After our weekend in Cardiff, we had our first regular mid-week training evening at the TA centre.
'Great' I thought. 'Finally we will start to learn something useful.'
'But what will we be learning?' I thought.
Will we be learning leadership training?Unarmed combat?Bayonet Drills?First aid?How the-rifles we-will-presumably-get-to-see-at-some-point work?
No. We learnt about the iron. 'But what sort of iron?' you might ask.
Was it 'pumping iron' to get us fit for combat?
Was it that iron is a ferrous metal, and therefore susceptible to magnetic mines?
Was it how to use iron to fashion weapons, tools and armour?
I’m talking about Ironing.
I shit you negative. The UOTC felt that the best use of their time (and ours) was to teach us how to iron creases into our dress trousers.
We spent over an hour on this.
We then spent an equal amount of time learning how to make our boots shiny for parade — the same boots that would get covered in mud and sheep shit every other weekend, requiring us to repeat the process all over again.
We were expected to do this every single week, in our own time. It's not like we had degrees to be getting on with or anything.
And in case you were wondering, yes, we were assessed on this. We were judged not by our intellect, not by our physical prowess, nor by our tactical acumen. We were judged by the sharpness of the creases on our trousers and the shininess of our toecaps.
My misgivings were not fading away. That’s for sure.
"Just hang in there." I told myself. "I’m sure next week will be better."
Next week we were instructed at length in the militarily essential tactics of "parade" and "drill." How to stand to attention. How to march in unison. The exact 90 degree angle which one should raise their knee before putting it down again when on parade.
And this is useful how exactly?
Having been an avid Muay Thai Kickboxer before, to me raising one’s knee is either to block a kick, or as a prelude to driving said knee into someone’s stomach, ribs or groin (the latter if it was in the pub).
In other words, something that could be useful in combat.
The number of times I was punished for bending my knee beyond 90 degrees, as if that mattered in the real world.
The misgivings were mounting.
I just remembered something else about that uninspiring presentation from the auditorium the previous weekend. The guy who made that disgusting joke said that his favourite part of army life was drill.
Says it all, really.
We did learn one useful thing that evening. That being "fire and maneuver" tactics. How did we learn this legitimately vital skill?
By watching the post heist shootout from the movie Heat. Credit where credit is due, this sequence was directed by Andy McNab, a former member of the SAS who served in the first Gulf War. And the UOTC did actually go over it in more detail out in the field on our next weekend, so they got that right at least.
Which brings us to our next training weekend — weekend number three for those who haven’t been counting, assuming you count the selection weekend of course.
This weekend was our first introduction to the Brecon Beacons. This is where the British Army does its training. This is where the SAS conducts its infamous selection process. It is pretty much the wettest, smelliest, and hilliest place in the UK.
To give you an idea of just how wet it was, the frogs there often confuse the damp earth for a pond, and so lay their frogspawn on the grass.
And this is on top of a hill. It's even wetter at the bottom.
This was also the first time we got to lay eyes on the "weapons" we will be using, these being the L85A1, or ‘SA80’ and the L86 or ‘LSW’ (Light support Weapon.)
To the UOTC’s credit, these were full spec assault weapons as opposed to the single shot cadet rifle, and they came with SUSATS, which were some of the best optics available at the time.
The problem is that they didn’t work very well. These were the A1 models. The "lets-get-engineers-who-have-never-made-a gun-before-to-create-our-brand-new-service-rifle" models. The pre-"ok-that-was-a-bad-move-let's-get-HK-who-make-thousands-of-guns-to-fix-the-mess-we-made' model.
They jammed all the FECKING time.
This was not helped by the fact we received next to no training, theoretical or practical, in how they work and how to use them.
You would imagine they would tell us the calibre of ammo it uses, the components of an ammo cartridge and what they do, the weapon’s weight, the operating system it uses, and how this compares to other assault rifles out there that both allies and hostiles might use.
You would think that they would also go over its effective range, its Rate of Fire, what armour and environmental cover it can penetrate and how its range compares to other assault rifles and to light and medium machine guns. You would think they would give us an overview of how a gun actually works.
And you would be wrong. They made no attempt to explain any of these things. I only know these now due to the internet and YouTube, which were primitive and non-existent respectively back then.
Good job UOTC, good job. Rednecks on YouTube do a better job explaining firearms than you did.
They did teach us how to load a magazine at least. They didn’t bother to tell us about the stripper clips we could have used to do this much faster of course.
We also received minimal instruction about the rifle itself in terms of its controls and how to clear stoppages. It was less than 30-minutes, with minimal chance to actually practice any of this.
If we were using something as simple as an AK, this might be ok, but the SA80 is a very complex weapon, and a bullpup to boot. Mikhail Kalashnikov when seeing one first hand apparently said “You British must have very clever soldiers.”
When one of history’s greatest and most influential small arms designers says your weapon is too complex, you have to sit up and take notice.
We were then taken to the range with our barely-working-and-we-are-not-sure-how-to-use-them-anyway rifles.
It was at this point I discovered something else about myself. I cannot close my left eye on its own, at least not fully. Basically I cannot wink with my left eye. I had never noticed before as I had always winked with my right eye. Whenever I shot something, such as an air rifle or those games at arcades, I always closed my right eye and used the weapon left handed, which felt natural. I had never thought anything of it. It turns out that I am mostly right handed, but left eye dominant. ‘Semi-ambidextrous hands and cross dominant eyes’ I believe it is called.
So I stepped up to the firing line, I shouldered my weapon, closed one eye and viewed the ‘Herman-German’ target through the SUSAT and prepared to fire off a round.
“STOP!!!” yelled the range instructor “You can’t fire that from your left shoulder!”
“Why not?” I asked, perplexed.
“Because it’s a bull-pup and it can’t be used left handed.” He replied.
Remember when I said they had not bothered teaching us about the weapon or how it works? Well they had not explained what a bull-pup rifle was, where it’s ejection port was located, and what this means for left handed shooters like me.
“How do I convert it for left handed operation?” I asked, reasonably.
“Can I be issued with a left handed version then please?” I enquired in my ignorance and naiveté.
“No, because there isn’t one. All SA80s are right handed only.”
“Could I use a SLR then, I think they can be used left handed.” I asked, grasping at straws now.
“No, the British army does not use the SLR anymore.”
“So what do you recommend I should do?”
“Perhaps not consider a career in the British Army.”
"Wow, that was inspiring." I thought.
One senior cadet had a slightly less pessimistic view, and suggested I could try an eye patch. Only problem was that there were none available. I tried to improvise with a piece of torn up cardboard inserted into my helmet, but it didn’t work and I was getting dirty looks from the ‘public school boy contingent’.
If I ever felt I didn’t belong there, it was then.
I still managed to get most rounds on target, despite not being able to see it. To this day I have no idea how I managed to pull that off.
Perhaps 'Gun-Jesus' was looking out for me.
Next time we will cover the four-day-exercise-from-hell.
'How to iron' picture taken from www.wikihow.com
All other pictures from Wikipedia.