It was in my early years of high school that I joined the army’s unit of cadets. My mate, Peter, who was a year ahead of me and lived some six doors down the street was keen to join and my mother believed that to do so would be to my benefit.
Once a week we would dress in our military uniforms and not only carry our cases to school, but our ‘303’ rifles — minus their respective bolts and magazines — in order to practice our marching and drills, after classes had officially finished, for a period of about an hour.
One lad, whose surname was that of West, could not tell his left from his right and so we would urge him to be at the front of the march where he would invariably hesitate and cause confusion when the order was given to turn, especially when his decision was the incorrect one.
Each year, in mid-winter, we were sent on a camp that was situated out in the country. The initial one marked the first time that I had been away from home of my own volition.
Upon our arrival at the camp one of the first things we were ordered to do was to strip naked, don nothing more than a greatcoat, and join a long queue for what ostensibly was a physical inspection. When it was my turn to be perused by the seated gentleman I was asked the question that I imagine no teenage boy should or would want to hear, and certainly one I have not forgotten: “Has it always been that small?”
Mind you! It was so cold, that even the proverbial brass monkeys were in hiding.
At least I didn’t desire the need of one poor fellow who wore his swimming costume into the shower only to have a group of eager youths suspect that he possessed something that he did not want others to see and once the covering was involuntarily removed and he was taunted mercilessly, my personal feeling of inadequacy did dissipate somewhat.
The toilets provided for use were an absolute disgrace. They appeared to have never been cleaned as dried faeces were encrusted to the wooden seats. In fact, for the entire two weeks of that first camp I refrained from passing a motion.
A year later, I found them to be in the same shameful state and, therefore, attempted to do the same only to fall ill and lie to the doctor when he asked if I had been using the facilities.
We were housed, six to a tent, on stretchers and each day began at 6.00 a.m. to the sound of reveille. At which time we would immediately have to present ourselves outside our respective tents.
One boy, in his wisdom, had brought a hunting knife to the camp and in our spare time we would play a game that involved its usage. Making sure that our boots and gaiters were worn, two of us would stand facing each other, about a yard and a half apart and with our feet placed together.
The idea was to throw the knife so that its point either entered the ground or left its mark on its surface, but not more than a foot from either of one’s opponent’s feet. A successful throw would mean that the opponent would then move that foot out to the mark. The procedure would continue, in this vein, until one person could no longer keep their balance or extend a foot to the most recent mark.
We were transported into the bush en masse where a bivouac was to be staged, however, it was a day when rain fell heavily and the whole exercise was abandoned, for we were drenched to the skin before our makeshift tents could be erected.
Another day found us at the range where we were to shoot at a target of paper that had been pinned to a construction of hessian twenty-five yard distant from where we were each ordered to lay down on a bag of sand. We had been warned that the 303 possessed ninety-three pounds of ‘kick’ and after we had ceased firing the smallest boy in our unit was no longer positioned on his bag.
Beyond the targets was a sloping earthen mound topped by a wall of concrete. Somehow, one of the lads had managed to fire and hit this wall and I distinctly recall hearing the bullet ricochet back over our heads.
I was chuffed that one of my bullets had, indeed, scored a bullseye! However, Peter, who had been firing from a couple of yards to my left, poured cold water on this by claiming that I had been aiming at his target and he, mine.
We had also been told not to ‘palm’ the rifle’s bolt for to do so could damage a sensitive nerve in one’s hand. There was also the instruction to make sure that the rifle’s butt was firmly placed in the fleshy part of one’s shoulder, just below the collar bone.
I must say that seeing the size of the rifle’s bullet really surprised me as I had expected one to be more akin to that used in my father’s former ’22’ rifle that he had owned several years before.
Presumably, as no one had been injured in this foray into the firing of live bullets, it was decided that we should be conveyed into the countryside for some animated shooting practice. There, we were under the orders and watchful eye of a Regimental Sergeant Major (R.M.S.).
He informed us that the ‘big tree’, perhaps four or five hundred yards distant, was in his words ‘twelve o’clock’ and, keeping that in mind, we could expect targets to suddenly spring up before our eyes at ‘eleven o’clock’, ‘two o’clock’, ‘one o’clock’…
The targets were cut-outs of large game animals and were to be as distant as the large tree. We were given en masse just five seconds in which to fire as many bullets as we could at each specified target.
This was where I struggled and began to feel that I was letting my fellow cadets down. Therefore, after we had fired at perhaps two of the targets I made a conscious effort to re-cock the rifle and fire a second round. However, before I had the time to properly aim this second round at the target the R.S.M. bellowed, ‘Cease fire!’.
My finger almost involuntarily squeezed the trigger, nevertheless, and the bullet buried itself in the damp soil perhaps thirty yards in front of us. Sods and clods flew some twenty feet into the air as a deftly silence immediately ensued.
‘Who fired that?’, the R.S.M. roared. A short period of silence followed before I hesitatingly admitted to my guilt. Fortunately, for me, his bark was worse than his bite and no action was taken.
A few days later, Peter told me that he had heard that our school had achieved the lowest score of all of the schools that were involved in the so-called ‘field-shoot’.
It must have been during the camp in that second year, for I have no recollection of Peter being there, that we were again transported out into the countryside, only this time, in the dead of night. We were told that we were there to partake in something known as a ‘Lantern Stalk’.
Our unit was classified to be the stalkers and it was our job to progress several hundred yards down the hillside and take those down at the camp in the valley as our prisoners. Meanwhile, it was the job of those in the camp to fire brightly coloured flares into the air so as to silhouette our figures and thereby capture us.
I decided to adopt as low a profile as I could and as I lay on my stomach and literally crawled along I detected that those not far from me were in the process of being captured. Everything was progressing quite well until I realised that I had crawled into a coil of barbed wire, that had been left in the field.
While I was not personally injured in any way, it did take me quite some time to extricate my uniform from its clutches. When I eventually did, it dawned on me that not only was there no more firing of flares, there was no lantern burning in the camp below!
The ‘Lantern Stalk’ had certainly been held on an appropriate night, for it was totally devoid of moonlight. Despite the realisation that I had been totally deserted, I did not panic, in fact, I thought it all to be somewhat amusing.
All I could do was about turn and walk back up the hill, in the hope that I could flag down a passing vehicle. This came in the form of a truck which was conveying another school’s cadets back to camp, after their evening’s activity. They and their leader also found what had happened to me to be of amusement, too.
That second camp for cadets also included the dismantling and rebuilding of a Bren machine gun — something that did not inspire me — practice the throwing of hand grenades, the learning of the international phonetic alphabet, as well as, the learning of the art of speaking on a military radio, and the ability to read topographical maps.
Having watched Vic Morrow’s character, Sergeant Saunders, in the military series, ‘Combat!’, throw hand grenades over considerable distances with an apparent minimum of effort, it came as a genuine surprise to me how short a distance I could throw a grenade that weighed one and a half pounds, especially as we had been ordered to do so with a straight arm.
We were also forbidden from attempting to remove a grenade’s pin with our teeth, but in using my forefinger I could not imagine that being as readily achievable as it appeared to be on television, either!
Footnote: Peter was killed in 1976 whilst hang-gliding. The bar of his craft came down across the nape of his neck.