I have to admit I was less concerned with the “service” element than wondering what I could get out of it. What I'd heard from my former school mates wasn't encouraging. Tedium was one complaint; being subject the the whims of clowns was another. There's no accounting for luck, however, and I suppose I was very lucky; in fact, all of us were, in that we found ourselves in Trieste. I haven't heard of people hankering to revisit Catterick or Aldershot.
My first encounter with army life wasn't promising; I had to report to the Royal Artillery depot at Park Hall Camp and there I met two people who shaped my thinking; I was issued with kit by George Twentyman the storeman. He had one stripe but when I called him “corporal” he said he was a bombardier. During a lull in the proceedings, he gave me some advice – not to get involved with sport. It seemed a strange thing to say but he explained that he had been the goalkeeper for Carlisle United – and now he was goalkeeper for the depot and had been sentenced to two years' servitude in the stores.
The other encounter was with an old school friend who was also a lance bombardier – in this case a PTI. His lot was to wear a prickly woollen striped jersey and put recruits through repetitive exercises in the gym. I had known him as an excellent scrum half who had played for the county and who would later be an England trialist. He gave me exactly the same advice.
It was clear, from the many periods when nothing was happening that urgency and purpose figured well down in the great scheme of things. There was a “lecture” on personal hygiene given by a pink faced subaltern who solemnly told us of the need to wash thoroughly between the legs. I'm sure his face became pinker when he came to the smaller more intimate details and it was obvious he didn't enjoy his task; his was clearly not a path that appealed to any of us.
Another lecture on outdoor pursuits, this time from a captain, included the question, “Are any of you interested in climbing?” Even though I was mindful of the old story about “Who's interested in music?” I put my hand up. The outcome, however, could have been worse than moving a piano; it involved sharing a tent with the gallant officer in North Wales. I lost all interest in mountains.
There were tests and interviews and it was interesting to try to work out what they were aimed at and to decide whether it was a good idea to do well or whether it would be wiser not to. At each interview, I tried to stress that I was keen to get overseas.
After a couple of weeks we were reshuffled into different squads – or, as we were called, “troops”. I enjoyed some of the things we did; the countryside round Oswestry is very attractive and our “route marches” took us to some beautiful places. Our sergeant was a pleasant, avuncular sort and we all enjoyed the incident when we were going down a road approaching a bridge over a river. As we got near the bridge, we saw an artist standing before an easel painting the scene. The sergeant called out, “Double march! I don't want any of you lot in this picture!” You want to do your best for men like that.
Much less interesting was gun drill. There were four guns drawn up on the parade ground and the crews were supposed to race to see which was first to be ready to fire. This was down to the number three, who had the job of getting various numbers in the right places on a cone shaped thingy. Since number three had a stool to sit on I was glad to get the job. Others had to go down on one knee- not nice on a parade ground. After a long and tedious drill, numbers were called out to all the guns and each number three had to apply them to the cone. There was one for elevation and one for direction. It was stressed that everything had to be zeroed after each “shot”' It occurred to me that each new set of numbers was only a few clicks away from the last lot so, instead of going back to zero and starting again, it would be quicker to add or subtract the difference – which is what I did – and we “won” each time. The indoor stuff was all simple trigonometry and very tedious. It seemed clear that it would not be prudent to be good at it so I got all the sums wrong by exactly 180 degrees.
When the day came that we were to fire the guns with real, live shells, I remembered that, as a child, I'd never been keen on fireworks or loud bangs of any kind but it involved a pleasant drive to Trawsffynydd and a change from the monotony. The four guns were set up in a quarry and we were to fire at the scenery across a valley. The drills were the same as for the parade ground and the bang. when it happened was only a muffled thud – and it was good to see the shells in flight against the sky. The second round wasn't so good; I had followed my usual procedure of adding or subtracting and now I saw why it was important to start each time from zero because our shell only just scraped over the edge of the quarry and landed several hundred yards behind the others.
It became as clear to others - as it had already seemed to me – that the Royal regiment and I were not made for each other.
This was Opatje in Yugoslavia- certainly not Catterick: