This is the first of an occasional series where we ask members of the Battalion to relate their experience of life in the ACF. We, appropriately, start at the top, with the Commandant.
The message came across the school tannoy “Any boy who wishes to go to a camp in December should go to room 105 at 3:30” and so my journey from cadet to commandant began.
I missed the bit of the briefing about Army Cadets, if I’m honest. I was a very keen camper with the Scouts and just liked the idea of a weekend under canvas. I didn’t miss noticing the cadets when I got to the TA centre in Fulham and when we got to the camp I didn’t miss the fact that we were staying in rooms with heating either.
Roll forward 6 weeks and I had changed my green Scout beret for a green Royal Green Jackets beret, along with lightweight olive green trousers, puttees, a hairy green shirt, a brassard and a green anorak. Boots had to be bought, just as they are now.
When I joined the ACF it was similar in many ways to today. We had 1 to 4 star subjects: we did drill, map & compass, first aid, citizenship, shooting and collected every year for the Poppy Appeal. We spent weekends doing fieldcraft, sports and had a Christmas Camp with a formal dinner night. At Annual Camp we had a day out and visited a local town or city.
Where it was very different was that we didn’t wear ear defenders when shooting, we fired a rifle called the Lee Enfield Mk 2 .303 calibre – it was magazine fed and bolt action (much like the No 8 rifle, but much bigger) and the Bren Light Machine Gun (that fired ‘bulleted’ blank – wooden rather than metal rounds. Very interesting on an exercise!). There was no limit on what we could train with and so it was normal for cadets to fire anything we could get our hands on, including pistols, sub machine guns and the then Army rifle the SLR or Self Loading Rifle. It was a big brute with quite a kick, but the form was to pop your beret in to your shoulder to take some of the recoil.
Some of the other big differences were that we didn’t have girls then (they joined from 1984) and no Basic badge, no Master Cadet Course, no Champion Cadet Course and there were no theme parks for the day out from camp in those days! Another difference was that there were no mobile ‘phones or computers back then, so we were ‘ordered’ to write postcards at annual camp to send home to mum and dad (and ordered to say we were enjoying ourselves!). Any call home came from a phone box in the camp and you would get an angry bang on the door if you spent too long on the phone and a queue was forming.
I was fortunate to be in a big detachment. We paraded about 50 cadets and we were so big that we bought an old London bus that we painted green outside the detachment commanders house one weekend. Our reward was a trip to Wimpy (a burger chain – McDonald’s didn’t exist in the UK then!) and our bus was the envy of all the other detachments. We excelled at fieldcraft and were mistaken more then once for junior soldiers (on one occasion by a general no less!) and winning all of the major competitions. Part of the reason for our success was that local TA (Reserve) units would provide junior NCO’s to help our training and we also joined TA weekends as senior cadets to act as enemy on their exercises. We also excelled in sport, although I couldn’t (and still can’t) play ball sports. I’ve just never been good at games like football or basketball. Where I was good though was at running and I had real stamina over distance, eventually racking up medals and trophies as a cross country runner at local, regional and national events.
My cadet career, if you can call it that, progressed as a 2 star lance corporal, a three star corporal, a four star sergeant and colour sergeant. My detachment commander didn’t believe in cadet sergeant majors, so that was my lot until I became an adult instructor. In between all of that, I attended the Cadet Training Centre at Frimley Park to join the Cadet Leadership Course one summer (with the highlight being flown back by helicopter from the training area to the camp after the field exercise) and other great memories included travelling to camp in the back of 4 ton lorries (big green canvas sided things) singing Army and rugby songs that would often get us in trouble if we stopped in traffic or were heard by any of the adults. I also enjoyed the Remembrance Parade as we marched a couple of miles from the TA Centre to the local town hall for a service, along with the veterans (many more than today of course and we even had a WW1 veteran parade in uniform!). We also travelled every year to Wales to do adventurous training (including pony trekking where one memorable year I was thrown by a certain Blodwyn and ended up in hospital!).
My last parade as a cadet prior to becoming an adult instructor was at the presentation of the new ACF Banner by HRH Prince Philip at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I was right marker and the parade formed up on me! A fitting end to my time as a cadet three days later.
Roll forward 33 years and in between those years I have been a detachment adult, detachment commander, training officer, company commander and more besides, but all that is for another blog!