Taking Command

The clear lesson this week was that the whole point of Officer training is to make you comfortable with leadership. That’s actually quite a big thing. The idea that your peers, your soldiers, those around you naturally look to you for leadership when something needs to be done or – worse – when all hell breaks loose. I personally think that very few of us are natural leaders, that leadership is something to be cultivated and is rooted in self-belief. For that reason it’s not something that many people regularly experience unless they go out of their way for it.

Mod B (the second Officer training module) has leadership opportunities by the bucket load. Most of us want to lead to some degree in our lives, whether it be planning things with our friends or being the person people look up to in the office. Now Mod B isn’t geared towards that, it looks at leadership in its most crucial, demanding and forceful nature: convincing people to follow a plan you make which could potentially lead to their deaths. We’re told that you must ‘impose your will’ when delivering your orders as an Officer. It’s an odd phrase but one that makes good sense when you think about what you are asking people to do.

So this was the training exercise I had my first real feel of Army leadership. As Officer Cadets you are essentially training for the role of Platoon Commander (a role you’d have if you joined the infantry and finished all your in-role training too). The Platoon Commander is in charge of three sections of eight or so people, it is his/her role to decide how to use these sections to take a position. This plan is then presented in comprehensive orders to all the Section Commanders and troops. This weekend, I was made Platoon Commander. I was in charge of putting together the plan for an early morning attack. This was made harder by the fact that we had just finished a night reccy of the enemy position and had to go on stag (sentry) duty in the night. So, having had a full-on day, bracing for an early start, going on stag and writing orders… getting a hour and a half for sleep would be doing phenomenally well!

Then came presenting the orders. I found it really hard to keep the momentum going in giving orders, there’s so much to them that it is easy to stop and start. The key thing is to stay confident, to be calm and clear. One of the nice touches was how a few of the guys I knew came up to spur me on after the orders were given. Everyone really does want everyone to do well and the Army training is nothing if not a team effort.

Making and delivering a plan is one thing, making it happen and staying in control is another! In getting my Platoon to the assembly point, it became clear my navigation was not up to scratch. The key thing to do is stay calm but keep a sense of urgency. During the debrief stage I was quick to confess that I didn’t put enough navigational preparation in. This was well-received in my reports as an example of taking responsibility and being honest – so always face into what went wrong on your account.

On the whole though, the attack went well. We showed a good level of aggression and pace – and the plan broadly worked. This was a huge relief because each command (or leadership) position is assessed with an official form that goes to Sandhurst. The fact that these forms are lurking in the background can change the feeling of the training and takes an element of the lightness out of it. Still, it also encourages us to share experience and feedback which is vital in getting us along that journey to real meaningful leadership.

There isn’t a journey quite like it.

 

OCdt Michael Goode

A real taste of Mod B

This is what it is all about. Last weekend was section attacks. We were finally going to simulate coming under contact, attacking enemy and fighting through. Out of the classroom and into patrols. It’s what friends who were further ahead in the course had told me about with gleaming eyes. For those that don’t know, sections are typically units of two fire teams (each fire team being about four people) and a section attack simulates a section patrolling an area and coming under fire. So imagine it – a group of us, loaded up and with weapons at the ready, cautiously patrolling through a clearing in the woods or along a path, then suddenly hearing fire in our direction. Adrenaline through the roof. Fire back immediately, take cover, fire back appropriately. From there, you respond to orders and fight through.

This weekend revolved around section attacks and the orders process (i.e. giving orders) and it struck me that only now was I really starting understand what the bread and butter of an Officer’s job was. We all have ideas about what Officers do and their roles can vary enormously but it was at this weekend that I really started to see how they added value: planning extremely clear and uniform orders that shattered and distracted soldiers could understand and then taking command of a situation as chaotic as they could possibly come.

So, how did I do? Not as well as I would have liked. I was too much of a perfectionist and so didn’t use the little planning time I had well enough, didn’t stick closely enough to the outline of orders and was a touch too pally with my group (the lack of pally-ness when acting as an Officer is part of the army culture it does take some time to get used to). Still, part of an Officer’s ethos is having a confidence that you can do it and a determination to get it done. It is that ethos which is driving me to improve for the next weekend.

There’s no doubt about it though, this weekend saw the smallest turnout yet. The training is a difficult thing to commit to, a tough thing to actually do and a real menace to master. One top tip I am now acting on is to run with weight. In the Officer training modules you’ll always be carrying weight: day sacks, rifles, bergens, radios, specialist equipment etc. You might be a fast runner but it’s a totally different set of muscles to be able to really run with weight. Weekend over weekend, it has become clear that your life will be an awful lot easier if you can really run with weight for a sustained time. So my weekly runs are now weighted: just take a rucksack, buy a few bottom-of-the-range bags of flour (usually 1.5k each) and tape them up, start low and build up. It makes a real difference.

Every weekend now the training is getting more and more real – you’ll understand more and more about what it is actually training you for and you’ll increasingly realise the need to work outside the training to perform in it.

Michael Goode

Beginning an adventure – squeezing more out of life

I’ve never had a feeling like the one that gripped me when I placed my hand on that small brown Bible and read back the Attestation to the Quartermaster at ULOTC (University of London Officer Training Corps). This was the beginning of something new. Something I had wanted for a long time. Something that I still, genuinely, have no idea where it will take me. I am now officially a Reservist in the Army. That was just shy of five months ago and I’ve already learnt more about myself, teamwork and my country than I could have comprehended.

It’s a common experience amongst those joining that they receive unanticipated surprise from all sorts of friends and loved ones. I had no military experience prior to joining and, naturally, a lot of my family and friends were nervous about my desire to sign up. To them, it seemed to come out of the blue at the age of 23, practically a quarter-life crisis! I went to a normal state school, I was always more academic than sporty, and I worked hard to achieve my dream of going to Cambridge. I then began a career in the food industry – nothing that would ‘ring army bells’. I started to wonder, where did this deep-seated feeling come from? I can put it down to three things:

1) For the first time in my life, I had friends in the Army and I was seriously impressed by how it developed and pushed them. You’ll never find a more convincing case to join than speaking to someone already serving.

2) I’ve recently written a book (‘The Lengthening War’) which publishes my ancestor’s Great War diary. When I was researching for the book, I learnt more about my great-grandfather and the two MCs he was awarded during the war. It reminded me about how inspired I was by my grandfather and his WW2 service history  (my favourite story of his was about him driving up Normandy beach in a jeep he waterproofed himself).

3) I was well and truly ‘in the office’ and thought life has to be about more than just this. Life is finite, it’s a precarious gift for us to use, to serve ourselves and others.

Not for one moment has there even been a thought of regret. I can’t tell you how good an idea I think the Reserves is  – you effectively get to live two lives. The training is intense, the Army really packs a lot into your time with them because you’re part-time. After showing up at the barracks dead-tired after a long week at work, I’ve been amazed by how much energy materialises out of the sheer rush to keep up. From the very first weekend, I soon realised that any personal constraints I thought I had were only in my mind.

It took a long time to get to that hand on that Bible (application, interview, medical over three months) but I’m now in 12 Platoon, Haldane Company, ULOTC. Haldane is a unit for people out of University but keen to do the Officer training modules with hopes to Commission. In Haldane, I’ve completed the first of the officer modules  – Mod A –  and I am now working through Mod B. Hopefully this blog will take you through what joining, training and trying to become a Reserve Officer is like, hints and tips, and how to avoid the many mistakes I’m almost sure to make!

OCdt Michael Goode

Haldane Company

 

Week 44: The Last Hurrah

The last week of Sandhurst, this is a full week of drill, so if I am going to try and drag this out into another weekly blog, it could be somewhat of an effort. So I shall just talk about the only day that matters… and then the worst morning of my life!

Friday, the day of commissioning. Traditionally the day starts with commissioning PT, the last bit of physical training that is done at the academy. However it is all done in jest, think less London marathon and more Notting Hill Carnival. Each platoon turns up in fancy dress and does a lap of honour around the academy. My platoon decided to pay homage to our Jamaican colour sergeant and we went as the Jamaican bobsleigh team from the film Cool Runnings, complete with bobsleigh! 

Once the mornings fun is done then comes the mad twelve hours, where everything happens so fast there’s not really any time to take anything in. Our families arrived and we went to a church service, full of the hymns that would spark a patriotic flame in anyone. The most remarkable part, I was told, was when the national anthem was played and 160 officer cadets stood bolt upright to attention without any hint or any thought. For the normal civilian, this may have been somewhat surprising.

Then comes the parade, a large spectacle which some of you may have had the chance to watch. If I am honest, I was only on parade physically, not mentally. My mind was elsewhere, I was thinking about commissioning and planning everything I will do when I get my first platoon of soldiers. However, the final order is given and the senior term march up Old College steps under the watchful eye of Mars and Minerva, the Gods of War and Wisdom.

After the parade is the commissioning lunch, this was possibly my favourite part of the formal events and the reason for this? Your family have an opportunity to eat with your military family. My military family, of course, is the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who had their own table. Joining us were members of staff and a few VIPs from the regiment with the three officer cadets commissioning and their families. This was one of the highlights of the day.

Then the part everyone becomes obsessed about, the commissioning ball. Essentially it’s a big knees-up, all of your civvie friends come in black tie and all of the officer cadets get to wear their mess dress for the first time, with the added exception that we must cover our pips until midnight. The reason for this is that we only commission at midnight, so then, the tabs covering our pips can be removed and thus we are commissioned officers. I, of course, remembered the entire night. The lemonade was very refreshing and my mess dress was in pristine condition by the end of the night.

Saturday morning was possibly the worst day of my life. At six in the morning, after two hours rest, the fire alarms sound. The colour sergeants and sergeant majors run riot around the lines getting everybody out of their ‘pits’ and we are dragged to tidy up the academy. I have never felt so rough in my life! Apparently lemonade has a high alcohol level content! There was no real comfort, at all, but it did feel odd being called “sir” by a company sergeant major, a moment I shall treasure forever. Well let’s admit it, it’s not going to happen as a thrusting young subaltern any time soon!

 Next is six days leave and then the infantry battle school…

Week 43: One more week to go…

After this week there is just one more to go. We are spending an increasing amount of time on the parade square. I am in the Colour party so I have the honour of protecting the Queen’s colours, which also means I have the job of never standing easy. This is exceptionally painful whilst carrying a rifle, which gives me a whole new respect for the young Guardsmen outside Buckingham Palace and Windsor.

I distracted my mind through various things, one was what advice would I give to someone who is about due to come to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS)?

I thought it would be a pleasant change from my usual ramblings that I write every Sunday night, so here we go, my little bit of advice.

1. Be a nice person. Too often this is sidelined and not thought about enough. Everyone is so focused on getting that top third. That spot in their chosen regiment; they can recite the Army leadership code; they get the best feedback from the instructors; they can conduct a perfect platoon attack, that they forget to be a decent human being and just be polite to each other, ask someone how they are and be genuine about it. It is very easy to be a good platoon commander for a short time, but that cannot be sustained if the empathy and humility that your soldiers deserve is not there.

2. Do not worry about where you come from. Contrary to popular belief not everyone is called Tarquin and went to Harrow. My name is Josh; I went to a bog-standard state comprehensive and all of my friends joined as soldiers. It just so happens that I was seen as being a bit different. Yes, there are one or two teething problems when you get here. Learning how to dress and act as a gentleman for one, and there are some cultural differences. But it just adds to the rich tapestry of the Academy. Your differences, your experiences are what makes the British Army an elite force, not the double-barrelled surname or the red trousers.

3. Do not wish your life away. Many people will be under the idea of coming to the RMAS as soon as possible, some eager eight year-old is reading this right now. Well to you my young friend, think again! I have loved my time at Sandhurst but I regret coming as early as I did, take some time. I am not saying go tour the world, I never did a gap year. I worked a bit and went to university before I came here. I spent the last five years of my life pushing everything as fast as possible to get here as soon as possible, it’s been my biggest regret yet.

Go live life for a bit, make sure you go and get drunk a lot and make as many mistakes (within the law) as is humanly possible; because when you get here you need to have some life experiences that do not include the local conservative club or the student union. Once you get here the sheer weight of the reputation of Sandhurst and what it is to be a Army Officer means that no decent cadet will go and make these mistakes that you can freely make as a civilian.

4. Leave no unfinished business. For me, it was girlfriend problems or now lack of girlfriend problems! Ensure that life is all going fine when you come here because Sandhurst will consume your year and your service to your country comes first. Therefore, you will not always have the time to talk to crying girls or indeed cry over girls. I am not saying to say goodbye to friends and family, not at all, they are the ones who really drag you through your time here! But you will know what I mean when I say leave no unfinished business. Have fun with your family before you come here too because it is very scary how much it can all change when you come out the other side.

5. Remember why you are coming here. If you are coming here for a year of being a “jolly good chap” and living the fictional dream in the officer’s mess, lots of parties, smart uniforms and as a result lots of women… then I would add that you are not what the Army needs, especially for its officers. You come to Sandhurst to thrash yourself and prove yourself so that you can be given the privilege of commanding British soldiers. You will be coming to an institution that has trained many of the nation’s greatest heroes and led the youth of history against unfavourable odds. Just make sure to take that reality check before you come here.

6. I promise this one will be positive! If you ever for a moment begin to lack the motivation to perform here, it is completely okay. No human can stay determined when the world around them is caving in. What is important however is how quickly you get up. It is not hard to do either.

Just think about everything that this institution has completed. A secret I kept from many of my peers here would be to go to the Royal Memorial Chapel when I was feeling low and read the names of the fallen off the wall. I learnt a story about Lieutenant Dease VC who died at Nimmy bridge. He was wounded several times but kept on fighting and commanding his soldiers, he later succumbed to his wounds. Work hard at Sandhurst because the impression you set on people directly impacts on the impression people have on heroes such as Lieutenant Dease VC. At Sandhurst, you will be surrounded by inspirations, you just need to find what will give you the drive that our predecessors had.

Well I hope this has been somewhat useful, anyone can tell you what iron to buy or what boot polish is best. Either way, if you chose to come here, you are not choosing a job, but a way of life. Be proud.

Week 42: What is Serving to Lead?

Command Leadership and Management module five… Human Resources & Admin!

OK, so the title does not sound as exciting or sexy as a helicopter lift into enemy territory but it is possibly, in fact it is definitely, the most important part of my job as a platoon commander. Ensuring that my soldiers are well looked after will ensure that they fight to their full potential. It was put simply to us: If your soldiers know that their own and their families wellbeing is second only to the needs of the Army, they will follow you through the gates of hell for you.

This I am fully buying into because, in my time here so far, I know that I will always work harder for someone who I know is working for me; it’s teamwork, pure and simple.

Also for me the majority of my friends joined as soldiers so I want to be that platoon commander that makes a positive impact on their life. Irrespective of what you may think when you first walk up the steps of old college RMAS, no matter what intentions you have of winning a VC and a statue dedicated to you in Whitehall. We are mostly here to serve our soldiers and in doing so, deliver victory to our commanders. Hence our motto: Serve to Lead.

We also gained our ETL (Endurance Training Leader) qualification, it’s a very diluted version of the Physical Training Instructor, I emphasise… VERY diluted.

Finally, drill has started to encroach on our daily timetable again… great.

Week 41: EndEx, Berets and Champagne!

The final week of Exercise Dynamic Victory. Long insertion tabs with half the world on your back, night raids, fighting in cave systems, storming urban complexes, having tanks in your platoon orbit, attacking two towns, black hawk casualty evacuations and the ominous Bavarian summer!

The exercise was too packed. We have heard that DV is an unrealistic exercise because very rarely would you have as many resources as we did, or have as many issues as we did! It was non-stop which in an odd way helped with the sleep deprivation as you only really get tired when you have the chance to stop and think about it.

My favourite moment? I had two.

The first was a night raid on a potential weapons cache which also happened to be a cave system. It was nothing like the Close Quarter Battle drills that we have been taught for urban complexes. It was dark, noisy and confusing. It would have been very easy to have been separated from the rest of the raiding party if it were not for out communication. On some levels we have the chance to use new pieces of kit such as night vision and lasers! Personally, I just took to using grenades at every opportunity, why not eh?

The second is an obvious one, the last hour of exercise! I was the platoon sergeant, our platoon had occupied some houses and we being used as a fire support base for the final enemy position in our battle groups area. We were burning through magazines like there was no tomorrow. One of the chaps in the platoon is a jock and he somehow managed to smuggle his bagpipes with him and was playing them from the rooftop as we gave both cylinders to the enemy. Then the final position is taken, the word EndEx slowly begins to echo through the town, now littered in armoured fighting vehicles, remnants of grenades and spent bullet cases.

The course forms a hollow square in form of our commandant, Major General Nanson. We can now officially wear our new regimental beret and it feels so good; my beret was somewhat crushed as it had been at the bottom of my daysack, but I managed a quick two minute moulding session with a bottle of water. The moral component is high, now for the physical! Everyone has heard of the champagne breakfast, but what I expected was some cheap Lambrini with a sausage and bacon; that was not what we received. Walking into a church, which just hours before hand, I had used as a casualty centralisation point and it was now full of food: a carved watermelon, pancakes, full English, black pudding, selection of cooked meats, a cheese board and of course, champagne! It tasted divine!

Once the exercise was complete we had a 24-hour cool down period as it were. We were given four hours in Nuremberg and we all went to visit the museum. Followed by a Segway drive around a lake and beer and bratwurst. It was a fantastic exercise and memories I shall take with me forever.