Published: May 30th 2002May 30th 2002
As anyone who has had the pleasure of attending the RTMC Chilwell will know, the mobilisation course involves admin. Lots of admin. And no shortage of queues. As I sat in the one of the latter I had time to muse on why I was here. An old Army adage states, “never volunteer for anything” and to this I would add “especially the morning after a good night in the mess”. It was such an evening and such a rash action that led me to be selected as Adjutant of a large military facility “somewhere in the Balkans”. The alternate title for the post was “Camp Staff Officer” but I have tried to suppress this after too many references to Captain Darling, “by the left, quick mince” and joining the Ã©lite pink berets.
The joining instructions (received a week before arrival at RTMC) included a comforting video where the Secretary of State for defence thanked me personally for volunteering (must be a busy chap, making all these films for each of the intrepid TA members who decide to go abroad. Thanks, Geoff) and a handy four-week fitness training guide. Realising that doing the latter would be the equivalent of squeezing a quart into a half-pint pot I decided to concentrate instead on the pint pots in the vain hope that Guinness really is good for you. Other useful information included the fact that RTMC is there to help and is not a pass/fail course. Phew.
One of the first activities after the circuit of handing in passports, medical cards, birth certificates, P60’s and enough other documentation to persuade even a German immigration officer we were who we were was a brief from the OC Mobilisation wing. Naturally enough it was here that we discovered that the video lied like a cheap NAAFI watch: the course is pass/fail ! Visions of pleasant evenings in the mess and having a crack at the ITD’s went out of the window to be replaced by an image of boot-camp hell and testing, just the thing to give a fit of the vapours to the delicately nurtured Royal Signals (V) officer. This impression was reinforced by the issue of colour-coded badges which were to be worn at all times (“even in the shower ?” quoth one wit from a Northern Signal Regiment) to give the real “I am not a free man, I am a number “ feeling. After this came an introduction to the gym (and the shortest but widest club-swinger I have ever seen). It was explained that the previous course had complained that there was not enough PT during mobilisation and thus a session had been scheduled daily. Thanks to Lt J**** F****** RSIGNALS (V) and the other members of Mob 03/02 for that one.
At some ungodly hour of the following morning the course was mustered for yet more admin. A combination of rusty drill and civilian dress meant that the Brigade of Guards (and indeed the Brownies) would not have been impressed by our bearing, but we had another two weeks to emerge from the sausage machine indistinguishable from Regular Troops. I had the pleasure of medical and dental examinations first. Hey presto: a full bodily MoT test showed that I was not lacking any major limbs, had teeth that were mainly my own (one veteran offered to drop his in and collect them later) and while not necessarily a fine body of a man, would do for the service of Her Majesty. On discovering that I had mislaid my vaccination records a strange glint came into the MO’s eye and a large queue of trainee RAMC soldiers was mustered outside bearing syringes. I was told repeatedly that I’d experience “just a small scratch” and what seemed like several hours later had been jabbed by a collection of instruments feeling like rusty knitting-needles. But a great relief: thanks to Her Majesty’s bounty I had at no cost to myself been vaccinated against a full alphabet of hepatitis, tetanus, various hues of fever, cholera, scurvy, polio, black death, typhoid and for all I know rabies, colic, distemper and the mange. With arms that had lost all sensation I was sent to the waiting room with a chit that stated no PT for 24 hours. This was good news until I read to the bottom of the page where an exemption was granted to allow us to take part in officially organised Physical Torture.
The next bit was, however, great. Kit issues. There was no “stores are for storing” attitude here and we had thrust upon us the largest collection of uniform and equipment that I have ever seen from an array of shelves that stretched to the horizon and beyond. What was even more unheard of was the provision of changing rooms to check if the kit actually fitted, rather than draping the form like a bell-tent or constricting like a sausage-skin. Trousers were not too tight around the armpits, shirt sleeves unlikely to trail in the soup. About the only thing not asked was whether sir dressed to the left or right and preferred an fancy lining. My attempts to obtain an infantry bergen were thwarted on the grounds of cap-badge (and indeed on officer who had obtained one on false pretences was forced to exchange his for the combat handbag when his dissembling was discovered). Staggering under a mound of kit, I went back to the mess to make a ‘phone call to see if Silverman’s would give me a good price for it.
As promised, PT came around the following day. Here we had a “gentle” introduction to the BPFA, which consisted of being put into uncomfortable press-up and sit-up positions and then made to do the exercises very slowly, holding at the point of maximum strain halfway through until muscle and sinew were as highly tensioned as piano wire. This was preceded by a warm-up where the PTI tired us out with his cheery cries of “twice round my beautiful body… GO !”. Limping like those on the retreat from Moscow we made our way to the first-aid lecture. This is not normally a period which I enjoy, but when conducted by our Paras instructor the section was on the edge of its seats. This was largely as the Colour-Sergeant had somewhat robust views on the BFAT booklet which cannot be reproduced in a family publication and also because he had been wounded in combat in the Falklands and had a plethora of X-Rays and photographs to prove it. The Colour-Sergeant in question must surely not be nicknamed “Lucky” as by a conservative estimate he had suffered in his career the following injuries: shot in upper arm, shrapnel in back, head and buttocks, dislocations of both collar bones, two broken legs, a compressed spine and many more which it would take too much space to mention.
Weapon training followed, with pistol lesson 1 for starters. Having discovered that one member of the class lacked the upper-body strength to cock the weapon (and that several should only be issued with water-pistols) progress was surprisingly fast and we certainly did not experience the problems of a recent course when a student took over a quarter of an hour to fill the 13 round magazine. The foreign weapons stand was enjoyed immensely by certain Rambo-types whose only regret was that no cameras were available to immortalise themselves brandishing Armalites, AK-74s etc. Finally at the end of the day those without glaring physical disability or obvious criminal records were accepted into service.
The remainder of the course continued in like manner with a whirl of early starts, lectures, attempts at drill and the other parts of the package necessary to turn us from soft civvies into hardened soldiers. I will only discuss some highlights (such as the substance abuse discussion where some soldiers showed a remarkable knowledge of the street names, effects and approximate trading values of assorted drugs). Indeed some felt that they were already well prepared and did not need to attend many lectures, but do a sort of pick ‘n’ mix course (you know who you are, Julian). Naturally mine awareness was a major subject and an excuse for the RE to show us their snuff videos (on seeing a picture of a severed foot a Sergeant-Major type voice from the back of the class was heard remarking “hop that man in, his boot is filthy”). A presentation on wills and insurance was given by a civilian who just by chance happened to be an insurance salesman and IFA (why not get an undertaker in for initial measuring up just in case…). The theatre orientation video diary should be suppressed at the highest levels as people might start asking questions about why we actually get a medal. And as for the CFT it may be better to draw a veil over this except to say that I’m sure that the regulations do not state that this should be done on one-in-one gradients going up. This is supposed to be RTMC, not selection. The range days were enjoyable, if very long (it seemed that the range was in John O’Groats, judging by the amount of travelling we did). Also on the ranges we had possibly the only palatable evening meal of the entire course, which as it was a range stew may give you an idea of the state of catering at Chilwell.
RTMC (and a weekend’s leave) over we were dispatched (this time to somewhere that seemed like Land’s End, judging by the amount of travelling we did) for OPTAG. After the smooth running and busy days of Chilwell (and marching everywhere, even the 50 yards from parade ground to lecture theatre), OPTAG came as a bit of a shock. To be fair to the team running this course we were an odd sized group, but never before on a military course have I spent so long sitting in the NAAFI having a char and a wad. A wit who had been through the process six months ago described OPTAG as a day and a half packed into three and he was right. However the training was good, especially the patrolling and rules of engagement elements. Of course mines awareness came up again with yet another snuff movie which will remain in the mind of any (male) soldier who has seen it for some time. Talk about the unkindest cut of all. Not to be outdone the Force Master Driver also had a similar presentation, and judging by this driving in the Balkans seems to be a combination of Mad Max and Death Race 2000.
Training done it was time for embarkation leave. What will the future have in store ? Will I miss the plane ? Did I put the right stuff in my MFO box (and will it ever arrive ?) Only my next despatch may tell.