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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 2
Sandhurst beckons

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Pt 2 Sandhurst beckons

I LEFT YOU ALL in suspense after my visit to 3RTR on Salisbury Plain when I had my first hurl in a Chieftain tank. I was, of course, pleased and relieved to have navigated the fast and tricky currents of regimental acceptance, but ahead lay the far choppier waters of the Regular Commissions Board (RCB) and, inshallah, the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS), pictured, an institution my Dad had attended in 1946 and graduated from without too much difficulty, or so I assumed.

The pressure was on. Like a fool I had told all my friends that “I was going to Sandhurst” and then the awful reality of perhaps not being good enough to make it through sunk in. The first big hurdle was RCB, but before that I attended something called pre-RCB as a taster for the real thing. I remember nothing about the pre-course except it took place at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire and we young hopefuls were collected from the station by the rudest and most unpleasant corporal it has ever been my misfortune to meet. Mind you, he was a Royal Hussar which goes a considerable way to explain it. More on the cavalry regiments of the British Army later!

RCB proper was held in those days in a wee town called Westbury, which I think is in Wiltshire – it was then anyway. Again, I have very little recollection of what happened during the three days (?) I was there. I can remember giving a mini lecture to my fellow aspirants on starting your own business, as I had done whilst a university undergraduate to pay my way. There were also command tasks, leadership exercises in which each of us in turn were put in charge of the group and given a problem to solve. These were usually along the lines of “you have to get that barrel across the minefield without it touching the ground using only the two staves and ball of string provided”. The briefing always ended with the question; “How much time do you think you’ll need?” Answer; “Oh, about 10 minutes”. Response; “You’ve got four. Crack on!”

And there was an obstacle course to be negotiated, timed of course. It wasn’t so much a test of strength or fitness but of nerve, courage and confidence. There were always two ways of approaching each obstacle, one the safer and usually easier approach which took more time, and the other which was riskier, quicker, but carried more danger of failure. The only one I remember was the mock-up of a house window; the option was either to use the conveniently-placed plank to run up and lower yourself through the opening, or to tackle it some other way. I just had a hunch about this one and launched myself head first through the opening, to be greeted by a welcoming bed of soft sand on the other side. In doing so I caught my heel on the supporting scaffolding and brought the entire structure down. “Do you want me to do it again?” I asked. I was told to crack on. I had made the right choice.

We were also told that after the tests we could relax and there was no assessment in the evening in the officers’ mess. Well, that was an outright fib and the sensible amongst us knew it. Some of the young lads, however, took it at face value and wellied into the bevvy at the bar. I had a half of shandy and went early to bed. I wish I could say I then demolished a bottle of the Game Bird which I had secreted in my room but that wouldn’t be true. I wasn’t that savvy then.

And that was it. I passed.

I still had no real idea what I was letting myself in for at this stage but all was going according to plan. Reality bit hard when I got to Sandhurst. Lots of people I know loved being there, but for me it’s six months of my life I’d rather forget. I guess that part of it was because most of my fellow officer cadets were straight out of university where many of them had been in the Officer Training Corps, whereas I’d come straight from two and a half years in a civvy job and was a bit older than most of them. Although I think I get it now, years later, I just thought that much of the regulation and discipline was mindless BS.

It was also exhausting. I wasn’t fit enough when I turned up (how would I have known?) and the days were long and brutal. Thankfully, we had some brilliant instructors, the NCOs I mean. Unlike many other militaries, the British Army’s officer cadets are instructed mainly by NCOs, and the people selected to do this job are the best there are available. My platoon’s NCO instructor was Colour Sergeant Brian Adams KOSB (you never forget these things), a smallish, hard little terrier of a man with a rare sense of humour and a hidden compassion and kindness for his charges. I’ll never forget the swig he gave me from his hip flask when I was still a couple of miles out from the final tasked destination and basically out on my feet. I made it.

Midway through the course, which I hated so much, I had decided I wouldn’t give up but would resign the day before the final parade, just to show them I’d won. Inevitably, fitted out in my new uniform and with my parents and family down for the Pass Off Parade, that futile gesture fell by the wayside.

I was especially glad my Dad was in the stands when I got my commission. At the after party, he told me that the parade format and accompanying band music were exactly the same as at his parade in 1946. Some things never change.

To come in Part 3, finally joining my regiment, 4RTR, the best armoured regiment in the world, ever.

Stuart Crawford 2020

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