P Company – Stretcher Race and Trainasium
We lined up on the parade square for the stretcher race. In teams of eight, we would carry a stretcher made of metal poles with welded corrugated iron sheets, weighing one hundred and seventy-five pounds, over a distance of five miles. This event simulated a cross-country rapid evacuation carrying a casualty. We were put into our teams and paired up. I was with Borstal Boy. I looked at him and offered encouragement, but was blanked.
We wore webbing and carried weapons slung over our shoulders with slings, and no more than four could carry the stretcher at any given time. In pairs, we took turns, one with the stretcher in a shoulder while the other ran alongside carrying both weapons. When you swapped, the man on the stretcher was to hold an arm horizontally away from the stretcher, his team mate should put both weapon slings over this free arm and hold onto the pole while the person who now had the weapons got off the stretcher and ran alongside. The recruit on the front left was expected to call “Change.” No one else could make the call or randomly swap over so, if you were totally exhausted, you either had to carry on or drop off the stretcher.
In our team, we waited. A thunderflash went off and we raced the hundred metres to our stretcher. I took my turn first on the stretcher and it was heavy. We swapped over about every six hundred metres or so. The terrain was a mixture of mud and sand in an area known as Long Valley, which was used for tank training. We never really settled into a routine because we were out of step. The metal pole was banging into my shoulder and hurt like fuck. Eventually, a Corporal sorted us out and ensured someone shouted ‘In, out, in, out.’ That made sense. “In,” meant the two recruits on the left side stepped with their right feet and the two recruits on the right side stepped with their left feet. “Out” was the opposite. Using this method, our inside feet hit the ground at the same time and our outside feet did likewise. We got organised and began to make ground on the teams ahead of us.
The terrain altered over the last few miles and steep hills called Miles, Hungry and Flagstaff loomed around us. It was difficult carrying the stretcher up those hills and we only managed to do it by holding the stretcher with our inside hands and crawling up the hill using our outside arms for balance on the ground. After we got over two hills like this, the Corporal shouted that the steepest hill was coming up and then it was downhill for a mile to the finish. Armed with this knowledge, we scrambled up the hill on hands and knees.
I’d been on the stretcher for the first half of the final hill, so I shouted, “Change” to hand over to Borstal Boy. Everyone else switched and I had my arm outstretched, but my swap didn’t happen. I looked over and Borstal Boy was unsteady, bent over and trying to catch his breath. I shouted at him to “Fucking change” but he didn’t react. I hit his helmet with my free arm and gestured for him to put the weapons on my arm. He did this and staggered on, trying to get up the hill without the weapons or taking his turn on the stretcher. His head was beside me as I scrambled up the hill so I half stood and cracked him in the face with my left elbow. He tumbled down the side of the hill and landed in a heap at the bottom. I forced my way up that hill, bearing the stretcher and carrying both weapons to the top.
As we reached the brow of the hill, I had to take both turns for the last mile. And I could be in trouble for knocking Borstal Boy down the hill. The Corporal told us to push on. He caught my eye and nodded, so I guessed that I was in the clear.
I felt strong as we headed to the finish and called “Change” at shorter intervals so everyone was a bit fresher. We got a decent pace going and aggressive competitiveness kicked in. We overtook two more teams on the descent and finished third. Not bad, considering we were team number eight to start at staged intervals. We’d made good ground on the other teams. I was resting up at the end and gave the spare weapon to a Corporal for safekeeping. We were marked on leadership, teamwork and effort. Borstal Boy was binned from the course.
In the afternoon, we were led in twos toward the trainasium. It was the first time I’d seen the apparatus up close. We hadn’t trained on it so our first attempt would be the final assessment. It was an aerial confidence course up to fifteen metres high to test suitability for military parachuting. Recruits must obey commands under pressure. In order to begin this test, we had to climb a metal ladder about ten metres up. As I left the ground, I looked and saw a line of recruits snaking their way upward.
At the top, I hauled myself onto a platform. The structure was made of scaffolding and had a series of about two metres by fifteen centimetres planks of wood to walk or run on. The first few tests were just balancing exercises and I moved on to a few short jumps. Next there was a walk along some horizontal ladders for about twenty metres. After this, I turned a sharp left, ran along a platform, jumped over a one-metre gap, ran over another platform and jumped another one metre gap. Then I had to run up a forty-five degree ramp and literally jump into the unknown. All I could see was sky and some tree tops. A Corporal was on the platform beside me.
“Stand by… Go!”
I started to run and came to a stop half-way up the ramp.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
I stood for a moment and stared at the ramp. That would be the last time I hesitated in my life.
Stand by… Go!!”
I ran and launched myself off the end. Another platform was only about two metres below, but it was difficult as you couldn’t see where to land until after you’d jumped.
Then it was the illusion jump, which was renowned for causing the most failures. It looked too far to land safely. From a standing jump and boosted by fear, I launched myself through the air, cleared the two metre gap between the planks and went so far that I nearly fell off the end. It was about ten metres up. Following this, there was another ladder leading up to the shuffle bars, which were two horizontal poles, fifteen metres off the ground. I stood on the parallel poles and noticed how windy it was up there. I dragged my boots along the poles with arms outstretched to balance myself until I reached a bracket bolted to the right side. I steadied myself and lifted my right leg over. I got to the middle when I was ordered to touch my toes and shout my name and number.
“Stanford, 24******, Sir!”
I continued to shuffle along to another bracket on the left side and lifted my left leg over. A short distance later, I got the end and climbed down.
The final obstacle involved running along a platform, jumping a two metre gap, running over another platform and jumping a second two metre gap, then running and leaping toward a vertical net to put an arm through the net so you don’t fall. The Para standing nearby looked at me and put his hand out horizontally, moving it to and fro to one of his mates with a smirk. I ran and jumped between the planks steadily enough and hit the nets at the end, hanging off a bit precariously. I climbed down and walked to the line of recruits who’d finished.
We were herded to the edge to watch the others on the trainasium and I saw Rog up on the horizontal ladders. He stopped half way over and froze. Dane and I shouted for him to keep moving but he stayed there until the Corporals instructed him to climb down. He was allowed a few minutes to get himself together before trying again. He walked over to me and we had a brief talk. I grabbed his shoulders and got his attention.
“Concentrate on the bars. Don’t look through to the ground. You have to focus on the bars. Take one step at a time. It’s not timed, so do it slow.”
Rog looked at me, sweat dripping from under his helmet and nodded. The Corporals called him over for a final attempt. He got up to the horizontal ladders again and moved forward. He stepped methodically along and then stopped. The Corporals shouted at him to keep moving and I screamed encouragement. But it was no good. He came down and failed. He sat beside me and looked down, dejected. He breathed hard and his eyes were clenched shut. This was a massive blow.