I enlisted in the Royal Marines on July 27th, 1965. My mother left me at the train station, and I was to join lots of other young men who had made their way to the military training barracks at Deal in Kent. Recruit training was tough, and it was then I realised what a good grounding my time in the ATC had given me. Already, I had an advantage, as I knew how to march and how to address people. Most of all, I knew what discipline was - something that many of the recruits had to learn.
One thing I did have to contend with was a new name. I had always been known by the surname of James, which was my stepfathers name, but my birth certificate said Gatepain and that was what I joined the Marines as.
Bullying in the military is often talked about but, thankfully, it was minimal. One guy was given a cold bath and scrubbed with scrubbing brushes because he didnít keep himself clean, but that was about it.
Training was split into basic training at Deal and then we went to the Infantry Training Centre in Lympstone, just outside Exmouth to learn infantry skills. During the final six weeks, we completed the Commando Course and got our green berets.
Being one of the fittest in the Squad was an advantage. When it came to doing the 30-mile speed march, that we needed to complete in order to Pass-out, I was put with two of the other fittest guys and we were given a Naval medic who we had to get around the course in the allocated time. In the end, one of the guys was carrying all of our kit and rifles and the other guy and I were carrying the medic. We managed to get in within the permitted time to qualify for our Green Beret.
Fitness is something that I have maintained throughout my life. To this day, I have a morning exercise routine, which includes sit-ups and press-ups. Over the years, Iíve added in Pilates, weights and an exercise bike. I used to incorporate a run but since 2002 when I completed the London Marathon, I let that slip with the exception of when Iím in Spain where Iíll run around the block.
Once my training was complete, I was posted to 45 Commando, which was on active service in Aden. Aden, located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, became part of the British Empire in 1839 and had been a British Protectorate since 1874 and was to remain so until 1967. As the British decolonised following World War II, it grew in importance due to the loss of their other territories and the fact that it was a strategically placed port. It became the headquarters for both the Colonial Office and the British military in the Middle East.
In the early 1960s, resentment grew against the British as its troops tried to put down tribal warfare, something that produced resistance from Arab nationalists both in and outside Aden. 45 Commando was sent to Aden in 1960 and were stationed at the BP Camp in Little Aden. On December 10th, 1963, a terrorist tried to kill the British High Commissioner. A state of emergency was declared and the British raised their efforts to retain control.
I flew out to Aden at the end of May 1965, and the thing I remember about my arrival was when the plane doors opened at RAF Khormaksar and a blast of scorching heat hit as if an oven door had been opened. The other stand-out memory from those first hours was that everyone was carrying a weapon. I had seen it in films, but this was real, and I was part of it.
We were quickly ushered though the reception process and onto the waiting transport. 45 Commando was based in Little Aden, which was across the causeway some miles away. On arrival, we were allocated our companies and troops. I was allocated 2 Troop, X Company along with two of my friends from training and we were briefed then shown to our huts.
The first few days were about getting acclimatised to both the heat and the political situation. We were sent on long runs and educated on what we could and couldnít do. After that, it was joining our Troop as we were due to head off on Internal Security duties in Crater.
Crater speaks for itself. Itís a town built in the crater of an ancient volcano. Temperatures in the summer months went over 100oF and touching the metal of your rifle could result in a burn.
We werenít housed in Crater but went there each day. Our base was the police station, from there we went out on patrol or whatever it was we were required to do. As for any Marine, my first patrol was memorable. Straight out of training and we came under a grenade attack. As soon as the word Ďgrenadeí was shouted, the training kicked in and took over. I threw myself on the ground, as did everyone else in the patrol. After the explosion, we got up and there was a scurrying around, but it was pointless as the person who had thrown it was long gone. The subsequent events have dimmed although I can still see one civilian, an old man, who had been caught in the blast and lay on the ground bleeding.
From Crater we returned to Little Aden and carried out security duties around there. I established a routine and got to know the other people in my troop who were to introduce me to folk music, which was to become a life-long passion. It was in Aden that I was introduced to the music of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, Marianne Faithfull, and Joan Baez. One of the guys had a portable record player on which he played his limited selection of discs. In later years, I took over the running of the Folk Club in Lincoln and bought copies of all those records.
Shortly we were informed that our Troop was going up country to a place called Wadi Ayn to cover the withdrawal of British Forces from what was the most remote part of the British Empire.
We were expecting a rough time in Wadi Ayn but in fact, it was the opposite. The camp consisted of an airfield with everything required to maintain and defend it, so consisted of RAF and Army personnel. Our job was to cover the withdrawal. The local headman was very pro-British, and he had placed his men around our camp so that if anyone wanted to get to us, they had to go through his men first. During the preparation phase of the withdrawal, our job was a bit of patrolling, escorting the medic to the villages, and keeping fit. It resembled Butlins in the sun Ė with plenty of sun. There were also plenty of flies. We used to have competitions on the gate guard to see who could kill the most flies while sat at the table during the guard. The challenge was also to try to get your food into your mouth without any flies on it. It was far from perfect but although we were within a few miles of the Yemen border, which was on three sides, we were never attacked.
The trip from Wadi Ayn was almost uneventful. We werenít expecting any hostile problems due to the route that we were taking, which was via the Sea of Sands, a particularly desolate landscape. We did have a short patch of track where the ground created a problem for the vehicles to cross so they were taken across a couple at a time roped up with us pulling as needed. The Convoy Commander would call for the vehicles that he wanted. On one occasion, he called out, ďIíll have the Scammel and a 3 TonnaĒ, whereupon the sweat soaked face of a marine looked up and enquired, ďOn toast, Sir?Ē
On return from Wadi Ayn, volunteers were being sought for attachment to Naval Security at HMS Sheba, which was at Steamer Point in the Port of Aden. It sounds grand, but basically, we were manning the main gate. Although it was an important location, things were generally quiet. While I was there, I only saw two incidents. One involved my friend George who was on guard with me finding a visitor with a handgun in a holster. On alerting me, I held the man and put my pistol to his head while George disarmed him. It turned out that he was an undercover policeman who failed to identify himself prior to attempting entry. In the other incident, a grenade was thrown into the private roadway leading to the gates of the base. It was a busy time, but someone saw the grenade and gave the warning, so people were able to throw themselves onto the ground. As soon as the grenade had exploded George and I were up and running across all the people who were still laying prone on the ground. Fortunately, because of the warning, only one person was slightly injured.
I had to leave HMS Sheba prematurely as I had a disagreement with one of the lance corporals which ended in more than just words and resulted in me being returned to unit. I couldnít be charged as the incident happened in the mess block, which was full at the time, but, no-one saw me do anything wrong. My company was upcountry in the Radvan Mountains, so I was sent up there. The strange twist of fate was that within a week or so I was promoted to lance corporal and became a section commander.
Our return down country gave us a bit of time before it was time for our next hot spot which was Sheikh Othman, and we were tasked with the provision of guards within Al Mansoura prison. That was a duty I had a few weeks before my tour was due to end. While in Sheikh Othman, the patrol I was in was mined and shot at. All in all, during my time in Aden I had been grenaded, mortared, mined and shot at. When I got home to England, if I heard a car backfire I very nearly dived onto the pavement. You still donít find me sitting with my back to the door in cafes or restaurants.
Wadi Ayn wasnít the only place upcountry where the Marines were required to support other British troops. On one occasion, our Troop was required to set up a camp on an exposed table-top jebel in order to act as bait so that anyone who attacked us could be ambushed by the SAS either on their way in prior to the attack, or on their way back after. We knew that we were likely to come under fire, so we really went to town on the production of our sanger, which were to provide our protection, creating thick walls of stone. We then sat back and waited. We were there for several days but eventually, during the night of November 5th, the fireworks started. Some years later when I was with the Territorial Army, I was doing a course and was talking to a guy in the SAS and Aden came up. I mentioned that we had been the bait for them once. It turned out that he had been in the ambush group.
It wasnít all work as later in November, we went to Kenya for six weeks training. This was split into two phases, three weeks on the plains on Hathanger and then three weeks at Kathendeeny in the tropical rain forest below Mount Kenya where we learnt to survive in the jungle.
Our departure to Kenya was delayed for a couple of days due to operational reasons in that the aircraft were required elsewhere so the morning we were due to leave our camp we were given the news. I have to say that was for me exceptionally good news as the previous evening we were celebrating one of the guy's birthdays. I can remember the early part of the evening but the last thing I remembered was bringing a couple of gin and tonics back to our table and starting to sit down. I donít actually remember sitting on the chair, nor do I remember anything else about the evening. The next thing I can remember was waking up in the morning in bed feeling decisively unwell and leaning over the side of my bed. To my amazement, fortunately, there was a bucket there.
Forcing myself to get up I thought that a bit of breakfast might help so off to the cookhouse I went. I helped myself to some bacon, eggs, fried bread and beans and sat down, cut the bacon and realised I wasnít going to make this. Quickly I deposited my breakfast and made my way back towards my room. We were taking some army personnel with us to Kenya, so they had been stopping with us overnight. On my way back, two approached me and enquired where the dining room was. At that moment, I could hold myself no longer and up came some more of my previous evenings drinking remnants as I was pointing to the building I had just exited. Not sure if they decided to have breakfast or give it a miss. Iíve never touched gin since, and I should say that that was the only time I have ever been in that condition.
Much of the flight is erased from my mind, I might still have been below par, but when we got to Kenya, we were loaded on three-tonners and set off to our first area at Hathanga. The trip seemed to take an eternity and eventually we were on dust tracks and our hopes rose that we would be nearing our destination, but the tracks seemed to last an age also.
When we did arrive, we found a camp site containing lines of bivis, which are two-man temporary shelters made of waterproof sheets secured together, erected by the advance party. That day consisted of settling in and getting to know our surroundings.
The next day we started our training, which involved most of the skills that we were familiar with, although it was nice to get away from the heat and tension of Aden. We were hoping that there might be a social element but that wasnít to be, as we really were out in the wilds of Africa. Our evenings consisted of gathering around the Troop campfire, telling stories and singing songs. Whenever I hear the folk song the ĎWild Roverí, I remember those evenings.
One thing that we did need to cope with was the animals, ones that we didn't come across in England. There was a lion that took an interest in our section but kept its distance and a rhino who decided to come a little closer to get a better look at us. By the time it got closer, we were up a tree. It looked and then moved on. We stayed up our trees for a while before deciding it was safe to venture down.
After the three weeks, we were to move up to the tropical rain forest of Kathendini. If you donít like insects and creepy-crawlies, donít book a holiday there. We were to learn about living and moving in jungle conditions and how to erect our basha on a platform to ensure that you are not sleeping on the ground. One guy left his pack under his basha, the next morning his food had gone and it wasnít any of us that took it.
The thing that sticks in my memory occurred when we were leaving our overnight camp and we came across an army of ants. We had just struck camp in the morning and were moving along a track when we saw a column of ants crossing in front of us. We waited and waited but the column went on for ages. We had to cross but we couldnít step over it. In the end, we had to run and jump across, and we kept going hoping that we didnít upset them, and that they didnít decide to follow us. Fortunately, they didnít.
Soon, our time in Kenya was up and it was time to return to Aden. We had all enjoyed the break and the change. When we completed training, we were given a form asking which was our preferred posting. I could have chosen Aden or Singapore. I chose Aden as I knew that Britain was due to leave there in 1967 whereas I would most likely be able to get to Singapore at a later date. If I had gone to Singapore, I would have been operating in the jungles of Malaya and Borneo and having done the Jungle Warfare training, I knew that I had made the right decision.
Later in my tour of Aden, I had the option of returning to Kenya for two weeksí leave there, or two weeksí leave in England. I chose Kenya and spent two weeks in Mombasa, at a resort called Silversands, which was run especially for rest and recuperation for the military. My time there was spent on the beach during the day and in the bars in the evenings.
On my return from Aden, in June 1967, my mother and Rose-Marie met me off the train at Lincoln station and almost didnít recognise me. I had changed significantly. That time in any young manís life is one of great change but Iíd also spent a lot of time working on my suntan prior to my return and looked quite different.
Back in England, I had some well-deserved leave. I had kept contact with some of my friends from the days of the Air Training Corps and we would meet-up when I was on leave. On my return, I phoned Phil and we arranged to meet with him and Martin, a friend of Philís. When we met, it turned out that Martin had befriended some trainee teachers from the training college in Lincoln and had fixed us up with dates. At that time, the college was for females only, so they were only too pleased to have some male company. We subsequently developed a brilliant arrangement there, for if we wanted to go out for the evening, we could contact them, and if they weren't able to, they would check with one of the other girls.
At the end of my leave, I joined my next unit, 41 Commando, in Bickleigh near Plymouth, where I joined F Company, 5 Troop along with George who had been in Aden with me. We had become good friends, a friendship which was to last all our lives. Throughout the summer, we were engaged in training and exercises.
In the autumn we learnt that F Company was earmarked to be on call should they be needed to assist in the protection of NATOís Northern Flank. That meant we all had to learn to live and fight in cold weather conditions and so began our snow warfare course. It started initially at Bickleigh with the theory and getting used to moving on skis. We also had to learn about survival in the harsh conditions that we would encounter and how to conduct military operations under those conditions. Certainly, our company moving around the camp wearing skis amused the guys from the other companies.
In February 1968, we flew to Norway to put into practice what we had learned and we landed at a place called Harstad, which is well within the Arctic Circle. In addition to learning to survive and fight in such conditions, we also had the task of testing equipment to determine its suitability for the Government to purchase for British troops. We soon realised much of the equipment we had was definitely not suitable.
While in the field we would live in tents, but we also learned to construct and live in snow holes, which were in fact quite comfortable. Snow holes were constructed by digging into the side of deep snow and then extending the area to form sufficient space to enable people to live in. You would then seal the ceiling and sides by heat, which would form a frozen barrier. They were quite quick to construct and quite difficult to spot, giving a good sense of security. Tents on the other hand were a lot easier to detect.
The food in Norway was disappointing to say the least. We used to look forward to going out in the field as we then got ration packs, which were more palatable than the food in the Norwegian Army barracks. Our families back home were called upon to send us food parcels. We felt like prisoners of war looking forward to the Red Cross food parcel arriving. When we returned back to Bickleigh from Norway, the Commanding Officer, who had heard of the problems with the food, put on the most wonderful meal for us with steaks and all the trimmings. It certainly made us feel welcomed back.
On my return home, I applied for a parachute course, as this was something I had always wanted to do. When I applied for it, I had to see the Company Commander who would either approve or reject my application. I told him that I was torn between joining the Paras or the Marines but when I found out the Marines did parachuting, then I decided to join them. My application was approved.
George was also on the para course. It was nice having the company of a friend and thatís one of the great things about the Marines, itís very much like a family.
After obtaining my para wings, I returned to 41, but Nat, my best friend in the troop, had been recruited by the Commando Recce (Reconnaissance) Troop as he had served with Recce Troop in 42 Commando in Singapore. He recommended me so I was invited for an interview after which I was asked if I would like to join them. Recce Troop is the eyes and ears of the commando and work in small teams gathering information from behind enemy lines. It means being self-sufficient and being able to blend into the background.
Despite having changed to Recce Troop, I remained friends with Stuart, another of the guys from F Company, who, shortly after getting married, received a posting to HMS Intrepid. Needless to say, he wasnít happy about that. A great benefit of the Marines is that if you get a posting and donít want it, if you can find someone to do it for you, then the option is there to pass it on to them. I offered to take the posting off Stuart, so he could enjoy married life with his new wife. I was off on a new adventure, setting sail around the world.
2 Troop, X Company, 45 Commando. George standing 4th from left, I'm standing 4th from right.
Going out on patrol from our camp in Wadi Ayn.
Our campsite, Hathanger, Kenya.
Digging snow holes in Norway.
Me with my section in Norway.