In 1954 I tried to get into the RAF, so they put me into the RASC. I was sent to a Unit Selection Board. This was the first stage of officer selection. It was a panel asking me about current affairs, and why did I want a commission, and what were my hobbies? “I only ever read the sports pages. I like ballet and needlework and poetry”. Well, I didn’t quite say that, but I clearly didn’t give them the approved answers, so I was off sharpish to Yeovil to learn to drive.
We were to go to Egypt when we’d finished, so I volunteered for Air Despatch, whatever that was. It was more training. Before we got around to chucking things out of Valettas, we had to fill in various forms. One said, “write about the most wonderful day of your life”. I'd had a fairly dull life, but I’d seen the Coronation on TV six months before so I wrote as if I’d been to London to see the Queen. I hammed it up, about it being a great day for the Empire, for our glorious monarchy, and for me. To my surprise, a nice Corporal, who was part of the training team asked me if I’d ever thought about being an officer? I denied any such ambition, after all, when I'd been in a fortnight they decided I wasn’t the right type, and now, after ten weeks. I was sure they were right.
I’m guessing that someone in the Company Office started a blitz on nil returns for forms sent off to Southern Command. My name went forward, so when our four weeks at Watchfield was up, instead of going off to Malaya, I was retained at 47 Company.
Two of us were told to go to a Unit Selection Board. On the day, we reported to the guardroom all bulled-up, ready to go. It was chucking it down. The army being the army, we had a jeep as transport. You remember the original jeeps? A flimsy canvas roof, and nothing at the sides to stop the rain coming in. When we got there we were awash, but there was one nice kind man on the Board, and he took pity on us poor soaking soldiers. He didn’t ask any of the awkward questions that we’d been rehearsing.
The real killer was the War Office Selection Board. I had to wait several months for my turn and occupied my mind with working out what sort of answers the military mind would like. I mean, you couldn’t say that you didn’t like the army and anyone who stayed in longer than two years, or did more than the very minimum work must be stark raving mad, could you? It became a bit of a game, working out what questions they might ask and acceptable answers. The thing was, you couldn’t tell outright lies, but you could imply that you were the type of bloke they were looking for. A sort of extrovert public school type, keen on team games, bags of self-confidence, born leader etc. Sounded like my idea of a real pain in the arse. It was all a bit of fun, really, I never saw myself actually being a Sir.
I seem to remember interviews, essays, an l.Q. test, an assault course, and a leadership exercise. Part of the interview was a little gem. The bloke wanted to know why I had joined the RASC, and then done an Air Despatch course. Naturally I explained that I had always been interested in mechanical things and aircraft, so the RASC was the obvious first choice and 47 Company was the logical follow-up. Sensible fellow, this, knows what he wants and goes for it.
The I.Q. test was a bonus. In my last year at university, we were given one to try. When I applied for the RAF, they gave me the very same test, which is not supposed to happen. I kept dumb and got a respectable result. But they said I was colour blind, so the score didn't matter. Blow me if they didn’t give us the same test at W.O.S.B. I finished well before time and sat back all smug. They used to mark the work quickly, so I got a glance or two from the psychologist, who just couldn’t believe the result.
The main thing was the leadership test. Showing initiative, quickness of thought under stress, all that stuff. We divided up into teams of five or six, and were given short ladders, bits of wood, and rope. Then we were shown pretend wide rivers or high walls, and left to work out how to get everyone over the hazard. We all took turns at being leader. Most of the group I was with welcomed any help they could get. I was doing brilliantly, modestly indicating how each task should be done. They must have left the most difficult one for the resident smart-arse and that was me. I still don’t see how it could have been done, perhaps it wasn’t possible. They let you know the results on the final afternoon. Much to my surprise, my name was there. Fooled ’em again.
The next bit was waiting around to get a posting to an Officer Cadet course. If you were an infantryman you went to Eaton Hall. The rest of us went to Mons in Farnborough, which had a tough reputation.
You spent six weeks there learning general army organisation things, before, if you survived, going off to learn about your own mob. I landed in a barrack room full of the cream of Eton and Harrow, and I must say I found them perfectly nice ordinary blokes. They certainly helped me to talk proper. They let you go out a weekends in civvies, but you had to wear a hat, in case you needed to take it off to salute someone. We even had a drill session to practice, “off, two three, on, two three”, I was getting to be quite the young gentleman.
The main item on the syllabus was drill. Having just helped 47 Company win the Corps Drill Competition, I fancied my chances, but soon found that I was doing it all wrong. The place was knee-deep in Guards drill instructors. Officer training seemed to be mainly about turning you into an undersized guardsman. My main memory is of the immortal R.S.M. Brittain. He was a great man. I bought him a pint of Mild.
The final obstacle was Buller Barracks, a place with a bad reputation. It was worse. There was a ridiculous kit lay-out involving half your stuff being permanently on display. With the energy we expended on bull, you could have heated the whole barracks. I decided that if I was going to suffer all this I was damn well going to survive, I hadn’t come all this way just to get RTUd.
We did learn a bit about the organisation of our Corps. It seemed to be about free-dropping supplies out of the back of a lorry, rather than out of a Hastings. They did offer driver training, but it was a bit tedious for us B3 blokes. I mean, there was no backing up to Dakotas, or advice about driving round DZs. The main thing was drill. From dawn to dusk we practiced passing-out parades. Finally we were the senior mob, with two weeks to go. They picked four cadets to act as parade officers, and shout at all the other cadets. There were certain privileges attached, so a little time spent on working out what. sort of cadet they wanted, resulted in me scrounging one of the jobs.
Passing-out parade, lots of yelling and stamping, proud relatives watching, then back to the barracks for a week’s leave. Definite feeling of anticlimax., almost a year of chasing a pip, with no real wish for one, just a determination not to let the b******s beat me. Now I’d got a pip, and I’d still no idea of how to behave. I'd volunteered to go to Malaya, and get back to some real soldiering. Fat chance. I should have known better than to volunteer.
I survived surprisingly well. All those weeks of guessing what the army would want me to say, I ended up doing just that, automatically. Maybe that was the idea.Open Door Contents