As you can imagine, being on the truck after completing the endurance portion of SAS selection is a big deal. You ain’t popping champagne corks, but you can’t help feeling a glow at the thought of making the short trip up the road to Hereford, where you will still be in the running to earn a place in the most prestigious unit in the world. I was in good shape mentally, but my body was in bits. I had dislodged my retina in the gale-force winds ripping across the Welsh mountains across which we’d been dragging our bodies. I had at least one fractured toe and probably two, no remaining toenails to speak of, and all the usual blisters and Bergen burns. I was quite literally held together with zinc oxide tape. I’d lost quite a bit of weight, too. My condition was not unusual; in fact, everyone who had earned the right to continue on was in more or less the same way. If you stood the troop together, we looked like we had just been rescued from a concentration camp. A bunch of bedraggled desperadoes all still keen as mustard, chomping on the bit, ready for the next phase.
In the two weeks following the endurance portion of selection, there is a lot to be done before candidates go anywhere near a plane for a flight to the jungle. During that time, a candidate’s position is nowhere near cast in stone. On the first day back after a short weekend, we were paraded in the famous quadrangle. This is an area where the stores are and where all sorts of business is done—a busy place where people are coming and going all the time, usually with a steaming mug of tea or a clipboard in hand. We stood in three ranks in the middle of all the goings-on and no one paid us the slightest bit of attention. We were like ghosts marking time while the world went on around us.
Eventually, one of the drill sergeants appeared (with a mug of tea of course) and very informally started to brief us on how the next two weeks or so would work. We were only allowed on certain areas of camp and at certain times; half the town was out-of-bounds to us. Finally he explained that a programme would be on our notice board and we needed to read it each day. Nobody chases you up here: Fail to turn up and not have a proper reason, and you can go back to wherever you came from. The Regiment does not force you t0 do anything, but if you can’t keep up, you go home. Once you understand how that works, all you’ve got to do is be capable of doing what is asked of you.
Before we could start, there was a complete complement of kit and equipment to be signed for and collected. Jungle combats, lightweight sleeping bags, ponchos, jungle boots—the list was never-ending. I was like a kid in a sweets shop as the QM handed out piece of kit after piece of kit, and I stuffed it away as quickly as I could. Then, the next thing would appear. Weighed down like an Afghan donkey, it was off to the block to store it all away, then straight onto the first briefing about tropical climates. We were now learning everywhere we turned. It was like being a sponge and just soaking up information at every juncture.
Over the course of the next two weeks, all the stuff we needed to know before we went to the trees would be taught to us in between some physical fitness—just to keep us ticking over. We had to learn new radio equipment that we had not seen before. This was issued almost immediately so that you could try it out on your free time, ensure everything was working properly, and learn how to operate it proficiently. No relying on others here: You’d better understand, because it’s guaranteed at some point you’ll have to use it on your own. There were medical briefs about tropical diseases and how to deal with the temperature change and constant rain. You soon get the idea that if you thought all this was going to be easy, think again. If everything wants you dead normally, it wants you twice as dead in the trees.
Slowly, the boxes were getting crossed off, and although I was a very long way from even getting to the trees, I was tuning in and really enjoying it. The best thing for me during this two weeks was the transition from the regular Army’s SA80 rifle to the M16, which of course was the preferred platform for the regiment at the time. We went to the armoury, and I remember trying to see what else was in there through a gap in the door as I waited, but no luck. I signed for my weapon and paraded outside.
We did all the dry drills in the classroom, and then we were told after lunch we would be going to the local range to zero and check fire. I was buzzing at lunch; the food was great at Hereford, and although you had your own section in the cookhouse and weren’t supposed to talk to anyone badged, that never stopped me from eating like a king. Today, however, I couldn’t wait to just get done, grab my belt kit, and get on the wagon for the ranges. It was a very calm affair compared to a normal army range; although we were all there to learn, everyone had lots of experience around weapons. There was no unnecessary bullshit, which normally ruins good days on the range.
If you weren’t firing, you had something constructive to do like set the communications kit up again and check it, or learn about evacuation methods. A weapon to me now is a weapon, but back then I couldn’t wait to fire my new toy. Once we had all zeroed and were happy, there was no fuss—we simply packed up, got on the truck, and went back to camp after we had picked up the empty cases.
I remember being a “brass chicken ” in the Green Army; it was a beasting again, but not here. Everyone pitched in and the job was done in minutes—no inspections, no press-ups, and no running around with pockets full of stones. This was the way to do things, I thought to myself. I want a bit of this. There was so much to take in that, by the time you had finished, each day just rolled into the next. It was great learning every day and being with people who didn’t want to whinge, but genuinely wanted to get on and apply themselves 100 percent to every task asked of them.
They trees were fast approaching, and it was time to zone in. It was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done. I knew I was in for a shit-storm, as did everyone on the course. But in a strange way, that made it all OK, and it actually pushed us harder. Nothing worth having is just given to you in life; you need to go out there and invest yourself, and you get out what you put in. Well I was about to put everything in. I wondered if I would be rewarded for my efforts or if I would just wilt and die.