TO THE HILLS - Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre
WOSB Number 2 (8th to 14th July 1944)
A Backward Look
Seven miles along the Cairngorms valley of Glenfeshie, a few hundred yards short of Glenfeshie Lodge, there is a cairn, and on it a plaque which commemorates those men of the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre (HFTC) who died during the war. It was set there after the war by their colleagues, and it marks the spot where the bulk of them lived for a short, but highly formative, period of their lives. The position of this cairn, overlooking the lonely grandeur of what is surely amongst the finest scenery in the world, must secure for it a place in the imaginations of all who look at it; for those who trained at HFTC, it is a personal thing, evoking so much of all that was worth remembering from those days. Claire and I, walking up the Glen in 1986, came upon this cairn quite unexpectedly. To me it brought back floods of memories of experiences, moods and emotions long gone and almost forgotten; I can think of no other experience in which the distant past has so suddenly come alive again, and it set me puzzling about what it could have been about HFTC that had "sunk in" so deep.
HFTC was set up in 1943 as a result of an initiative by General Sir Ronald Forbes Adam, the Adjutant General, who was concerned about the number of officer-candidates who were returned to their units after WOSB as immature and not yet ready to start on the formal procedures of gaining commissions. He believed that a unit designed especially to bring people on, would provide part of the solution to this problem, and set in train the formation of the Centre. HTFC's "founding" Commandant was Lt. Col. Lord Rowallan who was later to become Chief Scout, and who remained Commandant for nearly all of its existence. "Number One Course" as it was called, started training at the very end of May 1943, and the Centre closed down a short eighteen months later, in November 1944. It was not without significance that it started its existence when it was clear that a "Second Front" in Europe was shortly going to require a very large number of trained soldiers and people to lead them, and that it was closed down only five months after what was by then known as "D Day".
The Centre was to work through a series of staggered courses, each one lasting ten weeks, with a new course starting half-way through the time-span of the previous one; there would thus always be two courses at HFTC at any one time. Each course was to comprise about a hundred and twenty candidates (as we were called), and was to be allocated to one of two companies; there was to be a permanent cadre of two Company Commanders, together with Platoon Commanders and supporting staff, in addition to the Commandant. HFTC was to operate at Glenfeshie during the non-Winter months, and at Poolewe, near to Inverewe in Wester Ross, during the Winter months. There were, in the event, twelve courses, and upwards of twelve hundred men were trained by the Centre. My course was number nine, running from 8th May to 17th July 1944, and it was based in Glenfeshie during the whole of this period, within Number One Company.
The River Feshie rises at the heart of the Southern peaks of the Cairngorms, about twelve miles from Blair Atholl to the South, and a similar distance from Kingussie and Kincraig to the North. It covers nearly twenty miles however, before joining the Spey near to Kincraig; for the first half-dozen of these miles it flows Eastwards, as though aiming at Braemar in the Eastern foothills, but then, defeated by the watershed, it alters course. If you want to reach Braemar from here, you cross the watershed, pick up the headwaters of the Geldieburn, and follow its flow down past its junction with the Dee, and then, with the Dee, continue Eastwards, to reach Braemar about fifteen miles from the watershed; the Dee then continues for roughly another fifty miles, past Balmoral, to join the sea at Aberdeen. But the Feshie, frustrated by the lie of the land, turns round in a great "U", and meanders more or less back on itself for a few miles before settling down in a Northwards direction for its final ten miles or so. I am not sure at what point its glen (Glenfeshie) formally starts, but by the time the river reaches Glenfeshie Lodge - seven or eight miles from its junction with the Spey - it is flowing firmly Northwards and has been for some miles; by now the glen has widened out to form a plateau some hundreds of yards wide. The scene from here downwards is verdant - almost lush; the plateau is grassy, and the lower slopes of the mountains which rise on each side, are well-covered with vegetation and plantations of trees. Its extent and the size of its features give it a good deal of grandeur, but the general impression is one of friendliness; there is none of the lowering menace of Glencoe. There is little in the way of habitation in the Glen, though there are a few buildings near to the Lodge, and some farm-buildings near to the bottom end.
Those of us who had travelled North to form Number Nine Course of HFTC on Monday 8th May 1944, left the train at Kingussie and were taken by truck up Glenfeshie to our camp. The road up the glen is scarcely more than a track; it keeps to the right of the river as you travel Southwards up the glen, and hugs the lower slopes of the hills rising above it on the West side. It runs out at Glenfeshie Lodge, and for most of this distance it is not now open to the public to drive along it. A few hundred yards before it reaches the Lodge, close to where the cairn stands, a footbridge now crosses the Feshie, and a footpath continues up the Eastern bank - those who feel up to it can follow this path along the Feshie, the Geldie and the Dee to Braemar. Our trucks, however, turned left, down a side track about a mile short of this, went over the water on a wider wooden bridge - now only a pile of timber - crossed a narrow plateau, and started up the hill on the other side. Here we disembarked. We had seen very little from the back of our 30 cwt trucks, but now we were able to start our acquaintance with the glen; it was an acquaintance which was to grow into a deep affection - mingled with a healthy respect - over the next ten weeks.
We were in a hutted encampment not far up one of the hills which border Glenfeshie. Our maps showed that the area was crammed with peaks with names to conjure with, like "Ben Macdui", Carn Dearg Mor", Coire Garbhlach", "Cairn Toul" and "Mullach Clach a Bhlair", but our hill rejoiced in no such name that we could find. The Ordnance Survey 1 inch map showed it simply as "2626", and "2626" (pronounced "two six two six") it remained to us. 2626 was a close neighbour, and there grew up a friendship between us and it (at least on our side there did); I found that I remembered the name of it even when many of the more romantic names had passed beyond recall. The camp was amongst a fairly sparse collection of conifers which extended a little farther up the hill, and some of its huts were, we found, to be our homes, whilst others were for eating in, for office purposes and for entertainment. This was Number One Company's site, and we were to be Number One Company whilst we were at HFTC; it was commanded by Major Bill Stevenson for the time of our stay. The latrine was a hut astride a large hole in the ground, a few yards away from the camp proper, and during our time at HFTC we had to move this hut a bit farther up 2626, resulting in a catastrophic or amusing incident, depending how you looked at it. In the middle of the following night some unfortunate, returning from the new site, fell into the old hole and, whilst it was accepted that getting dirty and wet was part of life at the Centre, this was felt to be beyond the call of duty. The Directing Staff did not live in this camp, but were situated close at hand within the glen; in particular, the Lodge had been turned into an Officers' Mess. Number Two Company (which at that time consisted of Number Eight Course) was in a similar encampment to ours, not far from the Lodge. There was virtually no other habitation until one reached the bottom of the glen (about seven miles away).
Getting to know people in the Services is not difficult; people live close to each other, they are all in the "same boat" and they are keen enough to find out what others think about common problems, about conditions, about the future, about the staff etc. My colleagues here were more widely-drawn than in my army life hitherto. There were men from all manner of regiments, including the Royal Marines, and from a variety of backgrounds; we were no longer all members of the Royal Signals who had done a "short course" at Oxford, though all of us had been selected as possible "officer material". One whom I had met before was Harrington, who had been the Company Sergeant Major of the Junior Training Corps at School; I cannot recall his regiment.
We were very shortly to meet the Commandant, who had moulded HFTC into what it was, and whose personality was printed so clearly on all its activities. Lord Rowallan was born with the name Thomas Godfrey Polson Corbett in London in 1895. Both his parents were from Glasgow, however, both came from well-off merchant families with strong traditions of philanthropy and an involvement in civic affairs, and his father, who continued these traditions, was very active in business, and was a Member of Parliament; he was created First Baron Rowallan in 1911. This family background endowed "our" Lord Rowallan (the second Baron) with a strong sense of social responsibility, a respect for traditional values and a natural talent for leadership. He saw active service in both World Wars, receiving the MC during the First, whilst during the Second he commanded a battalion in France in 1940 and was evacuated from the Cherbourg region after the fall of France. Between the wars he had run the family farm and the firm of Brown and Polson which had been passed down from the Polsons, his mother's family; he had also indulged his interest in regional and philanthropic affairs. Following the fall of France and his return to Britain, and before setting up HFTC, he spent some time commanding a Young-Soldiers Battalion. After the war he was to become Chief Scout from 1945 until 1959 and then Governor of Tasmania until 1963. I remember Lord Rowallan as a man with a deep respect for, and an interest in, people; he wanted to bring out the best in them because that was the way to self-respect, and only incidentally because it helped them to fit into systems. I remember him also as a man with the sort of "presence" which enables people to get others to follow their wishes without being nasty about it. During our acquaintance with him he had a fierce-looking handle-bar moustache, but he would have inspired the same awe with or without it. He had a secure religious belief, and his autobiography ends with the words:- "I know that my Redeemer liveth". I do not know how many other candidates there were for the post of Commandant of HFTC; there is no doubt in my mind that he was an inspired choice.
The training at HFTC was very different, both in style and content, from that which most of us had experienced during our earlier months in the Army. The aim here was not so much to impress us with the vastness of the Army, the immutability of its command-structure or the deference due to rank; nor was it to familiarise us with strict rules which are an essential part of life in the Services. Here we were individuals first and foremost; the unit was seen as a number of men, instead of men being seen as parts of a unit, and we were encouraged to act "off our own bats", though in conjunction with others and with a common aim. We were not allowed to forget about military discipline, of course; when ordered to do something, we did it, but the sort of trivial order which so often plagues a soldier's life was the exception rather than the rule here.
The course contained a number of ingredients familiar to very many who were trained to be Officers. We were taught to do things as a team, to lead others and to accept leadership from others. We were trained to cope with situations which needed a bit of nerve, dexterity, physical fitness and ingenuity. The Commandant had been keen to incorporate the word "fieldcraft" in the unit's name because of its importance in some of the Army's campaigns (he talked often of Wingate's "Chindits" in Burma) and because of its general contribution to self-sufficiency, and so fieldcraft was an important ingredient in our training. The ability to work out a point-of-view and to argue for it was also held to be important, and we were asked to give lectures and to take part in debates. The course was largely broken down into schemes and exercises, which added a measure of reality against which it was easier for both us and our Directing Staff to assess our responses. .One member of the Directing Staff whom I particularly remember was Captain John Downton, who was my platoon commander for much of the course; he used to go with us on these schemes accompanied by his dog "Jack" who often strayed, and who had to be recalled by loud shouts of "Jack". One needs to recall some of these schemes if one is to get the "flavour" of HFTC.
Amongst the exercises which aimed to impart nerve and physical fitness, one which I particularly remember was "fit to drop". At HFTC we were indeed "fit to drop" in the physically whacked sense, almost every day, and someone with devilish ingenuity had managed to find a name which suggested to many of us that this was just another day of that sort (which was bad enough); the reality, however, was much more alarming. "Exercise Fit to Drop" was really about dropping by parachute from aeroplanes. We had no parachutes and we had no aeroplanes, so our old friends the trucks, together with our own energy, had to do instead. Five or six of us were put into a truck, which was then driven at what seemed breakneck speed (it was probably all of ten miles an hour) along a reasonably horizontal (but very bumpy) area. We each had to start at the front end of the truck and rush as fast as we could to the back end and then jump out. Rushing was difficult, as the truck bumped up and down all the time, but we had to work up enough speed along its length to neutralise (more or less) its forward motion. We had rifles with us, and if we ran fast enough and then held our rifles in front of us to help with our balance, we did not fall over backwards when we hit the earth (or at least not very hard). It all makes sense when you think about it scientifically, but jumping off a moving truck backwards makes no sense at all when you are doing it; those who gave too much thought and too little energy to it, fell over harder than the rest when they landed. Having got as safely to earth as fitness and nerve permitted, we had to get up, turn round, chase after the truck and finally get on to it whilst it was still moving. The way to do this was to jump up and get your foot on to the back end, and then accept a helping hand from someone inside. If you missed (and those of us lacking the requisite nerve usually missed), you hit your leg painfully against the tail-board and were then hauled aboard by main force.
Abseiling was another activity that required a bit of nerve. We did this down a cliff using a rope tied to a rock at the top, and the trick was to get the rope correctly round you (we had no tackle like pulleys - just the rope itself) and then lean out over the edge of the cliff so that you were more or less horizontal; that was the worst bit, and after doing it, walking down the cliff with the rope for support was not all that alarming provided you were careful not to get twisted round sideways. I had done this sort of thing at school in the Junior Training Corps, down the three floors at the back of the school, avoiding class-room windows as I went, and I seem to recall quite enjoying it once I had got used to it; there were no class-room windows on the Coire Garbhlach which was, I think, the scene of our abseiling efforts at HFTC, and its face was less than vertical (though there were some overhanging bits which created problems), and so in the main I found the activity not too hard. I always found that I could cope fairly well with exercises like abseiling in which I could hold on to things, though I was far less sure of myself when required to balance without any hand-holds. Another exercise where you held on was the rope across the Feshie, a rope which started off from a high branch on a tree which itself grew on a high bank on one side of the river, and ended up on the other side at river level. You strung a toggle or short piece of rope over this rope-slide at the high end, and then you hung on to the toggle and launched yourself forth to slide down to the low end. I never really understood how this sort of device could ever have been useful in getting anyone from one place to another, though it helped to overcome any fear of heights. Like Tarzan's vines, you could only really go in one direction on it, and then only if you happened to find a convenient rope-slide going in your direction. One of the instructors was a captain called Minney ("Minnie from Trinidad" from the popular song of those times) and he would go down this rope without a toggle, sliding down on his belt with his arms hanging down on one side and his legs on the other; word had it that if challenged he would fall off into the river, but I never saw this happen, and suspect that the Feshie was too shallow for such an operation.
Vaulting headfirst over a gate was an operation whose purpose I could understand. In those days we were obsessed with the undesirability of getting stuck in a position in which our heads were in the air; people who were not obsessed in this way did not, we were told, last very long on active service. Going headfirst seemed unnatural, and you were liable to lose the contents of your pockets, but your feet were presented as a target instead of your head and even those, if you did it with panache, were only briefly at risk. An exercise which required balance, and which did not give you the chance to hold on to anything, was the scree-run. A scree is a slope with a lot of small stones lying on it, and the way to get down it fast is to take a run at it from the top, and rely on the stones to roll with you and help you down. The problem is that your feet acquire a will of their own. The scree wants them to do one thing, your own momentum wants them to do something else, and your brain - if it is still capable of coherent thought - probably wants them to do something quite different again. You get to the bottom surely enough, and usually fairly quickly, but to those not endowed with the knack, getting there in any predictable posture and without creating an avalanche is a great deal more difficult.
There were other exercises where the emphasis was more on ingenuity, and most of them seemed to require a team equipped with a rope to get to the other side of some obstacle. Usually the obstacle was a river, but it could also be an entirely artificial one like a chain stretched between two posts six feet off the ground, with the restrictions - understood rather than explained - that you were not to go under it or round the sides of it. These problems looked at first sight like intelligence tests, and suggested to me that there was a concealed logical solution. If you could secure a rope to something on the other side, getting someone across would be easy, or alternatively if you could get someone across, securing a rope would be easy. I had usually managed to solve such problems on paper by using logic and a bit of time, but I think that what our instructors were looking for here was the ability to seize on a fairly obvious solution - like forcing one member to get wet or be thrown over the top of the chain - and the resolution and determination to get on and do it or persuade the chosen victim to do so. Those who spent time trying to arrive at a masterpiece of ingenuity never found one and, I suspect, lost points in trying.
Much training is a mixture of the specific and the more general. One learns to do something partly because one may later be required to do something similar, and partly because learning it helps to mould a general ability to cope with wider problems by enhancing physical fitness or by sharpening the intellect or by strengthening determination or by just pointing out weaknesses. Even when the aim is to shape this general ability, it helps if the training is presented through a realistic - and therefore specific - situation. These "nerve building" exercises - common enough in the Army - were all of this type. Even if one was never likely to be required to swing about like Tarzan, to jump off a moving lorry or even to abseil, one would be left at the end better able to cope with situations where alertness, ingenuity and confidence in dealing with physical things, were needed.
But the schemes which have stuck most in my mind are those in which we ranged widely over the Cairngorms. The location of the Centre had been carefully chosen because of the influence that the mountain environment would have on us; it was these schemes that gave that environment its chance to "do its stuff". There were several of them, each with a different purpose, but the mountains gave them a great deal in common. The Cairngorms were always magnificent (though there was rarely time to savour them fully), and usually exciting; all their vistas had something fresh to offer, and each vista was held back until one passed the next crag or surmounted the next crest, and then presented in almost breathtaking splendour. We struggled up false-crest after false-crest, urged on by some compulsive aim which seemed to have been bred in us, then had a brief spell of inactivity on the top (taking care to wrap up, as the winds which blew across peaks were not good for people who were cooling down), and then started down again. This should have been easy, but most people who have done it know that going down a hill is just as hard as going up. "Zig-zag" they said when we were going up, "or you will get Achilles' tendon and won't be able to come with us on the next exercise"; such was our keenness to take part in all things, that we zig-zagged, even though doing so led us through thicker bracken and through boggier ground. The threat of Achilles' tendon apart, feet were less trouble than might have been expected. Soft ground is much easier on feet clad in hard army-boots than is a tarmac surface; you always got blisters, whatever the state of the ground, but they could be treated there and then by piercing with a needle (issued free in the "housewife" which was standard equipment), disinfected with a match flame.
One wide-ranging exercise was the one in which we were dropped "by parachute" in "enemy" territory, and had to find our way to a rendezvous. We were actually dropped from a truck (unlike the ones in Exercise "fit to drop" this one was stationary), and then required to find out where we were on the map. Our Directing Staff had been uncharacteristically kind on this occasion, and "dropped" us almost in sight of Loch Ness which, even in the absence of the Monster, is a fairly obtrusive landmark. It turned out that we were very close to one of General Wade's military roads, and that our rendezvous could be reached by using it; what would the General have thought, one wonders, if he had been able to predict how useful his works would be to another generation of soldiers some 200 years later. The word had it that earlier courses had been dressed in German uniforms for this exercise to make it more realistic. The mind boggles at the effect on local crofters, but whatever that effect was, it had put a stop to this particular form of "realism". At the end of this exercise we were fed and given cigarettes, and it was the first (though far from the last) time in my life when I found my craving for a smoke exceeded my hunger; was this what growing up was?
Then there was the exercise in which we were to rendezvous not far from Grantown-on-Spey, having "lived off the country" for a few hours; we were supposed to hitch lifts, or else, if our initiative failed us, to walk We were also supposed - or at least we assumed we were - to bivouac in some initiative-building piece of country, and emerge all fresh and full of achievement next morning. The group I was in showed far more initiative than that, and stayed at an hotel in Grantown for the night; whether anyone found out I know not, nor whether, if they had done, we would have been given full marks for initiative or no marks at all for lack of keenness.
Night-time orienteering (as it was later known) was clearly going to be an HFTC exercise. We did it, as I recall things, when there was some moonlight to help us. Getting started was never hard in that country; you identified a feature on a suitable bearing - and there were probably several that would do - and then set off towards it. The difficulty was keeping out of bogs, getting across water, negotiating crags and so on. You could not see the obstacles beforehand and, if the map did not point them out, you could not plan ahead. To keep on line for the feature you had chosen, you had to go round the obstacle, hope that the feature would still be visible afterwards, and then continue on a different course; if you needed to pick up the old course before reaching the feature, you had to exercise your wits
The longest of these wide-ranging schemes was "Exercise Ben Macdui".
This took three days, and involved us in walking/running/marching seventy miles up and down various mountains including
Ben Macdui itself (4196 feet); we carried enough kit to keep us going and to take part in mock fighting, and attacked
several sets of "enemy" on the way. I had the job of platoon-commander during one of those days, and
I recall overhearing "my" platoon-sergeant complaining that I had been a bit over bossy with him; I had
not known I had it in me, and was rather pleased to find that I had, even though it had apparently caused some
Not all our training was in the form of schemes. The Army has worked out a good mixture of types of training, and HFTC did not ignore this. There was, mercifully, little in the way of "square-bashing", but we were trained in the use of weapons, and worked with rifles, grenades and automatic weapons. There was also some boxing and unarmed combat in a hut which was always called the "blood tub"; as I remember it, its bark was worse than its bite. As far as fieldcraft in the narrower sense is concerned, we were taught by Canadian experts to chop trees down, we constructed rafts and bridges, we built bivouacs and suffered in them, and attempts were made to sharpen our observational powers. For the last-mentioned, we would be walking along fairly peacefully when an instructor would ask us what we had noticed to the right of us some little way back along the track, and whereas this was without doubt good for us, it always seemed a bit unfair that the things he expected us to recall were the things that he himself had noticed. Those of our instructors who were Scottish (which amounted to most of them) derived a lot of pleasure from telling those of us who were Sassenachs and who said that they had seen a "stream", that it was not a stream at all, but a "burn". Perhaps it would have been more useful if we had been taught the German, Italian or Japanese rather than the Scottish word, but we knew better than to suggest that. There was also a more intellectual content to training. We were required to give talks, take part in debates, and generally show our ability to think and to present and defend our views; the object was, I am sure, not to so much to test our views as to probe our alertness and our strength of character.
Getting to know people through working with them was made easier if one was in the same platoon with them. This was, of course, recognised, and we were moved from one platoon to another every couple of weeks; I believe that I was in four different platoons during the ten weeks and must, during that time, have shared one with most of the members of Number Nine Course. We took our turns as platoon-commanders and sergeants, and as section-commanders. I noted that I was platoon-commander four times, platoon-sergeant once, and section-commander three times. A temporary command of the type we were given on these schemes is both easier and harder to exercise than permanent command. You have none of the worries about the long-term effect of what you are doing, that permanent command brings. If you build up frustration or resentment in people or teach them bad ways, you will probably have returned thankfully to the ranks before it has time to affect their efficiency and through that the effectiveness of "your" unit. You will probably not have the problem of sorting it out, though you may get a reprimand from someone above you and will almost certainly earn yourself a black mark. On the other hand, you do not have any of the basic authority that goes with permanent command. Your people do not have to show the respect which they would for their real platoon-commander, and you are always aware that your positions will probably be reversed very shortly. Moreover the permanent commander's long-term influence on careers which so concentrates the mind is not enjoyed by those whose authority lapses after a few hours. The temporary commander needs to draw heavily on whatever natural resources of personality he possesses to back up the formal authority that has been vested in him, and that was, without a doubt, what our Directing Staff were looking for.
Looking back on the ten weeks of training at HFTC, it is quite hard to remember things in sequence. Every day was different from every other day, but I can recall no obvious logic governing which scheme followed which other scheme, and there was no movement from one part of the country to another which in some cases provides a way of recalling what happened and when. Some of the large schemes came towards the end, and it is probably true that the course became harder as the weeks went by. One marker was "D Day" which, on 6th June, was about half-way through our time at the Centre; it must be imprinted on the memory of anyone who had reached the age of awareness in those times, and most will recall what they were doing; we were, of course, on a scheme. Another day which I recall was the arrival of Number Ten Course, which moved into Number Two Company on 12th June. It always gives some satisfaction to see people who are to be put through the hoop one has oneself already negotiated, but this intake had the added interest to me that it contained two more ex Bournemouth-School boys - Tyler and Beaman. Harrington was a member of the course I was on, and I had come across Sandham at Oxford. These four - all met during training - were the only colleagues from School that I met in the Army.
Most of our ten weeks were taken up with training, but the Commandant's view was that, during non-training time, candidates should be given a great deal more freedom than we had got used to in the Army. That said, the bulk of our non-duty hours were inevitably spent in exactly the same environment, and with exactly the same colleagues, as was our duty time; we were hardly well-placed for painting towns red. Days off consisted mainly of a late "lie-in" followed by a visit in a truck to Kingussie which, whilst little more than a village, did contain some signs of female life and of people not dressed in khaki. Like most places in those days, it sported a WVS (Women's Voluntary Service) canteen, and here one could sit eating Spam sandwiches and drinking tea at 1d (old penny) a cup. Occasionally we "lived it up" and stayed the night in the Star Hotel, and this, with flush-lavatories, sheets on the beds and table-cloths on the tables, seemed luxury indeed. We had little enough to spend our pay (three shillings a day and no income tax) on in Glenfeshie, as rations, accommodation and clothes were supplied by the Army, and films were shown free; we were thus able to save up for these little "sprees" at Kingussie. Once, during our final week at Glenfeshie, a friend called Richardson (we used surnames more readily at that time than we do now, and I cannot even remember his forename) and I had tea with two ladies from the WVS canteen in Kingussie, at one of their houses; I think they were a bit older than our nineteen years, and entertainment consisted of tea and polite conversation. I recall no opportunity to give way to hot, sultry emotions in Kingussie. I also used to visit Kingussie and walk the hills occasionally with one Sam Williams, but I lost contact with both him and Richardson at the end of the course.
Most entertainment came, however, through the cinema. We had free shows in the camp, and there was also a cinema in Kingussie. I was fairly catholic in taste on films, and was equally happy with a Western, a musical, a gangster film or a comedy. I think that during our early days in the Army many young soldiers' views of the opposite sex was limited largely to Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Betty Grable in two dimensions and in black and white; real girls, substantial and colourful, began to come as a surprise, and I sometimes wonder whether, if the war had gone on much longer, natural selection would have started to favour flat, colourless people. We had a live ENSA show once in camp, but we were a small unit, and no "stars" were there, of either sex; all I can remember of it is that there was a man with a big nose who used it to play the piano; he could, of course, play only one note at a time, and his repertoire was thus limited to works like Chopsticks. Rather more fun was the Company Concert put on by the candidates. People "took off" the Commandant and his devotion to the Chindits; the other Directing Staff were also natural targets for wit, as was the man with the piano and the big nose.
You don't, of course, have to go somewhere or become part of an audience to enjoy yourself. For those of us who could manage to stay awake whilst in a recumbent posture, reading was a great relaxation. I got through a great many books whilst in the Army, and my time at Glenfeshie was no exception; many of them were borrowed from libraries, but many more were Penguins and Pelicans bought for 6d. The availability of this cheap, good-quality reading material at that time did as much good to the morale of many of us as did the more-publicised "Jane", the cartoon girl in the Daily Mirror, and many is the paper-back, fiction and non-fiction, which met its dilapidated end in the depths of my kit-bag (having been duly read, of course).
Strolling on the hills should have seemed like a busman's holiday at that time, but strolling was so much more civilised than our normal gait, and it was good to be able to chat to a friend and savour the magnificence of the environment without having to put up with someone stridently urging you to yet greater feats of endurance (often larding his words with the heavy sarcasm which the older generations seem to believe is acceptable for the young). I recall going up "2626" for the first time in these circumstances; I do not think that familiar peak was seen as enough of a challenge to be given much attention by our Directing Staff.
In our position the progress of the war was of vital interest, and it moved on very significantly during our ten weeks in Glenfeshie. "D Day" was just about half-way through the course, and Rome fell and King Victor Emmanuel abdicated on the same day. By the end of the course, on 17th July, the Normandy bridgehead was firmly established and the fighting around Caen was at its height; it was, however, to be another two weeks before the break-out at the Western end of the front. The Soviets were by this time within fifty miles of East Prussia, and the war in the West began to look as though it might not last for many months more. All this made our exercises seem a bit unrealistic. We were to be the next influx of soldiers into the war, but somewhere, far from Glenfeshie, real soldiers were already winning it; would there in fact be a "next influx", at least as far as the European war was concerned? The results of the Final Selection Board might govern this. Those who passed would have to undergo several months more training before becoming officers, and could well miss the war in Europe altogether. The war in the Far East seemed likely to go on somewhat longer, but I at least had always identified my training with that in Europe (despite the Commandant's keenness on the Chindits), and half of me had a feeling that something would have slipped from my grasp if it ended before I was ready; even non-heroes had to have that feeling somewhere in them if they were not to suffer the frustration that goes with lack of purpose.
WOSB Number Two (8th to 14th July 1944)
The culmination of our time at HFTC was to be a War Office Selection Board (WOSB). I was at one with all the others in having gone through one before coming to the Centre (my first had been at Catterick), and this second one would no doubt be somewhat similar, except that this time the Board members would come to us, and we would be tested on "home ground". Another familiar aspect would derive from the fact that the "stuff" of boards of this type was very similar to what we had been doing for the last ten weeks, and the function of the members was not vastly different from that of our Directing Staff who had, we knew, always been assessing us. This WOSB started on 8th July and went on, with a few breaks, until 14th July. I was on only two charges in the Army, and the first one of these was just before the WOSB started. I had lost an Emergency Ration (a tin of chocolate of high nutritional value which, I later discovered from a similar one, was so nasty that no-one would have eaten it unless they had to), and appeared before the Commandant on the very day the WOSB started. I lost two days' pay which was, I suppose, fair. It was a genuine loss, but one had to live with one's mistakes, and losing an Emergency Ration in some circumstances could have had far more dire consequences than loss of pay. But it seemed a bad omen for it to happen just then. I recall little about the WOSB as such, possibly because of its similarity to normal training, but it had a lot in common with the one I had experienced at Catterick. I got another "Not Yet" which meant that I would be sent back to my unit (some part of The Royal Corps of Signals) for a few months and then be looked at again. In the meantime I would, for the first time in my life, have to embark on something which was neither education nor training, though whether it would be fighting, office-work or some other activity, was not yet clear. I believe that more than half the candidates passed, and only a small proportion (round about one eighth) of the rest were given this "Not Yet" category.
A Backward Look
With the WOSB results came the end of our short spell at HFTC. It had been a unique time, and one which perhaps moulded us more effectively than any comparable period before or after. It had had its ups and downs, and for many it must be remembered as a mixture of opposites. We were completely physically "whacked" every working day, but were allowed civilised recreation on days off; we had to undergo all the discomfort of the bivouac, but our huts were (for the Army) reasonably comfortable; we were forced on when our bodies did not want to go, but the sort of reasonless discipline associated with the Army was lacking; our lives were challenging, but it was challenge which we knew was helping to mature us It was an exciting and a purposeful time when the "downs" at least seemed to have a meaning and a reason. HFTC sought to train young leaders for the Army; it aimed not so much to concentrate on those ingredients of leadership which were appropriate for any particular type of leader, but rather to develop the general qualities which are at the heart of any sort of leadership and, indeed, any sort of teamwork. It tried to teach people to have confidence in their relationships with colleagues, and to respect those colleagues. It ranged widely in its approach to this, and relied on candidates' own ability to select from all they were taught, and to identify and then build those qualities which they lacked and which they would later need. Lord Rowallan, in his memoirs, says that "scouting technique was the base I built on" at HFTC, and I think that it was this which gave our training there its feeling of having being devised to benefit us as individuals just as much as to turn us into good soldiers.
For my own part, I believe that, compared to many, I lacked confidence in my own judgement and in my ability to get people to do what I wanted them to do. I suffered from a belief - not uncommon amongst young scientists - that there is an ideal solution to most problems, and suspected that those in authority knew what it was and that the confidence shown by many of my peers was founded on their shrewd knowledge of what it was. I wondered whether I would show myself up as poorer at looking for this sort of solution than most. I learnt a lot at HFTC about the fact that ideal solutions to human problems rarely exist, and that successful leaders are those who can discern an effective solution and then go on to argue its case and follow it through with energy; it is so often that which makes their strategy more effective than others. There is a confidence that comes with this knowledge, and it feeds on itself. For me at least, HFTC provided a push forward on to this progression. I found that being given command automatically gave your solution some kudos which others did not have; that the man who had been the temporary leader the day before, and whose solutions had then seemed more acceptable than your own, now took a back seat and followed your strategy. At a very mundane level, I recall struggling up mountains behind a leader who was going far too fast for me and then, when our roles were reversed, being amazed that this same man complained because I was going too fast.
There are other ingredients of leadership which were not probed and developed to the same degree at HFTC. There was little about the long-term aspects of staff management and people's sustained ability to support the careers and problems of those below them in the long-term, and there was not a lot of probing of people's ability and readiness to think their way to the roots of a complex problem; many men of action do in fact find this hard, particularly when they do not have the spur of being able to follow things through afterwards. There was also little about the Army "per se" and its organisational problems, and there was none of that concentration on rank which is so often a part of Army training. We were not taught much about "hating the enemy" either. Many of the qualities which were developed there, however, were ones which would stand anyone in good stead in any leadership role and, indeed, in any team-work; these were the basic ones on which others, more specific to particular roles, could no doubt be built later.
The Selection Board reflected a similar balance, and I suspect that this balance was correct as far as those of us who were not immediately successful were concerned; we had not yet, in the Board's view, adequately developed enough of those qualities which were "sine qua non" for any leader in the Army, and which were particularly important for junior leaders. I have often wondered, however, how well these Selection Boards were able to see the whole picture in the case of many of those whom they passed, and whether in some cases at least, they did enough probing of the deeper qualities needed by more senior staff and those who were later to have responsibility for the Army's organisational problems. The truth is probably that it did not really matter, as by far the bulk of people who were successful at that time were war-time soldiers only, and there would be a wide enough variety of roles for them all to fill during their short and turbulent time in the Army. I hasten to add that these thoughts are not based on a knowledge of the later careers of any of those with whom I trained at Oxford or HFTC and who were successful in gaining a commission, for I did not come across any of them ever again during my time in the Army.
Most of the ingredients of the course at HFTC must be familiar to many others who have trained in the Army and elsewhere, but something more is needed to give an organisation its own personality. HFTC, perhaps more than any other organisation I have known, had a personality of its own, and it is this which has inspired so much loyalty in its ex-members. This personality stemmed partly from the particular blend of activities and partly from the style of the organisation, and both of these were centred on the Commandant. His warmth and interest in people, coupled with a firmness and a conviction that the young in particular could only properly develop if they gave of their best, infused every aspect of life at HFTC. The Centre was at the time unique, and it pioneered a style of training which has outlasted it. As Lord Rowallan himself has said, it was a novel concept and it was, when he wrote his memoirs more than thirty years later, still attracting attention. After another twenty-odd years a Rowallan Company at Sandhurst continues to form a part of the training of some Army officers, and that in itself attests to the long-term value of what was started then. For many of us another face of the Centre's personality was the Cairngorm mountains, which so dominated all our activities. Their many and varied "moods" - the treachery of their bogs and screes, the sparkling clarity of their burns (so alluring to the hot and thirsty), the cold gauntness of their peaks and the warmth of their glens, the enticement of their crests and the thrill of reaching the top - all these were vital parts of our training. We were a small unit and the smothering, all-embracing nature of the Army in the large was never allowed to dominate our awareness that we were a part of our natural environment, and should respect and learn to handle it. In its own way the sheer size of this environment and the isolation of the Centre bound us together in a manner that few other places could have matched in so short a time. Perhaps that is what fieldcraft is really all about. In recording his wish to place HFTC in its two Highland sites (Glenfeshie and Poolewe), Lord Rowallan quotes the psalmist:- "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills". He had seen their almost mystical significance from the start, and no-one could have made better use of it.
And yet, after the end of my time at Glenfeshie, I lost almost all contact with colleagues from those days, and spared little thought to my time there. The unit undoubtedly had an effect on my development which was out of proportion to the amount of time I spent there, and those days have more recently come back to "haunt" my memory, but there was a long period when they seemed lost to me. I suppose part of the reason lies in the hurly-burly of the time. My spell in the Army still had several eventful years to run, and the war itself was to go on for about another year. Everyone was kept very busy and emotionally involved, and in the end it was with colleagues from later parts of my Army career that I stayed in touch after demob. Another part of the reason lay in the fact that I did not go forward to OCTU as did about two thirds of the candidates; many of them shared later training and Army service, but the rest of us got dispersed and were soon immersed in whatever was in store for us. For people like me, meeting another member of one's own course must have been a rare occurrence and, apart from a couple of colleagues that I came across briefly just after leaving the Centre, I myself met no-one from those days; and we were less inclined to keep up contacts by correspondence than at other times in our lives. It was to be another forty years before I began to meet ex-HFTC-ites again, through membership of the HFTC Association.
Number Nine Course left HFTC on Monday 17th July 1944, the day before Lord Rowallan's son John was killed in action in North-West Europe; I wonder how his death affected the later courses. Lord Rowallan himself retired as Commandant at the end of August, and the Centre closed with the departure of Number Twelve Course in the middle of November. More than half a century later it is still recalled at least twice yearly with gratitude and affection by members of the Association. Amongst the more tangible memorials to it are Lord Rowallan's biography, the "Rowallan" Company at Sandhurst, a memorial to Lord Rowallan in the Wildlife Park close to Kincraig, the memorial plaque on the cairn in Glenfeshie and another in the church at Poolewe, and more recently (1997) a tree in the National Memorial Arboretum near to Lichfield; the plaques and trees commemorate specifically the forty HFTC candidates who died during their Service Surprisingly, public records about it seem very sparse indeed, the Public Record Office's files on Glenfeshie starting with an entry about 1947. Even in the glen, many of our landmarks have gone. The road-bridge across the Feshie is now only a few fragments of wood, and the river which it crossed has altered its course and left no more than a puddle to show its earlier path. Number One Company's camp is almost lost in a more recent plantation, and for some time eluded attempts to locate it. Even our own mountain, "two six two six", has changed; decimalisation has robbed it of its poetic lilt, and it now appears on maps with the more prosaic title:- "eight hundred".
Brian R Taylor