Reflections of an I Corps Boy Soldier

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by René Dee, 2015

The beginning of this recollection appeared in Sub Rosa winter issue, p. 4.

It is relatively rare to receive a recollection by someone who did boys’ service in the Corps. As you will read, the author had mixed experiences. Ed.

It was May 1962 when this young teenager found himself at Tonfanau Halt in what was then called Merionethshire. Scores of boys of my age between 15 and 17 disgorged from the train onto a platform that was singularly bare and uninviting. At the end stood an equally uninviting sergeant major who looked at his motley and long-haired new intake with as much scorn and disbelief as he could muster.

Welcome to the All Arms Junior Leaders’ Regiment (AAJLR), where 800 boys at a time spent around 18 months learning to become a soldier before entering ‘man’s service’, in the corps or regiment that they had chosen to serve. I had joined the Intelligence Corps on 17 April 1962 in Northampton with thoughts of cloak and dagger training and James Bond tactics (the mind is pretty fertile at that age) but limited intelligence training, instruction or introduction was given during the entire period I spent at AAJLR. The primary emphasis was on soldiering and turning you into a disciplined one who could deal with charging the enemy (in the form of a bale of hay) screaming at the top of your voice with rifle and fixed bayonet. As important were enduring cold showers at 6 a.m. (Reveille); learning to clean and iron your kit; drill, drill and more drill, sport, adventure training, driver training and further education. It didn’t matter if you were in the Intelligence Corps, the Durham Light Infantry, The Black Watch, the 17th/21st Lancers, REME, or the Royal Artillery, you all went through the same routine. Boy soldiers were also incentivised during by being promoted from junior lance corporal to junior RSM, and learnt to manage their troops as those in man’s service did. Some of the junior RSMs were far more scary than the real thing! This gave rise to healthy competition, ambition, and development of young men seeking to show what they could achieve. The MOD’s stated purpose of instigating boy’s service in Junior Leaders’ regiments throughout the UK at the time was that these boys would be trained to become ‘the future NCOs of the British Army’, regardless of their cap badge. The AAJLR was formed in 1959 and disbanded in 1966. Remarkably, the MOD gave no proper recognition to the 18 months (or longer) period of service that boys carried out before the 12 years regular army service that started at the age of 18. Along with all boys who joined boy’s service at the tender age of 15 or 16, we were all forced to sign up to the legally binding 12-year contract with the British Army at that age, but which did not start until you reached the age of 18 after boy’s service.

Because the money was better, most of us signed up for nine years as Regulars and three years in the reserves, rather than six as regulars and six in the reserves. The army got a good deal and got away with it until parliament voted to change this. Boys of 15 and 16 should not have been made to sign a legally binding contract that forced them to stay in the military for 18 months, plus 12 years.

It was a tough training ground, especially if you were in the Intelligence Corps among those die-hard kids from all parts of the British Isles who had signed up in a renowned and classic infantry regiment laden with historically rich and proud battle campaigns pinned to their colours. As a ‘soft’ kid from a middle-class background with a funny sounding name, the first problem I came across was trying to understand my fellow soldiers. Here I encountered broad and rasping Scottish accents from the Glasgow Gorbals and Western Highlands, lilting Geordie from Tyneside and rural Northumberland, singing Scousers from Liverpool, and Ulster Irish from the wilds of Donegal and Londonderry, as well as the striking accents of Belfast, among many others. Not all Intelligence Corps boys were from Surrey or Kent without specific accents, or from middle-class backgrounds, but they were all seen as namby- pamby, soft-bellied and wholly misunderstood. The drill instructors had a field day with us! This made many of us fight even harder to show what we were worth. Achieving my DofE Gold Award proved to myself and others that we also had spunk! Then, once I got to Maresfield in January 1964, I very soon realised that the 18 months of training and achievement in boy’s service were virtually dismissed. This was a shock. We were certainly not recognised as future NCOs with a head start, and we were viewed by the drill and other instructors as either upstarts or above our station. It has also to be remembered that at that time the policy at the MOD and in Maresfield itself was still very much to train their new intakes as soldiers first, and I Corps second. As a result, there was a considerable amount of discontent among I Corps recruits, me included, who felt that the emphasis of soldiering versus key I Corps training was the wrong way round. The understanding was that the Corps required personnel academically superior to other soldiers so that they could perform the necessary intelligence roles and duties. However, boredom set in when doing fatigues which often seemed more important than Corps training. Another boy from Tonfanau, Dave, and I decided that we would get the ‘Bond’ excitement we had joined up for by doing a Royal Marine Commando course. Passing the seven-week Royal Marine Commando course in Lympstone to wear the coveted green beret was a high point, and we both got posted to the newly formed 3 Cdo Bde in Singapore. Now all I Corps personnel wear a green beret, without having to do a night assault from the sea on an enemy position up a cliff face on the Dorset coast and return intact! I can tell you can sense my indignation at this!

Another aspect of these times was the calibre of young officers in the Corps, some of whom were still operating on the basis of class and deference. I personally felt my time in Singapore in 3Cdo Bde HQ Int Pl was marred by aspects of this, and contributed to my exit from the I Corps and the army. It was a very hard time for me, and the decision to leave was one of the most difficult I have ever had to make. The truth is that I was desperately bored and frustrated with my I Corps experience but eager to discover more of the new and exciting world I had found in Singapore and Malaysia. I had decided that I wanted to travel, but on my terms and in my way. Bob Dylan was ringing in my ears and the music of the ’60s encouraged me to, ‘Hit the Road Jack’, which I did after leaving the army in 1966 and never looked back, spending the next 46 years in the adventure travel, leisure and hospitality sector. (By the way, my mate Dave went on to a long and successful Corps career, retiring as a major.)

Arguably, it took some time before a more meritocratic and professional basis for the serving personnel of the Intelligence Corps was reached, and boy’s service disappeared.

Nevertheless, I have consistently felt that my time as a boy soldier and in the Corps were hugely important to me and provided solid foundations upon which I have relied ever since. The starting point of strict discipline, precise rules and unforgiving regimes in a controlled military environment could have easily have been rejected or discarded (and sometimes they have been) in the new and wholly self-governing environment I found myself in at the adult age of 21 where self-responsibility was the new order. The question of whether a boy’s (and/or girl’s) service should be re-introduced is clearly controversial and we live in very different times now where attitudes, UK and EU legislation have changed, leaving aside the actual needs of the army. An organisation that continues to offer young people a similar opportunity of self-fulfilment and achievement outside a military environment remains the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Surprisingly, rather than having reduced in appeal it continues to grow in appreciation of what it achieves and is validated by the numbers of young people who collect their Gold Awards each year at St James’s Palace, the Palace of Holyrood House, and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. I was privileged to be asked to represent the decade of the 1960s at a special 500th DofE Gold Award Presentations event at St James’s Palace on 10 October 2013, attended by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh who had awarded my own Gold Award in Buckingham Palace in 1963.