A MAGNIFICENT act of derring-do was accomplished by Army wives at Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain during the Falklands war. The scramble to arms, the story goes, happened so quickly that arrangements to divert pay back home were temporarily overlooked. The wives were left penniless and could not afford to feed their children. So one night they raided the Naafi, helped themselves to all the food they needed, then, for good measure, burned the place down.

The wives and even the children on Bulford Camp recite this satisfying local legend whenever they feel resentment at their lot. Last week they were discussing it with relish, along with other revolutionary-spirited incidents such the campaign of mass non-payment of the poll tax by soldiers which seriously depleted Wiltshire County Council's coffers.

The revelation that military top brass are living like millionaires, with lavish furnishings, huge domestic staff bills and even 'his' and 'hers' garages, has done much to reinforce a belief widespread among the wives that they are viewed as second-class citizens by the Army.

'I'm living in a sub-standard house which is due for demolition next year,' explained Joanna, a corporal's wife at Bulford Camp. 'Every winter I get mould growing on the walls and when the guns go off on Tuesdays and Thursdays the whole house vibrates.

'Now I wouldn't necessarily mind all that - it's part of army life and there are balancing advantages. But when you're told by the Estate Warden that you can't have a door repaired because there's no money, and then you read they spent pounds 50,000 on some mock-Victorian dog kennels for a senior officer at Dartmouth Naval College, well, it does jar, doesn't it?'

Last week, too, the Army was criticised for offering the bereaved mother of a teenage soldier, killed during training, only pounds 220 towards the cost of his funeral. The mother also pointed to the contrasts between the treatment of her son and the lavish amounts spent at the top of the ladder.

Meanwhile, Joanna, struggling to feed four children on a corporal's pay of pounds 800 a month (privates take home less - around pounds 600), questions why her oldest son, Mark, 15, had to spend a period sleeping in the bath because there was not enough room.

Financial difficulties are not the only ones she is facing. Her marriage is under stress as well. 'Since the cuts started to bite, my husband's tours are coming round more and more frequently. When he's away, I'm mum and dad, and when he comes back on leave it's like having an intruder in the house. He gets under my feet.'

Joanna and her husband have been seeing a counsellor, through the Army Families Officer. 'They really have been helpful and things have improved. I'm hopeful things will sort themselves out but it doesn't help, him being away all the time.'

Her husband is serving in Northern Ireland. 'Every time a soldier gets shot or attacked in Northern Ireland, me and the kids watch the news and listen out for the area the soldier was in. When it's not my husband's area, we just switch off.'

Joanna's marital difficulties are by no means unusual. One in 37 Army marriages break down every year. Last year the charity Saafa - Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association - said that up to 40 services wives were returning alone from Germany each month due to divorce or separation.

Anne Woodruff, director of social work at Saafa, says that, since a free telephone link from overseas bases to the Samaritans was set up last year, more than 250 calls have been made in a 12-month period, mainly about relationship problems. 'One of the biggest frustrations for wives is the lack of career opportunities,' she said. 'We are trying to get more advice about training and NVQ courses going.'

Robyn, wife of a lower-ranking soldier in the nearby Tidworth Garrison, is an active member of the Wives' Club, which provides support and social activities.

'The worst time for the wives is when they have just got married. They are often very young, 18 or 19, and are thrown into this way of life. The trouble is they both marry too young. A new recruit is put in the smallest, poky flats. The only way out is by getting married and moving into married quarters. I think a lot of them get married for the wrong reasons and then when the stresses start piling up - the long absences, the constant moving around, the rules and regulations - fault lines start to appear pretty quickly.'

Such problems cannot be helped by the fact that Tidworth and Bulford are cheerless places to be stuck in. They are in the middle of featureless Salisbury Plain. The nearest town with a half-way decent shopping centre is Andover, more than 10 miles away. Many of the lower-ranking families cannot afford cars and the women have to rely on the bus service.

A first-time visitor is hit by the view: swath upon swath of regimented, identical boxes, interspersed by fenced-off areas and barbed wire. The occasional officer's house, large, detached and leafy, only serves to highlight the drabness of the living quarters for the rank-and-file.

One of the most alarming publications available to the new Army wife is The Tidworth Guide, a handbook regarded as something of a domestic bible. The 140-page guide contains reams of rules and regulations such as: 'Gardens: the maximum acceptable height for a hedge at time of handover is 1.7 metres (5ft 6in approx). Variations to this height can only be made where very acceptable circumstances are applicable.'

Or: 'Visits in married quarters: Whilst there is no attempt in any way to curtail the normal social life of occupants in married quarters the following basic rules are applicable. a) Visits must be genuine and of limited duration.' Quite what non-genuine visits are is something of a mystery.

Permission is needed if electrical sockets have to take appliances over three kilowatts - these will include some fridge/freezers and washer-dryer machines.

Robyn says: 'There are rules and regulations. A lot of them are, of course, for security reasons and very sensible, but some do seem quite petty to the new wives. What a lot of them don't understand is that they are not just marrying a soldier, but a way of life.'

For Robyn, the hardest thing is the constant moving around. Her main concern is for the continuity of her children's education. The move she will make this Christmas will be the third in just over a year.

To be a successful Army wife demands enormous reserves of loyalty and an understanding that, whatever they do, their husband's work comes first. Those that do stick it out, despite financial hardship, poor living conditions, and the frequent absences of their husbands, are a peculiarly resilient type.

Their loyalty and no-nonsense self-sacrifice is reminiscent of films celebrating British wartime spirit, the can't-complain, grin-and-bear-it attitude that women in many other areas of modern British life simply will not tolerate.

One of the most repeated phrases encountered in places such as Bulford, when trying to elicit a bit of bad feeling or rebellion over the millionaire lifestyle of the Top Brass, is 'Rank is privilege'.

They all said it, even those with leaky roofs that couldn't be repaired due to lack of funds, even those whose children were sleeping three to a room, even those living in condemned houses. It was like a refrain.

'We do like to be positive,' says Jill Bullock, chairman of the Federation of Army Wives, in her Joyce Grenfell voice. 'I know things aren't always a bed of roses, but when accommodation is handed over to a private trust, which will happen soon, things can only get better.'

Kate, a loyal wife and true 'grin-and-bear-it' soul, added: 'Anyway, the wives of the top brass have to spend the whole time entertaining foreign diplomats and important guests. Rather them than me.'

All wives' names have been changed.

(Photographs omitted)