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Open Features: Get Over There – And At The Double

Journalist David Hammond recalls in rich detail his National Service days in the Royal Air Force.

“It does date a man so,” said a woman friend of mine in a somewhat unkind reference to my time on National Service.

But I suppose she had a point, for conscription ended in 1962.

Following on from the war years, National Service saw 2 million young men forcefully recruited between 1945 and 1962 to serve their country for two years.

The experience was no picnic for most of the recruits, whose home comforts vanished overnight. But for some National Servicemen there were far worse consequences. They found themselves involved in the conflicts in Korea, the Suez Canal Zone, Malaya, Aden or Cyprus. A total of 400 of them died, fighting alongside regular servicemen.

People like myself – I spent most of the time in sunny Kenya – were more fortunate. We saw a bit of the world, but were not called on to kill or be killed.

My National Service began, as it did for hundreds of others, when I reported to the reception unit at RAF Cardington, Beds., in July, 1953.

Cardington, as many ex-airmen will remember, was something of a joke, even a hoax. You were there just a few days, and were given the impression that, if you signed on for three years, instead of the compulsory two – as many did – you would get lots of extra privileges.

The place had separate NAAFIs (snack bar and shopping facilities) for Regulars and National Servicemen – a situation I never found elsewhere. You were offered a better choice of trades if you became a Regular – a “carrot” which, I admit, did have some substance.

Discipline was slack, and officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) tried to give you the impression that life in the Royal Air Force would be pretty good.

It was a completely different picture when we reported to our next camp, No. 11 School of Recruit Training, RAF Hednesford, Staffs, where we would take part in the dreaded “square-bashing” routine.

After lugging our kitbags up the big hill from the railway station – the camp was situated high on Cannock Chase – we were ready for a rest and a cup of tea. But looming over us was a big corporal, yelling, “Pick that bag up, laddie, and get over there at the double!”

In the next eight weeks or so we hardly knew whether we were on our head or our heels, in a regime which meant that nearly every move we made was one done to order.

For me, as a nervous only child, it was enough of an ordeal being thrust into a billet where 20 men lived and slept, swore and sang, cursed and criticised. Add to that the ordinary drill and rifle drill, the obsession with cleanliness and tidiness, and the continuous oppression by NCOs, and here was something approaching hell on earth.

In the billet were the shy and the extrovert, the rich and the poor, the intelligent and the dim, all lumped together.

Hednesford was an old camp, used by prisoners-of-war at one time, I believe. We washed and shaved in the ablutions block behind the billet, where the sinks were half black, as so much of the enamel had been worn off them. If you didn’t want to queue there, you had to be up before six.

Getting used to wearing webbing belts, packs and gaiters did not come easy to some men. “Don’t forget these gaiters are to be worn round the ankles and not round the testicles,” one corporal was fond of observing.

But we got used to it, like everything else. In fact, we began to think we were coping reasonably with this strange new life. But the Sgt Graham, whom we had not met previously, arrived back from leave.

Gathering the whole flight (company) of more than 100 recruits together in one billet, he flung open the door and slammed it shut, then harangued us in his rich Scots accent: “I see things have been going sadly amiss in this flight while I have been away. But I can assure you things are going to alter now. We are going to have a 100% improvement by tomorrow morning.

It was all a bit of Forces psychology, of course, but at the time it seemed pretty frightening. You can imagine why some “sprogs” (recruits) were invalided out with nervous breakdowns. Anyone clumsy in action or untidy in appearance could be mercilessly picked on – a scapegoat to make sure the rest toed the line.

Punishments for minor offences were many and varied. If you were spotted wearing your beret in the mess (canteen), you were either forced to go behind the counter and serve everyone else, or sent into the tin room, where you cleaned out huge, greasy cooking tins with cold water and wire brushes.

After this harsh regime, trade training at Compton Bassett, near Calne, Wiltshire, seemed a bit more civilised, almost like being back in the school classroom. After 12 weeks I had become an almost proficient teleprinter operator (TPO for short).

Then we were told that our little bunch of trainees – TPO 21 – were destined for the Middle East, a piece of news at once exciting and alarming, in view of the Suez Canal Zone troubles.

The old Avro York aircraft in which we flew from Stansted to Fayid, Egypt, took 17 hours for the journey, including a stop at Malta. The plane was so noisy for passengers on take-off that they gave you cotton wool to put in your ears.

A golden rule in the Forces is that they never tell you what role you are intended to play until you actually get it. After our first couple of days living in tents in the sands of El Hamra camp, we visualised, with complete dread, spending the rest of our two year stint in the Canal Zone. But after just 10 days there, we were off again – this time being flown down to Aden.

We were just left to loaf about for a week or two before being told that we were being posted to East Africa (which formed part of the Aden Command), to work at the big new signals centre at RAF Eastleigh, Nairobi.

After Egypt and Aden, Nairobi, with its trees and handsome buildings, seemed almost like Paris, and the climate much more equable than our two previous locations in the Middle East. Though almost on the equator, the city is 5,000 feet above sea level, which helps to keep things cool.

Our living conditions on the camp for the first three or four months were, however, quite abysmal. These were the days of the Mau Mau emergency, in which Jomo Kenyatta, later to become a “respectable” national leader, was leading a gang of terrorists whose bloody atrocities with panga knives and other weapons had sickened a country.

Extra servicemen brought in to deal with this situation meant that the camp was badly overcrowded. As a result, we found ourselves sleeping in an aircraft hangar, with packing crates as furniture. Mosquito nets preserved us from night-time insect invaders.

In typical Forces style once more, we had to work on digging the garden for the new signals centre before we eventually got down to the proper teleprinter duties we had trained for.

We did round-the-clock shifts, and if you were on duty on Saturday evenings, you knew there would be an important, though unofficial, signal. Shortly after 6pm the radio teleprinter link with London would start chattering, and the tape would come through . . . “Hello, old man, herewith UK football results, Division 1 . . . .”

I must admit I never came face to face with the Mau Mau in Kenya, though on trips out on the pillion of a friend’s motorcycle, we made what I suppose were sometimes rather risky journeys, in the course of which we would chat with members of the local “Home Guard”. These were African tribesmen who had formed armed groups to protect fellow townsmen and villagers against Mau Mau atrocities.

During a big operation mounted against the Mau Mau – Operation Anvil – there was a tragedy at Eastleigh. Some of our airmen had been brought in specially to go out with the Army in a 3,000 man dawn swoop in which virtually every African in and around Nairobi was rounded up for questioning.

Now the airmen were not so used to handling guns as the Army people, and it was quite a long time since our basic training. After their return from the operation, one of the airmen, quite well-known to us, emptied five rounds from his rifle and, to check it was empty, pulled the trigger.

Sadly, he had forgotten the important instruction that you always point a rifle in the air when checking to see the magazine is empty. In this case it was not, and a bullet went through the stomach of another airman, causing a fatal wound.

The distraught lad responsible for the accidental shooting became a nervous wreck and was sent back to England. I met him around two years later, when he had married and seemed to have got over things, though no doubt this dreadful incident would be with him for the rest of his life.

For the rest of us, housed now in decent stone billets instead of the aircraft hangar, life went along in a reasonable routine. In our spare time, we walked round Nairobi, whose sights and sounds became very familiar to us. We learned a smattering of the Swahili language, which helped us in meetings with Africans.

On leave, we got the chance to swim in the Indian Ocean at Mombasa, while staying in modest accommodation at the British Legion Hostel.

Despite these attractions, there were still bouts of homesickness for people like myself, and most of us, I think, were glad to board the plane taking us back to England and demobilisation.

I will leave it to others to pontificate about the values and otherwise of National Service, and just say that I found high levels of comradeship and friendship . . . and I know how to iron a shirt.

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