Chapter 4

Service in UK 41 Commando

On my return from Aden, in June 1967, my mother and Rose-Marie met me off the train at Lincoln station and almost didn’t recognise me. I had changed significantly. That time in any young man’s life is one of great change but I’d 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 Johnson and we arranged to meet with him and Martin Codd, a friend of Phil’s. 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.

F Company, 41 Commando  1968

On joining my section, I teamed up with a guy called Nat Temple, and we were to become friends as we worked very well together in that we worked hard and played hard.

Nat and me in 1968 and in 2014

Throughout the summer, we were engaged in training and exercises. Some of the exercises were local while others were in Norfolk and even in Northumberland.   On one of the exercises our troop was doing a patrol and we were all stretch out in single file.  We stopped and waited for what seemed an age. Eventually the guy at the back wanted to know why we had stopped so, as is common practice, he tapped the guy in front of him on the shoulder and whispered, “Why have we stopped”. This message was past along the line up to the officer at the head of the file.  He responded with ”We are consolidating our position” which was past back to the guy at the rear who had asked the question.  Upon receiving the reply, he responded with “What does consolidating mean?”. Many years later, when I was to become an officer in the military, I always bore that in mind when talking to people gearing my level of talk to the vocabulary that they would use. Generally, our officers were good, Nat and I even went rock climbing with our troop commander, there wasn’t a them and us attitude, which you might get in some Regiments of the Army.  

Nat and our troop commander on a climbing trip in Cornwell. 

In the autumn we learnt that F Company was earmarked to be on call should they be needed to assist in the protection of NATO’s 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.

Me with my section in Norway

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.

Constructing snow holes

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 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 (Para) course, as this was something I had always wanted to do since I had done a simulated parachute dissent at an air show when I was 14 years old. When I applied for the course, 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 Parachute Regiment 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 same Para course. It was nice having the company of a friend and that’s one of the great things about the Marines, it’s very much like a family. Also on the course was David Ballard, one of the guys I had been through training with. Some years later David’s name came up on FaceBook and I sent him a message asking if he was the person who I had been through training with, he was, so we connected as friends. 

One of the first things David mentioned was that I had beaten him in the selection for who was to represent the Squad in the inter Squad boxing. Although we were both at the same weight David was bigger, older and more muscular than me, so when I found myself up against him, I was expecting to get a pounding.  I decided that I would go out fighting, so as soon as we got the go, I went out with everything I had, knowing that David would just take my punches and then come back at me. Fortunately, the PTI stopped the fight before that could happen, so I ended up representing our squad at that weight.  I knew that David was more deserving of the win, and I am sure that David knew it also, but he never said that and that got him a lot of respect from me.  It took over 50 years before I could say that I had won because the PTI stopped the fight, something which got me a like from him on FaceBook.

The Para course was at RAF Abingdon and included personnel from all of the services, although the training was carried out by the RAF. Training involved initially learning the drills regarding what was involved with embarking, and exiting the aircraft, and in controlling the parachute while in the air and how to land. We had twelve jumps to make.  The first two were from a balloon and then we would move on to aircraft.  The first few jumps were without equipment but then we had to jump with that.  The final decent was to be made with equipment and at night.

We had trained to such an extent that all the drills were automatic.  We knew exactly what was to happen and how we were to react. As soon as someone tapped us on the shoulder and shouted GO, we were to exit the aircraft.  When we were in the cage suspended below the balloon and ascending for our first jump, I ran through everything in my mind.  As soon as I was tapped on the shoulder and heard the word GO, I would launch myself from the cage.  One slight problem was that when we got to the desired height the instructor quietly told each of us individually to go to the door and then, rather than shouting GO and tapping us on the shoulder he said quietly, “Off you go then”. I shouted go to myself in my mind and drove from the doorway.  Dropping from the balloon is a feeling I will always remember; the stomach rushes up to your mouth before the parachute opens and you feel the tug of the straps on your shoulder and your sudden decrease in speed on your body and relieve in your entire being.  You then have the pleasant feeling of gently drifting towards the ground and you realise that you need to get ready for your landing.

Most people say that your second jump is the worst as in the first one you don’t know what to expect, whereas in the second you do.  During the course you are free to refuse to jump at anytime and nothing would be said.  We had one person on our course who refused to jump out of the aircraft.  By the time we had made our jump and got back to our room he had gone having been returned to his unit.

For me the course went well, although on my last but one decent I got a bad exit from the plane as I was at the end of the stick, that meant that I was running down the plane prior to exiting. If you are near the front of the stick, you are able to get a clean exit and as soon as you get outside the slipstream turns you and it is like flying along sitting in an armchair. Being at the rear of the stick I wasn’t able to get a clean exit, so when I hit the slip stream of the aircraft I was thrown around a bit and when my parachute opened I found that I had gone through the lines, that meant that I couldn’t control the direction or speed when I was coming into land; consequently I had a hard landing and injured my knee. 

With just one jump to do I wasn’t not going to do it as that would have meant that I wasn’t going to qualify for my Parachute Wings.  I therefore went to the Sick Bay and asked them if they would bandage up my knee to enable me to complete my final jump.  I was told that if it was injured, I should not jump but come and see the doctor.  I left and decided that I would jump anyway.

The evening of the jump I got a towel and cut it into strips and tied it tightly around my knee.  I decided that when I exited the aircraft, I would pull my emergency parachute pull cord, working on the basis that if I had two parachutes open I would come down slower.  As soon as I was out, and my main parachute had deployed I pulled my emergency cord.  We were told that if at anytime we weren’t happy we should open the emergency one.  As soon as I pulled the cord the parachute fell limp in front of me.  “Shake it out number 5”, I heard from the instructor on the ground below.  I shook the cords of the parachute, but it just still hung there.  After a couple of minutes I heard the instructor again “Prepare for landing number 5”. It was then that I realised that I was about to land so I took up my landing position and hit the ground.  I say hit the ground but really it was a gentle touch down.  The conditions had been so calm and still that I just floated down.  At least the emergency chute had taken my mind off the decent and I had completed my jumps with no problem.  The instructor came up and asked what the problem had been, I replied that I just wasn’t happy, that was the last that was said.  I collected both parachutes and joined my fellow jumpers and headed back to camp.

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 with the Troop Commander and Troop Sergeant 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 a number of the guys from F company and still have contact with a couple of them, including George Hearn. On one occasion we were about to go off for a days training and the troop sergeant was calling out who was to be on duty that weekend.  When he called out George’s name there came a shocked response of “I can’t be on duty this weekend Sarg, I’m getting married Saturday”.  “That’s a good excuse” came the reply.

With my friends starting to get married I found that I was getting invited round to dinner quite a lot.  I think one of the reasons for that was because I would eat anything, and, what’s more I would enjoy it and compliment their wives on a great meal.  Later I was to develop a saying that I would frequently use and in fact still use today when I was asked what I wanted to eat.  That was “You put it on the plate, I’ll eat it”.

Stuart Edinburgh, another of the friends from F Company, received a posting to HMS Intrepid shortly after getting married, needless to say, he wasn’t happy about that. A great benefit of the Marines is that if you get a posting and don’t 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.


Chapter 5 - Service with Royal Navy

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