Monday 7 March 2016


I used to be in the CCF when I was in school. During my first Easter as a cadet I went, as a 13 year old, to Exmoor for ten days with the aim of hiking 20 miles a day with a sixty pound "manpack" on my back. This is a kind of aluminium frame to which you strap an army duffle bag. My dad was chuffed and raced up to the loft where he had a folding wood/canvas army bed. "You can take this!!!" I didn't want the extra weight but he was adamant and I figured I wouldn't have to carry it every day. My mates thought it was hilarious as we hiked 2 miles to our campsite but I was consoled by how much more comfy I would be. As soon as it was set up I got in to try it - and the canvas ripped from end to end! 

We lived in a big old canvas tent with a separate groundsheet. It was actually quite comfortable to sleep on the groundsheet because the turf underneath us was so soggy it was like being on a water-bed!

We certainly got some miles in - but being fit meant we thought nothing of setting off to the pub in the evening. Exmoor village pubs took a relaxed view of the licensing laws in those days. I recall one evening after hours when someone said "The bobby is coming!" and all the lights went out. We heard his bicycle squeak up to the door and a loud knock followed by "ANYONE IN THERE?" To which the regulars chorused loudly "NO!" I distinctly heard the bobby say "Well that's alright then!" And he squeaked off. One day our hiking took us past the pub at noon and I saw him having a free pint at the bar. The publican later told me that if they had loud "grockles" (city folk) in then he wouldn't turn the lights off and the bobby would tell everyone to go home. From our camp to the pub was almost 3 miles by road. One evening as we set off back to camp someone moaned about the distance. A local overheard and said there was a shortcut up a track by the church. As we took it the moon clouded over and as we only had one small torch we each held onto the tail of the cape of the guy ahead and snaked our way along the narrow track hearing a stream nearby. when we crested the hill we could see the hurricane lamp that was always left out as a beacon. Next day our hike ended near the church so we were happy to use the track again - and horrified when we saw the stream was actually in a ravine, with a 30 foot vertical drop off the side of the track - that we had been totally unaware of!

We usually hiked without supervision and had to reach checkpoints where one of our officers would do a head count - and give us the reference for our next rendezvous. One day a thick fog came down and,  without any visual clues, we became seriously lost. We actually found ourselves on the edge of a cliff - and there was no such feature on our intended route! Suddenly one of our officers appeared out of the mist - furious - and pointed to a path that led us down and out of the mist. He hadn't spoken a word and had disappeared as eerily as he had come. I never did figure out how he did it.
I rose through the ranks to Sergeant Major and remember two occasions with great fondness. When I was 16 I used to shave the (very light) fluff off my chin about once a week. On a trip to a training camp in the Brecon Beacons I was on rising duty with the regular army Guards RSM. I was two days into my need to shave. As we set off on our rounds at 6am I was very proud of my immaculate uniform - and that I was in step with this GIANT of a man! Me, 6ft, 110 pounds (wet!) Him, 6ft 6 inches, 300 pounds (+) Each with a baton under our left arm and our right arms going back and forth to horizontal - with vigour! He flicked a glance over me and then ahead. He did it again and I was hoping for a word of approval when he bellowed "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR FAICE!" (The extra "I" is intentional because it sounded as if he had made a new word) Still in step I apologised and promised to be better shaved the next day.

A year later I took a squad to Chelsea Barracks to see how the Guards lived and I had four sergeants who were then allowed to drill our squad on the hallowed drill square. I placed one sergeant in each corner and they took turns in controlling the squad until one sergeant's voice broke and the squad kept going - out of range. I was (once again) standing next to the Giant RSM and although we were as far as we could be from the errant squad I bellowed "SQUAD - HALT!!!" And they did (!) and the RSM muttered to me "Well done lad!"

Two years later, now at university and in the OTC with the interesting rank of Officer Cadet (not holding a commission so not entitled to be saluted but should be addressed as "Sir" by Other Ranks - which led to entertaining moments such as being inspected on parade and having an RSM bellow into your ear "GET YOUR F*CKING HAIR CUT -  . . . . . SIR!!!") 

In the OTC we did weekend duties - and got paid - big deal for college students - and we had the option for a two week posting with a regular regiment over summer. I signed up - with a Gung Ho buddy. Sign-up sergeant said "Do you want full-on or lazy?" Germany or Cyprus? I said "Lazy" and my buddy said "Germany". So in their infinite wisdom the powers-that-be sent him to Cyprus and me to Germany. I am eternally sorry to report that when he got to Cyprus, not only weren't they doing Gung Ho - they were actually locked down! A squaddy had been in a fight in a local bar! Meanwhile, lazy me was in Germany having a blast driving APC's and commanding a squadron!!

I had a ticket to a ceremonial dinner at Senate House in London where the guest of honour was our Honorary Colonel, the Queen Mother. I rented a tux and got the train into town - but the train was late! We were supposed to be there at 19:00 hours and it was 19:45 as the taxi approached the entrance square in front of Senate House. I said to the driver - who I had promised a big tip for going as fast as he could - "OK - now just let me out in front" meaning on the pavement rather than the formal entrance square. He misunderstood and flung his cab right up to the front door. This was the time that VIP's were due and those of my mates who were on the guard of honour outside the front door all snapped to attention and presented arms. Our adjutant opened the door of my cab and our CO leaned into the open door and put out his hand to welcome the next VIP. When he saw who was in the cab his smile froze (but stayed in place - scary) and through gritted teeth he hissed "Palmer - get out of the cab and get into the hall!!" I did - and later had the great honour of being close and bowing to the wonderful Queen Mum!

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