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.

Week 40: Ex Dynamic Victory

Week forty is the first week of Exercise Dynamic Victory. This activity includes a firing package, RSOI and deployment into the final exercise of the commissioning course, all of which is held in Germany. The exercise is meant to somewhat relate to an operational deployment, as we fly with the Royal Air Force and then conduct RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration). Which is essentially a warm-up for what is to come.

The live fire package is really good, starting on a simple CQB range we gradually move up to a platoon attack. I found myself becoming more comfortable with the weapon systems that we use, really snuggling up to enemy positions before placing my grenade with a GPMG firing tracer over head. It is that odd moment when you realise that the rounds going past are live and if you were not crawling you may have actually been hit, I actually found it somewhat hysterical. Without a doubt the best part of the live firing was the amount of opportunities I had at being the section grenadier. Frequently crawling forwards with a bayonet fixed and grenade primed ready to storm the position.

The RSOI package featured a short patrol exercise with which we came across different events such as, IED, suicide bomber, murder, vehicle check, civil dispute and much more. It was useful to hone our skills once more, after all, for some we hadn’t partaken in conventional operations since Ex Allenby’s Advance or Slim’s Stand in February.

Later in the week the whole intake was centralised at a US Army base and battle prep for the deployment onto the actual exercise phase begun. We were to get a Chinook lift into the exercise area. Our first mission was to establish a foothold on the edge of a civilian populated area, we will save that for next time…

Week 39: In the wake to Dynamic Victory

Week thirty-nine, the week before Dynamic, all spare time is given to moulding our new berets which we will be presented in three weeks time on EndEx of Dynamic Victory.

This week was also exam heavy, a CABS exam and also Dynamic Estimate.

Dynamic Estimate is a four and a half hour exam in which you receive a set of orders, extract a plan, go through a combat estimate, plan an attack and then deliver your plan to a senior captain and highly experienced colour sergeant. It was pretty tough and a few did fail, they will all have a re-sit later on in the term. But it is in a very complex scenario in which you must consider an insurgent force, a conventional force, a local national force and the civilians in the area.

The US Army are also now with us in the wake to Dynamic Victory. Sandhurst and Westpoint (the American near-equivalent) have a growing relationship and we share our final exercise. Well, the Americans are ginormous! They’re very big, very muscular and very enthusiastic. We both look forward to sharing skills and learning from each other, plus there is a lot of conversation exchanging differences at the dinner table. I will say this though, for all that muscle, we still beat them in the tug of war competition…

I typed this whilst waiting for my flight to Dynamic Victory, so excuse me. But in two weeks time I will have heard EndEx for the last time as an Officer cadet…

Week 38: GEARING UP FOR PHASE 2​

Week thirty-eight brings about more academics and more physical demands. We kept looking at integrated operations and counter insurgency; after a while at Sandhurst you gradually begin to realise that insurgency may not be our greatest threat, but it is most certainly our most consistent one! We also went onto the confidence course again and one thing stood out to me, that is coping mechanisms for fears. I will openly admit that when I started Sandhurst I had a slight discomfort when it came to heights, ‘slight’ meaning near panic attacks! However, through our training we have each developed a coping mechanism to dealing with our fears. This is important as it is these coping mechanisms that we will no doubt use in the future as an officer, whether it be jumping out of an aeroplane, running out the rear of a warrior infantry fighting vehicle or charging onto an enemy position; everybody has fear, it is just how you manage that fear. Needless to say, we all managed to do the confidence course a lot faster than we used to.

But, the main part of week 38… The march and shoot!
The march and shoot is a series of events which leads into the Sovereign’s Banner competition. It is one of those famous and eternal events that every generation of officer has been through, and it will stay for good reason: it assesses every element of battle.

It starts with a two-mile tab, mostly up-hill, but as it is a competition you will be hard-pressed to find a platoon tabbing, everybody runs. Everyone is carrying 16kg in webbing and daysack, plus rifle and helmet. After the initial two miles a further two-mile casualty extraction goes through bog and through some obstacles. Once that is complete the casualty is dropped and you begin the assault course. I have no idea how long the assault course is, but from my limited experience it is longer than the average one. You start at a twelve-foot wall, which as one of the larger members of the platoon means I am responsible for getting every one over. Then there are more walls, windows to climb through, barbed wire obstacles, river runs, a cargo net, a “wet tunnel”, some ropes to scale, elevated planks and other objects. By the end everyone is in “turbo cliput”, a lesson as an officer. We draw our shoulders back, stand upright and try not to puke. Take a deep breath and then move onto a further one-mile tab to the rifle ranges. We then go through a 400m, 300m, 200m and 100m shoot, all with sprints to each stage.

There is no way to put it, although in hindsight it was pretty good fun at the time, you are just in clip. Sodden wet, bruised, scarred and legs cramping up to the max. But it is great fun and has really got me waiting for the next time I get to do something similar at the infantry battle school on Phase 2. Yes, we are now all starting to look forward to our phase two, the end is dawning…
Oh, I will also give a brief shout-out, follow RMAS on Facebook, they can upload better photos and videos than myself!