Return to the Memories page or Return to home page
Continuation of Roger Hailwood memories from Autumn 1959 to 1962.
Was it worthwhile?
A reflection on my National Service in the RAF
After three years of deferment for educational reasons, I had eventually received my call up papers summoning me to the recruitment centre in Ipswich. There I was subjected to a medical inspection, and having been pronounced fit and able was then directed to the section where the paperwork was to be filled in. Notionally there were three service opportunities, the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. Since the latter two had fewer opportunities, most of those at the centre were directed into the Army. I was in a very fortunate position, I was able to choose whichever suited me, as I had been an ATC cadet while at school, and also a member of the RNVR so that I could go to sea during my summer holidays. At the time, the RAF seemed most to suit my purposes, so I opted for them. A few days later I received my joining instructions, with a travel warrant to get me to RAF Cardington and a postal order for four shillings (20p) as my first day's pay. This seemed at the time to be the equivalent of accepting "the queen's shilling" in recruiting drives in the past.
On arrival at RAF Cardington on Monday 7th September 1959, I joined the motley crowd of similarly summoned men. We were shouted at to get into some sort of order, and then marched off in the direction of the enormous hangars which dominated the area and which, I learned later, were built to house the airships R 100 and R101. Here we were all subjected to a somewhat perfunctory medical, possibly to see if anything had changed since the one we had undergone at the recruitment centre, and we were measured, so that we could be issued with uniforms of appropriate sizes. With the measurement information on scrap of paper, and a list of everything we had to collect, we passed along rows of tables covered in uniform and other kit, first collecting a kitbag into which was stuffed the items as we collected them, except for the great coat which was too bulky to do so.
|The kit list was as follows:-|
|1 Front stud||2 Pairs Drawers||2 Ties|
|1 Back stud||1 Gym Vest blue||1 Beret|
|1 Kitbag||1 Gym vest white||1 Cap|
|1 Haversack||2 Gym Shorts||2 Cap badges|
|1 Waist Belt||1 Button stick||2 Jackets OA|
|1 Strap||1 Pullover||2 Pairs trousers OA|
|3 Towels||1 Pair braces||1 Greatcoat|
|4 brushes||1 Pair gloves||1 Pair boots|
|2 Suits pyjamas||1 Housewife||1 Pair shoes|
|4 Pairs socks||3 Shirts||1 Pair Gym shoes|
|2 Vests||6 Collars|
Once equipped we were moved to another building in which there were beds and bedding. We made up our beds, placed our kit on it and the clutching our mug and eating irons, were marched to the cookhouse to experience our first taste of mess food, learning how to dunk our mugs and eating irons in the scalding hot water troughs to clean them after the meal.
After the meal we changed into our uniforms, having fitted badges to our caps and berets, then we had our photographs taken. It was at this point we discovered the difference between those of us who were National Service recruits and those who had signed on to become "regulars". Those who were national servicemen had two identical uniforms with tunics of rough serge, while the regulars had a serge battledress as part of their working dress and a dress uniform of a slightly lighter blue which was of smooth barathea. The rest of the evening was taken up with packing any civilian clothing and equipment into the bags and cases we had brought with us. For those who did not come with a container, they were given brown paper and string to make up a parcel. We made out labels with our home addresses which we attached to the bags, and these were then collected to be despatched home. Our last link with civilian life was thus separated, and the moulding into service personnel really started. That night lights out was at 20.00 hours, we had to get used to the service way of referring to time, before which we all donned our issue pyjamas, so that already the conformity was being thrust upon us.
At o-six hundred hours the next morning the lights came on, and we were told we had to be ready for breakfast at o-seven hundred. While some were reluctant to move, others turned out fairly promptly. It was here that my experience of boarding school had taught me that those first into the wash rooms got through the process of ablutions most easily, and so I was quick off the mark. It also gave time to dress more leisurely, a process that for some of those who had never worn a shirt with a detached collar before, found a struggle as they tried to attach them to the studs. After marching to the mess for what was to become the standard RAF breakfast we returned to our billet. We folded our sheets and blankets onto the beds, filled our kit bags with the kit that we were not wearing, put small items into the haversack. We were then issued with our 1250 identity card with its photo, which we had to carry at all times; and were given dire warnings of the consequences of losing it. Issued with a paper bag containing a packed lunch, which we put into our small packs, we were told that we were leaving, and would be travelling to a recruit training centre. We climbed into trucks and after a short trip spilled out again at the Cardington railway station where a train was waiting.
Crammed into carriages the journey seemed to be interminable, with many stops and long delays, the problem of fitting an unscheduled cross country journey between the main line services. We ate our packed lunches and speculated on our final destination. Eventually the train came to a halt at Bridgnorth and we were told, in no uncertain terms, to get out at the double and climb into the backs of the canvas covered vehicles that were waiting for us. These took us down one steep sided valley and then up the other side, then shortly through the gates of Royal Air Force Bridgnorth No 7 School of Recruit Training. With a great deal of shouting we fell into three ranks and as our names were called out we stepped forward to be directed to one of the huts which would be our accommodation. So Hut 163 became my home for the next few weeks. We barely had time to put our kit into the lockers beside the beds we had chosen when we were formed up again outside, to be marched to the bedding store to be issued with our sheets, blankets, pillows and pillow cases. Then back to the huts where Corporal McEowan became our mentor, and sometimes tormentor, we were shown how to make up our beds, then how to take them apart and convert the bedding into a bed pack with its alternate layers of blanket and sheets, wrapped around with a blanket to keep it all together with vertical sides and right angle corners. The beds would be made up every night, but during the day there would be a bed pack at the head of the bed.
Instruction over, we were then formed up with our mugs and eating irons to be marched to the mess for our evening meal. Mugs and eating irons held in the left hand in the small of the back while we marched. Back again in the huts we were told to prepare for the following day, and we discovered what our four brushes were for. Two of them were for cleaning our shoes and boots, and the other two were for blancoing our webbing. We were issued with the cleaning items. The Blanco was a light blue past in a round tin, the black shoe polish accompanied it and there was also a small round metal bottle of Brasso. After cleaning and polishing boots for the following day, the webbing belt had to be taken apart, the webbing having the Blanco rubbed into it with one brush before being brought to a shine with the other brush. The brass buckles and adjustment slides were polished and then fitted together. Finally we turned our attention to the uniform where buttons had to be polished and we discovered the use of the button stick, to keep the Brasso off the fabric. This was also useful when polishing the cap badge on the peaked hat, and the one on the beret, though we discovered that these were supposed to be removed each time we cleaned them, as on inspection the backs could occasionally be inspected to see if they were as clean as the front. When we replaced the badges on the berets we placed a light blue plastic disc behind them to identify us as Flight 28. The preparation routine filled our evenings for the first few weeks as we became more and more adept at preparing for inspection, especially as the belt brasses were initially slightly pitted and this had to be polished out to satisfy inspection. Various techniques were employed to speed up the polishing process, with card board strips soaked in Brasso being a favourite one, and for really rapid results cleaning powder from the washrooms could be added to the Brasso to make a paste.
The following morning was the rude awakening as to what the next few weeks had in store for us. After washing and making up our bedpacks we marched to the mess for breakfast. After breakfast we returned to stand by our beds ready for inspection by our drill sargeant. His displeasure at the standards we had achieved were demonstrated, as inadequate bedpacks flew in all directions, and that was most of them. We repaired the damage after he had departed and then assembled on the parade ground outside for our first instructions on who and how to salute, and how to introduce ourselves. I became 3155221 AC2 Hailwood Sir, or Sargeant, as appropriate. It was then our turn for inspection with every detail of uniform being scrutinised and criticised by the highly polished drill sargeant. Not only uniform but also personal appearance; the fact that I had visited the barber to have what I considered to be a short haircut the week before joining up did not satisfy the sargeant, and I was instructed to visit the camp barber that afternoon to have my hair cut even shorter. That took us to the end of the week, and the following day had us on the parade ground for Sunday church parade in our best uniform. Having formed up, any Roman Catholics were told to fall out, and they assembled at the side of the parade ground where they came under the direction of a priest who was waiting for them. The rest of us were assumed to be either C of E, or Nonconformists and a RAF chaplain conducted a short service. After the service the rest of the day was ours, we didn't have to march to the mess for meals, just be there at the appropriate time, but of course most of the rest of the day was spent in preparing our kit, or for some writing a letter home.
My relief arrived promptly at 02.00 and I made my way to the billet to try to get some sleep before preparing for the day ahead and some breakfast. On my second night of fire picket on the early morning shift I had already had the benefit of getting my head down, so I was quite awake to watch the dawn break. In the quiet time my thoughts returned again to Bridgnorth and the initial training.
After hut inspection when fewer bedpacks were thrown around we paraded, this time in shirt sleeve order as the September days were quite warm, to be marched to a classroom session where we were given a notebook and expected to take notes. This gave us the history of the RAF, the difference between National Service Men and Regulars, and the badges by which we could recognise officers and other ranks. We were also informed about trades in the RAF and given the chance to select a preference. There was only one trade which you could not be made to do, as it was involved with the possibility of working at extreme heights, and that was Aerial Erector. Since I couldn't be made to do it, I decided to volunteer. I was promptly turned down, with the comment that with my educational background I would train to be an Air Radar Fitter. At some point earlier, probably at the initial recruiting office I seem to remember taking some aptitude tests, so it seems that trades were predetermined, and that there were no choices at all. It was also here that were informed that each hut would have a senior man and a deputy. For hut 136 Bob Gledhill had been chosen as the senior man, on account of the fact that he had already done time in the army, and so already had some military experience. I was chosen as his deputy, as I had been a sargeant in the school ATC, and again it was expected that I would know something about military activities. We were each given an identifying arm band. Then to the parade ground to be sized and then formed into ranks with the tallest at each end and the shortest in the middle.
Drill started in earnest starting with learning how to stand in straight lines the correct distance apart, known as dressing, turning on the spot moving the correct feet, and finally marching up and down. All of it was performed to stentorian commands, and a great deal of sarcasm and innuendo directed at any who were slow or turned the wrong way. The one person who found this almost too much to cope with was Denis McFaul, our "tic toc" man. Normally his arms and legs worked alternately as he walked, but the moment he tried to march and was told to swing his arms he could not cope and left arm and left leg swung forward together, then right arm and right leg. Despite being withdrawn from the ranks, where he made the whole flight look untidy, to practise on his own on the side of the parade ground, he just could not hold on to a marching routine for more than a few steps. The mood was somewhat lightened at the end of the session as post arrived, and was distributed to some with considerable banter and mockery. After lunch we paraded in our gym kit and marched to one of the hangars, where under the direction of the PTIs, again with a great deal of shouting, we went through a series of exercises that were designed to improve our fitness and tone our bodies. We finished off with a run where I quickly found myself at the head of the pack, running alongside someone, who like me found the running easy. I had just spent a year as a PE master in a school and was quite fit and I discovered quite soon, as we chatted at the front, that my companion had been the Yorkshire Junior Cross Country Champion. After the evening meal we were told that the following day there would be a kit inspection and we were shown a poster of how the kit was to be laid out, that evening kit was prepared and the layout memorised.
In the morning, to add to the bed pack all of our kit was laid out on our beds as shown on the poster, or so we thought. After breakfast as we stood by our beds, the deficiencies were again pointed out to us as items were seen not to have been folded in the correct fashion, or were pointing in the wrong direction, or even in the wrong order. Every criticism was shouted from about two feet away to which we had to shout back that the comment was understood; Sargeant! At the moment it was personal it was somewhat terrifying, seen from a distance it became somewhat ludicrous and it was difficult to keep a straight face; though not to have done so would have had dire consequences. Drill seemed to be the main activity of the next few days with another session under the direction of the PTIs. During the running part, together with my new found running companion we again found ourselves at the front and leaving the others behind. The PTI running beside the group trying to keep it all together as he ran back and forth alongside kept bellowing, "Slow Down" but to no avail, it can be difficult to run slowly. At the end of the run he caught up with us and said. "Next time you two are going to run in boots, bring them with you." We did and we still ran at the front, but it was also pleasing to see that he didn't run beside the group any more, he rode a bicycle. This time his comment was, "If you two think you are so good, you can run for the station cross country team in the match that is coming up." It was a home match, but we were delighted as we escaped from the station for an afternoon to run along the Severn valley. I can't remember the result but the sense of freedom was certainly memorable.
Part way through our third week we were all paraded and informed that we had the chance to become Blood Donors. The simplicity of the process was explained to us, together with the information that the previous Flight had managed to donate a certain amount of blood, and there was no reason why we would not be able to exceed the amount. So I, with most of the Flight, became blood donors, for which we were given a break from any organised activities to return to our huts, of course to kit preparation. Thursday was an important day of the week as that was the day of pay parade, when as our names were called out on the parade ground we stepped forward to the pay desk, first to salute the officer in charge, then to identify ourselves with the last three of our identity number, our rank and surname. Then collecting the twenty eight shillings placed on the desk, stepping back and then smartly turning away, all done under the intense gaze of the Drill Sargeant. Thursday night was "bull night", when the hut had to be cleaned. Each day we were each responsible for our own bed space, which we swept and dusted, but on Thursday the hut had a general clean and polish. Working on one side of the hut all the beds and lockers were lifted carefully to the centre, then wax polish was applied to the brown lino floor, and using the bumper, which had a heavy bristled head to which a long handle was attached by a hinge, the floor was polished with long swings back and forth, the final shine being applied with a piece of blanket underneath the bristles. Then all of the furniture was carefully lifted back, having taken off boots and shoes. The process was then repeated on the other side of the hut, and then the centre of the hut, meanwhile the windows had to be cleaned, newspaper was very effective, all horizontal surfaces had to be dusted and the two tortoise stoves in the centre of the hut had to be black leaded. Friday morning was hut inspection by the Orderly Officer accompanied by NCOs.
Two days after our parade at the Medical Centre to be blood donors, we were back again, this time for our jabs. This time there was no option, and after filling in the appropriate forms we had both small pox and typhoid and tetanus inoculations, our documentation was stamped and initialled and then returned to us for safe keeping. A month later we had the booster Typhoid and Tetanus. Meanwhile, from time to time, there was a lecture session where we learned all about RAF documentation, RAF Law, and our leave entitlement.
When we reached the end of the fourth week of basic training we were granted a 12 hour pass. Most of the flight planned to spend it in nearby Wolverhampton, sampling the delights that freedom provided. With my experience of travelling the country by hitch hiking, I wondered how far I could get in the time. The main challenge was getting through Birmingham, but once beyond there were no problems. Having left camp at 09.00 hrs. I opened the front door of my home at Sudbury in Suffolk at about 15.00 hrs, much to the surprise of my mother. Her immediate reaction was, "You didn't let me know you were coming home, how long are you staying?" To which I replied, "I will have a quick cup of tea and collect some things then I will be on my way back. I have to be back by nine o'clock." With thoughts of running in the cross country team I needed my track suit and cross country running shoes, so I gathered them together with a few other items to take back with me. The journey back was again uneventful and back before 21.00 hrs. I realised that an RAF uniform was a reliable hitch hiking ticket to anywhere. Many remembered their own service days and were only too willing to help.
That twelve hour pass was for me also a significant point in the training. Bob Gledhill the senior man committed some offence during the time and had the position removed from him, and as next in line I became the senior man. I moved my bed space to be just beside the entrance to the hut, so that for inspections I was the first inspected then had to take responsibility for the hut. If my small pack was deemed to be not up to standard and was kicked down the hut, everyone else knew that they were in for a hard time. For the Friday hut inspection, while the rest were on the parade ground I had to be inside the hut to meet the orderly officer on his rounds.
Up to this point the rifles locked in the rack at the end of the hut had been something of a decoration. We were introduced to them, a Lee-Enfield bolt action .303, their various parts and how to keep them clean. These were now the major part of the drill routine where we practiced drill at the halt, from stand at ease, to shoulder arms and present arms. Then we had to master the rifle and movements while on the march. When we had managed to cope with all of this routine activity we had to learn the drill movements with a rifle when parading for a funeral where the rifle was reversed, ending up with rest on your arms reversed. This final movement was hated, as the muzzle of the rifle resting on the toe cap took off all of the shine that the previous days bulling had so carefully produced. Finally we were issued with the bayonet, and learned how to fix and unfix it by numbers. The bayonet, which was the spike type and which fitted to the muzzle of the rifle, also came with a webbing frog in which to hold it, to be attached to the belt, and of course it was another item to be blancoed. Some of this drill took place on a Friday while I was in the hut waiting for inspection, and since I had a view of the parade ground through the window, I practised the movements in time with those I could see through the window. While some had problems initially with getting the sequence of movements right, the person who had the greatest problem was "Paddy" McFaul.
I am not sure what his offence was but Paddy found himself on "Jankers", that was he was put on a charge which meant he had to appear at the Guard Room several time during the day to be inspected or do menial tasks. The last appearance of the day was in best uniform, to be inspected by the duty officer. After his first appearance he was found not to be up to standard and had another day added, again a third day was added, Paddy was just not very good at getting his kit together. We realised that left on his own he would never escape from Jankers, so as senior man I got the rest of the lads in the hut to help. In preparation for the final parade of the day, someone pressed his No1 uniform giving it razor sharp creases, another bulled his boots till the toe caps literally gleamed, his brasses were polished, the best webbing belt in the hut was chosen as well as the best presented small pack. Then we dressed him until he looked like a tailor's dummy. This did the trick, no fault was found with his turn out, though there may have been some surprise at the guard room in the transformation. This was a clear demonstration of how we were beginning to act together as a team and look after each other.
RAF Bridgnorth. Hut 163, 28 Flt, from Sept to Nov 1959.
Harry Graham, Richard Dexter, Trevor Dyson, Don Ethell.
Brian Green, Roger Hailwood, Paul Gudgen, Dave Green, Cpl. McEowan, Joe Grant, Norman Dickinson.
Bob Gleadhill, N.J Gregory, Geordie Govan, Terry Galliers.
Satch Fowler, J Arthur Down, Vince Dean, Colin Denwood, Lol Edson.
Missing from the picture Keith Forest and Paddy McFaul.
There were four flights on the station at different stages of training, we were B Flight indicated by the blue disk behind the cap badge on our berets. As we marched around the station as a flight we realised that each flight marched with a slightly different rhythm or timing to their step. Partly at the encouragement of our corporal, as a junior flight approached, we stamped our feet hard, which seemed to spoil the rhythm of the other flight, much to the annoyance of their corporal whose shouts could be heard as they receded behind us. This gave the mischievous ones among us an idea, and we passed a message around that after a pre-arranged signal we would all stamp on every fourth step. It worked, much to the annoyance of our corporal who tried unsuccessfully to pin down a ring leader. We thought about doing a ripple stamp which would start at the front of the Flight and then pass along to the rear, but it proved to be impractical
After six weeks we were given a 48 hour pass, and I hitch hiked home for the weekend, with no trouble whatsoever in making the journey. On the return leg I was dropped close to the back of the camp and was faced with a lengthy walk round to the main gates and the guard room. I decided that it would be quicker to climb over the fence. I realised that an RAF great coat had other uses, as I carefully turned it inside out and laid it over the barbed wire strands on top of the fence, before climbing over.
Having achieved some competence with aspects of our drill we were handed over to RAF Regiment instructors. Starting on the rifle range we were taught the range rules, how to load the magazine on a .303 rifle, how the bolt action worked, and how to range the rifle for distance. We fired in the prone position on the 25 yard range. After our first six rounds we collected our targets, and to some well-rehearsed derogatory remarks about the state of our eyesight, they were inspected by our instructors. They first counted the number of holes to see how many had missed the target then gave us a score for those that had landed more or less in the right place, and advice as to how to adjust our sight according to the pattern of holes. The instructors had been warned about the hopelessness of Paddy and so they thought they knew what to expect. There was a hole in the bull of his target and no other holes on the target. This caused a great deal of hilarity. We took our second shots, this time having listened to the advice from our instructors about controlling breathing and squeezing the trigger gently. The results were a great improvement, again when they looked at Paddy's target there was a hole in the bull and nothing else, it was only when they looked closely at the target that they realised that all six shots had passed through the bull. On our second visit to the range we were introduced to the Bren gun.
After the usual instruction, we assumed the prone position to fire at the targets. While the recoil of the .303 could bruise the shoulder if you didn't hold it firmly, the Bren gun was a veritable beast as we fought to keep control of it while it fired a burst of bullets. The targets this time were not the round concentric circles but human figures, some got cut off at the knees, some seemed to be sprayed randomly, and few really hit the torso, which was where they were meant to go. After our range session, those who had achieved a high enough score with the .303 were given crossed rifles to wear on their sleeves, being recognised as marksmen. I didn't achieve that distinction, but Paddy did, much to the acclamation of the rest of the flight. It seems that Paddy was a farm boy, and from an early age had learned to fire a shot gun at moving targets like pigeons and rabbits. Shooting a rifle with sights on a range was child's play, and that is why all of his shots went through the bull. Paddy had signed on as a regular, it seems that he had taken some stock to market near his home in Northern Ireland, and while there he had shown an interest in the RAF recruiting stand, perhaps he had not fully understood what it implied, but he had been persuaded to sign the documents which committed him to several years in the RAF.
Then we were instructed in ground warfare, fighting patrols and the orders given. For our next session with the Regiment instructors we had to wear our bayonets. So far we had been through the drill of fix and unfix bayonets by numbers, something we thought was to look impressive on the parade ground. Now we were shown what they really were used for. How to hold the rifle in a charge, which part of the body to aim for, how to remove it from the body and how to let out an impressive scream to put fear into the enemy. I suspected that the scream was as much to deaden our own senses as to frighten the enemy, and it was certainly a terrifying experience as we charged and stabbed at the sacking covered dummies. Once again there were the derogatory remarks from our instructors who criticised our lack of ferocity, suggesting that we were just tickling the enemy.
Our next session with the Regiment started with a history lesson, about how the Regiment was formed at the command of Winston Churchill after the capture of Crete in WW2. When because there was no trained defending force, the airfields were captured almost without resistance. The defence of airfields in northern France had already caused some concerns, but the capture of Crete was the final impetus in the forming of the Regiment. Then we were instructed about the possible effects of a Nuclear Attack; this was the period of the "Cold War." We learned about the nature and effectiveness of nuclear bombs, and what precautions that had to be taken to survive in the event of an attack. Then we were informed about types of chemical weapons, such as nerve gas, mustard gas and teargas, and the use of respirators and chemical protection suits. We assembled in a windowless room and were issued with respirators and shown how to put them on, a tear gas canister was set off and we ran round the room to show how effective our respirators were. When we had reached the stage of being almost breathless inside the respirators, we were ordered to take them off, and immediately the eyes burned and the already gasping lungs from the exercise drew the searing fumes into the lungs. The doors were flung open and we fell out of the building gasping for fresh air. We had had our experience of a mild chemical weapon.
Our final experience of Regiment training was to be transported to the Long Mynd for the weekend, where we had to erect six man tents, and dig pits in which to set up the cooking stoves. This was a field exercise. Having pitched our tents we laid out our bed spaces using the groundsheet we had been issued with, the groundsheet would also double as a cape if it should rain. The other equipment given to us was a leather jerkin and waterproof over-trousers, to go with the personal kit in our small packs. I knew from experience what sleeping on the hard ground was like, so I collected some of the abundant bracken to make myself a mattress. After cooking ourselves a meal we were involved in various hide and seek exercises until it went dark. In the morning after experiencing cold water ablutions in the open air, we cooked ourselves breakfast, had another field exercise before striking camp, packing it into the trucks and then returning to Bridgnorth. For once the food in the mess seemed a good alternative after cooking in the field.
Camping on Long Mynd. Author nearest the camera.
As the evenings became shorter the weather, which up till then had been that of an Indian Summer, became noticeably colder and a detail from the hut reported to the coal compound to collect coal in bags, two bags to a hut. This was to feed the tortoise stoves, of which there were two in the hut. Injudiciously we lit both stoves and developed a cosy atmosphere. The stoves gobbled the coal as we kept topping them up. At the end of the evening our corporal told us that they had to go out overnight, so that they could be cleaned out and black leaded in the morning. He also looked at the coal we had left and informed us that we had to make it last till the end of the week. There was just enough left to keep one stove gently burning each night. When we had replenished our supplies at the end of the week, I decided that we would keep the one stove burning strongly and would replenish the coal ourselves. This had to be done by raiding the locked coal compound.
The station was quite brightly lit at night. I investigated a route from the hut to a dark part of the coal compound, which could be travelled largely in shadow. Taking four members of the hut and the two coal bags, we worked our way to the coal compound. I had the black track suit that I had brought from home for use when I ran in the cross country team, so I climbed over the wire, filled the coal bags which I flung over the wire for the others to carry back to the hut, then climbed out again. It was known that some huts raided the supplies of other huts, but I felt that was not really the done thing, it was far more honourable to raid the main supply, after all there was plenty there, whereas the other huts were also trying to eke out their meagre supply. It did mean that we could keep the hut at a reasonably warm temperature. Our corporal informed us that he knew we were stealing the coal, but he wasn't sure how, or from where.
With the coming of the colder weather we had to parade in greatcoats and with gloves, which made all of the drill movements just that bit more difficult, particularly with a rifle. There were threats of dire consequences if our gloved hands should let a rifle slip out of them. We had intensive sessions of drill to bring us up to the standard required for the imminent passing out parade, which would be inspected by the station Commanding Officer. By this time we had become on quite good terms with our drill sargeant, who at times seemed more kindly, and we had the feeling that not only did we want to do ourselves justice, but we didn't want to let him down. All went well for the final inspection parade, and to avoid any possible blemish in the marching order, Paddy was given the task of holding a pennant unmoving on the side of the parade ground.
The following morning we were informed of our postings to various training units, and issued with travel warrants to get there. We returned our bedding to the bedding store, collected and packed our kit, and for those of us going south climbed onto Whittles coaches bound for London. The new M1 had opened the week before, so after joining it at Rugby we had the experience of being some of the first people to travel down it. After a week's leave I set off from home to London. I travelled free on the underground using my travel warrant to Paddington, where I caught a train with others in RAF uniform, who were on their way to the training establishments of Locking, Compton Basset or Yatesbury, the latter being my own destination.
The on the whole square bashing had been quite an enjoyable experience to look back on. I went off to breakfast having handed over the guardroom duties to the police corporal. Back in the fire section billet with little to do but wait I thought about the complete change in activity at the trade training school.
At Paddington station I joined a group in RAF uniform, obviously travelling to the same destination myself. The train was on its way to the West Country, but many of us disembarked at Chippenham to catch a small train travelling on a single track line to Calne. Ambling through the countryside it passed a couple of stopping places identified only by a platform and the station name HALT. On arrival at Calne we transferred to trucks, to be transported to our final destination. Outside the station guard room the notice board announced, No 2 Radio Station RAF Yatesbury. We were dispersed to various huts, then directed to the bedding store to collect blankets and sheets, before identifying the location of the mess and the NAFFI. The huts were equipped in the form we had become used to at Bridgnorth, and it did not take long to settle in. Once again I had the new boy feeling among a crowd of strangers, but it was the same far all of us. There was a group who immediately formed a friendship group as they all came from the Tyneside region.
The Station at Yatesbury was situated beside the A4 road, with the land to the south, on the other side of the road rising steeply to the Cherhill Downs, into which was carved the Cherhill white horse. On the other three sides the land was flat and open, exposed to the weather, and we would discover that it could be a bleak place in the winter. During WWI it had its own landing field, it had been active as a training station during WW2 and now, during the period which was called the Cold War, it was busy training radar operators, mechanics and fitters, many of whom were National Servicemen.
The working day ran from 08.00 hrs. to 17.30 hrs. and was highly structured, with sessions in the classroom, and sessions in the laboratories, with the occasional PT session thrown in for good measure, though Wednesday was designated sports afternoon. Thursday was pay day, Friday night was bull night and after the morning session on Saturday the rest of the weekend was our own. If there was to be a parade it was usually in place of the Saturday morning working session.
The training started in earnest on Thursday 26 November when, with the seventeen other members of my course, we attended class room sessions introducing us to electricity, rapidly moving through the concepts that I had learned at school for O level and A level Physics. By the 1st December the following week we had moved on to Magnetism and Electromagnetism. In my first week for the Wednesday sports afternoon I had expressed an interest in cross country and had joined the group. On 2nd December I found myself running in the first match against the neighbouring station RAF Compton Bassett. It was an away match run on their level course. When we had home matches we ran up the Cherhill downs and over the top of the white horse. At the evening training sessions I quickly discovered how my physical condition had deteriorated during basic training at Bridgnorth.
The course pressed relentlessly on through December, with motors and generators, measuring instruments and capacitors. In parallel with this were the laboratory cum workshop sessions, where we learned how to use metal working tools to cut, bend and shape aluminium, with the correct size holes in the correct places. Then we had to make our first useful tool, a heat shunt. The purpose of this item was the protection of small components, which were sensitive to heat, during the soldering process by diverting the heat away. This was simply a small crocodile clip to which we soldered small copper jaws. Then we progressed to fitting small circuit boards into the aluminium chassis we had made, and then fitting them with resistors and wiring them together, with all of the wiring runs parallel to the sides of the chassis, with right angle turns where required. Not all of our attempts matched the photograph we had tried to replicate, and duly received the withering remarks of our instructor.
It was expected that we would spend some of our time in the evening revising and learning the notes we had taken during the day, but there were other distractions. Not having much in the way of funds I spent a great deal of time lying on my bed reading. Though when I discovered that I could be designated PMUB (Presbyterian, Methodist, & United Board) rather than CofE, it gave me the incentive to join a fellowship group meeting one night a week, continuing the activities that I had been brought up with as a Methodist. My cross country training, which I did mainly by myself, took me out along the side roads visiting such places as Silbury Hill, climbing to the top, or Avebury stone circle where the whole of the small village seemed to be enclosed within the Stone Age monument. Towards the end of December we took various tests and without too much effort I achieved results around 80%, but we were all looking forward to block leave of a week over the Christmas period. Block leave meant that the Station virtually closed down as far as training purposes were concerned.
I went home to join the rest of the family who had all returned home from their various schools, joining in the festive activities at my father's church at Sudbury in Suffolk. It was a holiday which began to change the whole direction of my life. In the year before joining the RAF I had worked my way with relationships through all of the eligible young ladies of the church, as well as another I had met through work. There was however one exception, a young lady who had caught my eye on the first occasion at our new church a year earlier. At that time I had a severe warning from my mother, who told me she was already engaged to someone else and I had to keep away. Our paths had crossed from time to time as we met at church social functions and the badminton club. In one of our conversations during the Christmas period, Doreen told me how unhappy she had become in her relationship with her fiancée John, and the way he treated her. They had been engaged for seven years and there seemed to be no plans for marriage in the offing. I promised to come home again the following weekend to see her and cheer her up.
The following weekend, as we talked together I told her all about life in the RAF and what I was doing, and having noticed that Doreen was wearing ear rings, I promised to make her another pair during my time in the workshops. That week when no one was watching and in between the circuits I should have been making, I took two pennies and filed off the stampings cut them into shape and then polished them. They still needed clips for the backs and I had to get them on my next journey home. With very little money in my pocket I had to hitch hike to get home. The A4 ran past the camp so there was no problem in getting to London. Wherever I was put down, the next part of the journey was by the underground out to Newbury Park on the Central line, where the station was on the A12 which led to Colchester. Before I got to Colchester I asked drivers to drop me off at Marks Tey, where I could get the train to Sudbury. Leaving the camp at Yatesbury at about mid-day, I could be home between 18.00 and 19.00 hours. It was a trip I became very familiar with in the following months. The journey back again followed a similar route; the train from Sudbury to Marks Tey, lifts down into London, where from a convenient tube station I made my way to Hounslow West on the Piccadilly line, from where it was a short walk to the Travellers Rest Inn on the A4. The target was to be at the Travellers Rest by 22.00 hrs, which meant that on a good night I could be back in camp soon after midnight, but if the lifts were not very forthcoming it could be as late as 03.30 the next morning. The following weekend I made the trip home again to spend time with Doreen.
After the Christmas block leave the course continued with Alternating Current and transformers, and then mid-January introducing us to thermionics and its associated circuitry. The next few weeks took us through Diodes, Triodes, Tetrodes, Pentodes and the Cathode Ray Tube, how they were used and their associated circuitry. At the end of January, Doreen and I started to write to each other, and it quickly became two letters a week sent on Monday and Wednesday to arrive the following days. This was in addition to the weekend Journey home. Life became quite frenetic, and Mondays in the classroom were quite difficult to cope with after lack of sleep the night before.
It became routine that as soon as Saturday activities were finished at lunch time, I was out on the road heading for home. The rear of our hut backed onto the A4 where the wire fence was broken down, so naturally I didn't bother to walk to the guard room and back along the road, I just hopped over the fence. The lifts ranged from cars and vans to trucks, or a cold seat on the rear of a motor cycle or on one occasion returning from the London direction, a coach full of members of the Salvation Army who had been to some event in London. Sometimes the lift was provided by someone who was working in the electronics industry, and I was given a business card with the instruction to contact them if I was looking for a job after leaving the RAF. On one occasion having slipped out early on the Saturday I was picked up by a car which already had two passengers in civvies. The two passengers commented that they had managed to slip away early because no one seemed bothered to make any checks. The driver then introduced himself as the AOC (Air Officer Commanding) with responsibility for Yatesbury, remarking that it was about time that things changed. After he had dropped us he must have phoned the station, as immediately there were personnel checks. On Monday when questioned as to why they could not find me, I dreamed up a plausible excuse, as I knew what had prompted the checks.
At the beginning of March it was my turn for one of those strange and seemingly pointless duties, it was designated Hangar Guard Duty. At the end of the day's activities half a dozen of us had to report to the large hangar on the remote edge of the camp. We were divided into pairs and it was our duty to make sure of the security of the building through the hours of darkness. Since there were six of us, that meant two hours on duty patrolling the outside, and then four hours to try to get some sleep in the crew room. As it was cold in March we wore our greatcoats and gloves, and we were armed with pickaxe handles. I am not sure for what the pickaxes were supposed to used, was it self-protection or the disablement of intruders. Around 02.00 hrs, with the cold wind rattling the loose corrugated iron panels of the hangar in the dark, it felt somewhat scary and the pickaxe handle was something of a comfort. As I patrolled a shape suddenly moved against the half light of the sky, as it approached a voice said, "Its only me," and holding a torch the orderly NCO appeared, he was checking that we were in fact on guard and not asleep somewhere. Apart from that the night passed without incident, no one tried to steal the parts of planes, and we went somewhat bleary eyed to breakfast and a full day's work.
The following weekend I was back with Doreen in Sudbury, with what became our usual Saturday night activity of ballroom dancing. We had discovered that if we went early, the band played but the room was virtually empty, so from about 20.30 till 22.00 we had the dance floor and the band to ourselves. At 22.00 when bar closed, those who had spent the night drinking came onto the floor and we went home, happy but exhausted, without having to jostle with those who were unsteady on their feet. That weekend Doreen gave me photograph of herself for me to stand on my bedside locker, it showed her wearing the ear rings that I had made for her. With the end of the cross country season I began to cycle again and Doreen and I rode around the lanes of the Sudbury countryside together. The following weekend when I returned to camp I brought my bike with me on the train, having ridden it fist to Colchester then at the other end riding it from Chippenham to camp.
By now the course had moved on to power supplies which would lead to transmission techniques, introducing us to the thyratron, magnetron and waveguides, an area of electronics which I was beginning to find fascinating. The week after bringing my bike back to camp, Doreen was sent on course to Gossard in London, so sports afternoon that week involved hitch hiking to London to spend the evening with her, returning once again after midnight. The rest of the lads in the billet thought I was completely mad. However the following day cheered everyone up as we had a pay rise of one shilling a day, as we had now been in the RAF for six months, so I now had 35 shillings a week to play with, though most of that was quickly consumed with keeping my bike on the road.
Two huts away was a course of regular SAC radar mechanics, who were doing a course to upgrade to fitters. They all seemed to have powerful motor bikes and regularly rode them at high speed along the straight road outside the camp, and their discussions were often about how much over the "ton" they had been able to achieve. Over the weeks the numbers on the course began to dwindle as accidents claimed them, fortunately none were fatal. We were a startled one evening when one of them appeared in the doorway of our hut, with muddy leathers and face showing dried blood streaks. He announced to all, "I am the last one," before disappearing. We weren't surprised.
At the back of the row of huts there was a connecting corridor, and at the end of the block was a store room where I kept my bike. One evening, having parked my bike, I noticed in the corridor that the fuse box on the wall seemed to be glowing. I lifted the cover to look inside. In the place where there would normally have been fuses there were wire nails, which were red hot and glowing. It seems that the residents in that part had a large number of personal electrical appliances, these overloaded the circuits and regularly blew the fuses, so someone had decided that the nails were unlikely to fail in the same way, and these were airmen who were supposed to have an electrical background and should have known the dangers associated with overloaded circuits.
Towards the end of March I was very aware, when out cycling at home, of the difference in fitness between myself and Doreen and the difference created by her utilitarian steed and my lightweight racing bike. The best solution was to both be on the same machine together. Through her network of friends Doreen managed to find a second hand tandem that was for sale, and on a subsequent weekend I raided my savings bank, and laid out a whole ten pounds for the light weight tandem, which was in very good condition. Over the next few weekends we became accustomed to the tandem, and it was useful to have something to ride at home, as my own bike was on camp. This was a very opportune time, as I had three days Easter leave to add to a weekend, and we had several trips out to improve our fitness.
The next two weeks saw us coming to the end of the coursework sessions on high frequency techniques, and we had an exam to round off this section of the work. Unfortunately the exam was on a Monday after I had been home for my usual weekend, but the trip back to camp was not quite the usual one and it was 03.00 hrs when I fell into bed, trying not to waken any of the others. Normally I managed to exceed the pass mark in these exams, but this time I dropped a few marks below. This resulted in being summoned to an interview with my flight commander, to explain any reasons why I thought I had not been successful. I cannot remember what I said to convince him, but I certainly wasn't going to let him know that I was undertaking a 300 mile round trip across the country each weekend.
At the beginning of May we were introduced to our first piece of real equipment, code named Orange Putter (ARI 5800). This was a FFI (Friend Foe Identification) device, normally located in the tail of an aircraft to give a pilot warning of a plane approaching from behind, and determining whether it was friendly and so could be ignored, or potentially unfriendly requiring avoiding action. For this we had a change of instructor, and a civilian, Mr Paddon, guided us through the notes; he was a genial soul. In parallel with this we had laboratory sessions, where we discovered how the paper circuit diagrams in our notes corresponded with the actual equipment. Then with the equipment running we tested reactions and displays. Here we avoided where possible standing in front of the dish aerial, as it was suggested exposure to the high frequency radiations could induce sterility. We didn't know if this was true or not, but we weren't going to take any chances. Finally when we knew how the equipment should behave, faults were introduced, and we had to discover them and repair. Then we started on our second piece of equipment code named Green Satin (ARI 5851), a navigational aid. It was supposed to give the plane navigator, true ground speed, drift angle and nautical miles flown. It worked on the principle of the Doppler Effect.
Before we had done much work on Green Satin we had a break, with Block Leave for Whitsun Holiday. But before we went on leave on the Wednesday there was an AOC's inspection on the Tuesday, which meant a bull night on Monday, with the whole of the hut cleaned and polished as well as our kit, particularly the brasses of the uniform we would be wearing on parade on Tuesday.
The previous Wednesday we had turned to in groups around the station, on a general clean and tidy up. Once we had bought the tandem Doreen and I had decided on a cycling holiday together, but her holiday dates didn't quite match with mine, so it was not until the Saturday we set out, travelling eighty miles through the Home Counties to a youth hostel at Ivinghoe. The following day we carried on down to Bath another eighty five miles. In planning the holiday on a minimum budget we decided the cheapest option for bed and breakfast was a double room, which meant in those days booking it in the name of Mr and Mrs Hailwood, this concerned Doreen as she thought people might notice that she wasn't wearing a wedding ring; but nobody did. We spent two nights in Bath with a rest day sightseeing. Then we travelled south through Somerset, staying one night in Shepton Mallet, then returning to the youth hostel in Marlborough. I had to be back on camp as my leave was up, so I rode the tandem by myself back to Yatesbury. The following day I rode the six miles back to the Youth Hostel with my bike, pushing it while I rode the tandem, Doreen had another day to spend in Marlborough and didn't want to be left without transport.
On the Saturday I managed to slip away early and collected Doreen from the Youth Hostel, and we set off in the direction of home. We completed the first fifty miles along the A4 in two hours, then we had to turn north dropping down a long steep hill into High Wycombe. Braking hard at the bottom of the long hill caused the rims of the front wheel to heat up, and caused an inner tube blow out. This took a little while to repair, but on our way again we began to look for somewhere to stay overnight in the Hertford area. There was nowhere that was not booked up, apparently all available accommodation seems to have been taken by workers doing the preparation for motorways that were to run through the area. By the time we got to Bishop Stortford, Doreen had reached the end of her energy resources, I suppose I had pushed her too hard on the earlier part of the ride. I telephoned home, and my ever dutiful mother and father said they would come to collect us. By the time they arrived I had disassembled the tandem into parts, and after the welcome tea and sandwiches they had brought with them, I put the frame of the tandem on the carrier at the back of the 1935 Standard ten, and the rest inside. It wasn't the way we had hoped our holiday would finish, but we had to be thankful for parents who were prepared to drop everything and come to the rescue. That Sunday night I hitch hiked back to camp and on the Wednesday I went over to Marlborough to collect my bike from the Youth Hostel.
During the next few days the work on Green Satin continued in much the same way as on the previous piece of equipment, eventually working on fault finding. Then we spent a week in the Air Servicing Hangar, where we learned not only about how the equipment was fitted into fuselage but how to work in confined spaces, how to take out equipment and put it back again and then the all-important paperwork which went with servicing. It was stressed the importance of the Form 700, which was the key document in the event of a crash, and that when we signed it for the work we may have done, we could be signing for someone's life. As well as the practical servicing and paperwork there were all the safety precautions which had to be observed, there was an emphasis was on those connected to ejector seats. I managed to get 86% on the tests which went with this work
After another weekend at home, we settled down to revision, as the course was drawing to a close. One of the lads had heard that it was possible to get some flying experience if we could get ourselves over to the nearest operational RAF station at Lynham. So on the Thursday after work, four of us appeared at Lynham to enquire as to what flights might be available, apparently there were Britannias doing training flights. So suitably kitted out, after a briefing, we climbed aboard. We had not appreciated that the training was to be circuits and bumps, most of the time we sat on the stripped down canvas seats of a military transport. We were invited onto the flight deck where the various controls were explained to us, then the navigator's station where we discovered that Green Satin was installed. When we explained that we had just finished our Green Satin course, the navigator apologised because their equipment was not at that moment serviceable. He was rather disparaging about the equipment as a whole, and said that over the sea it just could not be relied on as the reflection from the waves was so unpredictable. They didn't tell us that on the course. In the moments when I wasn't doing anything I wrote to Doreen, explaining that this might be the only letter she would ever get from an aircraft several hundred feet up in the air. The next day, Friday, having had very little sleep we had an exam, and that weekend I travelled back across the country to Sudbury.
I should really have been revising over the weekend like the rest of the lads, as Monday and Tuesday were our final exams. On Wednesday we had the results, I failed my exam by five marks, but I wasn't the only one, only seven passed. Failure by fifteen marks meant leaving the course as a Radar Mechanic with the rank of SAC, for a score above that, there were two weeks of revision and a re-examination. Friday night we all went out to celebrate in Marlborough and say goodbye to the six leaving, four were going to Cyprus and three to operational stations in the Midlands. Saturday morning there was a parade in the blazing hot sun. I had a pounding head and after more than an hour standing in serried ranks waiting to be inspected, my vision blurred and I collapsed to the ground. Afterwards the rest of the lads said that it was hilarious, the sight of two rather short sargeants trying to carry me to the side of the parade ground. I recovered enough to be able to trek back across the country to Sudbury for the rest of the weekend. It was that weekend that I asked Doreen to marry me and we became engaged, unofficially, keeping the decision to ourselves.
After the usual late arrival back on camp, on the Monday my body was still resilient enough to provide a pint of blood at a doning session, as well as making a start on the revision sessions, which were quite intense, and they included work in the laboratory on the equipment. For the revision sessions we were joined by a lad from a previous course who had been put back. It seems that while working on Green Satin he had been reaching over the live equipment, using a long screwdriver to make some adjustments, when the screwdriver slipped, his arm had come down on one of the magnetron terminals which was at 10,000 volts, and the electrical current had cauterised a tube through the inside part of his arm to the wrist. It had taken several weeks of surgery and treatment to get him fit again. It was a salutary lesson to the rest of us about taking care over live equipment.
Feeling that I had got to grips with the revision sessions, I thought about what would happen at the end of the course and the posting. What was I going to do with my bike? I decided to ride it home that weekend, so I folded my uniform into my saddlebag. On the morning of 2nd July I pedalled past the guardroom at Yatesbury for the last time and turned along the A4 towards home. It was 152 miles and some eight hours later that I arrived home in Sudbury, not much longer than it used to take hitch hiking. Hitch hiking on the return trip I was picked up at Marks Tey by my best friend from school days, the person who had taught me to sail, and with whom I had joined the RNVR. He took me into central London. What was remarkable about this event, was that the previous weekend he had also picked me up at the same place to take me into London, and this was the first time I had seen him in six years. Back on camp, Monday and Tuesday were exam days, and we waited apprehensively for the results on Wednesday. All but two had passed, and I jumped instantly four ranks to become a Junior Technician; with the step up in rank came a step up in pay, and I was now worth two pounds ten shillings a week, a princely sum.
We were no longer in training, so we moved out of our hut to one which lacked the care that a bull night would have shown. I was also transferred to the admin wing, and spent my time wandering around the station getting pieces of paper signed. With no sign of a posting I went home again for the weekend, so that it was not until Monday that I received notice of my posting to RAF Henlow and a week of posting leave starting on the Wednesday. After all of the signing out procedures and returning my bedding to the bedding store I left the station for the last time. I had a railway pass to get home, and another from home to Henlow.
My next evening fire piquet duty was in the cinema, and having checked that all exits were clear, as the lights went down I settled down with the rest of the audience to watch "Tunes of Glory," the army story with Edinburgh Castle as its backdrop. With another day of waiting in case something happened, I wrote a letter and read some of my book, before my thoughts turned to my time at Henlow.
When we received our postings at Yatesbury, three of the course were sent to RAF Gann, on one of the remote Maldive Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. This was very much a staging post with aircraft flying in and out. Two of the others were sent to operational stations in Lincolnshire and I had a posting to RAF Henlow, about which I knew nothing. On Wednesday 3rd August, arriving by train at the adjacent station, I walked the short distance to the entrance and guard room, where the sign outside informed me that I had arrived at RAF Henlow the RAF Technical College; not an operational station. I checked in at the guardroom where I collected documentation and a map of the station. I was told which hut would be my billet, and told to visit the bedding store to draw my bedding, and the location of the mess where I could eat. I would be expected to report for duty at W.S.E.W. at 09.00 the next morning, W.S.E.W was scribbled on a numbered block on the map I had been given. Being Wednesday It was sports afternoon, so there were only a couple of lads in the billet when I arrived and they directed me to an empty bed space. I went off to the bedding store to collect my blankets and sheets and back in the billet, unpacked and made up my bed. We chatted for a while as other lads in the billet appeared before going off to the mess to get an evening meal.
In the morning when I reported for work at the large two storey brick building with large windows, I was surprised that inside the main entrance was an RAF policeman, this was a high security building. After examining my 1250, he selected a tag from the rack behind him for me to clip onto my uniform. I discovered that the mysterious letters W.S.E.W. stood for Weapon Systems Engineering Wing, and I had been initiated into the world of guided missiles. The laboratory that I was directed to was filled with the guidance components of guided missiles, all seemingly driven by motors, pumps and hydraulics; a completely different engineering field from that which I had spent nine months training. The sargeant in charge was due for discharge shortly, and the fact that the Technical College worked University terms meant that the whole place was quiet and nothing seemed to be happening. However it was Thursday and I attended my first pay parade in the section. Friday was much the same, where I was largely left to my own devices, pottering around inspecting mechanisms whose use and operation I only vaguely understood. During vacation time no one worked at the weekend, so on Friday night I hitch hiked home to spend Saturday and Sunday with Doreen, continuing the practice I had got used to at Yatesbury. There was however one big difference, being closer to Sudbury it usually only took about two hours to get home; and the for the return journey I rode the fifty four miles back on the Sunday evening, so that I then had my bike lodged in one of the billet store rooms. I started to read the documentation which had been prepared for students who attended courses on weaponry, getting to grips with both positive and negative feedback and gyroscopic stabilisation. However I found that I was being used as a "gofer", taking pieces of paper around the station to have the documents signed. Very few of the signatories seemed to be in the places they were supposed to be, so the paper chase could be quite lengthy; but at least I found my way around the station. Where hydraulics was involved there were drip trays underneath the equipment, and after a classroom session they usually needed a clean, they had to be kept spotless. On my first sports afternoon I took to my bike and rode down to Hounslow to see one of my younger brothers who was at teacher training college, part of the purpose was to maintain fitness, as at the weekend I rode home again to spend the weekend with Doreen. I set off back to camp on the Sunday night, riding through heavy rain until my lights failed in the deluge, so I returned home. Setting off again at 04.30 on Monday morning it was a pleasure to ride through the dawn, and I was back on camp soon after 06.30 in time to have a shower, before being the first into the mess for breakfast, to sample the fried eggs of an English breakfast before they became plastic, and the tea before it gained the consistency of soup.
With the enjoyable experience of the early morning ride back to camp, I repeated it the following two weekends. With the end of August I had a new sargeant, who looked more closely at how I spent my time. The Technical College resumed operations, and in the labs it was a matter of making sure that notes were available for the students on the courses. It was also the start of the Rugby season and on the first Wednesday I attended for a trial, and the following Wednesday I was selected to play for the station second team, however I was then asked to play for the 1st XV as a replacement. I found that I was the only junior NCO playing in what was a mainly officers team, but no one knew as I turned up in a track suit to change for the home match; which was a resounding win against RAF Bassingbourne. That evening I went to meet the PMUB Padre at the station chapel, having decided that there were other activities on camp which were preferable to watching, and listening to the other lads in the billet playing cards, which they seemed to do whenever they had a spare moment. That night though was a night of brass polishing and uniform pressing to prepare for parade next morning. The parade was a practice for the AOC's parade which was due in a fortnight's time.
The following Sunday there was to be a church parade so most of the lads were resigned to staying on camp, but I rode home on the Saturday morning determined to spend some of the weekend with Doreen. This meant being up early Sunday morning to ride back to camp to be on parade at 10.00 hrs. It was a pretty desultory affair, most of those on parade rarely seeing the inside of a church. In the evening I rode down to Letchworth to the Methodist Church, where they were having their harvest festival. In the late 1920's my father had spent some time there, while a student at Cliff College, running a mission. Previous to starting my National Service, I had spent time staying with the family with whom my father had stayed when he was a student, and that evening I met them again. In addition, I met a family who had shared one of the mission stations with my parents while in China, they also lived in Letchworth, and finally I seemed to be adopted by the Cox family, who had a teenage family and who felt that I might be lonely away from home. They said drop in any time, inviting me to join them at the harvest super during the week.
That following week was to be a momentous one. We were preparing for the AOC inspection on Thursday, so most normal work seemed to be put to one side, as we cleaned and tidied every section of the station. There was a final practice parade on the Tuesday, and in the evening I joined the Cox family at the Letchworth Methodist Church for the harvest supper. My efforts on the rugby pitch had not gone unnoticed, so on the Wednesday afternoon I had been selected to play for Tech Training Command, in a home match against a team representing Bomber Command. During the second half of the match, which was a hard one, I received a blow to the head. When I regained consciousness, it was 48 hours later in the hospital at RAF Halton. I was in a darkened side ward, and the staff explained to me later that the thought I might have sustained a brain injury. As it was I only had a black eye and a depressed fracture of the cheekbone. I was quickly moved to one of the main wards where, between discussions with the other patients, I spent my time filling in all of the crosswords of the papers that became available, and of course I wrote to Doreen to tell her where I was.
Much to my surprise, on Sunday afternoon I had a visit from Doreen and my sister's boyfriend Fritz. Fritz had a motorbike and he had provided the transport. He hadn't taken much persuading, because on the way back home they were able to call in at Hockerill College in Bishop Stortford, where my sister was undergoing teacher training. Not wishing to loose fitness I did press-ups and curls out of sight under and beside my bed, or so I thought, until I was spotted by the ward sister who threatened all sorts of nasty things if I persisted. Eventually they decided that they had had enough of me and wished to return me to Henlow. However I had been delivered to them in muddy rugby kit, so they had to send for my uniform so I could be suitably discharged. On Wednesday, a week after the injury I was given a travel warrant to get back to Henlow, but was officially off duty until Monday, so I collected my bike and rode home. My mother, quite used to the foolish ways of her son, was adamant that it would add to my stupidity after the head injury should I attempt to ride back to camp, so that night I had to catch the train back, taking my bike with me, using it only to ride across London and from Hitchin back to Henlow. When I got back to camp, the lads in the billet were of the opinion that my trip to hospital had been a way of avoiding the AOC's inspection.
The following weekend was the last that I rode home as the October days grew shorter, and then I was back to playing rugby on Wednesday, the first match being for the 2nd XV against RAF Wyton, to assess whether I was properly recovered. While I had been at home recovering I had made contact again with the Rugby club in Sudbury, and they were interested in having me on the list of players available if I was going to be regularly at home for weekends. When I returned to camp I filled in a civilian application form to be allowed to play rugby outside of the RAF, it took a week to get through the official channels, and when my copy was returned it had four signatures, from my section commander right up to that of the station commander. The second part of the form, which I had signed, was also a disclaimer, acknowledging that the RAF would not be held responsible for any misadventure that befell me while playing rugby for someone else. The following week was a more interesting one, as I was assigned to an officer as his assistant as he carried out experiments on one of our pieces of apparatus. The following three weeks went back to the general pattern of, playing rugby for the station 1st XV on Wednesday, a PMUB guild meeting one evening a week, attending evening events at the Letchworth Methodist Church and of hitching home at the weekends where most Saturday nights were spent dancing with Doreen. Sundays were cut short by having to travel back to camp, but this was a well tried journey, by train, hitch hiking and then coach from London to Henlow getting back about midnight.
While most of our equipment in the lab was static most of the time, and never did anything interesting, being bits of Blue Steel or Sidewinder missiles, there were other sections which seemed to have more interesting equipment. One of the lads in the billet invited me to visit his section on the upper floor of W.S.E.W. This was filled with electronics, but the show piece was the Fire Streak air to air missile, which was mounted by one of the large windows. This was a heat seeking missile, and to show its sensitivity when switched, on he showed it tracking a cigarette smoker walking down the road outside. I was most impressed.
Remembrance Sunday was a church parade and so no one left the camp that weekend. That Sunday was also the day that Doreen travelled down to London for a week's course connected with her work, so I made up for the missing weekend by excusing myself from playing rugby on the Wednesday, travelled down to London and in the evening went with Doreen to the theatre to see Irma La Douce. In the course of my meetings with the PMUB group, the padre suggested that I apply to take part in a Moral Leadership Course. It seemed a very attractive proposition, a week away from camp at Conwy in North Wales. I applied and was accepted, so the Friday night after the trip to the theatre I went home, from where I travelled to Conwy on the Saturday. Since it was a cross country journey, and my travel warrant didn't operate until Bedford, I hitched part of the way and then had to change trains three times on the way, in consequence it was late and dark when I arrived at Beechwood Court. The location was a spacious country mansion, perched high on the hillside above Conwy. We were quite a mixture, led by four padres representing the three main church groups, there were about forty of us, most of us being airmen, but three WRAF members and a naval wren. One of the welcoming surprises was meeting up with a couple of lads that I had known from the fellowship group at Yatesbury. On the Sunday morning we all went to the service at the Methodist Church in Conwy, as that was the only English speaking church. Much of the rest of the day was spent sightseeing and exploring the castle and the ancient part of the town. The mornings of the rest of the week were spent largely in talks given by the padres, followed by group discussions, the afternoons were left to ourselves, but because of incessant rain there weren't too many opportunities to explore outside. The evenings were spent in group discussions, culminating in Evening prayers. However as part of the course, a coach trip was laid on to introduce us to the North Wales area, taking us across to Anglesey and then back through Snowdonia.
In planning what I wanted to do when I came to the end of my National Service, I knew that previously I had been accepted for a teacher training course at King Alfred's College in Winchester, but that had been put on hold by the intervention of National Service. I went through all the procedures of reapplication with some confidence. There were also changes afoot at home, my father was not in very good health, and the strains of a one man circuit was beginning to tell on him. In addition the three eldest members of the family were away from home in the RAF or at college, and would in all probability be starting careers which would take them away from home. The next son had just been accepted for an engineering apprenticeship in Lancashire, and the two youngest were away at school in Harrogate, so a move back to the north of England seemed sensible, and a move to a Methodist Circuit in Howden in Yorkshire, just north of the River Humber, had been agreed.
The next few weeks seemed to be mainly centred around sport, with training sessions on camp, playing for the station 1st XV on Wednesday, going home at the weekends, slipping away on Friday night if I could manage it, so that I could play for the Sudbury club on the Saturday, making sure that all of the rugby activity was over for the evening, so that I could go dancing with Doreen. In the middle of December I was called for an interview by King Alfred's College and travelled down to Winchester by train. When I applied previously, it had been for a two year course at an all-male college with a strong PE and Sports reputation. There had been many changes since, and the two year course had now become a three year course, and the college was in the process of accepting its second intake of women. I was accepted but not for the Geography and PE specialism that I had requested but rather for the Advanced Maths and Physics course.
As Christmas approached I had the idea of putting on a variety concert and show at the Methodist Church in Sudbury; the manse that the family occupied was not really a suitable place and funds would be needed for a replacement. The show was very much based on the family, and the young people who were their friends at church. I wrote sketches and selected musical numbers and put together a programme. Needing tickets for the show at a minimal cost, I used the reprographic facilities on camp. I often used them to provide materials for the section, so it was relatively easy to slip in an extra small item. The end of term for the technical college came on 19th December and two days later we had the station Christmas dinners. We had to dress up in No 1 uniform for ours, which was for corporals and below, and we were served by the officers including the C.O. It was a full three course meal with all of the trimmings supplemented by beer and cigarettes, though not enough to become too merry.
Back at home there were the usual Christmas preparations, with all of the family returning from their term time destinations, and I got on with producing the concert and rehearsals. The church organist who was going to play the piano for us was suddenly unavailable, so I had to ask my father to step into the breach. The concert was a great success and was received with much hilarity, but I knew the latent talents of all of the young people involved, and that at that age they were completely fearless. Having had the concert on the Wednesday after Christmas, Doreen and I went to a Christmas dance on the Saturday, after which we became formally engaged, a situation which was somewhat grudgingly accepted by my mother.
In the New Year there were some changes in the section, a new AC1 was posted in, so I was no longer the "gofer", and I was moved from the controls lab to the computer lab. I was back with electronics again, but much of what I had learned at Yatesbury would have to be revised and relearned. This was a very much more relaxed atmosphere, with two officers a civilian instructor and myself. Here was a Hollerith card machine, and a monster piece of equipment made up of a whole bank of integrator circuits, which were patched together with leads, making an analogue computer which went by the name of RAFTRAC. When switched on it consumed kilowatts of power and needed fans to keep it cool. Some of my work was patching together with leads the various integrator circuits, to correspond with mathematical formulae; and when circuits failed to work it was necessary to go into the back of the computer to find out why, usually it was a thermionic valve that had failed, and there were hundreds of them.
Many of the courses run in the computer lab were basic electronics linked to switching circuits, to enable the participants to gain an understanding of how computing and digital circuits worked. I was responsible for setting out the equipment, then hovering in the background as an assistant. For pilot officers, flying officers and flight lieutenants, if experiments did not give the required results it was often considered that it was my fault, and I had to surreptitiously put things right. However with more senior officers on interservice information courses, things were slightly different and a wing commander or vice-admiral would seek my help to make things work. I spent a whole week assisting a Canadian air force officer on a project that he was undertaking. With the more relaxed attitude to work in the section, and the fact that coursework did not take place on Saturdays I was able to slip off home on Friday after work and so was regularly available to play rugby at home during the weekend. Playing twice a week and having training sessions as well meant that I was one of the fittest of the RAF team, and had no difficulties in keeping my place. The team was becoming quite successful and finished the season by winning an inter stations cup competition.
Towards the end of January it became my turn to do armoury guard, which consisted of being locked in the station armoury at the back of the guard room overnight. I arrived at the RAF Henlow guardroom at the appointed time of 18.00 hrs. The police corporal on duty checked my ID then directed me through to the rear of the guard room. He unlocked a cabinet on the wall and took out a key and opened the steel faced door to reveal another door of steel bars. Having unlocked this one he opened the door and gave me the key. Lock yourself in was the instruction, and having watched me do it he then closed the outside door and I heard the key turn in the lock. I looked around at the racks of .303 rifles on the walls and the ammunition boxes on the floor, so this was the station armoury.
I was locked in as the armoury guard, and I would be released twelve hours later to be able to get to the mess for breakfast. There were instructions on the wall as to what I was expected to do, together with details as to what not to do. I read through these, then inspected the rest of my accommodation. There was a bed with a couple of blankets in one corner, with a sink unit and the facilities to be able to make a drink and do some cooking, and another door which led into the toilet. The windowless room was lit with a couple of lights one of which stayed on permanently. I was responsible for ensuring that there was no unauthorised access to the weaponry overnight, though I was permitted to sleep fully clothed and ready for action if alerted. It was presumed that since the steel grille was locked and I had the key no one would be able to get in, though I suspect there was another key somewhere, to be used in the event of the armoury guard being incapacitated and unable to unlock from the inside. I survived Armoury Guard and no one attempted to break in to make off with any of the contents of the armoury, so after an uneventful night I went off to find breakfast.
The following weekend when I arrived at home on the Friday evening it was to find my father in a very distressed state. He seemed to have a heavy cold, and that combined with the emphysema, which had been gradually getting worse over the years, was causing him severe breathing problems. The following morning his condition was worse, it was obvious that he would not be able to attend his preaching appointments on Sunday, and it would not be easy to find a substitute to take his place from the normal band of local preachers at such short notice. He decided that I should take his place, the services were all prepared, and I could easily take over, and with a little coaching could deliver an address. So much to the surprise of the congregations, but to the relief of the church stewards, I appeared at Sudbury in the morning and Lavenham in the afternoon. There was of coursed much concern about the state of my father's health. I returned to camp by the usual route but with ever worsening weather conditions, that night was a wild one and we lost part of our billet roof. Fortunately it was over part of the unoccupied store rooms so we were not affected by the rain.
On Tuesday morning Squadron Leader Holden, our section squadron leader, made an unexpected appearance in the section and I was summoned to see him in the office. I wondered which of my misdeeds had eventually caught up with me. However he told me that my mother had telephoned that morning about the condition of my father, and I was to return home immediately, I was to take two weeks compassionate leave immediately, and along with my leave document there was a travel warrant home. Knowing that the train journey took twice as long, I was quickly out on the road, hitch hiking home and was home before lunch.
When I arrived it was to see my father in bed looking pale and frail, something I had never seen before. His shallow breathing was being assisted by oxygen from a cylinder beside the bed. There was little that I was able to do at that moment; both his children Dick in London, and Christine in Bishop Stortford had also been informed of the seriousness of their father's condition and were on their way home as well.
The following day father's condition seemed to have stabilised, and after the visit of the doctor in the morning a prescription for another cylinder of oxygen was written out, and I was despatched to the chemist to collect it, bringing it back on my shoulder. It was then that I went to visit Doreen, who had been sent home from work on the Monday because she felt so ill. When I called at her home I found her in bed with a variety of symptoms, but with severe abdominal pain. This I felt was a case for her doctor to be involved, and immediately put in a telephone call to him. It was not long before he was there, and after examination decided that it was a problem with her appendix and immediately sent for an ambulance to have her transported to hospital in Colchester. Later that day my brother and sister arrived home, though it was obvious that Christine was not well, and with flu like symptoms she was put to bed, another younger brother Roland also succumbed to the same sort of symptoms and he was also despatched to his bed, mother did not want any further complications for my father. Since it was obvious that other arrangements would have to be made for my father's appointments, various circuit officials were left with the task of covering them. A call was also made to the District Chairman, in Norwich to make him aware of the gravity of the situation. In the evening the doctor made his second visit of the day. Concerned about Doreen, I made a telephone call to the hospital to make enquiries about her condition, and was informed that she had undergone an operation for the removal of her very inflamed appendix; the operation had gone well and she was sleeping to recover from the operation. Late in the evening my mother sent her sons to bed saying that she would sit up with my father for a while, as he appeared to be sleeping peacefully despite his shallow and sometimes noisy breathing. In the morning the family awoke to find that my mother had in fact spent the night at my father's bedside and prepared themselves for what the day might bring. As daylight came my mother had come to the realisation that she would not be able to keep her husband with her for very much longer. When he noticed Roger by his bedside, his first thoughts were for his future daughter in law as he asked how she was in hospital. He had known that the previous day she had been taken there by ambulance. The doctor visited in the morning, and realised that his pulse was failing. The doctor gave him an injection and massaged his heart but to no effect, he had gone.
In the aftermath of the initial shock there were many arrangements that had to be made and people to be contacted, this was a task that I undertook, the undertakers, mother's and father's families in Lancashire and many local friends. To spread the word as efficiently as possible a key person was contacted and asked to pass on the information. Then there were my two youngest brothers at school in Harrogate, after talking to the headmaster I decided to go to Harrogate to accompany them home. On the day of the funeral the church was packed to overflowing, my father was so well known and so respected. Then we had to begin to think about the future, and moving from the house that went with the job; though we would be able to stay in the house until August. My place at college was confirmed so that I knew my future lay in Winchester.
Back on camp we had to move out of our billet so that repairs could be done, and we took over an unused one that had been neglected for a long time, it wasn't a very pleasant place, and we would be expected to bring it up to inspection standard. I also decided that I would make an application for early discharge, on compassionate grounds, to go home to help my mother. I wrote the letter and subsequently had an interview with my squadron leader, who informed me that I really didn't have a case and so he would not pass the application further up the line. Doreen's firm were having a trip to London to see My Fair Lady, and Doreen had managed to get a ticket for me so after work on the Thursday I made my way to London for a very enjoyable evening, it somewhat lifted the gloom of the previous few days.
At the end of February we had our annual kit inspection with everything laid out to check that we still had a full set and everything was in good repair, and of course it all had to be cleaned, pressed and polished. With the end of the rugby season there was the Rugby Club Ball in Sudbury and Doreen and I went, Doreen wearing a new brocade dress that she had made for herself, looking very much the belle of the ball. It was also the start of the cycling season and Wednesday afternoons and some evenings were spent riding the roads around Henlow, getting the legs moving again. Almost a month after we had been moved out of our billet we were able to move back in again, not only had the roof been repaired but it had been fully redecorated with new lino. We looked at the new lino with some consternation as in its new form it had a matt finish, and it would take a lot of polish and several nights of hard work to bring it up to the glossy finish that was expected for hut inspections. To add to everything else happening, we had two days of annual Ground Defence Training, to prove that we hadn't forgotten how to use a rifle, and that we were still aware of how to protect ourselves in event of a chemical warfare attack, or from the effects of an atomic explosion. The following Wednesday we had a parade and a billet inspection, so we were pleased that we had made the effort to get it back to inspection standard.
The following day the section sent me to London to visit the Electrical Engineering Exhibition, with the thought that I might come back with some ideas which could be applied in the section. While it was interesting to look at new developments in the electrical world, there didn't seem to be anything which could be applied to military weapon systems. I had applied for leave at Easter to coincide with Doreen's Easter holiday and I had persuaded her that we should go to North Wales for a week, so I had booked ourselves in at Bodondeb Castle which was a Methodist Guild Holiday Home. This cost the whole of six pounds each. I was able to show her much of what I had experienced when I attended the moral leadership course. Back on camp in my spare time, of which I seemed to have a considerable amount, I disappeared into our workshops, where I used the circuit building skills that I had learned at Yatesbury to build myself an amplifier for a record player. I had purchased a set of instructions and wiring diagrams, the chassis was made from scrap aluminium sheeting, and I used the various pieces of workshop equipment to shear and bend it into shape. In my trips down to London I passed down the Tottenham Court Road, which was the place to buy the electrical and electronic items I needed. I also made some more ear rings and as a special present a nameplate for Doreen's work place, where she had recently passed her exams and qualified as a Berlei corsetry fitter.
The weekend of the 15th April was a day I for which I had planned for some time, when I gave Doreen her engagement ring; it was the closest weekend I could get to her birthday. Even though we had become formally engaged at Christmas time, I still had to save enough to buy the sort of ring that she had admired in the jewellers. With my mother having to relocate, I managed to negotiate with my section for a couple of days midweek to hitch hike up to Clitheroe, mother's home town, to look at the sort of houses that might be available. There were various possibilities, but nothing really suitable. The following week I managed to organise another couple of days and I hitched up to Clitheroe, while my mother travelled there by train from Sudbury. Her family members had done some further investigation and had discovered just the kind of house we needed, it just required the agreement of my mother with the solicitors, and then the final financial negotiations could go ahead.
The weeks of June passed by in the regular way, with time in the laboratory with the students, and time in the workshops. I was never sure quite what the inhabitants of the workshop were doing, most were corporal technicians and national servicemen. Some were obviously repairing equipment, But others were constructing small boxes filled with electronics which seemed to have no purpose whatsoever, and which would be consigned to the top shelf of the stores when they left, joining other similar pieces of equipment. The AC1 in charge of the stores told me about his collection of mysterious boxes, which he called the leaving pieces, which were all numbered and catalogued and added to the inventory, but which no one seemed to have any idea what they did. He told of one box which had a switch on the outside and a label which said, "Do not switch to on," apparently if you did so, the top opened and an arm came out, which moved the switch back again before retreating inside the box, and the lid closing. He was not able to show me the box, so the tale may have been apocryphal. There was an elderly civilian, who we all called Tom, who spent all of his time working on a large piece of equipment which was referred to as the ball machine. It seemed to consist of aluminium channels along which a steel ball rolled, tripping switches on the way, these switches sometimes diverting the ball into another channel. I have no idea as to its purpose but he had worked on it intently for months and there didn't seem to be a projected finishing date. It appears that Tom had links to the early days of aviation, and was one of A V Roe's engineers, and he told almost unbelievable stories of the empirical, trial and error methods by which early planes were constructed.
Towards the end of June we had notice that the Duke of Edinburgh was going to visit the station. As might be expected there was the usual cleaning and tidying. He was due to visit our computer lab as part of his visit, and there were thoughts as to what might impress him. We had just acquired a plotting table, which was about three feet square, on which the output of our analogue computer could be drawn. Having drawn a large circle to represent the earth, the UK and Moscow were marked on it, we could then show the trajectory of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile being fired. He was most impressed when he saw it. Tongue in cheek we showed how we could take the Russians by surprise, showing the trajectory of a missile flying the opposite way around the world. Mathematically possible but no armaments capable of doing so yet.
Having been home for the weekend to help with packing and cleaning the house, I returned to the news that two of the lads had been given an hour's notice to pack, and had been sent off to Kuwait where Iraq had invaded. It caused a little apprehension, but they were regulars and we breathed a little more easily. With the end of term approaching I managed to negotiate some extra time to go home to help mother to move. From now on when I went back to Sudbury for the weekend it was to stay with Doreen's parents. Doreen meanwhile had been making plans to leave home and get to Winchester or as close as possible, and had been applying for jobs in the area. With the term having finished I popped in and out of the section from time to time. There was no real work to do, and no one seemed to know or care about where I was, so it was not difficult to disappear for a day, and on two occasions to hitch hike down to Winchester and Chichester to meet with Doreen in her job hunting. I managed one more session of blood doning and attended a demob medical then fire piquet caught up with me in my final week in the RAF.
On my final session of fire piquet, as I mused over my time in the RAF, suddenly the alarm went off, lights flashed, buzzers sounded, the guardroom was immediately filled with police and a fire engine appeared. On investigation it turned out to be a false alarm, and coincided with the last evening of an ATC camp. In two days' time I would be going through the clearing procedures and leave my RAF uniform behind. I had learned fighting and survival skills, I had been put through intensive training to manage the radar on V bombers and transport planes, but the only plane I had come in contact with had been a flight that I arranged for myself. I had been posted to a unit to work on strange equipment for which I had no training, and had little to do for most of my time. In fact I became a five day a week airman and a two days civilian at home. I had made up my mind to enjoy my National Service, and the sports opportunities had given ample opportunity for that, and the relative freedom to engage in many other kinds of activities I had exploited to the full. Had I really contributed anything to the defence of my country? Had it really all been worth it?
At the beginning of September Doreen moved to a job in Guildford, then three weeks later to a job in Winchester, where she rented a flat in a village outside. I joined my mother in Clitheroe to help her get settled in her new home, before going to Winchester to start my studies at King Alfred's College at the end of September. We married back in Sudbury on 28 July the following year.
Copyright © 2016 by Roger Hailwood.
The views expressed on this page are those of the contributor and the opinions
expressed are not necessarily those of the web site and / or Mr Gwynne Chadwick.
Return to the Memories page or Return to home page