I think the first thing I should do is to thank The Pump for making me get on with something I’ve been going to do for ages – write down what I’ve done with my life so that I can hand it on to my family. Now Ray has given me the push I needed to get started.
I’m Nick Cann and was a post WW2 baby, born in West London, the youngest of 3 and the only son.
As a man of the church, my father had more than one sphere of responsibility. He was not just Curate of St. Paul’s Church, Hammersmith, he was also Chaplain and teacher in the Latymer Upper School, also in Hammersmith, and Chaplain to the Territorial Army. Mother was a State Registered Nurse. Father met her at his brother’s wedding which had been a case of the proverbial – the doctor marrying the nurse.
My schooling began at that same Latymer Upper School, but after my father died in 1958, I moved to a boy’s Boarding School for the orphans of clergymen – St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. As you can imagine, the school being in Canterbury it had connections to the Cathedral. I was in the school choir, which sang twice a day in the Chapel and three times on Sunday. We also sang when the Archbishop conducted confirmations.
The school had a Cadet Force which was affiliated to The East Kent Regiment, known affectionately as ‘The Buffs’, and this turned out to have a big impact on my future.
As a teenager, I was thinking of following in my father’s footsteps and opting for a career in the Church. I was certainly at the right school for such a choice. But as one of my grandparents had been the Captain of a Merchant Navy ship plying between the UK and Barbados in the West Indies – where he met and married my grandmother – it was thought that I might join the Royal Navy. And my other grandfather was Headmaster of the School in the village of Calstock in Cornwall.
When I was 17 and still in the school’s Cadet Force, one of those quirks of fate intervened. I saw an ad in the Daily Telegraph seeking young men who wished to make a career in the Army. I snipped out the form, filled it in, and using one of my precious stamps meant for sending letters home to Mum, I posted it – and forgot all about it.
What had tempted me was the thought that I would be able to continue to enjoy sporting activities. I played a lot of sport, loved it, and wanted to go on playing. The army seemed the choice most likely to further this wish. Six weeks later I was surprised to get a letter from the Ministry of Defence, together with a rail travel warrant and instructions to attend the Regular Commissions Board at Westbury in Wiltshire. Uncertain how to respond, I took the letter to the School’s Careers Master for his advice. Soon after I was on a train taking me to Wiltshire.
Selection for officer training at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS) – at that time a two year course – was based on assessments conducted over 3 days at Westbury. There were 3 possible outcomes:- the offer of a place at Sandhurst, rejection, or deferment for re-assessment after 2 years when the applicant was more mature.
Thanks to my interest in sport, I remember the physical aptitude test being a bit of a doddle. It was based around a traditional Army Obstacle Course, or Assault Course. We had one of these at school for our Cadet Force. I used to visit it regularly with a friend on a Sunday afternoon. We’d race against a stopwatch – and one another.
I also remember having to give a 2 minute talk after only 10 minutes of preparation. My subject was ‘match’. My father had used ‘Swan Vesta’ matches to light his pipe. And in Ealing, a veteran of WW2, wearing his medals, would be on the High Street on Saturday mornings selling matches from a tray. I used to stop and chat to him. So I was lucky. I could easily have talked for longer than the 2 minutes.
In fact, the whole Westbury experience was good, especially being woken up with a cup of tea in the morning. That had never happened to me before. A short time later, I received a letter saying that I had been awarded a place at Sandhurst. So Holy Orders gave way to a confirmed military career.
The two years at Sandhurst were divided into 6 terms, the first and last dealt with military matters, the others with academic subjects. My first term as a Junior Cadet was the most difficult. I was glad that my time in a Boarding School had set me up both mentally and physically for a life of collective routine. Though I’d found life seriously tough in Canterbury at first, it undoubtedly prepared me to cope with the shock of my first term at Sandhurst.
I wonder if any reader of The Pump remembers seeing Squadron Leader Jackie Mann on TV news in 1989. This Battle or Britain veteran, awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal, had been captured by Islamist terrorists in Lebanon, and spent two years as a hostage. In an interview after his release he was asked about the difficulties of such a long solitary captivity and how he had coped. His response was one I could understand completely. He told the reporter: ‘Having survived Boarding School and RAF Training, I was very well prepared to cope.’
When I’d been about to leave St. Edmund’s, RSM O’Leary, who had served in ‘The buffs’ and now ran the CCF as well as teaching PE, boxing and gymnastics, asked to see me. ‘Now, my son,’ he began – his favourite name for all us boys – ‘at Sandhurst you will be asked for your choice of Regiment. What will be your reply?’ ‘I haven’t really thought about that, RSM’ ‘My son, there is only one infantry regiment which is truly great and that’s The Buffs. Her Britannic Majesty’s 3rd Regiment of Foot. Its traditions go back to 1572, older than both the Royal Scots and the 1st of Foot. Now, how will you answer?’ Without hesitation I told him ‘The Buffs, RSM’ ‘Well done, my son. And you won’t regret it!’
No surprise that in the second term all our intake was asked for their choice of Regiment or Corps, in fact, to name 7 in order of preference. So top of my list went ‘The Queen’s Own Buffs’. In 1959 The Buffs had been amalgamated and renamed ‘The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment’
For my last choice I wrote – tongue in cheek – The Royal Army Chaplains. It had a ring of truth, though recognisable on close scrutiny as a pathetic attempt at humour.
The Council of Colonels did grant me my first choice, but by the time I was commissioned in 1967 the name had changed again to 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s Regiment. Nor was that the last name change. In 1992, when I was leaving the Army after 22 years service, a new amalgamation changed the name to The Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment.
As RSM O’Leary had predicted, I never did regret my choice of Regiment. In fact, even now I’m still involved – as Vice-President of the Colchester Branch of the Q.O.B’s Association.
At school, and during training for the Services, many lifelong friends are made. The Platoon I was in at Sandhurst still meets for lunch in London on the last Friday in November each hear. The original 20 has now dwindled to 15, but then this year, 2017, is our 50th Anniversary.
I’ve no doubt you will have realised where the saying ‘Steady the Buffs’ originated, as well as the lesser known response ‘devilish steady’.
At Sandhurst one is being trained to become ‘an officer and a gentleman’, which is why it is compulsory to wear a trilby when wearing mufti. If an Officer or NCO approaches a Cadet, the Cadet must pay his respects by raising his hat. I was returning to the Academy one lunchtime. The morning drill was over and as I crossed the vast area of the Drill Square, I saw the most senior Warrant Officer in the British Army, Academy Sergeant Major Phillips of the Welsh Guards, still in uniform and walking towards me. Quickly, I changed direction to enter the building sooner than planned in order to avoid meeting him.Â A stentorian voice bellowed ‘Officer Cadet Cann, a word if you please, Sir.’ I changed back to my original path. Meeting him in the middle of the square, I raised my ’tile’. He then informed me that ‘there is no need to avoid having to pay your respects to a member of Staff. We enjoy meeting our young gentlemen. You should not spoil the traditions of this great army of ours. Nor show your concern, which might be interpreted as fear. Now, on your way. I’ll see you this afternoon at the running track.’ I’d just been taught an important lesson.
30 years later, in 1998, when I was Bursar and Clerk at The London Nautical School – formed as a direct result of the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 – a young teacher came flying in late through entrance doors. I called out, ‘Mr Jones, a word if you please.’ When he came to a halt right in front of me, I passed on to him the worthwhile advice I’d received earlier myself from the RSM.
I’ve often thought my grandfather would have been pleased to know that I had, after all, been involved with the navy, even if indirectly.
In my 27 years in the Army I served several operational tours in N. Ireland. I also served with the BAOR in the Ruhr Valley, and in Canada, Brunei, Oman, Cyprus, Zimbabwe and Uganda. My final appointment was in the |Ministry of Defence Main Building in London as a Staff Officer in direct support of the Head of the Army. Many of these appointments were really interesting as they included – the 1st Gulf War, the Re-Unification of Germany, the Collapse of the Warsaw Pact and defence cuts, including to my own Regiment.
I visited 22 countries altogether on military duties of one kind and another. After I retired from the military in 1992, I spent 15 years in Education Administration before a second retirement in 2007.
But I didn’t put my feet up. I used the skills I’d acquired in the Army for 9 years of self-employment, including Secretary of Millwall F.C’s Community Trust, and as Secretary, Treasurer or Chairman in various voluntary organisations.
In 1996, we bought our house here in West Dereham. We’d thought we’d like to settle in Somerset as its only 2 hours from London and the Oval and Lord’s cricket, and well on the way to Cornwall where my father’s family originated. We weren’t having much success when two properties on the other side of the country came to light, and here we are in West Dereham.
Following a lunch in the Village Hall on Remembrance Sunday, 2015, I was asked if the Village could have its own British Legion Branch. We began with 15 members, which has now doubled. We have no great ambitions. We’re just a bunch of people with similar ideals and willing to support a good cause. We have 4 Sunday meetings each year, lasting for about an hour. On Remembrance Sunday we meet for a sit-down lunch in the Village Hall. It has been good to be part of the revival of a Branch which was here in the ’50s and ’60s. Long may the Branch continue to flourish.
I began with thanks for being asked to put my memories on paper. A busy life has meant that – until now – it had remained an ambition more or less at the top of my to-do list. Now the ball has been set rolling, I mean to make time to keep it that way – and get on with the rest of my memoirs. In the meantime, I hope you have found this first chapter of interest.
Edited by Jean Marler on behalf of The Editor