Apart from a brief foray into writing about my second love, motorbikes, it is eight months since my last attempt at writing for a blog. So after all the requests for more (well two actually!) I thought I might have another go. In fact I decided to write in long hand using a fountain pen because while I used to have good handwriting, as the saying goes, if you don´t use it you lose it. I thought I would give her indoors the task of typing it up but after hearing … looks as if you used a bloody quill I decided to keep the peace and type it.
For anyone reading this who would like to do a quick recap, my first efforts A Soldiers Life For Me can be found here. There I covered the first six weeks of my army career and that more or less set the pattern for the next six months of my time at the Army Apprentices School, Arborfield.
Initially we were in what was known as HQ Company and pretty well segregated from the rest of the school. As the date drew closer for a new intake of recruits we were assigned Companies that would become our ‘homes’ for the next two and a half years. I was put into ‘A’ Company – recognisable by the blue flash behind the cap badge and the ribbon behind our brass shoulder badges. The others were ‘B’ Company – Red, ‘C’ – Green and ‘D’ – Yellow.
In some ways it was comparable to boarding school with similar “traditions”. The main difference was that whereas we were educated to GCE examinations we also covered (in my case) electronics theory and practical. We also had to study what was called “ancillary” training which meant we spent time in the blacksmith’s shop, tin smithing where we made the chassis for the radio sets we would build later in our training, welding and turning. Handy skills to have no doubt, but ones that I have never in 50 odd years had to put to any use.
So as the days progressed into a general repetitive pattern, as in any academic environment, most of it was mundane but there were some incidents that were so ingrained, I can remember like yesterday.
Once in our companies one of the first things we learned was the joy of “gyping” or “jipping”. However it is spelt the end result was the same. On a number of occasions I would be first in line outside the cookhouse doors waiting for them to open as I was always hungry – nothing changes. Sadly by the time the doors opened, I would be somewhere in the region of number 100 in the queue! This was because seniority took priority, and a senior division could walk in front of a junior division, therefore being a new recruit I was in 2 Division (the lowest of the low) those in Divisions 3 to 6 could walk in front of us irrespective of what time they arrive or what their rank. Although this rankled at least our turn would eventually come with the progression of time. On a slightly different note despite what many old squaddies may say the meals we were served were pretty good and if you did get in early enough nice and hot but some hope of that in the early days!
Our eating utensils were two china plates, a one pint china mug and KFS (knife, fork and spoon). It was not unknown to be standing in the cookhouse queue inevitably getting shuffled further towards the back and have senior Division (6) walk past on their way to the front, swinging their knife by the blade. The innocents standing in line holding their plates would hear a sharp crack, only to look down the only piece of plate remaining was the rim. Then, with a cry of “oh gosh” or something like that! it was a quick dash to the QM’s stores hoping they would still be open to draw two new plates and pay out of ‘stoppages’ for the pleasure.
Another unexpected joy would be to walk into the barrack room at the end of the day and finding a web belt, gaiters or boots dropped on your bed by a member of senior division, this only happened to 2 division. Strange to say this wasn’t as big a chore as it sounded, we had to clean our own kit every night (we were inspected each morning) so it was no big deal to do someone else’s.
As far as education went, many of our instructors were young graduates having had their National Service deferred until after gaining their degrees. They were automatically given the rank of sergeant when they joined the RAEC (Royal Army Education Corps). My instructor for English had a set of belt brasses that I coveted. The buckle had been machine buffed and the sliders handmade. You could always be a bit less formal with the RAEC sergeants, so I told him I liked his belt brass, and he said I could have them when he was demobbed if I passed my GCE English. The upshot was I did pass and sure enough he did give me his brasses which I had until I got demobbed some eleven years later.
Now, anyone who knows me will know that I have a great passion for motorbikes. The big problem was that in the Apprentice School the owning of any form of motorised transport was forbidden. To me, that was purely a technicality to be overcome. Following my sixteenth birthday I rushed to Great Western Motors in Reading and bought my first motorbike, a brand new white 250cc Ambassador Super S. (‘She’ found a similar photo in the internet). That was the easy part, next was where to keep it.
Fortunately after all our physical training, I was fit, so tramping around the local countryside calling at all the local farms was no big deal. I never met a farmer who seemed surprised when asked if I could keep my bike and riding kit in a barn or outhouse. I guess over the years they must have all been approached by numerous Apprentices seeking garaging for their vehicles.
In the early days, despite our time being ‘free’ we were only allowed out on Saturdays after drill parade, Sundays after church parade and Wednesday evenings but had to be back by 10pm. Only Apprentice NCO’s and Senior Division were allowed to wear civilian clothes, the rest of us had to wear either uniform or school mufti – blue blazer, white shirt, school tie, grey trousers and black shoes and we were checked at the gate by the RP’s (Regimental Police) before being allowed out. Heaven help anyone who tried to escape in fashionable (at the time) suede shoes as these were regarded as the sign of the devil and all his demons.
Twice a week, the camp hall turned into a cinema (it was also the gymnasium and church). These films were a popular form of escapism although the projectors and sound system left a lot to be desired. It was the duty of the projectionist (another National Serviceman) to select what was shown. Ours must have been a great Randolph Scott fan as I have seen every film he ever made, some more than once. Oh how I hate Randolph Scott!
At the end of our time we took our final trade test covering all aspects of our chosen trade and become 3rd Class Tradesmen. We also spent a lot of time on military training, after all we were soldiers, although many “real” soldiers reckoned we were civilians in ginger suits but they were always pleased to see us when they had problems.
The culmination of all our time and training was the passing out parade; even the cookhouse pulled the stops out and put on a very impressive spread. The parade was attended by the whole school, pipe and military bands, march pasts all viewed by an audience of permanent staff, friends and proud family.
Having ultimately achieved membership of Senior Division, we finally relinquished our WWI style service dress and donned battle dress before heading for pastures new. Everyone went different ways to new units, in my case; it was a short journey down the road to 3 Training Battalion REME for a further six months in order to achieve 2nd Class Tradesman. Then another parting of the ways, for me it was 15 Infantry Workshop REME in Paderborn, Germany and a whole lot of new adventures and mis-adventures.
This is just a glimpse of life in the Apprentice School (there were other schools for other trades in Chepstow, Harrogate and later Carlisle). Generally I enjoyed my time there as indeed I enjoyed all of my army career. The school was by no means a place of grim servitude, I had many good times and as one would expect from a bunch of young lads together a lot of tom foolery but very little bullying, probably a lot less than in your average school today.
The Army Apprentice Schools finally closed their gates in 2004, I assume the new smaller army doesn’t need as many tradesmen (and women). Young people can still join up but I think it is a very different army to the one I joined – not better or worse just different.