I suppose it was inevitable that I would become a member of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force at sometime. Born in 1945 and christened Richard Alan Fray, it seemed my initials influenced everyone but me on my destiny. But it was Gabby Hayes the careers master in my Cornish Grammar School who eventually made the connection and took the vital decision on the direction my life should take – but the speed of the transition was to surprise everyone, especially me. It was in late March 1962 that the City of Truro RAF Recruiting Office visited my school to give a general presentation to the 6th Form in the morning and spend the afternoon talking to interested individuals. I had never even thought of a career in the Services – seemed far too dangerous and far too far from home for the likes of me. Gabby Hayes had other ideas. An unfortunate association of ideas led to him believing I had always wanted to serve my Country as an airman so he put my name forward for the afternoon session. It was nonsense of course. No way was I going to join up. 1’d just finished celebrating the fact that National Service had ended. I would withstand the most eloquent of sales talk from the recruiters because I was a grammar school boy with an “0” level, and therefore obviously destined for a much grander career than the RAF could offer.
I can’t remember much of the next few weeks. Medicals were passed, parental consents signed, bags packed and railway warrants issued. I was speeding downhill towards calamity and seemed unable to control my inevitable transition from schoolboy to Serviceman. On 7 May 1962 I was on my way to Cardington in Bedfordshire to see if the RAF liked me as much as it was alleged I liked them. They didn’t! I was immature, naive and had a ripe Cornish accent that few in Bedfordshire could
understand. Right, that’s it I thought, did my best but what I need now is a train ride home, another year in School to re-take my “0” levels and nobody the worse for wear. But, somebody somewhere decided to take a chance and offer me the opportunity to become an apprentice RAF Clerk. What a blow to my ego – how could I tell my mates back home I was to become a Clerk and spend the rest of my working life in an office? Not to worry, I had time to make up my mind. The decision-makers at the RAF Youth Selection Centre gave me a full 15 minutes to decide if I wanted to serve my country or return in humiliation to my small hometown as a total failure. So I signed, became Administrative Apprentice Fray and was given a Railway Warrant to travel to Bircham Newton. Where the hell was that I thought. “0” level Geography had only prepared me for trips through South America, Africa and Australasia.
But a Railway Warrant is a wonderful thing – a little like a magic carpet – you pass it to a uniform on the railway station and you are whisked away. Well hardly whisked. Bircham Newton, as I was to discover, is hidden in rural Norfolk, halfway between Kings Lynn and Hunstanton. It is 89 miles by road from Cardington but 5 1/2 hours by steam train. Luckily I had a packed lunch provided by the RAF but this first experience of hard bread and Spam did little to sustain me during the long journey. I could have bought some crisps but all my spare money had been used to buy 20, of the very best, cigarettes.
I arrived at RAF Bircham Newton mid afternoon on 9 May 1962 where I joined the other lonely souls making up our entry. The only difference was I had long hair, winklepicker shoes and some cigarettes. Jack the lad had arrived! Unfortunately, 2 days late. This was nothing new for a Cornishman; we were still tapping our toes to Alma Cogan and Ruby Murray whilst the rest of the country was rocking to Elvis, Jerry Lee and Bill Hayley. That night, for the first time in my life, I slept in a room I
shared with 24 other boys, all of whom were RAF veterans of 2 days, had short hair and a way of talking which was completely alien to me. I was popular though because I had the fags and theirs had been confiscated only to be returned when they had received written permission to smoke from their parents. That night, as I lay in my bed, to be known thereafter as a pit, I wondered what I had let myself in for. I wondered what my parents and the rest of my family must have been thinking. But most of all, I wondered when I would get my uniform trousers, so I could throw away my short trousers.
I awoke the next morning believing the place to be on fire. A short, ginger and terrifying man in full RAF Uniform and big boots was stamping up and down the room screaming at the top of his voice. I couldn’t understand much of what he said and what I did hear made no sense whatsoever – but it seemed to work. I’ve never seen 24 boys move so quickly to the ablutions – leaving the rather excitable stranger and me the only occupants of the room. I struggled out of bed and stood in my “Y” fronts looking for some kind of direction on what to do next.
“Excuse me” he said “but are you a member of the Royal Air Force?” “Yes” I replied.
Apparently, the gist of his subsequent message was that I should shower, dress, make my bed and be outside the building in 5 minutes. I almost made it – but that was the only time I ever had a shower without getting wet. Once outside we were marched to breakfast. Then we were marched back again and it was at this time I was separated from the herd. First stop was the barber where my treasured DA haircut disappeared in a matter of moments. Next stop “stores” where I was issued with my kit. I couldn’t believe the amount of clothing and equipment I was given. Boots, shoes, drawers cellular, shirts, collars, collar studs all manner of new and exotic clothing. And a large shiny mug that would hold a pint of tea. (The more tea you drank the more bromide you consumed). I was then taken back to my block and told to dress in my uniform – it must have been a sight to behold. I was 5’4″, 7 stone soaking-wet, with a 12″ collar size. I was wearing a uniform designed for a heavyweight wrestler. I could hardly lift my feet now encased with boots instead of my lightweight slip-ons but the thing I would never get used to was fixing the collar to the shirt with collar studs. For years after I could always spot an RAF apprentice, whatever he was wearing, because he had a permanent small round indentation on his neck where his front stud had been fighting against his Adams apple. Later that day I re-joined the rest of my colleagues who were being indoctrinated into the ways of the RAF. I was apparently a member of the 46th Entry of Administrative Apprentices. The entry was to be the last and, as I turned up 2 days after everyone else, I was the last of the last with a service number of 594261. My cigarettes were confiscated and I was told that I might see them again when OC AA TS received a
note from my parents giving permission for me to smoke.
There were 4 other entries at Bircham Newton besides ours. All senior to us of course with the 42nd the most senior and to my horror there was a “fag” system. I was to be a fag or ‘bull boy’ to a member of the senior entry. I can’t remember his name but he had to be the unluckiest bloke in Norfolk. I couldn’t look after myself let alone him. As was the custom we were visited that night by the 42nd entry. Lights out was 10pm, and at 5 past, what appeared to be the whole of the senior entry came charging in and threw our beds up against the wall. Suddenly, I was lying in a heap between floor and wall covered in bits of bed, bedding and all my kit for the morning. There were others screaming and struggling to get out but a few just stayed where they were and kept quiet. We thought they might all go away but unfortunately they had a roll call. When my name was called I reluctantly answered with a muffled cry from under the wreckage, whereupon I was dragged to the centre of the room to join the rest of our bedraggled entry. There was a high staircase at the end of our room in Zeebrugge Block and several members of the senior entry climbed the stairs to the landing carrying our newly issued large shiny white mugs. We were lined up in groups of 5, 15 yards away and told to catch the mugs when they were dropped. Impossible – but we ‘sprogs’ couldn’t argue so we played their silly game – all the mugs broke of course but I was never one for bromide anyway.
Once the senior entry had had their fun, they told us exactly what was expected of us over the next few months and then ordered us to collect their breakfasts and deliver them to their room early next morning. I can remember as if it was only yesterday that at that moment two thoughts flashed into my mind. Firstly, not everyone in the RAF was as intelligent as they thought they were and secondly I would always collect my own breakfast. Members of the 42nd entry to this day must have terrible memories of the taste of the breakfasts we regularly took to their rooms. By the next day however 3 of our number had failed to see the joke and left never to be seen again. They neither said goodbye, nor have I heard of them since. The life was not for them – the truth is, it was not for any of us but they were the three lucky ones who had the necessary £20 to purchase their discharge. I stayed on with much to learn but already I could see I might enjoy myself. Today for instance, as well as the secret of marching, I was to learn how to set fire to my boots and how to fold all my blankets and sheets into a nice tidy bundle – known as a bed pack. The days rolled on. There were worst places than Norfolk to spend the summer and although we had little money, we had a great time – most of the time anyway. The seaside town of Hunstanton was not too far away and the ‘rich’ American serviceman from nearby Sculthorpe were always ready to pick up an RAF Apprentice hitch- hiking the 12 miles to the seaside with its never ending supply of fish and chips and, of course, holiday romances. The RAF appeared to have accepted me as I had accepted it. There was ample time for sport and the comradeship of the other apprentices always provided a mate to chat to, but I still missed home. So, when my
father came to an ‘Open Day’ that summer, I managed to convince him and he, in turn, the Commanding Officer, that as I was registered to re-take 7 0 Levels at my old school in Cornwall. I should be released for the three weeks they were to be held to enable me to do so. Miraculously, the CO agreed. I had three weeks extra leave and a return railway warrant to Falmouth. Of the 7 exams I took during that summer in Cornwall, I managed, rather spectacularly, to fail the lot! Although I had now become a notorious academic failure, back at Bircham Newton things were moving apace. I could now march in a straight line, sometimes stay in step with everyone else and carry out arms drill, albeit, only with a broom handle. I had been selected for both the rugby and soccer teams and, in true Cornish tradition, chose to concentrate on rugby. My debut saw one of our side have his teeth kicked out by a visiting Naval apprentice from HMS Ganges. My teammate left the field spitting blood and teeth, telling anyone who cared to listen that the kick to his face had been intentional. Straight after the game, I sought out the soccer coach and pledged my full and undying allegiance to his team. My first game resulted in the 46th entry being beaten 42-0 by the 43rd entry – with me in goal for part of the match. Things could only get better – it is always a mistake to peak too early.
Although we were working 16-hour days, we were rewarded with Saturday off for visits to Hunstanton, so long as we were back by 10pm for our bed check. During these days of freedom we enjoyed the pubs of Hunstanton, the cinema of Hunstanton, the beach of Hunstanton but most of all, the girls of Hunstanton. There were wonderful stories of sexual conquests on our return to the rooms after ‘lights out’. Each AA trying to outdo the other on the number of girls he had seduced. Truth be
told we were a room full of virgins with fertile imaginations but the stories were good and we didn’t have a television in those days.
During the week our lessons were split between teaching us our future trade as Clerks with shorthand and typing skills and training us to be killers for our Country should the Country ever become that desperate. The latter, of course, being the most fun. As one of the smaller members of the entry I was often used as the Guinea Pig by the instructors or pushed forward as a volunteer by my ‘so called’ mates. In bayonet practice for instance, I had to lead the way. For us there were no hanging kit bags full of straw to charge and pierce with our weapons – that was a luxury reserved for the Army. Instead, one of the most aggressive men I have ever met, laid his beret on the grass and told us to run and stab the ground as close as possible to his hat without actually touching it. I set off running flat out, screaming like a demented banshee and stabbed the ground at least a yard from the prized beret. It was probably over confidence that was my downfall on the second run but my bayonet pierced the centre of the hat and I sailed on majestically carrying the beret like a trophy on the end of my rifle. They are not cheap, especially ones that have been lovingly sculptured over many years to caress the head it adorns. Our Instructor was, therefore, not amused and after a bollicking that left me with a deep seated hatred of hats, rifles and sergeants for the rest of my life, he sent me to Stores to get him a new hat – the cost, of course, to be stopped from my wages. On my return to the outdoor class we had moved on from bayonet practice to First Aid with the same instructor but he was now wearing a brand new beret that resembled a dinner plate balanced on the top of his head.
Today’s lesson was going to teach us all how to strap me to a stretcher and lower me over a cliff. I was tightly bound to a cast iron stretcher and carried to the top of a grass covered air raid shelter and, as the lowering on ropes began, the Sergeants’ watch reached the magic hour of 12-0-clock – lunchtime. The order was given to secure the ropes and to march to lunch. I was left, in the stretcher, suspended halfway down the side of the shelter, unable to move and staring at a busy main road. Then it started to rain. By l-0-clock (or 1300 hrs as we were expected to say) I was a sopping wet spectacle of some interest to the civilian passers by and to most of the apprentices in the school who turned out to witness first hand the penalty for damaging a sergeants’ favourite head-dress.
Christmas ’62 saw Bircham Newton closed and the remaining 3 entries of Apprentices moved to RAF Hereford where I was placed in Hut 161 following an extended leave because the snow and ice of that spectacularly bad winter prevented our belongings and our instructors moving from Norfolk to Hereford. Once we had all been reunited at RAF Hereford, life became easier as we learnt the art of ‘survival’. Our small Entry was even further reduced but we 20 Apprentice u/t Clerks Secretarial were to be the first entry to have a 100% success rate in our final exams. And on Friday 13 Dec 63 we paraded for the last time before we left to fill posts as Junior Technicians. I had not only survived that ‘life changing’ 20 months as an apprentice but I had enjoyed most of it and successfully moved on to become a fully-fledged member of the RAF. Now I had a car and a fat pay packet of £4 per week. I was posted to Wiltshire and the girls had better beware.