Monday, May 23, 2011

We were soldiers (not really)

Following on from my last post about my secondary school I got to thinking about the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) which was run by some of the teaching staff.   It was an after school activity you could opt to join from the 4th form (or Year 10 as I have now learned to call it).

The CCF had an Army and an RAF section.  I started off in the RAF, and while I enjoyed the one bit of flying I did (in the back of a ‘Chipmunk’ trainer aircraft at RAF Shawbury) and the summer camp at RAF Lyneham, the uniform was unbearable.  We had been issued with a stiff woollen jacket and trousers, a webbing belt, a shirt with a detachable collar (complete with fiddly collar stud), and a tie and a beret. Basically it was the RAF uniform as it had been in 1940. The clothes were incredibly itchy and uncomfortable, so much so that I took to wearing pyjama bottoms under the trousers.  I’d only joined the RAF section because my brother was in it and after a year I transferred to the Army section.

Now this was more like it.  First of all the uniform: khaki green jumper and durable but comfortable cotton trousers with loads of pockets, a really cool belt and again a beret, but on our feet we wore big black boots.  OK, the shirt was still itchy and scratchy, but you can’t have everything and at least it didn’t have a detachable collar.  The uniform was in fact bang up to date for 1975, and as an added bonus we were issued with a full set of combats for when we were camping or away on exercise.

Being in the army cadets was brilliant. There was still no getting away from doing drill, but even that was OK once we got the hang of it. Or rather once most of us got the hang of it; there were always one or two boys who were completely lacking in physical co-ordination.  One in particular was constitutionally incapable of marching.  Walking he could do quite normally, but when required to march he somehow managed to swing his right arm forward at the same time as taking a step with his right leg, and the same with his left.

Apart from the drill we did have a lot of fun.  For a start the ‘Quartermaster’s Store’ was crammed full of stuff which we were allowed to use in our own time, because the school encouraged us to organise our own unsupervised activities like weekend hiking trips.  We therefore had access to wet weather gear, camping equipment, maps and compasses, ration packs and hexamine stoves.
Hexamine solid fuel stove

We also had a firing range at the school and a set of ancient .22 and .303 bolt-action rifles, which we assumed had been around since the first world war.  We  learnt to strip, clean, reassemble and of course fire them.  I was a truly dreadful shot it has to be said.  However, the best fun of all was when we went on exercise at the Nesscliffe training area, or better still the annual camp to Minden in Germany, which at that time was home to one of the Light Infantry battalions.
.303 Lee Enfield Rifle

I’m fully aware that all this might make me sound like some gun loving NRA-style nutter, but nothing could be further from the truth, believe me.  However, imagine you are a boy of 15 or 16 and you are allowed at various times to fire a Self Loading Rifle, Sten gun, General Purpose Machine Gun and Carl Gustav anti-tank gun; or to throw thunder flashes (basically a massive banger, about a foot long and an inch or so in diameter that lights up the sky better than a Standard firework), and on one glorious occasion, a live hand grenade.
Carl Gustav anti-tank gun. It took 2 people to operate it. No recoil but a terrifying sheet of flame came out of the back when it was fired. Not half as terrifying as what came out of the front end though.

As far as I know, all this was done without any of us being a danger to ourselves or to others, apart from one occasion involving a hand grenade on a training area in Germany.  One of our number (not me!) pulled the pin and then accidentally dropped the grenade into the firing trench in which he and the army instructor were standing.  The rest of our platoon were just around a zigzag corner of the trench in a blast proof shelter, which was just as well really. We were surprised to hear a shout of “Oh, fucking hell”, before the cadet was thrown bodily into the shelter closely followed by the soldier.  Seconds later there was an almighty ‘whoomph’ and the ground shook. Amazingly, after a few choice words from an officer, we carried on with the grenade exercise, although perhaps paying a little more attention than before.

One or two of my friends went on to join the army after they left school, but it was never on the cards for me.  I enjoyed being a cadet but I realised that a career in the armed forces wouldn’t all be running around Salisbury Plain having fun, and what was more the constant discipline would have been unbearable.  And we may not have had an Iraq or an Afghanistan in those days, but we had Northern Ireland and that looked plenty scary enough for me. Playing at soldiers was all every well, but I was happy to leave the real stuff to the grown-ups.
9 mm Sub-Machine Gun (Sten gun)


  1. Lovely post on boys and their toys....

    Lesley x

  2. Nice one Nick.

    I never got the option because (a) Scottish comprehensives didn't have CCF and (b) my disability stopped me getting involved in that kind of stuff.

    Probably for that reason alone, I really wished I could have done that when I was young. I'm not gun happy either but doesn't everyone like the *wrong* stuff, or what they can't have?

  3. The penguin march, remember that well.