I had been sent a railway warrant and instructions to catch a train from Marylebone station for Ruislip. Living as far away as the Midlands, and never having travelled so far, it was as well that the instructions were fairly complete. The Underground was quite new to me and an adventure in itself. Although I entered it with some trepidation, I was surprised how easy it all was – so easy, in fact, that thenceforth I never used any other form of transport through London.
We were met, at Ruislip station, on this cold January afternoon and taken to the camp where we were greeted by curious members of earlier entries – some to advise us to “Get some in” (whatever that meant) and some to invite us to lend them money until Friday. I think I managed to avoid that trap though I could have been carrying as much as a pound in my pocket – perhaps I had been warned.
We would then, have been shown to our barrack room. I was quite impressed with it. Everything was clean and tidy and the bed was already made and looked comfortable. Then we went to tea and I could find no fault with that. Drinking tea out of a pint mug with no tablecloth seemed strange, but I supposed I could get used to it. The meal was fried bacon and sausages with baked beans. Baked beans I had never tasted before and I thought them delicious. I was too much of a rookie (though I did not yet know the word) to realise that I was already making my first mistake – you must always find fault with your food if only to show that you wereused to something better. Later you would find that at each meal there was the Orderly Officer to whom you could address any complaint, but that would have been taking things too far. In fact during my whole time as an apprentice I don’t recall anyone having the courage to complain. What a hero you could have been. Something like Oliver Twist, but where did it get him?
The next day was taken up with enlistment formalities. It was explained to us that we would serve for twelve years during which, if we were clever enough we might expect to reach the rank of Sergeant. At the end of our engagement we would receive a gratuity of £100, a mouth-watering thought but an eternity ahead. Then, some time in the evening I think it was, we were attested. It was very solemnly explained to us that we were about to take the oath and that, if we had any misgivings,
now was the time to express them. I could not have imagined than anyone would draw back so close to the brink. But I was wrong; one of our number shuffled forward and said that he would like to change his mind. He was duly given an orange, a bag of sandwiches and a railway warrant home.
We returned to our barrack room to find everything spick and span and our beds nicely made. I for one had no doubts about having done a wise thing and looked forward to getting kitted out with my uniform. I could hardly wait.
Next day they brought up the subject of pay. We knew of course that we would be paid a shilling a day but it was explained to us that we would only actually receive three shillings a week. The remaining four shillings would be saved for us until we went on leave so that we could “paint the town red”. It was pointed out to us that even three shillings was a lot of money for a young lad to be carrying around and that we could, if we wished draw only two shillings – and thereby, I presume, paint
the town even redder. Not many took up this kind offer but at least some did.
From then on things quickly went downhill. We had not questioned the magic by which our room became tidy or who had made our beds so neatly. It’s a thing you take for granted but it suddenly stopped. We found that not only were we expected to make our own beds, but that the beds themselves were something special – they were McDonalds! To the uninitiated, which we certainly were, this means that the bedstead, which was unencumbered with springs, was in two parts and so could be retracted to half its length. And in daytime retracted it had to be, which meant, if you think about it, that the bed had to be made, not once, but twice each day. Except Sundays, that is, when you could and did wallow in your squalor.
The first items of kit we received must have been our pint china mug, and knife, fork and spoon, or irons as we learnt to call them. Life seemed to revolve around them, particularly the mug. As a broken mug cost, I think, sixpence to replace, some unscrupulous people felt it made better economic sense to help themselves from someone who had been more fortunate. Sadly this lad, who would normally not dream of such a thing, might feel obliged to join in the game. And so it went on
like musical chairs. The music stopped just before the next kit inspection when the last unfortunate in the chain forked out his reluctant sixpence.
There were now a few regulations to learn. We were told that the RAF having assumed responsibility to our parents for our moral welfare, it would be an offence if at any time we “associated with females” We were allowed to leave camp but were required to book out at the guardroom. There we would be inspected, and if our appearance was not up to scratch, instructed to return to our barracks. To discourage us from breaking rule one, apprentices were not permitted to book out
separately and, when they booked in they must be with the person with whom they left. Furthermore all places more than three miles from the camp gates were out of bounds. Love, they say, will find a way, but at Ruislip I don’t think that it did too often. In fact these rules were probably quite unnecessary – most of us would have run a mile if a girl had looked at us! They did however have the effect that anyone without friends was, to all intents and purposes, permanently confined to camp.
Incidentally the times for returning to camp were also strictly regulated. I forget exactly what they were, but I think we had to be back by 2130, except that on occasion a late pass to 2230 was allowed.
Then of course there was smoking. In a way Ruislip may have been ahead of their time by banning it in days when most people saw it as a fairly harmless vice. Admittedly when you reached the age of eighteen you could apply for a “Smoking Pass”. This authorised you to smoke when off duty and outside all buildings. How times have changed – today you are entitled to the vote at that age! Unfortunately the regulation probably had the opposite effect to that intended. Few smokers get
enjoyment out of cigarettes when they start and I am sure many of us would not have persevered if the habit had been legal. Whether or not this is true, it was here that I became hooked for most of my time in the service.
Some time during our first week we were introduced to “Domestic Evening”, or, as the old hands soon taught us to call it, “bullshit night”. It was very largely about polishing lino and came as something of a shock. If I had thought about it at all, it had not occurred to me what hard work it is. There was always plenty of polish to be had but not enough bumpers to spread it. Trying to slide on a floor made sticky with too much polish with each foot on a square of old blanket material was soul destroying. Give me Bluebelling the windows or Vimming the washbasins any day! We quickly learned that polishing lino became less of a chore if it had been looked after for the rest of the week. Consequently no one actually walked on the floor at all but all slid silently and mysteriously between the outside door and bedspace.
Another routine we quickly learned was to do with laundry. We were entitled to free laundry to a value of ninepence a week. For that we bundled up one shirt, two collars, one vest, one pair of pants, a pair of socks and I think a pair of pyjamas though I’m not sure about the last. One could send more but, as you would have to pay for the extra, no one did. We were also entitled a clean pair of sheets each week, though strangely this was a privilege for us which would be withdrawn when
we became airmen. You did not wear civilian clothes at all. Those you arrived in were stored away at the end of the billet.
“Lights out” was, I think, at ten o’clock and talking after that time was forbidden. You were permitted to keep a radio in the billet, if you had such a luxury, but only after submitting an application. You would then be required to make a fixed payment for the electricity consumed!
I won’t say too much about the trade training we received. As I remember there was not all that much, considering that it was the only reason for our being there. I should mention however the touch typing training we did, Accounts and GD clerks alike, on the dreadful Oliver typewriter. Once you had mastered it, with its awful non-standard three-bank keyboard you would have the utmost difficulty adapting to any other.
On second thoughts something of our accounts training also comes to mind. I think it came under the heading of “Mathematics” but consisted of what was called “Long tots and cross tots”. You were given a book on each page of which was a table of perhaps six columns by about twenty rows of pounds, shillings and pence. The instructor would tell us that, when we had got them to balance, we could leave. Some people were leaving before I had got to the end of the third row and by the time I had achieved a balance I was on my own. In some ways I preferred polishing lino – perhaps I was more cut out for it!
By the time the war started we were well into the routine and although I moaned with the rest, as I was expected to, I really enjoyed life. We were no longer the junior entry, and had jeered at the next to arrive. Although we would not admit it, we enjoyed our drill, particularly when we started rifle drill. We were, I think, reasonably well behaved and our billet was spotless.
(Memories of Ruislip – End of Part 1)