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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
 

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

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