Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 1

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 1

by Stuart Crawford
article from Thursday 2, April, 2020

AS FAR BACK as I can remember, I always wanted to be a soldier.* I can’t really explain why, it’s just the way it was. My Dad had been subaltern in the Highland Light Infantry just after the Second World War when he did his National Service and had always spoken fondly of his time in uniform, but we weren’t a military family in the classic sense.  I was just born with it I guess, just as other folk are born to be trainspotters or stamp collectors. Whatever floats your boat.

Comics and Airfix have to take part responsibility though. My comic of choice growing up was the Victor, which majored on stories of derring-do in the military, from which I graduated to Commando comics.  Almost all of the story lines were based in the War and presented in a very positive and gung-ho fashion. Whether Airfix models arrived concurrently or later I can’t quite remember, but again I graduated from early attempts at aeroplanes to tanks and armoured cars. I longed to visit the near-mythical Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset, but it might as well have been on the Moon as far as a Glasgow-based schoolboy enthusiast was concerned in them days.

I got there (both becoming a soldier and seeing the Tank Museum) in the end, but it took some time to get there mind. School and university got in the way, then that splendid old-fashioned wet coast Presbyterianism told me that I really should have a career to fall back on if my military aspirations came to naught, so I spent two years plus qualifying as a chartered surveyor. The day I qualified I decided to try and join the army, hoping to get a three year Short Service Commission a bit like my Dad had done.

Up to this point I had no experience of the army whatsoever, not at school, not in the Combined Cadet Force, not in the Territorial Army.  I was truly a military virgin. But I did know a bit about universities, and I knew that Glasgow University (sorry, the University of Glasgow, I’ll get it right next time) would have an army liaison office somewhere and, after a quick shufti through the Yellow Pages as one did in those days, I found out where it was and presented myself there one morning.

An elderly gent in tweed jacket and regimental tie asked me my business, very politely. I answered that I’d like to be an army officer and in particular one in a Scottish tank regiment. After a few pertinent questions he declared that “4RTR are just the chaps for you!” and phoned up the Regimental Adjutant (I had no idea what an adjutant was at this point) and informed him that he had a potential officer candidate for him and that, with great enthusiasm,  “he’s Scottish too!”  I thought that was fairly self-evident, but let’s just park that one for the moment.

Things then started to move quickly, because at the tender age of 25 I was, apparently, rather older than most who sought commissions in a front line tank regiment, and there was no time to lose. My first ever MoD Rail Warrant took me down to Regimental HQ Royal Tank Regiment, in those days in the rather splendid location of 1 Elverton Street, London SW1, where I met first the Regimental Adjutant (of whose job I was still completely ignorant) and then the Regimental Colonel, who somewhat confusingly held the rank of Major General.

Anyway, I must have passed muster because I was accepted as an officer candidate, subject to security clearances, medical, and passing the Regular Commissions Board to get into RMA Sandhurst. The medical threw up the first problem; I had a perforated eardrum, a relic of over enthusiastic diving in Govan Baths when I’d been learning to swim as a lad. I had to get it fixed, and quickly, otherwise they might not take me. There was too little time to join the NHS waiting list for the operation – known as a myringoplasty since you ask – so I went privately at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow. I seem to recall it cost me £420 in early 1980, which seemed an awful lot then and maybe it was, but I was dead keen. [£1,814.58 to be exact – Ed.]

That was the first hurdle out the way. My designated regiment, the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (Scotland’s Own) – to give it its proper title, was in Munster in (then) West Germany, and had planned to have me out for a visit. Given the state of my lug, however, it was deemed a bit risky, so I got to visit one of the sister regiments, 3RTR, on Salisbury Plain instead. The Third recruited in the West Country and were called the “Armoured Farmers” by everyone else. They were very nice to me, and I remembered to hold my knife and fork correctly at dinner in the officers’ mess. I also got my first ride in a Chieftain tank, which was a bit of an eye-opener.  But more of that later.

In Part 2, attending the Regular Commissions Board, going to Sandhurst, and finally joining my regiment, 4RTR.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

* With acknowledgements to Martin Scorsese and Ray Liotta

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