A military staff course is quite an experience in itself. Undergoing it at the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich is transcendental: the place is steeped in history. The world remembers Greenwich for its mean time, it’s prime meridian and it’s royal observatory. It’s maritime credentials are bolstered by the presence of the Cutty Sark (and now the Gypsy Moth IV also) next to the river front and the nearby National Maritime Museum (arguably the largest such museum in the world), housed in the former buildings of the Royal Hospital School since 1934.
The history of the Royal Naval Staff College is equally fascinating. Briefly put, a Royal Palace is believed to have existed there in the 15th century, which suffered from neglect during the English Civil War. It was rebuilt as a hospital for retired and disabled sailors by none other than Sir Christopher Wren in the early eighteenth century. This architectural masterpiece of a building, a labour of love, was converted in 1873 by the Royal Navy into a college for military education, which it kept dispensing till 1998, when the buildings were handed over to the Greenwich Foundation. Apart from the historic rooms which have been opened to the public, the other buildings now house the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music. The Royal Naval Staff College got merged with the other staff colleges to form the Joint Services Command & Staff College (JSCSC) currently based in Shrivenham. This is a model which we may also choose to consider for adoption.
RNSC of 1983-84 was quite a mixed bag. Naval Officers from countries as diverse as Australia, Bangladesh, Burma, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and USA participated. Apart from the Royal Navy, the Royal Army, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Marines and even the WRENs were represented. It was also interesting to note that one of the Royal Naval participants had an Australian wife, the Australian participant had an American wife and the American participant had a Sri Lankan wife. Insofar as the latter case was concerned, the words of the USN Officer himself best sums it: “our ship docked at a port in France, where I met her, invited her for a drink, we had one too many and I guess we went a bit too far”.
The USN Officer in question was quite a lively individual. He had perfected the art of drinking a mug of beer placed on the floor without using his hands, while standing upside down on his head. Once, during an official dinner hosted by the Commandant Royal Marines, he was egged on by his colleagues to demonstrate this particular skill, which he proceeded to do amidst great applause. So far, so good! But being in a state of partial intoxication, he went on to taunt the Commandant thus: “Think your boys can do this?” This was too much of an insult for the Royal Marines to take. A few marine officers did step forward to take up the gauntlet, but the Commandant immediately stepped in to save face by launching a fierce tirade against the unofficer-like behaviour of the USN Officer, which left them both red-faced, one with anger, the other with embarrassment.
Earlier in the day, during the scheduled visit of the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines at Lympstone, some of the course participants, myself included, volunteered to undergo the Commando obstacle course. Dressed in drab coveralls and boots, the seven odd volunteers started off sure-footedly enough, sprinting up and down the green slopes, till they reached a body of water. Wading chest-deep through the icy waters of the pond was quite an ordeal, our bodies feeling heavy and stiff. Overcoming the subsequent physical obstacles that confronted us became more arduous as we went along. These included a number of large pipes of varying lengths, the last one filled partially with water, through which we had to crawl, one after the other, in pitch darkness. On reaching the final obstacle, which we had been forewarned would be the most challenging, we were pleasantly surprised to see the rest of the course clustered there to cheer us through the end. This last obstacle consisted of a four to five metre long submerged tunnel. Since it was too narrow to swim through, one had to be physically grabbed by the scruff of the neck and the back by someone else while lying supine in the water, and shoved through the opening, with a prayer that the person waiting at the other end be able to predict the moment of exit. The water there being murky, the person positioned at the other end had to rely on his own instinct to grab the listless body floating past and haul it out of the water like a sack of potatoes. On my turn, I went through the same drill, being hauled out of the water by the participant who had preceded me. While still dazed and struggling to recover my composure, I could vaguely discern a WREN with a camera stepping into my line of vision. “Would you mind going around again, sir,” she seemed to say, “I’m afraid the flash didn’t work”.
“If I were you”, one of the spectators later confided, “I wouldn’t have gone around again. To hell with the photograph.” One of the course participants was a tall and strapping army officer belonging to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Captain M.A.D Donnithorne – Tait. “Why didn’t you volunteer for the Commando course?” I asked him, “should have been a breeze for someone like you”. “You see, Pawaiz,” he enunciated, “I have nothing to prove”. His exact opposite amongst the course participants was a dark, dimunitive Burmese Naval Officer by the name of Cdr Maung Myint Khin, who had set something of a course record by taking a full eleven minutes to introduce a guest speaker in the evening session.
Anyway, any time the course had to proceed for an in-country visit on an RAF aircraft, we were supposed to fill up some official forms. On one occasion, seeing me struggle with the next-of-kin form, Capt Donnithorne – Tait sauntered over and commented light-heartedly, “why don’t you put down my name as your next-of-kin, Pawaiz”. “I can’t,” I answered mock-seriously, “I have already written down the Burmese Officer’s name. You see, he is everybody’s next-of-khin”. “Naughty, Pawaiz, very naughty”, was all he could utter.
Like the participants, the members of the Directing Staff also came in all varieties. Major Parkinson of the Royal Marines had set his mind on leaving the service and setting off on a world tour on a motorbike, which I believe he did eventually undertake. Col McMahon of the Royal Army, as stiff-backed as you please, thought he understood the South Asian behavioural patterns extremely well, having earlier participated in the Command & Staff Course at Quetta. Commander Douglas Quelch, the American DS (‘Call me Doug!’), was a gem of a person, portly in appearance and jovial by nature. He is however best remembered for his dramatic entry at the brunch given prior to the formal commencement of the course by the outgoing foreign participants to welcome the new ones. Dressed in a sleeveless vest, Bermuda shorts and beach slippers, he signalled his colourful entry by loudly proclaiming: “Isn’t everyone rather over-dressed?”
The guest speakers likewise represented a rather broad spectrum of views and opinions. A less likely candidate than Mr Norman F Dixon, best remembered for his incisive study ‘On the Psychology of Military Incompetence’, could hardly be imagined. It was a pleasure though to hear him speak on perception and reality. An officer from the US Marine Corps, who came to enlighten the course about his core specialization, captured the audience’s heart with his self-deprecating opening remark: ‘I think we marines everywhere are all alike, extra large jackets and extra small berets’.
Another episode worth recording is when, while boarding the college bus for an inland journey, a course participant violently bumped his head against the top of the bus door. The loud thud attracted everyone’s attention. As the slightly dazed individual was massaging his bruised forehead and nursing his equally bruised ego, the bus driver hurried over to him and while running his hand over the part of the door rim which had been bumped into, remarked quite matter-of-factly, “I hope you didn’t damage the transport, did you?”
This incident occurred because the bus door was presumably a bit too small for a tall man. Another transport – related incident occurred because the transport itself was too small. The van provided for a group of twelve was barely sufficient to accommodate ten. It was of the sort which had two benches on either side running throughout it’s length. Standing room was difficult to come by as the knees of those sitting on one side overlapped the knees on the other side. The low height of the van’s roof, moreover, didn’t allow even a man of average height to stand upright. One of the officers forced to stand was Cdr J O “Jim” Ayinla of the Nigerian Navy. Little did the others sitting in the transport realise that this man was destined to climb to the topmost rung in his Navy within the next fifteen years. Being quite an extrovert by nature, Cdr Ayinla didn’t take too kindly to the awkward situation he found himself in, and abruptly sat down, plonk, right on the most convenient lap, that of a Royal Navy Officer.
Completely taken aback by this sudden move and struggling to maintain his composure, the RN Officer couldn’t help wincing perceptibly at this outrage. “Now I understand,” he blurted out rather acidly, “what is meant by the White Man’s burden”.
Permit me to add, by way of amplification, that though it was Kipling who had coined and popularized this term, the context in which he used it was vastly different, as can be seen from the following extract:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
And therein lies the humour of the grimacing officer’s remark: a physical burden in lieu of an abstract one. So you can now go ahead and smile, thank you.
Note: This was published in the August 2012 issue of the’Navy News’.