Today started much as any other on “Selection,” with reveille at 0400 hours; the dormitory awoke to the pungent smell of urine leaked from twenty plastic two litre coca cola bottles, filled by twenty men too physically destroyed to make the metre fifty journey to the outside ablutions. Nothing smells worse than the urine of a dehydrated man and the wood panel walls of the World War II billet only seemed to absorb and hold the smell even more. Still caught in a the haze of a halfway state between consciousness and sleep I felt my way into my combat fatigues, stepped into my flip flops, grabbed my wash bag and walked outside into the coal black and freezing January night. The blast of cold air on my naked torso had my teeth chattering by the time I had reached the washrooms. Incredulous, I stared into the mirror wondering what I was doing here and if any of what was happening was real at all. I ran the hot water and coughed up into the sink, spitting out a filthy mixture of brown dehydrated phlegm and blood. The man shaving in the sink next to me stared into the bowl and remarked ‘’That doesn’t look good.’’
Back in the billet I dressed and double checked my Bergen still hit 55 pounds and then added two one litre water bottles. I waited for my friend from “L Detachment” and we walked together in silence to the cookhouse. Army food is starch heavy and very greasy. Forcing oneself to eat at such a godforsaken hour with no appetite is a battle, especially when you are dehydrated and the very smell of it makes you want to be sick. I piled my plate in monstrous portions, took it to my table and then returned to the back of the line for seconds. Consuming as many calories as possible is essential, without them you will fail the day’s march, you won’t even make it around. To not eat at all would leave you a frozen corpse somewhere on the barren slopes of the Beacons. After the first few mouthfuls the appetite usually returned and I was eventually able to wipe my plate clean. I then used the contents of the second plate to make a triple-decker sausage, bacon and egg sandwich, which I wrapped in cling film and placed in my trouser map pocket. Forcing yourself to prepare food for later in the day when you are already had your fill takes discipline. I’d only noticed one or two others out of a cadre of 200 soldiers doing the same. These backup sandwiches had already been my salvation on several vigorous test marches; I wasn’t about to chance not going to the trouble as the days got progressively harder.
After collecting weapons from the armoury I stood in rank behind my Bergen on the camp parade ground, shivering and staring into the night that still showed no sign of emerging light. Then the ominous voice of the Chief Instructor sounded out, whose first duty was to call out the names of those who had pulled a yellow card on the previous day’s test march. There’s something unnerving about a voice coming out of darkness, awaiting the sound of your own name without seeing the face of the man who could end your dreams and lifetime’s ambition in a single utterance. Two yellow cards and you would be returned to unit.
What followed was the worst part of any day on the “Selection,” the journey to the mountains. Ten four tonne lorries’ with canvas panels and an open rear end transported the remaining 150 volunteers from Sennybridge camp to the Brecon Beacons. It was still pitch black and freezing. The wind attacked the canvas walls and made a horrendous sound, as cold air gushed in through the gaps and froze us to the marrow. I, like many others, pulled out my roll mat and sleeping bag, but to get too warm and comfortable was a dangerous game. On other days I had preferred to stay cold and keep my senses sharp for the impending doom. The journey typically lasted ninety minutes, depending on the march start point or which range of mountains we were to be on. We never knew as the order was to carry all four issued maps at all times. That was the worst thing about it all, the uncertainty. On “Selection” the only thing you have for certain is breath and spirit, and most would crack and lose the later before the four weeks came to an end. Everything was as black as the night and we never knew anything; which map we would need, the test march start or finish point, nor how many check points were in between. Distance, time limits, what the Directing Staff were writing about us in our ‘P’ files, all remained in the stratosphere of the unknown. What pained and tormented most was our own personal limits; the menace of self-doubt haunted each one of us like some magnificently evil spectre. Essentially, it was within ourselves to give it our all and to realise our dreams and ambitions, and the back of the truck was the place where all our deepest thoughts would come to us. Like a holy temple, it was still and quiet save for the howl of the wind and the gentle moan of the diesel engine pulling us along. I was never without noticing how nobody ever spoke; every journey was filled with the same deathly silence and emptiness of words.
The first streaks of light were diluting the sky a soft pink by the time the four tonners reached the parking area adjacent to The Storey Arms. Bodies squirmed out of their sleeping bags and repacked their Bergens at double time. The driver dropped the tailgate and we took turns at jumping down and holding the next man’s rifle until he was ready to do the same. Within minutes there were 150 uniformed men assembled next to the old red phone box which marked the trail start at the foot of Corn-Du. The Chief Instructor spoke; today was The Fan Dance, there would be no lone starts and no standard checkpoint procedure. The cadre would split into two groups of equal size and we would start en masse, led by one of the SBS (Special Boat Service) Directing Staff. The format was unique among four weeks of back to back test marches, although the shortest march by far, the tempo was dictated by the DS, it would be a matter of hanging on in there or oblivion.
I was a part of the first wave. I stood in the middle of the pack, leaning forward slightly to relieve my shoulders of the ache and strain of Bergen straps digging into my bony shoulders. I was shattered before I had taken a single step, a week of relentless marching and thrashings had ravaged my body and energy levels. Some days had been longer than others, Black Thursday would last fourty eight hours and would serve to crack the spirits and remove many men from the course. Looking up the slopes to where I’d be heading, a sinister mist came down off the mountain and worked its way towards us. Within minutes we were in a complete white out and I couldn’t see further than the orange Bergen marker panel of the man in front of me. “God help me,’’ I thought.
Still shrouded in mist the voice of the Chief Instructor gave the orders: “Standby… Go!”
We were off and straight into it. The opening slope is shockingly steep and within a matter of minutes my heart rate was sky high and my lungs were on fire. Early on there is no established rhythm, you can’t see around the man in front of you and you often end up kicking his heels or bumping your face into the back of his pack when he slows unexpectedly. The source of the suffering is caused by the concertina effect, where changes in terrain and the pace set by the Directing Staff have a domino effect on the peleton of soldiers, much like it does in a cycle race. Subtle variations in grade and speed are amplified by the time they work their way to the rear, whereas at the front you can respond quickly and easily. At the back you are unaware of the gaps that have formed and are the last to react when all those in front break into a run to close the gap. Already at an extreme limit, finding the extra gas to manoeuvre is torturous. Do it enough times and your heart rate will go into the red and you will drop off the back. Then you are stranded in no man’s land and fending for yourself, the relative safety and sanctuary of the pack is gone and you are going to have a long, painful and lonely day.
Soon feeling the effects of multiple gap bridging I decided to infiltrate my way closer to the front. There is a risk in doing so and timing and determination to follow through are paramount. I sat out and waited my chance. The Directing Staff at the front was marching so fast that our efforts to keep with him looked comical, like how Laurel and Hardy walked in the cartoons, as we manically swung our self-loading rifles from left to right. When the next gap opened up I stepped out to the side and assessed my chances: too small and it would close before I got round the body of men and reached it, then nobody would let me back in and I would be forced to retreat to the very back before the DS noticed the disturbance to his otherwise uniform formation. Seeing the clear space get wider I pulled out wide and charged my way alongside the mass of men holding on for dear life. I gritted my teeth and pushed on, sapped by the rough scrub strewn terrain to the side of the path. I just sneaked my way in in good time and tried to adjust my step to accord with the man now in front of me. “That fucker must have a pillow in his Bergen,” the man next to me spat out furiously.
After summiting the first section of slope we were awarded with the brief respite of a descent and a stream crossing. The instant the grade went up again the DS (Directing Staff) set a furious tempo and within minutes over fifty men were strung out over two hundred metres behind us, which I could see as the track snaked sideways into the mountain after a sharp horseshoe turn. The pace was relentless and as soon as the grade dropped slightly the DS broke into a run. Another five minutes and the remaining men were reduced to half. The numbers stayed for a further ten minutes before we were down to twenty. Three quarters of the way up the mountain we were down to twenty and I had reached my physical limit and knew I couldn’t hang on much longer. The DS now had us down to eleven men; I gave myself five more minutes and lasted another ten. Then I dropped, at first it was a few paces which quickly stretched to twenty metres, then fifty and ended up at about a hundred and fifty. I’d given it my all and had failed to make the summit with the elite, but I had never been one to enjoy having my pace dictated by anyone other than myself. Looking behind me I didn’t feel so disheartened at seeing the scattering of orange marker panels almost a kilometre long spread across the mountainside.
By the time I’d gone around the base of Corn Du’s peak, the front runners had already reached the summit of Pen y Fan and had soon disappeared from site as they descended Jacob’s ladder.
After reaching the Fan’s summit I gave my name and number to the Directing Staff who was sat in the comfort of his sleeping bag drinking tea from a flask. “Doing your own thing today are you Jones?” he remarked at my solitary arrival. “You know where you’re heading?” he asked before I had chance to answer him. I gave a nod and I was off. As I stepped away from the tent I was presented with a spectacular vista I had never before had the chance to fully appreciate on any of the many training exercises I had been part of. Lines of light were working their way across the darkened shadows of the U shaped valley, the end of which was dotted with forestry blocks and reservoirs. From my position the path leading up Cribyn looked perilous as it closely worked its way up the mountains almost vertical North face. I was elated and felt alive, and for few brief seconds I was actually happy to be there. Only the tug of the wind and the sweat freezing on my back reminded me I had to get going again.
The upper section of Jacob’s ladder is a serious hazard for anyone descending with a load on their back, there are many step-like drops that require careful foot placements and it was not uncommon to see soldiers using their rifle butt as a walking aid, especially on the way up. That was one of two marching advantages of the self-load rifle over the much shorter SA8O. Before long I had worked my way down from the troublesome section and was able to break into a run. I had thick ankles and calves and was a crack descender, which allowed me to bridge the now considerable gap to the Directing Staff before reaching the Roman road.
The next 4km were excruciating, the track runs across more or less level ground and allows for a frightening pace that can massacre the legs. By the time the last man had shut the gate we were running at seven miles per hour and kept it up for two kilometres before the pace dropped slightly. Then came the return to a similar state I had known as a young Paratrooper, where the stretches of fast walking, or tabbing as the army referred to it, where actually more painful than the stretches in which we would run. I flitted desperately between the two of my own accord, unable to match the official changes of the Directing Staff. By the third flat kilometre I was off the back again and marching solo. Within minutes they had disappeared into the forestry block to my front, which the track ran alongside and eventually merged into. Being isolated and out of sight was strangely reassuring, I caught my breath and reassured myself that there were still 140 men behind me. I entered the tree line and ran at my own steady pace.
I reached the turn around point a couple of minutes after the front group. I gave my name to the DS manning the RV and joined the back of the pack. Everyone followed the lead of the DS and dropped their Bergens to the ground. What happened next was astonishing and unique among “Selection” tests. One of the DS brought over a Norwegian tea urn and told everyone to pull out their metal mugs. The final boundary was broken when a tray of biscuits and squares of flapjack were handed out. We looked at each other bemused, wondering if this uncharacteristic generosity was some sort of trick or a test. Boldly, I snatched a square of flapjack off the tray and everyone else followed suit.
“That’s the thing with bravery Jones, it only takes one person to act courageous and everyone around straightens their spines,” the DS remarked.
“Cheers Staff.” I replied with a mouth full of cake as I raised my mug to him.
Sat on my Bergen with my rifle across my lap, I felt a strange sense of peace come over me, like I was revisiting my earlier sentiments on the summit of Pen y Fan. As I sipped my tea I felt a connection with the Directing Staff (that I daredn’t express) and camaraderie with my fellow volunteers. This was what it was all about, being in the present moment, and suddenly the experience transcended the challenge and the bigger picture of why I was here in the first place. We rested ten minutes event though the clock was stilk ticking, then we were under orders and off again.
By the time we had left the forestry block I had been dropped again by a blistering pace, but this time I made no effort to close the gap. I turned my rifle upside down and positioned the web of my hand neatly into the slot between the trigger guard and the magazine housing, creating a perfect weight balance between the barrel end and the stock. This was the other advantage of the SLR, held as such, it assisted momentum and allowed for prolonged bounds of running or fast marching without discomfort or the need to adjust the position,unlike the SA8O,
By the time I reached the end of the Roman Road I was drained and had fallen a little further behind. There simply wasn’t time for my triple-decker sandwich so to save myself from bonking further I quickly pulled a can of Red Bull from my webbing and necked the contents. The energy drink revived me instantly and I was soon powering my way up from windy gap to the lower slopes of Pen y Fan. I reached the foot of Jacob ’s ladder approximately four hundred metres behind the DS, but steep climbs were my strength and I was soon slogging my way up in powerful bounds, closing the space between us with each burst. On the uppermost section I was leaning forward and rasping for breath as the wind blew into me sideways and nearly snatched my weapon away from my hand, twisting my wrist horribly as I strained to keep hold of it. I looked down at my feet and fought with dogged determination to resists my burning lungs, jellied legs and overworked heart. I climbed with everything I had and suffered terribly, “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body” I reminded myself of what the bastard Para instructors had told us at the training depot. My body was screaming at me to stop but I pushed on with some maniacal drive that was hell bent on survival and success. Jacob ’s ladder can be a truly terrible experience when there’s a ticking clock.
I crested Pen y Fan less than a hundred metres behind the Directing Staff, reported to the DS and bombed my way along the track that passed by Corn Du’s mound shaped summit. By the time the way turned downward I had bridged the gap and was safely with the pack again. The DS began descending with what seemed like suicidal tendencies. I thought about the earlier pillow remark and smiled to myself. I leaned back into my Bergen and executed my favoured descending technique to which I was now so well accomplished. By the time we reached the drop down into the gulley, four from the pack had fallen a hundred metres back. Rising back up the other side another one dropped off the back and we were down to six. I assessed the ground to my front, trying to figure out the remaining suffering I would have to endure. It wasn’t much further, one final mad blast in a virtually straight line and it would all be over… at least for another day. I braced myself for the charge and hung on with everything I was worth. I reached the red phone box with the DS and the front pack. Fighting for breath and taking extreme pleasure in the subsiding agony I muttered an expletive to myself.
“Good work Jonesy,” I heard someone say.
I turned to my left and shook the outstretched hand of an officer from my former unit 1 Para. I hadn’t noticed he was in the front pack with me for the entire duration of the march and still wouldn’t have if he hadn’t removed his black woolen hat.
“How long did that take us?” I asked.
“Three hours thirty bang on,” he replied.
Nothing was official yet but we knew we’d just passed the Fan Dance and would be allowed onto week two.
That evening I celebrated in Cardiff with a group of Marines from my Pre-Selection course. We were drinking local ale and discussing its finer points and iron levels when someone suggested that we should brew our own “Fan Dance ale.” There an idea was born…