Going to Sandhurst
Tears and sweats
The Passing-out Parade
It was in May 1988 when I was appointed an officer cadet and posted to D Squadron.
I was attached to 4 Troop to understudy from Sergeant WONG Pui, a cheerful man
and a good volunteer. Soon, I was assigned to lead the 3 Troop fresh from the
Training Wing. The first day I took up the officer cadet appointment, going
to Sandhurst became my dream.
In normal circumstances, an officer cadet had to undergo one year's training before he could be assessed on his leadership atttributes and readiness to pay homage to the "sacred land". In my case, things seemed to move a bit too fast.
It was a hot summer afternoon in 9/1988 when I received a call from Regimental Headquarters that I was going to Sandhurst the next month.
"Do you think I'm ready, Sir ?" I asked. "I've been an officer cadet for just 4 months. I still have a lot to learn..."
"Fine, you have been a volunteer for 6 years. right ? In my opinions, you are fit to go." Replied the Training Major gently.
I was very much alone. There were no other officer cadets going with me. Stepping into the plane, I felt the pressure that I was going with the honour of my regiment and I could not afford to let the volunteers down. Not long ago, a volunteer returned from Sandhurst after faliing the Commissioning Course. He soon diappeared. The incident cast a shadow on me. No matter how tough it was, I was determined to pass the TA Commissioning Course, a prerequisite for me to become a 2nd Lieutenant.
I brought with me the best weather to UK. I arrived 2 days ahead of the course to gear myself up with the local setting. Upon arrival in RMAS, I was brought to the Academy Sergeant Major who was the most senior warrant officer of the entire British Army. "Cho Sun (good morning) " , the ASM greeted me in perfect Cantonese. He had done a tour in Sek Kong, Hong Kong and still remember the place well.He was a man with great charm; to me he was more like a well-learnt colonel than a warrant officer.
I was the only Chinese, or Asian, in the Dettingen Company which made up of two platoons of officer cadets, most of them being former UOTC members. At 5'6", I was probably the smallest officer cadet. CSM PITCAITHLY was a big, nasty-looking man (with a good heart) from the Scot Guards. Then a sergeant, he joined other guardsmen in overrunning the Argie defence line at Tumbledown on the outskirt of Port Stanley in the Falklands War 1982. Standing 6'3", he was one of a few able to draw respect from soldiers on the parade ground. In fact, two weeks later, he was the man leading "survivors" of the course to the "holy" parade ground.
My Platoon Commander was the smart-looking Captain BANHAM from the Royal Horse Artillery. CSgt KEITH came from the Black Watch. He was a small Gasglow jork of my height. He was noisy and cheerful but not all of us, in particular myself, could understand him. He spoke a rare and strange accent I had never heard of.
"Could I see you in private, Colour Sergeant?" I said. "I am sorry that I cannot read your accent."
He smiled. "Mont, yo ar la the fi mont to sa tat."
From that day onwards, whenever CSgt KEITH talked to the platoon, he would turn to me and ask, "CHEUNG, yo undasand ?"
CSgt KEITH was a man of great humour. On the parade ground where we practiced foot drills, as usual, he roared all the time. It was tje the time when the English humour came in.
"Yo, switch on."
"Yo, lunatic.....No unit's going to take yo."
"I chop off yor feet if yo make the same mistake again."
"I had enough, yo go to ja."
"Hey, CHEUNG, yo wan be a disgrace of the last colony ?"
"Notwithstanding these "insults", we all liked him. He was so devoted and highly professional an instructor. A few years later, I learned from other source that he became the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Black Watch. He certainly deserved the appointment.
Before the course started, I toured around "Mecca". It was very big with many old and magnificent buildings. Right inside the Old College was the Indian Memorial Room which was actually a museum with a huge collection of exhibites of the former Indian regiments. The Army people must have taken the independence of India in 1947 a major setback in the history of the British Empire. Right behind the Old College was a small chapel made of red bricks. It was the place where I made a prayer. I told God that I was already 31 and could not afford to return for a second time.
Most officer cadets were friendly and approachable. They all showed a genuine interest in Hong Kong. The first question they raised was: "What will happen to Hong Kong after 1997 ?" The second one was "How often did you train with the Gurkha ? They are really good, right ?"
My roomate Lee BYERS was an officer cadet from the Royal Artillery. He was an intelligent man who knew military history well. My another good friend OCdt HOPKINSON came from Scotland. A smart guy, he came from a military family. His father was a serving brigadier.
The TA Commissioning Course started with a 3-mile run around
the Old College. I soon discovered how fit the other officer cadets were. The
leaders were the two Para's - OCdts Eddie MARSHALL and Tony RUSSELL-WARD. I
did it for 18 minutes and this was already my best time.
The purpose of command tasks was to give the officer cadets a chance to organise and accomplish a given task and in so doing demonstrate their leadership. I was asked to deliver a log which weighed about 250 lb across an obstacle - an iron scaldfolding about 12 feet in height. This was a relatively simple task. By fixing ropes to the two ends of the log, we were able to lift it up to the 4 lads waiting on top of the scaldfolding. The 4 strong guys then rolled the log to the other end and lowered it to the ground where we were waiting. The visiting Company Commander gave an approving smile as the task was completed. I thanked my freinds for their help. Team spirit was apparanetly a key to success.
Field exerciseswere held in the Salisbury Plain . To a man from a small place such as Hong Kong, the plain was huge and open. Looking around, all the four directions seemed to end up nowhere. Occasionally, a chopper flew by lifting underneath it either a 105 mm gun or an armoured car. There were no hills and isolated bushes were here and there. The land was very different from ours in Hong Kong.
Upon arrival to the exercise area, we were given a demo by the Gurkha demo platoon. Their performance was to the textbook standard. Six years after the Falklands, the infantrymen's attack on enemy position took the form of fire and manoeuvre. Like frogs, each small group making up of 4 riflemen, the attacking sections moved on to the enemy trenches from the startline like programmed robots. It was a fascinating sight......4 up......4 down.....4 up......4 down.....The enemy trench was overun. At this juncture, an injuried enemy soldier ran out of the trench, struggled and threw himself to an onlooker, discharging to the poor man a mouthful of blood before he finally died. It was great fun and all of us enjoy the show. The demo platoon was greeted with a warm applause from all of us.
It was then our turn. On such a wide open ground, troops could practice virtually all formations - diamond, arrow head, single file, extended line.... Unlike in Hong Kong, field tactics here was dictated by the platoon commander at will. In the field, we were given different assignments - platoon commander, sergeant, NCO, scout or runner in turns. Everyone worked hard.
Captain BANHAM showed a particular interest in our "O" Groups. He dropped notes from time to time. Working closely with the CSgt KEITH, he was assessing us all the time. We were aware that some of us might fail the course.
I was assgined to lead a 5-man recce patrol to a given grid. I did a map appreciation on the not too familiar 1:50,000 map. It was by the side of a bush. I selected the 4 men and assgined their roles. I then had a look at the map again and decided on the route in and route out and worked out length of the 3 sticks. Conciously I avoided all footpaths and open ground where the patrol would be vulnerable and insisted on walking through the bushes according to pacing and bearing. While I would be the one who checked the compass, I left the pacing to an officer cadet who claimed himself to be a "pacing expert". The O Group took place at 2100. After some preparation and rehearsals, we moved out at 2145.
It was a cold and wet night. Even with the woollen pullover, I could not help shivering. I could hardly imagine how my friends held their exercise in winter with frost on their sleep bags. The weather in UK was too cold for me. I missed Hong Kong's October.
The recce reached the place after 40 minutes' walk. Not far away, a fire was spotted. I ordered an all-rounded defense with our legs inter-knocked. I moved forward with another man to have a better look at the position with the aid of IWS. It was a man with a rifle resting by the side of fire. I observed for a while, trying to ensure that the man had no no other men with him. Silently we crawled back to rejoin the main party. The finding was immediately passed on to everyone in the recce just in case two of us got killed on the way back. (Well, textbook stuff!) It was a smooth operation, except that as we moved back we almost went into the an enemy patrol. The next morning, the Colour Sergeant praised us for 3 things - good preparation, simple orders and strict field discipline. Right, simple and feasible orders were another key to success. As an officer later on, I always bore this in mind.
Most of the officer cadets came from the University Officer Training Corps (UOTC). Aged 22 or 23, they were in the fittest shape of their entire life. Hence, whenever it came to matters involving speed and physical exertion, I was always left behind. Running cross-country with weapon and kits on was no fun. On a few occasions, I thought I was about to die. My lungs could burst at any time.
After a few days in the field with little sleep. All of us were so tired that we could fall asleep while walking.
Finally came the ending exercise which put us under a frontal attack of the gurkhas. They were all dressed up in different military uniform to stand themselves out from us. At first light, my partner and I were waiting eagerly in our trench which we had dug for 8 hours. By then, I had learned how to remove the turf from the surface and put them decently in front of the trench. When we order to prepare meal for ourselves, I prepared for myself and my partner, a tall bloke from New Castle, hot instant noodle. "It tasted good ! Cheung. Send me some of these noodle when you return home", he said. Our trench looked funny. It did not have a flat bottom. There was a slope leading from one side to another, resulting from difference of height.
At 0800, the attack started. Once again, the gurkhas were hopping like frogs. Everything was so real and I got the feeling that we were in real war situation. The enemy started the fire and manouvers about 150 meters from us. As they moved closer, the gurkhas became easy targets for us. I could imagine that before they actually reached us, more or less two-third of them would have been wiped out. That was why the golden rule always advocated 3 against 1 for the attacking side.
The exercise came to an end at the heat of the attack when the gurkhas reached our trenches. We were brought back to the Old College which welcomed us with hot meals and cleans blankets. I locked myself in the bathroom and drowned deep in a tug of hot water. My back was aching badly. It was the best bath in my life.
Then came a breath-taking moment. Captain BANHAM was to announce who could stay and who should leave. It was a not too pleasant moment. Three of us, one from Burmuda and two from UK, had to leave Sandhurst immediately. The rest of us, inclduing myself, were to prepare for the passing-out parade 2 days later.
29 October 1988 was a fine day. Led by the CSM, we marched proudly into the
Old College parade ground. It was a wonderful moment. I was most thankful to
God and the brother officer cadets. Without HIM and their help and encouragement,
I could not have made the course. Seeing the union jack flying at the top of
the Old College, my mind was carried miles and miles aways back to the Regimental
Headquarters at No. 1, Sports Road, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. I had made it....
Tears kept flowing down my cheeks. Together with the Colour Sergeant of the
other platoon, CSgt KEITH marched by me.
"Stand still, the centre rank..." Once again, he roared.
My friend Man Ching, a volunteer studying surveying in UK, drove me back to his home in West Ham, London. I dropped dead and stayed motionless on bed for 12 hours. By then, I had already lost some 15 pounds of flesh.
A month later, Lee BYERS wrote me a letter. There was a press cutting attached to it which read:
The following officer cadets have passed the TA Commissioning Course No. 7/88 at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst...........W C CHEUNG, RHKR......... Reading this, the Old College where I experienced a most honourable moment of my life once again occupied my mind.
Two months later, I received the certificate signed by the Governor, formally commissioning me as a volunteer officer. Looking back, all these seemed to happen just yestersay.