By Graham Kings
Introduction to the Army
“So, why are we here?”
“To keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in.”
That succinct reply to my question came in February 1973 in York Barracks, Münster, West Germany. It made me think. Even then, part of it was out of date, since the British Army of the Rhine was defending West Germany rather than occupying it. I had recently been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, on a Short Service Limited Commission, at the age of 19.
That Commission, since renamed as “Army Officer Internship,” was specifically designed to attract students into an Army career. You had to have a firm university place and pass a three-day interview, with various exercises, at Westbury, Wiltshire. Then a crash course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst of only three weeks, followed by a week’s specialized training: in my case at the Armour Centre, Bovington, Dorset.
When asked during the interview if I had any connection with the army, I replied, “Yes. My uncle.”
“Where is he serving now?”
“In the next room.”
Uncle Ron, my godfather, had suggested this “gap year” — actually eight months — between school and Oxford.
It was a fascinating example for me of cross-cultural learning and so involved various shocks, including, for a grammar school boy, the British class system. For the first time I had to have tailored trousers: unusually for the army, they were green, because we were an Irish regiment. I remember being measured for them in Savile Row, London. On arrival in Münster, I was served a black velvet, my first ever cocktail, containing champagne and Guinness, in celebration of another officer’s promotion.
I wrote up some of my diary notes and memories in an article for the magazine of my school, entitled “Gap Year in the Dragoons.” I would, of course, express some things differently now, but looking back on my younger self writing in 1973, specifically for schoolboys, has been intriguing and the details are worth retelling:
The course started below the famous charge against the German Ammunition train, flashed past the frozen glare of “that very gallant gentleman” (Captain Oates), through the heavy double doors of the dining room, up a wooden ramp onto one end of the long table, meandered around various silver stags, horses and castles, down the ramp at the other end, turned left under the lofty noses of Baden Powell and our ex-Colonel-in-Chief, through an open window onto the terrace and crossed the pond on wooden planks, passing through the fountain. There, by the finishing point, stood the barman ready to fetch the refreshing prize each time the course was completed.
This was Dudley de Chair’s last bachelor night in the Mess. Ex Formula 2 racing driver, speed addict, expert instructor on the Chieftain’s power pack, it was he who had introduced us to the potential of the mini-motorbike, and had threatened to replace the silver horse centrepiece with a silver crank-shaft. At that time in the Mess we had two monkey bikes and the “Dud-machine” which was powered by a motor mower engine. We had already played a mechanised game of polo with croquet mallets and now, after several successful laps, all three bikes lay drowning in the pond.
Life in the army was not all I had expected. The three week Sandhurst crash course was obviously tough and rewarding. All the choice remarks of the drill square were thrown at us, prefaced by the obligatory “Mr…” and finished with the sarcastic “Sir,” and we soon learned where the sun shone out of.
The Sergeant Major informed us that “the only difference between me calling you “sir” and you calling me “sir” is that you mean it.” We did too.
There are many true stories about the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst: one of the most recent took place on the Sovereign’s Parade. Now the Adjutant on parade is like God on four legs and, while inspecting the cadets, his horse disgraced himself onto the mirror toecaps of a certain cadet. Turning in the saddle he said, “Oh, I do apologise for that.” “That is alright, Sir. I thought it was the horse.” He was promptly marched off the parade ground and into the guard room.
Then, with one pip on each shoulder, those of us going to Cavalry Regiments went to Bovington where we learned to drive, fire, load and command Chieftain tanks. The driver is seated in the hull of the tank. The commander, gunner and loader/radio operator, are in the turret.
Soon after I arrived in Münster, the Regiment went up to the tank ranges at Hohne. One day we almost had venison for dinner, when a herd of deer ran across my sights. My gunner was itching to do some machine gun practice but we had previously had orders not to fire at game.
After two weeks firing, and some night firing with the artillery dropping illuminating flares, we moved up to Soltau tactical exercise area for a fortnight. Here, after the first week I was thrown in the deep end and took over my troop. I was very impressed by my troop (four tanks, fifteen men) with the way each one did his own particular job and the pride he took in doing it well. The justified pride in being part of a good crew or Squadron or Regiment, and always striving to be better at their own job, men and officers alike, is something which very much appealed to me. It may not be so prevalent in civilian life today but it is still the backbone of our army. This is what some people try to explain by using the word “professional.”
About 60% of our Regiment was Irish, both Catholics and Protestants and although we have our due share of scuffles they are very rarely about religion. When we returned to our ex Luftwaffe camp in Münster we had a bomb scare in one of the blocks. Outside in the warm night air an Irish voice was heard: “Home sweet home.”
In June, two other subalterns and I took 12 soldiers “adventure training” in Norway for two weeks. The first week we trekked about 60 miles across the mountains to a Fjord, where we rested for a couple of days, and then canoed down the Fjord out to sea and into Kristiansand.
The Regiment are going to Cyprus for UN duty in November but as Infantry, or, as we say “in a dismounted role.” The soldiers had never fired a rifle before, nor done any infantry tactics, so we went to Vogelsang, near the Belgian border, for two weeks in July. Vogelsang camp was built as one of Hitler’s stud farms for the Master Race. The countryside is rather like the Lake District, but the whole camp still had an eerie atmosphere.
The first allied soldiers to reach there used the many nude statues for target practice. They now look very unhappy. However, the soldiers enjoyed the break from tanks and soon found it much easier to clean a rifle than a 120 mm gun.
Friendly rivalry existing between the Cavalry and the Brigade of Guards had long ago produced the familiar nickname for the latter, of “the wooden tops.” We had four Grenadier Guards Sergeants instructing us expertly on the ranges and, on a particular occasion, one of them asked for a hammer and nail. One of our soldiers asked, “Is it to keep your beret on?”
Reunions in Dorset
I grew up very fast during those few months, from a boy just out of sixth form to a troop leader with four tanks and 15 men.
My Commanding Officer was Lt. Col. Richard Keightley. Thirty-six years later, in 2009, we met up again when I was bishop of Sherborne. He lived in the village next to ours in Dorset, and became part of my consulting group, which helped me get to know the county. In Münster, Richard had taught me to ride, before breakfast, over several days. I had learnt on polo ponies, which you direct with your knees, because you have a polo stick in your hand, and they can turn on a sixpence.
The major in charge of signals was Patrick Cordingley. In 1991 he commanded the Seventh Armoured Brigade in the First Gulf War, and also became a good friend during my time at Sherborne, when we both served as governors of Sherborne School. My squadron leader was Major Andy Evans, who was very encouraging — and forgiving. I once backed a tank, tentatively, into a hangar door.
In 2013 and 2014, all three were interviewed as part of an imaginative oral history project of the regiment. Their fascinating responses, covering the whole range of their careers, may be heard here.
My sermon at St. James’s Church, Poole Dorset, on August 3, 2014, was entitled, “Memory and Delivery: World War One.” I drew on the family letters of Charles Rucker, the father of James Rucker, another squadron leader in Münster. James’s widow, Caroline, lived near us in Dorset.
In the 1970s, NATO tanks were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Warsaw Pact tanks. If their tanks had ever dared to enter West Germany, the NATO plan was to drop tactical nuclear weapons and for our tanks to advance in that awful aftermath. Looking back now, I am surprised that we trained, with equanimity, in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare suits. Since then, I have pondered the ethics of war, and when it can be justified, and have been helped by Oliver O’Donovan’s magisterial book, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge, 2003), written when he taught at Oxford.
I went up to Hertford College, Oxford, to study law in October 1973, miles away from God. How God drew me into new life and a new vocation is the subject of my next chapter.
[…] had come up to Oxford the previous term, having had a gap year in the British Army, and was a long way away from God, though — as always, everywhere, and for everyone — God was […]