Experiences of National Service in the RAF, 1955-1957
When my National Service call-up papers arrived it was November 1955 and I was a mere lad of 18.
On the allotted day, off I went to the midlands (Cardington) to be kitted out. I was terrified. The first day we had a medical, a haircut, and then lined up in this big hall where we moved from bench to bench and were loaded up with Air Force clobber. Pretty rough stuff too. Part of the kit was a mug and 'irons' (knife, fork and spoon). I was given a number and an identification card. Woe betide if anyone lost that; it was called a 1250 (twelve fifty). My number was 2776800. We were shown our bunk bed, which was in a billet, just like those army films you have seen. We dumped our RAF stuff (tidily) and lined up outside to go to the mess (food place). "By the left, quick march", we were told. But what did that mean? At that stage, we had no idea how to march and we had our mugs and irons in our hands. So we shambled off, arms swinging, mugs in hand, doing our best to look military. The noise of mugs smashing was electric. "You dozy lot, mugs in left hand", came the instruction after the damage was done. So many of us (including me) had to buy new mugs.
Next day, it was pack up our civilian clothes and then off for eight weeks basic training at a place near Liverpool. The place is farmland now. It was called West Kirby; it was bleak and nasty (and very cold).
During the first eight weeks' indoctrination period in the RAF at West Kirby, I experienced real fear for the first time. It was a terrible. Looking back, it was silly really, but it was intended by the training and environment so that we recruits would obey orders instantly without question, and it worked. We wondered whether it was worth being alive sometimes. Some of us took it much harder than I did.
On our first day we were treated very roughly, giving us a clue as to what we could expect over the next weeks.
We cleaned and fired rifles (kick back can do harm to shoulder); fired a Bren gun (automatic); did route marches; exercises; marching up and down; sloped and presented arms over and over again, worked through obstacle courses, polished boots and buttons, pressed trousers, and attended lectures and had inoculations. It was a busy time from wake up in the dark, till sleep. No spare time. It was winter and very cold. and often wet and icy. We did as we were told without question and were shouted at from two inches from our faces. We became immune to being ridiculed and shouted at after a while.
I was good at shining boots. Somehow I acquired the knack, it took time, but then the evenings were spent cleaning and polishing. I did a bit of trading on that skill, "You clean my rifle and I'll clean your boots", sort of thing.
We 'lived' in a hut that held about 30 of us. Beds were perfectly lined up and the brown polished linoleum gleamed. As we wore boots there were a pile of cut up blankets to put under our boots and we would slip down the hut. If boots slipped off then you were up to serious polishing job. There were two pot-bellied type of stoves in the hut to keep us from freezing. Each morning we had to set up our sheets and blankets in a neat pattern at the top of the bed and all other gear (we had no personal stuff) had to be put away appropriately. On inspection days, we had to lay the whole lot on the bed in a strict manner. All beds looked alike. Anything wrong, as perceived by the inspecting officer, resulted in "Take his name Corporal", and we were subject to some punishment. We stood to attention by our beds, always facing the front, while this inspection took place.
On one occasion I was being punished (which happened frequently) and was allocated early morning cookhouse duties. This meant getting up pretty early and going down to the cookhouse to do menial tasks. One morning, well before dawn, I was slipping my way down to the cookhouse. It was cold and icy; I could hardly stand upright and I had to walk down a slippery path in leather boots. It took a little time to get to the cookhouse and then I found that I had forgotten my beret. Not to have your hat was a sin of gigantic proportions. So back I went to get it, and the tortuous journey seemed to take ages. Consequently I was late arriving to the cookhouse. I got the worst job, which is working in the tin room. This is where greasy hard baked tins had to be cleaned. No detergent, just cold water, steam, a great big tub and me. Actually I did not mind, at least I was warm and nobody shouted at me. It was all very peaceful. And at the end of it a freshly cooked breakfast, better than the others got! I spent quite a bit of time at the tin room as somehow I often got picked on for some misdemeanour or other.
We had a lecture on VD (venereal disease). I sat there with 100 or so souls lost in my own thoughts, not really understanding what was being talked about. Suddenly it was silent. It was 'Smoko time'. "But before we have smoko, I want a volunteer to come up here and tell us what I have been talking about". Oh no! I shrank in my seat. "Hey, you over there". Like a mug I turned in my seat. Of course, that was a naive thing to do. "You that turned round you're the one, you come up here". His word was law so I miserably wandered up to the stage. Mercifully bits of the lecture had registered in my head. I stood there petrified. I was helped by the lecturer, made a few comments and all was well.
After eight weeks of basic training at West Kirby (camp now returned to farmland) I was transferred to a Boy Entrant training camp at Cosford (near Wolverhampton) and with others kept records of their marks and drew graphs. I was chosen for this because of my A levels in mathematics!
We used to do guard duty there. This entailed two hours on and four off from 6 in the evening until 6 the next morning. We were protecting against the IRA attack (at a boy entrants training camp!). I had no idea who the IRA was then. We slept on the floor in the guardroom (on mattresses) and the MPs would wake us up and two of us would go out to wander around watching out for the IRA. We had rifles but no bullets - great protection that, but that was wise, because we were very green and young. It was so cold. I found the main boiler hot water tank. It was warm there so I sat next to that while my partner fretted. I would not move. We all hated guard duty. There was nothing to protect ourselves with anyway if some clown announced he was from the IRA. The duty officer would come round sometimes, so we had to keep awake. "Who goes there", "Advance and be recognised". All part of our training to protect the nation. We had to go the work next day as normal too.
Every Tuesday we had an inspection. So on Monday night we had to clean up the hut. This meant cleaning ourselves, boots, webbing and so on. The floor was covered in linoleum and what with our boots got very scratched. So we had to put polish down and buff it up till it was shiny. Crazy to see guys gliding up and down the hut on these pads. Of course, better not to have boots on at all, but sometimes that was not practical. Beds were made up in a special way and we had to stand to attention with our gear on, next to our bed while we were inspected. White gloves were run around tops of doors, cleaned webbing (perfect), boots shiny (perfect), bed all squared up (I was always bad here and got a talking to by the officer) and so on.
Each week we had pay parade. When our name was called, we marched up, saluted, called out the last three digits of our number and received £1-4-0 . My last three digits of my service number were 800. Should I say eight oh oh, or perhaps eight zero zero? I finally said eight hundred and this seemed to be all right. One worried about petty things like that in the RAF.
It was a real education for me to mix with so many types of people. in our hut was an actuary, two accountants, a solicitor, grammar school attendees, right down to some who could hardly write and 'toughies'.
An amusing interlude
There was one scruffy fellow who never had a shower (or rarely) and was smelling a bit. We used to tell him to clean himself up but he just laughed at us. So the time came when we decided collectively to do something about it. The showers were through the end of the hut and attached to it. He was lying on his bed casting ribald comments interspersed with swear words at us. So we grabbed him, ran him down to a bath. We filled it with water and chucked him in, clothes and all. Fixed!
I never got close to an aeroplane the whole time I was in the RAF!
But overall, during my two years of National Service I learned a lot about myself and people in general. On balance, the experience was worth it, and I had the opportunity to meet, understand and mix with a lot of varying types of people from pretty low and scruffy to smart and lofty.