I often heard said of Parachute Regiment basic training, that during it they break you. Then once you are broken they build you back up the way they want you. If I had a problem during basic training it was one of aggression. I lacked it. Severely. I remember clearly the morning that all changed.
The day had begun, as it always did, with a quick two miles around the barracks. Then it was breakfast, that you could never get enough of, and back to the block for an hour of room and kit inspection. At nine we paraded for a 10 mile battle march. “T-shirt order”, 30 pounds of sand in our webbing, no weapons. The weight we carried was always checked by the platoon Corporals, who walked amongst us with sets of butchers scales. As the checking went on we stood to attention with our webbing on the floor “to our front”, and our two water bottles, with caps removed, in our hands, held out so the level of water could be seen. It was a freezing morning. When the corporal got to me my offence was so obvious that he never got around to weighing my webbing. One of my water bottles had room for at least another half inch of water. He took the offending bottle from my hand and slowly poured the cold water over my head. He then pushed the empty bottle into my stomach, leaned forward into my face and told me to: “Go and fill the fucking thing up”.
I broke ranks and ran off to the washrooms. By the time I got there I was close to tears. They were sorry for me tears. Four or five weeks had passed by and I didn’t think I could take it anymore. I just didn’t belong.
The march that followed turned out to be the normal 10 mile nightmare over the tank tracks of Aldershot. The last mile back into the camp took us along the banks of the Basingstoke canal. As normal, during those early weeks, the previous nine miles had strung the platoon out. But I was OK. By the time we reached the canal and broke from “double march” into the slower “quick march”, I was up with main group and trying to get my head together for the one where they run us right up to the barrack-room door and then turn around and say: “Only joking. Let’s go for another five miles”.
The corporal who had poured the water over me appeared at my side as we marched and asked: “How’s my mummy’s boy?”. Then he pushed me into the canal. As I hit the water I broke ice. I screamed with the shock.
When I climbed out of the canal , shivering with the cold, the corporal was standing on the bank, hands on hips, laughing. On my knees, I looked up at him and with no thought to the consequences, I shouted to his face that he was a “fucking bastard”. This just made him laugh harder. Then he leaned over, smiled and whispered: “Why don’t you come and fucking kill me then?”. Then he kicked me back into the canal.
As I hit the water for the second time I lost the plot completely. I didn’t care who I was. I didn’t care who he was. I was going to hurt him. I jumped from the canal screaming with rage. The corporal, still laughing, ran off. I ran screaming after him. I ran flat out for nearly a mile and as I ran I pushed any platoon stragglers who blocked my path into the canal. I was in a rage of temper.
I eventually caught up with the leading elements of the platoon just as they slowed once more to “quick march” and entered the barracks. By the time we came to a hault on the parade ground I was beathless and my temper had subsided to a mild hatred.
As we waited for the stragglers and the “left behinds” to catch up, the platoon sergeant told us all about them. We were now here where we had to be. They were not. We were now ready to fight the enemy. Those wankers, the ones still moaning and whining and hobbling along a mile back, were not ready. Because of them we were not at full strength. We had more chance of being killed when we faced the enemy because there were now less of us. Less men, less weapons. They had risked our lives. They had let us down. They were weak-willed wankers.
While the sergeant’s morning reading from the sacred book of Para continued, the corporal who had pushed me into the canal came over. I braced myself in anticipation of at least a punch in the teeth for my earlier out-burst. But it never came. Instead he put an arm around my shoulder, playfully pushed his fist into my stomach and said: “That was better. Good man”. Then he gave me an “all-boys together” punch on the shoulder and walked off. I felf 10 feet tall. I belonged after all.
Two and a half years later, I ran flat out again for another mile. This time it wasn’t into a training barracks but into the centre of Port Stanley. And I was not alone. We were all there, two whole battalions of us, minus dead and injured, as one, together, ready to fight again. In Argentina the families of the not-so-well trained prepared for the funerals.
So I have to say that what was done to me during training was necessary, because if it had not been taken to such extremes I could have died. And death is very serious. I know. I’ve seen it. I’ve even caused it. And what was really done to me and continued to be done to me once I had joined my battalion, was that I was turned into a British Paratrooper. The toughest, fittest fighting soldier in the world. And this I say with no bravado, I really do believe this, and in this lies the real difference between paratroopers and soldiers from other regiments. Other soldiers may say it but their bricks have not been rearranged enough for them to really believe it. Paratroopers have no doubt.
But then what do I care. I’m a civvie now.
Footnote: Private Clegg’s murder conviction was quashed in 1998. There was a re-trial in March 1999, at which Private Clegg was cleared of murder, but convicted of a lesser charge of “attempting to wound” the driver of the car, who was also killed in the incident. This lesser conviction was also overturned on appeal in January 2000 and Private Clegg returned to the Regiment.