When I first tell people that I work for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) the first thing people ask is “Don’t you mean the RAF?”. After explaining what I do, I’m then asked “I thought you said you weren’t in the Royal Navy, so why were you at Dartmouth and what did you do?” It’s a good question and it’s one that I am only able to answer now that I’ve been there and come out the other side. There was very little information available as to what to expect, and those seemingly in the know muttered things about ‘learning how to use a knife and fork’. It was of course much, much more than that and most people weren’t expecting the course to be anything like it was. I write this post in the hope that it will provide future intakes with some useful information.
I’m going to start at the end: the photograph below shows my Passing Out Parade at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth back in November 2013 and it marked the end of an 8 week course that all new Officer entrants to the RFA have to do. It’s a condition of employment to attend this course whether you’re already a qualified Officer, starting a Cadetship or an RFA rating becoming an Officer. It’s worth noting that where relevant, your employment with the RFA starts the day you report at BRNC.
In a very busy 8 weeks the RFA course at BRNC covers: Leadership; Communication; Teamwork; Roles of the RFA & RN; History of the RFA; Seamanship; Etiquette; Ceremonial Training (Drill); Meteorology & Fitness. All very worthwhile and useful stuff but the bigger question is how all this fits together…
EDIT: THIS COURSE HAS NOW CHANGED. THE LEADERSHIP ELEMENT IS NOW MOSTLY BASED ON THE RIVER. THE RFA COURSE IS A CONSTANTLY CHANGING BEAST.
Week 1 You arrive at BRNC on a Saturday wearing a suit and get an introduction to BRNC and both the RN & RFA. Your uniform will be in your cabin waiting for you. From now on, you will refer to BRNC as a ship and apply all appropriate naval terms (get your hands on a copy of ‘Jackspeak’, it’ll come in handy). The RFA course starts two weeks into the first phase of the RN Commissioning course, a phase of 10 weeks known as ‘Militarisation’, you will spend a lot of time with your RN counterparts – talk to them, you have things to learn from them and vice versa. You’ll get talks from various high ranking Officers both RN and RFA, fill in loads of paperwork and you’ll start lectures delivered by Royal Marines from the Royal Naval Leadership Academy. It is crucial that you listen to the lectures and lessons from the Leadership Academy and then DO EXACTLY AS YOU’RE TOLD. There is also the fitness tests… you will be required to complete the Royal Navy Fitness Test (RNFT), which is a 1.5 mile run. Whilst you don’t have to pass it to complete the RFA course, you will find yourself resitting it every weekend until you do. You’ll also get the delights of the swimming test, again you don’t have to pass it but resitting is a tad inconvenient.
Week 2 After applying EXACTLY WHAT YOU’VE BEEN TOLD from the lessons by the Marines you will be heading off with your RN colleagues to complete the Basic Leadership Development package or BLD– Carried out at Okehampton Battle Camp in Dartmoor. You will be staying in an Army training camp and being taught basic infantry skills such as living in the field, why things are seen, rations and making a shelter. Be under no illusions, it will be everything you’ve ever imagined about Army – 20 man rooms, basic shower facilities, wearing combat uniform, and being outside in whatever the weather has to throw at you. Yes, you didn’t join the Army and sure, you’ll be cold but this is how the military ‘does’ leadership. It makes you cold and uncomfortable and then asks you to make decisions, solve problems and lead your team. And yes, I am well aware that the RFA are civilians and I am sure you will hear some grumbling about being cold, wet, hungry, miserable and not ‘signing up for this’. Just remember that you did sign up for this, you joined a very specialised organisation that works shoulder to shoulder with the RN. The RFA cadets have it easier compared to the RN – we don’t carry full bergens, webbing or a weapon. BLD ends with two days ‘bivvying’ in the grounds of BRNC, getting very little sleep and completing two days of practical leadership tasks.
Week 3 Is mostly about basic boat handling in motor whalers and lectures covering all facets of the Royal Navy operations including Royal Marines, Logistics and Maritime ops. Finally, you’ll get to do some boaty type things, and it’s a very welcome break from BLD the week before.
Week 4 Sees your newly acquired boating skills developed as you learn manoeuvres in a bigger boat, expanding on the basics taught in the previous week. You’ll also get a series of Strategic Studies lectures which cover naval history and the Falklands campaign including lessons learnt and the RFAs role in it. In English lessons you’ll cover basic grammar rules and learn how to present to your peers, culminating in a 5 minute presentation to the group on a defence subject. There’s also a series of lectures out the RFA itself covering:manning levels; career progression and the appointing system.
Week 5 More time on the River Dart, (I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun) with an introduction to big ship seamanship. anchoring, buoy jumping and a mock light line transfer Replenishment at Sea (RAS). RFA Specific seamanship is also taught to highlight the differences between the two organisations. There’s also a RIB acquaint and clay pigeon shooting.
Week 6 This is pretty heavy academic week with further Strategic Studies, meteorology and Ship Technology lessons and you have to pass a test about the RFA.
Week 7 sees you return to Dartmoor to complete the the Assessed Basic Leadership Exercise (ABLE) which involves a march carrying your bags followed by 3 nights on Dartmoor where you’ll have to lead 2 practical leadership tasks per student. Again, just do exactly as you’ve been told before – if the Marines tell you to sleep in trainers and socks, then that is what you should do. This is the big one of the RFA course and this is the assessment of you as a leader and a team member. It is hard and you will be tired but you’ll also feel a massive sense of pride when you finish it. You will be completing ABLE alongside your RN colleagues, talk to them, help where you can – however hard you’re finding it, they’re probably finding it worse. RFA cadets carry daysacks but RN ones carry full kit at all times including webbing and a weapon. RN cadets regulary get ‘beastings’ from the Marines but because we’re civvies, we don’t. Believe me when I say that having to stand and watch your colleagues get a beasting is a humbling experience. You should feel justifiably proud to have completed ABLE.
Week 8 The time has flown by and every morning this week will see you doing doing ceremonial training practise for the Pass out Parade on Thursday. There is also a Maritime leadership exercise involving up to 3 boats being deployed on the river building stuff you learned in week 3. It may be the last week but there’s still time to work on team building and leadership - you’ll spend a morning dangling from ropes on the high ropes course.
And suddenly you’re on the parade square at BRNC in front of your family and friends having successfully completed the RFA Initial Officer’s course. It’s a proud moment and one you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Here are my top tips for the RFA at BRNC Course:
- Bring suitable clothing, you’ll spend all your evenings in ‘dog robbers’ – think chinos, tie & blazers (minus tie for the girls though).
- Be prepared to be eating your meals in a very grand hall, wearing smart clothes
- Work on your fitness. Passing the RNFT in week one will keep your stress levels down.
- You will be issued some Army combat boots before you start the course – make sure you break them in. You will be thankful for it on BLD.
- Take a kettle and brew making facilities.
- You will have your own cabin but take things to make it feel more like home. Photographs, duvet covers etc
- Invest in decent waterproof black gloves. You won’t be able to use them for BLD but you will be very grateful for them on ABLE.
- Same for a headtorch with a red filter!
- Same for dry bags! (Think canoeing)
- Compression shorts are an excellent choice of underwear for long days on the moors (reduces/eliminates chafing).
- Buy the most expensive iron you can afford.
- When you buy sandwich bags (it’s on the kit list) get the ones that press to close not the zip ones. You will need more than you think you will.
- You don’t need to spend money on a fountain pen, you don’t really need one…
- Don’t bother with denim, it’s the devil’s cloth.
- Do exactly what you’re told to do and nothing more/less.
There are things that I’ve not detailed here but I don’t want to completely ruin the surprise: Good luck and enjoy!