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Saturday, 18 February 2012

Peeling spuds in Elgin

After the first six weeks training there was a 'passing out' parade when the whole squadron went through all the drill routines in formal dress, complete with rifles. The Regimental Sergeant Major and the Commanding Officer headed the parade, together with the junior officers, some of whom were National Servicemen themselves. Taking part and achieving a fairly high standard of drill was an elevating experience.

Following this, we were now entitled to our first 48 hour leave pass.  The journey home by train started at 2.30pm in Elgin, a change of trains at Aberdeen, before reaching home, in Peterborough, at 5.30am. The return  journey back to Scotland was even worse, starting at a similar time but involving changes at Perth and Aviemore. I arrived back in Elgin at 6.30am and had a two-mile walk back to camp.  While at home I think I spent most of the weekend in bed!

The next ten weeks required a high level of fitness to survive a whole range of activities including weapon training with live ammunition, assault courses, mines and demolitions, knots and lashes, bridge-building and watermanship. Apart from the 303 rifle, weapon training included the Bren Gun which was the main rapid fire gun used by the infantry.  It was full of springs and could be stripped down and set-up in a matter of seconds.

There were still the usual routines of drill, kit inspections, physical training and general duties including cookhouse fatigues.  I still have memories of peeling a mountain of spuds, scrubbing floors and washing pots and pans. Preparing meals for hundreds of soldiers was a large scale operation. One memory I have is setting out two slices of bread together with a  dollop of margarine and jam for each man; the last meal of the day. Can you imagine the state of the bread by the time they came to eat it?

For one week's training in bailey bridging and watermanship, we moved to a basic camp by the sea at Findhorn. We lived in Nissen huts, long tunnels of corrugated iron, dating back to the the first world war.  They had no insulation against the cold winds which swept in from the sea. That week proved to be the hardest week of the whole 16 weeks, lifting heavy steel beams and rowing large boats in the sea.

Although trainees, we could still be called upon to take part in military exercises.  Once we were called out in the middle of the night to help beat out a moorland fire several miles away, armed with carefully chosen branches from available trees.  In true military style we were lead by an officer who, much to our amusement, fell into a stream trying to jump over it.

On another occasion we took part in an exercise involving other regiments; the Black Watch Scottish Infantry Regiment acting as the enemy.  We had to defend our camp from the enemy who didn't, in the end, materialise. We did, however, have to guard our own huts and to test us out an officer on his rounds expected to be challenged when he approached. I overheard this exchange:
'Halt! Who goes there?'
'Friend'
'Advance and be recognised'
'Lieutenant Jones'
'All right....F**k Off!'

Needless to say the Sapper involved was put on a charge there and then for insubordination.