Sunday, 24 May 2009

National Service: RAF January 1953

Couldn't wait to move out of the family home at 45 Kensington Avenue, Thornton Heath, so I entered the RAF as a "volunteer" on my 18th birthday, for a three-year engagement. I knew that if I waited for the official call-up to National Service the chances were that I would end up in the army for two years. I definitely wanted the RAF; I'd been a Royal Air Force cadet in Croydon and enjoyed that bit so the RAF was a "must" for me.

Where to start? At the beginning probably, and the beginning of my RAF life started at RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire, the place where they used to build airships. The large hangars which housed these airships still stand at RAF Cardington but during my short stay there I never actually went into one of these massive buildings.

My first impression of Cardington was that it was a bleak, damp and cold place! Mind you, it was January so I guess that's to be expected. It also had an odd smell about the place; a sort of stale smell. My first night away from home and I was not feeling too happy. All the other chaps were as bewildered as I was as we were shephered into a cold and cheerless Nissen hut which was to be our home for the next few days.

There were about two dozen iron-framed bedsteads lining each side of the hut, with a folded pile of bedding on each, plus a wooden locker/wardrobe for each bed. I had only a small case with some toiletries and some underwear and dumped this on the mattress of a bed about halfway along the left side of the hut. I think it was about 4 p.m. when I arrived at the camp but I can't be certain. That first day was a bit of a blur. We had some sort of meal in the large dining hall, called the mess, for what seemed to me to be a good reason!

At around 8 p.m. or later the door of the hut burst open and a man in a RAF uniform came clumping in, slamming the door as he entered. He shouted to us to "get on your bleedin' feet",which we all did. He surveyed the motley shower, as he called us, as he strode up and down the hut, bellowing out instructions as to what we would be doing next day - none of which I really understood. He eventually got to where I was standing.

"And what's your name laddie" he bellowed, his face almost touching me - sort of nose-to-nose. I said: "Harfleet sir..." And this was my first mistake!

He pointed to the three stripes on his arm and yelled: "Don't call me Sir! Dontcha know what these stripes are!"

I then compounded my error and stupidly said: "Yes, sir". This sent him into a sort of paroxysm of fury. He had obviously taken a dislike to me and he then stuck his nose almost on my nose again and said: "Follow me you 'orrible long streak of piss.." and he marched out of the hut, with me in close attendance.

The night was now dark as well as damply cold and the stale smell seemed stronger now than earlier. There were only a very few street lamps here and there and I had to walk at the double to keep up with this monstrous individual I had apparently offended by calling him "Sir". Within a few minutes we entered another large building, which was the dining hall, or mess. Now I knew where this sickening stale smell came from! The Mess.

Once inside I saw the place was empty, but behind the serving counter the lights were on and somebody was working in there. It was the sergeant in charge of the mess, and he was finishing off some cleaning of the large bins and trays from which the food was usually stored and served.

My monster sergeant said to the cook-house sergeant something about: "I've got this 'ere streak of piss who wants to 'elp you clean up the place." and with that he about-turned and departed. The cook-house sergeant looked at me and said: "So what have you been up to lad..." I told him that I had said "Sir" instead of sergeant when reply to the sergeant. "Oh my gawd" said cook-house, "He don't like that, and nor does I. We're NCOs, not hofficers, and don't you ever forget it!" "Right, s..sergeant." I said.

"OK lad. I want you to get a broom and sweep out every last crumb and everything else out of the mess. I want that floor spotless. You understand?"

"Yes sergeant. Err.. where is the broom?"

He glared at me as though he considered me to be a complete idiot.

"Find a fecking broom ... find one. And get on with it."

Now you can see how helpful these old RAF hands were. I was beginning to think I would have fared better in the army! Anyway, I located a broom and began my Herculean task of sweeping out the mess. I now understood how Hercules must have felt when undertaking one of his fabled labours: to clean the Augean stables in a single day. Only I was to have only a couple of hours or so!

When I thought I'd finished I went back to the kitchen area to see if it was OK for me to leave. Couldn't see anybody there at all. The lights were still on but there did not seem to be a soul around any more. After a minute or two I decided to get out of this inhospitable and malodourous building and get back to my billet. So I went out the door ... and I could not remember where my hut was!

By now I was thoroughly fed up, tired and a tad homesick. Homesick for 45 Kensington Avenue, the place I had so hurriedly and happily left on my 18th birthday! I had assumed that the grass would be so much greener in the RAF ... but I was now wondering what the heck was in store for me for the next three years.

Somehow, don't ask me how, I stumbled into the right nissen hut which was now lit by just one dim light. Most of the occupants had made up their beds and were already asleep, or trying to get to sleep. An hour or two later I'd managed to get sorted and finally drifted into a tired but welcome sleep.

What would tomorrow bring, and all the other yet to come days in Her Majesty's Royal Air Force. I'd no idea, but you either sink or swim; and I was a good swimmer!

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