I’m 3,000 feet up above sea level, making my way down the highest peak in South Wales. Normally, this would be no drama, but it’s pitch black and I’m struggling against a 50 mph gale-force wind driving an icy rain straight back at me. I seem to be permanently blinded in one eye. I have lost all of my toenails and both feet are now a swollen and blistered mess. I’m running harder than Usain Bolt, but it’s like wading through treacle. All around me I can make out the orange emergency blankets of casualties who have given up and collapsed.
My only emotion when I see them is one of contempt. “Not good enough, mate.” Their failure spurs me on. I’m never giving up. Never mind the eye. I’ve got a spare one. My feet will heal up, and waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain will be a cup of tea and a cigarette. What more could a man ask for?
I’m over a week into the UK Special Forces selection course, but in reality, I’ve been preparing myself for years. At the back of my mind, ever since my first encounter with a couple of SAS instructors in the jungles of Kenya when I first joined up, I knew that this was where I would end up. During my time in the green (regular) army, I’ve put myself up for commando training with the Royal Marines and P Company (jump training with the paras).
I’d enjoyed my stint with the Marines—great bunch of lads—but there was never a chance I would transfer to a ‘rival’ service. I did fancy the parachute regiment, however. When I had completed the course, I had met the commanding officer who had congratulated us all for passing. Now, in the Campion world, even a fleeting introduction means a lifelong friendship, so I decided the best way to apply for a transfer from my existing outfit was to phone him up person-to-person.
About 30 seconds after I attempted to be put through to his office in Aldershot, I was dragged off the phone and hauled in front of my own CO. He went ballistic and immediately transferred me to Northern Ireland, where I was placed on close observation duties undercover in the heart of some of the most fanatical IRA territory.
When I got back, I was determined to try for the SAS. I put in my papers and the CO—who was, in fact, a great bloke—wished me the best of luck. I had a couple of weeks leave owing, so I decided to get in some serious training. It was time to go on a national pub crawl.
I started down in my home of Southampton, jumped on the train up to London, and then made my way over to Cardiff, somehow stopping off in Nottingham on the way. Now I’m well aware that the steady consumption of many dozens of pints of beer prior to the world’s most arduous selection course won’t appear in many manuals, but the accepted way has never been the Campion way. I was 26, and at the peak of my fitness. I knew that the only way to pass selection was to be in the right frame of mind. I was physically tough. I knew what followed was going to be a test of my mental stamina.
At the appointed time, I rolled into Sennybridge Training Camp in the Brecon Beacons. I look around at my fellow applicants. Anyone is eligible for selection if they have been in the forces, and there were lads from all sorts of regiments (although, as usual, the parachute regiment had the highest number of applicants). As the training course was, at that time, for the SAS and the SBS, we had a number of applicants from the Navy, including a submariner. When the weather got really foul over the next few days, I remembered thinking that his underwater training must be coming in handy.
I quickly made my assessment of those around me and started making mental bets of those who would and wouldn’t survive. There were plenty of those who had obviously been in the gym 24/7 and looked like Popeye. I reckoned they would be among the first to go—wrong approach. Then there were those who had spent a fortune on all the most expensive hiking and navigational gear. Some were even pouring over maps of the area trying to work out where they would be sent so they could ‘plan’ ahead. I scoffed at all that. Give me a compass, a pair of boots, and a packet of cigarettes, tell me to where to go and I’ll keep going.
Day one was the start of an initial three-week aptitude test. This phase was all about stamina and navigational ability—basic soldiering in my book. The moment we arrived, we were told to go off and complete the Basic Combat Fitness Test (infantry). This is a straightforward march/run with full kit over neutral ground. Piece of piss. Except, to my horror, I saw there was a fair number who couldn’t even manage this in the allotted time. The fallout rate ran well into about 20 out of an intake of 200. I was embarrassed, to be honest. Not for them—bunch of gobbing little crows—but for the her majesty’s armed forces.
The failures were all rounded up and sent packing back to their units. As I watched them being loaded onto the wagons, I wondered what version of events they would give when they returned. I’d sat in pubs and heard men tell tall tales of the impossible tasks they had been set on during selection, and how no ordinary human being could possibly pass. I knew it was all bollocks. I knew it was going to be tough, but it couldn’t really be that hard, could it?
I was about to find out.
(Featured image of Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales, situated in the Brecon Beacons national park)