The train from Cardington slowly puffed its way across the country to Birmingham and then on to Crewe, its occupants engaged in cheerful banter which undoubtedly for most of them concealed their inner apprehension, for everybody knew that 'Square Bashing' was a most decidedly daunting prospect. There came a diversion which distracted us from our dark thoughts, but then intensified them. A trio of corporals entered the carriage and they introduced themselves in terse fashion as our new Drill Instructors. All were extremely smartly turned out, with bright buttons, sharp creases evident in their trousers and sleeves, and their boots gleamed. Corporal Gaunt was a bit older, possibly over thirty, and he acted as the more senior of the three. They set about quizzing each individual briefly, noting down the replies on pads. Gaunt, the slightly more pleasant of the three, enjoined us to 'detrain' quickly when we arrived in about half an hour, and then they left us to our thoughts.
When the train eventually drew up at a tiny station somewhere in Cheshire, we all piled out as quickly as we were able, unused to coping with our large kit-bags. Immediately the corporals were screaming at us to 'get fell in' on the platform and we did our best to oblige. Late appearing individuals received especial abusive wrath, and then we were herded to a fleet of lorries waiting in the road. With difficulty we clambered up into these with the corporals working like sheep dogs, snarling and swearing at 'you f***ing idle civilians', the better to goad us up into the canvas caves of the vehicles. Most had to stand as the lorries (3 tonners) were only equipped with benches along each side. However it was but a short journey to our new place of incarceration and soon we were passing through large gates in the high barbed wire perimeter fence and past the sprawling low green buildings and hangars and the very many green wooden huts, until our lorry halted alongside the others already there in a cavernous hangar. Then we were hounded out of the vehicles with increased ferocity and formed into large phalanxes which our tormentors called 'flights'. Then there was a great deal of confused name calling which was difficult to interpret as there were a dozen different callers in that echoing hangar, but eventually we became rearranged in new flights according to some scheme concocted from the information gathered during our journey. Surrounded by new faces, dazed by the cattle market activity and tired by the day's travel our group stumbled off, harassed ever more by the Drill Instructor whose name was Abbot. Having been marched over long concrete paths the twenty two of us arrived at one particular hut out of the scores of identical ones by which we had already marched. Hut 261 was to be our home for the next ten weeks.
'Right! At the double dump yer kit on a bed and get fell in agen back ere wiv yer irons 'n mug. MOVE!' We complied as swiftly as we were able, and found ourselves being goaded back the way we had come, eventually to find ourselves at the entrance of a cookhouse, outside of which, swinging like a pub sign was a coloured picture of President Roosevelt.
A short description of the accommodation is in order at this point.Wooden huts were used at most of the larger camps to accommodate the lower ranks of the RAF in those days, and the design dated from several decades earlier. They must have been about eighteen feet wide by over seventy long to have taken the eleven beds down each long wall, each bed having with it a small locker and a tall locker. The central space between the two opposing ranks of beds was provided with two tables, each of these having four wooden chairs. The huts were also equipped in the central area with two tall black solid fuel stoves, each on a stone hearth and there were attendant fireirons and buckets to hold the coke. Two long green painted racks were provided to hold rifles. A door at the far end led to the quarry tiled ablutions area, each serving four huts, this consisting of about twenty wash basins in two lines, and booths for a fewer number of lavatories. There were no baths or showers, these being found in a separate nearby building. A central spinal corridor connected to another ablution area and thus all the huts were linked in a system consisting of perhaps eight or ten. Each hut was provided with several large windows with curtains along each side of its length. There was an entrance hall end of the hut and off this were two small rooms which could be used to accommodate NCOs, but fortunately for us, in our hut one served as the Flight Office and the other as a store room. The flooring throughout consisted of highly polished brown linoleum, and each bedspace was provided with a thin mat. Always to hand were small squares of old blanket and everybody was required to skate around on these to help preserve the polished surface of the lino : everybody that is except our Drill Instructors and officers.
It happened that I had picked the second bed along, so introduced myself to my rather podgy neighbour, the Senior Man, one Nigel Coombes. He was several years older having completed an architect's training and he seemed to be pretty much of the Public School type. The Deputy Senior man, was Stanley, a tough looking weather beaten type from the Falkland Islands, joining the RAF for five years to become an Engine Fitter, the training for which he felt would provide him with lucrative and steady work back at home when his service was completed. In the bed opposite to mine was Colin, a slightly built youth and a heavy smoker. It seemed that he had been employed in his family's confectionery business in Chingford. In the other bed next to mine was a dark young chap who had been a bank clerk and was from Liverpool, for the sake of this account he is to be Graham. He was only about twenty miles from his home across the nearby river Mersey. Only two others of the Oxford bunch were still with me, Fox from Little Wittenham, and a quiet chap with a Berkshire accent from Letcombe Regis who had been a Gamekeeper. Further down the hut there was a West Indian and a Pakistani, so in all we were a very mixed bunch.
All the necessary bedding had awaited our arrival, stacked on each bed, so our next task after unpacking our kitbags was to make up our beds. Whilst engaged in doing this, a figure appeared at the threshold and paused. Coombes sprang up and shrieked 'Officer present!'
Most of us stood more or less at attention to look expectantly at our visitor who although being dressed as an officer, also wore around his neck a 'dog collar'. 'OK chaps, sorry to disturb you while you are so busy settling in, but I just wanted to introduce myself and have a few words with you. So stand easy and I don't mind if you sit if you wish. As the observant amongst you may have perceived, I am your Padre and my rank is Wing Commander.' In brief, he went on to say that we were going to find the next ten weeks very hectic and it would vary from person to person how he reacted to the necessary discipline. The vast majority would merely find it an exciting challenge provided that they remained cheerful during the more stressful moments. However, just occasionally there would be the odd person who could not manage that and hence might become a little depressed. His advice to that man would be to live his life from day to day, and not to worry about what the next day might bring. In that way the time would quickly pass and if that man pulled himself together he would find that he was so proud of himself as he marched with his head high amongst his comrades in the eventual passing-out parade. In the event of anybody having a really serious problem with coping, the correct drill was to request from his corporal, permission to speak to the officer commanding his flight. However, but only in the most extreme of circumstances, it would be in order to contact the Padre's office directly, as we did not want a repetition of the unfortunate business we endured a few months ago, did we? 'Any questions? No. Good. OK, carry on chaps, and may God bless you all'. With that he turned and left.
There was a loud buzz as everyone asked the next person what the hell had he been talking about? What unfortunate business? But nobody knew.
About half an hour later we had fresh visitors, two airman like ourselves, but very much smarter, upright and sunburnt, and each carried a pickaxe handle. They said that they were on 'Guard Duty', which everybody had to do in their penultimate week, and that they were looking in to check that our rifles were 'secure'. They explained that when we were issued with rifles they had to be kept in the racks provided and secured by a padlocked wire running through all the trigger guards. Coombes quizzed them about the 'unfortunate event' of a few months earlier, and they explained that it was "a couple of weeks before our lot arrived when some poor sod who couldn't hack it strung himself up in the bogs, but he wasn't in Roosevelt squadron. Had we not seen it in all the papers, they'd been full of it?" After they had left most of us were somewhat subdued from hearing that depressing news and there was much conjecture about the nature of the tortures we would have to endure. Then people started going to bed and precisely at the appointed time, Coombes switched out the lights.
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