Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 15 Fergie’s Dad, Thrusters and Owl Pie

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 15 Fergie’s Dad, Thrusters and Owl Pie

by Stuart Crawford
article from Friday 14, August, 2020

THE #BARITWE* had gone back to (West) Germany and I was on my own. I had been accepted for the Army Staff College, which was quite a big deal actually. It is a watershed in any army officer’s career. If you got to Staff College you were on the way up. If you didn’t, well, you either resigned your commission and left or accepted the fact that you were never going to command an armoured brigade or division but that was OK; being a soldier was what fired your rockets and rank and status was not so important. I sympathise completely with this view.

But I had got in. All my pals had assumed that I would get to go to Staff College because I had an Oxbridge degree but that was just an additional burden. Some of the guys I knew had school qualifications only but they seemed to be much better army officers than me. Damnit, some of my soldiers might have made better army officers than me! People expected me to get in and that made the whole examination process more painful, but I passed. Blessed relief. (More like TFC – Ed.)

In those days the Staff College course was, for me at least, a full two years; the first year was to be spent at the Royal Military College of Science (RMCS) at Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, and the second year at the Staff College in Camberley, Surrey. I went home to stay with my folks over the 1985/86 Christmas holidays, and then, as was regimental practice as I knew it, left to start the course at Shrivenham and at the last safe moment, driving down and changing into my uniform in a motorway service station on the way. I parked my car on the parade square when I arrived and walked into the Commandant’s opening address with about five minutes to spare. 

That’s precisely the moment when I realised I had got it wrong. Almost every one of my fellow students had been there for weeks, settling in and catching up on their pre-course reading. It seemed that the carefree days of regimental soldiering had lulled me into a false sense of security and that now things were a bit more serious. On top of this, about 90% of my new compadres were married and many had children; there was just a handful of single officers attending, a far cry from the 25-odd single subalterns that had inhabited the 4th Tonks Officers’ Mess but a few months before. Turning up at the last minute with all your possessions in the back of the car wasn’t normal. Time to grow up.

I had been allocated a room in the Officers’ Mess but from the first night I knew I didn’t want to stay there, so I sought out like-minded bachelors who might fancy living in rented accommodation off campus. Having teamed up with a Para and a Gunner[1] (hawk, spit), we found an isolated farmhouse just outside Wootton Bassett and rented it from a family who were living temporarily in Japan. It was an old, brick-built, ugly building, freezing cold in winter, called Bincknoll House. As the first part of our course was statistics, it quickly became known as “Binomial” House, although I still don’t have a clue what a binomial is when it’s at home.

The Shrivenham course was pretty dire and uninspiring and I can’t say I enjoyed it much. I decided early on that I wasn’t really interested in competing and so aimed to graduate right in the middle of the class. In this I was helped by the (then) new adoption of computers which RMCS Shrivenham was in some ways an early pioneer. Everyone, staff and pupils, seemed to use their wife’s first name as their password and so checking one’s grading mid-course was easy peasy, lemon squeezy and one could adjust one’s academic effort accordingly. I passed right on the 50% mark in comparison with my course mates. Job done.

The second year was at the Army Staff College, Camberley, located in the RMA Sandhurst campus, an altogether more prestigious and career defining rite of passage. My erstwhile Para and Gunner (hawk, spit) housemates had decided that they would prefer to live in bachelor accommodation within the College, so I found a couple of other colleagues and rented a house in nearby Crowthorne, an “aspirational” new build where the family was going abroad for the year. It was fine.

Of the course itself perhaps the less said the better, and I didn’t like the ultra-competitive atmosphere at all. We seemed to spend much time in the nearby countryside, waving our arms around and pointing at imaginary enemies and hypothetical solutions to military problems. I recall I once sited my (pretend) infantry anti-tank missiles in Sarah Ferguson’s father’s garden in the village of Dummer, and also planned the demolition of the bridge over the Thames at Wallingford. All in a day’s work then back for tea. I was also aware, for the first time really, that some of my fellow students were real “thrusters”, ambitious individuals for whom nothing could be allowed to get in their way in their single-minded quest for personal career advancement[2]

There were two things, however, which made the experience palatable. The first was that, as students at the Army Staff College, we became eligible for membership of Wentworth Golf Club at a mere 25% of the normal membership subscription for the time of our course. Why this was so escapes me, but I suspect that it was a valiant attempt by the Club committee to add a little tone to its otherwise mainly nouveau riche and arriviste membership. The golf courses themselves were magnificent and well beyond my golfing capabilities most of the time. The clubhouse was also well used by us but I think we thought the rest of the members to be, well, a little bit vulgar if I’m honest? Wentworth had a “guid conceit o’ itself” which we did not necessarily share. Perhaps it is different nowadays.

My greatest joy, however, was to become editor of the Staff College annual magazine, Owl Pie. I had been dabbling in writing short articles for regimental and other assorted military journals for a while, and indeed had been instrumental in putting out the unauthorised but tolerated scurrilous newsletter during my time at Shrivenham. But Owl Pie was an official publication and accordingly a much more powerful and influential magazine. Just the opportunity for me!

Since the mid-18th Century the annual editions of the magazine had been produced along conventional military journal lines and bound in plum coloured leather bindings with gold stamped lettering on the cover. I decided to revamp the presentation, and settled on a spoof cover mimicking Punch magazine, warning from my lawyer friends about breach of copyright and trademarks notwithstanding. And that’s what we did, with articles written by me and a broad spectrum of my colleagues and illustrated with some rather splendid cartoons by Sebastian Roberts (later Major General of this parish). And, when I last looked, some time ago now I’ll admit, successor editors followed the same model, at least until the Army Staff College closed in 1997 and amalgamated with the equivalent institutions of the RN and RAF in the Joint Service Command and Staff College.

I can’t claim to have enjoyed my two years on the two staff courses, rather I tholed them if I can use that Scottish term. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, nor was it something I’d be happy to repeat. It had to be done, and it was. Plus I got promoted to Major whilst I was there which helped with the bills. 

At the end of the course we were all allocated our future jobs via the “black bag” (no, I have no idea either) appointments process. Some went back to regimental duty, some went off to staff jobs. Having spent a year at Shrivenham undertaking a technical education I had indicated that I would prefer to do a “weapons” job, and I found myself posted to the Headquarters of the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington in Dorset, the same place I had done my Troop Leaders’ and Regimental Signals Officer’s courses previously. And that’s what I’ll be writing about next.

* Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever 

To come in Part 16; staff job.

© Stuart Crawford 2020


[1] David Benest, later CO of 2 PARA, who sadly died on 9 August 2020, and Chris Wilson.

[2] If you want to visualise a “thruster” look no further than the current Chief of the Defence Staff. It’s in the eyes, as Alex Salmond once told me.  They are indeed a window on the soul.

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