Christopher Townson - War Memories
My name is Christopher Townson and I have lived in Colsterworth with my wife Cora for the about nineteen years. I was born in Wokingham in Berkshire on the 15th of April, 1948. My parents divorced when I was four years of age and from Wokingham I went to London where I stayed with my mother`s grandparents for a while. Then my grandmother on my father`s side looked after me and an aunt as well. My father remarried when I was nine and between nine and sixteen and a half, I lived in Reading with him and my stepmother. She is still alive, bless her, at ninety-seven but not very well at the moment. I have no idea what happened to my mother. Education-wise I failed my 11-plus and went to a secondary-modern school like our wonderful Deputy Prime Minister but unlike him, I haven`t got sour grapes about going to a secondary-modern. In fact it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was top of the bottom as you might say and, I was told, would have been head boy if I had chosen to stay on.
I left school with three O-levels and when I was there I engaged in a lot of sport on which I was very keen. One year I was fourth in the county for the mile and achieved 4mins 35 sec of which I was very proud. I felt that something in the Services would be right for me. I thought first of all about joining the Navy but when I went to the careers office somebody mentioned the word `commando` and in my naivety I thought that meant you had to be an officer. Anyway I joined her Majesty`s Royal Marines at sixteen and a half and was promptly sent off to Deal in Kent. I actually joined on the 28th October 1964 which ironically was the tercentenary of the Corps . So I joined on the day when there were mad celebrations. A spread was put on in this huge dining hall which made me think that the food was not too bad. Of course the next morning, when I went into the dining room for breakfast, the first thing that greeted all the new recruits were the old hands banging their plates and cups on the tables. When I went to get some cornflakes there was this large tureen of fresh milk with cockroaches floating around in it.
After breakfast the first port of call was the barber`s, even though I had had a special hair cut thinking it would do. But no, my head was shaved. My first wage packet was 10 shillings whereupon the Drill Sergeant took us by the hand down to the NAAFI where we had to buy blanco and boot polish. There wasn`t much change out of 10 shillings. Of course we were fed, clothed and housed free. Our civilian clothes were packed into a parcel and sent home. We were not allowed to go outside the gates for the first six months, apart from going on the range and things like that. There were 8 of us to a barrack room and out of the window first of all you saw the gravestones, then a 12-foot high wall with thick barbed wire on top and behind that was the train going home. The food parcels of chocolate cake etc from my dear step-mother were wonderful. The life was a good leveller. There were 23 of us from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. It was about the first time I heard Geordie or Scouse accents. We signed on for 9 years. In a typical training day we could have about 4 changes of uniform so that meant that 4 lots of kit had to be cleaned. Kit musters for kit inspections were quite something because each item of your kit had its place in your locker and when you showed them for inspection you had to lay them out on the bed in exactly the same pattern as in the locker and in exactly the same measurements. You put 2 cottons each side of the laid-out kit which were the width of the shirts when they were folded in a certain way. These shirts would be starched so much you could hardly wear them. We even put pieces of cardboard in the back. The room had to be immaculate as well. So inspection mornings we were up at four o`clock making sure that all the kit was clean.
The greatcoat had 22 brass buttons. The webbed belt with brass slides and clasp was duly blancoed. We used to spit and polish our boots and shoes. Then we would be down on our hands and knees polishing the parquet floor going backwards and forwards. We had lessons on how to iron because we needed to know how it should be done. The training at Deal was 9 months altogether and there were usually 4 entries a year of about 20 each time. When I joined up I was only 5 feet 43/4. I don`t think it was the food, it was more likely to be all the exercises we did as PT was twice a day, but in the space of those 9 months at Deal I put on 2 inches. We had to jump over a T-box, I remember. Not one of these new-fangled padded things, but a plain box. One of the things you had to be able to do in order to pass was to vault a box without a springboard. This always terrified me being short and not having a natural spring. All I could do was to go at it like crazy and aim at the end. There was always a PTI to pull you over. All they really wanted to see was that you made a good attempt at it. The rest of the course consisted of an awful lot of drill and discipline training, weapon handling, basic field craft and Corps history. The Battle Honours had to be learnt and our education was continued . I started on O-level maths at the school there. It was really aimed at bringing a 16 year- old to the 18 year-old stage so that you could go on to Lympstone on the second part of the training and take the Commando course. The average 16 year-old today is still very weak physically. He can run but he lacks upper body strength just as we did. Another skill required of us was initiative. We were given 2 shillings each and we had to get from Deal to Canterbury and Dover and back to Deal again. The money covered part of the course in train fare but the rest we had to hitch hike, but we managed it all right, it was good fun.
A lot of time as spent in the swimming pool for those that couldn`t swim. You had to be able to swim 50 yards fully clothed. Later on Wednesday afternoon was sport leisure activities so those that were into football or whatever did that. I remember going fishing on Deal pier for cod and didn`t catch anything! Towards the end I managed to go and get a hernia. There was no key-hole treatment then, it was a major cut job. I went to R.N. Hasler Hospital in Portsmouth, still a Naval Hospital. I expected to have to go back a squad because of the time I missed being in hospital but fortunately I managed to catch up. There was a system of potential leaders called Diamonds and I am pleased to say I ended up number 2 Diamond. Then it was on to Lympstone which is midway between Exmouth and Exeter. It has been the Commando Training Centre since just after the war. We were divided into sections each of which consisted of 9 men, basically 7 infantry plus a pair on the machine gun. The weapons may have changed but the formation is the same. Under fire the idea is to get the machine gun into position so that the 7 men can advance, in 2s and 3s or as required. 3 sections make up a platoon, going up to a company of 100. A battalion consists of 3 companies with all the support cover of a commando or another infantry company making about 500 altogether. We worked at section and platoon level so that when you went out to join an active unit you could fit in to one of those. I was RM23316 Marine Townson. As an officer later on my number was NO27495W.
We were treated much more as an adult at Lympstone. The whole emphasis was on team work. If one of the team failed, you all failed and if one doesn`t come up to the mark then you will all suffer. It was designed so that if you got one weak one, the rest will help him or push him along as necessary. Most of the work was done in 3s. If you think about it that is how soldiers march, in columns of 3. The basic drills at Deal were expanded and you went on to learn about other weapons such as mortars and anti-tank guns, and how to work radios etc. Then you went on to do the Commando Course which was what everyone was there for. That`s what you get the green beret for. The green beret, your pride and joy. If you don`t pass the commando course you are out. Although I am talking about 1966, pass-out tests have not altered since then. The basic test consists a 5 mile speed march, walking/running a mile in 10 minutes carrying 35 lbs of equipment and your weapon. Then you do a 10-mile speed march. They all had to be completed in 9 minutes per mile. The endurance course, another test, consists of a series of bogs, tunnels and a 5-mile run back to camp. It started with a small section of concrete sewage piping that was submerged in a filthy muddy pond. Working in teams of 3, each team member went through the tunnel. By ducking down and holding your arms straight out in front of you, one member pulled you through while the other member pushed from behind. Later when I trained recruits as an officer, I had to break the ice to demonstrate! When we arrived back at camp soaking wet and bedraggled, we had to quickly clean our rifles and obtain a 90% score on the 25M range. The `Tarzan Course`, as the name implies, consisted of a series of nets, balance walks, rope swings, more nets and a death slide in the trees. There were no safety nets then! More tunnels followed and finally, a 30-foot rope and a crawl over a water tank. In the middle one had to hang straight by the arms and then get back on top of the rope and continue the crawl. The technique for this was to use the natural bounce of the rope. What you had to do before you went down, was to pull down so that the rope came down as you bounced up and then you could swing your legs over and continue on.
So, if you did all of these tests and the battle skills in between them, you came to the final exercise which is probably the one that gets most people more than anything else. It is the 30-mile walk. I say walk, but you run whenever you get the chance. Half of it was across Dartmoor and the rest was along roads and tracks. Of course you had to do all the navigation yourself. If you were unfortunate enough to catch the mist on Dartmoor, you had to rely on your map-reading skills to get you to the right place. As a recruit you have to do it in eight hours with 35 pounds of kit on your back. As an officer you have to do it in seven hours. The first time, I got in with five minutes to spare and the second time when I had to do it as an officer I got in with ten minutes to spare. I think the fastest it has ever been done is six hours twenty minutes. At the end of the course I had to go into hospital. One of the training areas up on Woodbury Common was covered in gorse so a lot of the time you are crawling through gorse bushes. I finished up with big infections and sores in my legs. I was pumped full of penicillin for about three weeks. But I passed, and that was the most important thing. At Lympstone, we used to work officially until lunchtime on Saturdays and you had Sundays off as well. The endurance course was always practised on a Saturday morning, Then you had to wash all the kit, clean everything, get it ready for the next week and then you were allowed out into Exeter on a Saturday evening. I remember coming back from a week`s exercise at one time, and I was so hungry I went to the Berni restaurant in Exeter and went upstairs for a half-chicken meal and then straight downstairs for a half-duck meal. The people there couldn`t believe it. After training you have the chance to go into some kind of specialization. So I applied to go into signals and it was off down to Portsmouth onto the six-month signals course. Compared with the size of radios today, you were carrying a thing called an A41 on your back which weighed 25 pounds. In some ways it wasn`t a good move to train as a signaller because you had that on top of your normal kit. Then we had vehicle radios as well. We learnt the Morse Code but not semaphore. Using Morse Code we had to pass out at 12 words a minute. Later on as I passed up a grade, we had to do 22 words a minute which is as fast as you can write. From there, I was despatched to Aden on my first taste of active service.
I was just coming up to 18 years of age. I was there for 6 months and then they sent me back to do a promotions course which lasted 3 months and then I went back to Aden for the last 6 months. I came out a few weeks before the final withdrawal. I had quite an eventful time with lots of action. I have one very sad memory of the person I flew out with on the plane. We were with 41 Commando who were based at a place called Habilain, not that far from the Yemeni border where a lot of the problems were going on. Later on the insurgents took over more of the country and moved closer to Aden. Up country, the airfield where our camp was based, was surrounded by 4 pickets which were really strategic outposts on top of the high ground. As part of the acclimatization - because we had been sent straight into 95? heat - we used to patrol between the four camps. This was on Day 2 of being out there, and the person in charge of the patrol instructed us to be sure that when we crossed the wadi bottoms, to walk in the other person`s footsteps. Unfortunately this guy didn`t and had his foot blown off by an anti-personnel mine. He was carted off on a stretcher. He was incredibly brave I remember. Of course being new, tricks were played on you and the first one that caught me was that every evening at sundown, all the weapons in the camp were tested. This was a tented camp which had slit trenches outside where obviously if the camp was attacked you went straight into them. Nobody told me that all hell was going to break loose. There was the mortar pit, big anti-tank guns strategically placed on the four posts, machine guns all round, and suddenly at six o`clock there was this almighty crescendo of noise. I had never heard anything like it. I had never been so terrified in my life. Of course I dived into the slit trench, cutting my leg badly on a metal picket, and looked up to see a bunch of Royal Marines looking at me and laughing hysterically. It was a regular thing to take the mickey out of a new-comer.
On board ship, the senior person on the deck would send him for the keys to the snooker room. Off he`d go and he would be sent from one department to another until he caught on. On this posting everywhere was sand, sand, and sand, but in the mountains it could be quite beautiful. When I was up there it was the only time we had rain, and it rained non-stop for 24 hours and the desert bloomed. The cacti all came out in bloom and it was absolutely fantastic. We came under fire quite a few times, but there was one occasion that we actually invited the dissidents to come at us. There was a piece of land called Table Top which was right up in the mountains. This was a flat plateau and you knew that within 48 hours of taking station up there, you would get attacked. It took the local jungle drums that long to get the message back that the Brits were back on top of the mountain. You would be on top of rock so there was no way you could dig down for protection, so you built these thing called sangers and it was in your interest to make them, not necessarily high but with thick walls to protect against a mortar or an anti-tank shell or anything. They came at us from three different directions and the mortar pit got a direct hit. The mortar pit sergeant got the Military Medal and the Commanding officer got the Military Cross. I was in the same pit at he was. The battle lasted 15 minutes and was very fierce. The firepower lit everywhere up, it was like Guy Fawkes Night. We were firing tracer rounds to try to pinpoint where the enemy was. Then you put flares up but they never stayed around that long and as they always took their dead with them, you couldn`t really tell how successful you had been. The next morning, the follow-up patrol found bloodstains so we knew we had had some success.
I remember lots of things. I saw the biggest grapefruits I had ever seen in my life. They must have been a foot in diameter and were so sweet you didn`t need any sugar. As for the latrines, you could describe them as `the big drop`. I`ll say no more! Needless to say, water was at a premium and basically you were surviving on about 3 pints a day in spite of all that heat. Of course the body acclimatizes. Down in Aden we were based in an old Italian workers` compound down there, and I used to run five or six miles in the midday heat. You just get used to it. When we were based on the other side of Aden, we had the coast which was lovely, miles and miles of empty beaches except perhaps for the odd fisherman. We were relatively safe and we could walk for miles. We were in Aden to stop the insurgents from coming in and also to protect the oil installations there. Aden was a big oiling refuelling point for the Navy . Up country we were there to protect the airstrip. In Aden itself we protected the government buildings. We used to do guard duty at the prison, mainly to see that the guards did their job and also to keep them in. Aden was a British Protectorate until it was eventually decided we should pull out. With the usual lack of forethought and preparation, the Government of the day backed the wrong group of dissidents. Within four weeks of our pulling out, the other group took over backed strongly by the Russians. The waste when we did depart was appalling. I remember seeing a huge pile of service boots as high as this house being burnt to prevent them falling into Arab hands. A married friend of mine dismantled fridges and everything else like that in the married quarters and put them in repact boxes and sent them home. We were there at the same time as the Argyle and Scottish Highlanders who hit the headlines when two of their men were captured and their commander known as Mad Mitch took the whole battalion in and marched through the Crater.
I was in Aden over the nine months except for the Command Course and when I came back I was never so glad to see green grass and to drink some milk. This course was the Junior Command Course to qualify you to be a corporal. I went back to Aden after qualifying which was fine but at 181/2 and with one stripe on your arm, dealing with hardened men of 28 or more, it was a tough job. In the days when the Services weren`t stretched so much as they are now, we actually had a commando which was designated a Recruitment Commando. It would do all the ceremonies. I was in this commando for a while which was a nice break for me. I did the Royal Tournaments and I was a signaller on the Tall Ships Race based at Falmouth which was wonderful. I remember the barque called the Stratsrad Lemkul. It was the first time I was introduced to Norwegian meatballs. At this time I was based at a place called Bickleigh outside Plymouth and we had a very cold winter that year. This was before the new camp had been built and we were in Nissen huts with a tiny wooden stove in the middle and all of trying to keep warm. So you were never out of your sleeping bag at night. At least when we came back from a night out in Plymouth we could get the frying pan out and cook ourselves eggs on top of this stove. In the mean time I had got O-level maths and I started to look round to see if there was any chance of getting a commission. I would have loved to have been a helicopter pilot but the co-ordination just wasn't there. Plus the fact that had I passed the aptitude tests at Biggin Hill, I would not have passed the medical because my hearing was not up to scratch. Unfortunately, long spells on the radio had affected my hearing, hence the need for hearing aids today. I was drafted to HMS Intrepid after that. Intrepid was an LPD which stands for Landing Platform Dock and the idea of it is that it has a function rather like a miniature aircraft carrier. In those days we had 2 Commando Carriers, Bulwark and Albion, besides Fearless and Intrepid, the LPDs. The platform was the flat bit at the back which the helicopters flew from. Inside the stern there were four large landing craft that could carry tanks. The stern was flooded and a large flap dropped down to release the landing craft. The operation was similar to a roll-on roll-off ferry. I went on board as a signaller and my main roll was to act as the rear-link. We had troops based on board and also troops came on a temporary basis to enlarge the formation before the assault on the beach. Such an operation required split-second timing and you were coordinating troops going off in the smaller landing craft, in the larger landing craft and the two helicopters in the back coming off and going on. The sorties were going out about every 30 seconds - just the sort of thing you see on Star Trek and on the war movies. I used to love it when we had a big operation on. I joined Intrepid in Singapore and we had a while there.
It was the first time I saw Penang. I thought it the most beautiful place under the sun. This was before it got popular with the tourists. One of the beaches was where they filmed South Pacific. We still got the rum ration in those days and the Rum Bosun used to dish it out on the mess deck but when the troops were further inland the links with the ship then moved ashore. We took neat rum then, not the watered rum we had on board. We would sit on the beach in 85? in the evening, looking at a most beautiful sunset and pouring this fire water down our throats. Incredible! Quite something! There were times of boredom as you moved from place to place and the sailors had the work of driving the ship. Quite a lot of chipping and painting went on, and checking the stores and so forth. But it was convenient to me because it meant I could do my GCE`s by correspondence. I am proud of myself that I got basically 5 O-levels which I needed educationally for a commission. Somewhere along this time, I went to Portsmouth to do aptitude tests which were quite intensive and daunting ranging from formal interviews, initiative tests, and team tests, mental and written exercises. One of these was an exercise based on an accident at the North Pole and how would you get the men off with only a certain amount of fuel etc. You did not find out for some time afterwards how you got on. On the way back from Singapore we called in at Durban and had a fantastic time although I have horrible memories of the apartheid that went on there. The country was beautiful and the fruits delicious, the bananas and the foods that we now take for granted. St Helena was the next stop. They had an amazing flight of steps there going up to the top, called Jacob's Ladder. You were expected to run up these as part of the course. I was back on board Intrepid when I got a call after midnight to see the captain and I was summoned up to the bridge. The captain was in his big chair, king of the bridge. He swung round and said, 'Congratulations Second Lieutenant! `
I got a lot of ribbing after that as you can guess. That must have been about April, 1970. The officers` course was not starting until the September so they had to fill us in with something. We went as instructors on an Outward Bound Course at Towyn in Wales where we helped to assess Army officers from Sandhurst who had a question mark against their suitability. We took some Sea Cadets from Bermondsey over to Jersey which was great fun. Then I went back to Lympstone to do officer training which was everything I did before only more so. On the higher side we studied military law as well. Of course you were expected to set an example to the new officer cadets on the commando course, and certain things were different. For instance we went out on Salisbury Plain to do more advanced tactics known as TEWTS - tactical exercise without troops - complete with a Major directing the battle sitting on his shooting stick. `Here you are gentlemen, here is the scenario`, he would say. `The enemy is approaching from so-and-so and you`ve got to defend this position`. You are basically siting a commando and deciding where you put the men and where you put the weapons. It was all very civilised because the Army was running it. We had the mess tent put on top of a hill with silver service for lunch! Which reminds me, going back to the Table Top in Aden, I think it was the Welsh Guards or it might have been the Scots Guards who had been out there before, and they actually flew in the Mess tent and had a meal on the top. What panache! I was 24 by now and I am pleased to say I completed the officer's training. There were 4 of us who had come up through the ranks. 33 of us joined and at the passing out parade there were 12, that's all. As YOs - Young Officers - we were used as rear-rank instructors because we were teaching them how to clean boots, how to spit and polish, how to get themselves organised. After all, we had done it ourselves. A lot of pressure was put on us because we were expected to look after ourselves and also get the rest of the rabble (as they were in the early days) into shape. Our intake was the first to have a direct graduate intake of 4 men. Only one of the graduates made it, and he wasn't up to much. An officer's life is quite different to that of the other ranks although the gap has closed much more these days from what it was like when I was in the Forces. I remember I bought a new Burton`s three-piece suit, thinking it was very smart. We had to parade to make sure that all our civilian gear was suitable. I had a trilby hat in those days as well. The officer in charge looked at the suit and said, 'No, you`ll have to get a new one, Townson`. Even the uniform, like a set of lovats was about ?150, and blues were about ?250. This was in the 1970s. The cost today in 2006 must be horrendous.
I enjoyed eating in the mess with the other officers and being waited on. It was lovely, although a culture shock for me. The service mess nights and the summer and Christmas balls were another world and perhaps I got more out of it than anybody else. I was then sent to Malta for my first Troop Commander`s posting and in my troop I actually had one of the guys who had gone up with me to the Admiralty Interview Board to try for his commission as well but he had failed. But he was a good friend of mine anyway. I was in charge of 33 men and in spite of having ranks experience I was still pretty green and relied on the Troop Sergeant and Troop Corporals for help. We exercised in Malta during the time that the independence movement under Mr Mintoff was hostile. We exercised in Cyprus as well which was a wonderful break because Malta was so restricted in terms of what you could do. When we were recalled from Malta we left on HMS Bulwark in a fair amount of hurry and at that stage we did not know where we were going. As chance would have it, we sailed out of the Med and over to America and enjoyed 10 days leave in Florida. It was wonderful. It was the first time I saw Disney. The girls loved our English accents and there were a number of close relationships formed during that time. The hospitality we received was absolutely fantastic. Before we even docked, invitations came in to stay at various homes in the area. We went to this guy`s house, or rather mansion, which was on the coast complete with sail boat! I have to say that all the Americans I met were super folk. Back to Yeovil next where I met Paddy Ashdown who was in the Marines before taking up politics and becoming the leader of the Liberal Party. Of course Yeovil became his constituency. I was part of the advanced party sorting out accommodation, rations, supplies etc. for the arrival of the commando. In true Ashdown style, we did the work in the morning and then he took us clay pigeon shooting in the afternoon. Then it was back to Lympstone training recruits again. I took a Juniors squad and two recruit squads through training. By this time as an officer I was considering further specialisation. The natural thing was to continue in signals but signals was getting more and more technical and involved a lot of office work. So I decided to have a go for Special Boat Service which is where I spent my last four years. I was sent on two command courses as part of my career development. In the Marines, to be promoted to Major, you have to pass the Staff Exam which corresponds to a last year at university. It is intense bearing in mind you still have to do your normal job whilst studying. The forerunner to this, are Junior Staff Courses.
I did the one with the Army and then they sent me to Greenwich on a 3-month course. We had the privilege of eating in the Great Hall under the Italian painted ceiling, a true masterpiece. You are so riveted looking up at it, you keep missing your mouth. It was an intellectual course but it was still relatively light-hearted in true Navy spirit. It is not until you go to full Staff College that you really work. The Navy people who we were with thought we were absolutely mad. Every day I and a friend went round Greenwich Park with packs on our backs, running and stepping on and off the seats. The civilians walking about enjoyed the sight but the Navy guys thought we were crazy. I then had to go in for the Passing Test for the SBS, part of which is that you do the 30-miler in 7 hours at the end of a gruelling week with 60 pounds on your back. That was along the Dorset Coastal Path which is all ups and downs. I passed the Assessment Week which was really to see if you were prepared to put up with unreasonable harassment. I mean we would go to bed and at 2 o`clock in the morning you would be called out to go for a dip in Poole Harbour. Anything to piss you around so much that you wanted to give up. We started with 28 and nine months later we finished with 4. Actually there was a hell of an inquiry afterwards. Just think of the cost and then only finishing with 4. All the way through I wanted to tell them to stuff it, but I didn`t. Of course it was done on purpose to test us, but there was a certain amount of the `buggeration` factor involved. We had two corporals who were particularly vindictive because they wanted to leave and weren`t allowed to. They could have earned almost ten times as much working in the North Sea Oil boom as divers on rig construction. A lot of the recruits on the course got really resentful of the way they were treated and left. We lost a lot of good people as a result. The course was run by an American Seal officer who was on an Exchange Posting and who hadn`t got a clue as to what was happening. For instance we had PT every morning at 6 o`clock for half or three-quarters of an hour. We liked having the American because he made it so easy, just simple exercises. We usually did special work to build upper body strength, like picking up a telegraph pole and running with it. At the end we would go to the end of the jetty, and jump into the Clyde whilst training in Scotland. I could dive before I went on the course but on the SBS course you had these reusable breathing sets which did not leave a trail of bubbles. The disadvantage with them is that you cannot go below 30 feet because the gas mixture changes if you do and you can end up poisoning yourself.
I did an awful lot of diving during this period. Training included navigational skills, photography and communication skills. We were trained to penetrate enemy lines and remain undetected. In Scotland, canoe training consisted of a 30-mile paddle up Loch Long, followed by a 20-mile walk with the canoe on your back. The canoe was the work horse for getting men ashore from a mother craft, submarine or aircraft. The final training was the basic parachute course at Abingdon which included the balloon drop which preceded the drops from Hercules aircraft. There was a big exercise where we started near Swanage and finished up setting explosives on a reservoir somewhere in Somerset. We did various jobs across Dartmoor and then went down to Plymouth where we were went to a safe house for a final briefing before we went on a diving exercise. Before that I should mention that we had done a certain amount of work on resistance to interrogation. Now I knew Plymouth like the back of my hand because I had spent many holidays down there with my auntie and uncle. We were collected from this safe house and taken away by lorry but knowing Plymouth like I did, I felt that something was wrong. We were in diving suit underwear ready for the diving exercise and were told that we would get the outer suit at a later stage. As we went along we could see bits of the route and I said,` We are coming up to Fort Mountbatten. We are not going on any diving exercise, we`re going for interrogation!` So we armed ourselves with diving knives and weight belts ready for when the truck stopped and for the guards` reception! A stand-off ensued. The guards closed up the truck again with us still inside, drove away hoping we would cool down. Once outside the fort we cut a hole in the polystyrene roof forcing the driver to stop. We all leaped out and disappeared into Plymouth. We stole a rowing boat and rowed across the harbour to my auntie`s house. We had two days there before we had to go back to base. There was a big hoo-hah but there was nothing they could do about it. We had used our initiative as we had been trained. The final part was the survival course with the SAS in Hereford where you learn field skills and what you can eat and what you can`t eat. We went out for 4 days where they dumped us in a field and were told to survive. I 'found` a cauliflower that must have been the gardener`s prize specimen. It was the biggest, whitest head I have ever seen. We tried to get into the chicken coop as well but there was too much noise going on.
The SAS motto is Who Dares Wins if you get away with it fine, but if you get caught you are off the course, failed and that`s that! Other memories include a Dutch Special Forces team member chasing a Mallard duck through a blackberry thicket and returning with the duck in hand. Unfortunately, the Dutchman`s face looked like he had been in a bar brawl but we all agreed that it was the best tasting duck we had ever had! Other `food` instruction included how to kill a live sheep and eat the raw liver as demonstrated by an SAS Sergeant to some very squeamish pupils! Ray Mears would have been proud of us! The last part of the course was yet more interrogation linked to being hounded across the Brecon Beacons for 7 days. The final photograph of the `survivors` look like we have just come back from the Russian front! Once I was qualified within the SBS a number of varying exercises and operations followed. An SBS unit was based in Gibraltar in case the Spanish made further claims on the `Rock` and decided to `park up in the harbour`. The role was to cut the anchor chains with explosives - but not to sink the Spanish Navy, I might add. I spent 6 months in Gibraltar with a great team of 9 men diving every day and practising many of the skills we had been taught in training. As a lieutenant I reported direct to the Admiral for Operational Tasks, including being summoned to provide the Admiral`s ski boat as our section had a rigid raid assault boat powered by 140HP Johnson engine on the back capable of 40 knots! Cora, my wife, was able to join me during the summer break from her school so for 6 weeks I `commuted` from our hired flat to the `office` a hut on the harbour from where we operated.
Other jobs included tasks in Northern Ireland and a trip on the QE2. The SBS had had links with Cunard first through the bomb threat to her whilst crossing the Atlantic. A team flew to meet the ship, parachuted in and searched the ship thoroughly before giving she was given the `All Clear`. Later the SBS were again 'employed` by Cunard, two trips which involved very rich American Jewish passengers visiting sensitive Arab ports and cities in the Mediterranean. Terrorism had now entered the arena. Colonel Gadaffi and friends were not only threatening but carrying out atrocities including the high-jacking of the Italian cruiser ship and subsequent murder of a wheel-chair-bound American. The Government and Cunard clearly did not want the flag ship of British cruising to suffer a similar fate so we were dispatched in both covert and overt roles to give protection. I was 'employed` as an Entertainments Officer along with two other colleagues. The problem was that none of us could ball-room dance so our covert role soon became overt as far as the ship's crew were concerned! Weapons concealment was a problem as you couldn't wear a shoulder holster. We had to have a 'crutch` holster made from modified 38 Special revolvers. Now we all know the origin of the saying 'Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?' For one of my fellow officers employed as an Entertainments Officer the problem was amplified. As a 6- foot 4- inch blonde Adonis, he was pursued not only by one particular amorous lady passenger but by two of the `gay` community from the crew! Despite furtive 'grabs` that part at least remained in cognito! I spent four very happy years serving in the SBS.
The men were the most professional team I have ever had the privilege to work with. The `jobs` were fantastic and the responsibilities immense. Unfortunately as an officer you cannot stay for more than a tour without returning to General Duties. Once more the Government at the time were making further cutbacks. Returning to `push a pen` for a number of years did not appeal to me. The final `nail in the coffin` was having to write a Service Paper whilst at Junior Staff College entitled 'Why are so many Service Officers leaving the Service between the ages of 28-32?' I literally wrote my resignation! I look back on 14 years where I saw many parts of the world. I learned to dive, to ski, to parachute, to fight in the desert, in the arctic and in the jungle and to develop as a leader and manager. Most of all I was privileged to be a member of the finest fighting force in the world - the Royal Marines. I left in 1978 but 28 years later I still meet up with fellow officers about every 4 years for a re-union dinner. Our last serving officer retired about 4 years ago as a Brigadier. The lamp gets `vigorously swung` and we continue to sit for the Loyal Toast in true Navy tradition.