Lympstone Commando, a small coastal military training hub in the heart of Devon overlooking the stunning Exe Estuary – not that there was any time to appreciate the scenery from the base – was to be our home for next 32 weeks. This is where every aspiring Royal Marines’ journey, and hopefully career starts, albeit anybody who has experienced the initial journey to start Recruit Training knows it starts at Exeter St. David’s railway station, the bustling south Coast national connection station where all Commando Training Centre bound journeys meet for all recruits travelling from afar.
Upon arrival Platform 2 was crowded with passengers, the majority carrying that distinctive image: young looking, shiny shoes, a smart suit, a big suitcase and a face bearing trepidation. It was fair to say that the individuals being described were the ones of potential Royal Marines, but moreover the people I would share the ensuing 32 weeks with, my colleagues of 199 Troop. We all hastily acquainted ourselves in the hope to discuss our mutual anxiety and ease the final leg of the journey, a 15 minute train ride, which felt like a lifetime. Typical ‘first encounter’ questions and a dose of good humour to lighten the apprehension were the gist of journey, however, it was soon silenced by the notorious landscape outside of the train; bottom field of CTCRM. It was an all too familiar sight and it appeared ominous as ever, with the ropes and water tanks on the horizon, both of which we would have an opportunity to dice with in the coming fortnight. The train came to a halt and the nervous candidates alighted from the train. Through the gates we went as civilians, welcomed to an aura of militarisation – alien and daunting to the majority. We were now to undergo a process that converted young men into elite soldiers and that had to start with an attestation, some paperwork and some firm words from the Drill Leader. Many young men within the troop were now empowered with a level of responsibility they had never experienced before, the opportunity be independent and self sufficient – an integral part of being a Royal Marine, but for now we were know as ‘Nods’ and we knew it. The name nod denotes the action of nodding off when sleep deprived, something that was a recurrent theme over the initial two weeks foundation phase. Days were 20 hours along, packed full with the likes of personal administration, lots of naked men showering in Baltic water 5 times a day, eating like a gannet at the speed of light and much more. In fact everything is at a 100% pace and there are significant consequences for anything deemed to be at a lesser pace. The sanctions usually came in the form of ‘banging out’ press ups, duck walks, squats, or burpees. There are very few ways that you can take a man’s breath away; especially a steadfast, unwavering, unemotional marine, but the tank does exactly this, emptying your lungs when you gasp at the staggering chill of the water. We first made our acquaintance with the Tank during our preparation for the infamous Royal Marines wet and dry routine – a system that is in place to ensure that a Marine always has a dry set of clothing in order that he can recuperate in a tactical environment. Eventually our tolerance to the cold temperatures would become more resilient, but for now we were being tested, especially on our inaugural Ex EARLY NIGHT. Wet and dry procedure was the first taste of camping outdoors and it was challenging.
It is important to mention that throughout the first two weeks of recruit training, the men of 199 Troop have bonded well as a result of the tough times, all sharing the same bedroom in foundation block, and calling upon unprecedented camaraderie displaying “cheerfulness in the face adversity” – one of the commando values. The shock of capture has invariably been present, but all recruits have been enjoying what is going to be a journey that is never to be forgotten. Week 3 marked the start of ‘Individual skills’ and new challenges lie ahead, with the progressive learning curve continued.
199 Troop, now entering week four of recruit training, have completed the foundation phase in earnest with continuous mishaps from individual recruits or the troop as whole. Regardless, there was always a price to be paid for any infraction or poor administration, whether it be quick kit changes, endless press-ups or more recently on the list of troop sanctions, room changes. ‘Lucky’ individuals were required to move around with their full field Bergen as a reminder to not leave lockers unsecured. The main theme of punishment was all about taking our time away from us, and that was something we are in short supply of. It is quite hard to fathom, given that a recruits day commences at 0500 and invariably finishes midnight or thereafter, that we still don’t have enough hours to complete our administration. This week we not only had our time taken away from us, to run and crawl up and down a conveniently located marshy hill adjacent to our living quarters, but also as a consequence this committed us to the task of cleaning the muddy kit, thus taking more of our time – a downward spiral. Only a Royal Marine recruit would understand what a busy 20 hour day felt like.
On a brighter note, 199 Troop made its way into the permanent accommodation of ‘D-Block’ and we have all settled into our sections well. With approximately 6 recruits to a room, warm showers and permission to use the laundry facilities instead of hand washing, we were all happy to say farewell to the foundation block accommodation and routine. Living in our sections has a had a profound effect on cohesion, with most communicating on a first name basis, helping each other without hesitation in order to try and complete the large amount of admin as a team, as soon as possible.
With a new week came new responsibilities and our pass to ‘go ashore’ (Royal Marines speak for heading into town) was granted. A later time to return ‘aboard’ (Royal Marines speak for returning to camp) was given and we were also allowed to wear civilian clothes. Bizarrely, this was quite an unusual experience given that since we had all arrived at CTCRM, we were constantly in military uniform or suits. Wearing civilian dress felt somewhat unusual and more so when we tried to integrate ourselves into the High Street of Exeter. We were, as the training team put it, given rope to ‘play with’ and advised to use it responsibly and not to hang ourselves with it… it was a test.
On arrival to Exeter and without prior discussion, the majority of the troop had similar plans in purchasing woolly hats, not to mitigate against the bitter winter air, as we were practically immune to the British low end temperatures by now, but to disguise our blatant military recruit haircuts that set us apart from the crowd. All equipped with a civilian wool shield on our heads, we ventured through the city of Exeter shopping, unwinding and discussing various events that had occurred over the past three weeks. It was much needed catharsis, because we all knew that on return to Lympstone, the ensuing week held a new series of challenges that would require our utmost focus. All the more so as we were now stripped of our ‘loomy bands’ – an orange band worn on the front of our military rig, letting trained ranks know that we are very junior recruits – excusing us our shortfalls should we have any. We were now furnished with the Royal Marines charter and code of conduct, and should we fail to meet the exacting standards, there is no safety net. There are no excuses.
Rope climbing has been a challenge for many recruits of troop 199, with frustratingly marginal gains or plateaus for the weaker climbers; a specific technique was yet to be acquired and it was only to be achieved with sheer mettle and determination. Recruits were often suffering from acute elbow pain or tarnished hands and this was amongst all other physically exhausting gym routines and exercises that form the gymnasium physical training sessions and, more importantly, for display at the renowned Families Day in 2 weeks time. It is fair to say at this point, that the training regime here at CTCRM is unforgiving and truly requires every ounce of solidarity and fortitude….32 weeks of it. And all the effort is in aid of achieving the coveted Green Beret. A poignant reminder was given when the troop visited the tailors a few days ago to get our green fleece drill trousers measured, where we were surrounded by a line of Kings Squad Pass Out parade outfits. To be in the vicinity of such a prestigious uniform, that is only awarded to recruits who successfully complete the most arduous military training in NATO, was an amazing but profound reality check knowing that in 29 weeks time it will potentially be our turn to proudly wear the rig.
“We are giving you some rope – don’t hang yourself with it!”