I didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect. We set off on Thursday to spend the night in Plymouth before crossing the Tamar to Tor Point on Friday morning for a day of celebrations of my son, Zane’s, passing out parade at HMS Raleigh. What an extraordinary and immensely moving experience it was.
Zane, as I may have mentioned before, took it on himself, with no guidance or much help from his parents, to enrol in the Royal Navy. He undertook all the pre-joining tests. He was offered a place at HMS Raleigh. Off he went for ten weeks of rigorous training with about fifty other recruits. Forty of them made the grade. Zane was one of the forty.
He was one of the youngest (he is seventeen). Many were in their late twenties. Some were in their thirties. All had to muck in together. After the parade he showed me the dormitory. There were rows and rows of incredibly narrow beds separated only by the lockers in which the recruits kept their immaculate kit. Just down the corridor was the ironing room, a large space filled with masses of ironing boards where the recruits ironed their uniforms every evening. It was all rather like what I imagine a particularly spartan 19th century boarding school might have been.
Anyway, back to the great day. It kicked off with a presentation in the theatre. There were about three hundred of us parents, family and friends (Zane did rather well on the godparent front) in the auditorium. We were shown a film of all the recruits had been through for the last ten weeks. In my weedy way, I have to say it would not have suited me. Up at the crack of dawn (actually rather earlier) every day. Horribly gruelling physical exercise. Overnight survival exercises on Dartmoor. Training with guns and bayonets. Obstacle courses which looked thoroughly lethal. Intensive navigation tuition. And, of course, endless polishing of boots and ironing of kit. To think my darling son had been through all that and not only survived but claimed to have loved it was astounding.
Next, while we were still in the theatre, the recruits were given their epaulettes. The names were announced one by one. Each recruit marched smartly across to the stage, was handed his or her epaulettes, shook hands with the officer presenting them and then stood at the back of the stage. Most were announced, simply, as “Recruit Smith” or “Recruit Jones” etc. But six of the forty were announced differently. They were described as “PT Superior Recruit Smith” etc. No explanation for this grand title was given. But grand it obviously was. I confess that, when I heard “PT Superior Recruit Utley” being called forward I felt tears of admiration and pride well up in my eyes.
You have probably worked out what “PT Superior” meant. Zane, and those five other recruits accorded the title, had demonstrated physical superiority of an extraordinary kind. As a result of being given the award, I can now reveal to you, Zane will play tennis and water polo for the Royal Navy, which carries a welcome cash bonus. But, more importantly, he will always know, throughout his naval career, that he excelled in his initial training.
Before lunch, tours of various parts of HMS Raleigh (a gigantic site) were laid on for us. We chose the submariners’ tour. That was for the rather obvious reason that Zane has opted to be a submariner. Again, not for me! The thought of spending months at a time crammed into a submarine under water does not appeal to me. But Zane seems keen. And one thing became very clear during the talks we were given: the most important crew member on a nuclear submarine is the chef. Morale depends almost entirely on the chef’s efforts. And what is Zane’s specialism in the Royal Navy? Yes, you got it right. He is going to be a submarine chef. Of course, I mustn’t tell you too much about what we saw in the submariners’ school (top secret, you know). But it really was fascinating.
Lunch was jolly good, but I know you want me to get on to the highlight of the day, the passing out parade itself.
We all took our places in a sort of gigantic aircraft hangar. Two divisions of recruits (one Navy and one Marines) marched in. The band of the Royal Marines, playing wonderful military marches, came in. Then the passing out recruits (now full naval ratings), divided into two “guards”, West and East, Marched in wearing their No. 1 uniforms and armed with rifles with fixed bayonets. There was a long dramatic pause. Then a Petty Officer bellowed out “Sir, the reviewing Officer approaches”. Those of the guests wearing uniform (there were a few) stood to attention. Then, accompanied by the commanding officer of HMS Raleigh, the imposing figure of the Chief of Defence People (not sure what bit of political correctness changed “Staff” to “People”) marched up to the dais.
There was then a very brief religious service which was followed by Lieutenant General Nugee reviewing the East and West Guards. And full marks to him. He knew this was one of the biggest days in the lives of the young men and women who were passing out. He chatted for some time to every other one (the commanding officer of HMS Raleigh spoke at equal length to the others). But it wasn’t boring for the spectators. The band of the Royal Marines continued to play (and march around).
The next bit was highly impressive. The East and West Guards performed, to music, an incredibly complicated arms drill. All movements were perfectly synchronised. When on earth, I wondered, did they find time to learn that?
Finally, the Divisions marched out, the band marched out and the order was given: “East and West Guards, for the last time, DISMISS.” Forty hats were thrown into the air and three hundred spectators screamed out their applause.
In my long life I have gone through several moving experiences, but Zane’s passing out parade must, I think, have been the most moving. As the title of this piece proclaims, my pride knew no bounds. That little boy, with a lot of help from the best navy in the world, has made himself into a man. I wasn’t even embarrassed as I felt the tears begin to fall down my cheeks.
The picture, by the way, shows Zane immediately after the parade with his justifiably proud sister at his side.