A Young Man's Game

A young man's game

A young man's game

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I note from the Armed Forces bi-annual Diversity Report that as of the 1st October 2017, 23.6% of the UK Regular Forces and 13.9% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. In the last year, this has decreased by 1% in the UK Regulars and 0.9% in the Future Reserves 2020. Of the Officers, 7% of the UK Regular Forces and 5.3% of the Future Reserves 2020 are under 25 years old. At 1 April 2017 48% of UK Regular Forces personnel were under the age of 30. The overall average age was 31. The Army had the lowest average age (30), and the RAF the highest average age (33).

Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Officers in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Both Officers and Other Ranks in the Regular Forces are younger on average than is the case in the Reserves. The average age of Regular officers is 37 years old compared to 43 years old in the Reserves while Other Ranks in the Regular Forces have an average age of 30 years old compared to 35 years old in the Reserves.

Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

Age of Other Ranks in the UK Regular Forces and the Future Reserves 2020, as at 1 October 2017

These average ages appear high. Average ages in the Royal Navy and the RAF are higher than the Army. We would expect that  given the need for more technically qualified servicemen given the nature of their weapons platforms. There is also a minimum requirement, however much the Services have been cut, for command, control, support and logistics which would increase the average age.

Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

Average age of Infantry recruits from 2001-2012. The leap in average age may be a result of more accessible higher education and benign economic conditions during that period.

Notwithstanding that the proportion of servicemen aged between 18-24 has declined in recent years.  In 2000 this age bracket accounted for 31% of all personnel, in 2017 this had been reduced to 24% of personnel.

More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

More soldiers are aged over 35 than are under 24 years old.

The ugly fact though, is that war fighting is a young man’s game. I have written before about how small the Infantry portion of the Armed Forces is. The same is true of the other combat arms, Artillery and Armour, but with at a best guess, less than 12,000 fighting infantry soldiers fit to fight, the government of the day has limited optionality in committing itself to any kind of armed response. Worse, if those available forces were to be committed they would again be at elevated risk because there are no great numbers in reserve behind them. In a worst case extreme scenario we could lose the fighting strength of the British Army in a matter of days bringing unthinkable last ditch options in play. In pursuit of short term gain UK governments have therefore lowered the nuclear threshold.

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I would find reassurance in lower average ages across the board but what do I know? I’m just an old guy armed with a mouse and a keyboard.

Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

Strength of the full-time trained and untrained UK Regular Forces since 1980.

Size matters. UK Regular Forces are 50% smaller than in 1980. The total strength of the full-time UK Regular Forces (trained and untrained) at 1 January 2018 was 147,033. Between 1990 and 1995 the strength of the UK Regular Forces reduced by around 72,500 personnel (a drop of 24%). The reduction in strength was a result of the MOD’s Options for change strategic defence review announced in July 1990. The review was intended as a response to the changing strategic environment in the post-Cold War era, establishing a smaller better equipped forces and making defence policy focused more on capabilities rather than threats. 

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Since 2000 the total strength of the UK Regular Forces has generally declined year on year (except for four years of slight growth in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010). The Regular Army has fallen in size in the last 12 months by 2.3% with rises in numbers of Gurkha's and Reserves off-setting some of the decrease. Overall, the Army has a 6.3% shortfall in manning from it's Trade Trained liability against 3.7% for the RN and 5.9% for the RAF. 

trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

trend in the total trained strength against the requirement for the UK Armed Forces.

The manning shortfall across the Services is not historically unusual. It has more impact now however because the overall size of the Armed Forces is dramatically smaller than was the case even since 2000. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review has indicated that the requirement for the UK Armed Forces would be 144,200 personnel by 2020. The 2020 target is 53,960 (27%) personnel fewer than needed at 1 April 2000.

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Is the world 27% safer today than in 2000? With our Armed Forces at their smallest since the Napoleonic Wars we would wish that to be the case. Back on Planet Reality we know that is not so. In December the House of Commons Library carried out an analysis that looked at the real-terms (ie inflation-adjusted) changes to defence spending. It found that between 2010 and 2015 the Ministry of Defence's (MoD) budget had fallen by £8bn in real terms. That's a cut of 18% compared with the 2009-10 budget.

In January, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nick Carter said in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute that Britain "must take notice of what is going on around us" or that the ability by the UK to take action will be "massively constrained." For the CGS to speak out in public and in plain terms was unusual. In previous times his stark warning would have sparked a national debate about Defence. Not so now. The truth is few people care and why should they when dealing with their own busy lives? Nor do most politicians. The consequences of under resourced defence will be felt hardest by those serving if they are called to action. The repercussions though, will be felt by us all.

A Good Day

Two weeks ago the family turned out to attend the Sovereign's Parade at Sandhurst where Commissioning Course 172 had their big day eleven months after being dropped off with ironing boards and what seemed like several hundredweight of kit. A fabulous day it was too, as are they all for anyone passing out from a training establishment be they a recruit or an officer cadet. It was also my wedding anniversary. Days in life, never mind marriage, don’t come much better.

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In his address, the CGS, General Nick Carter, said to the assembled cadets that he would give his rank, his way of life, such material possessions that he has to swap places with any of the young men and women on parade for the opportunity to do it all over again. Thirty six years after my own Sovereigns Parade I was thinking exactly the same thing. I suspect every other person there over the age of forty was too. 

Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

Eddie & I being questioned by John Knott, the then Defence Secretary (1982)

The day was not without a touch of circular sentimentality for me. When I passed out I did so with a fellow called Eddie Edmonstone next to me. Eddie went off to the Scots Guards while I went off to the Gunners. Today Eddie was there to see his Godson commission into the SG’s, as did my boy. 
Like many, I enjoy musical theatre. The very best musical theatre though is to be found on the drill square and none is bigger, better or more emotionally charged than is Old College Square at Sandhurst. It was, no ordinary anniversary.

Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

Back we are 36 years later to see the next generation march up the steps

Corporal Ronnie (Annie) Oakley RHF - Obituary

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We all recall men or women of influence from our younger days. People who perhaps gave the right advice at the right time, who helped steer us on the right path or who bailed us out when things went astray. When then, all these years later we hear news of their passing we find ourselves being hurtled back to the memories of the heady exciting days of our younger selves. What days they were. What people we have known.

One such figure in my life was Corporal Ronnie ‘Annie’ Oakley of the 1st Bn Royal Highland Fusiliers who recently passed after a short illness. The epitaph ‘Legend,’ has become so overused that it’s efficacy as a testament has come to be diluted. Not so in the case of Oakers. While every battalion has its list of ‘Regimental Legend’s,’  Ronnie was special and held in high regard by everyone who soldiered with him.

Meeting Ronnie with 1 RHF, then stationed in Barossa Barracks in Hemer, BAOR, was not part of my life plan. Far from it. But then plans have a way of unwinding at the first hurdle. Mine did when a premature stab at the Commissions Board at the age of 18 left me with what they called a ‘deferral.’ What they meant was ‘go away, grow up and come back and have another try.’ When I arrived back at my Depot at Glencorse near Edinburgh the only advice I received was from a Queens Own Highlander major who said, ‘why don’t you take a banana boat to China and see the world?’ He could have been speaking ancient Aramaic. Of course, he was suggesting I do what would now be called a gap year. I piped up and said ‘I would like to go to a battalion Sir.’ ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘I’ll speak to the Adjutant.’ The next morning I pulled my feet in and reported to the Adjutant, a Captain Ewan Loudon of the RHF. It was a short meeting. ‘Report to 1 RHF in Hemer on Monday morning,’ he said, ‘get your travel docs from the clerk.’ I walked out stirred, shaken and stunned. I had entertained delusional visions of going to Hong Kong with the Black Watch but here I was heading to 1 RHF. You see, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, recruited wholly from Glasgow and Ayrshire, did not just enjoy a fearsome reputation in the British Army, it held true within the Scottish Division itself. Chastising myself for being really very stupid and wondering how I would survive in the cauldron of the RHF while trying to hide the potential officer label threw me into despair. Sympathy beers from mates in the NAAFI that night served only to darken the mood. It really did feel like the end of days.

As it transpired, my two years with 1 RHF was the most memorable and enjoyable time of my early life. I look back with great affection for the people I met, the life lessons I learned and the laughs we had. Those two years created the bedrock of my life in no small part thanks to the people around me. Men like Annie Oakley.

Oakers joined the battalion in Fort George in 1969 by way of the Merchant Navy. They say that pressure makes diamonds. He was an orphan with no family so the Commanding Officer was his next of kin. The battalion was his family. It still is. (quotes in italics are from fellow RHF soldiers).

There will be much said about him from everyone. I knew him from the first day I arrived in Singapore, he was asleep in the shower after a night on the Anchor beer. To say Ronnie was a character defies the word. He was larger than life and was known and liked by everyone in 1 RHF from the Commanding Officers downwards. He had his fair share of misdemeanours but was always open to giving a helping hand/advice to anyone. I knew him in various ways as a sportsman battalion goalkeeper, as a very fit soldier/NCO in A Coy, as a babysitter and as a friend. After his discharge from 1 RHF he was always involved in veterans activities/events. There are lots of parts to Ronnie Oakley but he always told me THE RHF IS MY FAMILY and he continued to say that to the end.
Ronnie at a friend's wedding

Ronnie at a friend's wedding

The sad thing about perusing veterans sites and Facebook groups is that one reads of the passing of many old faces. Never though, have a read so many notes of genuine respect and affection as I have seen for Annie. The ‘great and the good,’ don’t get the airtime that he has. He earned it. His tough early start to life didn’t stop him from having a warm, friendly, good hearted and generous nature. He always had a kind word of encouragement for newcomers to A Company, a ‘tap’ of 30 DM’s for someone short before pay day or some friendly banter when someone had some bad news. He was a father figure to many a young Jock and a source of wise words for newly promoted junior NCO’s or newly commissioned officers. As one of the many posts said,

RIP to the best Section Commander I have had the pleasure of working alongside. Booted your arse when you needed it then sat and had a drink with you after it, always there to help his guys when they needed it. A thing I always noticed was that CO’s listened to RSM’s, OC’s to CSM’s, Plt. Comd’s to Plt Sgt’s, but everybody, listened to ‘Annie.’
Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Annie, (left) NI patrol base.

Ronnie wasn’t just a good guy to know. He was a very, very good soldier. Some infantrymen get to where they need to be through hard training and application. Some get there through luck and blagging their way through training. Some though, are born to it. Was there ever a more natural infantry NCO than Ronnie? Ronnie wasn't quite cut out for a drill instructors course but no one instilled more confidence on the ground than did he, be it in urban or rural environments. A friend reminded the other day about Ronnie patrolling in the Ardoyne; he wouldn't let anyone turn a corner without first scanning the streets, windows and shoot-throughs with his bino's. They didn’t teach you to use bino's on street patrols at NITAT (Northern Ireland Training Advisory Team), but then NITAT didn't have Annie Oakley instructing there. He instilled confidence in all around him and was completely dependable when ‘on the job.’ As young Jocks, we all respected his soldiering skills and his judgement in the field. Gaining his respect for our abilities was an aspiration for us all.

I wrote this in a previous post before I heard of Ronnie's illness, 'It is of course entirely normal for one generation of soldiers to look out of the window and think things have changed for the worse. It was ever thus. Back in 1980, after many hours waiting on standby in some side streets in Lurgan during the Hunger Strike riots, we got the order to move in and take over from the RUC who were taking a bit of a battering. As we moved forward a more experienced Corporal turned to me and said, 'Dinnea sweat it, this is nothing like as bad as the Ardoyne in '72.' I thought to myself, 'well a brick in the face or a sucking chest wound probably feel just as bad whichever postcode and time you happen to be in.'  That Corporal, 'Annie' Oakley, was incidentally, one of the best infantry soldiers I ever came across. He moved like a cat and had a natural understanding and affinity for his environment, whether on the streets or in rural areas.'

Since I heard of Ronnie’s passing I have struggled with how I would say “Stand Down” to this influential man. Ronnie was a very likeable guy, you couldn’t help but be enamoured by his look on life in the RHF, to most it was a vocation to “Be The Best”, to “Annie” as we all remember him it was learn as you go, do your job but don’t forget to enjoy your life, and Annie had a good life full of work and fun in equal measure. The respect he has been shown in the comments I have read make me feel I haven’t lived up to what it means to be a Fusilier. I was what is called a late developer only achieving entry to the WO’s and Sgts Mess at the end of my stint. But because of people like Annie and others I served with in the RHF I had a whale of a time.

Ronnie recently reminded me in a text exchange when he was in the hospital of a comedy sketch we did together at the Battalion Christmas concert in 1979 at the Globe Theatre in  Hemer. I described it as ‘the beginning, climax and last act in my stage career. We got a few laughs though.’ He replied, ‘I would say a standing ovation.’ That it happened at all was a surprise given the absence of any planning, script or rehearsal. He came to me a few days before the show and said,

The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

The Globe Theatre in Hemer; we could have had a future in comedy Ronnie.........

‘Have you got a suit Davy?’

‘Yes Ronnie, why?’

‘I’ve got an idea for a sketch. You’ll be the interviewer and I’ll answer the questions, it’ll be brilliant.’

‘OK, have you got a script and when do we rehearse?'

‘Dinnae worry about all that Davy, we’ll ad-lib, it’ll be a cracker.’

We got away with it but only because of Ronnie’s infectious charm and native wit. Being the straight man was easy given as soon as we walked on stage Ronnie had them eating out of his hand.

Ronnie died peacefully with close friends from the Battalion at his side. He planned his own well attended funeral even paying extra to have the crematorium service on a Saturday, ‘so folk didn’t have to take the day off work.’ That was typical of the man. He gave more than he took in life and that is the mark of a life well lived and of a gentleman. I shall remember him with affection, respect and genuine thanks for making my life a better one to live. He was the very best of men and soldiers that Scotland produces.

The world is now a sadder place with the passing of Ronnie Oakley. Ronnie, Annie, Oakers and goodness knows how many other names he was called touched the hearts of an entire Regiment, that included our wives and children. We were his brothers, sisters as well as an uncle to our families. He made me proud to be a Fusilier just as he was. Ronnie you brought a lot of joy and happiness to the Royal Highland Fusiliers. You have touched all our hearts. I’m sure we’ll met in another place sometime in the future. God Bless You Old Friend.

A Gentleman Soldier

Colour Sergeant Instructor Perry Mason at Sandhurst - 1975 

(includes a short interview with Academy Sergeant Major Ray P. Huggins, Grenadier Guards)

In a week when the frailties and weaknesses of some men have dominated news flow let us go into the weekend remembering a man from the other end of the spectrum where integrity, loyalty and goodness lie.

Former WO1 (GSM) Alan G 'Perry' Mason MVO MBE, Coldstream Guards died at the age of 70 on Tuesday. The word 'Legend,' has become diluted through chronic overuse but to some it genuinely applies. Garrison Sergeant Major 'Perry,' Mason is such a man.

Alan Mason enlisted into the Coldstream Guards at the Middlesborough Recruiting Office on the 8th May 1962 at the age of 15 as a Junior Guardsman. In his 40 year career as a Coldstream Guardsman he saw service in Aden, Malta, Cyprus, Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland, BAOR, Hong Kong and as an instructor at the Guards Depot at Pirbright and at Sandhurst. It is though, as Garrison Sergeant Major of London District for 15 years that he is more widely known. 

In 1987 he took over from GSM Alex Dumon, (I once had a 5 min hairdryer of an interview without coffee from Black Alec but thats another story). GSM Mason was awarded the MBE in The Queen's Birthday Honours List in 1991 and awarded the MVO in Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother's 100th Birthday Honours List in August 2000. In his final three years he took charge of the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the Queen Mother's 100th Birthday and, sadly, her Lying in State and funeral.

He retired in 2002, marking his retirement with a lone march past Her Majesty The Queen, (which was sprung on him only minutes before).

There will be many Coldstreamers drinking to his memory this weekend. I'm not a Coldstreamer but I might join them in a dram all the same. 

 

Stranger Than Fiction

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The following tale is a repost from the Sandhurst Trust's Facebook page. They publish a bio of an old officer every Friday and a very entertaining read they are too. This one though, takes the biscuit. The most fertile minds in fiction writing couldn't come up with this story and deliver it in any way that would appear in the least believable. 

The son of a Warrant Officer awarded the MBE for services in the First World War, Douglas Clay was born in 1917. After a short period as a cavalry trooper he married and drifted between jobs until the outbreak of WW2. Initially joining the RAF he failed the aircrew exams, went AWOL, bigamously married his girlfriend, worked in an armaments factory and joined the Home Guard. He also began wearing his father’s old uniform complete with additional pilot’s wings and, after a traffic accident whilst in uniform was mistakenly sent to an officers’ hospital. There, he stole a cheque book before being charged with obtaining money by deception and impersonating an officer. However the charges were dropped as he repaid the money and, in order to cover his tracks, he changed his name to Berneville-Claye.

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Enlisting as a Private in the West Yorkshire Regiment he claimed to have been educated at Charterhouse School and Magdalen College, Oxford and, based on these falsehoods, was selected for officer training. Commissioned from Sandhurst in October 1941, he served with 11th Bn West Yorks in Egypt. Again charged with cheque fraud he managed to convince the authorities he was a barrister, conducted his own defence, and was acquitted. By now having supposedly inherited his father’s title and calling himself ‘Lord Charlesworth’ his regiment was probably glad when he volunteered for, and was accepted for service in L Detachment of the SAS. After taking part in operations behind enemy lines, he was captured and sent to POW camp firstly in Northern Italy and then to Oflag 79 in Germany.

Fellow POWs became aware that there was an informer in their midst and planned to court martial and execute Berneville-Claye so he was moved by the Germans for his own safety. A few weeks later, a POW working party spotted him wearing civilian clothes in Hanover. He next appeared in early 1945 appointed to the staff of III SS Panzer Corps as a Hauptsturmführer (SS Captain). Soon afterwards the Corps Commander, after being told he was a Lord and Captain in the Coldstream Guards, appointed him to head the British Free Corps (BFC). (The BFC was an attempt by the Germans, at the behest of the British Fascist, John Amery, to recruit disaffected Prisoners of War. However, between its inception in 1943 and the end of the war, only 54 men were recruited and its strength never totalled more than 27.)

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Berneville-Claye, however, managed to persuade another member to accompany him and they surrendered to the British. Unbelievably, as the only officer to serve with the BFC, he managed to avoid any repercussions. The prisoners in Oflag 79 had no hard evidence of his informing, he stated that he had, as was his duty, escaped from the camp and stolen the SS uniform in order to blend in. Furthermore, the evidence of the misfit traitors of the BFC was too tainted to be used in a Court Martial.

Returning to England as a Captain and, ironically, Adjutant of a POW camp, he was Court Martialled and demoted for wearing the ribbon of the DSO and again for an inappropriate relationship with a female soldier and thirdly for theft, after which he was cashiered and imprisoned. After yet another bigamous marriage, he achieved a measure of respectability as a manager at Rank Xerox living in the country, riding to hounds and playing the role of a retired Guards officer.

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In the early 1960s he emigrated to Australia becoming a much-respected school teacher in New South Wales. For many years after he died in 1975 the school had a Douglas Berneville-Claye Memorial Trophy.

When We Were Young

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In a 180 degree turn in the near forty year drive to produce a better educated officer corps, the Commandant of Sandhurst, General Nanson recently suggested that many 18-year-olds feel that they should go to university because it is the “done” thing, and often have not considered alternative options. He said that when he was at Sandhurst, it was evenly split between university graduates and school-leavers, but now the vast majority, around four fifths, of Officer Cadets arrive with a degree. “You want to try and get youngsters in early and develop them yourself rather than [choosing from] an ever increasing pond of graduates.” 

That isn’t quite the whole story he was telling. He went on to explain in interviews that school-leavers who have been accepted for officer training at Sandhurst will be able to register for a BSc in Leadership and Strategic Studies. Once they have completed the undergraduate degree,  developed in partnership with the University of Reading, they can go on to complete a Masters. Officers will build up credits during their 12-month officer training course at Sandhurst, which will make up a third of the degree. They can complete the remaining two thirds over a four year period while they are a serving officer.

This approach falls into step with what is becoming a fashion among major employers such as Deloittes to hire 18 year olds and train them in-house. It is hardly a vindication of the university system which as we know from bountiful anecdotal evidence, is a hit and miss affair for most students with no quality control on delivery to speak of outside the sciences and engineering. 

General Nanson is obviously becoming like the rest of us in looking back with fond affection on the impossibly barking mad individuals with whom we trained and served. The intellectual level of Officer Cadet in New College, (the non graduate college at the time), was, shall we say, variable. The reasons for being there were just as diverse although most, simply wanted to serve and I don’t believe it to be any different with today’s cadets. The average age of cadets today is higher at 23 and I am certain they too have many characters in their ranks. The Army attracts them like a magnet. I do feel though, as every intake does, that my time was special. 

This became most evident after commissioning when cadets go on to complete training specific to their Arms. The Infantry go to Brecon to dig more holes in the ground, the Cavalry to Bovington, the Gunners to Larkhill and so on before all are finally posted for regimental duty. As a Gunner I went to Larkhill to join Royal Artillery Young Officers Course 108. I’m not sure if nearly 400 years of Gunner history had prepared the regiment for YO’s 108. For sure and for certain, nothing prepared me for my mess bills on YO’s 108 which every month seemed to include an improbable figure for ‘damages,’  which made the ‘wines,’ column look like a rounding error. I was reminiscing just the other day with a fellow 108 alumini. We joked that given the number of ‘interviews without coffee,’ that we amassed how extraordinary it was that many of the course went on to achieve reasonably high rank, serve in special forces and even today continue to challenge orthodoxy and dullness. Happy days. Although I didn’t think so when I found myself one night clinging to a brick wall while standing on a third floor window ledge of the YO’s Annex. The YO standing next to me was nonchalantly chatting away while sipping his beer. He was speculating on the survivability of jumping and making it across the concrete below to the grass verge some yards distant. The police officers wandering up and down the corridor inside narrowed our optionality somewhat bringing immediate and fresh meaning to the phrase, ‘between a rock and a hard place.’ It seemed to us that the constabulary was overreacting a bit to finding a university officer tied naked to a sign post on the impact area but they probably hadn’t taken into consideration that he was earlier, being a bit too full of himself. Some people just can’t take a joke. I wasn’t involved in the ‘damage resulting from racing around the polished Mess tables in spurs,' incident nor was I involved in the ‘poaching of Colonel Jasper’s pheasants,' incident. I was there when we reassembled one officers entire bedroom on the flat roof with him still fast asleep in bed and I saw, and survived, ’the ‘bangers and rockets,’ incident. A story so far fetched that it can only be retold between those who were present but remains in the junior league when compared to the officer in 50 Missile Regiment who stuck a nuclear simulator up a chimney-breast and detonated it during a dinner night destroying not only the chimney but a considerable portion of the Mess and all of his career.

RA Mess, Larkhill

RA Mess, Larkhill

In fact, and on reflection, the YO’s course was something of a nursery preparing us for some very senior practical jokes and ‘incidents,’ that one witnessed in the regiments. I was reminded just last weekend of one such night. At a May Ball in Kirton-in-Lindsey the Mess Sergeant was faced with a problem which he solved with quick thinking ingenuity. It was a huge Ball and the Mess staff needed to gather all the starter plates, all 500 hundred of them, wash and dry them and have them ready for the Eton mess or whatever was being served for pudding. Then, a bad thing happened. “Sir, can I have a word please. The waters stopped working, we don’t have any water for the washing up Sir.’ ‘Well sort it out Sergeant M, find some bloody water,’ said my host who had organised the thing. So Sergeant M did. Two minutes later two Mess staff ambled through the dining room unfurling a dirty great fire hose behind them and disappeared through the door into the kitchen. They came back into the dining room seconds later just after the call went out, ‘Water On!’ “Water On,’ echoed from down the corridor. The hose filled and suddenly all hell broke loose in the kitchen as a Mess waiter was flung from pillar to post around the kitchen hanging on for dear life to the end of the powerful hose. Someone hadn’t remembered his fire drills. The fun really started when the hose, with Mess waiter attached, appeared in the dining room flying around like an unguided missile until someone had the sense to shut the water off. Not much of the crockery or indeed the Eton mess survived. Oddly, I had quite forgotten that incident and recalled the night more for the moment the CO’s wife put her stiletto heel through the bouncy castle. Odd the things you remember really.

Time of the Month

I arrived home last night after a hum drum day to a quiet house. It’s that time of the month. The Coven was gathering for their alleged monthly ‘Book Club,’ get-together which was surprising because the skies were quiet and subdued. On the evening of last month’s Circle we witnessed the biggest lightening storm in the south for years which was much more aligned with my deep seated suspicions. There was a note, ‘food in the fridge.’ She left me a mackerel. I wish she hadn’t. Now I would be the first to agree that mackerel are a fine and unfairly underrated fish but sometimes a man just needs more than a mackerel and some salad. A glass of wine cheered things along but a quick look at the television soon dampened the moment. My televisual tastes tend to be eclectic so I watched ten minutes of Australian Masterchef for inspiration before returning to my mackerel. Boy those young Aussie’s can knock together some decent scran. Their Asian-fusion-cooking-thing was way above my pay grade; impressive but why do they get so emotional? What is happening to that country? It’s only food, not a cure for cancer. In the end I gently fried my fish in butter, ate it with the pre-prepared salad and mused over the old days. What wouldn’t I give for a waltz down the old hotplate in the cookhouse?

Private Chris David at Patrol Base Wahid, (Helmand 2011) He and other chefs had to conjure up three meals a day for around 140 hungry troops against a backdrop of almost unbearable heat.

and in the good old bad days; 1 RHF in Crossmaglen in 1977. Conditions were cramped to say the least.

In my time the jokes about Army catering, which were anyway a hangover from National Service days, were misplaced. I always though the Catering Corps worked miracles with the modest budgets they had to work with and on operations what they produced from the smallest of facilities was nothing short of brilliant. As a young soldier I had no complaints and as a young officer life just got better. Except when on duty as Orderly Officer. One of our duties for the day was to attend meals in the Cookhouse with the Orderly Sergeant, check the food was of a good standard and take any complaints from the boys. It was an arcane task probably left over from the Crimea or the Haldane Reforms, who knows? I found it a bit embarrassing and intrusive standing watching the lads eat and rarely were there any complaints. Except if there were no chips; that could cause a riot. No chips and no tea and the British Army ceases to function. I wish I could break the habit even now but I don’t think I ever will. In Food Top Trumps, chips beat salad every day of the week. If only Mrs Flashbang could grasp the concept….

Army cooks themselves were a resilient bunch who took and gave stick and banter across the hotplate all day long. Oh and they could shift a trolley load of beer and perform with the rest of them in their down time. And didn’t they just. The night when on guard duty as a young Jock L/Cpl, when we caught a drunk cook rogering the Officers Mess Christmas turkey, still gives me episodes. You couldn’t make it up….. Anyway, here’s the Crumble tribute to Army cooks, bless ‘em..

King Abdullah of Jordan Nails It

Former Officer Cadet His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan represented the Queen and was the Reviewing Officer at the Sovereign's Parade on Friday. He gave as good an address as any you will hear at a pass out parade. Good advice there..... for all young men and women, military or not. 

Apple; Enemy of the State

Transit Camp in Hong Kong, forty of us cheek by jowl in an old Nissan hut. Getting to the jungle in Brunei was a relief.

Transit Camp in Hong Kong, forty of us cheek by jowl in an old Nissan hut. Getting to the jungle in Brunei was a relief.

Ask a soldier of my era what new development had the biggest impact on their daily lives and they will bore you to tears for hours and all will have a different answer. Some will say it was the switch from DMS boots and puttees to 'Boots, High Combat.' Others may say the introduction of Clansman radios from the antiquated A41's while others will simply say, "Mrs Thatcher." Some contrary souls will allude to the BATCO battlefield code rather than the old Slidex while others may point to the SUIT rifle sight for use in Ireland. The wits amongst them however will probably say either 'promotion,' or 'leaving!.'

The item though that had the biggest and most meaningful impact on my daily life was the invention and sale in 1980 of the Sony Walkman. Obviously, life as a soldier involves living in close proximity to other men; travelling, sleeping, working, relaxing. Sometimes, life can get very 'cosy,' indeed. Accommodation in most Security Force bases in Ireland for example tended to be cramped and rudimentary with triple bunk beds crammed end to end. I was lucky on one tour, sharing a small attic space of an old rural police station with three others, 'at least we'll be first to know when the mortars hit,' we used to joke. Travelling by truck, train or t'plane as a unit was never much fun. For reasons best known to itself, it seemed to take the Army five times as long to move anywhere than it takes anyone else. That could mean 12, 18 or even 24 hours on troop trains moving from one part of Germany to an exercise in another part.

Everyone has their own stories but the Walkman, well it was a godsend.  Suddenly, despite being in the (usually very smoky), confines of tight places with the unique combined smell of wet leather and '58 webbing, rifle oil, brews, beer and bodies one could put the headphones on, close the eyes, and drift away to another place listening to a tape that the girlfriend had put together and given to you on your last leave. It gave me, and our generation, a first taste of temporal escapism and I promise you, what is now taken for granted was first greeted with sheer, deep and meaningful joy.  That is apart from one commissioned ex RSM who I shared a tent with at an American training area called Grafenwohr in Germany. Although we were non-tactical he didn't take well to this instrument of the devil. He started by accusing me of being a 'mongrel punk rocker,' who would, 'have your brained fried into mush, if there was anything in there,' and who would end up being 'bayoneted by a charging enemy through the flaps of the tent because I had my head up my arse.' 'Thank you for the advice, David,' I said, 'Shall we go to the Mess Tent for a beer where you can tell me more about all my shortcomings?' Funny isn't it.... all anyone says afterward is, 'I made lifelong friends.'

I haven't lost the habit of listening to music through earphones so it came as something of an unwelcome shock to discover that Apple are to stop production of the iPod Nano and whatever the wee small thing the size of a stamp is called. This is an unwise and calamitous move by Apple, if not for them then certainly for me. How do they expect me to listen to music on my telephone when after only six months the wretched things have a battery life of about four and half minutes? Size, shape, usability it's all wrong, wrong, wrong. I simply can't see me fishing, standing in a river listening to the 79th Farewell to Gibraltar on my phone... too risky if it goes in the drink. And falling asleep to music? Well, there are a whole different set of consequences for Mrs Flashbang to my tossing and turning while attached to an iPod than there is to a clunky iPhone. It's not going to end well. This is what happens when you sell your soul to a single manufacturer..... they all let you down eventually..... bastards. I'll say that again, utter bastards.

Of course, those egg-head Geeks in Cupertino may think it's very smart and clever doing away with the trusty iPod but what about the lads stagging-on in outposts far away or on or deep under the ocean in ships and submarines. There's not much use for a mobile telephone on a submarine. Of course, mobile phones give an easy give away electronic signature to the enemy... especially in identifiable clusters. Question.... exactly who's side are Apple on?

'So, enjoy it while you can Crumble,' I hear you shout. I intend to but I am going to go one better. Just for all you three loyal readers I'm going to share part of my current sleepy-bye, night-night play list. I have a few. This week I'm passing through the Sixties and while I rarely get through the first five or six tracks before nodding off there are some absolute beauties here. As they say on the Upper East Side, 'Enjoy!'

 

Not My Turn

Four years ago a chum conjured up a cracking idea. “Let’s do the Lions tour to New Zealand!” he said. A bunch of us signed up for the Mid-Life Crisis trip of a lifetime to spend two weeks immersed in the best rugby on the planet with an eclectic collection of rugby lovers from all corners of these islands in the country most devoted to the sport. The brewing anticipation since then has been joyful. I have loved the innumerable lunches, pub outings and incessant debate in the Cardinal Vaughn Car Park at Twickenham about the tour. I’ve never seen grown men reduced to such animated and childlike excitement as I have with this tour as it has morphed from a dreamy ambition to reality. My own sense of adventure was heightened because I have never been to New Zealand but have always thought of it as the place I am spiritually at least, most close to. Indeed, if ever the Mad Marxists get a sniff of the levers of power here that is where I’m heading.

Crumble Kid with our Tour Leader. I had to send him, the shirt doesn't fit me so well anymore...............................

Crumble Kid with our Tour Leader. I had to send him, the shirt doesn't fit me so well anymore...............................

It was then, a tad disappointing to miss QF002 to Auckland via Dubai and Sydney last night. What we might describe as an unfortunate confluence of events have conspired against me and forced me to drop out just at the four year finishing line. It was though fantastic news for the youngest Crumble Kid who got the phone call of a lifetime, packed up his university accommodation in quick time and drove down at 3am yesterday. A quick turnaround from summer to winter gear at home and off to Terminal 3 where, after a quick goodbye, he found himself luxuriating in the BA Lounge with my chum. Kind of surreal turnaround.

We tend not to sink into self pity at home, it just isn’t our way. You move on and move fast. It is after all, not the biggest disappointment I have ever had with missed flights. No, that one is forever etched on my memory.

In the summer of 1981 I was sent from the Scottish Infantry Depot at Glencorse to join the Gordon Highlanders for a couple of months before starting at Sandhurst in the September intake. After two months in Belize I was ready to go. Any sane person would have felt the same. So it was with as much of a spring in my step that I could muster while doing foot drill that I marched into the CO’s office in Airport Camp to be told, “Well done Corporal Crumble, I hope you have enjoyed your time with us. I want to wish you good luck at Sandhurst and I look forward to meeting you again sometime.” That though, is not what he said. Not even close.

“Now look here Corporal Crumble, I know you must be looking forward to your flight tomorrow and starting at the Academy but there seems to have been a bit of a cock-up in the paperwork back at the Depot. You will now be starting at Sandhurst in January so will stay with the Battalion until we leave Belize in November. When we get back to Kirknewton you will stay with us and come up to the Mess and understudy a Platoon Commander until you start in January.”

That was kind of him. I had a fabulous time with the Gordons who were a decent and professional bunch and the time spent with the other officers in Kirknewton was indeed, good preparation for the Academy. But, at the time, standing in his office, the news was crushing. Another three months in that stinking, disease ridden country; most of it spent humping heavy kit around the jungle. Disappointed doesn’t touch it. In Belize they brew a beer called Belekin, (tastes like cheap perfume and did the same sort of damage to your gut), and distill a rum called One Barrel which tasted much like the issue mossie-rep we used in the jungle. I think I drank most of the available supplies in the country that night. I never touched the bloody stuff again. Looking back, it was a good thing. Had that bad news not have come my way then a whole lot of cards would have fallen differently and life very probably, would have meandered down a different path. 

As I said, we banish pity at home but I allowed myself just a hint of pathos when I sat down on return from the airport to watch the Woody Allen movie, Cafe Society. Like all Woody Allen films it received mixed reviews. I loved it and it fitted my reflective mood perfectly. The film is worth watching for Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography alone and the soundtrack is full of my favourite music. It was a gentle and melancholic end to what was, a rather frantic day.

I guess then, it will have to be Japan in 2019.

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For A Few Minutes...

First day; the beautiful drive from Staff College Gate to Old College

We drove to Sandhurst yesterday with one of the boys for the start of his Commissioning Course. Eighteen hour days for the next five weeks before we next see him won’t do him any harm. The 2,000 volt emotional field emanating from the mothers, wives and girlfriends in the chapel when the Commandant gave some welcoming words was palpable. The emotion radiating from the mothers, wives and girlfriends didn’t though, come anywhere close to how I felt. If I could have signed up there and then and done it all over again I would have done so in a heartbeat. It is though, thirty five years since I walked through those hallowed gates on my first day…… thirty five years. I loved every single minute of it. I honestly believe the air at Sandhurst is different to anywhere else in the world. Just being there instills in you belief, a positive mental attitude and an optimism about life. For a few minutes in the Chapel today, I was twenty again and yes, I do bloody miss it. So, for any other old lags out there, here’s a clip (above), of the beautiful drive from Staff College Gate up to Old College……. (bit dull for anyone else but those who know the feeling… know).