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News > OP updates > CCF Recollections - the Army and Navy Sections, 1959-64

CCF Recollections - the Army and Navy Sections, 1959-64

Peter Barnes (OP 1964) recalls life in the Combined Cadet Force sixty years ago
25 Jun 2024
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Generl Inspection at Hilsea, May 1964
Generl Inspection at Hilsea, May 1964

Men at Arms

I was a member of the CCF from 1959 until I left the school in July 1964, aged nearly 18. I began, as did every new entrant, in what was called a Basic Platoon, part of the Army section. There I remained for the first year, after which there was a free choice of staying with the Army section or transferring to the Navy or RAF.

Initially, at least, membership of the CCF was all but compulsory. At some point when we had just started in the Remove or the Lower Fifth everyone was ordered into the Hall and told, in effect, that we would be joining the CCF unless our parents wrote to object and seek excusal.  A small number did; I guess some from a pacifist/conscientious objection position (the parents’ rather than the boy’s) and some on physical/medical grounds.

We were issued with uniform and other kit from a quartermaster’s stores in the basement below the main school building. This comprised a khaki battledress jacket and trousers, a beret, a very itchy shirt, a tie, a pair of (new) black leather boots, webbing gaiters, a belt and various straps, a greatcoat, a gas cape (in a sticky oilskin material), another waterproof cape and a haversack. There were also assorted PGS CCF badges/flashes that needed to be sewn on. We were issued with a billy can, a water bottle and a knife fork and spoon. We were instructed in the art of bulling our boots, which had to be done at home. A metal spoon, heated over the gas cooker was carefully applied to the toecap area in order to melt the original covering. This provided a surface on which to work up a shine using shoe polish and either spit or water – opinions differed as to which was the more effective. This proved to be a laborious and tedious process at which some were more adept than others – George Shannon had a particularly shiny pair of boots from the outset; he went on to become a sergeant! The webbing belt and gaiters had to be blancoed and brass clips, buttons etc shined with Brasso. This involved a plastic slide which was designed to keep the metal polish off the fabric. As my older brother had done national service in the RAF I had some idea of what was involved. The trousers had to be ironed with a damp cloth in order to get a sharp crease.

The CCF paraded in the playground after school on one – sometimes two - days a week – Tuesdays in 1960, but Mondays and Thursdays in 1961 (one of those days was in school uniform). We were expected to wear our uniform to school and sit in lessons in it all day – not the most comfortable of experiences. I wore pyjama trousers under my khaki ones to stop them chafing; I wasn’t the only person to do so. A lot of our time seemed to be spent drilling in the playground – learning to march, salute and carry out arms drill with the Lee Enfield 303 rifles with which we were issued from the armoury. This was in the basement, just to the right of the archway on entering the school.  There were iron bars at the window and it was pretty secure; I believe that at some point in the 1950s a number of rifles had been stolen by the IRA in the course of a raid.  Although the armoury was supervised by adults, boys were certainly involved in handling and dispensing the rifles. In my later time in the CCF Steven Limburn had that responsibility.  There was a RSM named Bartlett who had a role within the school and was around on non-CCF days. He carried a pace stick and was meticulous about drill. I think he was in charge of the armoury.

A 25-pounder gun was a fixture in the playground, covered with a tarpaulin when not in use for artillery training. There was also a signals platoon and a supply of radios. There was a rifle range in a building at the back of the Lower School playground. I received some limited training on the range, sufficient in later life to win modest prizes at funfairs. The better shots competed at Bisley.

In 1959 there was a small (12 boys) Services VI class who were, I think, aiming for careers in the armed services – though I rather imagine by default.  One of them was the sergeant of my basic platoon – I think his name was J.D.Emery - and he had acquired the language which went with the job.  One of his responsibilities was uniform inspection at the start of the parade. On one occasion he asked when I had last cleaned the brasses on my belt. I lied and said ‘yesterday, sergeant’ to which he responded ‘I believe you, thousands wouldn’t’ – the first time I’d heard that phrase.

Although the regular drilling was boring I took a certain pride in getting it right, and to this day I could go through all the actions with a 303 rifle with some precision, calling out the timing - up 2-3; over 2-3; away!

At an early stage during that first year we spent a weekend at Fort Gilkicker in Gosport. It was a miserable experience and the food was dreadful. We had to wash up our eating utensils in a bucket of lukewarm, greasy water.  That night when we all in bed in the barrack room, Peter Filleul, a history master and a 1st Lieutenant in the CCF, came round to check on us and turn out the lights.  In school he was a very fierce character – particularly in the eyes of younger boys – but he asked us, in the dark, whether we had any complaints.  He may even have said ‘no names, no pack drill’.  Perhaps he was more caring than we thought.

In August 1960 the whole army section went to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire.  We marched from the school along the road to the Portsmouth and Southsea Station, carrying our rifles on our shoulders.  There we caught a special train which travelled all the way to Richmond, picking up other CCF groups along the way. While at Catterick we engaged in various exercises under the beady eyes of regular soldiers, including firing blank rounds from our rifles – I was just 14. We camped out one night, making a bivouac from two capes laced together and draped over a makeshift wooden frame. Chris Latter (my tent share) and I camouflaged our tent with branches and bracken; indeed, we were so successful that we had difficulty in finding it again in the dark. In one of the exercises we were up against another group from Pocklington School in Yorkshire and a fair degree of rivalry built up.  We taunted them with chants of ‘Pox, Pox, Pocklington’. 

The food at Catterick was better than at Gilkicker. There were proper army rations in tins with the contents stencilled on the side. These included stew, spotted dick, chocolate and Rowntrees fruit gums. When we were on the night exercise we cooked for ourselves in billy cans and ate directly from them.

When the Going was Good

After a year in the Basic Section I chose to move to the Royal Navy section which consisted of three divisions. I was in Maintop division; the others were Fo’c’s’le and, I think, Midship divisions.

This required a complete change of uniform and once again we were kitted out from the basement store. For winter wear there was a very itchy navy blue pullover and for summer wear a white cotton top. The bellbottom trousers had to be folded, concertina-style, inside out when not being worn. They, too, were itchy and pyjama trousers were deployed once again. There was a sort of bib – I don’t recall the correct name - that hung down over the upper part of the back of the tunic top, and a white lanyard that went round the neck. The belt and gaiters were white, as was the webbing for the trusty 303.

I remember comparatively little of the content of the twice weekly sessions after school.  Aside from continuing drill, there was classroom-based work around the content of the Seamanship Manual. I learnt semaphore with flags, the phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta etc), the various markings on the line used to measure the depth below a boat, the ‘rules of the road’ at sea (‘if both lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red’, and ‘if to starboard red appear, it is your duty to keep clear’). I think we were instructed by the older boys; I don’t recall the officers/masters playing a significant part. There were proficiency badges of various sorts, so there must have been tests/exams.

Each term there was a ‘Field Day’ when the school timetable was suspended and those in the CCF went off for an experience/training at a military base. With the navy I went to H.M.S Excellent at Whale Island and underwent some gunnery exercises, including one on a simulator which rolled about as if on a ship at sea. In one version water was sprayed on those taking part, but that didn’t apply to the CCF crew. At the Fraser Battery, Eastney, I fired a Bofors gun out to sea – blanks I guess. And we went to H.M.S.Phoenix at Lee-on-the-Solent where there was a demonstration of fire-fighting procedures. On another occasion we rowed a whaler round Portsmouth harbour, from H.M.S. Vernon (now the Gunwarf Quays Shopping Centre). During August 1963 I went as part of a small PGS party to H.M.S.Lochinvar at South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth. The nearby road bridge was still under construction. We stayed on the base and did various activities including a trip to Rosyth on the opposite shore and on a motor vessel on the Forth. In 1963/64 I had the opportunity, with Mike Price, to spend a weekend at sea on a destroyer but this was cancelled at short notice for operational reasons. At around this time I was thinking about joining the Royal Navy, via Dartmouth, and, with others, attended a recruitment session with a visiting RN captain in the Head’s office. However, as I had been identified as red/green colour blind, the opportunities open to me in the navy were rather limited and I went off the idea. I remained in the naval section until I left school, rising to the dizzy heights of Acting Petty Officer in command of Maintop division.

Put Out More Flags

Each year, in May, there was a general inspection at Hilsea when a high ranking officer would inspect all of the CCF and take the salute at a march past, led by a proper services band. As the ‘senior service’ the naval section always led the march past. Afterwards there were demonstrations of activities such as rigging a bosun’s chair and launching the glider that was stored in a prefabricated shed on the southern perimeter of the sports field. The glider was launched – or, more accurately, catapulted - by two teams of RAF cadets pulling on ropes. When the ropes reached a certain tension the pilot would shout an order to stop and then release a brake. In theory, the glider would take a short flight; in practice it seldom did.  On one occasion, when Squadron Leader ‘Jasper’ Nowell was the pilot, the boys deliberately kept walking when ordered to halt and the flight was somewhat extended as a consequence.

On 31 May 1963 there was a special general inspection at Hilsea playing fields, carried out by Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery, who lived nearby at Alton. This was to mark the centenary of the founding of a cadet corps at the school. The inspection took place on a very hot day and we were all lined up in readiness for the Field Marshall’s arrival by car, outside the changing rooms. When Monty appeared and took stock of the situation he quickly recognised that large numbers of boys would keel over if we were all kept standing for the duration, so he instructed the officer commanding the parade – Squadron Leader Nowell - to order us to sit down.  Poor Jasper didn’t know the appropriate order – if indeed there was one – and I can remember precisely his smart improvisation: “Parade! On the order ‘Sit’ you will sit upon the ground.  Paraaade.  Sit”.  Each platoon/division/flight was then ordered to its feet, in turn, as Monty was half way through inspecting the previous one in line.

After the march past there were the usual demonstrations of military skill on the playing field, including the annual launch of the glider. At one point Monty told us to ‘gather round’ while he spoke to us, as if addressing the Desert Rats. During the course of his talk he told us that we were ‘an educated elite’.  At a subsequent morning assembly, Headmaster Denys Hibbert told us that, contrary to what the distinguished Field Marshall had said, we were not an elite. That came as something as a surprise as I suspect I rather liked the notion, but it was a formative occasion because it was one of the first times I recall two adults of such stature contradicting one another on such a significant matter.

The last General Inspection that I participated in was on 15 May 1964. The inspecting officer was Rear Admiral C.K.T. Wheen.  The photograph (by John Grant) shows him conversing with Acting Petty Officer Barnes. Just behind (from left to right) are Major Peter Barclay, two visiting officers, Lieut John Hopkinson, and Denys Hibbert in the bowler hat (the only occasion in the year he wore it, I suspect). At about the time the photo was taken the admiral asked me what I was proposing to do when I left school. ‘Go to university, sir’, I replied. ‘And what do you plan to study?’  ‘Psychology, sir’. This engendered general mirth among the inspection party.

Unconditional Surrender

As we progressed through school more and more boys withdrew from the CCF, usually pleading pressure of school work and impending exams. I kept going to the end, being a conformist. For those boys intent on a career in the services it was of obvious benefit, and a number of my near contemporaries went on to Sandhurst, Dartmouth and Cranwell. For me, it was an interesting interlude which probably did me some general good – and the fact that I can remember as much as I have suggests that it must have made an impression.


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