ARMY PRE SCHOOL
BY Martin Ough Dealy
" Now then Brown 7, your task is to lead your group across this un-swimmable water course. You have two planks, a barrel of water and a piece of rope. You must not leave anything behind. You have 15 minutes. GO!"
Panic was my first reaction. Neither plank was long enough to span the gap. More panic when I found the barrel was heavy…it must have weighed 100 Kg. Worse still we were all strangers in the group. We had arrived yesterday and we were all competing to get a place at Sandhurst.
Two minutes of indecisive dithering then a flash of inspiration…build a bridge! What? With two short planks …your joking! Well I could build a sort of cantilever that might just get over half way across, a sort of wishbone with the joint lashed by the rope. But the barrel…damned thing it cannot float, and cannot be thrown across. Somehow we’ll have to roll it across…….really?! but what about the gap of 4 feet to bridge from the end of the plank?
Ah…I have a volunteer. 6 feet 2 inches in his socks and built like an ox…looks strong too! He acts as my third plank and somehow lies down with legs on the plank and torso across the gap, he is able to grasp the root of a tree on the other side and stiffens his body in anticipation.
Problem solved. Seven of us scrabble across our improvised bridge rolling the barrel as we go. We just ignore the agonized cries of our much abused pal.
1 minute left.
Blind panic what now? Our human plank is dragged across onto the far side but we have still to retrieve the rope and two planks.
"TIME ! "
"Well Brown 7 you did not quite succeed did you? You have left your gear behind!" The beady eyes of our examiner bore into me and then notes are made on his clip board and he strides off.
" Now then Brown 2 your task is to……" and off we went again only this time I was not the leader.
That was just one of many tasks and situations designed to determine over three days whether I was a suitable candidate for training at Sandhurst. I was attending the Regular Commissions Board (RCB). I had been told that as a candidate from the colonies I would have only one chance. Not for me the possibility of
being relegated and given a second go if I failed the first one.
I had arrived in England for the first time in my life only 3 weeks before the RCB. The immigrant cum banana boat MV "Ariguani" had discharged me together with about 30 other travellers from Jamaica in Southampton on 17
March ( St Patrick’s day) after a month at sea crossing the stormy Atlantic from sunny Kingston.
The Army had sent me a "Movement Order". I was somewhat taken aback on first reading it, but was relieved to find it contained instructions for travel and was not concerned with my internal bodily functions. Attached was a Railway Voucher to travel from Honiton in Devon to Westbury in Wiltshire. I was required to arrive on such and such a train on such and such a day.
I managed the travel without incident and duly arrived at Westbury station on a train pulled by an old steam loco that had stopped at every station between. Most of the people leaving the train were of about my own age. Like me, most looked nervous and apprehensive, unsure of what to expect at this small, out of the way and very rural railway station.
The barked orders of a splendidly uniformed sergeant made it clear that "All men going to the RCB " were to embark on the bus outside. And so we did, some 60 of us, as I recall. None of us were in uniform and most appeared to be fresh out of school …..as was I.
The trip from station to Leighton Hall was short. We disembarked and the resplendent sergeant with his red sash across his chest and the added authority of a highly polished pace stick in the left hand ( as per regulation) called the roll and organised us into groups of 8.
That was the last time I was to be addressed by my own name for the next three days.
I found myself in the Brown Team and given a Brown coloured vest with the number 7 emblazoned on the back. I was told in no uncertain terms that for the rest of the time at the RCB I was identified as "Brown Seven" and was to answer only to that until I was to be released on day 4. AND I was to WEAR the vest AT ALL TIMES until they gave my name back to me!
For the next 72 hours we were put through a bewildering variety of tests and challenges. Some were as a team like the one already described. Others were individual tests many of them written. These tested character, psychological make up, ability to communicate, intelligence, numeracy and mental stamina, amongst others.
I must say I felt as if BIG BROTHER was watching us for every hour of the day. We even had to wear out brown identity vests when in bed at night!.....the only time I took mine off was when in the ablutions and even then I felt naked without it such was the atmosphere of the authoritarian rule in the place!.
We debated such subjects as whether or not the police should be armed and to what extent Stalin was an ally or a tyrant. Topics were chucked at us by a young major whose task was not to assess our political views, but merely to get the measure each of us: who sat silently, who talked too much, but said little of value; who made sure the conversation didn't wander off the subject, who was confident, who was an empty shell.
There were three one-on-one interviews which skilfully unravelled and probed our characters, attitudes, and why we wanted to join the Army. My own ambition was a mixture of wanting a life of adventure, and travel, escape from Jamaica and becoming an engineer.
The discussion group was not the only chance to display our powers of verbal expression. Towards the end we had to give a five minute talk on a subject of individual choice.
The topic I presented was ill chosen to say the least…. There was not a friendly face when I got up to expound on the solar system….in a state of abject terror…I was always nervous about public speaking…. Things got rapidly worse when I lost the thread of what I was trying to say. But I managed to keep talking somehow and I think I survived the test as much because no one seemed able or game enough to challenge what I was talking about. It must have been drivel judging from the looks of bemusement from some in the group and glazed eyes in the remainder.
There were tests to assess innate intelligence; two essays to assess ability communicate and many to test one’s ability to lead, and in turn to be led - to be supportive; tests to discover physical fitness, practical ability and planning capacity.
The outdoor exercises proved challenging. They were more difficult than they appeared and were designed, above all, to test the ability to cope with stress. One of our team, the bully boy, blew it. He briefed us well enough to start the task, but clearly did not know how to see it through. Rather than seek help or lead by example, he stood on the side lines, yelling: "Come on gents, get on with it!" Brown 5 fared little better. They both, blustered and bullied…... They had to be failed.
At the end of the 72 hours, the selecting officers produced a report for the Board grading personal characteristics of each candidate. These included calmness under stress, sense of urgency, dominance, liveliness, initiative, determination, military compatibility, sense of responsibility, sense of awareness, quality of personal relations, range of personal relations and maturity and so on .
Calmness under pressure was not at the top of the list without reason. Army officers could expect to be subjected to times of extreme stress and pressure and failure to cope would never be acceptable. If nothing else the RCB had to weed out any candidate unable to cope with stress.
The examination was extremely detailed throughout the 72 hours. Nearly everything was designed to put us under pressure of one kind or another…physical, mental and moral. The selecting officers met regularly to exchange notes and make interim judgements. They identified borderline candidates and concentrated on observing them as the hours wore on. Any sign of weakness could be fatal to the prospects of selection.
Of course there was no indication whether one was doing well or not. None of the selectors gave us any encouragement. They seemed all steely eyed, judgemental and remote. But occasionally humour relieved the gloom and the stress of competing with total strangers. Just occasionally I managed to raise a laugh or a grim smile; more often than not the result of some stupid mistake, or inane remark on my part. But at least the directing staff did sometimes drop their guard and showed that they were human.
In no time the three days were over. We assembled in a large room to be told our fate. The procedure was simple and we were quickly put out of our misery of apprehension. The sergeant who had met us on arrival sat at a desk room whilst we stood waiting to be called. I responded to "Brown 7" for the last time and obeyed his instructions to enter the inner sanctum where the Board was assembled.
I found myself facing a large desk behind which sat two colonels and a brigadier in formal uniform. It was the Brigadier who spoke and said "Well Mr Ough, we have decided to take a chance with you…..you have been selected for training but you have a lot to do if you are ever to succeed at Sandhurst and get a commission. To start with you must get rid of that Jamaican accent of yours! Congratulations and good luck. Please use the exit marked A."
Exit B was for the 55% who had not been selected………