Cadet corps capers and the art of camouflage

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The Independent Online
The Government thinks it would be a good thing to bring back cadet forces to school. Looking back at my own days of marching up and down as a cadet, I tend to agree. As long, that is, as the intention is to put boys off military teamwork for life.

Mark you, I was at a school in Scotland, in deepest Perthshire, where these things were taken fairly seriously by the staff, if not by all the boys. They were also taken fairly seriously by my father who had not only been at the same school in the 1920s, but had gone through the whole war in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and thought the army was a Good Thing. I think he even thought it might Make A Man Out Of Me.

"You'll enjoy the cadets," he told me. "We had some good times. I remember especially being sent out on the hills on Field Day manoeuvres. That was great fun. We were given rifles and blank ammunition and got lost in the heather. Then a friend of mine and me discovered that if you put a pencil down the barrel of the rifle and fired a blank bullet, you could shoot the pencil pretty fast for 20ft or so. So we spent half the day creeping up on sheep and trying to shoot them dead."

"Any luck?"

"Didn't even hit one, I'm afraid."

Nothing quite that exciting happened to me during the four dreary years of being in the school corps. I can still present arms and shoulder arms, if I have to, and there was a time when I could take a Bren gun to bits - indeed, there was a time when I could have aimed a piece of artillery fairly accurately. In an attempt to get out of the mainstream of corps activity, I had volunteered to learn something about artillery (as I later volunteered to learn something about wirelesses and about bagpipe playing) and I found myself sitting at a desk next to my friend Alexander Cockburn, radical son of Claud Cockburn, listening to a visiting Black Watch sergeant tell us the rudiments of bracketing a target.

Alex was as bored as I was and, while fiddling with the complicated and rather valuable ruler we had each been given to help compute distances, managed to bend it in a right angle. He bent it carefully back again but not carefully enough, as it bent in a slightly different spot and now sported a hump back. You or I might have owned up. Not Alex.

"Sir!" he cried. "This ruler is defective!"

"Sorry, laddie," said the sergeant, handing out another one. "Must have slipped through the net."

"Remember that, Kington," Cockburn whispered to me. "Never apologise. Blame your superior. Always works."

The only time our large piece of artillery was used for any meaningful purpose was when it was taken out overnight by boys unknown and discovered at the headmaster's house the next morning, the huge barrel pointing menacingly in through the window of his breakfast room, at the very spot where the head sat for breakfast. It took them hours to remove it, so quite a few boys must have been involved in getting it there. Well done, lads! A bit of initiative.

But initiative, alas, is not always rewarded. There came a time when neither Alex nor I could avoid being sent to cadet army camp, and one summer we found ourselves in the wilds near Hawick, in the Scottish borders, at Stobbs Army Camp. It was a grim name for a place, it was a grim place and it was a grim week. The only pleasant gap occurred on the day we were to undergo an initiative test.

"You will all be dropped far off in the countryside in pairs," said the officer. "You will not be told where you are, but you will have a map and compass to help you deduce where you are, and then you will have to work out the best route for getting home. First back gets a prize for initiative."

Alex and I were dropped at the head of a magnificently empty valley. At least, it would have been magnificent as a location for a John Buchan film, but as a stroll back to camp it was too grand for our liking. We worked out where we were. We polished off our picnic issue. We read a bit from the books we had brought. Then reluctantly we set off walking back to base.

After a mile or so, we came to a lone phone box. I can't remember whose idea it was now, but we found ourselves phoning a taxi from Hawick to come and pick us up. It came. We got in. As we went down the road, we passed other pairs of trudging boys. We offered them all lifts. Some refused, but enough accepted so that with eight of us on board the trip back to camp only cost four bob each.

"I think we should get the initiative prize," said Alex as we arrived. "On the other hand, something tells me we should avoid publicity and ask the driver to drop us at the back gate."

More cadet adventures tomorrow!

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