Tales from the Vale 03/14

Ex-aircrew trainees were sent to RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire for distribution into ground-crew trades. I, and a pal, decided upon becoming a service policeman so we were sent off to the RAF Police training school, then at Netheravon, near Salisbury. There we were all billeted in a partitioned hanger full of echoes which made life particularly noisy and was not helped by the fact that the hanger right next door housed the police dogs, also there for training. In the morning the cacophony in that hanger was horrendous.

After passing-out we were given our postings and I was sent off to RAF Chicksands, near Bedford. This was based in the extensive grounds of an old priory and was, in fact, the receiving signals station from America for the United States Air Force. I became a member of a small 60-man force of RAF personnel helping to guard the base from ‘The Evil Empire’, it being the time of the cold war. We RAF policeman had to work hard to make our personal presentation as ‘Sharp’ as that of our US air police colleagues, our coarse flannel uniforms having to compete with their suits of smooth barathea. But we did well, waxing the insides of our trouser creases and weighing them down by loops of chain where the trousers were gathered into the tops of our gaiters. Our black boots were always ‘bulled’ to a fine shine and our white blancoed webbing and cap tops could not be whiter.

One important duty was to escort the Commanding Officer to collect the pay from a bank in nearby Luton. The escorting policeman had to carry a Smith and Wesson revolver with live rounds in the chamber to protect the CO from any armed robbers who might attempt to grab that week’s pay for 60 airmen. Thankfully, no such attempt was ever made when I was on escort duty, I say thankfully because I found that withdrawing my firearm quickly proved a problem sometimes because it would become firmly gripped within the holster which had been solidly moulded to the shape of the gun by the drying blanco.

There were about fifteen hundred Americans on the base, mainly young technicians, most doing their national service. Their facilities were excellent putting ours to shame somewhat. The most obvious was in the catering establishments. The old RAF cookhouse, with its black carbon encrusted cooking utensils and plastic looking eggs and confined to one choice only could not compare with the pristine stainless steel cleanliness of the American’s canteen with constantly available coffee and a menu which could include steak—Such a luxury was rare indeed to us British servicemen as being 1954 we were still subject to food rationing. The American’s canteen was off-limits to RAF personnel but during night duties our American colleagues would surreptitiously take us there, where we could enjoy some real American fare.

One night time, whilst returning from the canteen to the main guardroom, my New Yorker colleague cuffed a hedgehog with the front wheel of the jeep. “Stop” I shouted, jumping out I gathered up the small animal in my tunic and delivered it into one of the guardroom cells, much to the bemusement of my friend from Brooklyn. I gave it some bread and milk, locked the door and then completely forgot all about it. At eight in the morning we signed off and retired to our billets. It was not long before my sleep was interrupted, “Corporal Stevens, Corporal Stevens, what do you think the guardroom is, a bloody zoo? Go and clean it out.” Our Flight Sergeant was obviously not well pleased with me.

We had a pack of police dogs, they lived in kennels behind the guardroom. All Alsatians, they and their handlers would patrol the area at night which would lead them past the ancient walls of Chicksands Priory. Legend has it that on a certain October night the ghost of a sinful nun, who had been walled up for certain misdeeds, would walk abroad. That certain night arrived and strange things did certainly happen. The dogs set up a creepy chorus of mournful howling from their kennels throughout the evening, but even more strange was the fact that ‘Shack’, a dog with a fearful reputation of savagery and who was out on patrol that night, refused to approach the walls of the priory and just dragged on his lead behind his handler whimpering with apparent fear. Strange indeed, and certainly made us fearless policemen wonder.

I had one particular USAF pal from North Carolina who was a Sergeant. On their monthly payday non-coms in the American military were also issued with a carton of 200 cigarettes and a fifth [of a gallon] of whiskey. It was Jim from North Carolina’s payday and he invited me up to his billet to play pinochle with his buddies and drink some of his whiskey. It was a Saturday and as evening approached it was suggested that we go to the local hop in nearby Shefford. I pointed out that I would have to cross some distance to the other side of the camp to change from my working blue. “That’s OK” he said, “You’re about my size, you can use my other number-one uniform”. So, off we went, Sergeant Corbitt and Sergeant Stevens, USAF. My memory of that night is that of heads and feet merging into each other due to too much pay-day whiskey, my last memory is that of the TOILET sign wavering back and forth as I tried to get it into focus. I had a memorably bad night that night.

A few mornings later my sleep was interrupted again by my favourite Flight Sergeant. “Corporal Stevens, you were seen at the dance in Shefford on Saturday masquerading as an American Sergeant, I’ve just had a call from the local police station. You’d better get up and pack your kit bag”. Well, I didn’t know I had been committing a civil offence, it just seemed a bit of a wheeze at the time. The local bobbies would sometimes call into the guardroom and have a chat and a friendly cup of tea. One miserable bobby had been at that dance and recognising me thought it his duty to ‘shop’ me. However, the services look after their own so I was posted tout suite, and that’s how I got to meet Frank Sinatra. I was posted to RAF Pucklechurch near Bristol. Catching the train from Paddington I and another airman also on posting, went to the restaurant car. The train was not crowded and there were few in the car. Our steward asked “Do you see who that is down there at the end? It’s Frank Sinatra.” And so he was, he was on a concert tour of the UK. He had just starred as Sergeant Maggio in “From here to Eternity” for which he won the Academy award for best supporting actor. We had a chat and he gave me his autograph. I understand that he was loathe to give his autograph so there are few about but I’m blowed if I know where that autograph is now.

I ended my service career at Hindhead in Surrey where Gee-chain radio positioning towers, now long gone, were situated upon Gibbet Hill above the Devil’s Punchbowl. It is now underpassed by a recently built 3-mile tunnel on the A3 Portsmouth road, avoiding the great frustrating traffic build-ups that used to occur at the traffic lights of Hindhead crossroads. A few years ago I returned there to relive memories. As I walked along the path I walked in my twentieth year in my RAF Police uniform from my civvy billet to the towers, my chain trouser straighteners jingling like spurs, I was suddenly aware of the tall birch trees above me. There was none such in my time there, it was just low scrub, heather and bracken, but then, that was over half a century ago, how time flies!