It is 16 October 2017 as I write. A Facebook post by Rob Turner, Chair of the OW Liaison Group, reminded me that on that fateful Thursday in October 1987, he was an excited CCF Army Section cadet in the fourth form (Year 10 for those under 40) about to do his self-reliance test. I was a fresh young officer who had ‘joined up’ the year before so I too was excited about finding out what a self-reliance test was, whilst pretending that I was well aware of what was going on.
A young (yes, really) Lt Broaderwick led 2Lt Youngs (mother of Emma, one of the cadets), me and a dozen or more cadets in two minibuses to Bromeswell, near the rugby club. There we had a jolly evening pitching tents in pairs (assessed) cooking an evening meal (assessed), being quizzed on the Country Code (individually assessed as it was so important) and then Lt Broaderwick had organised a fun night-navigation exercise, because he liked things to be fun. And importantly for cadets to be tired. Which they were and so they got in to their tents and went to sleep, knowing that passing the self-reliance test depended on it.
The officers who had been very busy all evening assessing and cooking their own meal had had no time for tentage, so they laid their sleeping bags between the two vehicles in a Dutch barn (all corrugated iron roof and few walls). And as it was nearly half term, gratefully fell asleep. I remember half waking and for the first time ever pulling the cord of the sleeping bag tight above my head. I normally like fresh air when asleep but felt that claustrophobia was a better option than all that sand that was blowing around. And the roof was very creaky…
At some point once I was asleep again, I came to very vaguely to the sound of that dread word: “Sir. Sir!” That meant I was on duty.
“Yes, what is it?”
“Sir, our tent’s blowing away.”
Still in the spirit of self-reliance I astutely pointed out that I couldn’t help and that they should go round all their pegs and guy ropes to ensure they were secure. Then I pulled my cord tight again. The cadet (which may well have been Rob, who was always good at organising) didn’t take the hint and insisted that really, not just his but all the tents were blowing down. I propped myself up on an elbow and squinted towards the row of tents only to find seeing anything in the swirling sand was hard but I could make out corners of fly sheets whipping to and fro. And the barn roof was really being buffeted.
In an instant we were all up, the order was given to strike camp and bundle the tents and their contents in to the minibus any old how (the only time that order has ever been given in CCF history) and for the cadets to get in too, at the double. No time to lose! We moved quickly out of the barn and in a very few minutes the minibuses were full to the roofs with an assortment of tents and cadets (officers had the privilege of a seat to themselves at the front) and we moved the buses to the lee of the WRFC buildings. We couldn’t have gone any further as there were trees down over the track. So we sat, in the dark, in cramped conditions in the minibuses, waiting it out. It was quite scary but at least being out of reach of trees that might have fallen, and protected from the worst of the gale was as good as we could manage.
Daylight showed that quite a lot of trees had come down; with pine trees in sandy soil that is likely to happen anyway, the gale just made the scale worse. And the barn where we had been trying to sleep still had its uprights in place. The roof had departed long since, to be found half a mile away across a field. Lt Broaderwick and I went for a walk to see how to get to the road. Whilst battling along the track I was lifted by the wind and deposited face down in a rut on the track, which was full of muddy water. In front of the minibuses. Was that cheering I could hear, just to make the situation even more perfect? Once Lt B managed to control his convulsions of laughter he offered me his spare army trousers that he always carried on exercise. Had he been a Boy Scout in former times? I made a mental note re spare kit for the future. The front of my shirt was wet as my combat jacket had scooped up a quantity of very muddy water and sloshed it down my front. My mouth was open in the shock of being removed from the ground so that too filled with muddy water. And I had to put up with ripped pockets on my combat jacket for some months after, before a replacement arrived.
Our recce showed that we could skirt some of the trees on the track but the road was still impassable. Lt B loped off to find a telephone. In those distant days, you couldn’t put one in your pocket. Of course lines were down so a call took some time. Eventually he got through to school to say we were all safe and that we would work at getting back to school as soon as roads were clear. The US Air Force was still based at Bentwaters and they had huge machines for keeping runways clear and these were despatched to move trees off local roads. This allowed us to make our way very slowly, carefully skirting fallen electrical cables, the few miles back to school. We got there late morning, having had nothing to eat since our rations the evening before. The kitchens had been expecting to cater for boarders and those on Field Day but in school. No one had come in to school, quite reasonably, so we were treated to a memorably welcome cooked breakfast. I have rarely enjoyed a meal so much.
We then set about sorting out the tangle of camping gear and personal kit, and returning the cadets to their parents. What the latter had been thinking, lying at home listening to the wind crashing around while their children were out camping for the night can be imagined. But such was life before mobiles; you knew that things would probably be all right and they almost always were. Eventually, later in the afternoon, I drove very slowly home to Ipswich, avoiding trees, branches, stonework, cables on the roads. Going along Park Road, I had to avoid the tree that had come down in the Bishop’s garden, demolishing a section of his brick wall. A little later I drew up in front of my own house to find the concrete tiles from half of my roof, strewn in pieces on the pavement in front of my house. I shuddered at what would have happened to a passer-by. Then I spent the evening clearing up bits of tile, finding a roofer and starting the insurance claim.
And as Rob rightly remembers, all the Intermediates passed their self-reliance test, even though the tests planned for the morning had not surprisingly been abandoned. Lt B ensured they were carried out on the next CCF afternoon though. CCF contingents don’t become excellent by letting standards slip! And that’s another lesson I learnt. What I haven’t learnt though is not to go camping in October. Today finds me on a campsite in Cornwall with the wind so strong that I can’t make a planned move to Somerset today. But at least with Hurricane Ophelia, there is no sand whipping round, no cadets to be responsible for and I’m not in a tent! Now an intrepid outing to the Smugglers Den Inn at Cubert for lunch. And if it tastes half as good as that breakfast in the school dining room thirty years ago, it will be worth the (careful) drive.
Any former cadets out there with memories of that 24-hour exercise? Or indeed other memorable field days?