As we neared the end of the course, the fifty-one surviving recruits were mustered before the Dakota for a group photograph. We lined up on the grass in our crap hats. The two rows at the back were standing and the training staff sat in front with boots crossed, fists on their knees and maroon berets on. With the formalities over, we were ordered to sort our kit out.
The final two days of the course involved an exercise. We were speed marched to some woods and ordered to dig in. We unpacked our kit, set up bashas, unfolded our entrenching tools and began to dig a trench in the frozen ground. It was nearly impossible in the beginning but, as the wintry-blue hazy dusk set in and branches swayed around our camp, the ground got softer the further we dug. The effort warmed me up in the icy cold. When we were about five feet down, those on stag duty settled down in the trench and kept a look out.
It was a cold, dark night. At 03:30 hours, it was my turn for stag, so I got shoved from my sleeping bag. I went to the rear trench and met another shivering guard. Sitting behind the General Purpose Machine Gun (‘GPMG’) with a blank firing attachment, I checked it over, cocked the weapon and settled down to watch my arc of fire. Safety catch was on, right index finger covered the trigger guard and left palm folded over the stock. The barrel rested steady on the bipod. We were in an elevated position overlooking a gradual incline, at the bottom of which was a road. It was bitter and I pulled a hood over my head. The trees at the edge cast shadows over the road. I waited and watched in silence. Time went by and my feet were chilled. As I watched the forest, I saw a fleeting dark movement through the eerie moonlight from left to right on the road. Then two more shadows went in the same direction. I checked my watch. It was 04:12 hours. Another shadow moved across. If I saw anything else I was going to fire. I eased the safety catch off.
Two more went by and then another, really quickly. I opened fire and cut through the quiet of the night with blasts of noise from the GPMG. Flares went up, everyone piled out of their bashas, manned the trenches and started firing. The adrenaline was racing though me and the cold forgotten. It lasted about five minutes until we were ordered to “Cease fire!” The ferocity sporadically petered out. We were ordered to gather round in a clearing for the debriefing amongst the smell of cordite smoke in the air. A Corporal switched his torch on.
The Sergeant addressed us: “Whoever that fucker was on the GPMG, you just killed a section of 2 Para. I don’t care who the fuck you are, but well done.” His breath condensed into frosty clouds as torchlight moved across his cammed-up face.
He went into an analysis of the good and bad points of our defence, after which we were ordered to pack up our kit and form into ranks. This was the final part of training. A night speed march to withdraw after an enemy contact. If we got through this, maroon berets would be our reward. We were led into the pitch black at an unbelievable pace. The forest ground was uneven and we stumbled along, trying to keep pace. I could barely see a metre in front. A shove from behind and I fell. I was stood on and heard recruits running past so I rolled over, got up and carried on. Someone fell further up and was trampled in the darkness. I could just see moving shadows in front and tried hard to follow. There were more fallers. I stayed on my feet and focussed on the ground, keeping an awareness of the recruit in front.
Forget tactical moving, weapons were barely in the right shoulder and no arcs were observed. We couldn’t see far enough through the gloom of the night. I could hear boots crashing through the undergrowth. By the time we broke out of the forest, it was still dark and we moved quicker over the open terrain. A pounding heart and the sound of my own breathing now blocked everything else out. No shouts from the Corporals. This was a pace where no one spoke. The sun began to rise to our right and I could see where to put my boots. We sped up again, but there was no dropping back this time. Pushing hard, we tabbed into Browning Barracks as a single unit. Numbers were taken and the Sergeant was pleased because we’d lost six men. After all this, they’d failed. It took just under an hour and was designed to drop recruits at the final hurdle.
As soon as we got to the barracks, everything was a rush. I took a quick shower, shaved and got my clean, pressed uniform on. We formed into ranks outside the main Para barracks in Aldershot with crap hats on our heads and moulded maroon berets tucked inside our camouflage smocks. We waited for two hours until the Lieutenant Colonel came out for the beret presentation. A Sergeant Major paced up and down at the front at then stopped, glaring.
“Squaaa-aaad, hats off,” he screamed in a high-pitched voice.
I held my crap hat in left hand, while my right hand was inside my smock holding a maroon beret.
Crap hat off and maroon beret on in one swift movement. The officer walked along the ranks, chatting occasionally. Pass out parade done and we became soldiers in the Parachute Regiment. No marching band, no mascot, no family or friends. Just an isolated parade square and a cold wind.
The course over, we packed our kit and boarded the waiting coaches. We drove out of Browning Barracks and swung past the Dakota. The celebrations began with Corporals selling tins of lager. I declined as I couldn’t afford even a single tinnie, while others began to get drunk. I sat back and closed my eyes. I had picked myself up from a University drop out to become a Para. I had earned my confidence back. It felt good.