Joining the army part three

National service – first phase continued 2
(Pictures used were mined from the internet. The butts are somewhere in England and there was no caption on the picture of the range. No harm is intended by the use of these pictures – they will be removed if so requested by copyright holder).

A lot has been written about basic training in the army – the Rhodesian Army as much as perhaps any other army so I will not harp on this aspect too much. Once weapons training had started things became a lot more interesting and serious with weapons safety being a point hammered into us at every turn.

A typical military range see where LOW shots have gouged at the mantlet in front of and below the numbers. The STOP BUTT is the higher mound BEHIND the targets.

Before going onto the range for the first time for live firing A Company was addressed by WO2 “Pinky” Mould, an ex Guardsman who always had a rather red face made worse by the african sun.

The butts, on an army shooting range, is the area below and immediately behind the mantlet (the raised berm from behind which the targets are hoisted). The much higher berm further back is called the STOP butt – for the obvious reason that it is meant to STOP the rounds that have been fired at the target. Every so often a stop butt would be MINED for the astonishing amount of metal from spent rounds that could be recovered from it and sold.

Toward the end of his briefing SM Mould instructed that the butts party must ensure that they patched every target properly. There was plenty of target patching glue, he said, but should one run out he off-handedly suggested semen be used, emphasising this with a well-practised flick from the region of his groin that resulted in a large gobbet of patching glue splatting onto the zeroing target in front of us. Among the ribald laughter one of the men was heard, and seen, vomiting! Poor sensitive soul was teased mercilessly every time we were on the range after that!

Sometimes a shooter would aim too low and the butts party would get a shower of sand and grit as the round ploughed across the top of the mantlet. One day such a round hit the top of a target frame and ricocheted in under the mantlet where I was sitting on butts duty and landed in the crook of my arm. The round was spent but it was still bloody hot! I still have that item among my bits and pieces somewhere.

Typical view of the BUTTS the mantlet on the right protects the butts party. Note the target frames with zeroing targets fitted

We did a lot of live firing with many of those from rural backgrounds showing better results and those of us not used to firearms struggling a bit – but we all became proficient and passed the training.

One day we were being taught to shoot from fire trenches – in front of each firing point there was a roughly four foot deep slit trench and we had to learn to load and fire from this cramped position.

In one of the squads was a young man from Cyprus whose English was not really up to scratch but who had been disdainful of the training with claims that he had been in the fighting in Cyprus as a guerrilla a few years earlier.

DOWN RANGE was the mantra – the rifle must ALWAYS POINT DOWN RANGE.

Our Cypriot had a stoppage while in the trench at the number one firing point and turned to call an instructor. As he did so the loaded rifle was turned to point down the line of foxholes, the instructor screamed at him and nineteen heads disappeared into their foxholes! SM Pinky Mould had been standing behind this man watching him with considerable distrust and he leapt forward, snatched the rifle and stomped the man down into the trench – all the time yelling at him in the choicest language (and he had an impressive vocabulary) about how stupid and careless he was.

The Cypriot was incensed and tried to go for the SM only to get clobbered and marched off to the guardhouse for a week in the RP (Regimental Police) cells.

This was several years before the mandatory issuing of ear defenders for range work and anyone caught with four by two (weapon cleaning rags) in their ears would be teased and vilified implying deficient masculinity. I am sure that some of the problems I have today with hearing higher frequencies stem from those days – especially during zeroing when the number of men on the firing line was doubled and the rifles on either side were about a metre away. Further range exercises and listening to noisy radios while wearing earphones in my first few years of service probably also contributed!

Some very mean, bullying tricks were played occasionally. There was a very slightly built chap (a first class bloke – let’s call him Mike – with whom I was to become friendly a few years later) who had been made pony master (he was in charge of the regimental mascot) but he still had to learn drill and shooting. One day on the range some smartarse turned Mike’s SLR gas regulator to zero while he was not looking.

The gas regulator controls the gasses from the fired round directing some of them to sharply push back a piston to automatically reload the weapon. Normally set to around position five, lower settings meant the recoil became increasingly, and unneccesarily, violent – not good for the weapon nor for the shooter.

Not noticing what had happened Mike took up his prone firing position but when he fired the weapon he let out a yell of agony and laid the rifle down. I think he may have had a cracked collar bone. He was horribly bruised around the shoulder area and in considerable pain – much to the amusement of the bullies behind the trick. (I think Sgt Annandale sorted them out though).

A few weeks later we were to fire the Sterling sub-machine gun and Mike, who probably only weighed about a hundred pounds or so, turned up with a pad of cloth around his shoulder (not knowing or believing that the nine millimetre Sterling had no recoil to speak of). When the SM spotted the padding he humiliated Mike by showing it off to all those on the firing line which I felt was rather unfair and poor Mike was so embarrassed.

Young and overwhelmed by all that was going on – and feeling sorry for Mike – many of us did not say anything but when we were asked why we were not laughing we had to smile weakly in order to BELONG – and not become targets ourselves.

In spite of these unsettling incidents I feel there was nothing particularly special about my initial training.

Grenade training was fun if only for the TERROR shown by some of the men – some of the BIG DEAL bullies at that! Many of the guys wanted to throw the grenade and run and had to be held UP by the scruff of the neck by the instructor and MADE to watch the grenade land. I watched my grenade roll to a stop but did not need the instructor to pull me into cover though! Years later I had to instruct some people on hand grenades and it was odd to observe the “students” from the perspective of the instructor – and have to be ready to grab the runners.

One morning before we were marched off for another round of drill we were asked by the instructor:
“Does anyone want to join the regular army?”….