March 29, 2012
For several reasons I’m not too keen on the name ‘Bob’.
As a child, I hated it because several famous characters, real and fictional, had the same name or a close derivative. There was Black Bob, the wonder sheep dog, Fat Bob, one of Oor Wullie’s friends, of Sunday Post fame, Greyfriar’s Bobby, and others, who after sixty years, don’t come to mind so easily. Even today, many of the nobs in animated comics or jokes are called Bob. So, in my mind, Bob is the generic name for all those sad losers who give the rest of the world a laugh at our expense.
As a boy, I longed to be called Jim. In fact, once, when I was going home from school, I stopped to talk with an old man sitting on a park bench. (There was no risk in this in my day). He asked my name and I lied like a Boogie Street, one-jewel, Tarzan Junglemaster watch by saying my name was Jim.
After a few minutes of chatting a few of my school friends chanced by, calling out, “Hello, Bobby” as they passed. The old fellow looked at me in askance and said,
” Ah thought you said yer name wiz Jim?”
In sheer embarrassment, I grabbed my books and took off.
I shared this moment of mortification with my wife many years later, hoping that in the telling, my sense of chagrin would be exorcised. Instead, it was to become stronger.
We were guests at a party where we did not know everyone present. Someone held out his hand to shake mine and said,” And you are?” I answered that my name was Bob, just a fraction of a second before my wife added,
“But, he spells it J-I-M”
Some years ago, the food in British Army Dining Halls was described as overall ‘less’ – tasteless, flavourless, colourless, and shapeless.. Potatoes would be soggy and awash with water as they were served up, cabbage would be boiled to the point that it could be consumed through a straw and the stringiness of each piece of the meat presented caused us to doubt that Chelsea Pensioners were actually being buried when they faded away. Having said that, as an active, fit young soldier I ate everything that landed on my plate, regardless of taste, quality or degree of cooking.
The cooks naturally were not our favourite people and were the subject of ridicule or mockery. I remember however, that we didn’t have it all our own way. On one occasion, just after the Army had adopted the metal meal trays previously in use by the U.S. Army, I got my comeuppance.
At mealtimes, the majority of the cooks would leave the kitchen and stand behind the hot plate, serving out portions, mainly minute, to a line of soldiers on the other side. The Cook Sgt would stand at the end of his line of staff, serving out the pudding. We moved slowly forward with our metal, segmented trays, which duly received a portion of every item in each compartment.
When I reached the end of the line and was in front of the Sergeant, I couldn’t resist and said,
“Bonjour Jacques. Quel est la specialité de la maison, au’jourdhui?”
He looked up, from under beetle brows, said not a word but poured a ladle full of hot runny custard all over my mashed potatoes, meatloaf, cabbage and half way up my arm to my elbow, then bellowed, “Next!”.
Yes, I know, it’s sad to relate, but I remember eating everything on that tray and being miffed that I had only half of the custard I would have had if I had kept my smart mouth shut.
March 19, 2012
It is definitely not a phenomenon but it is one of nature’s vagaries that people on the ground can hear most words spoken in normal tones by those eight hundred feet above their heads in the open air.
We hear the instructor give the order to “Hook up” and know from our training that he is now checking each person’s connecting clip and strop for a secure fastening to the cable.
” Mary, stand in the door.” This elicits a nervous giggle. The order is not obeyed. It is repeated. And yet again, this time with more feeling.
We cannot make out the words that follow but the vehemence and tempo of the tone indicates some form of chastisement. Suddenly, the safety bar rattles, as it is wrenched upward, a sound of serious scuffling is heard, then what appears to be a laundry bundle of air force blue hurtles outwards, and almost immediately downwards, with a long drawn out “Noooooooooo—” , which changes dramatically to hysterical giggling as the chute deploys and the rate of descent is slowed.
It is noticeable, as Mary nears terra firma, that a large dark stain has appeared on her trousers but from her relieved chortling, we know that it presents no immediate concern for her. On contact with the ground she remains on her back, kicking her legs in the air and making no attempt to gather her rigging lines and canopy together. Two instructors run over to help her to her feet and our attention is distracted by the next girl exiting the Cage. In comparison to Mary’s performance the descents of the other girls are uneventful.
The winch on the Leyland starts to hum and turn, reeling in the cable and the Balloon is brought to earth. We take a collective deep breath, swallow nervously, but resolutely, as we realise we are next up.
We stride across to the Cage, enter and take our places around the interior. I am positioned several feet from the exit. I lock a fist around the tubular steel superstructure and am reassured by its solid feel. The restraining bar across the exit slams into place as the instructor clears the Cage for ascent. The canvas covering the Cage prevents us seeing outside. As in every male group, we have the obligatory ‘heroes’ who are hectoring the quiet ones but it is noteworthy that as the Balloon gains height their tenor voices become more shrill and by four hundred feet they twitter into silence.
The remainder of the journey is quietly ominous with the breeze causing the tarpaulin to flap and thrum as the Cage reaches the required height. The bump with which it stops surprises each of us.
“Number One, stand in the door,” the despatcher barks as he raises the restraining bar. No one moves. This strikes me as strange and I look around to see who should have stepped forward.
He addresses me.
“Staff Sergeant, what is your number?”
“Two, two, eight , two, five, four, zero, five,” I respond smartly.
“Your number in the stick, numbnuts!”
“One,” I reply sheepishly.
“And who did I say stand in the door?”
“One,” I mumble.
“Right, Number One stand in the door,” he repeats.
I move over the two yards to the door and have my first glimpse of the miniature truck and Lilliputians on the ground.
“May I give you a piece of advice before you go, Staff?” the instructor asks affably.
“Of course,” I say, eager for any guidance.
“Let go of that superstructure before you jump or you’ll have the longest arm in the bloody business!” With that he slaps me on the shoulder and shouts, “Go!”
As I leave the Cage he screams, “Come back!”
I belatedly recognise it as a joke but, to my eternal embarrassment, not before I try, obviously unsuccessfully, to climb up my deploying rigging lines to get back into the cage.
For the rest of the course I’m known by all and sundry as “The Comeback Kid.”
March 18, 2012
I wake up to bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky! As I sit up, my own cluster of butterflies takes off and flutters my early morning appetite out of sight. Today is the big day. Two scheduled descents from the Balloon (An initial capital letter because of the dominant part it will play in the rest of today.)
We’ve spent the past week in the hangars, which are effectually huge gymnasiums with outlandish paraphernalia and have, instead of polished wooden floors, concrete and padded rubber matting. Our instructors, who will despatch us, (sounds foreboding doesn’t it?), from the Balloon, and eventually the aircraft, are proficient physical training instructors.
The twelve of us, the remnants of a group of forty-nine would-be paras, have spent the past few days performing somersaults, endless forward rolls, fan drops, side right, side left rolls, disappear up your own backside rolls ad nauseam, with only severe neck aches to show for it.
After going to the dining hall for a coffee, but nothing solid , I board the truck, with my pale-faced companions to be ferried to the issue station for parachutes. “The girls” have packed the parachutes. Unlike free-fall parachuting, where each packs his own, the military chutes are packed and inspected by an extremely competent team of W.R.A.F. members.
Kitted out with a chute and helmet each, we re-board the vehicle to go to the Dropping Zone (DZ). There, in the vicinity of a barrage balloon, linked by steel cable to a ten-ton Leyland truck, stands a small group of instructors. Attached on the underside of the Balloon is the Cage.
Similar to the rear half of cargo truck, without wheels but complete with a tubular steel structure covered by a tarpaulin, the Cage waits for the neophytes. We line up in two single files to form ‘sticks’ and are ordered to number from the right. As a Staff-Sergeant, and the senior jumper present, I stand on the right of my line and shout “One”, closely followed by the guy on my left as “Two”, and so on. Instead of being marched to the Cage, we are told to “Stand Easy”.
A bus pulls up and a gang of girls stream out, dressed in light blue coveralls, orange helmets and fitted with chutes. They are the packers.
They are allowed to voluntarily perform two jumps from the Balloon. In the cold light of day, we can’t for the life of us understand why anyone would, of their own free will, jump without para pay, but the word goes round that they do it to show faith in their own packing. Psychologically, it’s a brilliant, fiendishly calculated move by the authorities because the girls are going to jump first. Who amongst us would then have the cojones to refuse, after the girls have shown that it is not a macho male preserve and is as easy as falling out of a plane? We are perversely gratified however, that despite the giggles and smiles, there is an underlying nervousness among their group indicated by the banter drying up as they are taken to the Cage.
Once aboard, the instructor in charge lowers the steel bar across the doorway, and shouts his readiness for ascent to the ground staff. The cable plays out. The Balloon rises, remorselessly and agonisingly slowly, but smoothly, on its way to the rarefied atmosphere of eight hundred feet and the first parachute jump of the day.
(to be continued)
March 16, 2012
I thought this week I might introduce readers to the final phase of the selection process for an airborne soldier. This segment of extreme physical activity is deliberately ‘salted’ with classroom periods so that each test element takes place after a stiffening-up sedentary stage. Cynics might say this is deliberate to add to the psychological burden on the applicants.
From personal experience the whole pre-selection training and test period is fraught with roller-coaster highs and lows. Early morning arrives to find you at a nadir of self-confidence but dogged determination and ‘can-do’ pushes you on through the trial and tribulations of the day to bask in an evening of euphoric elation. This jubilation mystically evaporates during the hours of darkness and the approach of dawn.
P Company Test Week is common to all three Pre-Parachute Selection (PPS) courses. Regular Parachute Regiment Recruits and All-Arms officers/soldiers undertake the same basic tests. Parachute Regiment recruits attempt Test Week at week 21 of their Combined Infantry Course (CIC). All-Arms candidates attempt Test Week after a two and a half week ‘build up’ phase. Reserve soldiers from 4th Parachute Regiment (4 PARA) and other Reserve Airborne Units attend a condensed 4 day Pre-Parachute Selection course tailored to their requirements.
During Test Week, candidates will be expected to run, march and carry dead weights over 1 – 20 miles on undulating terrain. Test Week comprises of 8 separate events over a four and a half day period. Seven events are scored; one (the Trainasium) is a straight pass or fail. Each event is designed to assess a candidate’s physical fitness, mental robustness and determination. A candidate who fails to display the appropriate level of self-discipline and motivation throughout Test Week will fail the course.
Test week starts on a Wednesday morning and finishes the following Tuesday.
10 Mile March (Wednesday morning)
The 10-mile march is conducted as a squad, over undulating terrain with each candidate carrying a Bergen (backpack) weighing 35 lbs (plus water) and a weapon. The march must be completed in 1 hour and 50 minutes. TA candidates have 2 hours.
Trainasium (Wednesday afternoon)
The Trainasium is an aerial confidence course, which is unique to P Coy. In order to assess his suitability for military parachuting, the Trainasium tests a candidate’s ability to overcome fear and carry out simple activities and instructions at a height above ground level. The event is a straight pass or fail.
Log Race (Thursday morning)
A team event with eight individuals carrying a 60kg log over a distance of 1.9 miles’ undulating terrain.
Steeplechase (Thursday afternoon)
An individual test with candidates running against the clock over a 1.8-mile cross-country course. The course features a number of ‘water obstacles’ and, having completed the cross-country element, candidates must negotiate an assault course to complete the test. The march must be completed in 19 minutes or under to score 10 points; TA candidates have 20 minutes 30 seconds.
2 Mile March (Friday morning)
The 2 mile march is conducted over undulating terrain with each individual carrying a Bergen (backpack) weighing 35lbs (plus water) and a weapon. A helmet and combat jacket is also worn. The march must be completed in 18 minutes or under. TA candidates have 19 minutes.
Endurance March (Monday)
A squadded march conducted over 20 miles of severe terrain. Each individual carries a Bergen (backpack) weighing 35lbs (plus water and food) and a weapon. The march must be completed in under 4 and a half hours. TA candidates do not undertake this event.
Stretcher Race (Tuesday morning)
Teams of 16 men carry a 175lbs stretcher over a distance of 5 miles. No more than 4 men carry the stretcher at any given time. Students wear webbing and carry a weapon.
Milling (Tuesday afternoon)
The final event of Test Week is 60 seconds of ‘controlled physical aggression’ against an opponent of similar height and weight.
For those of you still present next time, we’ll go through parachute training together; believe me it’ll be a doddle after what we’ve been through this week.
March 7, 2012
The British Army’s conventional airborne element consisted of the Parachute Regiment, made up of three battalions, and an assortment of supporting arms such as Engineers, Artillery, Field Ambulance, Signals etc. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, The Royal Army Ordnance Corps and the Transportation Squadron, all of whom were also parachute trained, were co-located in the same barracks area.
The soldiers who were members of the three battalions had enlisted directly into the Parachute Regiment, while the corps personnel volunteered from their parent units to join the Para Brigade Logistic Regiment, where they performed their normal trades and skills, but as airborne soldiers. Both types went through a rigorous but separate selection process over several weeks. The two-part contingent made up 16 Parachute Brigade.
From Day One each individual in the infantry component was the proud owner of the Red Beret, although the real kudos, in the form of the coveted wings, did not materialise until after jump training. A member of the airborne who had not yet received his wings was known as a “penguin”. Soldiers not in The Brigade, or sans airborne training , were universally known as “Crap Hats”. This derogatory epithet was applied equally to corps personnel undergoing airborne training and the rest of the Army.
Members of The Regiment participated in the specialised airborne training after completing basic infantry training and would go through as complete cadres. The corps soldiers would be subjected to the same selection process, i.e. the same extreme physical training as inflicted on the regimental personnel, but apart, unless circumstances and justification warranted otherwise. The two factions did come together on occasion.
Milling, where two relatively equally matched, in size and weight, individuals would be fitted with boxing gloves and for three minutes, standing toe to toe, would attempt to batter the living daylights out of each other without ducking, weaving or feinting, was one. Ideally, it would be a soldier from each component.
The other occasion, I remember, was the selection process in the Brecon Beacons, the wildest and most mountainous area of Wales.
Both groups were ferried out there by truck to spend a working week on stretcher races, forced marches, convoluted map reading exercises and a final competitive mock battle. The spirit in which this was conducted eschewed any semblance of play-acting.
Our platoon was ordered to “locate and destroy” the Para Regiment soldiers, also on final selection, who were scattered along the crest of Pen y Fan mountain, on the evasion phase of their exercise.
After slogging our way to summit, shrouded in mist, in the very early morning, which was still dark, we had paused to regroup when a solitary voice called out from thick haze,
“Any one Para can beat two Crap Hats.” Our selected leader made a spontaneous decision and responded,
Two of our group were ordered to advance and disappeared into the fog while the remainder waited, rather nervously, if I recall. Within minutes, there were sounds of physical combat accompanied by bad language then — silence.
A few moments later, the same voice, breathless, called out,”Any one Para can beat four Crap Hats!”
Four of our guys were ordered forward immediately and rapidly were lost to sight. Almost at once, the noise of a ruckus reached us then, the surprising and intimidating silence that followed was interrupted by the challenge, “Any one Para can beat the lot of you Crap Hats.”
Just as the remnants of our group surged forward, one of our earlier warriors returned, breaking from the mist, hatless, epaulettes torn, nose bloodied and the sleeve ripped from his combat jacket to fall on all fours before us.
“Don’t go in there, lads, it’s a trap,” he gasped, holding up a shaky, detaining palm,” there’s two of the bastards!”