Chapter 5: Catterick Camp and the RMA Woolwich, 1935
Before the end of my years at Oundle another family move took place in 1933, this time to Catterick in Yorkshire. Once again we enjoyed wide-open spaces. The Officers’ Club offered many facilities and there were plenty of young around to get to know. At 17 I was able to get a driving licence with no test to bother about. At some stage an old Austin 7 was bought for a few pounds so we boys had our own mobility.
In early January 1935 I arrived to see for the first time the fine 1806 buildings of The Royal Military Academy on Woolwich Common and to join a group of others to become Gentlemen Cadets or GCs. For some reason those in their first term were called ‘Snookers’. We looked a strange group for some time. All our uniform was to be tailor made and would last us for several years of commissioned service. We had been measured for hand made boots after the entrance exam months before but tailor measurement only started on our arrival at Woolwich. During the weeks before uniform was ready we were decked out in white canvas jacket and trousers topped with a workman’s flat cap. There was a Hall’s paint advertisement of the time showing two painters, canvas clad, marching onward carrying a wooden plank. This depicted us.
The Woolwich training lasted eighteen months and a new intake arrived every six months, each being some eighty-five strong. These numbers meant that we soon got to know our own intake well and many from the other intakes too. One of our earliest tasks was to work literally with spit and polish on the boots and leather belt, which were to be part of best parade equipment. Other cleaning was left to one of the excellent fatherly old soldiers, a first introduction to the officer’s batman system.
Note: a batman was an orderly who served a British army officer.
To an extent the education at Woolwich aimed at preparing the upper level for Cambridge University. Sappers went up soon after commissioning and some from Signals after a foundation course from which many qualified for Associate Membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. The Cambridge group would be excused the first year of the Cambridge Mechanical Sciences Tripos so adequate preparation beyond Public School was important.
It is easy to criticise our military syllabus now as being far too closely linked to the 1914-18 war. We dug WWI trenches, learned some of the military history, worried too much about the machine gun and so on. Then there was the horse. Many hours were spent learning equitation, including how to keep the animals fit and healthy. Some of my teaching was at the hand of a French Cavalry officer of the Spahi and it was enjoyable. How was it that a third of the way through the twentieth century a move to mechanical transport was not foreseen and prepared for in a practical sense?
There was transport history all round us. A tram service connected the RMA with Woolwich Station in one direction and the Cinemas of Eltham and Lewisham in the other. Service had been interrupted briefly by an earlier course who had greased the tram lines up Woolwich Hill, bringing progress to a halt in that direction. When we set out to see a film on an afternoon off it was by tram, and we were obliged to wear full military regalia and pass inspection at the Guardroom. Nonetheless cinema was a pleasure and one that had never been open to us during school term.
The bicycle played a great part in local and not so local military travel. For this we learned Cavalry drill for forming up and movement. There were regular convoys of this type to and from the Gunner stables for equitation. For the Sapper instruction it was more complicated. We learned how to survey and make maps. For this we each needed a substantial drawing board, a heavy tripod to support it, clinometer, compass and so on. These items would be strung about us providing a sail that could be inconvenient in gusty weather. The journey to find open country was less far than it would be today but was six or seven miles each way. Even this was not the ultimate test. In the summer of our junior term there was a camp near Aldershot. A group of close on two hundred GCs formed up on cycles in pairs needing some quarter mile of road space in all. To get things going we only rode to Hounslow on the first day, to be catered for by the 7th Hussars. The major hazards were tramlines, not traffic. If crossed at a narrow angle a tyre would catch firmly in a tramline. Not only would the rider be felled but the whole convoy would concertina and take time to recover. The ride back a fortnight later was completed in steamy heat with no overnight stop.
One of the great lessons to be learned was how to be quick and accurate in detail. We will start in the gymnasium under Mr Parker the Warrant Officer instructor. PT was taken seriously and regularly and I am sure that its benefits provided a firm foundation for a lifetime of good health. Those, like myself, with some pretension as gymnasts formed a display team for performances on occasion.
Right! PT ends and we dash to the cycle store to collect our bicycles before heading for our houses to change from PT kit to breeches, boots and leggings, shirt, tie and jacket. Cap to be fitted with extra chinstrap and stick grabbed before rushing with bicycle to one’s place beside the parade ground waiting for the order to fall in. Total time allowed fifteen minutes. There a rigorous inspection followed where the smallest thing out of place earned an extra drill or fatigues. This would take place at six in the morning.
Mr Parker had an unusual duty at this time. The future King Farouk of Egypt was due to come to the RMA as part of his training for monarchy. He was to be prepared physically for the demanding course and would appear from time to time in our gymnasium. He was not athletic and it was a relief to both teacher and pupil when the latter’s father died and Farouk ascended the throne instead.
The Sapper element of instruction was interesting and useful - simple things like Knots and Lashings would be useful to all. There was a course in workshop practice and even time for field sketching which our ancestors did so well.
For the Gunners we had the mathematics of probability related to the problems of ranging and the design of a variety of different fuses. We made gun cotton under our chemistry teacher. Mine failed to explode.
I do not remember that Signals ever got a mention, except once. There was the Great Signals Demonstration. Four Morris Minor wireless cars were formed up on the sports ground. A controller with a wireless set sat at a table. “Advance” and the drivers moved their cars forward; “left” and they turned; “right” and they turned again. A miracle. But it is wrong to criticise. This really was the state of the art at the time.
The course was demanding and worthwhile. The company was excellent and the majority of us must have carried away happy memories. A meagrely seven of us were allotted to Signals, all coming well above the half way mark in the order of merit. Five of us had represented the RMA in one sport or another, all-in-all an acceptable package for our new Corps.
My father’s military friends were of the opinion that Signals was a Corps of the future. How right they were.