I cannot say that I came from a military back ground: my father had been unfortunate enough to have served in the Army in both World Wars. In the First he served as a Lewis gunner in the Cheshire Regiment and served 2 years as a POW. In the Second, he served in West Africa and had a quiet war. My sister who was 9 years older than me, married a dashing RAF Plt Off who flew Meteor NF 11 aircraft. Before, and after they married, I travelled around with them occasionally in their battered Ford, and enjoyed the hospitality, well mannered camaraderie and social life in officers’ married quarters. It therefore seemed obvious to me that when I had finished my ‘O’ levels, the RAF was the place for my talents. My careers teacher tried to dissuade me as he had suffered National Service in the RAF, but I wouldn’t be swayed. I had seen some literature about Service apprenticeships and the pictures showing happy uniformed youngsters enjoying work and play was enticing. I therefore applied, and after an interview at RAF Halton, I was accepted.
Wearing my best suit and polished shoes, I started my adventure on 22 Jan 1958 on the train from Paddington to Hereford. This was all new to me and at just 17, I had no idea where Hereford was or what to expect. The train was due to arrive at about 2 o’clock (which I now know was 1400 hours) so I had time to kill. There were only two other people in the carriage, and one alighted somewhere on route. The person opposite me was of a similar age and disposition, and he eventually broke the ice by asking where I was going. Having divulged my bright future plans, he revealed that he was on his way from Brighton to Hereford to become an Administrative Apprentice like me. A lifetime friendship with 593497 Watson P R was born.
The train eventually pulled into Hereford after passing the beautiful Malvern Hills on the way. We grabbed our belongings and stepped down on to the platform. Various individuals and newly formed groups of youths spilled out of the train looking as bewildered and uncertain as we were. Someone down the platform was shouting at us “RAF Hereford” and we moved chaotically towards the voice. The sound had come from a relatively small uniformed Corporal who was smart in a scruffy, shiny sort of way.
This, we were shortly to find out, was Cpl ‘Frig’ Smith, our drill instructor. After a roll call, we exited the station building and were confronted by a vehicle which I later learned was a 3 tonner. We were invited to clamber into the open back of the vehicle but I was concerned for the well-being of my one and only suit. Others swore and cursed as they boarded, using words that were unfamiliar to a grammar school boy of good up bringing. One of the coarsest I later knew as Bill Brice, who had a varied vocabulary for his age. It clearly did him no harm because he rose to the giddy heights of Gp Capt. However, this was not the hospitable welcome I had expected, and Hereford in January was not the warmest place in the world.
After 20 minutes bouncing around in relative silence, we stopped and were aware of gates being opened and us driving into a different world. As we disembarked with encouragement from our chevroned Hitler, we were formed into groups – which I later realised were trade specialities – and walk/marched past a line of wooden huts until we reached our destination. Our hut, which my POW father would have recognised, was at the end of the line. The door opened onto a sterile environment with a line of beds stretching down each side. A tall locker and small locker beside each metal bed ensured uniformity, and two large stoves with blackened chimneys glowed at each end of the room. I wondered who had lit them and who would replenish them from the adjacent bucket of coal! We dropped our gear and were directed towards a sort of canteen where we lined up for cutlery, plates and dollops of beans, egg and chips and a mug of tea. Few pleasantries were exchanged between the bewildered, and the experience of washing cutlery in a piping hot trough on exit was exhilarating.
Our bed occupation was ordered alphabetically, with a thin recruit called Attrill, nearest the door. The surname ‘Hall’ put me halfway down one side, between the two stoves.
After hanging up our belongings, people chatted nervously and gravitated towards similar social groups. As it grew dark, we were told that we could use the NAAFI club and were directed there. There were only a few other recruits there wearing their Apprentice insignia and they seemed amused at our presence but unwilling to engage. By 9 o’clock we were all back lying on our beds, experiencing the coarse blankets and the shock of the basic ablution block. Perhaps it would get better in the morning. It didn’t.
At 6.30 (civilian time) ‘Frig’ Smith burst through the door encouraging us to leap from our beds and ‘ablute’. Someone called him ‘Sir’ and was told in no uncertain terms ‘don’t frigging call me that’. We all stood in a line shaving (some probably for the first time) and queuing up for the ‘bog’ (a new and enlightening term for me). We were lined up, fed and watered and told we would be attested by an officer. This sounded painful but we all lined up and followed ‘Frig’ on a short march/walk to an adjacent building where we stood in a half circle around a desk. Eventually, a tall uniformed Flt Lt entered the room and ‘Frig’ genuflected and rose to his 5ft 6inch limit. Our group shuffled uneasily unaware of expectations. We were handed some words to read stating our allegiance to the crown etc which we all read out loud and then moved forward in turn to ‘attest’. The deed done, the officer left, ‘Frig’ returned to his resting height, and started shouting. That continued for 20 months. So 24 hours in RAF had gone by since I boarded the train and they had certainly got my number – 593466.