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Carry on Cadet

A Brief Episode in British Military History - 1948

Colin Message

FOR some reason when I was in the Fifth Form in Colin Message 1948 it seemed to me a good idea to join the Army Cadet Force (A.C.F.) and I accordingly enrolled. Our Company officer was the Geography master, Mr Nicholls, wearing a lieutenant's uniform. As far as I remember he performed the part quite adequately but the real military input was provided by Company Sergeant-Major (C.S.M.) Bowlby, a regular soldier at the end of his career, who as a paratrooper had fought in the Normandy campaign. What he thought of the motley collection of gangling youths in shapeless ill-fitting uniforms is not hard to imagine. But his patience was a marked feature and we found in him an excellent exemplar.

After a few weeks of drill and other instruction we were put in for Certificate A - a proficiency qualification enabling its proud possessor to wear a red emblem on the right sleeve. Pretty well the whole company was examined and, sorry to say, found wanting, by the regular army officer appointed as examiner. Very few indeed passed and I was not among that select band.

During this brief period it happened that there was a Sussex Army Cadets' cross-country championship held in Lewes. The course was over that tangle of ditches and muddy swamps at the back of the school so well known, and indeed, hated by most of us. The LCGS Cadet Company naturally put in a team and for some inexplicable reason I was made team captain. The other three were the Hill twins and Cedric Andrews - all of them excellent runners and fine athletes, in shocking contrast to their captain, whose name had never featured on any athletic honours board.

Came the day and I staggered round the course coming, I think, about fortieth out of fifty or so. Meanwhile my fellow team members had already romped home taking 1st, 2nd and 4th places, with the result that our team won easily.

As team captain I had to go up and collect the prize, which was four silver spoons, one for each of us, from the Commanding Officer. All went well and at the end I saluted as smartly as I could and then - shock horror - did a left about turn! They told me about that later. Maybe the Cert A examiner was right after all - I would never make a drill-sergeant. And I must admit to mixed feelings about that spoon.

However that was not the end of my nascent military career. Worse was to follow. In the same year "Journey's End" was selected as the school play. The play is set in the trenches and bunkers of Flanders in the First World War. This was an extremely ambitious undertaking for any school, but in the event the production was a great success.

Journey's End There was no way I would have been given a speaking part as I tended to stutter, especially under pressure, but my cadet service and ability with a .303 rifle seem to qualify me as the sound effects man. In this play effects are a very big thing. Lots of flashes, bangs and explosions off-stage. At cued intervals I had to fire blanks from a rifle backstage - in the confined space of the school hall the noise was quite something!

A feature of our production was the dim lighting of the set. It was even darker backstage; it was hard to see anyone in the gloom. There was I, standing waiting for my cue from Bill Euston, the producer, with my rifle pointing into the darkness. At his signal I fired two or three blanks . . . . . . . . . . . . and dimly saw a figure fall to the floor with his hand over his eye. Oh my God! What had I done?

This, of course, caused some considerable commotion backstage. The audience and actors on stage were quite unaware of what had happened. Little did they realise that there was more drama backstage than onstage! After what seemed an eternity, the victim, one of the cast, I think it was Horswell, eventually got to his feet. Much to my relief he proved to be not too badly injured and was able to carry on. If he ever reads this account I do hope he has forgiven me. I certainly felt at the time that for him, "Journey's End" had come all too perilously close for comfort. The reviewer in "The Barbican" praised the sound effects as "very good indeed" and, in a nicely ironical phrase, said "The Science Department" certainly "o'er-topped" itself. Little did he know.

After this incident my fitness for a future in the military seemed somewhat less assured. I lost interest in the Army Cadets and resigned before I could do any more damage. My cadet career had lasted some twelve weeks.

[Colin later served as a Lieutenant in Nigeria during the turbulent mid-fifties.]