In Defence of our Skies.
On reaching 18 years of age in 1951 I was not surprised to receive a letter in a buff coloured envelope with OHMS stamped across the top. My call up for National Service had arrived. Unless I could demonstrate I was near blind, had flat feet or a heart condition, or was in an indentured apprenticeship and therefore able to defer the call up, I was to serve his Majesty King George VI full time for a period of two years. I was instructed to attend a medical and assessment board in St Albans. A travel warrant and a set of instructions to catch the 321 bus in Market Street were enclosed. Nothing was left to chance!
I was two years into an electrical apprenticeship, attending Night School three evenings a week and earning Two Pounds-Ten Shillings a week. “Let’s get it done with”, complete my training full time and come out on full electricians money, I thought!
The medical was a bit of a farce. The various tests took place in a large room with side curtained, open fronted cubicles around its walls. Those awaiting their turn sat in two back to back rows of chairs and watched the other lads receiving their various checks with interest. The arrangement provided the same level of privacy one would receive if you were a gold fish in a bowl.
Hearing was assessed by repeating a whispered letter from across the cubicle. If you did not get it first time the same letter was whispered a bit louder, and so on. Ears were looked into, chests were tapped, coughs rang out loud and clear and glass containers were filled, or in some cases, not filled. It is understandable that being asked to “perform” over a bucket on a stool with a glass in your hand, with a row of lads looking on, in some cases inhibited a function previously carried out several times a day for the previous 18 years. For the total failures extra time was played in the relative privacy of a toilet, with a guard on the door. The reason for the security was the possibility that a known diabetic could have made a considerable profit by providing a “paid for” glass full. Following the tests our cards were marked and a supposed Doctor signed them. We all passed!
Next came what I suppose would be called a GVK test. Lots of multi choice spacial and geometric puzzles. Which was the odd one out? Which direction will wheel C turn if wheel A is turned clockwise? All very taxing? On the basis of my ticks I was offered the choice of Army or Air Force. We all had very firm ideas which branch of service we would select, mine being RAF. I did not fancy the rather rough khaki uniform and hairy shirts with attached collars complete with knitted ties that the army wore. The belted air force blue jacket and shirts with separate semi stiff collars were for me. In those days airmen were called the Brylcream boys and even at that stage in my “as yet to come” service, I considered that those in the “Kate” were recruits that could not cut the Mustard in the Air force.
Yet another buff envelope arrived on the home mat. It had much the same content but with two significant differences. The travel warrant had Warrington as its destination and was over stamped, “One Way Only”. The final destination was R.A.F Padgate and the date of travel the 1st June 1951.
The journey was not great, with many of the passengers on the same errand as me. As we neared Warrington on a curve I saw what looked like thunder clouds above the City on what was otherwise a fine sunny day with clear blue sky. I soon realised it was not a storm but a pall of smoke from factory chimneys’. GKN wire and nail factory was one of the worst offenders I was to discover.
On leaving the station in a sea of cardboard suitcases; many tied up with string and “Snake belts” we were greeted by a group in stiffly pressed blue battle dress uniforms containing stiffly pressed men. They introduced themselves as “Drill Instructors” and suggested we may call them “Corporal”. In fact we were limited to “Yes Corporal” or “No Corporal” at times they considered appropriate. The journey to the camp sitting on seats either side of a canvas covered lorry was an uncomfortable one. A situation; we discovered later, that was to be perpetuated over the next 9 weeks or so. About 20 of us were dropped off into a tin shed called a barrack. None to clean and no one seemed to bother.
The first day was taken up with being marched round the large camp to get signatures; and I suppose service, from various men with rings on their arms. All the little spaces had to be filled, or we couldn’t join.
One of the first services was to the Camp Barbers for a haircut. The style of the day was not short but this did not inhibit the man in the dirty white coat with the shears. Up went the whirring clippers, off came the locks!
Then to the medical centre. Good news in a perverse way for some, who were found to have afflictions that the guys in St Albans had not heard of. They were sent home with no hair but more importantly a one way travel warrant in a homebound direction. Here we were deloused. The rumour was rife that if we were not found to be infested, when we came in we would be issued with some passengers on obtaining the appropriate signature. Then came the jabs. Standing in a line with our right sleeve rolled right up and right hand on right hip like a row of pint pots we stood at the end of a long table with all sorts of bottles, kidney dishes, and bit of cotton wool and sticky tape, Then we were prompted to walk forward, where a series of whitish coated orderlies swabbed, stabbed and sticky taped our arms. The whole process happened so fast that it was not realised until later that after a few jabs the needle was not quite as sharp as it might have been. There were some impressive bruises to witness this fact. That was another box ticked. Cross infections were apparently not allowed!
In the NAAFI for a shiny bun and cup of tea. Some of us were impressed to see first one; then a whole group of our intake, slide off their chairs. They were propped up against table legs and chairs and after a little while recovered. The group was a little quieter now.
Those of us who were left were taken to have our photographs taken and issued with our Form 1250. On this identity card was a 7 numeral number I still remember after 63 years. If you lost this card you may as well shoot yourself as you no longer existed. It was thought that the Unknown Warrior may have lost his Form 1250.
Kitting out came next. It was done at walking pace along the main stores counter. Items such as Briefs-white-Airman’s-2 and Boots-black Airman’s-1 were thrown on top of Kitbag-white-tropical-1 as the ever growing and unstable pile was pushed along the counter. The “Tailor”; I jest, eyed each individual over and called out a size. This prompted his assistant to pick off the rack and throw on the pile a Best Blue-1, Battle dress-1, and a Greatcoat-1
By now the floor was ankle deep in various bits of our issue and the best was still to come. Before we attempted to get all our gear into the kitbag it had to be individually marked! We had to make up a stencil with our newly issued number and marked every item we had been given. The dye used was one of the real success’s of the chemical industry and completely unforgiving. Once on an item of kit it was there for eternity. The resulting mess is not difficult to imagine. Some garments had blotches and others only part numbers. Our mistakes were there to be seen for ever. Even the laundry, that was capable of dissolving buttons, bleaching blue collars white, and dying underclothes a delicate shade of blue was impotent where the corrections and blotches were concerned.
We were then given cardboard boxes to post our civvies back home! A sobering point. We were in!
There were several camps where we could do our initial training and we were all looking forward to travelling outside Padgate to see some other coloured clothing besides air force blue. But instead we were marched about half a mile with our kitbags on our shoulders, bleeding gear and leaving a half mile long track of Brushes-boot-black, Housewives-airman and every other article we had tried to stow in our Kitbag-white-tropical, all with our number prominently displayed.
Brought to a shambling halt outside a group of inhospitable looking huts on short stilts we soon realised that the world as we knew it was over!
We were set upon verbally by a Drill Instructor who told us his name was Corporal Proven. He was a Scottish person of small stature with an immaculate uniform complete with webbing belt and gaiters, these latter were overhung by the weighted legs of his knife edged trousers and displayed boots shone to an unbelievable degree of brilliance. On his head was a beret moulded into shape to display his cap badge exactly vertically. The badge shone as though made of gold. He did not walk, he marched, with thighs raised to horizontal and right arm exactly parallel to his thigh with his fist clenched. The Pace stick under his left arm was carried precisely horizontally; it was with this device he selected his current onslaught recipient. He did not speak, he shouted, in an accent that was not always easy to comprehend. We soon learned that “not hearing” was not an option.
Our tormenter told us we were in Hut 23 and we were “Three flight”. When required to parade outside an order, “Outside 3 Flight” would be barked, at which time; carefully taking note of how we were required to dress, ie Best Blue, Battle Dress, Sports or fatigues, we would so dress, scramble on to the road outside the billet and assemble in three lines, right dress and stand to attention until further instructed. There were several little catches. We had no warning of which mode of dress would be required and whatever mode we discarded must be folded and stowed in the prescribed manner before we left. Everything was done in the prescribed manner! The last little gem was the threat that the last man on parade was on a charge. Fortunately a young Scotsman slipped over and broke his arm whilst attempting not to be last. There were no more last man charges. The DI had to find other ways to find labour to get his boots polished and trousers pressed in the evenings. As a passing gesture Corporal Proven informed us that we should retrieve the kit items we had dropped on the way across camp from the pile deposited from a hand cart on the grass. “Form three’s over there” we were told. “You are all on a charge for not taking care of the Kings property in the “prescribed manner” we were told. Thus I achieved my first fatigues before I actually got into Hut 23. (Corporal trouser pressing).
There were 20 of us in the hut. Two rows of beds stood out from the long walls with a wooden locker at the foot and a tall shallow cabinet and coat hanger hook at the head of the bed. The bed had two 3`x 3` canvas biscuits that we had been allowed to fill from a pile of gently steaming straw. They formed our mattress during the night and a perfectly proportioned stack in the day time where together with blankets and sheets folded so all sides were vertical we laid out our kit. In the prescribed manner!
Before describing the rest of the kit, a bit about the internal furnishing of our “home”. The floor covering consisted of brown linoleum. Not common old lino, this example was several millimetres thick with red floor polishes buffed to mirror finish by succeeding flights. The finish was both delicate and impractical due to the passage of metal studded boots applied during our mass exit on receiving the call to Parade outside. At all other times we would shuffle round on pieces of blanket. On “Bull Night” we would spend hours applying more polish and using a heavy “Bumper” to repair the slightest scratch. The windows were of the galvanised Crittall type and polished with Brasso and cardboard to appear silver coated. One central circular coke stove served the whole hut and stood on a concrete plinth in the middle of the room. What should have been a homely semi rusty patina had been replaced with a liberal coating of Cherry Blossom boot polish and again buffed to near perfection to contrast perfectly with the White blanco’d plinth and matching the coke pail and its shiny shovel. The plastic light fitting were completely devoid of fly specks and it was generally considered that any fly that landed anywhere other than a bed, would break a leg due to the complete lack of friction. The toilets at the end of the billet were immaculate. the basins shone with no water marks whatsoever. Each had two taps which also gleamed and both provided cold water! The toilets were also immaculate and designed on the St Alban’s principle of “no hiding place”. ie. No doors! You took your own paper and soon discovered there was no place to hang it. The fire buckets hanging just inside the door were filled with “clean” water, or sand. This had to be checked before “Bull night” to insure that no Erk had buried a fag end in it. A hanging offence!.
Much of what I have described was the result of a steep learning curve in the first few days and not achieved without a lot of shouting and threats. (Some were carried out, which was a bit worrying). We were being taken to pieces so we could be assembled into something useful. Everybody makes mistakes; and the Air Ministry made a big one in our case.
Back to the kit. Whenever we were absent from the hut all our kit would be laid out “in the prescribed manner”. The “”Prescription” was demonstrated by a photograph pinned to the Notice Board next to the SSO notice. (Station Standing Orders).
The nearest end of the bed to the wall carried the biscuits, blankets, sheets and pillow as described earlier. This was the first job after reveille at 6am. Help was required to fold the blankets and sheet because they had to be perfectly square. The rest of the kit was laid out on one blanket in folded, or in the case of socks rolled in such a manner that the number on each item was displayed. In the centre was placed your pint mug and “irons”. The vertical locker carried your webbing and Packs. With the large pack on top. When issued these items were in terrible condition. They had been thrown in a heap and sprayed with water when the demob’ees had discarded them. Our part in their life cycle was to Blanco the canvas and polish the brass ware and obtain cardboard to stiffen them into a squared off presentation. The Blanco and Brasso you could buy from your Drill Instructor if you asked nicely. If you didn’t ask you could bet on being on a charge!.
One photograph of a “Loved one” was allowed inside the cupboard and on a hook on the outside your coat hanger carried your Great Coat. This item was the subject of some embarrassment when a “charge” resulted to these “WAAFS”, when you buttoned up your coat on the wrong side.
The small foot locker allowed for some personal items but was still subject to inspection.
A Billet Orderly was always on duty to avoid marauding regulars or “older boys” ransacking our kit. This man would also cast a glance at all the kit layouts and make sure “prescribed manner” was adhered to, as well as touching up any damage to the precious lino gleam. Inspection was to follow the rest of the Flight’s return from breakfast. This duty also provided time to work on your kit. The boots in particular were high on maintenance. Everyday ware, they took a lot of punishment and had to be brought back to perfection. The Toe cap was required to resemble black glass, a feature made extra difficult by their natural condition of lots of little dimples. It took a lot of Cherry Blossom and a fair amount of spit to fill in the dents. The rest of the boot; including the instep, had to be polished too. Webbing and packs required Blanco and brasses Brasso. And never the two to mix! The Billet orderly went off to breakfast and daily hut inspection started.
“Stand by your beds” was the order. Positioned at the right hand bottom corner of our own “pit” we kept perfectly still. Any movement would elicit a shout, followed quickly by a “charge”. With a bolshie Scottish drill corporal standing almost on your toes and shouting in your face reference the condition of your pint pot, or possibly your parentage, it took degree of discipline and not a little restraint to remain statue like and reply “Yes Corporal” at the appropriate times. Unacceptable layouts would be stirred by the pace stick and imagined; or real, stains on a pint pot would result in its being thrown at the stove. This happened every day bar Sundays and did not get any easier.
Bull Night was similar to the daily kit inspection except it was more rigorous. The night before we would polish everything, from light fittings to toilet pans. The floor would become a skating rink and the windows and their frames would gleam. The kit layout would be particularly scrutinised and any tiny deviation from “specified” would result in extra special fatigues. Some people laid out their kit in the evening and slept on the floor as they doubted they would have time to complete the operation in the morning. The actual inspection was carried out by the lowest ranked officer that could be found. All big hat and trousers, they wore brown leather gloves and carried a little cane. Some of them were spiteful, whilst others seemed as worried by the Drill Sergeant and Corporal as we were. The operation was very unpleasant and it was a great relief to get it over with. It was a “no win” affair.
Of the outside activities “Square bashing” took most of our time. With our old 303″ rifles we learnt all the commands counting out loud to attempt synchronism. One, left right. Two, left right, and so on. We quick marched, slow marched, shouldered arms, ordered arms, dressed to the right and open ordered and about turned, left right! In addition we marked time, saluted, (longest way up, shortest way down),presented arms and fell out. We would leave the magazine case slightly unlatched in order to accentuate the slap when we presented arms. This was dangerous! If the case fell off during other operations it was a bit difficult to deny and resulted in quite a lot of punishments. We had one guy who swung his left arm with his left leg. This is not easy to do and very difficult to not do, if you are made that way. We were told we were the worst mob our DI had ever had to deal with. He’s just kidding we thought but he maintained this opinion throughout the training, and beyond.
We fired 303″ rifles at 25 yards and shot a Nursing sergeant on his bike sent to warn us our rounds were ricocheting into the Sick Bay yard.
The Assault course was horrendous, and very muddy. We found that climbing a cargo net was fine until you swung over the top and your rifle did the same thing half a second later, clipping you nastily on the side of the head. Traversing a very muddy pool on a rope; with one leg hanging down to maintain balance, sounds simple, but if enough airman were forced onto the rope then the middle and lowest ones were up to their necks anyway. If that did not do the trick then shaking the rope was very effective.
Bayonet practice was fun! We were told to run across the open ground yelling and shouting obscenities before plunging our bayonets into the man shaped straw sacks on wooden frames Then put your boot against the target, pull out the bayonet and do it again, whilst continuing to yell. The exercise did not seem to worry the targets a lot but it scared the straw out of me. The first strike was OK but when the boot went up it coincided with others bayonets being thrust. There were boots and bayonets everywhere as the whole flight shared 4 targets. It was easier if you thought of the sack as having your DI’s face on it.
We learned all kinds of things in the classroom, including how to fall asleep with your eyes open and without falling off your chair. We learnt the ranks of RAF officers and the other services equivalent, the hierarchy of the air force from War Office down, and how to recognise aircraft in flight; theirs and ours. As they nearly all had propellers at that time they moved slowly enough to get a second, and possibly third look.
Nearly every camp had a camp cinema called the Astra. Here we watched medical films that kept us awake and put us off women for hours! Not that we ever saw any of the fair sex except in the NAAFI and Sally Ann. These were in the main formidable ladies and not to be trifled with.
One of the very few highlights of the week was Pay Parade. The Parade Ground was full of air men all awaiting their name being called. On hearing your name you stamped to attention and marched smartly to the pay table, stamped to a halt, saluted and called out loud and clear your “last three, Sir”. 714 got me the princely sum of 27 shillings. (135 new pence). A salute and smart about turn, then back to your place on the square till everyone else was seen to, then straight to the NAFFI.
Wednesday was sports day. We found that watching the camp cricket team qualified as participating. We had no chance of playing as most of the teams seemed to be composed of professionals. The alternative was hiding. If you were caught you were soon in the cookhouse peeling spuds or something.
I can’t recall any other activities. We were generally so tired and occupied that there was no time to get bored. The main aim was to stay anonymous in everything you did. If you were noted as being good or bad at any activity then when a name was required to perform some diabolical task, yours would be on the tip of the tongue. Ask our friend with the two left feet!
Mid term I did volunteer, out of sheer desperation to see other than air force blue, to load the lorry, climb in with it and accompany the camp laundry to Wigan. Wow, all those people and girls in coloured dresses. Once at the laundry; which had large doors through which steam billowed out every time a white pinafore’d Lancashire lass passed through pushing a large four wheel contraption full up with laundry. They shouted at us but in the main we could not understand a word they said. Probably just as well; sensitive that we were! The driver took us to a room with an enormous cooking range; where on removing a large steel plate, we cooked our breakfast over a raging fire. We had brought several dozen eggs, masses of sliced bread and half a pig’s worth of bacon. All the items only required seconds to cook to a crisp brown in the very dark and dangerous looking pans of fat. The bread was in, over, out, to produce a fat laden; crunchy base for the eggs, these were in and out in less time than it takes to describe the process. Bacon twisted and contorted to produce an end product similar to Pork scratching. The driver also had the foresight to bring some enormous bottles of Daddies sauce. One week was enough, but it was great to be out in the real world with really unhealthy food; and towards the end we could actually understand the lass’s and their banter.
Another GVK test towards the end of our training allowed us to choose a job. Anything on the list below the colour of our determined ambition, we were told. I could choose from the top, but was only really interested in Electrician, which I was sure I would qualify for. In fact I was over confident and maybe should have chosen other than Air Sea Rescue and Dog Handler as second and third choices.
We had a 48 hour pass after 4 weeks we were looking forward to “Passing Out” at the end of our 8 weeks and finding somewhere more interesting than Padgate with its rather unhappy memories. As it turned out we were not the disaster we expected on the square. Not great, but no one dropped their rifle or turned the wrong way. The left foot left arm man, was locked in a room somewhere. Corporal Proven said we were still the worst flight it had ever been his misfortune to encounter, so our efforts were not entirely in vain. One particular memory of the parade was that we had to wash of the air force blue Blanco and apply white in its place. On completion of the ceremony the white had to be washed off and the original ‘blue reinstalled. A messy process!
On the day before we travelled home our postings were pinned up. I was to go to Weeton near Blackpool and become a Motor Mechanic. Oh dear! At least I did not have to rescue anybody from the sea or go doggy walking.
A short leave before reporting to Weeton. My 1250 told me I was at the bottom of the ladder. Airman 2nd Class, Orchard A.J. 2518714.
The only way was up!!!
Alan Orchard. Tuesday, 23 September 2014