Chapter 11

Return to the Military

In conjunction with the start of my educational journey, the 1980s saw my return to military service. The Falklands War rekindled my interest in the Forces for me. So, when I saw an advert for 2503 Auxiliary Squadron (the local RAF Regiment Reserve Forces) in 1983, I filled in the form and sent it off. I was invited to RAF Scampton outside Lincoln. I thought there would probably be several of us but there was just me. I was asked to get in a Land Rover and the corporal drove me across to the Auxiliary Squadron’s Head Quarters. 

“You are going for an officer?” he asked. I wasn’t, but seeing as he had suggested it, I nodded in agreement. When I got to the office, I was met by the Adjutant, a Flight Lieutenant, who took me in to meet the Squadron Commander. Everyone just assumed that I was going for a commission. I did think that I ought to tell them about my time in the Naval Detention Quarters, but that didn’t seem to concern them. I had to go through an official Commissioning Board, but I think that was more a case of a formality. In the meantime, I had started my training.

It is strange how fate can steer you along certain roads and take you to goals that you never thought you would have.  I recalled how, as a young marine in 41 Commando, I was looking out the window of my room one day and saw the duty officer doing his rounds, and I recalled thinking that I would like to be an officer, although I knew that would never happen. Nevertheless, here I was, many years later, and that was happening, and I had done nothing to instigate the sequence of events that made it happen. I had briefly dreamed of it and then quickly dismissed it from my mind, yet now I was about to have that dream become a reality.  If I reflect on my life I realise that that has happened on a number of other occasions and I often say to people that, reality is borne of dreams. From a lowly start, it made me a successful businessman, it got me three degrees, enabled me to travel extensively, and it gave me an enormous amount of satisfaction with my life. Over the years I have told people to decide what they want from life, then it can happen.  It is like as a child, deciding what you want as a Christmas present, you must know what you want, even if you don’t know how you will get it, but always, think positively.

It had been over ten years since I had left the Marines, but all the skills were still there; I could handle a rifle as though it was yesterday. I was still fit despite being in my mid-thirties. I was given the rank of Officer Cadet but shortly my commission came through with the rank of Pilot Officer and I became a Flight Commander. 

Having been promoted to Flying Officer I took on the responsibilities for additional activities.  I formed a shooting team and we entered at Bisley, which is the Mecca for shooters. I also took on responsibility for recruit training, something which I really enjoyed. 

Recruit Training Squard, 2503 Squadron 

I would have stayed longer only the commitment as an officer was quite substantial. By the time I had served five years with 2503 Squadron, a point came where I had done six consecutive weekends and Val felt that I ought to be spending some with her. It was then I saw an advert for the Royal Pioneer Corps (RPC) of the Territorial Army (TA). Their yearly commitment was a lot less than the Auxiliary’s. I contacted them to see if I could transfer across.

The role of the Pioneers was security, construction, and general labour so with my military background and construction qualifications they were delighted to have me join them. The idea was that I’d transfer across, but it wasn’t quite that simple. I had to leave the RAF, then commission into the Army as a Lieutenant, but that was just a formality, and it means that I have two commissioning parchments from Queen Elizabeth II.

The commitment with the RPC was two weekends a year and a two-week annual camp, although as an officer we were expected to do a couple more weekends than that, but nothing to the commitment that the RAF Auxiliaries required. The Pioneers were based at Simpson Barracks near Northampton so that did require a bit of a drive each time, but it wasn’t too bad.

On joining, I was put into a Company commanded by an ex-regular, a Major called Rod Othen. Rod didn’t suffer fools gladly, but I liked him, and we got on well and became friends. I would always salute and call him Sir the first and last time I saw him but, off duty, it was Rod. 

Just as I called Rod by his first name, I tended to do that with everyone who I was working with on a regular basis.  I would also ask people to do things rather than tell them, but everyone knew that my request was an order and I only had one occasion where I had to be more precise when a corporal didn’t quite grasp what was being said.   Something that I was able to rectify with one of my looks and a “Let me rephrase that Corporal”.  

My first appointment was as Company Training Officer.   My first weekend was interesting and established my standing within the Company.  We were updating kit and one of my corporals, Billie McKenzie. submitted a pair of boots for exchange.  The Quartermaster (QM) said that he wasn’t changing them as he had changed them previously.  Being in attendance I went over to look at the boots and the soles were significantly worn down.  I mentioned this to the QM who was a captain and ranked above me and he snapped that they didn’t need changing.  I then proceeded to state that they definitely did need changing and an exchange of words occurred, which is my way of saying that we had a blazing row.  He stated that he wasn’t going to change them and told the corporal to get out.

I left the store with the corporal and told him to come with me and we walked across to the Colonel's office. He was in a meeting with the Company Commanders but on my knock, he called me in.  I entered with the corporal and asked him if he thought that the boots needed changing.  “Yes”, he replied with a quizzical look.  “Can I tell the QM that you said they need changing?” I asked. “Yes”, came his reply.  We left the office and returned to the QM stores where I informed him that the Colonel said they needed changing. He changed them.   I was reminded of this many years later when on an occasion Billie, who had by that time reached the rank of Sergeant Major,  asked if I was happy, I replied that I am always happy, whereupon he responded with, “That sir is because I make sure you are happy, I’ve seen you when you are not”. Certainly, standing up against a senior cemented a relationship that lasted through our careers and certainly got me a reputation for looking after my men.

Looking after your troops and establishing good relationships is something that everyone who plans to join the military should be aware of.  When lecturing on management courses I would also quote another instance which related to when I was preparing the pay prior to the pay parade.  I was in my office when the Company Commander called me, he was in the office two doors down, so I quickly walked to the office whereupon he told me to sit down as he was having a meeting.  I sat down aware that I had left the safe open, but before I had a chance to do anything about it, my Pay Sergeant slid up to me and, having locked the safe, discreetly placed the safe key into my hand.  No one ever found out about that.

When I was promoted to Captain, I became Company 2i/c (Second in Command). However, being my own boss I was able to allocate what time I chose to the TA, I was able to attend a number of courses, something I had done throughout my career with the military.

In addition to my unit duties, over time, I became involved with the selection of potential officers and assisted in the TA Officer promotion training, I also lectured on the Regular Management Courses. It was doing that which resulted in me and their chief Instructor, Major Elvin Jones, writing Management for the Professions, which provided an introduction to the process of management. When it was decided that TA Officers would benefit from Distance Learning prior to attending courses, I was asked to produce the learning material, which I duly did.

I had been involved in the production of individual study units for Nottingham Trent University, but this required complete programmes of study to be designed, written, and produced, as well as the appropriate administration systems. This was to be useful for the students as they were properly prepared for their course, but it also reduced the amount of time that they needed to be in the classroom, which for a TA soldier was very beneficial. It was also useful to me particularly when I started designing online courses at work for my company.

I joined the TA at a good time, as a number of reorganisations were to take place that would enable me to further my career. Firstly, in 1993, the Royal Pioneer Corps was to be amalgamated into the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), and the three Pioneer companies were renamed squadrons.

When the RPC joined the Royal Logistic Corps, we moved from Northampton to the Prince William of Gloucester Barracks in Grantham.  That for me was ideal as it was only about 40 minutes from my home whereas Northampton was an hour and a half.

Shortly after I was promoted to Major and took command of 34 Squadron. At this time Billie McKenzie had reached the rank of Sergeant Major (Sgt Maj) and was 34 Squadron Sergeant Major. We would always walk around, and he would often say: “You don’t want to know this Sir but…”  On a number of occasions that insight came in useful.  On one occasion the word of an incident had reached the attention of the overall commander of the Logistic TA units who asked me about it, I was able to explain it to him and inform him that it had been dealt with.  

34 Company RLC, my first command.  Taken at annual camp on the Isle of Wight. I am sat centre, Billy McKenzie to my left in the photo

In 1995, the RLC Pioneer Squadrons formed into 168 Pioneer Regiment. Rod was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became its first Commanding Officer, and I, as a Major, was his 2i/c, a position I held for three years. On Rod’s retirement, I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and took over command. In 1998, the Strategic Defence Review resulted in 168 Pioneer Regiment being tasked with forming two additional squadrons in the Northeast of England. We were fortunate in that we were able to recruit many of the soldiers from disbanding units in the area.  To help me with this I had a regular Major and SNCO to assist, but I found myself working almost full-time for the Army.  We were able to get the Regiment fully manned with 678 personnel, which made 168 Regiment the largest unit in the British Army.   For me, being the Commanding Officer of 168 Pioneer Regiment was an honour and a privilege, I worked with some terrific people doing something that I loved.  All command positions are for a set period of three years and in 2000 my tour expired, and, due to age, I was required to retire. 

I always thought that when I left the military, I would miss it terribly. It had played such a large part in my life as I had been with the military for over 35 years in one way or another.  I was one of the very few people who ever served in the Regulars, Reserves, and Cadets, as well as with all three branches of service, the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Certainly, the comradeship that you have in the military you don’t get in civilian life. Like most things in life, however, if you can find something to fill a void then it isn’t a problem. 

Once again, fate was to take a hand. I was at a cocktail party and was telling someone that I had just retired from the TA whereupon he asked if I would like to be involved with the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association Committee (RFCA). I had come across them in the past, when I was establishing my new units in the north-east for my regiment and the RFCA had provided the barracks. I expressed an interest, so I was invited to call and see them. I was told by their Deputy Chief Executive that I would need to meet with the Committee Chairman. I didn’t need to meet the Committee Chairman as we had both been in 2503 Squadron together as junior officers. I was accepted without an interview.

Once with the Committee, I was asked to take on the role of Employer Liaison and then later when the Chairman changed, I was asked to be Vice Chairman. The new Chairman wasn’t able to carry out the role for more than a year, so I was asked to become Chairman, a position that I held for five years. 

My role involved me giving presentations and talking to people and businesses about the Reserve Forces and the skills that it could provide to them and their workforce. I would talk to people and businesses and give presentations to such organisations as the Round Table and Rotary Clubs around the county about our work. I would also attend the local Business Club, which once again enabled me to promote the Reserves and its benefits. My Vice Chairman was Roger Pavey a former Wing Commander with the RAF, and he and I, would also attend exhibitions and promote the advantages of the Cadets and the Reserve Forces to individuals, something that I could speak about from my own personal experience.

Roger and me promoting the RFCA at an exhibition.

On one occasion I turned up for a meeting held at one of our army camps. I was Vice Chairman at the time and reported to the Guardroom informing them that I was attending the RFCA Committee Meeting and that I was Colonel Gatepain, looking down his list of attendees he exclaimed Colonel Gatepain VC, and respect radiated from him. He had obviously interrupted VC as Victoria Cross, the highest award for Bravery rather than Vice Chair. It was only as I was walking away that I realised his mistake. I didn’t go back and enlighten him. 

A regular function would be for us to hold dinners to thank companies for the support that they had given to members of their businesses who were in the Reserves.  Other events would include inviting people to the International Air Show, which I would host, something that required me to be accompanied.  I was divorced by this time but was fortunate enough to be able to enlist the help of Anne.  

International Air Show Lunch with Employers

We would also stage dinners at Army Barracks to give our guests an insight into the formalities of military life and etiquette. These were generally popular as our President was the Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire, and he would also attend these dinners.   My work with the RFCA did get me an invite to Buckenham Palace for a Garden Party, so I was able to joke that I have had tea with the Queen.

Outside Buckenham Palace prior to Garden Party

Being part of the RFCA Committee also meant that I could maintain my links to the Military, particularly my old unit in the RLC, as I was able to join the Officers Mess at Grantham and attend many of their functions, thus being able to don my uniform Mess kit and meet many of my old comrades.

Anne and me at the Officers Mess Ball

I am a great advocate of joining the military as that broadens your outlook, teaches you to get on with people from all backgrounds, and sets you up for life, whatever that may bring.   I am also a great believer in the benefit of the cadets and sponsor the award of the Marine Endeavor Trophy at the Lincoln Sea Cadets, something that I do on a personal basis. 

Presenting Marine Endeavor Trophy to winning cadet

Chapter 12 - Spending More Time Abroad

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