Forget penning a cover letter — qualifying as a Commando officer requires skills normal men can’t muster. Just ask ShortList’s David Whitehouse.
On a sodden Devon moor, muddy hearts are being broken. The minibus is filling with disconsolate young men. They are broken. Hypothermic, twisted with cramp, shot with exhaustion. The guy in the front is hallucinating. He keeps saying things like “Mars bars” and “Happy Gilmore”. He is one of two that will go straight to hospital. This is the second day of the Potential Officers Course (POC) for the Royal Marine Commandos. These men were not good enough.
I arrived at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines near Lympstone, Devon yesterday, at the end of day one. Lympstone is the home of the Royal Marines. The Royal Marine Commandos make up only 13 per cent of Britain’s Armed Forces, but from this come 40 per cent of our Special Forces. I was greeted by Captain Andy Shaw, who explained that I’d be joining in with day two of the POC. ‘Joining in’ is a term that, 24 hours later, I will have completely redefined.
Fifteen young men arrived for day one, among them a 17-year-old, a graduate in Chinese studies from Sheffield and an existing Royal Marine desperate to become an Officer (“To change things from the top down, not the bottom up.”) Fourteen survived a rigorous physical exam, but one’s hopes were swiftly scuppered by the bleep test.
Passing the three-day POC is the first step to being accepted on the 15-month course to become an officer in the Royal Marines. It is the job interview to end all job interviews, designed not only to test physical strength, but also intelligence and mental robustness. For these reasons, it is taken not just in camouflage, but wearing a suit and tie. And for good reason. If they succeed, these men will lead operations in war. If wars were won with tennis, they would be looking for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Tim Henman need not apply, though there are other Armed Forces available that would be happy to receive his CV. I, meanwhile, am a mere ball boy.
WALKING THE WALK
I am unfit. Not grossly so — I have a gym membership and it gets used — but I am not given to extremes of physical exertion. I’m convinced that if all men through history were me, we would never have built roads. On the plus side, we wouldn’t ever be at war. But only because we wouldn’t have met any men from other countries to fall out with.
Captain Shaw reasons that my inability to keep up with young POs could hinder them as they attempt to traverse the assault course on Lympstone’s infamous Bottom Field. They have been training most of their adult lives for this test. Having me get in the way would be akin to making them sit a life-changing maths exam with a potato instead of a calculator. Instead, we agree that I’ll ‘join in’ on the endurance course later that afternoon.
Down at Bottom Field, six Green Berets work the candidates at full tilt for more than two hours. The Marines are watching their faces for signs that they might crumble, kicking at the locked doors of what the young men can endure. But the job interview has only just begun.
After a quick shower and feed, the candidates put on suits and suddenly look like nervous young politicians. Each of them is required to give an unfaltering, confident three-minute presentation on a topic of their choosing in front of the rest of the group. I overhear that one of them is almost reduced to tears by the prospect and needs to be gently persuaded to continue. Earlier, he’d sprinted 300 metres through thick mud with a man he’d just met on his shoulders. The two are of equal power — teaching someone about what’s in the woods, and picking them up and running towards it. They need to be able to do both.
These skills are further tested if the candidate passes the POC, when they face the Admiralty Interview Board where they undergo psychometric testing, write essays, and plan and lead mock operations. Next, though, the endurance course. Something in my gut feels like a balloon being inflated. I think it might be dread.
We are dumped on nearby Woodbury Common. The endurance course has been here for as long as Lympstone has been a base. Every Marine that has served the country has looked into this mud. I am not a Marine.
It starts to rain. We are told to run. I immediately fall to the back of the pack and do my best to keep up. We run up and down small hills, drop to our knees and crawl in line through two tunnels the circumference of dustbins lined with stones.
We run again. I can’t see the leaders of the group any more. I find them in a large, freezing pond, which quickly comes up to my waist. On orders, we put our heads below the surface for 10 seconds. It feels as though a sword of ice has been driven through my frontal lobe. The cold buckles my legs. It is winter in my knees. There is thick snowfall in my brain.
I pull my heavy boots from the water. Shock shrink-wraps my lungs. My head hurts. I picture every mouthful of junk food I have ever eaten. I imagine my mum with a gun in her mouth and she can only be saved if I finish the course. More tunnels, pitch-black, 10-metres long, three-quarters full of stinking water. When I emerge, I have lost the others. I can’t run any more. The imaginary gun goes off. Nothing I could do about it. I can’t even think. My gift to the defence of the country is that I don’t defend it.
THE BEST OF THE BEST
The POs continue for another 40 minutes, up hills, through water, on their feet, knees and bellies, and are rewarded at the end with a three-mile run back to base. We pick up the broken along the route in the recovery van, most of them on the final stretch. The Marines call it Heartbreak Lane. “Are you OK?” asks Captain Shaw to one candidate as he’s pulled in, bent over in agony, his dismay displayed by tear tracks dashed through the mud caked on his face. “No, Sir,” he replies. “Not really.” Five finish. Two go to casualty. All have the best shower of their lives. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I didn’t even do it.
An hour later, we’re wearing suits again. The candidates sit in a circle in the mess (considering it’s the home of the Royal Marine Commandos, it’s decorated much like your auntie’s house was in the Eighties). A captain calls out topics for debate. Should the UK maintain a nuclear deterrent capability? Is democracy a relevant political system for Afghanistan? At what age should sex education start and why? Exhausted, they do their best to engage, slurring words and making points. The captain sits in the corner silently scoring them on their ability to form coherent arguments while their aching muscles slide off their skeletons and their tired minds turn to porridge. I have a degree, GCSEs in topics I can’t remember and 10 years on them. I sit silently in the corner, fairly confident not just that the job is not for me, but I am not for the job. It is still day two.
Next time you’re in an interview and you’re asked that awful question, “Is there anything you want to ask us?” say, “Yes. Do you call this an interview?”
(Photographs: Tom Miles)