Today I had the amazing opportunity to interview a lovely man, retired army officer, please welcome C.W.
Hello C.W, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am Craig, aged 51 and married to Debbie for 30 years and we have 2 sons, 1 daughter and 1 grandson. I was born in Gosforth, Tyne and Wear, which is just North of Newcastle City Centre, in 1964. My family were originally from Salford and the irony is having been born a Geordie we moved back to Salford in 1970 and I grew up as a “Manc” where as my brother (Glenn) who was born in Salford and had moved with the family to Gosforth, grew up as the Geordie! My mother was 46 when I was born (almost unheard of in those days) My father walked out on the family in 1973 when I was 9, to live with another woman and my mother brought me up from then on. When I left school I wanted to work as a telephone technician with the Post Office or British Telecom as they later become. I also looked at the building trade but failed interviews for both. I ended up working for the Manchester Bus Company as an office worker, which I was good at, but bored with! I joined the Army in October 1983 embarking on an almost 25-year career finishing in 2008.
When did you know that you wanted to join the forces?
It was a mix of circumstances that led to me joining the army. Firstly I was worried that I couldn’t see a way out of home, and saw myself as being a 30 something still living at home with his mum. At the same time I was going out with a girl who played hockey and we had an eclectic mix of friends, the elder brother of one turned up one night having just finished 22 years in the army, being very generous with money (having just collected his gratuity of about £25,000) and regaling everyone with stories of his time in the forces. It put a seed in my head and I went to the army careers office to find out more. I took the aptitude test, passed and followed this up with a series of tests at a selection center in Sutton Coldfield, again passing which then afforded me entry in the Royal Corp of Signals. Starting my basic training in Catterick Garrison starting in October 1983.
What was the rank you started as when you joined and
when you finished?
You always start as a Private soldier, but dependent on the Corp or Regiment you join the name can differ, Royal Engineers are called Sappers, Royal Marines are called Marines. In the Royal Signals this rank was called Signalman, or as it later became know as Signaler to take into account male and female recruits. I was promoted to Lance Corporal in 1986, Corporal in 1988, Sergeant in 1993 and finished up as a Staff Sergeant after promotion in 2005.
Radio Technician for the first 15 years, then IT specialist. Web Design, Liaison Officer, project and service management
Was it harder before you had a family in the forces or after. ?
I got married shortly after finishing my trade training and just before arriving at my first working unit. It was ok until my first child was born, he was barely 6 weeks old when I was sent down to the Falkland Islands for a month, remember this was the days before the internet, mobile phones etc so contact just wasn’t available, not even a phone call. By the time I got back four weeks later, my Son (Mike) had grown so much and appeared to be doing so much and the look on his face was almost like saying “Who are you?” and I found that very hard.
Does it get any easier when you go on your next tour/assignment?
After that it was always hard to say goodbye before going away, but once I was away and traveling and having to concentrate on what I was going to be doing I could “switch off”. You had too otherwise you would have never got your job done. But it always made coming home special ;)
What's the hardest part of being in the forces?
I always said that being in the Army was the case of two extremes. When it was bad it was inexorably bad, it was shit in every dimension in a way that words sometime cannot explain. But when it was good, it was absolutely great! For example I always hated duties (Guard duties, Security details etc) Long hours, boring, no sleep and when I was on my training upgraders course in Catterick, I could do a duty and get no sleep overnight, after doing a day’s training in the classroom, and then have to go back into the classroom and carry on, so you would effectively go over 36 hours without sleep. I always found sleep deprivation bad. Other things that could be bad were getting used to the discipline side of things, don’t walk on the grass, don’t walk around with your hands in your pockets, always wear your headdress (beret) when outside, being told what to do, not able to argue back which went against the grain of a normal person’s thinking. Ultimately though they develop stronger skills of discipline, camaraderie, patience
What was your first day like?
Very mixed emotions. I lived at home with my mum (my dad had left my mum when I was 9) so it was emotional leaving home thinking I wouldn’t be going back again. But once I started the journey and met other people who were also travelling to Catterick in North Yorkshire it became almost like an adventure. Being met at the train station in Darlington by two Corporals in No 2 Dress Uniform with unbelievably shiny boots; the bus trip to the barracks; meeting other people from all over the United Kingdom. To then getting told where my room was, to having my life suddenly revolving around a bed in a room of four with a locker which would hold all my worldly belongings and where I would eat, sleep, read, and do everything for the next ten weeks (duration of basic training) It was a mixed day and having made my bed I actually slept quite well until the next morning
Can you tell us a little about the forces that you were in?
I did ten weeks basic training, to teach me the basic soldiering skills at one barracks in Catterick, at the end of that I moved to a different barracks but still in Catterick where I then did twelve months training to learn the trade I would be following for the rest of my career. My First unit was at a small Signal Squadron based on an RAF Base in Oxfordshire, where I spent fours years, we were responsible for providing battlefield communications for units who would deploy to Germany in support of the British Army on the Rhine (abbreviated to BAOR) who were effectively the front line of the Cold War who saw the Soviet Union as the big, bad enemy. During my time there I was promoted first to Lance Corporal, then Corporal. After that I then spent 2 ½ years working at a Territorial Army (TA) Unit responsible for communications in support of local government should a nuclear war ever start and threaten mainland UK. During my time here the first Gulf War started, but as I was in a peace time role I was never deployed. After this I returned to Catterick to do my upgraders course upon completion of which I was promoted to Sergeant. Upon completion, I went to Germany for 2 ½ years, again in a role of communications supporting NATO in the event of a threat to peace time in Europe. This eventually led to the unit deploying to Bosnia in support of the NATO operation to bring peace to the Balkans, I didn’t deploy as I had to go into hospital to have an operation on my knee, during my recuperation I was selected for a posting to Cyprus. My role here was covered by the Official Secrets Act and I am no able to discuss in detail. Suffice to say we supported Military Intelligence Agencies in the collection of sensitive intelligence information. It was during my time here that I transferred my trade from radio technician over to IT Support. After 3 years in Cyprus I was then posted to Northern Ireland in support of “the Troubles” I was responsible for all the IT in South Armagh including many reinforced PSNI stations along the border and in considerably hostile territory including Crossmaglen, Bessbrook, Dungannon to name but a few. I would have to fly into a number of locations by helicopter as the roads were considered just too unsafe. After three years doing this I moved to Lisburn where I took up a role in Service Management where I was responsible for the maintenance and support of a Secret Network, its deployment, support, availability, and coordination of repairs, training and much more. This was my last posting and I spent 7 years in this job which I thoroughly enjoyed, I left the Army in 2008 after almost 25 years service as a Staff Sergeant, gaining my last promotion in my final few years.
What advice would you say to a young person fresh out of school who wanted to sign up?
Seriously? Ten years ago I would say the same as I said earlier about when its good its great, but when its shit, its shit and if you can deal with that then there is no reason why you can’t survive and thrive.
Now however, it is a smaller force, over stretched, down time is less, there is more stress and I would advise people only to join up for a minimum of three years, get a trade, learn the life skills and then get out. Ultimately there is one sad truth about the forces. You are given a service number when you first sign up, and to the Army that is all you are, a number! Never believe you are the be all and end all in uniform, get in, enjoy what you can, learn what you can, get qualifications, life skills and then get out before it either kills you or destroys you mentally
Can you share any stories from the time you were in the forces?
There are too many really some funny some sad. I remember once in Cyprus, as a member of the Sergeants Mess we would regularly go to social functions either in the Mess itself, or sometimes outside. On one such occasion we went on a boat trip in the bay off Larnaca on a pleasure boat with e meal setup, dancing, entertainment etc. A friend and I had asked if it was worth taking swimming gear as it was the height of summer and although dark it would still be warm enough to have a “dip”. To which the response was “are you mad!”
Anyway come the night of the trip my mate and I together with our wives found a suitable table and started partaking of the alcohol and enjoying the trip. We sailed out to about a mile offshore where the boat eventually stopped and dropped anchor. It was at this point that loads of people around us changed into swimming gear and started diving into the sea. My mate and I looked at one another as if to say “I don’t bloody believe this” when we both mentally come upon the same idea at the same time. At which point we both stripped down to just our underwear, mounted the rail at the edge of the boat and dived off. The only thing was, we were on the top deck, about 30 feet up from the sea, and it was pitch black! I remember feeling that I had been falling for quite a while before we hit the water. We eventually got back on the boat and returned to our wives who gave us an ear bashing like no other, but we just looked at one another and burst out laughing. Thinking about it now it was absolute madness, but it was fun.
Do you still keep in touch with the men and women you were in the force with?
One thing that was said to me early on was that in the Army you don’t make friends, but you make acquaintances, but you will make a handful of friends who will remain friends for life. This is true, we have a handful of friends who we occasionally meet up with and it is like meeting family. But you meet old Army mates and there is just an understanding, a sense of comradeship and you talk in a way only someone who has been in the army will understand, in the army we are called squaddies and ultimately when you get out at the end of your career you are called a civvie, but there is a saying. I may now be a civvie, but I will never stop being a squaddie.