In which we have served - part one

I'm not keen on flash-backs but due to this episodic format I'm bound to skip lightly over some things then realise later that they may explain a lot.

National Service for males aged eighteen finished in about 1958. By the way, for 'National Service' read 'Military Service'. Anyway I signed up for it in 1951, then aged seventeen. That was when my father and step-mother sold up and went to work and live in Singapore, myself and my eighteen years old sister Shirley 'not wanted on voyage'. Shirley promptly and disastrously married her farm labourer boyfriend, Mick, and I was propelled into the Royal Air Force. Not just the statuary two years but signed on for three. So, no problems for daddy and mummy any more - nor, as it turned out for me. With my boarding school background I very quickly and happily adapted to Service life.

For some elusive reason I was allocated to the trade of gas turbine fitter (jet engines, that is,) and after initial training at Cardington, Bedfordshire I was posted to St Athans in South Wales for technical training. Three things I remember about St Athans. One was having to embark on an exercise over many days armed with a set of hand files and a block of mild steel, and being instructed to replicate, to the nearest, merest micro-fraction, a drawing of a matchbox. Sounds simple? It isn't! Another was the theory of jet propulsion - the 'Venturi effect' - and the theory of fixed wing lift. Magical! The third thing I recall is my romance with a young lady I met up with at the nearby seaside fairground and our excursions over the Welsh hillsides ostensibly searching for elusive but delicious blueberries. Equally magical.

Having completed my technical training I was posted to real-life line duties at (I think) R.A.F. Waddington, there to service the Meteor fighters that always seemed to be crashing in those days. We - even the unfortunate pilots - called them meat boxes. In fact one of my first memories is of being one of a line of men equipped with hand torches, searching the countryside methodically for the remains of a pair of NF11 (night fighter) pilots  - and finding some as well. I'll not bother you with the details.

This was where my propensity to dream whilst at work almost cost me my R.A.F. career as well as, probably, my freedom. You see, in conducting a pre-flight check on a Rolls Royce engine I had inadvertently left off an oil cap. The control tower stopped the aircraft's take off, having spotted black clouds of smoke in the wake of the Meteor. They guessed correctly what had happened and informed the military police. I was summoned to the Wing Commander's office and given an official reprimand only minutes before the white caps arrived to charge me. Of course they couldn't do so, for I had already been punished, and I remain convinced that this had something to do with my distant father's Freemasonry.

It may well have been something similar in the event that, when I applied for air crew, I was sent for aptitude tests at Hornchurch in Essex and passed. I was then posted for aircrew training to RAF Digby near Sleaford in Norfolk. About twenty of we new hopefuls were marshalled into a cold, dark and empty aircraft hanger at six o clock, our first morning. A spot light shone on a dais in front of us. In came a much beribboned group captain, walking with the aid of a stick. We all knew him (to us, the old man) as a WW2 fighter ace. He stood on the dais looking slowly down the line of us, then spoke one sentence that I shall never forget: "Step forward any man who does not want to kill the enemy of his country." Silence. Nobody moved a muscle. But in truth we hadn't thought about killing anybody. We just wanted to jet around in the sky and pull the girls in local pubs, aided and abetted by our proudly emblazoned pilot's wings.

Part two of my National Service later ...


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