Mike Tanner was a Cub, Scout and Venture Scout. In 1988 he was awarded the Chief Scouts Award in Baden Powell House, London. In 1989 he joined the Royal Marines as a Commando. Today he is the Commandant of the Commando Training Centre, responsible for training all of the UKs Commandos. Without his time in Scouting he recognises that he would never have sought the adventure of being a Commando. This is his story...
Aged 15 I had ideas of becoming a court room barrister, blasting common sense into the criminal justice system! One week of work experience in a local solicitors office persuaded me that that definitely wasn’t my career path. My time in the Cubs and Scouts had always motivated me and I enjoyed the physical challenges that the Scouting movement presented me, especially: long distant hiking, climbing, camping and canoeing. I wandered into a Armed Forces recruiting centre and was met by an inspiring Royal Marines Commando Sergeant. He quickly concluded (correctly) that I knew absolutely nothing about the Services, never mind the Royal Marines. He challenged me (mentally) ‘Would you like to live in a jungle for a while? Could you survive in the Arctic? Are you tough enough to live off survival rations’, that sort of thing. I found it thoroughly enjoyable – I’d never asked myself those questions – this guy just asked them and waited for me to reply. He also challenged me physically, he asked how many pull-ups I could do. I’d never done a pull-up in my life – so I said about 20. He said ‘Great there’s a pull-up bar over there – let’s see!’. Turns out I could do 12 and he thought that was reasonable. Much more importantly I thought he seemed to have lived a life worth living: interesting, challenging, honourable and rewarding, and surrounded by likeminded people, albeit from all walks of life.
A couple of months later, aged 16, I attempted the Potential Officers Course (POC) - and failed on the Endurance Course. It turns out Royal Marines have to be able to run long distances, cross country and fast – and that my years of playing rugby (second row) hadn’t prepared me well for that sort of thing. But again, more importantly it challenged me, I liked everything I saw at the Commando Training Centre and was determined to come back and smash it! In the holidays between Lower 6th and Upper 6th I spent 7 weeks living in the Lae jungle covered mountains of Papua New Guinea, as part of a British Schools Exploring Society expedition. On return from that I knew the answer to a couple of the recruiting Sergeant’s questions ( I liked the jungle and I knew now what it was like to live off rations). I returned to the Commando Training Centre, passed the POC and joined the Royal Marines before I’d even left school, on a scheme where the military would pay me to go to university. I was in, 30 years later, the rest has passed in a very enjoyable blur!
A mix of lots of people I suppose. My family who knew nothing of the military – but clearly respected it. And then - all the Royal Marines I ever met – they were just great people. In meeting them I realised that I like to be challenged and wanted to do something that meant something and I realised that they did too. I met kindred spirits I suppose. They didn’t moan when they were 20 miles into a 30 mile hike and its started raining – they just laughed about the predicament and marched harder. They were neither bothered by my luke warm academic achievements or impressed by my rugby prowess. The only question was – did I have what it takes to be a Commando? Could I be trusted? The transparent meritocracy of that system is in itself inspiring.
Endurance running, malaria and a couple of tricky moments in some far flung war zones.
Taking charge of a particularly exciting moment in a war zone. My entire senior leadership team were trapped elsewhere, things were going wrong and someone needed to step up and sort a few things out. It didn’t need to be me. But I did ‘step up’. There is a saying that ‘the only gift in war is honour.’ I was glad to survive that war with my honour intact, knowing that my men respected me and I’d done the right things at the right times. That was 14 years ago now and I still think most days about the things that happened, such was the experience.
Never give up.
Self-belief, which comes from doing, often failing and standing back up again and finding out that your resolve can’t be beaten unless you let it be.
Letting down the people that believe in me. How do I deal with it: just find the answer to ‘what is the right thing to do here’ – then do it. Everything seems so much easier when you have a plan and you know you’re doing it for the right reasons.
It reminds you of how fundamentally simple life is. A few years ago I used to run all of the 30 mile tests with the Commando recruits across Dartmoor, every 2 weeks. Some days it was absolutely lashing down with icy rain, making our ears go white cold. Other days we waded across swollen rivers and a few days we worried about heat injuries. But they were all just great fun. You went to bed feeling properly tired and knew you could eat like a velociraptor for days afterwards! I loved the sense when I was in the Scouts of challenging the hill/ mountain to a duel. I still do it now. If it makes you slow down its beating you. If it makes you stop – its beaten you. It’s a great mantra to keep you moving.
I can reflect on a patchwork quilt of lots of different moments. Night-time skiing along at -27C, way North of the Arctic Circle, navigating a Troop of Marines to a helicopter pick-up. No noise other than the slicing of skis through snow, above us a whirling green dragon of Northern lights. Sleeping on my own in an igloo for 4 weeks at 12,000ft in the Sierra Nevada mountains (btw, it was extraordinarily comfortable once I made a few home improvements!). Lying on the deck of a small raiding craft driving out to sea in the mist and dark – and then spotting our mother ship – and driving into the 'red lit' well-deck to be met with cheers from those that had waited up for us.
Meeting a goat herder in the middle of the Bosnian war, who seeing me leaning against a Land Rover, strode over and started juggling table tennis balls that he pulled out of my ears! Jumping out of a helicopter into Poole harbour, paddling a Klepper canoe until my hands were raw. Navigating across a volcanic rock strewn desert by compass, whilst chewing a Werther’s original toffee and listening to ACDC. Bathing in a mountain stream that overlooked much of Jordan. Standing on the bridge deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS (aircraft carrier) as it sailed into Valetta harbour, Malta, complete with 600 Commandos I was in charge of. Returning in the dark to my rucsac that had been left in a room full of broken glass and battle debris, having been distracted all day sorting some things out for other people, to find that someone had cleaned the space for me and unpacked my rollmat, sleeping bag and put some food on for me. Kicking a crocodile whilst swimming across a river in Papua New Guinea. And so many more. I used to offer my children a ‘proper’ bed time story from the book shelf and then they could pick an Arctic, jungle or desert ‘Daddy’ story to finish with!
My wife - who has travelled all of this journey with me. And several Commanding Officers, all of whom have shaped me. The best of which once told me that ‘leadership, like energy, is transferred from person to another. In that sense, we learn from all that have led us and shape those that follow on from us. I have always tried to live by that, when reflecting on how others might see me.
Not sure. One of the great things about a military career is you seldom know what’s coming next – as we say in the Commandos, ‘Uncertainty is the only certainty’. But whatever it is I know it will involve challenge of some sort and being surrounded by people I like working with.
Look after your people. Ruthlessly pursue common sense solutions. Don’t give up. It’ll always look better in the morning. There’s never a good time to buy a dog (so just do it!).