Joe Bloggs:An Unlikely Hussar Part 19 My part in the very first Duke of Edinburgh Award

joe sitting on chivalrous gun

“If you fail, son, some of the lads’ll mock you,” said Sergeant Baxter, my troop sergeant. “Whatever you do, make sure you pass it.”

The smell of the fumes, the grease and the noise of these massive vehicles in their hangers on the tank park made me feel sick, but I wasn’t one to give up on something I’d only just started. I wondered how I was going to get through twenty two years of this as I remembered being in hospital twice with pleurisy while in Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps. I had asthma and breathing problems which would be aggravated by breathing in these fumes. Never the less, I’d passed my gunnery course with over 90% thus keeping up with my good record, but that was just in the classroom. How you handled the gun on the tank in the practical sessions: getting the range drum right, the distance right and hitting the target in the field when it’s moving was quite another thing. Within six weeks I’d also passed this practical and became a B3 gunner. Straight afterwards, I’d been sent on another course to be a wireless operator. Here we learned to “net in” to call signs with the old “19 sets”, putting up an aerial and tuning in to pick up signals from the test places the instructors had set up, using the codes they gave us. I enjoyed the exercises where we had to put these skills to the test. I’d found it a challenge to learn the secret language of communications, so it was a bit hit and miss, but eventually I got it right. It was too sedentary for me, though. I liked the excitement of the gunnery exercises. I wanted to be out in the open air doing active things and I got this by doing all the sports activities.

By the end of 1958, I’d been promoted to Lance Corporal. My Troop Leader, Lieutenant Rodney Martin, was a very approachable and popular officer. He took us out in his vehicle for treats. I was lucky enough to have him as my tank commander, and liked doing tank maintenance alongside him.

In my first year at Hohne, I didn’t get into the 4th Hussars football team as most of them were professional footballers doing their National Service. Al Orton of Tottenham and Harry Austin of Aston Villa, amongst many others, were brilliant and I learned a lot from training with them. I was the third goal-keeper, understudying Sergeant Joe Collins. I’d had quite a few boxing fights, which I won, during that first year, but nothing of note. I did make it into the regimental cricket team, though. We had a very strong side and won 13 of our 15 matches. In athletics, however, I had set my heart on being a decathlete. Since watching Bob Mattias, a seventeen year-old, win the gold medal competing in ten events against men in the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki, I had wanted to be a good all-rounder. I was now learning how to be a better athlete from Dieter Voss of the local German club “Tus Bergen”. He trained with me, drove me to athletics meetings outside the camp and was now a close friend. I started to do well, winning prizes, certificates and vouchers. I spent all my “pocket money” on magazines and books and read up all the articles I could about the decathlon. I enjoyed all athletics. I didn’t want to restrict myself to one event alone. “Just because everyone else does it that way doesn’t make it right,” I said. I had my own ideas about how to become a successful sportsperson. I wanted to play sport all year round so I could stay fit and healthy all year round. “What is winter training and spring training?” I thought. “If I break off and then have to come back into it, I’ll get injured”. Dieter arranged multi-events and got me to do my first pentathlon (funfkampf) which he arranged within the camp as a starter for getting me into decathlon. I didn’t get anywhere in the competition, but I enjoyed it and wanted to rise to the level of all the other competitors. I had to improve my shot put, hurdles, pole vault, discus and javelin before I could enter a decathlon. I was allowed to have the key to the camp equipment store to get out the equipment needed for our group training and our events and I was responsible for checking it out and back in again at the end.

I practised pole-vault when I could and got good enough to compete for the regiment, but I kept getting laid up with minor injuries because in those days you were using a steel pole and landing in a sandpit, not on foam mattresses! I became very good at 200m hurdles (an event that doesn’t exist now) and had some success in 400m hurdles. Dieter had no coach and it seemed to work for him, so I followed his example. At that time the army didn’t hold any multi-event competition. You were allowed to enter two field and one track event and a relay, or one field and two track events and a relay. I wanted more. I persistently reminded my officers that the Navy and the Airforce did multi-events, so why couldn’t the army? (They didn’t get round to doing it till the 1960s when Rupert Legge won).

In 1958, a new institution was set up within the regiment: The Duke of Edinburgh’s Squadron, competing for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Trophy. This institution was the very early beginnings of what is now known as the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It was a competition that the whole regiment took part in. I was one of the team of twelve men who represented my squadron, “C” squadron, by taking part in all the sporting activities. This included a rapid 5 mile march in battle order, and a 3 mile run in 16 minutes at the end of which you had to shoot. It was difficult to shoot a Sten-gun and rifle accurately when you’d just finished running a fast three miles, but we beat the previous year’s shooting score by more than 100 marks and placed 10th overall. Only the marines, commandos and infantry beat us.

Music has always been an important source of enjoyment to me, so I took part in my first musical review for the regiment in 1958. It was a variety show called “Shamrock Daze”. The second half of the show was called “Music Hall Daze” and I took part in the skiffle group, singing Lonnie Donnegan’s hit of the day: “Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost over night?” Ironic really, as the very idea of putting used chewing gum on a bedpost in our army barracks was anathema to me!

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