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The HAC/Royal Artillery Communicator Course (2/11 – condensed) experienced something of a ‘cold start’ when several of the intake missed the first drill night following a break-down in, er, communications. But the troops rallied manfully, and by the first weekend of December, at Crowborough Camp and under the leadership of CSgt Booth and LCpl Magee – CSgts Ivey, Perera and Wallace instructing – our education in all matters Comms/BOWMAN had begun in earnest.

‘A radio’s a radio,’ says CSgt Ivey; but he’s just being modest. Actually, we learned, they come in a bewildering array of configurations and serial numbers (albeit only one colour: a rather unimaginative autumnal green), and they’re pretty hi-tech, too: batteries allowing, some of them will even send a text-message. Plus there’s the ‘Canadian’ setting.

Still, our instructors were vocally confident that in the age of the touchscreen and the smartphone any fool with a functioning forefinger should be good to operate a BOWMAN: a claim we felt it was our sworn duty to assay.

Much of it turned out to be straightforward enough (the correct procedure for turning off the radio, for instance, being to ‘turn the radio’s function switch to OFF’); but some aspects were not so intuitive. ‘Free net’ is not like the WiFi you hook up to in Caffè Nero; ‘buddy fill’, sadly, doesn’t mean ‘getting your mate to do it’; and, try as you might, a ‘Free Channel Search’ will never tune in to Classic FM. Some bordered even on the Kafkaesque: like the instruction to scroll down the menu to NONE SELECTED… and then hit SELECT.

So, in between PowerPoint naps and ironing out misunderstandings over ‘laying cable in an open field’ or the fragile etiquette of the Master/Slave relationship, we concentrated on the finer points of communications theory (step one: say ‘Hello’) and Voice Procedure – or what Tpr Swanston calls ‘delicious language’.

Here, certainly, there were some curve-balls. You must never use first names on the net (even if you do have colleagues called Mike, Oscar or Romeo), and since every radio will have its own ‘unique identifier’ the Army will not smile on the use of other ‘unique identifiers’ you might or might not have assigned to your fellow soldiers in the course of casual conversation. The correct Base Time is not ‘about a quarter past five.’ ‘iSpell’ is neither an educational app nor a Zulu imperative. And the correct response to ‘Authenticate Six-Four’ is not ‘It’s me, you t**t!’

Above all, we were told, remember your RSVP – the acronym for communicating, politely but firmly, with a Frenchman. Trooper Brown, for one, was having particular difficulties with the V.

We marched to and from the cookhouse, chanting ‘1mW good: 16W bad!’ and revising from our handy pocket-sized training pamphlets (verbatim: ‘EMAP. Switches on the EMAP.’), and then under cover of darkness undertook a low-key navigation-and-radio exercise, during which, it is rumoured, one of the more experienced signallers among us endeavoured to anticipate the end-Ex by mistaking her the E-PURGE button for the OFF.

The second of these weekends involved a continuation of the same – in particular on the relevance of SAD, which, by now, we felt we were beginning to understand – plus a wee jolly into neighbouring Pippingford Park. This, we were led to believe, would not be ‘too warry’; but with the infill entering its fourth hour… Still, we were learning. For example, that even a completely defunct radio is a neat way of getting the weight up in your Bergen. Or that the main reason the radio ‘may still emit a signal even without you knowing’ is because, often as not, there’s some berk leaning on the pressel.

Drill night lectures developed these themes, with additional instruction on the use of BATCO and the minutiae of Electronic Warfare. The Yeoman of Signals gave us a brief on how not to drop the comms kit out of a helicopter over Baghdad (operationally, we figured we’d be alright, in East Sussex), and broadly speaking made the argument that the best defence against interception is not to use the radio at all – a prescription met with more enthusiasm than perhaps was entirely proper.

And then came the Part 1 test. ‘You can put A or B,’ the Yeoman stated for the record. ‘I recommend A.’

At the end of February the course deployed to Blandford, home of the Royal School of Signals, for our RA Comms Course Part 2/FTX, where we were promised (sic) ‘a full week of this stuff so we could take it to a more interesting level.’ The first lesson was entitled ‘Why are batteries so important?’

A body can only handle so many 8-hour lecture-room days, so the increasingly surreal round of batteries, frequencies, power-settings, batteries, frequencies, having our integrity questioned by the local PTI, batteries, frequencies, and sitting in wheel-less Land Rovers marked ‘no loitering on account of the radiation’ was punctuated with more hands-on sessions on the putting up of 10m masts (antennae optional), the dropping of same on directing staff (Tpr ‘Timber!!’ Liversidge), and the patching of calls through to girlfriends via TASCOM (‘No, honestly, darling, I would’ve called, only there’s no signal out here. What’s that? Ironic? Yes, it is a little…’). There was an abnormally high level of foot-traffic through the Royal Signals Museum, home to the regimental cappuccino dispenser.

But notwithstanding these thrills and diversions, the intellectual trauma steadily began to kick in. Tpr Jones started keeping a diary of her bowel-movements (she had been licking the radios), and Tpr Spetch began spouting some nonsense about calling his firstborn ‘Ross’ in honour of LCpl Magee.

Even our instructors began to show symptoms of strain. CSgt Perera seemed to be doing ‘bad cop, confusing cop’ all by his lonesome (‘Your hands will either be up, or down’; ‘Just because I’m asking the questions doesn’t mean that I know the answers!’). And then CSgt Ivey started lecturing in verse: ‘How bíg, how high, is that wáve on the ócean? / How lóud are you héaring my vóice?’

We had been warned there was previously a PSYOP component built into all pre-Patrols training: now we began to fear that this serial had been moved up. The troops grew nervous and disoriented – though not half so much as the team of civilian contractors who arrived at the Chickerell guard hut one evening, to be met by the intimidating panorama of CSgt Perera riffling through the Spectator, LCpl Anderson listening to Radio 3, and Dmr Barker sketching the HAC’s coat of arms onto a new design for wrought-iron security (a whole new definition of ‘camp gates’).

On the final Friday we deployed into the field, where we underwent a gruelling half-day of lessons on Contact reports, 9-liner MEDEVAC requests (‘Broken down into 9 lines. Exactly the same as a 10-liner’) and a last-minute ‘interest lecture’ on generators before camming up our FFRs and kipping out under the stars. The following morning Sgt Houghton administered a quick VAGR examination and debrief (not necessarily in that order) – and everyone agreed it was a lovely. old. job.

The pass-rate for the course was a meritorious 100%, and the chief geeks prize-winners Tprs Meyer-Higgins (Best Student), Jones (Bright Spark), and Wiktorowski-Schweitz (all-round good egg). Our successors have, we understand, long-since embarked upon their studies, and will now be well on their way to lugging their own heavy, E-PURGEd radios through the night. We wish them all the best with that.

For the Honourable Artillery Company Journal (Autumn 2012)

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