Enlisted in Royal Marines
I enlisted in the Royal Marines on July 27th, 1965. My mother took me to the train station, and I was off to join lots of other young men who had made their way to the military training barracks at Deal in Kent.
Training was split into basic training at Deal which lasted for 15 weeks. This was to convert us from civilians and teach us the skills that are required of a marine. During the time at the Depot, we spent two weeks on the one of the ships of the reserve fleet in Portsmouth, learning to live on board a ship and learning seamanship. Following that we spent a week at the Amphibious Training Unit in Poole, Dorset where we learned about amphibious operations and working from landing craft. Having successfully completed Basic Training, we then went to the Infantry Training Centre in Lympstone, just outside Exmouth to learn infantry skills for a further seventeen weeks, six weeks of which was spent doing the Commando Course which we needed to successfully complete to qualify for our green berets.
On arrival at Deal, we were met by a particularly smart Lance Corporal in his uniform, who collected me and several other guys and ushered us on to transport to take us to the Barracks. Once there we were taken into a large barrack block with beds running along the length of the building on either side. We were allocated the next available bed and briefed on what was to happen. There were four other guys with me. The oldest was Dave Long, who was 26 and had been an electrician in civilian life but wanted a new life, He was a quiet sort of guy who we learnt to look up to as he was always willing to help others. George Milligan and Howard Marshal would have been in their early 20’s and Pete Kelly in his teens. I was 17 and a half. Joining us also was Mick Lee. Mick was public school educated and kept himself much to himself. He was, however, pleasant and efficient. He went on to become a Section Commander in training and, on passing out, he later joined the Special Boat Service (SBS). We all got on well and learnt to work as a team. Over the next couple of days there was a constant stream of new people joining us. This was the new intake block, and we were to there for a week or so before being moved to smaller rooms consisting of six people per room.
Once the Squad was complete, we met our Squad Instructor, a Corporal Drill Instructor by the name of Corporal Cruickshank. It was his job to weld this group of individuals into a cohesive squad of potential Marines.
The thing I remember most about Corporal Cruickshank was that, although he was a disciplinarian, he was fair and did not “beast” us for the sake of doing that, although many of the instructors did. It was common to have them shout at us, which if they were right in your face could be a bit disconcerting initially, although the key thing is not to take it personally. We were taught about life in the Marines and the personal skills that we would need. As well as teaching us to drill, we needed to understand discipline and how to look after ourselves, our clothes, and our equipment. I learned how to iron shirts and press trousers, as well as sew on buttons and darn socks.
One of the first things we did as a squad was to be taken to the clothing store to draw our uniform and equipment. We were also taken to the barber to have a haircut. I had had a haircut before I went to Deal, although I might as well have saved my money as everyone was given the short back and sides that was the standard style of haircut for recruits throughout training.
A high standard was expected and we relished the opportunity to show that we had reached that standard and to send proof of that fact back to our families.
Reaching the requored standard of smartness.
Recruit training was tough, both physically and psychologically. The body would say it has had enough yet the mind would say carry on – it’s only pain – something that became a mantra during training. The first weeks were spent learning the basic skills that you would need as you progress through training and becoming a serving marine. It was in my first few days that 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. I was also able to “bull” my boots and, while some struggled, I had mine with a good shine in no time at all.
Some years later, when I was with the Reserve Forces and Cadet Association Committee, I would visit cadet units and was able to extoll the advantages of being in the Cadets from my own personal experience for anyone thinking of joining the military.
One thing I did have to contend with though was a new name. I had always been known by the surname of James, which was my stepfather’s name, but my birth certificate said “Gatepain” and that’s who I was as a Marine.
The other thing that we were expected to know was the History of the Royal Marines. I can still remember that the Royal Marines were formed on 28 October 1664 from the Trained Bands of London into the "Duke of York and Albany's maritime regiment of Foot" for service on HM ships.
Bullying in the military is often talked about but, thankfully, it was minimal in my experience. One guy was given a cold bath and scrubbed with scrubbing brushes because he didn’t keep himself clean, but that was about it. Morale in our squad was good, as we all helped each other. Everyone was more concerned with getting through the training successfully than to waste effort in being the “Big I Am”. That attitude would not have gone down well in our squad. There were a couple of guys who would have stamped down on it if anyone had tried it on.
The thing that was new to most of us was the weapon training and field craft. I had done some shooting in the ATC but this was a higher standard and had to be good. We would therefore spend time in the classroom learning the theory then on the range putting what we had learnt into practice with just a short period for lunch.
Lunch at the range, me centre front
Mistakes were however punished by the training team, this could be by a run around the parade ground or press-ups, although if we were in the field, that was often sit-ups, particularly if it was raining and the ground was muddy.
Our accommodation would be subject to the same on-the-spot checks as we were, and woe betide us if that was found wanting. Our lockers would store our clothing and kit in a specific way and if that was not perfect then everything would be emptied on to the floor.
By Christmas we had completed our initial basic training and were ready to “Pass-Out” of Basic Training and move on to the next phase. A few of the recruits had not made the grade, either because they didn’t reach the required standard, had suffered an injury, or because they had found that the Marines was not for them. It never occurred to me that I might not finish the training regardless of what I was going through. Those who had survived the course were to have a Pass-Out Parade where families could come and see the progress we had made. My mother had a friend who lived in Kent, so she travelled down and stayed with her for a couple of days and came to watch me.
Pass-Out parade Squad Inspection at Deal, I am 4th from the right
After completing basic training, I had two weeks leave and then joined my squad at Lympstone for the second part of my training. Much of our training was to be spent on Dartmoor learning to live and fight in the field. We were to learn field-craft and how to handle a variety of weapons.
Days in the field were certainly not a time to relax and admire the scenery. I went through that stage of military skills training during the winter months so the weather was against us and made things even more difficult, as in fact did the training team who would “beast” us, the purpose of which I later came to realise was to test us physically, mentally and emotionally and to build our character.
Training on Dartmoor
Any part of the military is great for preparing you for life, and certainly me encountering that at the age of 17 was to hold me in good stead all my life. It gives you strength of character and you have to be able to get on with people and work with different characters with different backgrounds, educational abilities and from different parts of the country.
We also had to improve our fitness, so a lot of time was spent on PT in the gym, runs, and assault course sessions.
The accommodation in Lympstone was in new modern blocks with rooms of four people. Situated on the edge of Exmoor, the location of the camp overlooked the River Exe which provided the opportunity for mud runs along the edge of the river. We were also conveniently close to Dartmoor, and we spent many days and nights on the moor in some of the most atrocious weather conditions imaginable.
When I first arrived at Lympstone we learnt that one of the notable challenges was the Tarzan Course. This was an assault course consisting of a series of robe obstacles set in the trees 30 feet above ground. Looking at it, I remember thinking to myself “We aren’t going to do that are we?” Well, we were, as that was one of the tests we had to pass for the Commando Course. There were in fact four tests that had to be completed within a certain time limit, all of which were done in the final week and carrying out equipment. The first three involved carrying our rifle and fighting order weighing 30 pounds. The first was the endurance course, which included a series of tunnels including a short water tunnel, these were spaced over a two-mile distance covering some very rough ground followed by a four-mile run back to camp.
The next test was the nine-mile speed march which had to be completed as a squad in 90 minutes. Speed marching is a combination of running and marching. The following day was the Tarzan and obstacle course, which had to be done in 13 minutes. This was a high obstacle confidence course as you started 30 feet up in the trees and descended using a death slide, which incorporated a decent from height using a rope toggle and then numerous obstacles set at height such as nets and planks. You then went on the Assault course which incorporated the ground level obstacle with water jumps and high walls. The biggest fear was that you might pick up an injury as this was something that could affect your ability to complete all of the tests.
The final test was the 30-mile speed march across Dartmoor. We had eight hours to complete this test carrying our weapons and about 40 lbs of equipment and we had to do it as a four-man team.
Being one of the fittest in the Squad was an advantage for me. Although when it came to doing the 30-mile speed march, 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. If one person failed, the whole team failed. In many ways for me this was payback time, as on one of the exercises on Dartmoor many of the guys went down with hyperthermia, including me, it was the medic that got me up and stamping around to get the blood circulating again, so I guess I owed him for that. However, this was the final test, and we certainly didn’t want to fail that. I do remember having some pointed words with him to get that message across. 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, so I felt that I had paid my debt to the medic.
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, I’ve added in Pilates, weights and an exercise bike. I used to incorporate a run but, since I completed the London Marathon in 2002, I let that slip, with the exception of when I’m in Spain where I’ll run around the block.
Once my training was complete, we had a final Pass-out parade where we were officially presented with our green berets and marched off the square as trained marines. I was posted to 45 Commando, which was on active service in Aden during the British conflict there.
831 Squad Pass-Out Photograph