n 1953 I had the dubious pleasure of having to serve my Queen and country for National Service for two years.
I attended my medical at Chatham and applied for the R.A.F. as aircrew. Needless to say I was turned down as unfit – A1G4 was the category which meant I was fit to go into the services but only as ground crew.
I eventually had the summons to go to Cardington for kitting out and was sent a rail warrant to get me there. It was a bit of a traumatic experience because I was on my own until I arrived at the station in London where there were hordes of 18 year olds all looking completely lost and being herded like cattle into various trains according to whether they were Army or RAF personnel. We eventually arrived at Cardington and put in billets. It was not too difficult to make friends because everyone was in the same boat. As I remember the first thing that happened was a visit to the barber and a very short back and sides. Some of the more trendy amongst us had “D A” haircuts, and also large mouths. When they had something to say about the haircuts they had rather a shock. One particular one started a lot of rude comments to the barber and he just ploughed a furrow from his neck straight up and over his head so that he had to have each side matching this and ended up virtually bald.
I think the next day we were started being supplied with uniforms and other kit. This whole process with more medicals etc. took a week and then we were shipped off to various camps for “square bashing” (initial training). This was for a period of eight weeks of constant marching and drill with a rifle, route marches, rifle range, many a long hour “bulling” our kit (polishing our boots till you could see your face in the toecaps – billet floors the same and after doing this we used pads of cut up blankets to slide round the floor so it was still perfect for inspection. I was sent to a training camp called Hednesford in Staffordshire, which was in fact on top of a huge slagheap. It was near Rugeley railway station and hundreds of us were sent from Cardington to here. We were allowed out only one weekend when we went to Walsall – how exciting.
The Drill instructors, with the rank of Corporal, had only had about four months experience in the service but they were right B-----ds and we were all pretty much scared of them.
However, we survived these two months and then we had a passing out parade and felt extremely fit. We had been given the opportunity to select our trade for the next part of the training and I put Radar Operator as first option. We looked at our postings and I had been successful and was now off to Yatesbury in Wiltshire for a six weeks course. First we had a couple of weeks leave so went home to recuperate. I had only been home for one weekend during the last two months and had managed to also scrounge a 36 hour pass because I had received a “Dear John” letter from my girlfriend who I met when going dancing. She was only fourteen when I went into the RAF but was the light of my life and it seemed a terrible tragedy to me to be chucked up whilst I was away. I hitched a lift home to see her at Ashurst Wood, near East Grinstead, but to no avail.
Back to the RAF. After my fortnight at home I duly travelled off to Yatesbury. This was on the Salisbury Plain and appeared to be very vast and open. This was quite an intensive and stiff course but we managed to get home most weekends. A mate and myself would start to walk towards Bristol (westwards) in order to get a lift because we would then be first in line. One lift I managed was all the way to Croydon and then I got a train home from there. We had very little money for fares so hitching a lift was almost the only way and nobody minded at that time about stopping and giving lifts. From our billets we had about 2 miles to travel to get to the Radar Training Buildings. This meant marching and during October and November in the open areas of Salisbury Plain it was more than a bit chilly! There was also a “Malcolm Club” well away from the billets – I forget why they had this name – something to do with the founder – but we would go there in the evenings to get away for a while and had a TV with a circular screen only about 6 inches diameter which projected a picture on a screen - black and white of course.
At the end of the six weeks we were then promoted from AC2 to AC1, and then Leading Aircraftsmen. Our postings were placed on the notice board and a couple of mates and I were posted together to a place called Foreness. We were convinced this was the north of Scotland but it turned out we were to be billeted at Manston near Margate and the radar station was at Foreness point, near Cliftonville. What a posting!
One of my mates actually lived at Ramsgate but had not recognised the name Foreness as being Foreness point, just round the corner from his home.
We had another leave and then duly attended Manston Aerodrome and were placed in a billet. There were only about fifty RAF personnel on the camp, the remainder were USAF. This did have a lot of disadvantages to us very poor National servicemen especially when it came to getting to know the local girls, the Americans had much more money – at least for the first week of their fortnightly pay – then it was a different matter, they had supplies of cigarettes to sell and we could obtain these in packs of 200 for the princely sum of £1 – bear in mind that our weekly wages was only about £2.75 but this was a godsend and meant that we could get to the town and chat up the locals! Wow, what an exciting life we led. One of my mates and I got very friendly with the girl in the box office and one of the usherettes in one of the cinemas in Margate and we were able to go twice a week for free.
My mate came from Bury in Lancashire and we used to go to one of the cafes on the seafront where two of the ladies who worked there were also from the north. They were extremely friendly – not that way – they were both old enough to be our mothers. We used to visit their houses in Cliftonville for a square meal quite frequently. Sad to say we never kept in touch.
The Americans had F111 fighter planes on the field and every morning we did not need anyone to wake us for Reveille – the planes did that for us.
We travelled to the radar station by bus every day and were under great pressure because we had to work one hour on and one hour off each of three different positions before we had to have a complete hour away from the radar screens or the plotting table. This station was underground and all that could be seen above was a very large metal tower like an electricity pylon with a dish aerial on top, which revolved. We plotted low flying planes and shipping in the channel. When we were off duty but still at the radar station we would go for a march along the cliffs under the supervision of the sergeant till we arrived at a pub – Captain Digby – near Broadstairs where we would break for a drink. Sometimes in the summer we would go down on the beach and go swimming. I took my swimming test in the swimming pool type area when we went down there and obtained a certificate for swimming 25 yards fully clothed. It was a hard life. It was always frowned upon to volunteer when in the services but sometimes there were advantages. In the orderly room there was a vacancy for someone to do correspondence on occasions. The joke was that if the question was asked, “could anybody type?” then the volunteer would be told to take that typewriter from that place to another. Not on this occasion. When asked I volunteered and got in the good books of the Station Commanding Officer. I used to do quite a bit in the orderly room and for my efforts obtained many 48 hour weekend passes which a lot of the others did not get. I used to hitch hike from Manston via Canterbury and Ashford to Tonbridge then catch a train home sometimes with my mate and stocked up on food at Charcott, returning by train all the way back to Minster, arriving just in time to get the last bus back to Manston arriving just on midnight Sunday night. A hand out from Mum or Dad also helped to pay the fare and cigarette money for the week.
Another time four of us from the Radar station volunteered to go on an exercise – two weeks in Germany. We travelled by train to Liverpool Street in London then to Harwich for a boat to the Hook of Holland. There we got on a train and had two days travelling to Germany. We went to a camp called RAF Sundern and twelve of us, all radar operators, turned up there. Needless to say we weren’t expected, they had no radar anyway, and we had to be billeted in the top floor of the building with hay filled paliasses to sleep on. They were Gestapo headquarters during the war and the buildings were enormous. As there was no radar we were recruited to work on the RDF system - radio direction finding – each with a set of earphones and a ball on a string.
We were given a compass bearing and pulled the ball to that point and where all the strings crossed that was the plot. I have no idea whether we were plotting planes, tanks or moles. It kept us out of mischief anyway. The four of us from Foreness went out to the local town Güttersloh. One of the lads could speak German and we went into a restaurant for a meal. There were a lot of posh speaking young Army officers in the restaurant having a great deal of trouble getting themselves understood and ordering a meal. We sat down, four RAF erks, and Martin got the menu and told us what was what, we made our minds up what we wanted and he went ahead and ordered. That shut them up rowdy little snobs!
We were only due to be on the exercise for 14 days but it overran and we ran out of money so had to apply for pay books which caused havoc and consternation. We did get them and were able to get a week’s pay so could buy some presents for home. Being RAF we travelled the same way as we went. Train, boat, train. At no time during my two years in the RAF did I step inside a plane, even on the ground.
I was not sports orientated – a great disappointment to my dad as far as cricket and football were concerned (I only liked running) but the radar station had a cricket team and I volunteered to be official scorer so had several outings to other stations during the summer – furthest was only as far as Fairlight at Hastings. When other sports were happening I used to creep off to the bathhouse to wallow in an enormous bath of hot water, full to the brim and peaceful.
I and another mate started a Rover Scout crew at Ramsgate as well which was well attended.
One other, unpleasant though it was, memorable experience was attending my first funeral. A pilot who lived at Tunbridge Wells crashed his plane at Ash near Sandwich, and we were selected as firing party for the funeral at Margate cemetery. This was in the height of the winter and we wore our pyjamas under our uniform. We had to wear gloves and had to load five rounds from our belt individually and fire them in unison. Several rounds of ammunition fell to the ground in the snow.
My mate and I used to go into Ramsgate for a meal on occasions and we had a favourite known as the Cyprus restaurant where they made a mean beefburger with a secret flavouring - can still savour the taste now but I bet the café has gone. If we had a pub outing a gang of us would attend one of the Ramsgate pubs where the clientele would get up to sing and we had one star performer who could take off many of the pop artists of the era – was extremely good too.
Demob parties were a bit unconventional. One chap had and played the trumpet and on returning from one jaunt he nearly blew the head off one lad asleep in bed by letting rip close to his ear. On one demob night someone spiked my beer with pickled onion vinegar (I did not notice) and during the night I got out of bed to go to the loo – used one of the courtier stoves in the middle of the billet and got back into the wrong bed – I was immediately kicked out. In the morning I did NOT have a hangover.
At the end of my time we were interviewed to try and persuade us to stay in, get promotion to Corporal and sign on. I decided against this, looking forward to returning home, my job and more money. On reflection, I think that two years did us a great deal of good, most of us had never been away from home before, and it helped us to grow up and be more responsible, and appreciate what we had.