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Tank Commander Series
© By Stuart Crawford - Part 11
Jollies and Adventure training

I WOULDN’T want you to think that the life of a subaltern in the #BARITWE was all work and no play, mind. All that stravaiging around the countryside in big, heavy metal beasts took up only part of our energies, although we spend much more time out of barracks and on our panzers than today’s tankies do, by a long shot. Likewise, there did come a point where there was little more to be done on the tank park, our troop sergeant’s domain of course. We couldn’t spend all our time between exercises painting stones and sweeping leaves otherwise there would have been, quite rightly, a mutiny.

German taxi service

Thank goodness, then, for jollies and adventure training. The former tended to be one-off, ad hoc taskings that might be allocated to a junior officer as part of their general military education or, more often, because more senior officers didn’t fancy them. Examples might be escorting an officer or delegation from a foreign military as they visited the Regiment, brigade or division. These tended to be the more boring ones, although if you were a “thruster” you would welcome the opportunity they sometimes presented to come to the attention of your reporting officer further up the command chain. Others were much more light-hearted and fun; escorting “Miss 4RTR” on her annual visit to the Regiment might fall into that category, although officers were usually warned off from becoming too intimately involved with their charges. It did happen though.

Bigger jollies came in a variety of shapes and sizes. The one I was tasked with as a young officer involved taking a Chieftain tank plus crew and support vehicles to the south of France as the UK contribution to the MILAN thermal imaging sight trials. MILAN (Missile d'infanterie léger antichar) was the infantry’s standard anti-tank missile at the time, and the newly developed thermal imaging (TI) sight was being trialled by a team from the Infantry Trials and Development Unit (ITDU), based at Warminster. They needed to trial it in all weather conditions, and the wet weather trials were carried out, with us providing the target tank, at Meppen on the North German plain, one of the most depressing places I have ever had the misfortune to visit. It rained non-stop.

The warm weather trials, on the other hand, were carried out at the French army base near Draguignan, a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, in southeastern France, and a mere 26 miles inland from St Tropez. Haud me back, as we used to say. Getting there was fun. The CO’s tank was chosen for the job, together with two REME repair and recovery vehicles and a spare Chieftain power pack such were the concerns over reliability, and duly departed by rail for the south of France. The route was hardly direct and dictated by the width of various railway bridges along the way, consequently taking several days.

I went with the road party in a couple of land rovers and a 4 tonner. It took a long time, given the speed limit restrictions on military vehicles in France, and we did get the odd curious stare from the French police as we made our way south, but it was pretty straightforward. I recall we had an overnight stop with the 75eme Regiment d’Infantrie in their barracks at Valence (where I think its fair to say we found the food in their canteen “interesting”) then arrived at Canjuers Camp, at the time the biggest military camp in Europe at 350 km2. Julius Caesar had established the first military presence there during his conquest of Gaul in the first century BC.

Getting the Chieftain up the hill to camp from the railhead was a bit of a nightmare given the narrowness of the road and the steepness of the climb, but we got there in the end after holding up the local traffic for a couple of hours. And once we were there it was pretty relaxed and plain sailing. The Germans, of course, arrived a day after us and just drove their Leopard 1 and Marder IFV up the hill no bother, switched off and went away for lunch. There was not much for me to do when the tank was out on the range being driven up and down for the benefit of the trial, except “be in charge”. Which was fine. Overall command of the British contingent fell to a major from the Gurkhas, but he was very odd and I spent as little time as I could in his company.

We spent an awful lot of time on the beach at St Raphael, which was lovely, and in various little cafés and estaminets in the local area. I learned that escargots Perpignan were not always served in their shells, and that the locals liked their red wine un peu glacé. The boys’ standard order was “steak frites wi’ a fried oeuf on top an’ nae pine needles” – that is no herbs – “s’il vous plait”. We were very polite and had a nice time for several weeks. Getting back to Munster was a bit of an ordeal for the tank crew who travelled by rail with the vehicles. For unknown reasons they got stuck in sidings somewhere for weeks before they finally made it home.

Then there was adventure training, usually referred to as “adventure drinking” by all. This was (is?) an army wide activity designed to provide energetic and challenging training for those stuck in barracks or in between exercises in the field. The definition of what constituted adventure training was pretty wide, and it was seen primarily as a means for young officers to take their troops or platoons away somewhere different to do something interesting away from the beady eyes of the immediate chain of command. Provided you could persuade your OC or CO that your scheme was a good idea and it fell within the regulations you were on your way.

Many weird and wonderful schemes came to pass under the general banner of adventure training. People went trekking, climbed mountains, learned how to sail, and visited strange locations, and it was a good thing. But inevitably it was open to exploitation and abuse. One famous trip to motorcycle through Europe and then across the Mediterranean to Morocco and explore the Atlas Mountains got as far as the Cote d’Azur and stayed there, while spurious progress reports were sent back from time to time detailing the rigours of North Africa. Very rarely if ever did anyone check that what had been proposed had actually been carried out, and as long as you submitted a convincing post-exercise report no-one was ever any the wiser.

Such jollies were funded partially from central adventure funds and partly by the individuals participating. But there was also the great gift from above that kept on giving, namely CILOR, or “cash in lieu of rations”. Normally soldiers’ payment for rations in barracks was deducted at source from their pay; it was subsidised much in the way that meals are subsidised, for example, for MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (and alcohol is too, by the way, but they don’t like you to talk about that), but nonetheless payment was made. On adventure training, however, away from barracks, you could apply for CILOR and receive sometimes a considerable sum of money to sustain the troops whilst on their chosen activity. It all had to be accounted for properly, of course, by the expedition leader and I very much doubt if anything underhand happened with the expenditure of funds so received. However, there were always buckshee ration packs in abundance around the barracks and, if all were agreed to exist on “compo” for part of the time, there was ample opportunity to use some of the CILOR for other associated activity, if you get my drift. Alternatively, you could agree to starve for a couple of days and then all go to the local restaurant or café for a blow-out, dependent on tastes.

Did adventure training fill its intended remit? I believe it did, and tales of the scrapes and difficulties faced and surmounted on such ventures are legion. Sadly space permits their recounting here, but perhaps another time. They were a welcome part of a young subaltern’s life back in the day and an important part of the growing up process in uniform. We had fun, that’s for sure.

To come in Part 12; farewell 13 Troop, hello Command Troop, and the move back from Munster to Tidworth, Wiltshire.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

*BARITWE – Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever

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