Clive Richards, artist, fromer Royal Marine and publicity manager for SSAFA

The Big Interview with Clive Richards – “I couldn’t wait to try my hand at blowing things up and scaling cliffs”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
Clive Richards, artist, fromer Royal Marine and publicity manager for SSAFA – pictures copyright of Chris Saville

I have said previously in some of my previous Big Interview pieces, the people with best stories to tell are not necessarily the TV personalities, sportspeople or authors, but actually those who might be classed as ‘ordinary’ – whatever the heck that means!

As someone who has studied History at postgraduate level, I am forever fascinated by veterans of our armed forces – the men and women who put their lives on the line for their country and the principles it stands for.

I am therefore pleased that I got to interview a former Royal Marine, Clive Richards, about his life and exploits. We start, as usual, at the very beginning and we immediately understand where his inspiration behind eventually joining the military comes from:

“My father was a wartime parachutist and was the youngest sergeant in his battalion. On being demobbed he started on the shop floor of Ford’s motor plant in Dagenham. He rose over a period of 35 years to be Parts and Service Manager for the western hemisphere.

‘My mother was a young reporter at a national newspaper and had the incredible experience of covering the VE celebrations in Trafalgar Square, but spent most of this assignment being kissed by elated servicemen. I hasten to add this was before she met my father!”

A quick note to add here: Clive has since become publicity manager for the Devon branch of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) following his time in the armed forces. It turns out that he has definitely got a bit of both his father and mother in him!

“My older brother and I fought daily but eventually put away our gloves when I grew bigger than him at the age of 14. He is now a PGA professional golfer in California. We get on much better now!

‘For the first three years of my life our little family lived in one room in the terraced house owned by my father’s parents. I can still remember the larder in a corner of the room by my mattress. It was made of a wooden crate with a curtain pulled across it which I was never allowed to touch in case I ate more than my fair share!

‘When I was eight, we moved to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire into a modern detached house on a new estate. The adjoining wasteland was an adventure playground for me and I used to take my gang and play at making dens and lighting fires.

‘I remember being told by my primary school teacher in London that I would never amount to anything, but at Wellingborough something clicked and I won a scholarship to the local public school but opted for the Grammar because they played rugby and didn’t have to wear straw boaters!”

Clive’s brother isn’t the only sporting one in the family, though. Equal to the love of the military, rugby also holds a special place in his heart – something which he would go on to excel at in his early adulthood.

“I excelled at maths because my teacher was the Northampton and England wing forward and I idolised him. I can remember at the age of 13 tackling him and bringing him down in a training session. The words ‘good tackle second row’ still give me a warm glow to this day.

‘I was bullied at junior school for being different – very tall – but when I took to the field and scored try after try in rugby matches at Wellingborough grammar everyone wanted to be my friend. That didn’t sway me particularly, I just loved the physical challenge of it and the feeling of running fast.

‘We moved to Scotland when I was 14 and I attended Sterling High School where I was bullied again for being English. It was pretty serious this time because my adversaries were much bigger, but again my rugby prowess changed attitudes and I became sort of accepted.”

Despite the challenges faced by Clive during his schooling, Rugby continued to be a positive outlet, which would take him further than he probably ever expected.

Painting of Dartmoor by Clive Richards, artist, fromer Royal Marine and publicity manager for SSAFA

“When my father was based in Bruxelles in 1973, I went to visit him for a summer break after completing my A levels at VI form college in Essex, where we had moved three years before. He came home to our, by that time, very comfortable house with a proper larder, bearing the exciting news that over a working lunch with John Davidson, a senior executive from Texaco, he had discussed his rugby-mad son. John was an ex Scottish international second row forward and asked my father if I was any good. He confirmed I’d recently played against an Australian school touring side for southern counties. John offered to make an introduction to the team in Burgundy he had reached the quarter finals of the French championship with a few years before; Châlon-sur-Saône.

‘I was greeted off the train in Châlon two weeks later by the club directors and various members of the press. It was a bit overwhelming for an innocent 18 year-old and I was in a bit of a daze when after a short trial I was offered a contract, then taken to a night-club and royally entertained until the small hours in a typically wonderful French way!

‘I played there for two seasons. It was a rough school, but it helped toughen me up. The very first match was against Lyon and I had the privilege of playing against two visiting All-Blacks who even engaged me in conversation in the club house afterwards. I couldn’t quite believe my new life. I’d been at school only a few months before!”

Despite how well the rugby was going – in many ways a dream for any young bloke in his early years – Clive’s first love had always been the military; wishing to follow in the footsteps of his dad.

“I idolised my father and my earliest memories were of him in combat dress and red beret coming home on a Sunday having been training with the reservists.

‘Every stick I picked up became a gun and every present I ever wanted was a box of toy soldiers. I considered no other career right until I joined up.”

At the age of twenty he decided to apply for a commission in the Royal Marines. He was elated when he was invited to join officer training in September 1975, at the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, near Exmouth.

“I couldn’t wait to try my hand at blowing things up and scaling cliffs with a dagger between my teeth, but found myself crawling around muddy puddles on Woodbury Common and washing and ironing kit”

At this point Clive told me a story about his initial selection and medical assessment and it was quite possibly one of the best anecdotes I can remember hearing in all my Big Interviews:

Painting of Dartmoor by Clive Richards, artist, fromer Royal Marine and publicity manager for SSAFA

“I was attracted by the Commando role of the Royal Marines and hardly believed it when, after attending a selection board in Gosport, I was offered a chance to train to become an officer. I didn’t think I stood a chance with my background but they must have needed a second row forward!

‘I can remember attending the Army medical exam, which rather oddly in those days was conducted after you had passed for entry. I was in the waiting room wearing nothing but a small white towel when a charming and assured young man came in wearing his towel which seemed a lot bigger than mine.

“We discovered we were both joining the Royal Marines and would be going through training together. We discussed what we’d been doing before. I told him about my rugby and he said he was straight from school. Where? I asked, ‘in Windsor’ was his typical modest reply. On asking, in my ignorance, which school that was he told me he had been at Eton. I was immediately scared and went back to my mother that night saying they were all old Etonians and I would be out of my depth. She reassured me I’d be alright as long as I did my best. My new Etonian friend Richard had similarly gone back to his mother that night saying ‘they were all huge hairy chested rugby players’ and she assured him he would be alright as long as he did his best! We discovered these parallel conversations had taken place many years later after completing training together as the firmest of friends which we remain to this day.”

Inevitably, though, once all the training and socialising is out the way, the real action then occurs and in all of the postwar years of the British Army, there were probably fewer places more dangerous than Northern Ireland.

“I remember joining my unit 40 Commando on active service on the rural border of Northern Ireland. It was known then as bandit country and units invariably lost men to snipers and hidden bombs – IEDs. We were lucky and lost no-one on that tour.

‘I, amongst many others, attribute that good fortune to the inspirational leadership of our unit commander Julian Thompson, who went on to command the Commando Brigade in the Falklands war with great distinction. Arguably the best commandant general the Corps never had, though he did deservedly retire as Major General J Thompson CB OBE.”

I took this opportunity to ask Clive what memories particularly stood out when reminiscing about his initial experiences in Northern Ireland:

“I remember leading and navigating a patrol to stake out
(observe) an IRA funeral. I had nearly the whole company behind me apart from those left behind to guard the base. We started off at about 05.30 in thick fog. There were bogs and small fields to negotiate and I had to get the men to a particular rendezvous (RV),
at a precise time.

‘I was very nervous and didn’t want to start the day with everyone trudging through bogs getting wet feet, but on the other hand, not to use obvious patrol routes which would put us in danger from IEDs. Someone was smiling down on me that day because we arrived at the RV without incident. I was one very relieved twenty-one-year-old second lieutenant! Royal Marines don’t take kindly to being late, wet, or lost. Combine all three and their regard for you deteriorates somewhat.

‘I was lucky to have an amazing man in my troop. Corporal Gilson, a man of small stature but huge talent and maturity. He came up to me during one particular patrol and said “Sir, I think there is a bomb here”. He took me to a culvert which went under a road that used to be a regular route for vehicle-born troops before the situation became too dangerous to use them. I peered into the large, round drainage hole to see four milk churns with wires coming out of them. ‘I think you’re right Cpl Gilson’ seemed be the obvious but hardly necessary comment I made to him.

‘Our role was then to secure the area, control traffic and await reinforcements for the cordon and the incredibly brave technicians to come and render the bomb safe. It was a weird experience and one where your training turns you into a hopefully useful and calm member of the team. The whole thing seemed very routine; you don’t have much time to let your imagination ruin your effectiveness as a leader.”

In the next anecdote, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. This was before reading it back and despite Clive characteristically making light of it, I couldn’t help but think just what a fine line these soldiers were walking each and every day between life and death.

“The first of two times I felt really nervous was on my first patrol. I took a few men out to the village on what was called a ‘local’. I can remember doing a special kind of walk called ‘hard targeting’, where you don’t move in the same direction for more than a few paces and you vary your speed too in order to make it more difficult for a sniper to take a well-aimed shot. In the middle of my silly walk, one of my Marines took pity on me and pointed out that my dance routine wasn’t necessary in that very low-threat area. It was, after all, a rural village of about fifty small, modern houses. Hardly a sensible place for a sniper to ply his trade.

‘The second time I felt myself wanting in courage was on my first rural patrol. We were in an open field, overlooked by some high ground on the south side of the border where a sniper could easily have been waiting. I was very popular with my men because I was always in the front and presented the largest target in the unit being 6ft 6ꞌꞌ and therefore the easiest target. Marines have a wonderful humour and pointed this out to me at the very start of the patrol. Nothing happened and you get used to controlling your imagination after a few days. That didn’t stop my Marines pointing out what a good target I was from time to time!”

Clive would go on to do what could be argued as being one of the most valuable contributions anyone could make in the military – training the next generations of those who keep us safe.

“Training recruits is very rewarding and, at the same time, potentially excruciatingly hilarious. They are so keen and make so many common errors to start with, all ones you’ve made yourself in fact, that it’s like watching a favourite pantomime.

‘And, of course, when you’re not supposed to laugh you find the greatest difficulty in controlling yourself. At times, I used to have to make a smart withdrawal from site and hide behind a tree biting my knuckles and shaking with laughter. I once found one of my corporals behind the same tree – Keith Christopher, an amazingly talented man with an over developed sense of humour like mine. We barely survived the strain. He remains to this day one of my closest friends.

‘My job was made so much easier by having superb instructors in my team, which was led by Sgt John Lawson, a Scot with the driest sense of humour you could imagine. I can remember one day on the firing range, the boss, our company commander came to review our troop. Sgt Lawson told him that I was an excellent shot and should do the firing demonstration with the machine gun at targets 300 metres away.

All eyes of the troop, the trainers and the company commander fell on me as I settled down to lie behind the link-fed general-purpose machine-gun. I sent round after round down in a series of what are called ‘service bursts’ of about three to five rounds. After each burst one of the Marines in the dug-out under the target, signalled back that I was achieving an almost perfect score. The company commander was as impressed as I was surprised and proud. I was able to swagger around basking in my proven skills for the rest of the day, until John could not hold back any longer that he’d rigged the whole thing.”

Despite Clive’s obvious love of his career, sadly life always seems to find a way to knock you down just when you are flying highest. It was in Northern Ireland that he sustained his first injury to his ankles and because of a lack of safe transport in that dangerous area he was not able to be evacuated to receive proper medical attention.

“My first injury to both ankles was sustained by jumping off a
wall with a very large pack on my back during one of my first
rural patrols in Northern Ireland. I splinted my ankles in my patrol boots by strapping them with masking tape. It was effective but very painful.

‘Had I been able to receive proper medical treatment, I have no doubt I would have been taken off the tour and I certainly didn’t want that so, it worked out OK.

‘My later injuries were mostly caused by over-work and playing rugby. I had about five operations during my eight years of service and about six or more since retiring. At one point I was knocked out whilst playing at Twickenham and eventually woke up by degrees in Middlesex Hospital. I had totally lost my memory and could only recall one fact, and that was I was a Royal Marine. It took many months to recover properly.

‘My career was not hampered because it was fairly evident from early on that I was just putting off the evil day when I would be found out and declared medically unfit to carry on. So promotion was never on the cards for me. Not that I would have gone very far, I hated staff work.”

I couldn’t help but return to discussing rugby, one of my first loves as well, and therefore asked Clive about his time playing while still a Marine.

“I remember inspirational telegrams from past players and the Admiral of the Fleet were read out to us in the changing rooms before we lined up at the edge of the pitch to be presented to
The Duke of Edinburgh.

‘I was lucky enough to be in the right place to receive a great pass from our wing forward Mike Connolly and I dived over the line to score a try to put us into the lead. We ultimately won an incredible game and went on to win the championship that year, a feat we repeated the following season. I thought it was normal for us to beat the army. How wrong I was.

‘Playing for Combined Services was of course a step up and
I was really privileged to play with some excellent men against some pretty high-level opposition. The team spirit, it had to be said, never quite matched that of my favourite Royal Navy team lead by the best captain I ever played with; Paul Dunn. Paul died far too early but is remembered with love, respect and admiration by many.”

Plagued by injuries, sadly Clive’s military career was limited – shorter than it may have been. Before our interview, he described it, modestly, as being ‘undistinguished’. I’m not so sure. Serving your country – could you get more distinguished than that?

“It soon became inevitable that I was going to leave. So I was prepared for it and our son was about to appear on the scene, quickly followed by our daughter, so I was able to be totally involved with them.

‘I am incredibly grateful to have spent some of my life in the Royal Marines serving with some inspirational people, many of whom remain my dearest friends to this day.”

He was medically discharged in 1983 just six days before his wife Mary-Anne gave birth to their first child, Michael. Clive optimistically decided to capitalise on his A level in economics and train to become a financial adviser. Over time he expanded his business and specialised in investment and taxation, opening up offices in Exeter and Southampton as well as starting an accountancy firm specialising in looking after ex-patriots.

He spent 29 years pursuing this third career and got most enjoyment from helping people to develop their own careers and supporting his clients.

He retired at the age 58, but after just three months decided to form a risk management company after a couple of pints during a fishing trip with an old friend who had recently retired from the Secret Intelligence Service. They later recruited a retired Brigadier from the Royal Marines to become a director of the company.

Clive took care of finance and commercial operations whilst the others did all the hard work, according to him.

He decided to retire completely four years later which was a timely move because he contracted cancer and needed surgical treatment and a period of recovery which would have been impossible had he still been working. Following this, he became involved with SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, as their public relations officer.

“I was cautious at first not wanting to over-commit myself and then let the team down by not doing my best. So I wrote my own job description before taking on the role highlighting what I felt I could do and what I couldn’t, and setting myself markers for implementing and judging the effectiveness of my plans.

‘Despite this it is always very easy to take on more and more, but my wife Mary-Anne helps me to keep a proper balance, which is essential. I also mentioned Keith Christopher early on. He found out I was working with SSAFA and wanted to work with me again. He is invaluable and enthusiastic, and I couldn’t do it without him. He is also a joy to work alongside and we still laugh an awful lot together but without having to hide behind trees anymore.

‘SSAFA supports serving and retired members of the Armed Services and their families. Our caseworkers, who are all volunteers from many different backgrounds, not just the military, visit people who have varying needs, from prosthetics and mobility equipment provision, to debt counselling and assistance, funeral costs and housing needs.

‘We are not a fund-raising organisation per se, though we do need cash like many charities who are very stretched financially right now. But our main role is to provide the caseworkers and volunteers to meet with clients and help solve their problems for them, very often sourcing funds from charities such as Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion. Obviously everything is being done remotely now and relies on modern means of communication. Our staff are so dedicated that I only ever hear of stories of them triumphing against the odds and continuing to serve or clients. It’s difficult of course under the current circumstances, but it’s work that is essential if we are to care for our deserving military personnel in need. Devon is particularly well served by its staff throughout our organisation but we need so many more people to volunteer so if there is anyone out there who would like to know more about helping then please call 01392 254611.”

If you’d like to donate £5 please text Salute to 70085. Your call will cost the donation amount plus a standard network call charge.

From one end of the spectrum to the other, one of my favourite things to learn about Clive is the work he does to sponsor young officers through their training.

“This is hugely rewarding and involves providing a home from home away from the training environment, which very often means providing three times the normal ration of curry to young men burning on average 6,000 calories a day. That’s an awful lot of chicken Tikka Masala!

‘Sponsor officers also provide a friendly ear from someone who can help keep everything in perspective. We are there on their first day to welcome them. We meet their families very early on, which helps to reinforce the importance of that bond in the Royal Marines known as the Corps family, and we are there to see them running in at the end of the thirty-miler over Dartmoor which marks the end of Commando training and culminates in the presentation of their green berets. We also attend the pass-out parade to wish them well as they march off to take up their duties in commando units. It doesn’t end there because friendships are forged and endure, and we are still in touch with what are now senior officers after over twenty years.”

Many of you by now would have noticed the painting in the photo section of this paper. Indeed, following retirement from the military and finance, Clive turned his attention to a new hobby: painting.

“I’ve always loved painting and studied it to A level at school, but after that, and up until I fully retired, I hardly picked up a brush. Having rediscovered my passion for it I haven’t looked back and owe a great deal to an amazing artist and friend Danny Holmes-Adams whose beautiful work is an inspiration to me. I’ve spent so much time on Dartmoor in all manner of weathers and am captivated by the beauty and variety of the place. My senses seem to open up and there is a very special joy in just looking and trying to interpret what I see for others to enjoy. It’s open, it’s free and is on our doorstep.”

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