Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Basic Training at HMS Fisgard

This is Chapter 2 of my memoir. You can find Chapter 1 here.

— 1982 —

New Entry training in the Navy was the hardest thing I have ever done.

There was a spate of movies about military training in the early 80s: Stripes, An Officer and a Gentleman, Heartbreak Ridge, Full Metal Jacket and many more. They all emphasised the brutality of military training but what we endured at HMS Fisgard was as brutal as anything they showed on the big screen.

They picked us up at Plymouth station and took us over the Torpoint Ferry where we heard the chug-a-lug-a-lug of the chains for the first of many crossings. As we arrived inside the gates of HMS Fisgard, they split us into one of six divisions. I was in Frew Div.

We were the biggest entry ever because Mrs Thatcher’s government realised that if you are going to fight a war on the other side of the world, you need engineers. The Navy called us artificers — ‘Tiffs’ for short — and we were signing up for a four-year apprenticeship plus five years return of service.

The Torpoint Ferry

Each New Entry class was assigned two apprentices from a previous entry to show us the ropes. There were 25 of us in our dormitory (our ‘mess’) aged from 16 to 21 — Jimmy Mac was only 15½ — and we started gently enough.

They took us for a warm-up run in the morning and we marched over the road to HMS Raleigh to collect our kit and we marched back carrying a heavy suitcase and a full kit bag. The rest of Fisgard was empty until Sunday night and we spent the weekend learning how to iron our uniforms and polish our boots and brasses.

When Sunday evening came, apprentices from previous entries started arriving in dribs and drabs. They were all a little bit drunk and they all wanted to inflict the same torture that they endured when they had first arrived.

The most common torture was to send us to hang from the beams. Our dormitories were World War II huts and the beams were the angle irons that held the roof up. When someone shouted ‘Up on the beams!’, we had to climb up and hang there, with the angle irons cutting into our hands. They usually added some cruel twist like ‘Space Invaders’ where we had to shuffle across the beams while they threw pillows at us to knock us down. Anyone who fell had to do 50 sit-ups or 50 push-ups and get back up again. I must have done 200 of each that evening while someone beat me across the back with a steel bar the whole time.

At one point, a bunch of apprentices from another division came looking for someone to challenge their champion to a nipple-biting competition. Their guy was maybe 7’6″ and looked just like Jaws from the James Bond movie. They had heard that we had a big, black guy who might be a contender. I think Rupert was the only black bloke out of 300 New Entries – and he was the best of us – but, to his credit, he declined to fight. Craig was willing though. Craig fought valiantly! He lost a bit of blood but he still had both his nipples by the end.

Pipe Down (bedtime) was at 11 pm and we woke at 5 am to the sound of clanging dustbin lids.

“Two minutes! Boots and Ovies! Go!”

We had to dress in our work overalls, put on our combat boots and go for a run. This would happen two or three times some nights but we got to lie in until 5 am that first time. We had to jog in double time as a squad like you see in the movies. We’d stop now and again for 30 push-ups or 50 sit-ups and, eventually, we were introduced to the static tanks.

The static tanks were concrete tanks, about 30ft long and 8ft wide, that collected rainwater for fire fighting. They had not been cleaned since World War II and they were full of dead bicycles, broken glass and green slime. We ran — hip deep — through every tank except the ones we swam. We were lucky enough to be there in September; in January, they had to break the ice first.

New Entry training lasted a month and this kind of cruelty continued until the very end.

Guards on Parade — Rupert (with the sword) in charge

In between classroom learning and fitness, we’d march over to HMS Raleigh to watch a training movie. The movies we watched were crazy. They had all been made decades earlier and were all about the horrible sores that would grow on our cocks if we caught venereal disease in Hong Kong or how we might die from accidentally setting off a missile if we tested its resistance without unplugging it first or about the third degree burns we would get on our genitals if we pissed on the 440V cables where the electricity came into the ship. If we fell asleep during the movie — and who wouldn’t on 3 or 4 hours of sleep per night? — we’d be woken with the biggest kick up the arse or a smack across the shoulders with a walking stick.

Marching back to HMS Fisgard from the movie theatre was always an adventure. HMS Raleigh was the New Entry establishment across the road for everyone who wasn’t a Tiff and everyone there resented us because we got paid more than they did and got promoted faster. This was their one chance to give us shit before we were all promoted to petty officer. One time we were called out by Lieutenant Shovelface and he had all 300 Tiffs doubling around the parade ground for half an hour and we missed our dinner. He made a big speech at the end about what a disgrace we were.

You are a disgrace to yourselves.
You are a disgrace to HMS Fisgard.
You are a disgrace to the Royal Navy!

Any time we had to ourselves, we spent ironing our uniforms or polishing our boots. We had a ‘kit muster’ every week (and it was a common punishment) where we had to put one of each item of uniform out for inspection in the size and shape of the ship’s book.

Kit Muster

Worse than this was getting ready for P.E. (physical education) when we’d each use half a can of starch until our t-shirt and shorts could stand up on their own. We’d head over to the gym in our underpants, carrying our shorts so we wouldn’t bend them until after the inspection.

P.E. lessons were fun! Seriously, I enjoyed them but God help you if you couldn’t climb a rope.

In two movements…claim your… ROPE!
With the right hand on top…as high as you can reach…upwards and inwards… GRASP!
Two shifts… CLIMB!
On the right… make… FAST!

Frew Division 1982.
I’m third from top-left.

Four weeks of New Entry training passed quickly and our families came down to watch our Passing-In Parade. We marched past to ‘She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’ before going out to celebrate with our families, boys no longer.

Chapter three — In the Workshop is here: