Friends often ask ‘When are you going to write about the Army, instead of Aliens or dead people?’ I always put it off as I didn’t think anyone would want to know about my experiences. OK, I spent nearly thirty-five years in the Army but when I joined in 1979 service for women was completely different to what it is now. I had to dig deep into my memory bank to make my first Unlikely Soldiers book as authentic as possible.
Why on Earth do you want to join the Army?
It was the autumn of 1978 and I was sixteen. I loved the songs from Grease, which were big in the charts, along with the Boomtown Rats (Rat Trap came a little later) and David Essex (Oh What a Circus). I’d left school and hadn’t long started a business admin course at the local tech college. I wasn’t enjoying the course and didn’t fancy completing it just to work in a boring office. I was still working in Woolworths on Saturdays and knew I didn’t want to do this full-time I’d left school with minimal qualifications so didn’t have many options.
My two older brothers were already in the Army so that was my plan. I would join juniors as they had and see what happened. If that didn’t go work out I could always move to Civvy Street. The boys were always talking about how life and wages were much better in Civvy Street so maybe I could move there if the Army didn’t suit? I assumed it was a posh place somewhere in London.
My father shook his head when I talked to him about the Army. He’d spent a few years doing National Service and still thought the Regular Army would be exactly the same, despite my brothers’ stories when they were home on leave. Based on his experiences, my father thought we were all barking. My mother said I was very adventurous. She didn’t want me to go and couldn’t understand my wanderlust.
So off I went to the Recruiting Office where I was told to return when I was old enough. I couldn’t understand why my brothers were allowed to join juniors but that option wasn’t open to girls. Affronted, I looked for other options.
Having read an advert in a local paper I decided the Royal Air Force was for me. This was based on the fact that they offered apprenticeships to both male and female applicants subject to having the relevant qualifications and abilities. I glossed over the fact that qualifications in mathematics and technical drawing were required and an aptitude for practical work. Aircraft Technician wouldn’t have been my first choice but I convinced myself that I could do this so off I went to RAF St Athan, nervous but full of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, being keen wasn’t enough. I don’t like the cold, mathematics or inanimate objects that you have to hammer, bend or manipulate. I realized my mistake when told to do a number of things with a mathematical compass, protractor, graph paper and the pencil. On the plus side, I was familiar with the workings of the pencil. The tests didn’t go well and I ran to the bus stop after being shouted at by a big hairy man for walking on his parade square.
I wasn’t surprised when I received the letter Dear Miss Groves, thanks but no thanks, etc. I messed about at college for not very long and returned to the Army Recruiting Office. Following a few tests
‘Cat is to kitten as dog is to…?’
‘Puppy.’ I answered, thinking this was a doddle.
They did get more difficult. The Recruiting Sergeant told me I was suitable for a number of trades and I was given a list to choose from. Before making any final decisions I had to attend a three-day selection course at the Women’s Royal Army Corps Centre in Guildford.
As well as being tested for suitability, all potential applicants were told about the Women’s Royal Army Corps, its motto Gentle in Manner, Resolute in Deed (yeah right). Back home I waited anxiously for the letter. I was over the moon and so excited about starting my training on 17 April 1979, just over a month after my seventeenth birthday.
Some of the information about my character Michelle (Mouse) is based on my experience prior to and on first joining the Army. Her family problems are a product of my imagination. More about this and my other main character, Guy, in the next post.