Memoirs 1936–2011

Chapter 3 1953 - 1955 The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

Potential Officers, Basic Training, Catterick, 1953. I am second from the right in the middle row - keen, smart, but not cool and languid as was fashionable.

Catterick training camp and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Once I had passed RGB and been accepted as a candidate for a commission, I was inducted into the Army as a private soldier and sent to Catterick Camp for 3 months basic training. Catterick is a training camp for the armoured corps and the cavalry, and I was sent there because I had nominated the 4th Hussars as my first choice of regiment after Sandhurst.

Although almost every male member of my family on both sides had at some time been a soldier, only Neville had been a Regular, and this appealed to me. He died in 1951, and I had only the vaguest memory of him because of the estrangement between my mother and me as her acolyte, and the rest of the family. I had, however, optimistic hopes that his widow might help me to get accepted by the 4th Hussars when the time came.

I had little idea of the realities; my life with my mother had been hermit-like in its isolation from other people and I was therefore obliged to fill out my horizons with vivid fantasies nourished by voracious reading. This gave me notional high standards, those of the ideal, and not much experience of the rough and tumble of real personal relationships. The result, of course, was that I was constantly tortured by conscience as I failed repeatedly to live up to the standards which I had set for myself. These are to some extent the normal difficulties of an only child, but mine were exacerbated by the peculiarities of my mother and her situation. The only place I found myself in anything like a normal set of interactive events was at school, but even there the archaic and somewhat atrophied system enabled formality to take precedence over reality, and disguise the necessary pain and pleasure of the human condition.

No outside influence upon me could at that stage affect the dreadful care which I had to take near my mother. She was so likely to take deep and entirely arbitrary offence that my internal censors worked overtime and in an incredibly sophisticated manner; for she hunted for offence as a pig hunts truffles.

The army basic training we underwent was the standard one of the time, with the exception that in each barrack hut the beds were occupied by an equal measure of ordinary soldiers and potential officers. Only once did this intrinsically explosive mixture result in physical violence, and a head butt administered by an ordinary soldier named Murphy brought the affray to a very quick conclusion; faster than any other fight I’d seen at public school, where the combatants were inhibited by ideas of fair play.

We were put through the usual harassing drills and exercises, designed to bring us thoroughly to heel; but it was what we expected and no-one had any real difficulty with it.

At the end of the 3 month training period we, the potential officers, were invited to a cocktail party in the Officers’ Mess, We were encouraged to bring our parents to this celebration and though I had misgivings I felt I could not deny my mother the opportunity of attending, since her social life was by now absolutely non-existent. She was quite overcome, and gave an acutely raucous and boastful performance which ended in her getting dead drunk, collapsing, and having to be put to bed in the orderly officer’s room. A captain, aware how deeply mortified I was by this embarrassing end to what should have been a happy day, took me gently to one side and told me not to worry, and that in a few years I would be able to laugh about it. He was very kind, and to my 17 year old self he seemed an old, mature and wise person (he was probably about 26) but I have still not managed to find the situation at all funny. It seemed a dreadful beginning to my military career, and I felt sure that its infamy would follow me far into the future. I decided to try to keep my mother at arm’s length from my professional life in future, though I did not always succeed.

After a month or two of leave, I was off to Sandhurst. The course lasted for two years, divided into three terms, so thus at any one time there were Junior, Intermediate and Senior years. About half of the cadets had been to private schools. The class consciousness which still bedevils this country, and which did so with much greater vigour in the 1950s, hardly affected me until I got to Sandhurst. Perhaps the exigencies of war and its utilitarian aftermath had tended to push them into the background, and they only re-emerged with the comparative luxury of the next decade; or perhaps I was simply in a state of blissful ignorance. In any event, it was a surprise to me to realise for the first time the ramifications of the complex and arcane geometry of class in Britain, demonstrated most clearly by those officer cadets who were bound from Eton into the Brigade of Guards.  The fact that they could make you uncomfortable simply by criticising details of behaviour was doubly shaming, of course, because by being concerned by their attack you were, implicitly, subscribing to their values, being weighed in the balance, and being found wanting. This is a wretched state of affairs, and one which the more unpleasant or more stupid of them took great pleasure in exploiting. It is a problem with no adequate solution, I’m afraid, and renders the insecure doubly a victim.

Academic subjects were all given a military bias - thus mathematics involved a lot of trigonometry applied to gunnery, history was military history, and so on. There was a lot of weapon training and tactical exercise, but the activities which occupied most of our time were bulling (that is, cleaning and polishing of uniform and accoutrements) and parade ground drill, at which extremely high standards were demanded and achieved. The officers came from various regiments and were scarcely visible.

My Company Commander, an Irishman from the Royal Horse Artillery with a splendid example of those tufts of hair on his cheekbones which were known irreverently, as ‘bugger’s grips’, was called Philip Harcourt Vigours de Courcy O’Grady. It was considered very important that we knew who, where and what everything and everybody to do with the Academy was, and that is why I remember this man’s full name to this day.

The status of the officer cadet is ambiguous. Legally and in fact he remains a private soldier, but his role as a potential officer gives him a peculiar, temporary and fragile quasi rank, best summed up in the way he is first greeted by his Company Sergeant Major, who bellows at him “You call me ‘Sir’ and I call you ‘Sir’; the only difference is, you mean it.”

The NCOs and warrant officers, who were responsible for virtually all of the day-to-day running of the Academy, were nearly all from the Brigade of Guards. They were wonderful men. They had a very highly developed sense of amour propre, were devastatingly smart and good at their job, and had good basic psychological understanding. Above all they had a highly developed sense of theatre; for drill is a form of theatre, and often I thought of our big parades as a sort of ballet, conducted as it was according to symbolic rules, and with its imperatives of style and interpretation.

The impresario or director of these great performances, which were almost always conducted without an audience like sacred rites in the temple of a closed religious order, was the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Academy, who at that time was RSM Lord of the Grenadier Guards. He was famous amongst us for the legend that by instituting a strict and regular discipline amongst the prisoners in the Japanese prisoner of war camp in which he was held, he had achieved a far greater survival rate than that of any other camp.

Physically rather a small man, he would be preceded onto the parade ground by four staff sergeants carrying a mahogany dining table. They would, of course, march carrying this table, their free arms swinging in unison to the approved height front and rear, their brasswork gleaming, their caps perfectly poised over their eyes like visors, and their red sashes flashing.

Once the table was positioned in front of the 1,000-odd cadets, RSM Lord would leap onto it and conduct the parade, screaming the orders in his celebrated scream, and extracting the maximum amount of drama from the situation. His ability to detect the slightest imperfection was legendary. He would interrupt his stream of orders to bellow “Number Three in the Rear Rank of Dettingen Company, Moving on Parade, take his Name!” This chant would be repeated by the Company Sergeant Major of Dettingen Company and then by the Staff Sergeant of the relevant platoon, who would march along the rank, halt in front of the offender, turn smartly towards him, whisk out a tiny notebook just like a policeman, and write the offence in it. The result would be a week of early morning punishment parades in full kit, or some such irksome toil. It took me years to realise that RSM Lord did not have X-ray vision, but relied on the fact that the standard of perfection to which everyone was taught to aspire was unattainable, and that therefore by definition everyone was permanently, inevitably and unarguably in default. It was as close to the doctrine of original sin as anything I’ve ever come across. And in any case there were no rights of appeal.

Everyone enjoyed RSM Lord’s performance and accepted the injustice of arbitrary punishment too, even when as in my case I was charged for having dirty equipment because a bird had defecated on me when we were already formed up. There were no excuses and no mitigating circumstances.

These parades culminated in the annual Sovereign’s Parade in front of an invited audience, at which the Senior Year passed out of the Academy. This parade always ends with the Adjutant riding a white horse off the parade ground, up the steps and through the neo-classical portico of Old College, and into the buildings, a grandiose and romantic gesture of which we all approved.

Cadets were kept under very tight control throughout their time at Sandhurst. We were not allowed out at night at all during the week, and only until 11.00 pm at the weekend. Pubs within 3 miles were out of bounds. Once a month, after the first 6 weeks, we were allowed an overnight leave out. These strictures, almost monastic in their effect, are hard to believe nowadays. There was virtually no opportunity for dissolute or even quite normal social behaviour. We were a cloistered order, but kept so busy at our devotions that there was no time or energy left for even speculation about the outside world. We were deliberately chivvied from morning till night, and exhausted at the day’s end. No doubt in some cases - my own, I am sure - this resulted in a bill being run up which would later have to be paid with interest. On the other hand we were spared most of the teenage angst which occurs as the real terms of the human condition first become apparent, and it is certainly debatable whether ignoring the problem is necessarily worse than indulging it. Neither course offers a solution to the imponderable questions.

In many ways, and we used to claim that this was so, life was simply a continuation of school. Even the Army proper might be perceived this way, except that of course it allowed a great amount of self determination. But Sandhurst took the individual and deliberately pruned and espaliered him, and there was no room in such a scheme for stray shoots or branches. Unorthodox behaviour was almost unknown; those who were at Sandhurst wanted to be there, and accepted the form proposed by Sandhurst. Occasionally someone might realise that he had made a dreadful mistake, and wish to leave; in which case he would have to find the funds to buy himself out of the Army, for the Army insisted on being repaid for whatever investment it calculated that it had already made in the individual.

One extreme example of unorthodox behaviour sticks in my mind; an affront to the ideal proposed, and a warning that in the end nature cannot be contained. In my junior year two senior cadets were suspected by their peers of homosexuality. One evening, at the end of the day’s activities, an iron bedstead was dragged out into the wide corridor of Old College. One of the offenders was tied to it naked and face down, and literally covered with foot powder; then the other was lowered on top of him and tied in position. They were left there all night, to be discovered next morning and released by the soldier servants who came early to awaken us. I do not know what happened to them after that, but I believe that the authorities never knew about the incident, and that the whole affair remained a matter private to the student body.

Fatigue was a familiar sensation to us, induced as a means of testing our endurance. It can produce visions - for how else can I have seen a beautiful dark haired girl with two enormous dogs pass close in front of me as I peered out of my trench at dawn through red-rimmed eyes, towards the end of a three-day exercise?

We were paid £3 per week, which was credited monthly to our accounts at the Sandhurst Bank. This system was intended to accustom us to keeping our accounts in credit, and this it did simply because at the Sandhursrt Bank there was no chance at all of getting an overdraft. If there were insufficient funds, then your cheque bounced and that was that - or rather, that was only the beginning of your problems because bouncing a cheque was treated as a very serious offence. One can see how commendable this lesson was for young men, but I am afraid its effects do not necessarily persist. We were also taught the correct forms of address for various ranks of dignatory, and how to issue and accept formal invitations to social events.

Since we had to pay a mess bill each month out of our meagre pay, in order to defray the cost of extra food above and beyond the usual Army ration, on the few occasions I did manage to get to London at the weekend there was precious little I could afford to do but walk about. Occasionally, when she was in London, I would visit Miss Eve Adamson at her house on Wilton Place and she would give me tea and take a great interest in my career; but I would avoid her if my mother was in London. The image we strove for was deliberately old fashioned, so it was particularly pleasing to me when once she took me to her club, the Ladies’ Carlton. We were not allowed to go outside the Academy bare headed because we were obliged to have a hat to raise in response to the salutes of the other ranks. For even our nemesis, the Company Sergeant Major, had to salute us in uniform or out of it. Most of us affected bowler hats, which were ideally supposed to have curly brims. To this end we steamed them and kept them pinned up during the weeks that the hats spent on our wardrobe shelves; in spite of this they seemed always to flatten to their original profile at the first touch of rain.

On one occasion I managed to afford a visit to the theatre - to the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus, to see a show with the risque title of ‘Intimacy at 8.30’.  I immediately fell in love with the leading lady, a husky voiced blond Norwegian named Aud Johansen.  In fact, it is of course incorrect to say that I fell in love with her; I was merely obsessed by the appearance of her beyond the footlights and by the enticing role she played.  It seemed to me quite proper and traditional that young military gentlemen should pursue actresses; this image had definitely occurred in my reading.  So I wrote to her and asked if I might meet her and take her out to dinner.  Such was my excitement that I gave no thought as to how I might afford this, until she wrote back to me and, to my delight and horror, accepted my invitation.

I had a breathing space of a couple of weeks during which time I economised ferociously (no Wagon Wheels at tea break, hardly any cigarettes, and no other extras). When the next leave out arrived I scraped out my bank account, producing, I think, about £10, took my bowler from its shelf and unpinned its brim, and went by bus from Camberley to London.  I hovered nervously about the stage door, brimming with an excitement tempered only by the acute awareness of my penury and the desperate fear that she might have Expensive Tastes.

When finally she appeared I had my first lesson in the power of illusion.  She was, to my eyes, quite old.  Nevertheless she projected a breathless and exotic magic which I found irresistible, if daunting.

I walked her to a cheap but respectable bistro which had been recommended to me by one of my more au fait colleagues, held my breath until I saw that what she ordered fell within my budget, ate and drank hardly anything myself, and was thus in the end able to achieve my main objective which was to be left with sufficient funds to afford to take her home by taxi.  This I did, too fearful to touch her; but on the way she asked me my age, and I, honest but naive, told her that I was seventeen.

The following week I received a letter from her, telling me that she was working hard in her world and that I was doing likewise in mine, and that our paths were divergent.  It was very sweet of her, because she must have realised that in pursuing her I had been responding to form rather than substance.  It is the job of an actor to deal in illusion, but serious responses to this artifice are unwise and unwarranted.

And so my two years at Sandhurst continued, the feverish regimentation of the term time contrasting strangely with the still pool of the holidays, which were almost completely uneventful except for the tirades of my mother and the reasonable conversation of our neighbours the Garsides.  On one occasion I and another cadet earned money by working on the roads as labourers only to have our entire earnings consumed by the cost of hasty and surreptitious repairs to my mother’s kitchen ceiling, brought down in her absence by his neglected and overflowing bath.  My senior term was punctuated by interviews with the Colonel of regiments to which I had applied - firstly the 4th Hussars and secondly the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

I met the Colonel of the 4th Hussars, a retired cavalry general, at the Cavalry Club in Piccadilly.  He was seated in a leather wing backed chair in the library after lunch. Even at the time I thought it extraordinary how nature can imitate art, as Oscar Wilde said.  After I had introduced myself the dialogue went like this: “D’ye ride?”; “A bit, Sir” I said, thinking nervously of my last equestrian adventure, involving a pair of tightly fitting boots which I had bought second-hand from Major Clutterbuck of the Engineers, put proudly on over my winged Harry Hall britches with the knee buttons so tight that they were almost impossible to fasten, and trotted down to the Sandhurst stables where the soldier groom took one look at me, said “Want a leg up, Sir?” and jerked me smartly over the horse so that I landed on the ground on the far side.  “Our officers are excellent horsemen” said the General.  He followed that remark with another pertinent question: “Got any money?”; “Er, no, sir, just my pay, actually”; “Our officers have to have some money.  Got to keep a couple of horses.  Can’t do that on your pay.”  I left somewhat crestfallen.

My second interview took place in Northumberland during the holidays, when I was invited with another candidate for the regiment to dine with the Colonel, General Sir Francis Festing.  This was an altogether friendlier affair and in spite of a slight contretemps involving a finger bowl, the purpose of which was a mystery to me, both Adam Hope and I were accepted for the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

At Sandhurst the final grading, on which was based one’s position in the Army list, was reduced to two factors of ten, one for academic results, and the other for a mysterious and fugitive quality known as the Character Grade, or Charlie George in the old phonetic alphabet.  We constantly tried to discover the requirement for a high Charlie George score; was it sophistication, conversation, hunting, pot holing, or boxing? Obviously I never discovered the key to this subjective and idiosyncratic system of judgement, because my CG mark was quite low, and having entered Sandhurst at the top of my year I left at only the mid point.