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Jim Corbett's Paras RSM Story

01/02/07
Article text
Jim after the RSM had finished with him...
I think it was Annual Camp at Crowborough 1972 when I was Under Officer of the William Ellis School Combined Cadet Force. We had the usual visit to the Para Depot which was normally a feature of Crowborough annual camps. The visit was organised by the Cadet Training Team so it was a multi-contingent group. The coach left the camp at 9.30am and I think we could only take about 10 cadets. I’d never been before so I volunteered to go– always a mistake, I should have known.

Unfortunately the WESCCF contingent had been on a very wet and very muddy 36 hour exercise and we were late getting back which resulted in the appointed ten cadets falling out of the back of a four tonner, starving, cold, wet and extremely muddy and literally getting straight into the coach much to the disapproval of the thirty or so cadets waiting for us from other contingents all done up in their best parade ground manner. Mind you we must have looked a bit scary because they gave us no trouble.

On arrival we were dumped at the main gate of the Para Depot in Aldershot where we were met by a Corporal. He made no comment other than to tell us we had to go to the 25m range and obstacle course, they’d stopped cadets doing the full assault course and trainasium because I think one had been killed or permanently disabled the year before. As an aside, I was to enjoy this life enhancing or should I say trouser filling experience the following year with the OTC.

Anyway the Corporal formed us up and marched us off across the parade ground which seemed to be about half a mile across. At the mid-point there was a noise which was a mixture between a bull bellowing, a train bearing down upon us and an Italian tenor being castrated by a woodworking vice but without anaesthetic. It was literally shocking, and loud but the strangest thing was that this huge disruption of our environment had no obvious source. The nearest I can get to describing it is when, in 1967/8, the Americans mined and blockaded Haiphong Harbour (which the late Lawrence Halstead O.C always insisted should be pronounced Hi Pong) and the Russians looked like they might regard interference with their ships as an Act of War, the RAF (for the last time I think which I only found out years later) dispersed the V Bomber force to their various war locations and a Vulcan swept across London (and directly over WES) at about 100ft.

That’s how loud it was.

The Corporal immediately halted us and belted off at the double to the distant edge of the parade ground where stood a lone figure wearing a white Sam Browne, even at a distance he looked big. I began to get a bad feeling but then the noise happened again, he was obviously shouting but I couldn’t make it out. On the third blaring of the foghorn I was nearly ready to collapse on the spot, I know now where the SAS got their inspiration for Flash-Bangs. I managed to make out the words “Senior Man There !” Shit. It was me.
I smartly crashed a step forward and yelled the regulation “Sir!” at the top of my lungs. Now I had and have a pretty loud shout, but I tell you it was a puny imitation. There followed a garbled mess of Bach’s fugue, Maria Callas and the Queen Mary during which I caught “…off my f*ckin’ square”. We needed no more encouragement. The whole squad leapt off as one man, sod doubling - we went at the treble….we shot across the square exited between two buildings and stopped after about 50 yards where we couldn’t be seen. Shortly the Corporal re-appeared. He was beside himself with fury. “That rotten bastard,…no right to talk to you like that….f*ckin Hitler’s granny (this apparently was the height of abuse and very popular in the Paras at the time I believe) …only cadets…not proper soldiers…you’d better complain to the Company Commander….pile of shit….horrible man…always hated him….bully…” He went on for ages but the middle bit about complaining to the Company Commander struck home..I don’t think so! So I assured him that all was well, no harm done, I was sure the RSM (for it was he) was a really nice bloke, let sleeping dogs lie. So off we went to the range.

On arrival the Corporal (who was obviously a real live wire) realised that there was a critical bit of kit missing – rifles and ammo. So I and three others were marched back to the admin block where they were locked in a first floor office. This passed without any difficulty until we began the return journey. As I went down the stairs, holding three rifles and an ammo box thereby having no free hands, I slipped and clattered down the last three steps in a passable imitation of Charlie Chaplin on speed. Trying to regain my balance I shot across the slippery corridor before coming to a halt in front of a large soldier whom I had almost bayoneted with a rifle muzzle and who…was wearing a white Sam Browne. Now I have done some scary stuff in my time and without being too melodramatic I have looked death in the eye once or twice, but I have never been as scared as I was at that moment.

I should just point out that at that time I sported a rather spunky Viva Zapata moustache which for some reason which I cannot now recall I was convinced would be a magnet like attraction for the fairer sex if I let it grow gently into a patch of fur on my lower cheeks rather than keep it decently trimmed. The RSM looked down at me (and I was 6ft 3ins) and in a barely controlled whisper (even more scary than the shout) he hissed “You!” Then he paused slightly and said “And what is that obscene growth on your upper lip ?”
“It’s a moustache sir “
“You idle little bastard…a moustache !” Volume rising fast, couldn’t be helped, nothing I could do, just go with the flow, anyway there were no right answers to his questions. “That’s not a f*ckin moustache. A moustache is a little hairy thing like a pubic toothbrush (I’ve always remembered that vivid image) that is just a smear of shit !” Screaming by now.

There followed a diatribe of such malevolence and obscene depravity involving every orifice I had and a good number I would soon acquire if he had his way, that I literally had nightmares about it the following night. His command of the most appalling imagery and his ability to make it a real threat was overwhelming. He calmed down slightly and then said “And to think you have the bare faced cheek to come into my Depot dressed like a knacker’s tart (I’ve always quite liked that one and have used it often myself) and covered in slimy pig shit and you dare, you dare to allow yourself to be in the presence of a corporal of the Parachute Regiment ! Get Out ! Go on F*ck off now or by Christ I’ll……” There followed another quick whiz through impossible anatomical contortions and rearrangement of my bodily parts only possible with the use of a bayonet, a pulley and a fish hook. Having been duly dismissed I left the building running backwards at high speed, I didn’t want to turn my back on him you see.

Back at the range all was peace and light. The other cadets had been having a thoroughly nice doss, as they do when left to their own devices. Playing on the obstacle course, throwing wimps in the water jump and hiding items of other people’s uniforms. They were soon banging away down the range and the Corporal sought me out.

“Right that’s it, I don’t care what you want to do, you’re going to report all that to the Coy Commander. No ifs no buts.” Now I knew enough to know that you don’t lightly go around complaining about the RSM to anyone. You don’t want to attend a court of enquiry, you don’t want to get on his wrong side and you especially don’t want to do any of these things whilst on his home turf where he has the power to lock you up and forget where he put the key or maybe he’ll already have put it somewhere you’ll never forget…and that’s the good option. So I started to demur but the Corporal was off gesturing for me to follow. So I did, traipsing about whimpering vague little entreaties to let it go, let bygones be bygones. Intermittently I tried praying. I was also peeping round corners to make sure you know who wasn’t there before I ventured out into open ground…one of the few times my Infantry training was put to its proper use in combat conditions.

We got to the Company Office with no incident and the Major was out. That’s the power of prayer for you ! The Corp wasn’t to be outdone he started to phone round, at one point I thought he’d found the Colonel if he had I really would have done a runner I think, but luckily it was only a clerk. So If War had been declared that afternoon we’d have had to wait because 3 Para was out. Luckily no one above the rank of Mess Sergeant (who I think was being overworked by a full mess bar at that point) could be located. So the Corporal and I trudged back to the range. Me whistling a happy tune – but still peeping round corners, and the Corp grumbling all the way.

And that was about it, we did the 3 Ps and all trooped back for a quick visit to the Regimental Museum and back on the coach. Or so I thought….just as the coach driver was about to close the doors the Corporal re-appeared and beckoned for me to follow him. We went back into the building. “The RSM wants to see you” He indicated a staircase. I noted he wasn’t coming too.

My knees wobbled as I went upstairs and knocked at the door to his office. A rough voice said “Yes ?” so I entered the office and said ‘You wish to see me sir ?” His answer was instantaneous, “I don’t want to see you, you snivelling little shit, come in.” So I did, expecting the worst. He started off pretty strongly once more rehearsing my parentage and ability to walk and fart simultaneously but after a minute or so he just said “Sit down son”.

He gave me a cigarette and then began a low key monologue about the responsibilities of rank and how to gain the respect and obedience of the men under your command, how to bull up your boots and why it was important (‘they have to see you’re on top of things, see ? Whatever the circumstances’) and various other esoteric soldierly things. He recounted how as a young soldier he’d seen his own RSM bulling up his boots at Arnhem just before escaping across the River at the end of the battle. How you should never ever show fear when you’re in command and how he’d watched his Colonel in Korea walking up and down in full view of the cream of the Chinese infantry saying, ‘see the bastards can’t shoot !’ Why you always see to the creature comforts of subordinates first and so on.

Here I stand with degrees, diplomas and certificates fluttering from every orifice and I have never ever had a better or more intensive period of management training. He literally changed my life and the way I treat people, especially those working for me and I’ll always be glad I met him. I’d rather not have gone through the first bit mind you.

His name was Dusty Miller and about 2 years later I saw that he’d been forced to resign when he’d locked up two guests of one of the Captains who’d invited them to play squash at the depot. They gave him a bit of verbal and…I expect they’re still trying to recover the key. The Colonel obviously thought it was time for him to go so he went. I think he was the last serving veteran of Arnhem, last NCO veteran anyway. End of an era.

So that’s the RSM story…….

Copyright Jim Corbett 2006
War Stories