Returning from a recent family occasion in Scotland we stopped at a pub on the outskirts of Glasgow for lunch. As we stood at the bar to order my grandniece pointed out a notice stating that, being Armed Services Day, all food would be free to any ex-service person. I asked the barman if that was correct, “yes”, he replied, “If you have proof of your service”. In a staccato response and giving him a salute I barked “4095849 Corporal Stevens sir”. “That’ll do, here’s your ticket”, responded the barman, and I went to the food counter to receive my free roast lunch. As any ex-serviceman will tell you, your service number is engrained in your mind forever.
As I am on the threshold of my ninth decade and having been urged by others to record chapters of my past life, it seems appropriate to write about my service in the Royal Air Force as the service of Remembrance Sunday is being broadcast as I write. Not that I have any heroic actions to record but as a teenager of the time I was pleased to have experienced those required two years of national service.
I arrived at RAF Cranwell on March 14, 1952 as a member of an entry into aircrew training. Collecting our kit we were taken to our billet where we claimed a bed space. The range of different accents in the speech of the others denoted their regions of origin in the UK, and there was one New Zealander. That night we eventually settled into sleep after excited chit chat and a few jokes, but during the final silence I could hear a shuddering sob or two from dark corners of the billet.
It was the time of war in Korea and British and Commonwealth troops were being engaged by communist forces in Malaya. Winston Churchill had recently announced that Britain now had its own atomic bomb and the Vickers Valiant bomber was about to be commissioned into service, the first of the V-bomber force which was to form the RAF strategic nuclear strike force.
Those early days of service life were fun; we were posted for initial flying training to RAF Digby, south of Lincoln. After being awakened by Mantovani’s Blue Tango, a top tune of the time, blaring out on the camp’s Tannoy system we were inspected in the billet and on the parade ground for cleanliness and smartness. One memorable punishment for not being up to scratch was given by a particularly irascible Wing Commander who perceived a tiny blue speck of dried metal polish in the crown of one of my brass buttons. For this offence I was ordered, with several others, to get up at four the next morning and run around the perimeter track with our rifles held high above our heads. I well remember that Wing Commander.
We spent our days training in bright yellow Tiger Moth biplanes, taking off from a grass airfield with two yellow rubber dinghies placed out to mark the direction of the wind into which you were to take-off. On some occasions the wind would be too brisk and the whole flight would have to rush out onto the airfield to roll the Tiger Moths quickly into the shelter of the hangers to avoid their being blown over.
At the time of our initial training it was Spring and our grass runway strip was bedecked with daisies and buttercups. I found it convenient to judge my distance above ground as I was coming into land by looking over the side of the open cockpit to see how far below the flowers were before pulling back on the stick and touching down. Surprise came when touching down on one occasion, I found the flowers were not there—the gang mower had been in action. I was still looking for them when we bounced into the ground and kangarooed to a stop. “Take it up again Mr Stevens,” I was ordered from the front cockpit.
Accidents did occur of course and our awareness of their possibility was accentuated by the scary myth, much circulated among us cadets, that the advance flying school in Rhodesia had a permanent funeral party because of the regularity of ‘prangs’ there.
Initiative tests were part of the course and one night time exercise involved the protection of nearby RAF Scampton. It was a simple task of guarding the perimeter of the airfield from penetration by members of a senior wing, recognisable by the fact they would not be wearing hats. We were set down singly from a lorry at points along a surrounding roadway at some distance from each other and left to listen out for approaching footsteps. Hours passed and dozing off in the ditch I was in was only prevented by the noise of Canberra bombers flying in and out of the airfield on night flying exercises. Suddenly my senses were alerted by oncoming footsteps. I tensed into readiness to spring out on the ‘enemy ’as he approached in the gloom, I could see he was not wearing a hat. He was the enemy indeed, and as he passed I leapt out of the ditch and grabbed the man from behind. ”No, no, no!” he shouted, “I’m not in the RAF and I’ve nothing to do with the RAF. I’m just walking home from the pub”. The poor man had apparently been accosted by each of my colleagues as he had passed by them, understandably he was well fed up with the RAF and any member of it.
We were moved on to Kirton Lindsey, north of Lincoln. Our preceding training wing had got into trouble because on the eve of their pass-out from Digby and transferal to Kirton Lindsey they had climbed upon the camp’s great water tanks and painted the message “Joe for King” across them, a rather dopey expression alluding to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, still alive and well at the time. By chance the Air Officer Commanding happened to fly over and see the offending graffiti. Upon landing he instantly ordered that the perpetrators be route-marched back to Digby to remove the sign and be route-marched back again, a distance of many, many miles.
My wing was a little less objectionable with our passing out larks. On the morning of our passing out parade the Commanding Officer was confronted by a parade ground with an old Percival Prentice training aircraft parked in its centre, mysteriously having arrived there overnight, and a great cluster of toilet paper fluttered from the top of the flag mast. All very juvenile but great fun for us 18-year- olds as we enjoyed each other’s company, getting drunk in nearby pubs singing “You’ll never go to heaven, in a Tiger Moth,” and “Our Wingco is a merry old soul”. But sadly it was all to end for me for due to my kangaroo landings, getting lost on a navigational exercise. Also flying whilst having the flu was deemed “Irresponsible, you should have signed off sick”. This resulted in loss of PQ [personal quality] marks, I had already lost a few for losing my greatcoat on a train. So after six months of flying training I was grounded from advanced training and reverted to ground-crew. Sent off to RAF Netheravon in Wiltshire, then the training school for the RAF Police, I was to become a ‘Snowdrop’.