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All This and Free Boots Too


Tony Rattigan




All This and Free Boots Too


Tony Rattigan


Published by Tony Rattigan at Smashwords


Copyright 2018 Antony Rattigan



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This book is dedicated to Samuel Finley Breese Morse, without whom we would all have been merely Wireless Voice Operators.


In remembrance of our most famous RAF Wireless Operator and funny man, Eric Sykes 1923 – 2012 and other airmen that I met along the way, who are no longer with us – Pete Broster, Reg Howarth, Dave Lewington, Ken Pavitt and “Captain”.



Contents



Introduction

Training

RAF Stanbridge

RAF Episkopi

Tactical Communications Wing

HF Radio Zutendaal

81 SU Bampton

RAF Marham

RAF Gutersloh

81 SU Bampton Again


Other books by this Author

About the Author



Introduction



First of all, why did I write this book when I always claimed I wouldn’t? Once I started writing novels it did cross my mind about writing my memoirs but I discarded the idea.

Then in 2016 one of my old buddies from my RAF training days, Dave (Dafydd) Manton, mentioned on Facebook that his regular publisher had no wish to produce Dave’s RAF memoirs, I Was a Cold War Penguin. As I had just published my latest novel, I had free time on my hands and was looking for a new project, so I offered to help him publish it through Amazon. We did this and produced an ebook and a paperback. Dave generously donated the royalties to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which encouraged sales, and eventually the proceeds ran into the thousands.

Despite working together on this project, we only communicated by phone and email and never actually met up until later in the year. By sheer coincidence, that summer I happened to rent a holiday chalet just 16 miles away from his home. Once I realised this, we arranged a meeting and Dave came to the site and bought me lunch (and drinks!) So we finally met face to face for the first time in 43 years.

Of course Dave and I swapped stories of our time in the RAF (our careers had taken vastly different courses so our paths had never crossed) so we had lots to tell. Unfortunately for Dave, I had read most of his stories in the book. Having spent so much time working on his book only months before, at that time I was probably more familiar with his life than he was.

But he hadn’t heard my stories before and after a while he suggested that I write my own book about my career. ‘Well, maybe. I’ll think about it,’ I told him and put it on the back burner.

By a curious coincidence 2016, the year in which I started work on this book that you are holding, also happened to be 22 years after I left the RAF, following 22 year’s service. 11th December 2016 marked the day that I was OUT of the Air Force exactly as long as I had been IN it, so now seemed an appropriate time to tell my story. (The years of therapy having finally paid off.)

So for me, what with first producing Dave’s book, the anniversary I’ve just mentioned and then writing my own Air Force memoir, 2016 was for me, the “Year of the RAF”.

Before you go any further, I should point out that this book isn’t about aviation heroes or flying aces. If you want to read about one, I recommend Wings on My Sleeve, the autobiography of Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown RN, a navy test pilot. Apart from all the other amazing things he did, he holds the world record for making 2,047 landings on aircraft carriers. The Americans deliberately set out to beat his record but their man had a nervous breakdown after only 1,600 landings. (Ha Ha!)

Rather, this book is about an ordinary communications guy who didn’t go anywhere dark or dangerous, wasn’t anyone special or did anything unusual, who spent most of his time working in nice, air-conditioned Communication Centres (Commcens) of one sort or another. Much as I’d liked to have been, I was never the guy that got posted into a new camp, sorted out everyone’s personal and professional problems, then rode off into the sunset while the townsfolk looked on, saying, ‘Who was that masked telegraphist?’

But along the way I went to some interesting places and met some interesting people and they’re who this book is really about.

I should also make it clear that this book is about my “professional” life and not my “personal” one. (Dozens of WRAF’s heave a sigh of relief! – I wish.) In fact I only mention my marriage and subsequent divorce to explain why on various postings I go from living in married quarters, to my own house, back to living in barrack blocks. Apart from that – mind your own business!

To quote J. R. R. Tolkien – ‘This tale grew in the telling.’ When I set out to write this book I didn’t imagine it would be so long. (I actually think my Word Processor was typing stuff long after I’d gone to bed.)

I didn’t realise that so much had happened to me during my life, as the more I reviewed the different periods of my life; the more stories floated up from the memory banks that had been forgotten for so long. I know from relating some of my RAF stories to people I’ve worked with in civilian life, that some of them can sound quite exciting to someone who’s never done that sort of thing. But as a wise man once said, ‘It reads better than it lives.’

When I told a member of the writing group that I belong to, I was toying with the idea of writing my RAF memoirs he asked, ‘Will they be funny?’ (He and I are usually the ones making jokes in the class.) I replied, ‘I hope so.’ But thinking about it later, I realised I should have said, ‘Not necessarily.’ The point being these are not The Comic Adventures of Airman Rattigan, rather it’s the story of my life in the Air Force. Like everybody’s life, it’s not an endless series of thigh-slapping, side-splitting, knockabout romps – it’s just life, with all its ups and downs.

Not that my life was particularly hard, I hasten to add (compared to other servicemen that is) there are tough, funny, ironic, sad parts to everyone’s life and that’s what I’ve put down on these pages. I’m also sorry if it gets a bit philosophical at times but what is the point of life if you don’t learn anything along the way?

I’d like to apologise to the people I don’t mention in this book. I’ve met a lot of people and I can’t remember them all. Faces I’m good at but names … unless I use them regularly, I forget them. Also, as I get older the fresh information is overwriting the old memory banks. If you were a friend or did me a service, I have used your real name where I could. If you were one of the ‘bad ‘uns, then for legal reasons I have made up a pseudonym for you or just not bothered to name you.

Apologies also to readers who were in the forces, for over-explaining technical details as they are already familiar with those and it will bore them. But apologies to civilian readers for probably not explaining enough. It’s a fine line between the two.

There’s an old saying in the forces – ‘Pull up a sandbag and I’ll tell you a story.’ It evokes images of old black and white war movies, where the squaddies are sat around their tank/trench/gunpit/fortified defence, the Hurricane lamp swinging gently in the night breeze, as the grizzled old Sarge tells them about his previous adventures. So, telling your mates about the things you got up to on other postings, to pass the night shift or an evening in the bar, became known as “Sandbagging”.

Needless to say those stories were not necessarily 100% accurate all the time. As long as it was entertaining, a certain amount of embellishment was allowed, nay, expected. “Sandbagging” (it was a verb as well as a noun) was a socially acceptable habit.

So, Dear Reader, I invite you to, ‘Pull up a sandbag,’ and I’ll tell you my story.



Training


Only the Beginning is Difficult”




Okay, let me start off by admitting to something now and get it out of the way, so I don’t have to keep apologising for it throughout the book. I was cocky and arrogant as a youngster. (Some will say I still am … but don’t listen to my mother, she’s biased.) Always thought I knew more than my elders and betters. On my telegraphist course I even gave myself the nickname “Super Rat”. I was 18 when I joined up and like most 18 year olds; I thought I knew it all. Later, when you are in your 20’s, you realise you don’t know the half of it. And that’s the beginning of wisdom.

I’ve said and done some stupid things during my life (haven’t we all?) but the point of this confession, right here at the beginning, is so I don’t have to qualify each episode by saying, ‘I was young and stupid.’ You get this one explanation/apology now and that’s it for the book. Okay? Good, now let’s move on.


***


So there I was in 1972, 17 years old, with a failed Gas Board apprenticeship and a job selling carpets behind me, currently unemployed. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications except a swimming certificate, I didn’t fancy working in one of Coventry’s many car factories, so there weren’t really a lot of options open to me. I could have become a postman I suppose – it’s not much of a job but it keeps you off the streets.

I had planned with friends to go backpacking around Europe but I could see that within a couple of weeks we would be begging on the street of Paris, so I gave up that idea. Then I thought that if I wanted to see the world, I could do it on “the queen’s shilling” as I came to know it. In other words, let the government send me around the world and they could feed and clothe me at the same time. So I thought I’d look into joining the RAF.

I duly toddled off to the Careers Information Office (CIO). In the Coventry’s shopping centre precinct there are a row of shops on the ground floor, above them is a balcony with another row of shops, with offices above them. On the balcony level was the Joint Services CIO. You went in there and they told you that the RAF office was up another several flights of stairs. Their standing joke was that if you had a nose bleed before you reached the office, then you were no good for the RAF.

I made it without any medical problems and met a man in RAF uniform. On his arm he had the 3 stripes of a Sergeant, with a propeller in a circle, above them. As we talked I asked him what that meant, it denoted a Chief Technician, apparently.

Anyway, we talked about joining the RAF, he took my details and gave me some brochures on the jobs available, depending on my score in the aptitude/intelligence tests which I came back and took a few days later.

I finished the tests and he added up my score and then told me which trades my results qualified me to enlist in. Apart from the obvious ones like cook, fireman, clerk, I didn’t know what most of them were or what they involved – except for one, Teleprinter Operator. I’d seen enough TV programmes to know what a teleprinter was and what it did. (And it sounded just my sort of job – indoor work with no heavy lifting!)

‘I’ll have that one,’ I said.

He checked my score and told me that I had actually qualified for a higher trade in the same field, a Telegraphist.

‘What’s the difference?’ I asked.

‘Telegraphists learn teleprinters AND radios and Morse code. The training is longer, 6 months as opposed to 14 weeks, but you end up in a higher pay band.’

Sold! To the man in the blue uniform.

(When the Data Protection Act came in, one of the things it stated was that any organisation that stored information about you had to give you a copy of that data on request. When the RAF computerised all our records many years later, we were told that we could request a computer printout of that data, but only ONCE. I wisely saved mine up until my last year of service so that I would have a complete record of my career. I still have my printout and used it to check my recollection of dates of postings, promotions, etc. and was surprised to discover that it even included the scores I achieved on the entry exams. I’m not going to disclose them here but they weren’t good. I’m surprised that they even offered me a position as anything higher than a police dog! But there you go; they did, so they must have been desperate.)

We agreed that I would enlist as a telegraphist. It seems that at that time you could sign on for as long as you liked, even the full engagement of 22 years. Who walks in off the street and signs their life away like that, without knowing what they are getting into? Personally I figured I’d do the minimum, 3 years, and see how it went. Unfortunately the recruiter told me that as the Air Force was spending a lot of time and money training me, the minimum engagement for my chosen trade was 6 years. Fair enough, I suppose. I reckoned that if I really hated it and bought myself out, I would do it long before the 3 year deadline, never mind the 6. As I was only 17 and a minor, I had to get my mum’s signature on a form, giving her permission. So he gave me the forms, arranged a medical for me and off I went.

I duly passed the medical and it was arranged that I would join up in December as the basic training schedule had to fit in with the trade training schedule and the next telegraphist courses weren’t until January.

I had a few months to myself to kill (this was the middle of the year) so I got a book out of the library and taught myself Morse code, as I would have to know it in my new career.

Eventually, they sent me a rail warrant and asked me to attend Birmingham CIO for my “Attestation ceremony”. On the 12th December 1972, with my best suit on, I made my way to Birmingham on my own, I was 18 by then, so I didn’t need Mum to sign any more forms for me, and along with a few others, I took “the queen’s shilling” and swore my oath to the queen.

Not the government, not politicians, but the queen. Did you get that you slimy politicians who have sold the UK out to the EU over the ensuing years? I and my fellow troops didn’t take our oath to you. So if the military ever do circle our tanks around Westminster, I assure you the guns will be pointing INWARDS not OUTWARDS.

They did actually give us £5 cash each for expenses, I often wonder if it was meant to be the modern equivalent of “taking the shilling”. They also gave us a rail warrant to Newark railway station for the day after next, the 14th and instructions to report to RAF Swinderby.


***


RAF Swinderby



14 December 1972 – 6 February 1973 School of Recruit Training



I arrived at Newark railway station in Lincolnshire to find dozens of others milling around, looking for someone from the RAF to tell us where to go next. There were buses waiting to take us to RAF Swinderby. When we got there, I think the first thing they did was take us into the barrack block to drop off our cases and find the bed space that would be home to us for the next 6 weeks.

I can’t remember if we chose our beds or if we were allocated them but I was in an upstairs room, first on the left at the top of the stairs and my bed was half-way down on the left hand side. The bed space consisted of a bed, a bedside locker and a wardrobe type locker, single.

At some point our new sergeant introduced himself to us, Sergeant Bastable. Oh come on, I thought. Am I in a Carry On movie? Sergeant Basta**? Who’s next, Corporal Punishment?

He assembled us outside and marched us off to the barbers. As it happens, I was the first one in the chair. I’d had long hair for years but several weeks before I had sensibly had it cut short, so I could at least get some attempt at styling it, before the RAF got their hands on me. Others though had turned up with long hair and they just basically got it all shaved off.

The barber gave me a short, back and sides and then charged me five bob (25p). I’d have thought if they were going to butcher us like that, they could at least do it for free! I thought he was joking so I told him to charge it to the MOD but no, he wasn’t joking and so, to add insult to injury, I had to pay up.

Then we were lined up outside again and marched off to the clothing store, to get our kit. We were told that from now on wherever we went, we would have to march there, for it is written, ‘Whenever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, then verily, they shall march everywhere.’ Of course at this stage we weren’t actually marching as such, we were just all walking in the same direction, in 3 orderly lines.

We were given our kit, everything for the “Airman to be” except underwear. Shirts, ties, beret, shoes, belts, braces, boots, jumper, raincoat and the old “Hairy Mary” battledress. They felt like they were made out of old Army blankets. You know what I mean when I say battledress. Go on, you’ve all seen Porridge, that’s what our uniforms looked like, as if we were all inmates of Slade Prison.

We were also measured up for our No 1 uniforms. Our battledress was our every day, working outfit, our No 2 dress. The smart uniforms, made of a material called Barathea (no, me neither) for best and parades and such like, were our No 1 uniforms or “Best Blues”. We had to wear those whenever we left camp i.e. to go on leave.

We shoved all this kit into the holdalls we had been issued and were shown the best way for 2 men to carry their holdalls. You place one on top of the other (holdalls that is, not men) and put the handles from the bottom holdall through the handles of the top one and then you stand either side of it and each of you grabs a handle.

Over the next week or so they taught us all the basics such as how to iron a shirt, how to press your uniform, how to tie a Windsor knot in your tie and so on. I had been a salesman in a carpet showroom and always had to wear a suit and tie, so was quite familiar with how to use an iron on my shirt and trousers, and how to tie a knot correctly. Many hadn’t so they had to pick up these life skills quickly. They also taught us to lace our shoes and boots straight across instead of criss-cross, as most people do. Try it, it looks a lot smarter.

People came from all sorts of backgrounds and previous experiences. As this was basic training, all trades were present, I got pally with an armourer. I didn’t really know the guys who would be on my Trade Training course, I don’t even know if they were on the same flight as me but you just got along with whoever was around you. Usually the people in the surrounding bed spaces or the ones who stood next to you when you lined up for drill practice.

One of the more dastardly things we had to learn was how to “bull” your shoes. This isn’t just polishing them; it meant applying layer after layer of polish, then, using a duster or a piece of cotton wool dipped in water, you would rub and rub in tiny little circles until the leather shone. Shoes had to be bulled all over but boots only had to have the toecaps and heel parts bulled. The rest of it was dimpled so couldn’t be bulled anyway.

Over time as the polish built up, everyone’s toecaps shone but on some people’s, they positively gleamed. With enough effort some people could get it to look like black glass and you could actually see your reflection in it, but that was going too far for me. I had neither the knack nor the patience. We had 2 pairs of shoes, one that we wore every day and one that was laid out at the end of the bed for inspection, which we were saving for our “passing out” parade. Always looking for the easy way around things, I didn’t even apply polish to that pair until the final week. I reckoned that they were shiny enough the way they had been issued. Apparently the Sgt agreed because he never picked me up for it.

Another odious task was the “bed pack”. We each had a counterpane, top and bottom sheets and a couple of blankets. When we got up each morning, we were expected to fold and stack these into a square shape, the same size as the top of the bedside table, the sheets and blankets layered in a particular order, with the counterpane wrapped around the outside, so that it looked like a large, liquorice allsort. This was then placed on the bed for morning inspection. After breakfast we would have to stand by our beds while the Cpl inspected us, our bed packs and bed spaces before the day’s fun began. If he didn’t like what he saw, he would often tip it on the floor. I heard that some poor devils had theirs thrown out of the window, but it never happened in our room.

After a while I just slept under the counterpane in my overalls, it saved so much time in the mornings. Getting to sleep was never difficult, we were so exhausted that staying awake was the problem.

A week and a bit after we arrived, they sent us all away on Christmas leave. I wondered why they’d bother bringing us in before Christmas at all, but I suppose everything had to work to the Trade Training camp timetable. We all proudly put on our No 1’s and headed off home. A chap got chatting to me on the train and I’m telling him all this guff about the RAF I had picked up in my WHOLE WEEK in the Air Force, and he asked me how long I’d been in. Well, I could hardly say just a week, could I? I’d look such a fool. So I blithely told him I been in 11 months.


***


We came back after Christmas refreshed and ready for anything. That was when we started in earnest.

We had regular “bull nights” where the whole block had to be scrubbed and polished. All brass was polished as were all floors, tiled floors in the bathrooms were scrubbed, windows were cleaned until, well … you could see through them.

We had lino on the floor and it had to be polished every bull night. We didn’t have the luxury of electric bumpers, oh no, it had to be done by hand. They gave us liquid polish and a hand polisher. It was a rectangular block of metal with a soft pad underneath. Sticking out of the top was a broom handle on a pivot, so you could swing it from side to side and lay it almost level with the floor. It was known as the “Brick on a stick”. The idea was that you would slide the brick backwards and forwards but not like a broom, you could swing it in front of you, and then because of the pivoting handle, slide it behind you. Or you could stand there and swing it from side to side.

Some idiots thought it would be cool to polish the soles of their shoes. There is nothing more soul destroying than to watch someone who has done that, walk across the floor you’ve just spent half an hour polishing and leave footprints behind. Fortunately the Sgt soon put a stop to that foolishness.

The food was passable, we ate in the Airman’s Mess. I don’t know what it was like in the Officer’s or Sergeant’s Messes but in the Airman’s they served Breakfast, Lunch and Tea in that order (according to the Recruit’s Handbook of which I have a copy, thanks to Steve Hughes). It was fine by me because calling the evening meal “Tea” was what I was used to at home (although we called the midday meal “Dinner” not “Lunch”) but I bet the posher ones amongst us had a fit of angst and had to adjust. So that’s why I shall refer to the meals as they were advertised in the Mess. (So don’t go thinking it’s because of how uncouth I am.)

Supposedly, if you skipped breakfast and ended up passing out, you could get charged for it, but you would have to be stupid to pass up food like that. It was the middle of winter and they worked us hard, so you needed all the fuel you could get, just to keep going.

Every day they would march us around and teach us the finer points of drill and then for a break, would take us into the cinema to try and teach us stuff. I doubt if anyone learnt anything though, because as soon as the lights went down, everyone immediately fell asleep. Sometimes they wouldn’t show us a film but talk to us, so we couldn’t kip, but sitting down, indoors, in the warm, it was a major struggle to keep your eyes open.

We learnt about the RAF rank structure: (Pay attention, there’ll be a test later.)


We mainly wore rank badges on our uniform upper sleeves to denote our rank.

AC – Aircraftsman (What we were.)

LAC – Leading Aircraftsman (What we would be when we had finished our Trade Training.)

SAC – Senior Aircraftsman (What we would be after a year as an LAC, subject to us passing our promotion exams.)

J/T – Junior Technician (Only for technical trades, which didn’t apply to me.)

Cpl – Corporal

Sgt – Sergeant

C/T – Chief Technician (Again, only technical trades.)

FS – Flight Sergeant

WO – Warrant Officer


Then the officers:

They wore rings of varying thickness on their uniform forearms.

PO – Pilot Officer

FO – Flying Officer

Flt Lt – Flight Lieutenant (Although, because us Brits are ornery, we pronounce it Leftenant.)

Sqn Ldr – Squadron Leader

Wg Cdr – Wing Commander

Gp Capt – Group Captain

Air Cdre – Air Commodore


I stopped paying attention after that, on the grounds it was getting too confusing as the stripes on their sleeves started looking like supermarket bar-codes (thin one, thin one, thick one, thin one, thick one, thin one). Besides, I was probably never going to meet them in person and if I was, somebody would tell me who they were beforehand.

They also taught us about the history of the RAF. It was formed on April 1st, 1918. An apt date, I reckoned, “All Fools Day”. Probably explains why over the years I have heard it referred to as the Royal Air FARCE.


***


After a while they reckoned that we were well disciplined enough to carry sticks with us as we marched around. Dummy rifles actually, to get us used to the weight. We had to learn the basics of rifle drill before they would let us carry the real things. Not just carry them but how to do things like salute officers and also do a General Salute when you are parading in front of really high ranking officers. That’s tricky. From the rifle standing on the ground, you have to flick it up into the air, catch it with both hands, swing it around in front of you one-handed as you slap your other hand into it, so it makes a bang. Finally, you hold it out in front of you, while simultaneously slamming one foot down behind the other. It’s like doing a curtsy in boots. And as it was winter, you had to do all that whilst wearing woollen (sometimes wet) gloves that have absolutely no grip at all.

But as well as marching with the rifles they taught us how to shoot them!!

So began our introduction to the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle commonly referred to as just the SLR. Based on the Belgian FN FAL rifle, it was a semi-automatic weapon. Nice piece of kit. Weighed 9 pounds, fully loaded with a 20 round magazine of 7.62mm bullets.

Most military men of my generation preferred the SLR to the toy plastic rifle, the 5.56mm SA80, which replaced it some years later. Reputedly some innocent civilian got hit by an SLR round once, and when they tracked it back to where it had been fired, it was 2 miles away. It could supposedly fire through a brick wall, if you put several rounds in the same spot. That’s the sort of gun I want to be holding if I’m fighting the queen’s enemies. As they say, ‘When you hit someone with a 7.62 round they develop an uncanny knack of staying still, on a permanent basis.’

As an aside, it took me ages to figure out what the difference was between a semi-automatic and a fully automatic weapon. (There was no Google in those days.) Don’t know if you’re interested but …

Semi-automatic means when you pull the trigger, the round (bullet) in the chamber is fired. Some of the blast is diverted to push back a piston that forces the breech-block mechanism back, to the rear of the weapon. This ejects the empty cartridge case. Then a spring forces the breech-block forwards again, which automatically pushes another round into the chamber. That’s it. One pull of the trigger, one shot. Even if you hold it back, only one shot is fired. To repeat the process you have to pull the trigger again.

Fully automatic means you pull the trigger and as long as you hold the trigger back, the above process is repeated again and again. Fire, eject, reload, fire, eject, reload, until you run out of bullets. That’s the difference.

Sadly, although the original Belgian FN rifle on which the SLR is based had a fully automatic setting, that was disabled on our weapons. The British method of combat is single, aimed shots. It’s meant to instil accuracy and firing discipline instead of just “blatting off” everywhere (and saves money on bullets). The Americans however, believe in throwing everything they’ve got at the enemy in one go. They even have a thing, “Reconnaissance by fire” which means when they see a suspicious bush or something, the whole patrol (or whatever grouping of soldiers they have) fires at it until their magazines are empty, to see if there is anyone there. Yes, well, no comment. But they’re Americans, they can afford it.


***


Of course it wasn’t all bulling and marching, marching and bulling. They let us go free in the evenings (once we’d finished our bull night). We could go across to the Newcomers Bar in the NAAFI, to have a pint or two to relax.

Sometimes they put on a disco and brought over the WRAF’s from RAF Spitalgate, some miles down the road from us, where they were doing their basic training, or we’d go over to visit them.

I should mention at this point – once upon a time there was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and its members were known as WAAF’s, (pronounced “Waffs”). At some point after the war they changed it to the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) but its members were still known as “Waffs” because “Wurraffs” sounds silly. Some of them used to complain about this but there was no way your average airman was going to identify them as “Double Yew, Ar, Ay, Effs” every time we spoke about them. “Waffs” it was and “Waffs” it stayed. Call me a sexist pig if you want … no, seriously, go on, I love it when you talk dirty!


***


This was also where we had our introduction to the concept of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Warfare and how to protect ourselves in those environments. We were trained in how to use gas masks and protective NBC suits lined with charcoal that was supposed to absorb all the “nasties”. (Noddy suits we soon learned they were called.)

They also took us into the dreaded “gas chamber” filled with CS gas (tear gas) to show us that A) our gas masks did work and we could have faith in them. Then later, when they deliberately caused us to get a lungful of tear gas that B) it wasn’t really that bad and it wouldn’t kill you. So if we ever had to face it for real – in a riot situation, maybe – if we caught a whiff of it, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

They would take you into the gas chamber, let you stand around for a while to show that you were safe with your mask on. Then, one by one, you would have to take your mask off, recite your name and service number, and then leave by the door. Most people can do that by holding their breath but then the instructor would go, ‘Sorry, didn’t catch that. Could you say it again?’ by which time you’ve breathed in again and got a lungful of gas.

This was done for a purpose, they weren’t just being cruel, you had to experience the effects of the gas. Once you started coughing they threw you out of the door.

At the time I had a really bad head cold. An unexpected side effect of the gas chamber was that all the snot in my nasal passages relocated to the front of the overalls I was wearing, and my cold miraculously cleared up. Never bothered me again during the rest of my stay at Swinderby!


N.B. In those days we wore gas masks and went into gas chambers. In later years, along came Political Correctness and it was decided that the term “gas chamber” had negative connotations, so from then on we had to call the things covering our faces “respirators” and we tried them out in the “respirator testing facility”.

The instructors used to get a strop on if we pointed out to them that the motto we had to remember was, “Mask in nine, to stay alive.” (Nine seconds that is.) And not “Respirator in nine to …” well, let’s just not go there.


***


To make men of us and toughen us up, they sent us camping in nearby Sherwood Forest. The only camping I’d done before was a family holiday, on a beach, at a campsite in Italy, so I was hardly experienced in that sort of thing. Where was the beach? Where were the ice-cream salesmen? Would I need sun cream? It turned out that one of our number used to go poaching in Sherwood Forest. Right, I’m sticking next to him, I thought.

I don’t remember much about it to be honest – I think we went on map marches and were given exercises like tying rope bridges between trees. Mind you as they invariably ended up about 6 inches off the ground they weren’t much of a challenge or a danger.

It was also our introduction to composite rations (compo). They gave us several packs of 24 hour rations each (24 hour rat-packs as they were known) and we had to use our own judgement to stretch them out over the time we were in Sherwood, so if you just ate all the chocolate or ate all the main meals on the first day, more fool you. (You know, like when you’re a kid on a school outing and you’ve eaten all your packed lunch before the coach has even left the car park.)

We also learnt how to re-heat the food by burning Hexamine blocks set on a folding, tin frame. I don’t know what they’re made of (Hexamine presumably) but they looked suspiciously like those blocks you find in the bottom of urinals, and taste just like them too. (Only kidding … they taste completely different.) They smell horrible when they are burning and taint the flavour of the food, but they do the job.

The easiest way to cook the compo rations was to light the “Hexi” block in the tin frame and put your mess tin on the top, filled with water. You would make a hole in the top of a can of food (24 hour ration packs only contained half-sized tins) and stand it in the water which heated the food as it slowly boiled. The food was already cooked and could, if necessary, be eaten cold. All we were doing was reheating it. You could of course empty the can into the mess tin but that involved washing them out afterwards, which isn’t always viable in the woods.

We were warned not to drink the water we’d used for cooking as chemicals could leach out of the tins as they were heated. Ironic really, as the mess tins that they gave us were made of aluminium. Every item for cooking food issued to us (mess tins, frying pans, pots and pans etc. in quarters) or used by the RAF for about the next 20 years, were made of aluminium, which it is now believed can cause Alzheimer’s disease. We might as well have been licking lead pipes.

Anyway, overall it made a pleasant break from drill-practice and at least we didn’t have to polish any trees!


***


Finally, all good things must come to an end. (Ha!) We’d polished everything that we could till it shone, marched around the world 3 times and learned how to press a razor sharp crease into our trousers. (The trick is to turn them inside out, run a bar of soap down the crease, turn them the right way then press them. The heat melts the soap, it’s pressed into a sharp crease, which then cools into a fixed crease). There was nothing else they could teach us. The time had come for us to graduate from Swinderby.

They “lent” us greatcoats as it was still mid-winter, white gloves and white plastic belts. (Which was annoying. Before I joined the RAF I actually owned an RAF greatcoat which I gave away, as I assumed I would be issued one when I joined up. Instead they gave me a raincoat.)

People’s families came for the big day and we went out and marched up and down to impress some top brass who had come along to wave us off. After all the pomp and ceremony was over, as we marched off the parade square for the last time, the RAF band that was there played the theme music from the film, The Great Escape. I often wonder if that was chosen because it’s a nice tune or was it an “in-joke” from the band. Whatever.

We handed in our rifles, greatcoats, white gloves and belts, said our goodbyes to each other and went off to our new lives.


***


People ask me why I chose to join the RAF instead of any other service. Apart from the fact that I preferred their uniform to the others – after giving it a lot of thought in my early years I came to this conclusion:

Royal Navy – the officers and men are all on the same ship (literally all in the same boat). If the ship sinks, they all go down together.

Army – the men get sent off to war while the officers sit back at headquarters.

RAF – the officers fly off to war while the airmen go and have a cup of tea, read the paper and wait to see if they come back or not.

Which service would you rather be in?


***


RAF Cosford


7 Feb 73 – 21 Aug 73 No 2 School of Technical Training.



So, after a few days off, I arrived at RAF Cosford and was put in an upstairs, 24-man room, overlooking the carpark behind station headquarters. Alas, that was where the station band used to practise of a Sunday morning, while you were still in bed, recovering from Saturday night.

Next day, along with all the other newbies, I was marched down to the hangar marked “No 2 School of Technical Training”. There we were divided up into groups according to what training course we were on. I was on Telegraphist course number 12, or Tel 12 for short, and met my fellow inmates (sorry, trainees). They were:


Les Davidson, Mark Seddon, Mick Spensely, Mal Gray, Steve Knight, John Goody, Roy Hannis, Cedric Francis, Ken Jones, Sandy Riach, Jeff Kewin, Dave Manton, Mick Moore, “Gunner” Duxbury, Lawrence Hopkins, Steve Hughes and Bob Oldershaw.


Our instructor for the course was Roger Elliott. Most of us arrived at the same time from Swinderby, with the exception of Steve Knight who had been there for a week already, waiting for us.

“Gunner” Duxbury was so called as although he had joined as a telegraphist, he really wanted to join the RAF Regiment (the Air Force’s soldiers). I think that the recruiting office had told him that there were no vacancies at that time but if he joined as a telegraphist, he could switch later (which was a lie, they only every let you change trades upwards, not downwards.) Eventually he got his way and went away, never to be seen by us again.

The hangar was enormous. All the classrooms were around the edges with more upstairs but the hangar floor was empty except for a couple of odd, little buildings in the middle. These we learnt were “Outstations”, more of which later. There was so much empty floor space because they often had parades and inspections there.


***


We settled in to what would be our home for the next 6 months, while we learnt everything they could teach us about our “Bibles” whose rules we would practice our craft by. They were Allied Communications Publications or ACP for short:


ACP 121 Communications Instructions General (how a message is created).

ACP 124 Radio Telegraphy Procedures (sending signals by Morse code).

ACP 125 Radio Telephone Procedures (sending signals by voice procedures).

ACP 127 Tape Relay Procedures (sending signals by teleprinters).


Basic message procedures apply to all methods of transmission, such as when a person writes out a signal, he decides the precedence i.e. how fast it is to be handled throughout the system, based on the content of the signal. This is also dependant on a person’s rank or the position they hold. There were four precedences Routine, Priority, Immediate and Flash! (A-ah, saviour of the universe.) All of those should be self-explanatory. They also taught us the various security classifications we would normally see, Unclassified, Restricted, Confidential and Secret.

Alongside all this theoretical stuff we had to learn the practical side, namely Morse code and typing. They taught us the Morse characters by making us listen to tapes day after day until we remembered what each sound meant. Typing we learnt by sitting in front of typewriters, while a graphic of a keyboard hanging on the wall, lit up a key at a time and a voice droned on in our headphones, ‘A now, B now, C now …’ and so on. We had to press the identical key on our typewriter.

Once we had learned the Morse characters we were then put into different rooms playing tapes of dummy Morse messages, which we had to transcribe. Each room had its own speed and as you progressed, they moved you into other rooms where the Morse was faster.

Personally I always struggled with Morse code. Learning it before I joined didn’t seem to help me at all, in fact I think it slowed me down. I had learnt it from a book, so I knew what it LOOKED like written down, not what it SOUNDED like. So when I heard it I think there was always a built in delay while my mind translated the sound to the visual image of it, then I could write it down. (At least that’s MY theory.) For the first month or so this caused me a lot of grief. I never really “mastered” Morse, shall we say? The speed we had to achieve to pass the final exam was 18 Words Per Minute (WPM) and I only got into the 20 WPM room a week before our final exams, whereas the others had raced ahead. Some were up into the high 20’s by the time we finished the course.

I wasn’t much better at typing to be honest. Once we had learned the keyboard on a typewriter we transferred to teleprinters. Judging the speed on those was different, we didn’t do WPM as typists normally do. The ultimate aim is to produce a paper tape that has been perforated with punch holes for the different letters, to be fed into a Tape Relay machine. So, producing that tape was known as “perforating” or “perfing” for short and we did “perf” practice not typing practice.

We also had to learn how to read all those little holes in the tape. The western military comms networks use the Murray Code system of a paper tape 5 holes wide, and different combinations of those holes produce different characters or machine instructions such as carriage returns or line-feeds.

The keyboard layout is different on a teleprinter, there are only capital letters, no lower case, lots of keys are doubled up, for example all the numbers are on the QWERTYUIOP top line keys. To differentiate between a figure 4 or the letter R you had to either press the figure key first or the letter key. Each of these key presses or “depressions” as they were known, were counted when you were being assessed.

By looking at a page copy of a signal you could count up all the times a key had been depressed, as well as the individual characters, there were letter shifts and figure shifts to carriage returns and line-feeds, and that was how a test was judged. A perfing test would contain so many depressions and we had to reach the perfing speed of 1125 depressions in 5 minutes, without errors, to qualify at the end of the course.

Now me, I can either perf fast or I can perf accurately, but apparently I can’t do both at the same time. You can either have it fast or you can have it correct. Which do you want?

You can correct mistakes on the paper tape so that they don’t appear when the tape is run through a tape reader and your effort is printed out, but those corrections take extra depressions which aren’t counted in the final analysis.

To be honest, when it comes to my Morse taking and perfing, although I managed to achieve the required speeds during the course … I’m pretty certain that I actually failed my final exams in those subjects.

There, I’ve said it. If you want to take back all the salary and pension you’ve paid me over the past forty odd years, I’ll see you in court.

The instructors obviously didn’t want to waste the 6 months of their lives spent training me, so they entered results from earlier tests that I had passed. This in a way is fair, if like me, you had proven you could do it but just couldn’t manage it on the day.

Fortunately I was better in the theoretical subjects.


***


There were a couple of cafes outside the camp but the nearest place to go for a drink if you wanted to get away, was the village of Albrighton. It was a bit of a walk, half an hour maybe, but as long as it wasn’t raining or if you were thirsty enough, it wasn’t too bad.

The one thing I remember most about it was, as you made your way up the country lanes, if you looked carefully, across the fields you could see a church in the distance. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. It had a cut-out in the front of the steeple in the shape of a cross. Nothing unusual about it, during the daytime.

When they closed the church up at night, they left a light burning inside. As you walked back from the pub along the dark, unlit country lanes, you would see this glowing cross hanging in the air, shining across the fields, like a sign from above. Unless you knew what it was it would literally put the fear of God into you. I’m sure there was many an airman that swore off alcohol after seeing that.


***


At some point during my time at Cosford, we had the misfortune to have an AOC’s inspection. I say misfortune as I ended up getting charged for the first time in my career.

(I’ll own up, I seem to remember having been charged twice in my whole 22 year career but I can’t for the life of me remember where or what the other one was for. Strange but there it is.)

Every year the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) visits each camp under his jurisdiction. With mature hindsight I can see that it is a good thing really. It’s like having occasional bull nights in the barrack block. If you let it go too far then the place (camp or block) gets shabby and untidy. AOC’s is an excuse to give the camp a wash and brush up. A fresh coat of paint everywhere it is needed and the place scrubbed clean.

It happened at Cosford while I was training there. They kept us so busy with bull nights and practising parading that I never had time to get a haircut. (Okay, so lots of other people on camp managed it, yeah, yeah. Tell it to someone who cares.)

Come the day of the parade, on a pre-parade inspection, I was deemed “too scruffy” to be inspected as my hair was too long, and told to go and fall in with Pool flight. This was where all the misfits were gathered. The scruffs like me or people who had 2 left feet when it came to marching, that sort of thing. I think you’d actually have to be on crutches not to be in Pool flight. Next to me was a guy that was also thrown off the parade for being scruffy. Why they didn’t just leave us out of the parade completely I’ll never know, but they insisted on us marching on as well and making us stand off to one side of the parade ground.

The AOC duly turns up and decides he wants to inspect Pool flight!

I nearly laughed out loud as I imagined the blood draining from the face of the idiot who said we weren’t decent enough to be inspected.

So the AOC wanders up and down our ranks looking us over, and stops to speak to the guy next to me (who, you’ll remember, was told that he wasn’t fit to be inspected by the AOC) and the AOC actually compliments him on his appearance!

The parade finishes and those of us sent to Pool flight were all charged. Now, if I’d have been the guy standing next to me, I would have said, as the charge was being heard, that if the AOC considered me to be acceptable then it wasn’t up to a junior officer to call him wrong.

I’d have even been prepared to request the AOC as a witness, as is my right. (I know it wouldn’t have happened but it might have stirred up enough trouble that they’d have dropped the charge.)

I of course, didn’t have the AOC as a character witness and so got awarded 7 days Restrictions (or Jankers as it is commonly known). Jankers is designed just to mess a person around so that they will never, willingly, put himself in a position ever again, where they might have to serve Jankers.

You have to report for inspection early in the morning, before work. After tea, you report again to the guard room to be detailed some boring duty like scrubbing pots in the Airman’s Mess. Then you return to the guard room at 10 pm in your best uniform to be inspected again. During your time on Jankers you are not allowed to use any of the station bars. The irregular times you have to attend inspections eats into your rest time, so it is really wearing and believe me you would never want to do it again.

But at least they don’t flog you these days.


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