Meeting the members of the Portsmouth Territorial Army

D Company of the the 3rd Battalion Prince of Wales Regiment on a training exercise.    Picture: Allan Hutchings (113036-494)
D Company of the the 3rd Battalion Prince of Wales Regiment on a training exercise. Picture: Allan Hutchings (113036-494)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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When friends and colleagues were opening presents and eating turkey, Andy Palmer was being fired at with bullets and grenades.

Christmas 2008 was a day to remember as Andy and his military colleagues came under sustained fire from Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Feasting and fun were the last things on their mind as rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire whistled and exploded around them.

The Taliban attack on their front line compound was coming from five different directions and they exchanged fire for several hours.

It might be part of life on the front line for a soldier but for civilians it’s a terrifying scenario.

And what makes it even more remarkable is that Andy spends most of his working life sitting behind a computer in an office and wearing a suit.

In his day job, 27-year-old Andy is a mechanical design engineer. But in his spare time he’s Corporal Andy Palmer – a trained infantryman with the Territorial Army,

He was sent to Afghanistan attached to a regular army unit for six months. And as such he had to adapt from the office to the battle zone.

‘There’s a lot of pre-deployment training as well as the training you already have,’ says Andy, who lives in Southsea. ‘You’re well prepared and to be honest, it’s a case of if you let it get to you, you’re going to struggle. And I think you cope because of the group dynamic. Everyone brings each other through.’

His words come as the government plans for a greater TA role in army front line duties and more investment in reserve forces across the military.

These part-time fighting forces will have a bigger part to play in the nation’s defence and that’s likely to mean more deployment to war zones.

Andy was mobilised as a member of Portsmouth’s D Company, which is part of Third Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

The machine gun platoons of D Company consist of students, college lecturers, builders and all manner of professionals and tradesmen who cast off their work-wear for part-time life in the military.

‘The image of the TA has been through a transformation,’ says Captain Glyn Arnold at the unit’s Hilsea base. ‘With Iraq and Afghanistan people realise that they can fit seamlessly into the regular army.’

Nine people from the unit have been deployed to Afghanistan. They are undergoing training in Germany before flying out in a couple of weeks. Their roles will include mentoring the Afghan army, instructing them in how to spot explosive devices and joining front line operations.

The unit has an increasing part to play in the military but Glyn says there aren’t enough people at the Hilsea base. Most of the vacancies are for infantry training but they are also looking for people to train in clerical and medical roles.

It is not compulsory for those who join the unit to go to a conflict zone but Glyn points out that the training is geared for battle. Those who sign up should be realistic about the consequences and many drop out as training is demanding.

The former regular army major, who is the company’s staff admin officer, says he has huge admiration for the territorials. ‘A civilian who jumps into a uniform on a Wednesday night and some weekends going off to a place like Afghanistan, being mobilised for months, that’s a really special person.’

Thankfully, Andy and his colleagues were uninjured in the Taliban attack. During his time in Afghanistan he also joined foot and vehicle patrols, talking to village elders, gathering intelligence and remaining vigilant.

And he says there are plenty of positive sides of army life. ‘You don’t bond with people anywhere else quite like you do in the army. At the end of an office working day, everyone goes home. But we were cooking together, watching telly together, socialising. You make some really good friendships.’

But he isn’t yet sure if he’ll head to Afghanistan again because of work commitments. After all, he has a whole other life to think about.