Unit History: Royal Armoured Corps Centre Bovington
Bovington became a military camp in 1899. Originally it was used as an exercise area and rifle range. In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, it became the initial training camp of the newly formed 17th Infantry Division. Towards the end of 1916 it became the Tank Training Centre. Since then it has undergone various changes in nomenclature, culminating in the present ‘Armour Centre’ and is now the British Army’s Centre of Excellence for training in the core skills of armoured warfare using tanks and other Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs). These skills include AFV driving and maintenance, together with the operation of associated weapon systems and communication equipment.
The first boy soldiers to be posted to Bovington began training in January 1920. They were all under fifteen on enlistment and were considered to be of sufficiently high academic standard to be able to pass the Army Certificate of Education (ACE) 2 during their first year of service. There were initially 40 of them, but their number soon grew to 200. They had been recruited to make up for the lack of qualified mechanics volunteering for the Tank Corps. Their training therefore concentrated on the technical aspects of their trade. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of their time was devoted to elementary theoretical work, physical training, drill and organised games. This scheme came to an end in 1924 with the opening of the Army Apprentices’ Schools.
The next boy soldiers to arrive in Bovington did so when the Boys’ Squadron, RAC, commanded by a Major, was formed in 1952. Initially there were 44 Junior Soldiers but their number soon increased to 200. Age entry was set at 15 years and the boys were trained to take their place as crewmen in the regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps. The educational content of their course was aimed at the passing of those examinations which would give them exemption from adult soldiers’ examinations, viz:
a. Junior Certificate – exemption from ACE 3 – necessary for promotion to Corporal
b. Intermediate Certificate – exemption from ACE 2 – necessary for promotion to Sergeant
c. Senior Certificate – exemption from ACE 1 – necessary for promotion to Warrant Officer
The unit was obviously successful in this aim because in 1956, for instance, the last year of the unit’s existence as a squadron, 86 of the 94 boys passing out obtained the Intermediate Certificate or higher qualification.
The Junior Leaders’ Regiment RAC developed from the Boys’ Squadron. This development took place gradually from August 1956 with a steady increase in numbers and the formation of a second squadron - ‘B’ Squadron, in December 1956. When the Regiment formally came into existence in January 1957 it was commanded by a Major but during 1958 the appointment was upgraded to Lieutenant Colonel.
Prior to the evolution of the Boys’ Squadron to Regimental status, the highest rank a boy could achieve was Boy Sergeant. In 1957 Boy Soldiers were renamed Junior Leaders, Boy NCOs became Junior NCOs and the Regiment saw its first Junior Squadron Sergeant Majors. In September 1958 J/SSM M Burgess was promoted to become the first ever Junior Regimental Sergeant Major.
During 1958 the strength of the Regiment rose to 450, (including 100 Junior Bandsmen) and a third squadron - ‘C’ Squadron was formed in May 1958. Initially ‘C’ Squadron’s role was one of running short courses for the new intakes. On 3 May 1958, it received an intake of 72 new boys, this being a record in the history of the Regiment. As the Regiment continued to grow, by 1959 ‘C’ Squadron began to carry out normal Squadron duties and activities.
The role of the Regiment was – "to produce and train the future warrant officers and sergeants of the Royal Armoured Corps". On the educational side, emphasis continued to be on ‘Education for Promotion’ but the Education Wing was also responsible for providing evening training for every boy. Hobbies ranged from meteorology to motor maintenance. Furthermore, many Junior Leaders attended Outward Bound courses. Indeed the training aim of the Regiment (to quote the Regimental magazine of Summer 1958) became:
"…….to mould and develop the character of the boy so that he leaves the Regiment a trained leader, qualified in a crewman trade, holding at least a second education certificate, and having been trained at the Army Outward Bound School".
This continued to be the aim of the Junior Leaders’ training for many years. There were of course occasional changes in the training organisation. In 1959, for instance, a separate Pass Off Troop was formed with the object of bridging the gap between the ordered pattern of life of a Junior Leader and the comparative freedom of a trained soldier. In 1963 the organisation was changed again. Each intake was divided into two squadrons in one of which a new boy spent four 14 week terms doing General Military Studies and Education before joining a combined squadron to do a term each in gunnery, radio and driving. He then spent his final term preparing for Pass Off. In this same year it was decided that in future, the best ten Junior Soldiers in Pass Off Troop should be selected for a parachute course and a further ten would be tested for suitability for pilot training. In 1969 the squadron organisation completed its full circle. It was decided to abolish Pass Off Troop and the Trade Training Squadron. Henceforth there would be three parallel squadrons and a boy would remain with one squadron throughout his time at the Junior Leaders’ Regiment.
1963 was also the year in which the changeover in Education Wing staff was completed. This had begun in 1961 with the decision to fill henceforth all Royal Army Education Corps (RAEC) posts with either commissioned officers or civilian lecturers. In 1961 six officers and one civilian lecturer took up their appointments. By the end of 1963 all warrant officers and non-commissioned officers had departed and the Education Wing staff consisted of 11 RAEC officers and 11 civilian lecturers.
By 1965 a vast new building programme had been in progress for the past ten years. Two brick built barrack blocks had been completed and occupied in 1958 and during that time training wings and barrack rooms had been moving from one wooden hut to another as circumstances demanded. A brand new Education Wing was completed and with a permanent home, could look forward to improving standards in more suitable surroundings. In 1961 it had been decided to cease entering candidates for the Junior Test and to concentrate on passing the Intermediate Test so that the brighter boys could tackle the Senior Test all the more quickly. In 1969, to take one year as an example, 99% boys gained a full Intermediate Certificate and 29% a full Senior. Furthermore, a number of boys who had completed their Senior – the number varied between six and twenty – continued their studies in preparation for GCE ‘O’level.
On 1st April 1970 The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Wareham bestowed upon the Regiment the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Wareham in appreciation of the long association between the Regiment and the Borough and in recognition of the highly important role of the Regiment in support of the Armed Forces of the Crown and conferred upon the Regiment the right and distinction to march through the streets of the Borough on all ceremonial occasions with bayonets fixed and drums beating. The Regiment exercised this Freedom regularly up until its final Freedom of Wareham Parade when it marched through the Town for the last time on 13th September 1992.
In 1971, to commemorate fifty years of boys’ training at Bovington, HRH The Princess Anne visited the Regiment as Inspecting Officer of the Spring Pass Off Parade. In the same year the system of Army Certificates of Education and their Junior Army equivalents came to an end. The Army Certificate of Education was replaced by the Education for Promotion Certificate (EPC) which was primarily for soldiers already within the promotion bracket and was therefore unsuitable for Junior Soldiers.