June 1986, Keogh Barracks, Mytchet, Surrey
When I went to the Territorial Army at their base in Aylsham Road in Norwich I had intended to join the infantry, the Royal Anglian Regiment. However I was in my mid thirties by then and the Recruiting Sergeant thought that I would find the training of an infantry man rather hard at that age. Taking his advice I decided to join the Royal Army Medical Corps at their HQ in Ash Vale in Surrey. Quite why I didn’t join the RAMC Field Hospital unit which also had a base in Norwich I cannot now remember, but serving some distance from home my attendance was more infrequent; there were no weekly evening meetings for example, but the training went on longer when I got there.
I had to report to the barracks near Aldershot one day in early 1986 for a basic assessment for suitability, a medical examination and a formal induction to the army. On the way down I stopped at a barber’s shop in Aldershot and got an army-style haircut from a local barber who knew the drill. I was married shortly afterwards and my wife has cut my hair ever since, so that was my last visit to a hairdresser.
They did not entirely weed out all the nutcases on that first occasion; one man had an alarming obsession with guns and he got through the initial stages before, to our great relief, he was sent home. He was ‘returned to unit’ (RTU), the ultimate disgrace. That first evening was most memorable for our evening meal. This was only a big urn of tomato soup served in plastic mugs and with loaves of white sliced bread. It sounds very plain, which it was, but I was so hungry after hours of training that it tasted the most delicious meal I have ever had.
I must confess that we don’t look a very smart bunch of soldiers in the photograph, but it is hard to present a good appearance in the uniforms that we were issued with. The shirts in particular hung from our shoulders in way in which it was impossible to look neat. I had been rather better kitted out when as a teenager I had been a cadet in the CCF. We were expected to be officers in the making and even wore ties as part of our battle dress. I am glad that I never advanced beyond private; I get the distinct impression that the junior ranks get the most fun out of life.
The girls were all recruited into Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps – QAs for short – and I don’t think I met them till later. The position of women in the army then was still that they were segregated by sex. This only came to an end in 1992. Now, although unlike the WRAC the QARANC still exists, the segregation is by function and male nurses are QAs. As far as our daily tasks went however we were fully integrated and worked as a unit, men and women together.
On looking at the picture above, you will see that one the QAs (Frances by name) was quite short, less than 5 feet tall. As part of our training we had to carry a telegraph pole through Mytchett Lake which lies within Keogh Barracks’ grounds. This was fine for everyone else; apart from making us completely soaked we were fine. But poor Frances would have disappeared completely underneath the water had not one of our squad carried her through the deeper parts. It all helps to breed a team spirit, as it was meant to.
After that first meal our dietary intake was hearty if basic. This was especially true of breakfast which included just about everything you could want as an Englishman at least; there was no continental breakfast. We had scrambled, fried or boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato and fried bread and you helped yourself to whatever you wanted. The worst things about the mess were the cockroaches which would scuttle about between the plates on the counter. On one occasion I was doing the washing up after a meal. There was a still a mountain of plates to wash but the water was almost cold with a layer of grease on the surface. In the end I just left a pile of dirty dishes; no one seemed to mind.
I got on well with my namesake Jo, standing beside me in the picture. She had a young son, but like me I think she needed some non-family space, hence our service in the TA. She joined the ambulance train and I joined the medical stores unit and so our friendship was brief. I spent a full three year engagement in the TA, but then a growing family finally won out. But I had some good times including a fortnight in Belgium. Shortly after I left things got serious, with TA medics being thrown into the First Gulf War. Some people think that the RAMC are pacifists but this not the case. We had regular range practice shooting light machine guns. We were expected to use our weapons to protect ourselves and our casualties. According to the Geneva Convention however we should not become Prisoners of War if captured, but should continue to be used in a medical capacity.