‘Are you sure, red one? Think carefully, red one.’ The Group Leader’s unflinching gaze bore into the nervous-looking young man stood in front of an audience of six of his peers and three high-ranking Army officers who looked on impassively while scribbling on large, white noteboards.
The other candidates sat in mute sympathy in a semi-circle with their backs to me, clad in all-in-one green jump suits – distinguishable only by the numbers on their red bibs.
You could have heard a pin drop in the briefing room as the lad shuffled uncomfortably, looked to the ceiling for inspiration and then replied: ‘1500 hours, sir?’, more in hope than anything.
‘You’re making it up, red one,’ replied the emotionless young Rifles officer from behind his desk. ‘Does anyone else know the answer? How about you, red three?’
And so it went on for two hours as each member of ‘red group’ was put under the spotlight during the planning exercise element of their three-day assessment at the Army Officer Selection Board (AOSB) at Westbury in Wiltshire.
You may have heard of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – the British Army’s initial training centre for officers. Well, to get to Sandhurst you have to graduate, for want of a better phrase, from AOSB.
In order to be selected for officer training, a candidate – male or female – has to prove themselves mentally and physically able to cope with the rigours of one of the toughest jobs in the world.
There is no hiding place for candidates at Westbury: It isn’t just a matter of how academically gifted you are; It isn’t just a matter of how fit you are; It certainly doesn’t matter if you have a relative who was or is a serving officer. There are no ‘jobs for the boys’. Or girls, for that matter.
At Westbury all young men and women are equal. It matters not whether you attended a state or private school or whether you have a plummy accent or grew up on a rough northern council estate. AOSB is a genuine leveller.
Referred to only by the colour of their bib and a randomly-assigned number, over several days candidates are put through a complex series of assessments designed to expose any weaknesses and character flaws.
I was shown a picture of His Royal Highness Prince Harry, taken during his time at AOSB. “He was Blue 13,” said one of the officers with clear pride. “He was treated no differently to anyone else. The truth is, first and foremost, Harry’s a very good soldier.”
If he hadn’t of been, HRH simply wouldn’t have made it through Westbury. As one Lieutenant Colonel told me: “I’ve just returned from Afghan, so I’m fairly ‘current’. There’s nothing like an operational tour to reinforce the fact that we can’t afford to have weak leaders for our soldiers because they could get people killed.”
It is a fascinating and, at times, emotionally draining experience to watch these young people give their all to join Sandhurst’s elite.
You can’t help but feel for them. Indeed, at times it’s human nature for a civilian observer like me to even root for them – if only to alleviate the awful, awkward silence as they grapple with a complex equation or struggle desperately on an outdoor obstacle. Bear in mind the candidates receive no affirmation. They are given no positive or negative feedback during the process.
They have no idea how they are being scored on those ubiquitous white boards the assessors carry around.
During their time at AOSB the candidates live together, eat together and endure together a series of tests which will, ultimately, result in almost half of them being rejected – or ‘not selected’ in kinder phraseology. They can apply for selection once more, but AOSB operates a strict ‘two strikes and you’re out’ policy – and it’s worth saying that 20 per cent more candidates pass at the second attempt.
Set in the beautiful grounds of an impressive country house, Westbury immediately sets a tone which is aspirational.
Candidates are not competing against each other. Instead they are competing against the minimum standard expected of an Army officer.
That could be, for example, completing X number of obstacles on the individual assault course in three minutes. Or it could be how they score when briefing their peers on a command task. Or it could be displaying a degree of empathy or the integrity expected of someone who may one day lead troops into a fire-fight or represent his or her country in a battle for hearts and minds.
At every point during the three-day process the candidates are observed by a number of officers who are themselves being monitored by an assessor whose job it is to ensure that standards are maintained across the board and that each candidate is given the same opportunity and undergoes the same level of scrutiny as their peers.
The officers who will ultimately make the decision on who is selected (and who isn’t) do not compare notes during the assessment. They focus solely on their part of the process. Some have limited knowledge of a candidate’s background and academic prowess – others do not even know a candidate’s name throughout the testing.
On Friday morning the officers come together as a ‘board’ to discuss each young person in depth and score them according to a remarkably scientific yet flexible grading system.
As someone who takes great interest in the military and is exceptionally proud of this newspaper’s long links with the Armed Forces and our local units, what was so reassuring about my visit to Westbury was that so much time and resource was devoted to each individual. The system is fair and robust. Nothing is left to chance when choosing the officers to lead our boys (and girls) into battle.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter which part of the country you’re from, what school you attended or what your parents do for a living. It’s what’s inside that counts.
The bottom line is: Anyone can earn a place at Sandhurst – if they’re made of the right stuff.
What was also life-affirming is that by the end of the week even those candidates who were patently struggling by all AOSB measures had been accepted into their ‘team’ and were receiving the same sort of help, support and encouragement from their peers that one would expect from a platoon commander: The kind of support they can expect from the Army ‘family’.
If you’re wondering what happened to ‘red one’, he passed. Bright as a button, extremely likeable and with good leadership potential he has been identified as having the raw potential for being a fine officer one day.
He received his congratulatory letter this week and will be at Sandhurst in a few months.
All the young people I saw were the best of their generation. Exposed to the stress of thorough interviews, tough physical assessments, academic trials and mental aptitude tests they were pushed to their limits without complaint.
I came away with nothing but admiration for both those who were selected for Sandhurst and those who weren’t but who, during their time at Westbury, learned an awful lot about themselves in what is, effectively, an intensive three-day job interview.
It underlined for me the importance of looking for the potential in all young people and the dangers of judging any book by its cover.
For more information about applying to become an Army officer, visit: http://www.army.mod.uk/join
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel