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Pull Up A Sandbag
Sandbag Reminiscences of Alan Ventress Sandbag
Pack Up Your Cardboard Suitcase
I joined the British Army on 25 August 1965, or should I say my father joined me up. I came from a family of 9 and feeding them all was a big problem for my Dad, so he and my stepmother decided to divest themselves of the responsibility of feeding and clothing me in about July 1965. I really didn't have any say in the matter. One day I was at school the next I was on my way to the Army recruiting office in Wolverhampton. The time between signing on the dotted line for 6 years and 6 in the Army Reserve was minimal and I was off to glorious mid Wales on 14th September 1965 to the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment (AAJLR) at Tonfanau Camp, Towyn, Merioneth. Though before I left I worked for a time on a building site as a 'chain man' – holding a pole which the surveyor focussed on when laying out the foundations for a new building. I think I was paid the princely sum of One Pound 15 Shillings a week (sorry we don't have pound signs in Australia!) I generally gave my stepmother half my pay and the other half was set aside for me to buy a suit to go to the army in. Well the day arrived for me to get the suit and it cost me about three pound 10 shillings, must have been little better than sack cloth because it was very coarse to say the least. I packed my miniscule cardboard suitcase which was about 12 inches by 8 inches and about 4 deep with my worldly possessions and set of on my big adventure. Little knowing what was in store for me. The steam train took about 4 hours to travel from the Midlands to Tonfanau and there were lots of other apprehensive young lads there all going to the same spot. We arrived in late afternoon and surprise, surprise it was raining and rather gloomy weather wise. What confronted us all was a scene of total confusion, lads milling around and NCOs barking out orders and telling us all where we were to go and what was happening next. We were loaded onto the back of Bedford 3 tonners and driven a few hundred yards up the hill to the camp proper which was situated on a gentle sloping hill leading down to the sea. As new recruits we all ended up in 'R' Company – R for recruit presumably. Or it may have been Ramillies, after a battle won by the Duke of Marlborough? I can't remember which platoon I was in but there were gunners, sappers and privates all mixed in together. A great legacy of this mixture was the tolerance we all had for different parts of the army whether engineers, artillery, infantry or even the hated military police which is what I had ended up in. I was in a room with about twenty others, with a coke burning pot bellied stove in the middle. One of the jobs we were allocated was stoking the stove with coke during the night and woe betide the poor sod who didn't wake up and caused the stove to go out.
About the second day we all had to go to the Quarter Masters stores to be issued with our kit. We were introduced to an array of new equipment, some of which was quite mysterious as to what use it could possibly be. For example a button stick and a housewife, what on earth did this mean? There was never an opportunity to try anything on and we were sized up by the sergeant behind the counter and if he got in wrong – tough titties! Most of the kit seemed to have been mothballed at the end of the Second World War and here we were 20 years later, the grateful recipients of all this largesse from Her Majesty. I must admit at the time I had never seen or been the owner of so many clothes in my life. We were then introduced to the mysteries of locker layout and bed blocks! Woe betide him who didn't have his locker and bed block in order, the contents would be trashed onto the floor and the bed turned upside down. I immediately adopted a rather Zen like attitude to all this mayhem, along the lines that it will inevitably happen to all of us so why worry! The stinking moth balled clothes had to ironed and got into apple pie order and our civvy clothes were locked in suitcases and taken away from us, not to be seen until Christmas leave three months hence. I think we were shown how to iron and it was a matter of sink or swim from then on in. Battle dress was the worst, every time you got wet you ended up looking like a sack of potatoes tied in the middle and not getting wet in mid Wales in autumn or any other time for that matter was a physical impossibility. Some of the old lags taught us how to 'shave' the insides of the creases of the trousers and to coat the inside crease with soap so the outside crease remained sharp, this also went for the sleeves of the battle dress top and the six creases that were de rigeur for the back of the battle dress blouse. Bulling boots was another joy and someone taught us how to burn the polish before you started bulling as well as ironing out the creases and imperfections in the leather prior to starting. Hundreds of hours were spent making small circles of polish with a yellow duster in the vain hope of reaching some sort of black mirrored nirvana!
About the third day they decided to see what we were made of and took us over an assault course. The three Corporals in charge, physical training instructors looked like coiled snakes waiting to pounce. All standing in the pouring cold rain, in singlets and stitched creased trousers looking like three avenging devils ready to pounce on any weakness or infringement of their maniacal fitness standards none of us ever had any hope of reaching. We were dressed in baggy navy shorts many sizes too big and white T shirts if I remember rightly. The usual stuff was there swinging over a ditch full of water, climbing a rope net and doing a forward roll over the top, then scaling a brick wall. There were two blokes on top of the wall to give a hand and pull you up. One poor sod, I never found out his name fell awkwardly from the top of the wall over the other side of the wall and must have broken his leg or an ankle because he couldn't move. This caused immediate consternation among the PTIs who descended on this potential malingerer like the horsemen of the apocalypse and started getting stuck into him dragging him along and generally giving him a hard time. It was only later we heard that one of them had been busted for this display of brutality. At the time it put the fear of PTIs into all of us.
About the fourth day (it still hadn't stopped raining – and the stove hadn't gone out yet!) we were told we were off on a camping trip. Whoopee we all thought until they started loading us up like pack horses with old canvas rucksacks and tents which weighed a ton when they were dry and twice as much when they were wet. The destination was Cader Idris, which I think is the second highest mountain in Wales. We were trucked up to the lower reaches of the mountain in the ubiquitous 3 Ton Bedford Truck, split into squads of about 10 each and off we went under the watchful eye of a corporal with a map, chinagraph pencil and a compass. You have guessed it, it was still raining and the packs and tents were weighing us down and slowing our progress. Finally we stopped for the night and I was allocated a tent with my mate Martyn Fletcher, once we had our 'delicious' meal of Meat and Veg compo rations we settled down for the night. Stupidly I decided to take my hobnailed boots off and leave them outside rather than sleep with them in my sleeping bag. After a pretty rough night what should we all see in the morning, but a heavy coating of frost! This meant my very wet boots had been frozen so solid it was impossible to put them on. I had to get around in my stocking feet, while the tent was packed and loaded on my back and walked up towards the summit of Cader still with no boots desperately waiting for them to thaw out.
As a post script to this walk – I retraced my steps with my wife up Cader Idris in 2009 and found it to be a bit of a doddle, not the gruelling trek that had stuck in my mind, but then again it was summer time and I had shoes on my feet!
Time at Tonfanau became one long blur of inspections, drill, weapons training, route marches and all the wonderful things the army does for you to train you as a killing machine by the time you turn 16! We never seemed to have any time to ourselves and the camp was so far away from the nearest habitation at Towyn, I can never recall going there. Anyway our tea was always topped up with bromide to curb our more primitive urges! Tonfanau Camp was very close to the beach, but I don't think I ever had the opportunity to go there they whole time I was there.
Anyway, three months passed quite quickly, despite bruised arms from the Northumberland Fusilier, fear of PTIs and sore feet from clambering up Cader Idris in my socks on cold and frosty mornings. The day finally arrived when we had to collect our suitcases and retrieve our civvy clothes in preparation for Christmas leave. I hastily opened my green army suitcase and quickly got out my suit, gave it a quick ironing and put it on, or shall I say tried to put it on. All that good food and bracing Welsh air had made me grow about 6 inches in 3 months and it no longer fitted me. So Plan B it had to be, I had to go home in my army uniform. I was quite rich too and had about 15 quid in my pocket, more that I had ever had in my life!
On returning to Tonfanau early in 1966 many of us found we had been posted from the All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment to the Junior Tradesmens Regiment Rhyl, Most of us didn't want to go and we were quite proud of the diamond flash on our battledress sleeves indicating our origins as AAJLR boy soldiers. We were loaded onto Bedford 3 tonners and shipped off to Rhyl.

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