The Territorial Army

We had been members of the Territorial Army (Army Reserve) since we turned 18, and were originally assigned to a REME Light Aid Detachment (LAD) attached to the Royal Engineers Field Park Squadron. For a short while, I was also posted to the ordnance (explosives) section. Later, Gordon and I were transferred to the 307 Royal Engineers and so became sappers. The sappers were more concerned with practical problems rather that regimentation and were a lot more casual. However, the spit and polish of the REME paid off and at the end of our training I was awarded ‘Recruit of the Year’, with an inscribed tankard to prove it!

With most tasks I teamed up with Gordon Patterson, especially when we were dumped on the moor with only an ordnance survey map1 and compass. The recruits were all a bit naïve, because at that time we could have been sent to Europe at the drop of a hat to ‘fight the Commies’ or be sent into a radioactive contaminated area.

Luckily that never happened and we had a great time. Gordon Patterson and I went on many courses and weekends and we were both eventually awarded Lance Corporal Stripes. I proudly sewed on the stripes the night before leaving for the annual camp with a Regular Army unit.

We travelled by troop train to the seaside town of Tenby in South Wales, where a huge, tented camp and ordnance range was situated. The first morning parade was a disaster. The 307 Royal Engineers formed up in line and Sergeant Major Hassett marched smartly from the right and proceeded to trip over every tent peg in his path.

The squadron bugler was then ordered to demonstrate the required daily bugle calls. He was so petrified his mouth dried up and all he could produce was a few feeble squeaks. What an impression!

The Regular Army personnel treated the Territorials with distain and tested us to the limit. For one of the three-day exercises, we were required to construct a six can latrine in a clearing in the forest. That was the easy bit. On the last afternoon of the exercise one of the sergeants called me over.

“Corporal Jones, I want you to take this squad of sappers and reinstate the latrine site and I want the cans to shine so I can see my face in them,” he ordered with a smirk on his face.

With a hand cart loaded with cleaning equipment in tow, I led the squad of eight grumbling sappers, most of them much older than me, shouldering an assortment of shovels, out of the camp.

The job entailed dismantling the hessian partitions, digging a series of holes, emptying the can’s contents, filling the hole then cleaning the cans. Three days multiplied by thirty soldiers multiplied by one crap per day equals an awful lot of ‘stuff’, I calculated on the way to the clearing. I wondered how a green 20-year-old Junior NCO was going to get the squaddies to complete the foul job.

On arrival, the squad were relatively happy to dig the holes and dismantle the partitions, but the rest of the task was a different story. There is an old saying: ‘Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself’. I lined the squad up.

“Right lads, this job has to be completed so I’m going to show you how it’s done.”

They stood in silence and watched. I emptied the contents of the first can, scoured it clean and placed it on the hand cart.

“OK, I’ve done my bit. Now it’s your turn. Get on with it.”

I waited for the inevitable backchat but none came. They proceeded to complete the job without complaint. A few of the lads even joked about it.

Just before we entered the camp, we  shouldered arms with the shovels and smartly marched to report back to the sergeant. He was amazed that the job had been completed so efficiently and must have wondered how on earth I’d managed to get the guys to co-operate.

Our Squadron was assigned to perform overnight patrol duty on the extensive ordnance depot close by. The area was a flat, isolated area dotted with widely spaced concrete explosive stores surrounded by blast walls. At that time the IRA was active and they targeted army depots to steal explosives so we were warned to be vigilant.

At about 2am the patrol detail reported seeing the lights of a vehicle on one of the remote roads inside the perimeter fence. Gordon and I as junior NCOs were the senior personnel so we  took two other lads, armed ourselves with pickaxe handles and went to investigate. We discovered that the vehicle was a regular army jeep parked in the middle of the deserted road and we soon assessed the situation. We “fell in” and marched as noisily as we could and rapped on the door.

A red faced major with a scantily clad lady friend were inside He spluttered some lame excuse. We saluted and Gordon said ” Carry on sir” We laughed all the way back to the guard house.

In the pouring rain, the squadron was required to lay a minefield of dummy anti-tank mines, protected with anti-personnel mines. The officer was perched on top of a high tower and would not let the squadron pack up until every mine was undetectable. We eventually completed the task and were allowed to return to camp to dry off and have a bite to eat.

Gordon somehow managed to get himself assigned to the officer’s mess kitchen, so I joined him for meals each day, scoffing officer quality meals.

On the last day of the camp, the officer reminded us of our last job to do – recover the mines. Anti-personnel mines were mainly manufactured from plastic and had three upward facing prongs. A metal washer allowed for detection with a metal detector. He climbed the tower once more and we had to get down on hands and knees in the pouring rain and mud to find each mine, using only our bayonets. Luckily, we had carefully recorded the field compass bearings along with landmarks and grid orientation so we had at least some idea where to start.

In more recent times, mines have unfortunately been manufactured using minimal or no metal components, thus making retrieval very difficult.

Toni Fisher – ‘West of the Wall’  1962
That wall built of our sorrow
We know must have an end
Till then dream of tomorrow
When we meet again

Chesil Bank in Dorset was another location for the annual camp. Chesil Bank is a 27 km straight stretch of shingle beach near Weymouth. The bank is separated from the mainland by a fast-flowing current. The task was to construct a baily bridge2 from the bank to the mainland. Much equipment ended up on the sandy bottom never to be found. We were also instructed in explosives and demolition work.

The most exciting time was at the end of the camp. It was not permitted to return partially used boxes of explosives once the seals were broken, so we gathered all the unused materials and let it all go in one big bang.

Gordon and I were given the task of drilling a deep 100mm diameter shaft, 2 metres deep and loading it with a small plastic explosive and det.3Detonation4 cord. When this was fired, it created an underground cavern where we packed the remaining explosives then sealed the hole. After retiring to a bunker half a mile away, as our tradition dictated, the youngest recruit had the privilege of setting it off. These experiences paid off. Shortly after returning home we were asked to remove an old factory chimney. It was dropped dead on the tape line!

Next: The Officers’ Ball

Previous: The Cold War

  1. Survey maps are very detailed and were scaled at 1 mile per inch. (about 1:60 scale)
  2. A portable, pre-fabricated truss bridge, requiring no special tools or heavy equipment to assemble, often used in military settings.