I had never travelled much before joining the RAF, we had lived close to the coast and around an hour’s drive away from the Brecon Beacons to enjoy the hills and scenery. RAF Honington was my first posting, it’s in Suffolk and like the neighbouring counties of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are by contrast to Wales reasonably flat.
After an uneventful train journey followed by an equally uneventful bus journey I arrived at RAF Honington where I nervously presented myself at the guardroom. The guardroom was located to the right hand side of the main gates it had a veranda supported by white stone pillars. I had my kit bag and another bag which contained by personal effects. Being just under seventeen I was too young to become a Leading Aircraftsman, I seem to remember rightly or wrongly, but certainly reluctantly removing my apprentice wheels.
A Corporal looked up and noticed me, he slid the window open, I told him who I was and that I had just been posted in. The Corporal moved away to a notice board and removed a clipboard before returned to the window. I could see other people in the guardroom so I made every effort to be invisible. After a cursory look he found my name and checked me off. I handed him the paperwork I had been given at RAF Hereford which he read through.
A type of checklist is used to aid a newly posted airman or airwoman when they arrive on their new station.
Before I started this process, the Corporal took me up to an accommodation block, I was given the only available bed space, once I had signed for my bedding the Corporal returned to the guardroom I was left to myself. The room was smaller than the rooms at RAF Hereford, it had eight single beds arranged in two rows of four, each bed space was separated by tall wooden lockers more like wardrobes, these were wider than the lockers at Hereford, one locker facing towards the bed, another locker belonging to the occupant of the next bedspace had its back towards the bed. Along the wall to the side of the beds were the standard issue low wooden lockers. Above each bed head there was a wall mounted light, painted gold or bronze. The floor was made up of exposed wooden floorboards which showed little signs of polish. Some narrow tables with magazines on them and a few chairs were in the central area between the beds at one end of the room. The atmosphere in the room felt odd, despite the curtains being open, it was a bit dark and lacked the sparkle of the rooms at RAF Hereford. Outside the room was a small single room where a Corporal stayed. I wondered who the other airmen were, what they may be like and where they worked.
The block was of a different construction to the blocks at RAF Hereford, from above, this block and the adjacent blocks were shaped like a letter H they were sometimes called H blocks.. The darker red brickwork outside the block still had the remains of camouflage paint, in contrast the windows and doors all had white frames. The block had a ground and first floor, both had the same room layout with a staircase at each end near the two entrance doors. Each floor had four rooms of eight men, a Corporals room plus ablutions and other rooms. The heating was from pipes which ran along the walls behind the bed heads. Unlike RAF Hereford, this block did not have a name it may have had an identification letter or number.
It was time to get back on track with my arrival process, nobody raised much of an eye when a new arrival presented themselves. With the arrival process completed I nervously reported to the Supply and Movements Squadron, this is where I would be working for my time at RAF Honington. Everyone I met was friendly, I quickly ended up outside of the office where the Officer in charge resided. A Sergeant knocked the door then gingerly opened it enough to get his head in, he then stepped aside and beckoned me to enter, I presented myself in front of the officers desk as the Sergeant closed the door behind me, I quickly brought myself to attention and saluted. The Officer was not young and looked like he had been in the RAF for a long time, he was friendly and concluded the meeting by informing me that I would be working in the Receipts and Despatches section, he then directed me to the Sergeant in charge of the section. I saluted the Officer then quickly made my escape through the door which I closed behind me, outside and feeling a bit calmer I headed in the direction of the Sergeant in charge of the Receipts and Despatches section. On the way I met other Suppliers dressed in their working blues in no time I found myself in the section and introduced myself to the guys and civilians who were working there. In a short while the Sergeant appeared he shook my hand as he introduced himself. This was the first time I had shook hands with a Sergeant, he asked me about RAF Hereford and recollected his time spent there.
All suppliers would have been to RAF Hereford for their trade training and subsequent later courses in their careers. I had great expectations of this being a nice place to work. After the introductions he told me to go back to the block, unpack my stuff and relax for the short remainder of the day. The following morning I was to report to my new section at 0800hours and without further ado I made my way to the block. Tomorrow was going to be better I would be in my working blue; I would blend in with the others.
Back in my room I made my bed up then put my bags on the bed, took everything out of them and arranged the items in neat piles, the bags went onto one of the tables. I got out of my number one uniform and carefully hung it up in the large locker to avoid unwanted creases then I put my civilian clothes ‘civvies’ on. My RAF kit and personal belongings were hung up or put onto the shelves in the large wardrobe, all shoes and boots went into a neat row at the bottom of the wardrobe, then I stowed my kit bag and suitcase. None of my new roommates had arrived yet and with the unpacking and putting away completed I made my way over to the airmen’s mess, outside was a large sign with a Suffolk Punch horse, the mess was called ‘The Suffolk Punch.’ The horses got the first part of their name from the county of Suffolk. The Punch part of the name describes the robust size and strength of the horses which would have pulled heavy carts and ploughs before the arrival of tractors.
I was in civvies and felt relaxed as I entered the mess, the aroma of the food filled the air, airmen in uniform and civvies were either queuing at the servery or sat at tables eating and chatting. I grabbed a warm plate and a knife and fork, known as eating irons and took my place in the queue. Further ahead in the queue a loud exchange of words was taking place. The exchange finished and the queue moved along, as I held my plate out for some compo bangers I came face to face with Bob (not his real name). Whilst I quickly looked at the chips in the next shiny Bain Marie, he placed my favourite sausages on the plate then a decent helping of chips, I thanked him and walked away to find an empty table. Bob was a civilian mess hand he wore a white jacket with an open neck where a gold necklace was displayed, he had gold stud earrings with blondish hair just over the tops of his ears. I have always preferred to seat facing people for some reason, after sitting down, I applied salt and vinegar to the chips and tucked in. Nobody looked at me, I was in civvies and was just another face, I blended in nicely. As I ate my food, I began to wonder why Bob had been involved in the verbal outburst and on reflection, was he wearing eye liner, or had I been mistaken? I am a creature of habit and quickly made myself aware with the layout of the mess and where things were kept. I finished my meal with a chip butty and a cup of tea then left the mess and returned to the block. In those days I could eat anything I wanted and never put any weight on, this enviable ability has now long gone, I now don’t have to actually eat the food to put weight on, just being close to it has the same effect.
Back in the room I sat on my bed, turned on the wall mounted light and began to read a book to pass the time before the door would be opened and my new roommates would walk in. I was a boy who had arrived in a man’s world, I would have a lot to learn. It wasn’t long before my room mates began to arrive, most of the guys were suppliers. As the new guy, I was welcomed and made to feel at home. The guys asked many questions about RAF Hereford and how long I had spent there, they told me about their training and experiences whilst they were there. After a while they got out of uniform, donned towels and went off to shower, the introductions had been made, I felt accepted and relaxed, tomorrow would be my first day actually working in a Supply Squadron. I had wondered if it would be vastly different from the practical supply training hanger back at RAF Hereford.
The guys filtered back into the room from their showers then got themselves spruced up ready for the evening’s activities. A typical evening would involve beer and the potential of females, beer drinking was an important past time and was understandably taken very seriously. Drinking took place on the station in the NAFFI Lounge Bar or in the better populated ‘Pigs Bar’, the name probably came about from loud raucous behaviour which was alleged to take place! Many local pubs were also visited, I later found out that last orders were called at 2230hrs in Suffolk and at 2300hrs in nearby Norfolk. I feared that I may be invited to go out with them and prepared some excuses, I came up with the old chestnut that I needed to have an early night after the days travelling, that I was knackered and had to get my head down soon ready for the next day. I was indeed asked to go out with some of them, I offered my excuse which fell on grinning faces with deaf ears. My second excuse of having hardly any money as I had just come out of training was given and also failed. Without wishing to get off on a bad footing with my new mates, I found myself walking the short distance from the block to the Pigs Bar. I was under seventeen, definitely not acquainted with bars, alcohol and people who may have had one too many.
We arrived in the large NAAFI building which was a very short walking distance from our room in the block, we went into the Pigs Bar, after discreetly looking around I found that it was not the image I had conjured up in my mind, it was early in the evening though. There were some people in uniform, but most of the airmen were wearing civvies. We were at the bar and one of the guys asked me what I wanted to drink, a fair question which completely threw me! I asked for the same as they were having. In no time the lady behind the bar had served my new mate, I was given an empty pint glass and a bright red can of McEwans Export beer, we found an empty table and sat down. The cans were quickly poured into the glasses, some of the guys quickly despatched their first pint in a few easy gulps, they all encouraged me to get drinking and not to worry about money. I had a feeling that I may end up being carried back to the block where the spinning room and white porcelain would be waiting for me.
I tried with no success to drink slowly but was quickly sussed out and corrected, to my surprise some guys wearing Royal Navy uniform walked up to the bar. After asking, I found out that there was a Royal Navy unit with their own hanger on the station. RAF Honington operated Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft as well as the Royal Navy 809 Naval Air Squadron. The Navy Buccaneers were operated from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, when she was in dock, the Buccaneers flew up to RAF Honington to temporarily operate there. Another can of McEwans Export was placed in front of me, I was encouraged to get it cracked open. Eventually I managed to remove myself from my new mates in the Pigs Bar without causing any upsets.
The walk back to the block only took a few minutes, the room was empty and quite, I was relieved to get back to my bed space and began to check out my working blue and DMS boots ready for the next day. After going to the loo, I got into bed and set my alarm clock, what a day I’d had, train journeys, a bus ride, arriving at my new posting and to top this off a few beers with my new mates. I turned the wall mounted light off, this had little effect as the main room lights were on and settled down to sleep.
In those days mobile phones had not been invented, the rooms had no televisions, there was a television room in the NAFFI with a big screen TV for those days. The silence in the room was broken a few hours later, the guys had returned from their various drinking haunts and were having a laugh as they recounted their evenings. I was faced with two options, to lay there and pretend to be asleep, or to sit up in bed and be ready to join in with the banter, I chose the latter. A guy who had the next bed space to me was swaying around and slurring his words, he had a Chinese carry meal out which he was attempting to eat with the white plastic spoon provided. He was a hospitable man and on seeing me he offered me some of his meal, which I politely declined.
He replied. ‘No problem mate, what I don’t eat now I’ll leave on the pipes for the morning.’ With the smell of the half-eaten Chinese meal sat on a heating pipe the room became silent, but only just for a while, then the snoring started, this was something I had to get used to, how I would manage to do this was to be a challenge.
My alarm clock sounded and I woke to the smell of Chinese food, I got out of bed, put some shorts on then picked up my washing kit and towel. The other guys were either up and moving around or attempting to get out of their beds. As I walked towards the door, I took a look at my ‘neighbour’. He calmy looked up at me, said good morning and with bleary eyes and shaking hands tucked into the remainder of his Chinese meal. After a wash and shave I got dressed in my working blue, as I put my DMS boots on I grinned to myself as I looked at their shiny bulled up toecaps, they were unlikely to remain in this state for long! With my immaculately shaped beret in hand I made my way over to the Suffolk Punch for a typical breakfast of compo bangers, eggs and beans. Having washed this down with a cup of tea I was set up for the day, or at least until dinner, I left the mess and made way over to the Supply Squadron.
There was a massive jolly Corporal in charge of the despatches section, he was a mover, not a supplier. His trade group was Air Movements which is primarily involved with loading and unloading cargo and passengers on and off various aircraft. Air Movements was not in great demand as there were similarities with moving equipment around, he and doubtless some other movers found themselves working in Supply and Movements Squadrons. He had been in the RAF for some time he wore huge boots far bigger than DMS boots with at least an inch of sole with no studs. He lived off camp and couldn’t possible have driven to work, he would have pressed at least two pedals without feeling either of them.
In the section, there was four of us working there, two civilians, both of them were brilliant characters with endless amusing stories to tell, a Senior Aircraftsman, a guy on holiday and myself the young guy straight out of training with no rank badges on his uniform. They all had nicknames, some I can’t remember and for the SAC, one I can’t say! So I will call him Steve. I loved the nicknames and almost certainly had one myself, other than Taff or Taffy which most Welshmen were called.
Along with the Sergeant in charge, we made up a right motley crew! The main function of the section was to receive all manner of equipment by either using pallet trucks and other handling aids to unload the equipment from vehicles reversed onto the large doors. Larger items of equipment which arrived outside of the ramp on flat bed vehicles was forklifted off. A concrete area outside of the large sliding doors was used for the trailers to be dropped off and picked up and for delivery and collection vehicles to park and keep the road clear. Looking out of the large doors, across the road and beyond a grassed area were several red brick buildings, from left to right there was the Suffolk Punch, then the NAAFI shop, to the right of the shop a double door led directly into the Pigs Bar with the lounge bar to the right.
My first morning went well with a mixture of having a good laugh and learning the job from my new workmates. We had a break around 1000 hours, dinner at 1230 hours, a further afternoon break around 1500 hours, the day finished at 1700 hours. I heard the tannoy system for the first time, this threw me to begin with.
The daily routine continued uneventfully for my first week, I had started to get settled in and remembered peoples actual names or their nicknames. On one Monday morning, despite falling into the bad habit of sleeping in till the last minute I had managed to get into work on time, suddenly a really loud strange noise was emanating from the Technical Stores. It sounded like a bugle, Steve the SAC began laughing, even stranger, Steve then told me that ‘John was back from leave’. With large grin and an evil eye he said. ‘You will love John’. I discovered that John had made the strange noise, he would arrive in the Technical Stores and find a suitable metal tube located on the metalwork or pipe rack. These racks were Christmas tree shaped when viewed from the ends and had numerous brackets where rigid pipes were stored. With a suitable pipe selected John would take a huge breath and blow through the pipe, hence the strange noise, muted sounds of appreciation could be heard from adjoining sections.
It wasn’t long before John appeared in the section, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, after he had finished his greetings with the others, John then focused his attention on me, he walked towards me. John was a little under six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he wore an RAF issue brown leather Gillet with large buttons, I had never seen before. He also wore the rank of Junior Technician (JT) John was the only JT Supplier I ever met and never really got round to asking him why he was a JT. He had a mischievous kind face with a moustache, he spoke very well and was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, he shook my hand with a vice like grip. I tried not to flinch as he introduced himself then thankfully he let go of my hand. ‘Ah, so, you’re the new boy then? we will have to get you sorted out and show you how things go around here.’ Out of the corner of my eye I saw the civilians amusingly flinch, Steve was grinning and nodding his head. John and I had a friendly chat as usual RAF Hereford was mentioned, he had been there before and told me that he was ex RAF Kinloss Mountain rescue. He was a larger than life jovial character and I immediately took to him, how green I was!
We had bulled the section up ahead of either the CO,s inspection, or an AOC,s inspection, John had slipped away, the sergeant was noticeably nervous, then by perfect timing John quickly appeared seconds before the entourage walked into the section. The sergeant had a look of horror on his face, it was too late, John had been to the clothing stores, he had managed to find the biggest storeman’s brown coat which came past his knees along with a huge beret, he was stood at ease on the end of the line. Somehow he got away with it, one of the officers even spoke to him.
The days were spent with more ‘on the job’ learning and generally having a good laugh, soon it was dinner time and we went off to the Suffolk Punch. The great banter continued throughout the meal; we left the mess for the Pigs Bar; my futile excuses were skilfully ignored. The Pigs Bar was very busy the general noise of merriment died down momentarily then went off the scale when John entered. He was obviously very well-known there, in the coming months I found out that he was also very well-known at almost every drinking establishment we went into. However, well known was not always a positive, some people behind the bars displayed false grins as they took in sharp intakes of breath, I did wonder what had gone on to generate this affect!
As instructed, I found an empty table and sat down waiting for John and Steve to get served at the bar. Looking around there was a good number of Royal Navy personnel enjoying a drink. In Forces humour, the Royal Navy guys called their RAF mates ‘Crab fats,’ the RAF guys called their Royal Navy mates ‘Fish heads’. Whilst the term Fish Heads is self-explanatory the term Crab Fat is odd, allegedly it referred to a blue/grey oil which was used to lubricate rifles, also when an RAF guy was asked a question, he would shrug his shoulders and walk away sideways, all in good fun. My room-mate who had heated his Chinese meal was already in the bar, he was despatching a pint, two cans of McEwans were in front of him, I guessed he had gone there straight from work.
The scene was so far removed from RAF Hereford which was only a few months past, a dinner break, a nice meal, back to the block for some banter then forming up outside ready to be marched to the trade lines. There was to be none of that here, I did however feel good to be one of the lads, but drinking at dinnertime with the wages I was on, it wasn’t sustainable. Because of my immaturity and lack of experience I had difficulty in some conversations with guys who had plenty of years’ service and experience under their belts. On more than one occasion my offering had caused a silence and raised eyebrow glances were exchanged, I was really still a boy who hadn’t grown into adulthood. I felt that as I had moved on from the new guy that more of an adult character was expected from me and this should have come out, but it hadn’t, this wasn’t helped by my rebellious and mickey taking traits.
The arrival of the guys roused me from my thoughts, a pint glass and a can of McEwans Export Ale was placed in front of me. After witnessing one of the bar pranks, I soon learned to keep a firm eye on whoever was at the bar. This prank involved one of the perpetrators standing with his back to the victim, to the blind side a can of beer was being vigorously shaken to the point of bursting. The bar staff had seen this too many times, their faces never showed any indication of what was happening. The unsuspecting recipient of the can, or rather the victim, would innocently open the can and have an unexpected fizzy brown shower much to the raucous amusement of the bar occupants!
The number one choice of drink was McEwans Export Ale followed by the second choice of Youngers Tartan Special Ale; these cans sported a tartan design. Draught beer was available but from memory was very gassy causing the drinkers to belch loudly, excessively loud belches were rewarded with shouting which in hindsight may have had something to do with the term ‘Pigs Bar’. The high end cuisine in the Pigs Bar ranged from clingfilmed narrow cheese rolls, like hot dog rolls, to crisps, the Pigs Bar always ran out of cheese rolls quickly, maybe the guys who never went to the mess bought them all. The short distance from the Pigs Bar to the Supply Squadron allowed the time in the bar to be maximised with some very close escapes just being avoided by artful dodging and very good amateur dramatics which satisfied some people that we had been outside working.
Being under 18, I was then unable to open a bank account and drew my wages from a room located to the rear of the guardroom. The room, being part of the guardroom presented a risk of coming into contact with members of the guardroom staff who were in the general duties trade. There would be an airman, a Corporal, a Sergeant and the most feared of all, the Station Warrant Officer or SWO for short.
When anybody was unlucky to bump into a SWO it was highly likely the SWO would shout. ‘Airman get over here.’ Anybody who decided, for whatever reason to respond slowly would be roasted, they would not make the same mistake twice. When summoned it was best to get to the SWO quickly and bring yourself to attention, he would get close to you, ask your name and where you worked. This was followed by a boot to hat inspection which usually resulted with something causing the SWO displeasure, the miscreant being ordered to get the item corrected, then to find the SWO to present the corrected item for adjudication.
My rebellious streak got me into trouble on more than one occasion, sideburns had to be level with the centre of the ear lobe. I chose to have mine level with the bottom of the ear, as indeed some other people did likewise, the SWO was nobody’s fool and armed with eagle like vision he quickly spotted ‘non-conformances’ he also had a photographic memory for repeat offenders. I fell into the repeat offender category, on one occasion, I had been caught, whilst I was standing to attention out of the corner of my eye I became aware of the slightest grin appearing on his face. To avoid a verbal ticking off I averted my glance to straight ahead, not only had he caught me with my sideburns too long, he had seen, or rather ripped into me before. After I had reported back to him in quick time with regulation length sideburns he may have took pleasure in thinking that he would always win against ‘horrible little erks! However erks like myself took pleasure is seeing how long they could get away with it.
One dinner break turned out to be very different, a 3 ton Bedford RL arrived outside the section, John jumped down from the driver’s door then walked to the back of the truck and dropped the tailgate. Wearing his trade mark brown leather Gillet he walked into the Supply Squadron and began rounding people up, he was met with little resistance, people probable knew better, as he lifted the tailgate up there was about a dozen of us in the back. John tactfully ignored the requests of where we may be going, he started the engine and in minutes we drove out of the main gate. The tarpaulin behind the cab wasn’t closed properly, some guys were looking out, from experience they knew we were being driven to a pub, but which one? The Bedford pulled into what looked like a car park to the side of an old house and the engine stopped, John unsecured the tailgate which was dropped down to allow us to clamber out. The building looked like an old house; we followed John to the door with grinning faces. When we got inside, I had never seen a pub like this before, not that I had much experience of pubs at that age! An old boy with a silver beard stood looking at us from behind an old wooden counter which served as a bar, there were no pumps or bright lights to be seen. Behind the bar, rows of small to medium sized wooden barrels were located on shelving which sloped to the front, taps were located on the lowest points of the barrels.
The local brewery was Greene King located in nearby Bury St Edmunds, their Abbot Ale was then the strongest ale in the country, all of the barrels had Greene King stamped on them. John was ordering drinks which didn’t overwhelm the old boy, he just took his time pouring beer straight out of the barrels into pint glasses then put them on the bar. John came over to a small table I had found in what appeared to be a large living room and sat opposite me, he had a pint of beer for himself and one for me.
‘Get that down you boy.’ He said grinning, I thanked him, initially I found the beer a bit flat and aromatic, a personal opinion, however, the beer was lovely and coming straight from the wood, was very strong.
‘What beer is this John?’ I asked, John with a devilish grin replied ‘Abbot Ale, it’ll put hairs on your chest, get it down boy, we’ve time for one more.’ And one more was had; this was the only time I had had beer straight out of a wooden barrel. Some locals were having half a pint of Abbot ale in a pint glass and then topping their glasses with small bottles of Barley wine, what a concoction, the Abbot ale was around 5%, the Barley wine around 8%, no wonder they had rosy red cheeks! We said our goodbyes to the old boy then made our way out to the Bedford which stuck out like a sore thumb in a small row of cars which had arrived. The old boy had no doubt seen loads of RAF guys, maybe even USAF guys in his pub going back many years, he would have heard pretty much the same old banter.
After we had got into the back of the Bedford John started the engine and off we went through the lanes and back into the camp. Like a clockwork operation we all got back to our places of work with apparently nobody who got too close to us being any the wiser.
Before being posted to RAF Wyton in 1976, a lot happened to me whilst at Honington. I met Anne, her late father was a fellow Supplier, we went out with each other even despite her father being posted to RAF Marham, it just meant a lot of travelling.
I passed my driving test first time in Bury St Edmunds; the driving school car was a lovely mark 1 Ford Escort. Prior to passing my test I had owned a few cars, an Austin A35, some of the floor was made up of a collage of flattened out pieces of oil cans then undersealed, a Morris Minor, a very early mini, it was badged as an Austin Seven.
After I passed my test, we bought a left hand drive VW Beetle, I sat as the competent person as Anne learned to drive, some white knuckle moments! A lovely mark 3c Hillman Minx, and a 1965 Ford Corsair, we thought we were the bees knees in this.
We were married on a bitterly cold day in late 1976 on RAF Marham, after the reception we drove to our first married quarter at RAF Wyton where I had been posted, all we owned fitted into the Corsair. We stopped en route to remove a frozen fish which somebody had covertly hidden in the car.
It was the following morning when I looked at the car, Annes late father had sprayed Just Married on both sides of the car, this was great to start with. He had though used a penetrant spray which was designed to go into and stick in the slightest cracks, it proved stubborn against vigorous washing, two T Cuts and an aching arm later the words were gone. After 46 years we are still married, on another note, I wish I’d kept some of those cars.