high and 2 feet wide (rulers were used so measurements could be taken) . Above and below was a blanket, again folded to the same width as the sheets. Both sheets and blankets had to present a smooth fold outwards. Another blanket was wrapped around the blankets to form a sandwich of bedding. This block had strict dimensions, as did the width of items laid out in your locker and the counterpane was used to cover the mattress, hospital corners all round and tightly tucked in. So tight you could bounce a coin on the bed.

The bed pack was placed at the head board end and placed upon the bed, in previously determined places would be eating irons, cups, mess tins, webbing, back packs, Combats (camouflage clothing), highly polished boots (polishing of this type is termed as bulling) and various other items to be inspected. Everything had to appear as though it had just been handed over from stores, except the boots of course. Any slight blemish, scuff, stain, particle of food would be found and noted. Even the space in between the tines of the fork was inspected. Almost everyone would get pulled up for something; I just had the knack of making sure I was at nearly every inspection. I did not set out to fail these inspections; I was not a minger (stinky person), I just was not cut out for the work and besides, I enjoyed lying on my bed far more, listening to my Walkman Cassette Player, smoking, drinking tea and chatting as I watched my mates cleaning their kit!

Still, my failures provided plenty of talking points for my mates as they watched the follow up to my kit and I being inspected. I should point out that the kit was not filthy, it just did not sparkle as much as it probably should have and when questioned as to why my gear was not up to scratch, questions that would include jocular cross referencing, such as “did you use your kit to mop the floor, wipe your nose” etc, I would smirk or smile, as I was immature and thus attract the wrath of those inspecting me. Being in the Army was probably one of the better things that could have happened to me as I had to start growing up, but it took a lot of punishment to kick off the move into adulthood.

Any area of my kit, (mess tins, bed pack, eating irons, bed space or me in general) would fail to pass muster and I would, in the early days, be given extra cleaning duties, drill or further kit inspections. The later in the vain hope that I would improve given enough time and chances. On occasion, I would pull my finger out and pass, but the problem was that, instead of being able to knock off and go to their own room, (or house if they were married), the Corporal assigned to keep inspecting me, by a Sergeant who had long disappeared, would have to hang around, coming back every ten to fifteen minutes, until I got it right. In most cases there would be others who had failed, sometimes the whole room. Other times, the entire floor, so I was not alone. It just became more likely that I would always be amongst the group to reviewed and after a while, this moved to the point where an example would need to be set. Anyone else would have seen the opportunities to seek help and assistance, but not me. I seemed destined to provoke and cajole my trainers until they could no longer avoid the decision to place me on a charge. Before a charge became inevitable, I would be sent to the Q (Warrant Officer) or to the Company Sergeant Major for a “chat”, wherein I would be drilled further, spoken to (sworn at) or in the case of Q Carder, bullied and physically punished. Just because I did end up on a charge, it did not stop Q Carder from seeking to gain enjoyment by inflicting pain.

His favourite trick was to call me to attention, then standing very close, directly in front of me he would quickly grab both of my nipples, through my shirt and squeeze. This had the effect of making me squirm about, accompanied by noises such as “oooohh, aaargh and ooww”. Letting go, he would demand that I stood still, if I moved he would place me on a charge, and the whole process would start again. If Q Carder was feeling in a particularly vindictive mood, he would squeeze really tight and being a tall man, would then attempt to raise my feet off the floor. No amount of protesting and begging would help and he would continue until bored, or, until I cried, the evil bastard. He did not restrict this treatment to me alone and I saw plenty of others get the same close attention from him, nor did he do this away from the crowd and he seemed to revel in having an audience to perform to. The only reasons I can find that might excuse his behaviour are these: -

1. He had a very small penis.

2. He was not getting any sex as he was a fat twat.

3. His ability to influence anyone was diminishing as fast as his stomach was growing, and he used bullying as a way of deflecting his self evident failure to slim down.

4. He was a gross Fcuk head.

Oh and I am not bitter either.........................................But being placed on a charge was going to happen and I was to become a record holder in so many fields that relate to discipline and punishment in the Army. Mind you, I was to turn it into an art form in some ways, impressing a few and exasperating others!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A punch to the head never hurt anyone (thats a lie)! - 1981

Early mornings and late nights were the order of the day for the young gaggle of newcomers to Chepstow’s Army Apprentices College. As a “shower of shit” (our new group name given to us by anyone senior), we attempted and failed to comply with any order in the first week, beyond that of the “down and give me twenty press-ups” variety. The typical agenda for any day during our new starter term consisted of: -

Up at 0600, wash and shave (something I was new to – the shaving bit and would fail miserably at to my cost), dress in work dress, which consisted of Lightweight trousers, Shirt, Jumper, Puttees and DMS boots and a beret with Royal Engineers Cap Badge and then await room inspection which usually came around 0700. If the weather was hot, we would eagerly await the notice on Orders, (a list of do’s, don’ts and general information posted each day in the company office), that said that Shirt sleeves was the order of dress the next day and onwards until rescinded. Most of the Lieutenants assigned to the Platoons were women army (WRAC) officers. Each Lieutenant would appear, ably supported by the Platoon Sergeant, a Corporal and the Apprentice Company Sergeant Major. They would inspect every aspect of the block of dormitories including the outside areas surrounding it. Each platoon would be assigned an outside area to clean, (picking up cigarette butts and litter) along with a communal area of the block, such as stairwell, lobby, stairs etc. The corridors leading to the rooms and the toilets were assigned on a rotation to a troop within each platoon. So on any given day the Apprentice Sgt’s and Apprentice Corporals would have us outside and inside cleaning to a shine anything and everything. Sweeping concrete steps, mopping and wax polishing lino floors, scrubbing the stairs with hand held brushes, soap and water, dusting any surface, cleaning sinks and toilets (where a toothbrush would be employed to remove particularly irksome pieces of detritus that had attached itself like a limpet to toilet bowl), these tasks were all carried out par excellence’ we thought, but were always found to be far below the expected standards. The result being that the cleaners of the offending area were subject to at the minimum, being screamed at and told to redo the job, and at worst, involving the former and latter, with the added enjoyment of appearing at the company offices for additional punishment during the evening. This was even before the room inspection itself and the ripping apart of one’s own bed space.

There were no carpets, only lino, everywhere. Lino that had a wonderful ability to attract scuff marks from Black DMS boots and boot polish and repel any attempt to remove those marks for a good half hour. This culminated in hours spent mopping, waxing and buffing the floors. The buffers, large heavily weighted iron blocks attached to broom handles, that had a polishing surface on the base, would be employed for hours on end, moving up, down and across corridors and bed spaces (under beds especially) to create a glare that caused passing birds to hit buildings, so distracted were they. Anyone who ventured out of the room and down the corridor, whilst another chap was perfecting his floors gleam was either an idiot or me! DMS boots had a particularly heavy tread and this would imprint itself on the floor, so the idea would be that buffing was left as the last job before inspection. The bed space held a large number of opportunities for one to be caught out and reprimanded. We each had a tall, double door wardrobe, with a high shelf across the top, shelves to the left side and hanging space to the right. In addition a blanket chest was provided to hold only army issue equipment, with a bed side locker and a lockable shelf no bigger than a shoebox in the wardrobe for personal affects. All could be opened for inspection, although the shoe box tended to be left alone, if locked. If no lock was on it, it would be opened, as no lock meant an invitation extended to those inspecting! We also had a steel frame, steel sprung single bed, an over bed fluorescent light fixed to the wall, a light switch and a pin board. All areas would be swept for dust, which in those early weeks was always found. The main problem with inspections was that if you had to appear in the offices in the evenings as you failed that days review, you would be given cleaning tasks around the camp, you therefore lost valuable spit and polish time on your own tasks and bed space and so invariably failed the following day, and were back at the office that night. Soon a vicious cycle of restrictions crept into place as you failed to complete all tasks required of you. This quickly identified you as a likely problem to others, including your room colleagues, as they would be punished if your space failed inspection as well, (all for one, one for all etc). The likely cumulative effect being that I would eventually end up on a charge.

All this happened before 0700 and by 0800 you had to be outside on parade, so if you wanted breakfast, you had it either before 0700 or after inspection but before parade. Breakfast was a pain as well, as you had to carry your irons (knife, fork and spoon) and black plastic water canteen mug or green plastic mug to the cook house, grab a plate full of food, wolf it down and get back to the block, all in about ten minutes. If before 0700, you had better make sure you cleaned your irons and mug and they were placed in the locker, in the correct order or you were inviting dangerous repercussions. Breakfast was a great meal though. All the cooked food you could eat, plus cereals, toast, porridge etc. There would be boiled, fried, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, fried bread, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, mushrooms, etc. Tea and coffee, plus juice and milk, although everyone avoided the juice as it was powdered and named “Screech”, as once drunk it made you screw your face up in a grimace, much in the same way the noise of someone running their nails down a blackboard would do. Once breakfast was over, it was back to the block, sort yourself out, quick polish of your boots and outside for a smoke before parade. Smoking was allowed in rooms and in certain areas outside, butt disposal was supposed to be the bins, and in fact we made work for ourselves by discarding them around the blocks for some reason, probably idiocy!

We’d form up in 3 lines, approximately 30 of us, would be called to attention and then stood at ease, until whoever was to inspect us appeared from the offices. The officer in question would walk up the front row looking at each soldiers dress, remarking to the sergeant accompanying them, on those soldiers who fell short of acceptable standards. The sergeant would then launch a tirade of invective, designed to make you feel small and inept in front of your colleagues, and culminating in press ups, at a minimum. If the failure in standards was spectacular (a slightly dirty boot, or double crease on your trousers!), the words “you are on charge” struck fear into you as the resultant appearance in front of the company commander would mean loss of salary or privileges (spare time). I was to become quite the star turn in terms of charges and intend to explore the impact of these in future blogs. Once inspected, we would be stood at ease and the day’s timetable would be covered in detail, to ensure no one was unaware of what was going to happen and more importantly what was going to be required of us. Everyday there would be some form of fitness work, which varied from Gym, to the Assault Course to road runs. The road runs were always carried out wearing a minimum of PT Vest, Lightweight Trousers, Puttees and DMS Boots. Most occasions we would be running to build up stamina to complete the Basic Fitness Test (BFT), which required all soldiers to run 1.5 miles in less than 13 minutes and 15 seconds. What tended to happen would be that the whole Platoon would run this distance as a squad, (lines of 3 abreast), then we’d continue to run the course again at our own pace, so we ran a total of 3 miles. Apart from the area directly surrounding the camp the terrain was fairly hilly; the further into the run, which was covered at a moderate pace, the more likely that the more unfit guys would start to flag. PTI’s (Physical Training Instructors) would run with us and would cajole and harass, in equal measure those flagging behind. More times than less, I usually measured up to the test, but on occasion would flag (beer induced) and had my fair share of abuse at the hands of the PTI’s.

Another favourite PT fitness exercise, which was designed as much to improve fitness as it was courage, was Milling. This resembled boxing in so far as gloves were worn, (16 ounce gloves), but that was it. The ring was formed by the soldiers standing in the shape of a square. To decide who would fight whom, we would line up, tallest to the shortest. The PTI then walked down the line, pairing the guys off and that was it, no head gear, gumshields or protection for your dangly bits! You walked to the centre of the ring, the PTI said “Mill” and until someone dropped you went at it. If you turned your back, the fight was stopped and restarted, if you tripped or failed to fight, the fight was stopped and restarted. If you refused to fight, (which I saw) the PTI would give you a slap, and you’d be charged, for refusing to soldier, (see explanation of this at the end of this blog). Sixty seconds of uncontrolled scrapping! There was no point in trying to “box” your way through, it was better to just launch yourself at the other guy and swing away. On one occasion I fought Morbid, the little bugger caught me a pearl of a shot and I went down. I came back up with lips like Bubba (in Forrest Gump), bleeding profusely and we went at it again. I ended up on my hands and knees, Morbid smacking the crap out of the back of my head. The PTI pulled him off, up I got and we went at it again. As soon as it was over, we shook hands, I was somewhat embarrassed, and Morbid was quite content. This link takes you to a video of Milling, in the Parachute regiment, they are protected better than we were, but it gives you some idea of Milling. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgoP37DVNSs it does launch ok, if not just hit refresh!

One of the other fine examples of getting soldiers fit involved carrying a telegraph pole around on a run. The pole was some 20 feet long and painted red and white. It was too heavy to carry on your own, so one soldier stood at one end, another at the far end, the pole was lifted onto your shoulders and with the squad running alongside and behind you, off you went. Each pair would cover 200 to 300 metres, and then another pair would move in alongside, ease their shoulders under the pole and you would step away. No break of momentum was given nor allowed and woe betide anyone who dropped the pole as this resulted in screamed questions such as “why have you dropped the Queens telegraph pole” and “that pole has been in the army longer than you, pick it up you fucking Nancy”! Many times I saw guys reduced to tears, which only made things worse for them as they would be destroyed by the PTI’s verbally.

So what with all these things to enliven our days and cleaning our rooms and kit to entertain us of an evening, we looked jealously upon those who had moved beyond their first weeks and were allowed to use the bar and go to the disco on Saturday nights. I do not know whether it was because we were doing well (highly unlikely), or whether we had earned this for some other reason (nah!), or if this happened to everyone and we were made to feel we had done something to earn it (probably) but one afternoon, we were told that we were allowed to go to the bar that night! As we were all only 16 years old and the legal drinking age was 18, the Army had special dispensation in that we were allowed to drink beer at 16. No spirits were allowed I recall, nor wine, but who cared! The bar was in the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute) building, which contained a shop, a cafe (for toasties and other light snacks) and a bar running along one side of the dance floor area, in a separate room. I remember going in and ordering a pint of lager and sitting down with my mates and drinking it, treating it as a really big deal, which it was. We still weren’t allowed to go to the disco and looked enviously at those lads who made their way across camp each Saturday night. The army even transported women into camp by bus from Bristol, Chepstow and Newport. So we’d watch forlornly as these girls clambered off the coaches and went into the disco. Retiring to take a bath as quickly (!) as possible to burn up the testosterone these fleeting glimpses of womanhood generated. I think I could have won a medal for masturbation had it been an Olympic sport! I suspect that last sentence will generate plenty of “we always knew you were a wanker anyway JW”. I am just wondering who will be first. Thanks for reading.

UPDATE - Refusing to Soldier.  I promised to say what this mean't!  In essence, everytime you were given an order, you followed it.  This was whether the order made sense or not.  So, "Fight that person" (Milling) mean't get stuck in and do some damage.  Those who did not want to fight, for fear of damage to their body or reputation, were at first shouted at, then smacked about a bit, then if they carried on refusing, would be screamed at and threatened with a charge for refusing to soldier.  Another example would be where a soldier was constantly getting things wrong (not me for once, as i was too scared to refuse to soldier!), and ended up in a heap of blubbering jelly, termed as as a "Useless Specimen".  If the tormentor had any empathy, they would drag the individual away from the rest of us and offer support and encouragement and there were some who did do this.  However, if the tormentor was particularly vindicitive, then the soldier would be told he was refusing to soldier and would be charged.  The threat to charge a guy with Refusing to Soldier, usually was enough to sort then out, as if the charge progressed, it could escalate to the individual involved being kicked out of the Army.  Hope this helps. JW

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Watch out Army, here I come - 1980 - 1981

Before I continue further into my burgeoning adulthood, I wanted to reflect upon my childhood and some of the relationships I had developed. From the age of six I had started school in Norwich and had developed a great friendship with a chap called Richard Holmes. Rick had a brother Patrick, who was friends with my brother Richard, all very confusing! There were also the Hale brothers, Stephen and Paul, the Wisemans, Dale and Julian, the Ross family, Andy, Mark and Martin, the Harrisons, Gary and Michael and the Riches, Andrew and Christopher. Along with Andrew Bunn and Antonio Zavanaiu we all at one time went to Avenue Road Infants and Middle Schools. We all played sports at the Recreation grounds and these were all friendships that grew out of shared childhood interests. As with all groups of friends, newcomers arrived and familiar faces departed, especially when the time came for senior school. The Holmes Boys were a class apart, their mum and dad were great parents and very understanding especially when considering the angst the boys and some of the friends caused them, which included scaling the walls of the school, which was just around the corner from their house, and the roof, given its design, made an excellent space for games of hide and seek. I joined in once or twice. Plus there was a great deal of lead to be taken and sold on, which for a groups of under 12’s is quite enterprising!

I write about these friendships now as, once I joined the Army, I lost all contact with every single one of this group until I returned to Norwich nearly 6 years later, Rick and Patrick Holmes being the primary beneficiaries of my wisdom, as upon my return, I looked them up within weeks of leaving the Army.

As Potential Apprentice (Pot Ap) Weaver, I collected my Rail Warrant from the Army Careers Office on the Friday 14th November 1980. I had absolutely no interest in the Army, or hadn’t until that point anyway, other than I thought Tanks were great and that was because I’d had one as a Christmas present some years previously. I boarded the British Rail Train, Mum at Norwich Station with Julian, waving me off. My journey took me to Liverpool Street Station, London Underground Circle line to Paddington and then the train to Newport in Wales and then change trains to Chepstow. Seeing as I had never taken a journey like that before, I was none the less fairly intrepid and so this held no fear for me as a sixteen year old. I had my suitcase stuffed with clothes and the usual goodies that mums pack for you when you take a trip and off I went. No issues all the way and when the train pulled into Newport, I was met by loads of guys similar to myself who were on their way to Chepstow. The actual base, to give it its full name was, The Royal Engineers Army Apprentices College, Beachley, Chepstow. It was based directly underneath the old Severn Bridge and was bordered either side by the River Severn and the River Wye. I looked on Google Maps (Satellite View, search Beachley Chepstow) and the camp layout has changed quite a lot since I was there, especially as the Trades Workshops have been demolished since the Military closed the camp as an Apprentice College and the Infantry (Rifles) took over, but the parade ground is still there, the guardroom next to it, where I spent nearly as much time as I did in the workshops, and even my old accommodation block and company office. They are a group of 5 buildings in a horseshoe formation, set around a green area with the offices in the centre. Worst of all, the NAAFI has been demolished along with the disco and Corporals Mess which will provide many stories to come!

We waited on mass for the train to Chepstow, no one really talking and we crammed onto the train when it arrived, standing room only. We pulled into Chepstow Station which is small, old fashioned and was not built for mass arrivals! As soon as the train stopped, a rather genial Drill Sergeant asked if we didn’t mind whether we would kindly step off the train and make our way in our own time towards the waiting trucks parked outside the station. I think that is what some of the lads expected him to say when the train doors opened, what we actually got was a Drill Sergeant named Tam Hume, who bellowed like a bull at us, forgive the language here but it centred on phrases such as “get your fucking arses off that train, now”, “pick up your shit, and run to the trucks you bunch of mummy’s boys” and “don’t look at me you puff, or I will shag you with this Pace Stick!” The expletives had the desired effect for all except one of us, who took one look at Sgt Hume, turned round and got back on the train. He refused to get off and left on the train when it pulled out! For the next 6-8 weeks the phrase “I am your mother now” would be repeated over and over to all of us. Other favourite turns of phrase included, “Weaver, you are a fucking balloon” (Sgt Petrie), “Weaver, you are on a charge” (any one of rank really) and “Weaver, I am charging you for being a prick” (again, anyone with rank), and these would be used to further enhance my quality of life as the years progressed, although Sgt Petrie had invented his own and I never heard anyone called a “fucking balloon” except by him.

Jammed onto 4 tonne Bedford trucks, we took the journey to Beachley. I took in as much as I could through the gap between the tailgate and the canvas shroud over our heads and down the sides of the truck. We entered the camp and the trucks parked on the Parade Ground (drill square). Again we were asked nicely if we’d get off and if we wouldn’t mind awfully forming ourselves into lines, 3 abreast. This manifested itself mainly in the Sgt’s screaming at us, pushing us and their supportive corporals doing the same. Once formed up, our names were called and we were told to join groups to either side, which constituted our Platoons (troops) and Companies. I was in 2 Troop, B Company. We were what was termed Boy Soldiers, and as time progressed certain among us were rewarded with Non-commissioned ranks of our own, Lance Corporals, Corporals, Sergeants, Warrant Officer 1st Class (Regimental Sergeant Major or RSM) and 2nd Class (Company Sergeant Major or CSM), but all prefixed with the word Apprentice. Those who had been at the college for near on a year or more were achieving Sgt and above and these guys were there in force to support the proper Non-coms. So you had kids of 17 and 18 also joining in on the verbal barrage. Once in our Company groups we formed up again and were told to march (no chance) smartly to our barrack blocks. B Company’s block was directly opposite its office and our Company Sergeant Major, WO2 Mcgonnigle who was a Scots Guard and Company Commander Major Cobb came out to address us.

Major Cobb’s, speech was in the main, a welcoming speech, pointing out that we were viewed as soldiers now, that we were in a privileged position, that we would be expected to obey orders blah blah etc etc. The Sgt Majors speech (yelled) was more of what we had experienced on arrival, but with veiled threats as to what would happen to us physically if we defied orders, spoke out of turn, and failed to impress and I realised that basically, I was fucked. The names of some of those who would be commanding me for the next 2 years, as best as I can remember were, Sgt Tom Deveraux (actually a nice bloke, who had a big black moustache), Sgt Tam Hume (also a nice guy), joined later by Sgt Petrie (twat), Sgt Cameron (arse) and Staff Sgt Christopher (superb guy), and there was a very large, very tall Warrant Office, WO2 Cadre (classic wanker). WO2 Cadre (his actual title was Q, so he was called Q Cadre, all very early James Bondian!) had a vicious nasty streak running though him and I was to be exposed to his methods of motivation and leadership from quite early on. Another Staff Sgt, whose name slips my mind, ran a nice little side line in copyright theft. Put simply, he bought one copy of all the latest albums on cassette, produced a catalogue and toured the barracks, selling copies on to us. This saved us having to go into town to buy the records and tapes we wanted and he earned a nice amount from us in return. He was a decent enough bloke though and everyone liked him I suspect.

There were five company’s at Chepstow, A, B, C, D, E. A company was Carpenters and Joiners, B Company, Painters, Bricklayers and funnily enough, Bomb or Ordinance Disposal, C Company (sorry, can’t recall)), D Company was Plumbers and E Company Electricians. We were shown into our accommodation blocks and met our dormitory comrades (about 10 guys). An Apprentice Lance Corporal was the senior in the room, an Apprentice Corporal and Apprentice Sgt had their own rooms off the corridors leading to dormitories. My room L/Cpl was Gary Judd, a name I had not remembered until the moment I began writing this paragraph! We were taken over to the company office and given bed packs, 4 sheets (white), 4 Pillow Cases (White), 3 blankets (Grey and Scratchy), 2 pillows (hard) and a green or blue Bedspread. We then went for some food in the cookhouse, but were not allowed into the NAAFI Bar until after our initial ½ a terms military training. (The apprenticeship consisted of 1 Term of military up skilling, split in two, ½ term at the start and a trained soldier’s cadre of ½ a term after our apprenticeships were complete and four terms of trade training in between).

After a first night of genial banter with plenty of tea and cigarettes and lights out at 10pm, we were met with a 6am dawn chorus of vocal jousting by App Corporals and App Sergeants, tipping us out of our beds and telling us to “get shit, showered and shaved and on parade in 10 minutes”. Most of us staggered out in time, the odd stragglers given press ups or a brisk sprint around the quadrangle by way of incentive to shift your arse next time. In my troop were amongst others, Mick Hayes, from Malvern, Ian Clayton, Newcastle, Rick Manning, Leeds, Mark Madden, Chesterfield, John Steed, (?), Mark (Casper) Cassar (very softly spoken and therefore identified as a suspected homosexual early doors, probably quite incorrectly), Mark Bakewell (a phenomenal runner) and a kid whose last name was Baker, but we quickly renamed him Morbid, as he was boring and moribund. We were marched to the stores and issued with our uniforms and boots. None of which fitted me very well, especially the beret, which despite years of attempted styling, always looked like a pile of cow crap on my head, with a badge stuck to it.

Over the course of the forthcoming week, we were taught how to polish our boots (literally, how to put polish on and take it off), then how to bull our best boots, (how to put layers of polish on, get it to stay on and shine like black gold using spit!), how to press our clothes and how to wear our clothes correctly, what bit of uniform went where and with which other bits of uniform. All this was topped and tailed by 3 square meals a day, cooked breakfasts (loads of food), cooked lunch’s and cooked dinners. No one wanted to miss out on food, as we had no money to spend in the NAAFI shop, as we had not been paid yet and weekly salary for a Pot Ap was about £10. We were borrowing money, cigarettes, tea, sugar, biscuits, and all sorts of stuff from day one really. The Sgt’s other role was to teach us to march, in lines, 3 abreast, smartly. It is quite amazing how able bodied men, can walk down the street quite easily, but ask them to swing their arms shoulder high and dig the heels in, whilst actually being told which foot to put down (Left, Right, Left Right), fail to do this simple task and actually fail spectacularly! A classic error was to swing the right arm with the right leg going forward, then the left arm with the left leg. Try it, (when you are alone to save embarrassment, as people will think you have had a relapse), it’s almost impossible to walk in this way and actually feels weird, but a squad of soldiers, learning drill will do it time and again. Mind you, drill Sgt’s love to shorten the terms they use when calling out which leg to put down, so Left, becomes “eft” and right becomes “ight”, then over time, left becomes “iifffttt” and right becomes “iigghtt” until eventually you end up with a drill Sgt who says something like “ip” and “it” .

Another pearl is totally forgetting your left from your right. “Left Turn” produces a turn to the right and vice versa. I have been on Drill parades and seen guys reduced to tears by Sgt’s as they could not put one foot in front of another correctly, or when asked to turn left on the march, they went right. If nothing else, I could do drill and could, after a while do it very well. So 2 weeks of spit and polish, drill and PT started to produce a Troop of men who could walk in a straight line and not all of whom looked like a sack of crap tied in the middle with twine. The one stand out amongst us for all the wrong reasons was Popplestone. This kid was probably the ugliest, smelliest, laziest, scruffiest, unfit specimen ever. Having him in our troop did not make our life easier (he stood out so we didn’t?), oh no, we had to make sure he looked the part every day; it was our duty to make sure he was clean, pressed and presentable. I remember Mick Hayes pressing all his clothes for the next day, his lightweight trousers, his shirt, his jumper and trying to shape his beret. He handed the clothes over the Popplestone and said, “Go hang these up”. Popplestone went to his locker, laid them on his bed, went out of the room, came back, saw the clothes on his bed, picked them up and threw them into the base of his locker. That’s an example of how hard it was to get this guy to shape up.

To come – there’s my first exercise in Monmouth, my first charges for disobeying orders, first pint, first Disco and first fight. Hope you are enjoying these blogs. To date, I have had 740 views. Bon Chance’. JW