WARTIME – CONTINUITY DRILL – AND THE NEED FOR STRAIGHT ARMS.

‘Well, now you’ve passed all your exams, you’ll be thinking you’re due for a bit of relaxation, like,’ said Chiefie Barnes in his mellifluous Welch drawl. ‘I wouldn’t count on it though.’ (BLOG – Joining up).He was adept at giving the mixed message to the cadets drawn up before him – a little bit of encouragement; a suggestion of more to come and, when necessary a glimpse of the iron fist beneath the velvet covering beneath which he exercised control.

‘C Flight has been given the privilege of participating in the Group passing out parade by giving a demonstration’ – here he paused for dramatic effect, ‘of,’ – another pause – ‘continuity drill.’ The punch line had its effect and a murmur of surprise in the ranks turned into a series of verbal exchanges amongst the cadets which Chiefie allowed to continue, knowing that for so long as he did so, the more it would feed on itself so that there was a general loosening of attitudes and tongues; banter and small jokes about the announcement. His timing for addressing the growing animation was, as always, impeccable. ‘Silence in the ranks. Attention.’ The voice change from passing on a spot of news in the friendliest manner, to stern admonishment – feigned surprise that the cadets had forgotten themselves and their now imbibed, ┬ádiscipline to react too zealously.

It was a game and because everyone present loved Chiefie, a game we were all prepared to play with him; some of the NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) verged on the bullying, some were too rigid with their authority; others tried to be matey but had nothing to back it up. Chiefie was an artist with humour and compassion without letting these get in the way of doing his job of training the cadets who passed through his command in the need for discipline, both of self and in their work.

‘Now you know I’ve told you gentlemen before that the Guards are the finest at drilling in all of His Majesty’s Services; second are the Marines and third are you, the cadets that we have trained and are proud to have trained. What Chiefie is not so proud of is that we are only third. The Guards will always be first but why are the Marines better than we are?’

They spend more time at it, Chiefie,’ ventured a daring voice.

‘Yes, you are right. Up to now your exams have taken first place but now they are over you will be doing continuity drill in the mornings, in the afternoons, in the evenings. You will be doing it in your sleep. No more exams so you have a week. One purpose only, to take that place the Marines now occupy. A top ranking officer will take the passing out parade as usual but with him will be an assessor to monitor your performance. So, what are we going to give him on the day?’┬áMingled shouts of ‘when do we start?’ – ‘we’ll show him,’ and, as usual Chiefie had us in the palm of his hand.

With the cadets primed and motivated events moved swiftly. B. was with Albert and Arthur when he was called to Chiefie’s office at their billeted hotel. ‘Lofty, I’ve picked you as right marker – is that alright with you?’ was it alright with him? It was unbelievable. Since becoming an aircrew cadet six months ago he had been a unit in every group like all the others; being trained to rub the awkward edges of Civvy Street (Civilian Life) and its indulgences away and mould him as a member of the group, amenable to training, orders and discipline; the personality at all times submerged. It had been hard and many had not made it. Without being aware of it he yearned for personal expression when all he had been allowed was group adhesion and now, being made right marker, he was being given both.

In continuity drill the right marker is the king-pin, the fulcrum, the lode star. The one who has to know it all and could make no mistakes. Everyone else in the column took their cue and timing, directly or indirectly from the right marker. He was always afraid that his self-confidence would not be recognised and up to now no one had been overtly interested in his or any other cadet’s self-confidence. You either performed or dropped out; it was as simple as that. No time for asking why anyone dropped out. It was a direct and brutal pruning process, so necessary in wartime.

With bursting pride he informed Albert and Arthur and soon, on the Esplanade of this Welsh seaside resort of Aberystwych, which was their parade ground, all could see, as they began. Day followed day as they spent up to five hours each day going through the drill. Every movement had to be memorised from the start of the only command given, ‘quick march in columns of three.’ Then the counting, 20 paces – wheel to the left, 20 paces then wheel to the right, 20 paces then about turn, 20 paces then right turn….. It went on and on until someone mistimed and then it was back to the beginning again. 5 minutes of silent achievement and then a mistake. Begin again. 8 minutes then start again. 7 minutes then….. It always felt worst when they fell back in the timing. On the third day the full 12 minutes was achieved midst great jubilation. At the end of a gruelling day they were weary but a successful ending lifted them as they went off for their hot baths before supper. A patchy ending and it was difficult to raise their low spirits.

Chiefie was there all the time; he would not allow any other NCO to take over even when they drilled on the sea front in the dusk, a silent column of men moving through an intricate series of collective movements. On the fourth day it all seemed to come together and they could repeat the 12 minutes silent drill again and again. Chiefie was pleased and gave an extended break; at the break he gave a pep-talk telling us all that if we performed like this on the parade we stood every chance of winning what we aspired to. ‘Tomorrow, a drill sergeant from the Guards will review your performance and I am confident you will perform well.’

The following day with the ease of those who have mastered their trade the cadets went through a complete continuity drill without a flaw. At a distance they could see a group of officers and NCOs surveying them in this, their dress-rehearsal for the great day to come. A little apart from the group a soldier was crouching, gazing intently. The Guardsman. At the end Chiefie came over. ‘Once more please.’ They went through it again without a hitch, confident in the silence as they counted the steps. B. holding them together. It was heady stuff; but it was not to last.

The Guardsman approached the group and, as the cadets stood at ease Chiefie returned. ‘Lofty,’ he called. B. sprang to attention and marched the few paces forward. ‘I’m sorry son but the Guard’s drill instructor says the right marker must be able to bring his arms forward in a completely horizontal line; your arms are very slightly bent; try it.’ he did; and they were. There was nothing he could do about it. ‘You did everything to get them to this level but he says that a right marker without the straightest arms would lose points, so I’ve got to get someone else. We have precious little time.

The blow to B’s self esteem was severe but of short duration. Another tall cadet was found who could comply with the arm straightness test and then they were off again with B in the middle ranks. There was a mixed result at the passing out parade – the cadets gained joint top and the assessor didn’t find anything in the quality of their drilling to put them above the Marines. Within a few weeks B and his cadet comrades were posted to airfields around the country flying Tiger Moths and none of them ever did continuity drill again; the episode more or less forgotten.

JANUARY 1944