Corporal Steele got his section together and led us over to a patch of grass at the back of the drill hall. We took the weight off our feet and leant against the building while he sat in front of us. Our section leader was a stocky man in his early twenties with short brown hair and a sharp sense of humour. I met him a few years later and he had joined the regular Paras. He would be our teacher and guide – there to encourage us, shout at us, discipline us, tell us when we were shit, and try to make us into the best section in the cadre. He showed us how to wear our kit correctly and told us to put our boots in hot water, polish them and then wear them wet so they would mould to our feet. He explained only a few in this section was capable of reaching P Company and even less would actually pass. It would take willpower to succeed. “This isn’t fannying about in a civilian job,” as he put it, “this is important.”
Over the coming weeks, as well as fitness and drill, there were introductions to weapon training, fieldcraft, map reading and nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) warfare. We split off to our sections for weapon training and Corporal Steele introduced us to the self-loading rifle (SLR), which he obtained from the strong room. We had lectures on its calibre, length, weight and magazine, and then moved on to safety precautions, loading, unloading, cleaning, stripping, re-assembling, judging distance, wind speed and direction, and fire control orders. Emphasis in our early training was on the SLR so we frequently went to retrieve our assigned weapons, which were neatly laid on wall-mounted racks. We practiced the drills and got to know the SLR well. We were told never to leave our SLR unattended – we would train, eat, sleep and go to the toilet with it. Hand-sized cardboard boxes of bullets were handed out to us and we fed them into magazines over and over again to get to know the spring action and speed up our method.
Also, we learnt about all aspects of the General Purpose Machine Gun. In addition, marching became more intricate, with the introduction of wheeling right or left – turning through ninety degrees as a unit – and saluting on the march. Map reading involved use of the military compass, grid points and navigation by day and night. NBC warfare lectures gave details of nuclear poisoning, nerve agents and symptoms of being affected by these horrors. We learnt how to put the charcoal noddy suit – thick, green trousers and jacket that theoretically offered protection – and gas mask on quickly whenever “Gas, gas, gas” was shouted at us.
Fieldcraft was introduced with camouflage cream spread on our faces in streaks to break up the outline and learning the principles of why things were seen: Shape, silhouette, shine, surface, spacing, shadow, movement and aircraft. We were taken to open land to spot some hidden soldiers and stared at the fields, trees and bushes, but were surprised when they eventually came from their hiding places only about ten metres away. We were shown how to look after our feet in the field and were told soldiers who mentally fold stop looking after their feet. If that happened to us, we would fail the course.
We went to Ripon and lived in the field, learning how to set up shelters or ‘bashas’ – a waterproof poncho strung between trees by bungees – cook, take care of personal hygiene and clean equipment in the open. We gathered together on the side of a hill for a night exercise, but first the Corporals wanted to show us the dangers of slacking off.
“At the bottom of the hill, you can just make out the edge of the forest,” a Corporal began. “That’s five hundred metres away and the forest itself is about a thousand meters deep. On the other side of the forest is a soldier. Keep watching.”
We all stared into the darkness for a few minutes. All of a sudden, a small, bright light appeared.
“That is a lit cigarette, clearly visible from fifteen-hundred metres. This is a lesson in how not to be a fucking idiot in the field. If we can see him, so can the enemy. He’s a dead man,” the Corporal said bluntly.
With that, we were organised for the night exercise, which involved all the recruits dispersing and attempting to sneak up on a central point in a clearing at the edge of a forest. It was an impossible task as there were at least twenty instructors either protecting the inner core or moving silently around the periphery. I decided to go it alone and stayed several hundred metres out for about two hours. I heard recruits getting caught and others who ran into the objective. Shouts of “Runner!” could be heard and then some thudding sounds as they were brought to the ground.
I crawled through the wet grass only a few metres a minute. I was soaked and cold, but eventually got close to where the Corporals were brewing tea. I lay still for about ten minutes. Moving around them, I was within thirty metres of the objective when someone grabbed me from behind. A Corporal caught me and I was told to run. I broke cover as he shouted “Runner!” The shapes of two big soldiers in front of me loomed in the darkness. I ducked past one, but the other’s arm struck me in the throat and I hit the deck. I came close, but was dragged over to the rest of the captured recruits.