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On this page: Officer Training at RAF Henlow, Training Exercises, Commissioning.
Officer Training: RAF Henlow (OCTU)
When I left Peter Symonds, I didn't really think I'd covered myself in glory and I felt that I needed to start to put things together again, but I wasn't at all sure what I wanted to do next. There were a lot of things out there in the big wide world that quite appealed to me. I needed to be seen to be responsible, acceptable and able to make something of my life.
All the time I knew that what I really wanted to do was to join the RAF to be a fighter pilot; I didn't really want to go to university. I needed the challenge and the discipline and I really wanted to fly jet fighters. Actually, it wasn't really a decision, more an acceptance of inevitability. Even so, consenting to fate's great plan was a significant turning point. Having a goal, my attitude became more positive. As the acceptance of this path took hold, I could see a bright future. I found a new sense of purpose and self-esteem. I called the RAF and told them I was ready to join up just as soon as they wanted me.
'But we've accepted you as a university graduate; you're asking to come in as a direct entrant.'
I conceded that this was so.
'You'll have to apply again...'
I assumed this to be a formality.
'...and you'll have to go through the whole selection process again.'
I really should have learned something about Air Force bureaucracy from that, but I guess my healthy cynicism didn't really develop until I was slightly older. So I went ahead and jumped through the hoops again. Actually, it was getting to be a breeze by now. This was, after all, the third time I'd attended this selection centre and I'd been accepted the previous two. Despite any temptation to be over-confident I kept my act up and succeeded in getting myself selected for pilot training again. Looking back, this was quite a brave move. I can't imagine ever advising someone already accepted by the RAF to turn them down and then re-apply.
As a matter of fact, and not a lot of people know this, I am actually a failed navigator. Well, not quite, let me explain. The first time I went to Biggin Hill for selection, I had applied purely to be a pilot. During the course of the interviews, they asked me what my other choices were. I explained that I had no other choices and that I wanted to be a pilot. They insisted that I was required to put down three choices and asked what else I wanted to be. It was, after all, their train set we were playing with, so I agreed to make two additional choices, adding navigator and air traffic controller to my application form. Some weeks later I received a matter-of-fact letter from them informing me that, although I must be very disappointed, they were not able to accept me for navigator training. Oh, I was gutted!
The important thing was that they did accept me for pilot training, again. There would, however, be no place for me on an officer training course until the next February (1977). So, I'd take the opportunity to see some more of life and earn myself some cash. I felt sure that a prospective officer with O and A levels could find some suitable employment. I got a highly prestigious job as a toilet cleaner working for Lucas Aerospace in Hemel Hempstead. Well, it was the highest paying job that was available right away. In fact, it was the highest paying job that didn't require a commitment to make it a career! Strangely enough, the mental challenge of this high office didn't endure as long as I'd anticipated, so I went to sell motorbikes instead in St Albans, an altogether more enjoyable enterprise.
Things started to take off again. Before long I had my first motorbike, a great little Honda CB200. I had a job, albeit just something to bring in some cash. Most importantly I had a career to look forward to. I could never help remembering, however, how I had allowed events overtake me while I'd been at school and I really didn't want that to happen again. I wanted to do well and be good at something that I considered very important and worthwhile.
Self Loading Rifle (SLR)
13th February 1977 - Dad helped me move to The Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU), RAF Henlow. The next day I would begin Officer training on 412 Officer Training Course. He was delighted. Proud that his son was about to march into his father's footsteps and as relieved as I that he could put the uncertain months behind him. The Royal Air Force ran two Officer Training Schools then: the RAF College at Cranwell and OCTU at RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire. It was an old station with an indeterminate air about it. Even on a peaceful Sunday evening it felt uneasy. Perhaps I'd find out why tomorrow.
Officer Cadet Paul Courtnage: my flight at the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU), RAF Henlow, 1977. I'm second from right, front row.
Accommodation at OCTU was a stark barrack block with over-polished linoleum floors and clinical, communal ablutions. It had twelve-man rooms and smelt of floor polish, disinfectant and bullshit. I went through the ritual that would eventually become routine of meeting and categorizing my fellow course members. All had new haircuts – many of which I guessed would totally fail to meet the required standard - and were noticeably guarded. Everybody knew that we were to be assessed in all aspects of our lives and nobody wanted to give anything away. In some the feeling almost amounted to paranoia, but even paranoids have real enemies. In most of us it was a self-preservation thing - don't give 'them' a chance to find anything wrong. We weren't sure what the failure or 'chop' rate was like on this course, but we were all intent on stacking the odds as firmly as possible in our favour.
All the assembled company had been selected by the Royal Air Force, but I had to make my own selections. It's important enough to know who's who in normal communal living, but on a course like this when the pressure's on, it becomes vital. You have to know whom to trust and whom you can count on. Of course, most of the rubric of dormitory life was all too familiar to me, which gave me a slight edge. So I got on with setting up home, no time to stand on too much ceremony, let's get on with whatever it was we came here for.
The OCTU course content was pretty much as I'd expected. Classroom sessions on how the Air Force works, its own brand of communications (service writing), ranks, Air Force Law, organization and leadership. The leadership aspect was also taken out of doors where, as well as physical training and drill, we underwent a series of field exercises of increasing difficulty, which were designed to teach, enhance and test our leadership abilities. The teaching of the time was known as the 'functional approach to leadership analysis', abbreviated to FALA. Broadly, this involved breaking down each exercise into three areas of interest to the leader: the overall goal, the needs of the team and the needs of the individual – listed here in order of decreasing importance to the Service. That may seem a slightly cynical view, but it has proved to be the case on many occasions. And anyway, a cynic is only what a perfectionist calls a realist.
I digress again. We did some marching up and down, we went to classes, we learnt to be officers and gentlemen or ladies and we did some more marching up and down. Shooting was good fun, but there wasn't very much of that (shooting or fun, come to think of it). We had to do a fair amount of public speaking where I was told that I was lucky enough to have a 'neutral' voice. That meant that I wasn't 'blessed' with a strong regional accent. They went on to explain to us all that there was nothing wrong with owning an accent but.... Furthermore, as some will attest, part of me is not at all shy so I could perform well on this particular treadmill. There is a fair bit of theatre in me.
Sixteen weeks at RAF Henlow seemed interminable. The end of OCTU was a far away light that would take forever to reach. Who knew which of us would even get there? Every cadet wondered if he was doing all right. Everybody was careful to conduct themselves in what they believed to be the required fashion. Occasionally the pressure would reach somebody and a chink in their armour would cause a flurry of silent interest from the staff and bated breath from the other cadets. Rarely was anything said about it. Each believed that keeping one's nose clean and toeing the line was the route to success. Above all, total acceptance of the authority of OCTU and the Royal Air Force was deemed the golden rule. I had learnt that authority does not like to be challenged.
There were two training camps in the OCTU programme. The first was just before the mid-course break. By week eight we were fit and keen. We went to the Stanford Practical Training Area in Norfolk. Living in well used, iron-framed bunks housed in shabby old tin huts was not in itself a hardship, but it did mirror the rather desolate atmosphere surrounding the whole event. Essentially, this first camp was a continuation of the series of leadership exercises that we had been undertaking already. Each exercise lasted half a day and everybody in each group got the chance to lead his or her team through a task, seemingly designed to baffle. The leader would be briefed on the exercise objectives, the equipment available and any ingenious rules devised to make the task more difficult and, thereby, the leader's life more miserable. He would then lead the rest of his group through the exercise. Simple, eh? Well, at first glance, not too difficult, but that would be reckoning without the 'interesting' rules. Here's a hypothetical, but thoroughly representative example:
'Your team is in enemy territory. You have to go to grid reference TL866914 where you will find a container of a newly formulated, top-secret rocket fuel. You must collect it and deliver it to partisans at grid reference TF849068. The rocket fuel is highly volatile and is poisonous to anyone who comes within two feet of the container. Due to the threat of enemy action, you may not travel on roads or any other lines of communication. You must reach the destination by 1600Z. Do not approach the RV until signalled by the partisans and do not seal the container, as this is likely to cause it to explode.'
That doesn't seem too bad, does it? A pretty standard OCTU exercise scenario. Well, let's watch Officer Cadet Albert Bloggs as he tries to lead his team convincingly through this little exercise. Please remember that Bloggs is 18 years old, suffering from terminal acne and acute tiredness and has a further, as yet unidentified, medical condition, which he doesn't know about. He reads his instructions carefully and turns to address his team. The staff in attendance stand with pens and clipboards poised to record every nuance that may betray a serious character defect in our unfortunate candidate.
'OK, team, on me!' A commanding start. The OCTU staff scribble - an activity undertaken with varying degrees of relish depending upon the ghastliness of the action to be noted down. Their movement catches Bloggs' attention and he feels his verve begin to sway.
'We've got to get some rocket fuel to the artisans by 1600.' Laughter from the team, a sadistic smirk and more scribbling from the staff.
'Right, er, Jones, er, plot these two grid references on the map.' Jones, dressed in his oversized camouflaged combat kit (it doesn't come in a size for five foot eighters like Jones or I), steps forward, receives the two references and retires to ponder over the map.
'While he does that I'll carry on briefing the rest of you.' He pauses nervously, awaiting some sign of approval from the staff. They wait. He awaits some sign of approval from the team. It is very quiet. Bloggs already screwed up one of his training exercises last week and he's beginning to wonder if he is a natural leader of men. The staff have been wondering this for five or six weeks. With great fortitude he collects his thoughts.
'Right, er, this is a new, secret rocket fuel, which is in enemy territory and we've got to take it to friendly, er...'
'Artists?' offers Smith helpfully.
'Partisans!' he snaps, cursing his earlier slip and Smith for highlighting it. 'We can't use roads in case we get seen by the enemy and we can't get within two feet of this stuff, it's, er, poisonous.' He thinks for a minute. He feels he's covered all the points and is keen to get going. Once the exercise is under way he'll soon get in his stride and he can bury his earlier failures beneath a sparkling success.
'Any questions?' he asks with a due feeling of awe and apprehension.
'Er, how do we carry it if we can't get within two feet of it?'
Yes, there it was. The turd in the drinking fountain. There was always bloody something. Think fast. Don't ask the team for help or the staff will think you can't work it out for yourself. Got it! Brilliant!
'I want a volunteer to carry it.'
'But he'll be poisoned'
'Well, have you got any better ideas?'
'Why not hang it from a pine pole (a telegraph pole) with one person at each end carrying it? That will keep everyone 2...'
Bugger! 'Thank you', you bastard 'that's a good idea. Right, Jones, have you plotted the positions?'
'Right, er, Team, here's the fuel, here's the partisans.'
'Where are we?' asks a naturally inquisitive team member.
'Er, here.' Jones indicates on the map with a non-committal digit. Was Jones a sound choice to do the map reading? Well, he'd joined to be a navigator so he must have some flair for it; a rash and somewhat precipitous assumption.
'OK, let's go'. The staff scribble, the group shambles off and Bloggs feels bloody awful. He forgets to organise his team into any form of tactical formation and the only direction comes from Jones who occasionally pauses to consult the map. Interestingly, he does look rather uncertain and by lunchtime, Bloggs realizes that they've been this way before. He has a quiet word with Jones.
'You git, Jones. Where the hell are we?'
'Well, we looped back round that wood there. I had the compass too close to my rifle and we kind of went in a circle.'
'How far to the fuel?'
Later they find the container of fuel. Strangely enough, it doesn't look like a container of top-secret rocket fuel, more like an old baked beans can (catering size) with a wire handle (just big enough to fit a pine pole, which happens to be lying beside the can) and filled to the brim with blue liquid toilet disinfectant. Interesting how deceptive appearances can be. Determined to reassert his flagging authority, he snatches the map from Jones.
'You two get the pine pole, Jones take care of the fuel.'
Jones picks up the receptacle and, realising that it is full to the brim and likely to spill, helpfully slams the lid, which he finds beside it, into place. The staff scribble. The team look aghast, Bloggs hasn't noticed yet.
'That's poison', says Smith.
'It's fuel', Jones comments.
'What the hell are you doing? Didn't you hear me say it was poisonous?'
'That was Smith'
'Not just then, before, when we were briefing'. Bloggs is visibly rattled. Jones is visibly affronted. Bloggs feels this exercise is going where the simulated rocket fuel was really designed to go. He realizes that he had, in fact, briefed his team on the toxicity of the propellant while Jones was busy discharging some other duty.
'I was plotting, er, on the map.' Jones remarks sheepishly.
'Shit, well, as you're there, hook it on the pine pole and wash your hands when we get to the next river.'
The next river is quite a substantial one; at least 30 feet wide. Fortunately there is an assortment of pine poles, rope and tackle next to it. It makes sense of yesterday's exercise, which included the delivery of a quantity of timber, rope and pulleys to a remote riverside location. Bloggs, suddenly aware that he had paid little attention to the needs of the individuals, thoughtfully allows his team to refill their water bottles and take a token rest. Noticing that the team are watering themselves downstream of Jones who is dutifully washing the poisonous contamination from his hands, the OCTU staff reward themselves with an extra enthusiastic little bout of scribbling.
Air Chief Marshal
Bloggs calls on Carruthers to organise the construction of a means of crossing the river. He's got an engineering degree. Bloggs wanted to post guards, but unfortunately that left nobody to construct the 'Carruthers patent river crossing device'. He insists that the design must involve as much of the equipment as possible, whether it's needed or not. Realising, wrongly, that whole point of the exercise is to build a bridge, Bloggs determines to build one to get him noticed. The RAF's very own Brummel or Brunei or whatever his name was; Bloggs isn't much of a historian either. The construction goes quite well and Bloggs attempts to divert some of the credit his way. The staff scribble. Actually, it goes well right up to the point when Jones sets off across the river in a breeches buoy. He is to receive the fuel container at the opposite bank. Unfortunately, Smith's knots and lashings are not up to the same flamboyant standard as Carruthers' engineering. Bloggs is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by remarking that as the river only comes up to Jones' knees, he might as well wade across the rest of the way while the container is carefully cajoled into the redesigned harness with long sticks.
To cut a long story short, well, fairly short anyway, the rest of the crossing is relatively uneventful. At least, compared to the ensuing enemy attack. Not actually an attack. In fact not actually an enemy. It was an easy mistake to make, one which Bloggs is sure could happen to any great military leader, and the discharge of 30 rounds of, fortunately, blank ammunition soon deters the encroaching flock of marauding and somewhat startled sheep. Our intrepid leader now feels slightly silly. He decides it's time for a bit of a pep talk as he gets the feeling that his team's effort has lost some of its initial smack and his leadership may not be commanding the respect as it surely deserves.
'OK, er, team. We've got 6 clicks to cover in just under an hour so we'll have to get moving. You two carry the pole first and we'll swap over every 15 minutes.' The staff recognise a new awesomeness emerging from this otherwise mild mannered man. They give a short but approving scribble, which Bloggs misinterprets as another nail in his career's coffin and adds, 'is that all right?' and then regrets it.
They make good time and he is pleased to arrive with 5 minutes to spare. The team are not impressed that they have virtually sprinted the last half mile (with equipment, pine poles, rocket fuel etc.) and are, frankly, knackered. The staff aren't too pleased either, but that actually brings a secret frisson of pleasure to all the students. Bloggs, in a masterpiece of leadership, congratulates his team on their effort and reports his unqualified success to the staff who have nearly finished scribbling and panting. They say nothing, but stare menacingly at the crumpled piece of paper in Bloggs' left hand. Bloggs looks desperately at his instructions. In horror he reads the last lines:
'You must reach the destination by 1600Z. Do not approach the RV until signalled by the partisans and do not seal the container, as this is likely to cause it to explode.'
Poor Bloggs. It's all too late. For the first time that day, the staff throw him a rope (metaphorically) and put him out of his misery. Actually, it's not so much a rope as a noose.
'OK, I think that's enough of that. Let's see if we can pick the bones out of Bloggs' effort and see if there are any learning points. Jones, what time is it?'
'4 PM, er, 1600, sir'
'And what's that in Zulu, Bloggs?'
'Ah, shit! It's 1500, sir.'
'So we ran the last mile just to make sure we were an hour early, did we?'
Bloggs looks miserable. The team are furious but, knowing that things have not gone, shall we say, perfectly for Bloggs, feel rather sorry for him. Polite coughing, uneasy shuffling of feet, staring at the ground, etc. Well, the rest of the debrief doesn't get much better. The staff don't make a big deal of the fact that his less than thorough oral communication has resulted in the untimely death of Jones and everybody who has drunk the water that he contaminated. Of course, had they survived the poisoning, the explosion that should have resulted from the act of sealing the tin, despite the safety warning on the label, would have taken care of any future plans anybody in a 500 metre radius may have been harbouring. They barely mention the slaughter of 30 innocent sheep and make little of the possibilities for fratricide, which opening fire on an unidentified target could present.
They positively congratulate him on his bridge but are still perplexed as to why he wanted to spend 3 hours building it when 30 minutes work and 4 pine poles would have sufficed. His decision to ignore the existing bridge thoughtfully constructed a mere 10 years earlier by the Forestry Commission, an equally mere 10 yards west of his more recent, but less durable, effort was something of a mystery. Bloggs has them on the ropes here and counters with a decisive parry. He gleefully points out that the use of lines of communication was prohibited by the instructions. They explain that, in tactical terms there is little difference between a 'line of communication' that is already there and one of his own devising a measly 30 feet further east. Apart of course that the older version is unlikely to have dumped poor Jones unceremoniously in the freezing cold river. Also the enemy would not have caught him building the other one. Again, they let him off a bit by revealing that, had he attempted to cross the existing span, he would have found it to be mined. He wishes that he hadn't then remarked that he had expected as much.
A few more minor points and it is time to retire to the base camp. Bloggs hasn't enjoyed the day. His confidence is in tatters and his self-esteem at something of a low ebb. He probably feels too wretched to learn much from the day, but tomorrow he will watch and learn from the attempts of the next poor incumbent. In the meantime, Bloggs is tempted to believe that he may be suffering from an under-productive leadership gland - and he'd be right. He's probably an air chief marshal by now.
There was a second, 'tactical' camp near the end of the OCTU course - the dreaded '6 day camp'. Actually, despite its fearsome reputation for hardship, I found it more enjoyable than the first camp. Sure it was tiring, but at least we didn't carry toilet cleaner around on sticks. While we had attended the first camp grouped in our normal flights, we were organized into new teams for the second. This was a far more tactical exercise, a culmination of a lot of what we had been taught during our time at RAF Henlow. By the end of it we had been thoroughly tested and the RAF Henlow OCTU staff had had the chance to measure our individual worth. All part of the selection process.
Black Wednesday was horrible, worse for some than others. It was the day when each student was called into his Flight Commander's office and told his results. Basically it was a very short debrief concluding with the news that one had passed and would be graduating the following week, or that one was to be re-coursed, which entailed an 8 week set back, or that one had failed and would not be required by the RAF any longer. Success, another chance or failure. By that stage of the proceedings, most had a pretty good idea of their performance. Sixteen weeks was long enough to break the code for most of us.
For those of us who completed 312 IOT Course at OCTU, our graduation ceremony was on 2nd June 1977. The graduation parade was a proud event. Upright young men and women graduating and delighted mums and dads spectating. Officers at last! The final treat was the Officers' Mess Summer Ball, an all night extravaganza culminating in a champagne breakfast and the most awful hangover. Now I was cooking with gas! I had taken my first step into the Royal Air Force.
There I was. Officer training complete, shiny shoes and Pilot Officer stripes on my sleeves. Next step, pilot training. And so, urged on by this recent success, I embarked upon another new challenge.
My commissioning parade at OCTU, RAF Henlow, June 1977. Acting Pilot Officer Paul Courtnage is the smart one on the left.
'I, Paul Jeremy Courtnage, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, and of the air officers and officers set over me. So help me God.'
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