Tribute to David Wright MRICS MCInstCES AFRSPSoc MInstRE

By Nick Rigby

David was commissioned into the Corps of Royal Engineers in July 1971 at the age of 20.  We refer to each other as being a ‘Sapper’.  He conventionally undertook tours with 36 Engineer Regiment based in Maidstone, interspersed with an operational tour in Northern Ireland; spent a couple of years with the Junior Leaders Regiment in Dover; posted as Adjutant of 75 Engineer Regiment (Volunteers) based in Preston; then a tour as an instructor with the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovingdon.  Then the inevitable Germany tour as a staff officer in the Corps headquarters based in Bielefeld, planning to repulse the massed hordes of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army – careers were built on such plans believe me!  Looking for something to better suit this enquiring officer’s mind, he joined Army Survey Course Number 69 in March 1983.

It was during David’s time at Hermitage that I first met him.  Within the Army and the Sappers there is a specialism, which until recently, was known as Military Survey.  A specialism that goes back over 250 years, following the Second Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 which saw the establishment of the Ordnance Survey by Major General Roy – a Sapper.  Since then, whenever the government of the day wished to deploy its Army, there has been and continues to be, a requirement for maps – somewhat obvious you would say.  It was the responsibility of Military Survey to procure or produce said maps so that the armed forces could enforce the peace, wage war or help deliver humanitarian relief literally anywhere in the world – sounds like a recruitment drive!  The officer cadre of Military Survey had to attend and pass a course of instruction called the Army Survey Course.

David started the course with a number of fellow Sappers: Pete Dinwiddie; Mike Gilson and Chris Dorman; as well as an eclectic mix of what were termed in the day ‘foreign students’:

Then in the same autumn of 83 three Johnny come latelies arrived:

It was a complete mix of cultures, backgrounds, ages, single and married, clever and unbelievable stupid!  A large course by ASC standards. Each course had its ‘course senior’, responsible for the collective well-being of the course, represented their views and especially grievances, took the bollockings from the teaching staff and so on.  So naturally, by a cunning process of almost Darwinian selection, it fell to David to take on the mantel and guide his fellow students through many trials and tribulations.  He used to pull his hair out with our Hong Kong chappies, who formed their own sub group, often to take on the establishment i.e. the Brits – looking, I guess for some early form of independence.  The trouble was that Chow, Yam and Hung were more often than not correct, but it fell to David to diplomatically set things on what were considered to be the right path.

I recall that David had a wicked sense of humour.  During the decorating of the Officers’ Mess for the annual summer ball, there was painted on the ante room walls, soldiers in ceremonial garb that David subsequently, albeit very quietly and with much artistic flourish, let us say subtly embellished and enhanced them – I’ll leave it to your imaginations with what, but suffice it to say the Commandant’s wife, Sue, upon discovery, was mortified as to who could have possibly done such a thing!  There were many more unofficial bashes that we all enjoyed, none more so than Chris Dorman’s stag night – a very wet affair in all respects spent aboard a converted barge, and as befitted David …. it rather gently and sedately made its way down the Kennet and Avon canal complete with lots of good beer, wine, comradeship and general Army banter.  The occupants eventually swimming ashore and home, looking somewhat the worst for wear.

In researching material for this tribute one of the nice things that happens is that the ‘archives’ are opened up for a glimpse into the ‘official view’ of an individual, and with the help of my erstwhile colleague Tony Keeley, the dungeon keeper at the Royal School of Military Survey, I was given access to David’s course report and what the teaching staff said of him:

After the course we went our separate ways as is the nature of service life.  David was promoted to the rank of Major straight afterwards and posted as a staff officer, ‘a pen pusher’ as we referred to them, into the headquarters of Military Survey based in the sun blessed parkland and uplands of Feltham, with responsibility for procuring … map printing equipment amongst other things – the Army always has a way of getting its own back!  I remember visiting him in his office and on one wall was a pin board with about 20 or more Bic biro tops pinned to it.  Eventually getting round to asking what they were all about he remarked, “Nick lad, this lot in the headquarters couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag … but if ever there was a paper war, they’d be brilliant.  I have never written so much and I’m only half-way through my tour.”  Heavenly only knows what the final Bic biro count was!

After the undoubted pleasures of Feltham, David was selected to command 13 Squadron which had recently moved from Barton Stalag, sorry Barton Stacey, to of all places, Hermitage, where he formed a great relationship with his Sergeant Major, Phil Maye.  David enjoyed the role of being ‘in command’, had a great rapport with his soldiers and was a popular OC, with the unsung hero, or heroine of Barbara providing at times the much needed morale support for him.  In his spare time he researched the history of the Squadron which resulted in him personally redesigning the Squadron’s plaque to incorporate an Arab dhow, symbolising the Squadron’s time in the Middle East.  Though I guess one of the things I do fondly recall is David’s abhorrence with the Army’s fascination for running …….. in boots …… carrying a rifle …… with webbing, equipment etc.  For you see after the Falklands conflict, physical exercise became all about speed and endurance, carrying heavy weights over long distances, quickly.  Racing snakes, chaps with powerful bodies that could run like whippets, became the order of the day.  We had the battle fitness test (BFT) and the combat fitness test (CFT), all of which Major Wright viewed with horror and disdain, for when all was said and done, David was not built for speed.  So it fell to Phil Maye and an array of pace setters to ensure that David’s dignity as the boss was upheld by completing the BFT and CFTs in the allotted times, not too quickly ….. very un-officer like, nor too late ….. very unprofessional, but in the nick of time.  You knew when a BFT/CFT was looming; David would start getting tetchy, cutting out mid-morning biscuits at coffee time, sneaking off to do practise runs.  And afterwards, ladies and gentlemen, what a mess, in the euphoria of getting over the finishing line, like a person trying to gain height in a hot air balloon, he had discarded virtually all his kit, save his rifle, so that he was carrying virtually nothing, with Phil loyally running along-side him resembling Don Quixote Sancho Panza’s donkey, Rucio, laden to the hilt!

In 1989, Barbara and David, Richard and Gemma, decided on a change of direction for and David left the Army.  He qualified as Chartered Surveyor, had a brief sojourn as a jobbing surveyor, before embarking on his second career, one of almost destiny, to lecture on surveying, at Nottingham Trent.

I shall always remember David as a warm and friendly character; robust; loved a good argument; preferably accompanied with good beer or glass of red wine; never backwards at coming forwards; yet always fair and considerate in his analysis with friends.  We would meet up at various bashes, some ex-military, others at academic jamborees, appraising the growth and greyness of each other’s beards, exchanging gossip, what was going on at home, anecdotes and “I told you so”.  I shall miss those times, we all will.

Nick Rigby