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

This Is Belonging 2018

The furious and vocal critics of the first batch of adverts for the new 'This Is Belonging 2018,' advertising campaign for the British Army missed the target in two respects. One, last years 'Belonging' campaign was a success with a >30% uplift in applications and second, the new animated adverts are only part of a broader campaign and should be seen in that context. I can see where the agency luvvies are going with the campaign and I am warming to it. With my own boy sitting in a Med Centre after a ruck in IS training I see no evidence that the Army is getting soft. I know which side I'd rather be on.

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.

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!'

 

It's All Changed Dad

The picture above is taken from the 300m firing point at Dreghorn ranges. In the dim and distant past I recall running the 8 miles from the Training Depot at Glencorse Barracks to this firing point to complete our Combat Fitness Test. I never much minded the longer tabs, I much preferred them to sprints. I was built for distance not speed, (in those days at least). Although not shown in the picture, a red flag flies on top of the hill in the background when live firing is taking place. I didn't much like that flag. At the end of the days firing some unlucky soul would get the nod to sprint up the hill to get the flag while the impatient remainder cleaned their weapons and waited to get on the transport back to Glencorse. If we happened to be short of time the Platoon Sergeant would point at a Black Watch recruit called Scrogie, rather as one would command a gun dog, and off Scrogie would go. That lad could run like the wind. On the Basic Fitness Tests, (1.5 mile jog followed by 1.5 mile sprint), he would be padding across the finish line while the rest of us were just getting in our stride from the start.  Anyway, I like to think of the Army as divided in two; those who did the sprint up the hill to get the flag at Dreghorn and those who didn't. One of the Crumble Kids who was there the other week tells me it's all changed. Hasn't everything? Now they have a little buggy, cart thing to trundle up and get the flag but where's the fun in that? You don't get memories from working easy.

Don't Be Jealous

Each  morning this week I’m greeted with a Snapchat from one of the kids from HK. He’s there for the Sevens. Don’t ask how a student can afford to be in HK for the Sevens because I’d also like to know and I’d also like to be there.

pick up point

pick up point

I haven’t been to HK since the eighties when I enjoyed two weeks acclimatisation there prior to going to Brunei for a Jungle Warfare Instructors course. We thought we were on a jolly for two weeks; the Army didn't. We spent the two weeks doing early morning runs and PT on the beach and long tabs in the New Territories by day. We had just one day and night off at the end and we made full and comprehensive use of it. As I said to the boy before he left, “whatever you do son, don’t go near Hot Lips bar in Kowloon.”

Alas, I discover it is no more. Like many things it is consigned to history’s rubbish bin but I did find a description of Hot Lips on the "Going Downhill," blog which sounds pretty much like an echo of my own! Anyway, Going Downhill  gives  Hot Lips, and HK in the eighties, a pretty good description which some of you who were there might enjoy.

"Gone is the Hot Lips Bar romanticized by an article in the New Yorker magazine referring to reminiscences of the movie “World of Suzie Wong”. One executive guest, I took around to see the city, wanted to go there. Soon after we entered the Hot Lips, we sat down in a large booth, the required escorts came and sat down next to us, the obligatory watered down drinks came and we of course we gladly paid. The escorts were definitely not comparable to Susie as their glow of youth had now to be applied with brushes, but they were reasonably attractive and had good teeth."

As it happened, when there we moved on to a bar in Cameron Road, the name of which was forgotten about 5 minuteness after walking into it, but I seem to recall spending a solid shift in there with occasion forays to place next door for a rejuvenating sauna. We started chatting to an American there who was revisiting the places he'd been on R&R from Vietnam. I obviously wasn't in Vietnam but I'd kind of like to do a "bars of my youth," trip...... or would I just be left sad and disappointed? ...... probably.
 

Dad's Are Cool

Another plane left the mother ship yesterday when, after a ripping 10mph drive up and down the M1, I dropped one of the Crumble Kids off at Durham. They do things slightly differently at Durham University, good humoured but crazy, mental nonetheless it's probably the most upbeat but deranged greeting I've ever had anywhere. In fact, everything seemed like so much fun I felt like putting the boy on the train and staying there myself for three years. We got an inkling of what was to come when we saw the banner on a bridge over the A1 fifteen miles out saying, "Collingwood, Are You Ready?" Driving around town before arriving at Collingwood one could have been forgiven for thinking that we'd driven through a space time continuum and had landed in the middle of VE Day celebrations, such was the enthused and over the top cheering from college to college whenever one of their new intake pulled in to unpack.

I was going to follow up on the previous "starting school," post with one for university but it's been done to death already and would anyway, be somewhat pointless given I've never been. It seems then, that the students embark immediately on arrival on something known as Freshers Week, the aim of which seems to be to throw themselves with vigour into drinking agricultural quantities of alcohol thereby rendering themselves utterly incapable of tacking the second week.  No doubt, the exercise is designed to crash down barriers and encourage a relaxed and collegiate environment though I think most of them would find it challenging to remember their own names the next morning, never mind anyone else's.

I'm reminded again of my first week away from home. I touched on the first day here and the second didn't see much of an uptick either. It was a long time ago in a far, far away place. I stood nervously on the square as a mad, red faced hysterical figure hurtled toward me with arms whirring like propellers and spittle catching on his drill instructor moustache as he screamed, “YOU.... Macfxckingwhatsyourname.... YOU. Idle man, IDLE fxcking man... you septic maggot... you are ruining ma parade son. If yous dinnae buck up I’ll hit ye so hard n’ fast yall think you’re surrounded sonny.” I was part of a squad of 30 recruits but for that moment, I was in the loneliest place in the world. No drinking for six weeks either. No wonder we didn't rate students.

Anyway, I couldn't send the lad off to Freshers Week without a helping hand from his old Dad. Now, some people like to make fun of Dad's dancing which I think, is mostly unfair and unjust. I'm though, something of a dab hand here and I took the time to give the youngster some tips before we set off, in an "explanation, demonstration, imitation," manner that would be warmly familiar to the shouty Sarn't Major noted above. Go for it son. Mrs Flashbang shot some footage with her new 5S, bless her. 

Good luck to all!

In passing incidentally, I'd just like to say to the ten drivers of the souped up Subaru's who were racing down four lanes of the M1 in Northamptonshire early yesterday evening that I hope when you crash and burn no innocents get caught up in your insanity. Most of the M1 is just in a state of uncontrolled anarchy. Forget about "hogging the middle lane rules," whats happening out there is madness and, apart from South Yorkshire, not a blue light in sight the whole way up the motorway. The Chief Constable of Northants might want to have a chat with his opposite number in South Yorks for a few tips on the maintenance of law and order on his patch because he clearly needs help. Or of course he could have a chat with the Surrey Chief Constable, my ticket for doing 33mph leaving a 30mph limit was obviously warranted, deserved and a sharp lesson.

Unrest in Libya and Haslemere

Yvonne Fletcher.... murdered

With Gaddafi and his despotic regime on their last legs I shed no tears; but keep a thought for PC Yvonne Fletcher, murdered by his henchmen in St James Square and the many, many soldiers and civilians murdered by the provisionals and INLA with training and weapons supplied by Gaddafi. The brutal murder of 270 innocents on PanAm Flight 103 should have been grounds enough to remove this lunatic almost thirty years ago. Indeed, my old company was dispatched to clear up and the impact of PTSD on those men is still very much a live issue today. I hope the bastard swings.

Tony Blair

Well, it's good to see that appointing Tony Blair as a Middle East peace envoy is going as swimmingly as those of us in this country who know him so well could only expect. So far, we have most of North Africa ablaze, with growing protests as far East as China, (small and known as the Jasmine protests), as far South as Zim, as far West as Wisconsin and as far North as Haslemere when yesterday, as bad luck would have it, Mrs Flashbang went binky bonk Cloud 9 when the washing machine died. Trying to be helpful, I pointed out that "we used to handwash things all the time in the Army," which almost resulted in me going the same way as the LG direct drive washing machine. 
USS Enterprise (CVN 65) transits through the Suez Canal
In response to the turbulence, (in the Middle East; they haven't yet offered assistance to middle aged men in Haslemere under domestic duress), the Americans have sent what appears to be a very large bit of US Navy and parked it close enough for the Iranians to notice, lest the Iranians harbour intentions to exploit the unrest. The Royal Navy, (who's very role in life used to be to send gunboats at the first sign of uppityness), meanwhile has a somewhat smaller presence which probably won't be growing very much given there's not an awful lot of it left, as with yet more inspired planning, we've sold most of our ships to scrap metal dealers in Turkey and to Third World dictators........................ oh dear...
Actually, we don't have much of anything left in the cupboard. If the rumoured new cuts go through, by 2015 the Army will be exactly half the size it was when I joined. Still, we can always enlist the thousands of kids on YOP schemes who work for Tesco's on minimum wages which appears to account for an aspirational career these days,
from Think Defence

 

Defence Equipment

Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb is quoted in the newspapers this morning with a barnstorming criticism of resources and equipment available to the Army in conducting current and future operations. General Sir Graeme and I go way back and he is of course, something of a legend in the Army. In fact, I remember as if it where yesterday the moment when we passed each other in Airport Camp in Belize City in 1981. Without a thought he completely ignored my, "Good morning Sir," and strode purposefully ahead. Nice when you make an impression.

For whats it's worth, the infantry soldier is probably better equipped now, insofar as his personal kit is concerned, than he has ever been. There simply aren't enough of them though and the lack of air mobility is well documented.

Peering through the misty memories of youth I recall the days when I first joined the Army and the equipment state was very poor indeed. The last days of a Labour government saw military families surviving on social handouts, vehicles with very limited mileage and petrol allowances and "make do," being a way of life. That all changed when Mrs T arrived and along with a 30% pay rise, lots of shiny new kit started to come into service. Unfortunately, such is the Army culture that unless we were operational in Northern Ireland, the Quartermasters would have rather stab themselves with blunt pencils than hand out kit. "Stores are for storing; if they were meant to be issued they'd be called issues!"

One especially protective and fearsome QM gave me short shrift one day.

I had the unfortunate experience of walking up to the stores with a knackered pair of plimsolls and he was there, "PT shoes for exchange Sir", "Getawawithyeryachancininmuppet............thereanuder 2000 miles in they sanies....." Off I toddled.....