Opportunity knocks

by Lt Col David M Braithwaite

As I left home to report to the Army Apprentice School, (AAS) Arborfield, in August 1956, my father’s parting words to me were, “Remember son, opportunity only knocks once, be prepared to open the door”. What I was not to know at the time was that he could have quantified his statement by adding, ‘at different times in one’s life!’ Little did I realise that my time at the AAS was to be the beginning of a career that was to offer many challenges and changes. The Army system identified my strengths and weaknesses and, coupled with my ambitions, developed and exploited them as only the British Army can do.

As an A/T I found great satisfaction in escaping from the harsh and sometimes cruel existence of the School environment by playing sport. As it was, I wasn’t a bad all-rounder and took advantage at whatever was on offer. I usually made, if not the School team, then at least the Company team. But at that time, little did I know how the development of my sporting prowess was to have such a significant affect on the direction of my future career.

At the end of my three years, in 1959 I ‘graduated’ as a VM (B) and was sent to Bordon in Hampshire to be converted into a VM (A). This was not as I had wished, as I had expectations of going to Middle Wallop to learn all about aviation engines and airframe. After the appropriate conversion course, I left Bordon on my first posting, attached to the ‘Blues and Royals’ at Windsor. Here, the Regimental football team beckoned and, after four months of being lauded by the Regiment and spending very little time in the workshop, I requested a transfer to the Household Cavalry.


This resulted in a swift posting, via Plymouth to Cyprus. (Not my intention I have to admit, but ignorance was bliss at the time!) The outcome of my transfer request however, was as acceptable to me as it was to the REME. In Cyprus, I was not employed as a VM (A), as 49 Field Regt RA did not have the Armoured Command Post vehicles that its establishment listed i.e., Saracen Armour Personnel Carriers. Instead, they were equipped with the old Austin K9 Command Vehicles.

And then…

So the manning system sent me first to 9 Inf Wksp, still in Cyprus, and then onto Station Wksp, Benghazi, North Africa. Knowing what I know now, I still cannot follow the logic of this roundabout route! Mind you, I was very unhappy to leave the Gunners and let this be known publicly – much to the chagrin of my new Wksp ASM. Also, my request on BFBS for the Beach Boys’ ‘We Sailed on the Sloop John B’ (or ‘I wanna go home’), to be played for my OC, might have had some bearing on my early move to the back of beyond.
My Benghazi posting turned out to be the happiest of my entire career. It was here that I met and courted my future wife and also discovered in myself a sense of responsibility and ambition, which had hitherto been alien to my way of life and attitude. I was still ‘into’ sport and my OC – I’ll never forget his name, Major Taggert, a Corps and Army cricket player – sent me on promotion as an A/Lcpl, on an Army PTI selection course in Cyprus. I passed this with flying colours and a recommendation to attend the full course at the Army School of Physical Training at Aldershot.

Physical training…

I qualified as an APTI after the 3-month course, along with the recommendation to attend the Advanced Course. I subsequently passed the Advanced Course and gained the coveted recommendation to carry on and attend the Probationers course. This was a precursor to fully transferring into the Army Physical Training Corps as a Sergeant Instructor. During this period of my life, Liz and I got married. So she was on hand to help me in my endeavours to get into the APTC. Of course, REME were none too pleased at the prospect of losing someone they had spent so much time and money on. I had already attended and passed my 2nd Class Trade Test and was scheduled to attend the First Class course at the time that my transfer to the APTC came about.

I eventually passed the Probationers Course, transferring to the APTC with (I like to believe) the blessing of the Corps, in August 1964. This was followed by me being posted to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, as a Sgt Instructor. Here, I had three years of great personal satisfaction, doing a job I loved, meeting up with Jim Fox again and taking up Modern Pentathlon with a modicum of success. I ended my tour by attending and passing the Regular Commissioning Board and subsequently went to the Mons OCS in March 1967 and gained a Short Service Commission with the Royal Corps of Transport.

I had three superb years with the RCT, gaining promotion to Captain and getting strong recommendations for a Regular Commission. But sadly, because of lack of vacancies in my age group, I could not convert with the RCT. But then, along came the RAOC, offering a Regular Commission – subject to my completing and passing the six-months Ordnance Officers Course. I transferred into the RAOC as a Captain in August 1970, gaining a Reg ‘C’.
I had a tour in UK, during which time I sat and passed the Captain-to-Major promotion exams, both practical and written. I then went off to Singapore in my first RAOC Technical Appointment. This was followed by couple of tours in BAOR, on promotion to Major.

REME under command…

Several postings later, I was given command of the Forward Vehicle Depot, Recklinghausen, where I also had the REME Wksp under my command. So here, my earlier VM experience finally came to the fore! In 1983, I was selected for promotion to Lt Col and given command of 9 Ordnance Battalion. This was probably the most demanding, yet most fulfilling, job that I ever did as an Officer. It was exceedingly busy, completely absorbing one’s whole life 365 days of the year. But I was very fortunate to have excellent officers and men under my command, which made it easier for me and enabled the Btn to meet its role and maintain its excellent reputation.

Nothing could compare after my period of command so, after a couple of tours as an SO1, I decided to retire at the age of fifty-two. I wanted to go into Recruiting, so I subsequently applied. I was interviewed and offered the Army Careers Officers grade one (RO1) post at Liverpool.

A spot of recruiting…

So Liz and I retired to the fine old City of Chester. I was re-employed as an Army Careers Officer – having to wear uniform and carry an ID card. This determined that I then had to convert from being cap-badged RAOC to the RLC, after the forming of this Corps.

After six years in Liverpool, I was ‘promoted’ to Commander Recruiting and Liaison (NW). I did this job for four years and, at the ripe old age of sixty-two, decided that ‘enough was enough’ and retired fully after forty-four years with the colours. The end result was a move to Suffolk, where Liz and I are now happy in our ‘Dunroaming’.

So, ‘opportunity’ certainly knocked for me, I would say six times, in the ‘guise’ of the GSC (AAC), REME, APTC, RCT, RAOC and finally the RLC. I have to say that, generally speaking, I have thoroughly enjoyed the direction that my career took and the ups and downs that came with it. The three hard and uncompromising years at Arborfield did, without a doubt, toughen me up and taught me to think for myself and to be independent. At the same time, it imbued into me the importance of teamwork. This, I suspect, gave me the courage to ‘open the door on the occasions when opportunity did knock’, and I have absolutely no regrets in doing so whatsoever.

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