ROYAL CORPS OF TRANSPORT
Taking the Queens shilling - a squaddies tale

The Royal Corps of Transport (RCT) was born out of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in 1967 and was in turn reorganized and along with other corps became the Royal Logistical Corps in 1993. The RASC was the arm of service in which my maternal grandfather, Donald Carr served during the Second World War. He was originally going to enlist in the Canadian Army at the outbreak of war and join the City of Windsor regiment, which was the local regiment to where he grew up in Canada. However, being in the UK at that time, he elected to join the British Army. With hindsight it was a wise decision on his part, as the Canadians took severe losses during the momentous D-Day landings on June 6th 1944.

My father served with the Grenadier Guards as he is over six foot tall and was just the ticket for them. I am of more average height. My stature comes from the maternal Carr side of the family, so I don’t think I was ever going to be genetically predisposed to enlist as a Guardsman. In any case, to my mind the RCT were a far more important part of the army, especially the Movement Controllers.

In 1986 I joined the Royal Corps of Transport and served for five years until the end of 1991. I opted for the specialized trade of Movement Controller, which was usually abbreviated to Mov Op in ‘army speak’ for convenience. The RCT was responsible for all forms of Army transport from pack mule, staff cars, trucks, trains, hovercraft and ships. They also provided Air Dispatchers for RAF aircraft and movement staff to control the movement of vehicles, equipment and personnel between theatres on operations and exercises.

Other regiments called the RCT ‘The Blanket Stackers’ amongst other things, and we of course had our names for them. The ‘Chunkies’ were the Pioneer Corps and the RMP were known as ‘Monkey’s’, a name they detested. There were many more nick-names for other units of course, as the army does tend to have a way with words. Officers were ‘Ruperts’. Cavalry officers in particular very much lived up to the stereotype of a clueless chinless wonder with a fruity accent. They were often to be seen atop a ferret scout car wearing a Barbour jacket over the uniform. I have seen these snooty, self-satisfied and ridiculous effete fops with my own eyes and a great laugh they are too.

Movement Controllers are to be found working with sea, air, road, canal and rail transport. I was mainly deployed on sea movements, and would work with the ships Loadmaster at the port when embarking vehicles and associated equipment. I never had much to do with the ‘Pax’ vessels unless as in one memorable instance, there had been a suspected murder on board. It could be extremely hard work when there was a big exercise on but there was also a great deal of satisfaction for a job well done. That red armband with the wheel symbol was a bit of a power trip, just the ticket for putting those jumped-up Rupert cavalry officers in their place too, what, what old boy.

As with all army specialists we are trained to be soldiers first and then acquire the trade afterwards. It was a lesson learned by the British Army very early in the Second World War, when many tradesmen in uniform had no idea how to be an infantry soldier on the retreat to Dunkirk. The Army Catering Corps never failed to make me smile, as it appeared to be staffed mostly by Scousers from Liverpool who were enormously fond of the bottle. The only squaddie I ever saw four sheets to the wind in uniform was a scouser from the Army Catering Corps. Great people though and the British Army would be nowhere without the ever welcome scoff from the field kitchens of the ‘Slop Jockeys’. In 1993 they were also incorporated into the newly formed Royal Logistical Corps.

Our unit did incur the wrath of the Scousers on one occasion when we went to get our scoff, directly after we had been for a training session in the gas chamber. Despite having been in the air, some of the CS gas was still clinging to our clothing, and it sure made a few eyes water among the cooks serving the food.

Personal Weapons

As I spent much of my time mooching around in a Land Rover feeling important, as any good Movement Controller with a few stripes and an armband should, my personal weapon was the venerable Sterling sub-machine gun. Designed way back in 1944, to me it always seemed to be more of a ‘pop gun’ than anything as it had almost no recoil when compared to the FN rifle. It fired 9mm rounds at a rate of 550 per minute but was rather inaccurate over about 500 yards, at least when I was firing it. They were more designed for house clearance, urban warfare and confined space combat than anything else. In that scenario they were ‘point and spray’, or more aptly, point and pray.

Firing the Sterling L2A3 at the range

I had the trusty L2A3 version, the last variant produced from 1956 onwards. It has been replaced in the modern British Army by the SA80, a weapon universally loathed by soldiers when it was introduced in 1987, as it was plagued by endless faults and problems. No soldier wants an unreliable weapon as it is literally a case of life and death. My unit was very lucky to keep hold of our FN’s and Sterling’s, at least up until I left in 1991.

There were always stories circulating about the Sterling, more urban myth than fact I think, in respect of it firing off rounds on impact if it was dropped onto a hard surface. I have no experience of that as I never dropped one and I suspect it was truer of its more primitive forebear, the Sten Gun. One thing you often see in movies is the Sterling being held by the magazine. That is just about the worst way to hold the weapon, as it will lead to jams and stoppages. Never, ever hold the Sterling by the magazine if you want it to protect you dependably and save your life. Best to leave the dramatic poses to Hollywood actors I think.

Speaking with some Rhodesian friends of mine who fought in the Bush War during the 1970’s, they informed me that the Sterling was only ever given to the mixed race transport drivers during that war against the Soviet and Chinese backed terrorists. Evidently it was very much looked down upon as a weapon by the Rhodesian Light Infantry. I honestly cannot see why though, as I found it to be an agreeable firearm in all respects, and one that was very easy to carry around.

The Sterling L2A3 Sub-Machine Gun

 

Firing the Sterling L2A3 at the range

Despite the venerable Sterling being my official personal weapon, all too often I was saddled with the L1A1 FN SLR rifle, which I used to call ‘the musket’, due to its length. It was a real pain to keep getting in and out of a Land Rover with it, especially the air portable Landies. The FN was a powerful weapon packing the gas assisted punch of a 7.62 round in a 20 round magazine. It was said that it would penetrate a brick wall at 400 yards, and kill at a mile. I cannot verify those claims though. It did have heavy recoil, and would pull up and to the right if not controlled properly. The full auto versions supplied to some foreign nations were a nightmare, as they were almost uncontrollable and highly inaccurate when operated on full auto.

The one real problem with this weapon was its tendency to suffer from gas stoppages, definitely not ideal in a combat situation. The SLR had to be kept clean and be regularly broken down for it to operate at maximum reliability. Despite the irritating gas stoppages, its length and its weight of around 5lbs, I liked the L1A1 for its sheer stopping power. Anybody dropped by the 7.62 round of the FN on the battlefield was unlikely to get up again.

The British FN FAL L1A1

 

The FN FAL L1A1 being fired

Some of the FN’s issued to us from the armoury for range use were well past being simply knackered and invariably suffered from gas stoppages. I know of one guy in my unit who had a gas stoppage every second shot! I think other units sent all their old L1A1’s to us when they got the new SA80, as we were still using them after 1987. At least we had a lot of practicing breaking them down and cleaning them.

Uniform

I remember being issued with mostly second hand kit prior to the beginning of my recruit course. We had two pair of boots, one pair for day to day use and the other to be bulled to the max for the passing out parade. I hit the jackpot in that I was issued with a pair of lightweights that had sown-in creases. Lightweights were the standard issue olive green, poly-cotton trousers. They were comfortable enough to wear and lasted pretty well. I was issued with my DPM camouflage kit consisting of heavyweight trousers and combat jacket known as a ‘wombat’, at a later date.

I had no need to starch the life out of the lightweights, in order to produce a crease as sharp as a razor. Due to those sown-in creases I had an easy time of the ironing, much to the chagrin of my squads ‘drill pig’. He almost threw away his pace stick in disgust at just what a lucky bastard I had been. I am sure I got extra ‘square bashing’ just on the strength of my trousers and the ‘drill pigs’ displeasure thereof. The lightweights were tucked into trouser ties that kept them at the required height to meet the top of the boots. Puttees had long gone by my time.

It is probably worth mentioning at this point that the first week or two of the recruit course was an absolute nightmare. The ‘drill pig’ would work and beast the recruits using all kind of psychological shenanigans, including sleep deprivation, in an attempt to weed out those not suited to army life. In my squad some did fall by the wayside within the first week. Every day we were told that there was no disgrace in leaving if we felt it was not for us, the pressure was then ramped up and some cracked and went. Once those who could not hack it had gone, the ‘drill pig’ knew he had a squad he could make into professional soldiers.

Summer uniform, lightweights and cotton shirt 

Most of us had moments on that recruit course when the pressure got to us. It is at that point you both dig deep inside yourself and refuse to be beaten or you give up and leave the army. It is the time when you truly begin to know yourself and what you are really capable of. The pressure also forges your squad into a team who look out for and support each other. By the end of the recruit course the ‘drill pig’ was our best friend and much more of a mentor. Things were far more relaxed and a lot easier then, we even got a few days off.

 

A British Army film - gives a good picture of recruit training

The passing out parade was a very special moment in my life and it filled all of us who took part with a great sense of achievement and pride. It is something rarely found on ‘civvy street’ where a genuine sense of group commitment just does not exist. At least I have never yet found it and to be honest, I expect I never will.

However I digress and had best return to sartorial matters. Our boots were DMS - rubber soled ankle boots that had a smooth toe cap and heel which could be bulled to death for that parade ground shine. They were not the best boots on the planet but they did the job. In my small unit which was pretty relaxed, we did manage to get away with wearing German army ‘para boots’ as they were a lot more comfortable and better made.

Our socks were thick green woolen items that were warm enough, but on UK duty I used to put on more comfortable work boot socks, and generally tended to get away with wearing them. I was always more interested in comfort than military clothing dogma.

The first shirts ever issued to me were the notorious KF’s, properly known as Khaki Fatigue shirts. These were strong and long lasting, but about as comfortable as wearing a brillo pad. They made my recruit course a penance, except when I managed to sneak a cotton tee shirt underneath them. Those KF’s would make you itch and scratch as though infested with lice and were even worse if you sweated in them. After my recruit course and being assigned to my unit, I went out to the local army surplus store and bought the new cotton shirts that were then in service. They may have needed a lot more ironing and starching, but at least they were not an instrument of torture like the maddeningly abrasive KF’s.

When the weather turned colder as it frequently does in the UK, even during the so-called summer months, we pulled on the Jersey Heavy Wool, known to us and all squaddies as the ‘woolly pulley’. It was actually the only piece of kit initially issued to me that fitted properly. However, these sweaters tended to make it look as if you were wearing a colostomy bag when worn over lightweights belted with the vile plastic army issue belt. 

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to wear our smart-looking RCT stable belts in my unit, but it wasn’t for want of trying. We did manage to get permission to wear the metal RCT badges for our shirt epaulettes though, one minor victory for the plebs at least.

Now we come to the Beret, that essential piece of ‘noggin furniture’ for the squaddie. When first issued they must be soaked in water, worn wet and folded into the appropriate angle. That way they are moulded into a perfect fit. Mine was a bit small on issue – I was once told by my RSM that it looked like a ‘fucking helicopter landing pad’. I thought it looked rather dashing myself. Some of my mates had larger berets that I always thought made them seem like demented Parisian onion sellers. In my unit the cap badge was worn above the left eye and the long part of the beret tugged down over the right ear.

My Black RCT Beret and Regimental Plaque

In the RCT our berets were black, as was common for most tank and transport regiments. There is a whole spectrum of beret colours in the British Army and many denote specific regiments. The most famous are perhaps the maroon berets of the Parachute Regiment and the beige of the SAS. That said, I think the black ones look the smartest and are certainly easier to keep clean. I still have mine and just looking at it, on the times it tumbles out of the wardrobe, always brings back wonderful memories of good times with great people. 

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr