Sons' Army born in lonely outpost

31st January 1997 at 00:00
Will the Government's cadet plan to motivate Britain's youth be a winner? TES reporters scoured past and present for clues. It took Joe Stalin to get me to join the Army Cadet Force and a Tommy gun to keep me in it.

It was the third year of World War Two and the government hit on the idea of getting kids to dress up as soldiers. They had been doing this for years in the public schools and a few posh grammars, whose army-sponsored Officer Training Corps scheme was now to be extended to the rest of the grammar school sector.

But even wartime egalitarianism had decent limits, and so the Army Cadet Force was born - a legion for 11-plus failures. Or rather, for those left after the Air Training Corps and the Sea Cadets had taken their pick.

For two and a half years our school, an ancient foundation evacuated from London's East End, had been a lonely outpost of academia in a muddy little Fenland town. Now, with only a few score boys and a handful of ageing or unfit teachers, the head Old Gobby, balked at setting up a training corps. Instead, he told the history master to recruit a school platoon for the town's cadet company.

It was the school's Young Communist League that came to his aid. We decided it was our duty to enlist as a token of support for our heroic comrades in the Red Army.

The rest of the platoon was made up mainly of no-hopers who had found the school Scout troop too taxing. They didn't think it absurd to run on the spot shouting "bullets, bullets".

But the joke wore thin. I turned up at school with a gun one day but the history master, desperate to kindle our enthusiasm, was content with a sketchy explanation.

From then on we spent most of our training time stripping and reassembling the gun. I showed the rest how to use a pair of compasses to remount the long recoil spring. One night there was an air raid alert and I went to the first aid post. The commandant, the town's senior GP, came in while I was showing the gun to the younger Red Cross girls, and threw me out.

The next day I was called to the head's study. I explained how the grateful young commander of the local searchlight battery had signed the gun out to me in return for six compasses. "We need those compasses," insisted the maths master.

"Please,sir," I said, "I want to take the gun back."

They never noticed that I returned only five compasses. Soon we were all too busy swotting for Matric to play soldiers.

Mark Jackson is a former TES journalist

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