- RAF West Kirby -

Incredibly I think that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow that night, and it seemed no time at all before the door opened with a crash and Corporal Abbot stamped in yelling 'OK LADS! Hands off cocks and on socks then. Get up you idle airmen. GET UP. You're not at home now and I'm not your mother.' He had a piece of 'three by two' with him and as he called out this morning greeting he charged up and down banging the end rail of the beds. Despite all this racket, one or two failed to stir sufficiently so he lifted up the end of their beds about eighteen inches and allowed them to drop, shouting 'If you don't want my boot up your arse, get out NOW.' Having got us all to a position of being out of the bed he yelled 'OK. On parade outside for breakfast at 0700. Parade on The Square for inspection at 0800. Working blue and boots and webbing belt. Washed and polished and shaved. Not a single hair on your face mind, or you'll be sorry. So get washed and get out by 0700 if you want any breakfast. Got that? Right, got that? DO IT THEN, you've got twenty three minutes.'

There was a rush towards the ablutions, but most of the basins were in use already, so we had to queue. The water wasn't really hot enough for a decent shave but with five minutes to spare most were dressed and nearly ready when Abbot burst in again 'Where are you then, WHERE ARE YOU? I said 0700 OUTSIDE didn't I? The first thing you idle lot have got to learn is NEVER BE LATE ON PARADE. He started grabbing people and thrusting them through the door, but I was just ahead of the game and scuttled out to join the group on the concrete. 'IN THREES THEN, IN THREES! You should know that by now you useless lot of civilians'. Now hold your mug and irons in your left hand and put it on your arse like this. YOUR LEFT HAND YOU PRATT. Now all turn to the left.---Jesus wept! You're shambling about like a load of buggered baboons. Now, get ready there, get ready. By the right-- QUICK MARCH. Left- Left- Left. CHRIST half of you lot don't know left from right. Get in step then--GET IN STEP.-- You lot had better learn quick. And you will, and that'll start today. Now get this into your thick heads: Corporal Abbot always has the smartest squad. So I hate you lot. You're letting me down before we've even had breakfast. You're letting the Flight down and you're letting the Squadron down. In fact you're letting the whole of the Royal Air Force down and you're letting Her Majesty the Queen down. Now between you and me I don't care much about them lot, but I do care about me being let down. I HATE IT. And I'm cruel to people who let me down. Very very cruel. Got that? Just so you lot and me start off on the right foot. OK? OK'.

This diatribe and worse, continued throughout until we reached the door of the cookhouse, where he contrived to make our squad halt and after instructing us to make our way back to our billet after breakfast under our own steam 'But smartly mind' he dismissed us and we scurried to join the lengthy queue to the servery.

At five to eight Coombes encouraged us to go down to The Square, a large asphalted area around the perimeter of which was our route to the cookhouse. Scores of men from the other huts were also going there and several squads were in the process of forming up. Abbot was standing with the other two corporals we had met on the train, but it was Gaunt who stepped forward to bellow at us to fall in.

Our three tormentors, Corporals Sparrow, Gaunt and Abbot
Then he addressed the assembled throng which consisted of three hutsworth of bodies. First he told us that our Commanding Officer was Group Captain Watt, but it was unlikely that we would see anything of him. Also there was a Wing Commander Stevenson in charge of all training, and he would be pretty invisible too, as he also lived in the clouds somewhere, along with the Group Captain. However we could expect to see Squadron Leader Gledhill on the prowl, as he was Roosevelt's CO. Then there was Flight Lieutenant Eden to be looked out for because he was i/c of all the five new flights who had just become part of Roosevelt. And our flight had it's very own commanding officer, Pilot Officer Hawkins. And him we would be meeting pretty soon. Otherwise the Officers didn't tend to bother with us much,'leastways not until you lot has learnt how to salute them properly'. But we were always to be on the lookout for officers hanging about, as they were pretty particular about being noticed, although he was likely to spot them first, being highly skilled in that art. He went on to explain that RAF West Kirby was divided into four Squadrons, Roosevelt, Churchill, Smuts, and Trenchard, each having it's own Admin, Cookhouse and NAAFI. He distributed green plastic discs for us to fit behind our beret badges to identify our squadron. We would be confined to camp for the first four weeks including weekends to allow us to learn how to wear our uniform correctly and to comport ourselves. At week six a 48 hour pass would be granted, this being at the end of a week of fatigues.

Gaunt started to bark out orders, but he somehow managed to do it in a more decent tone than Abbot would have, and we almost fell over ourselves in trying to oblige him, so quite quickly we found ourselves organised into three squads. He taught us by means of demonstration how to stand easy, then how to stand at ease (there is a difference!), and then how to come to attention. This seemed to be a critically important stance and one to be learnt and remembered. The position of the head, the arms, even the thumbs being of equal importance to that of the feet. While Gaunt called the orders the two corporals patrolled around and between the ranks, which to facilitate this were arranged in 'open order' i.e the lines of men were further apart than usual. They were forever kicking people's boots to the correct angles and tugging into position wayward limbs until each individual had mastered the particular posture. When they were partially satisfied, we were taught to march in a straight line, and how to halt. Such trivial sounding details were of such vital importance to our instructors. The heels had to crash down, that was critically important, and the arms had to be swung up until the thumbs (with fingers neatly curled below) were at the height of the man in front's webbing belt. The eyes to look ahead fixedly. And of course never a whispered word to a neighbour. Any deviations were always spotted and severely criticised, invariably in a foul mouthed manner.

A NAAFI break, this meaning a mug of tea at the cookhouse, gave us a brief respite after which other useful variations in marching were demonstrated and practised, such as turning left or right, or even 'about turning' to reverse direction of progress. To aid us in the exactness of these manoeuvres we were required to bellow a count of the individual elements comprising the manoeuvre. Even this did not assist certain individuals who under the stress temporarily forgot which was left and right. One tall gawky bloke was fated to be at the head of our squad in the left of the three ranks. He unaccountably turned left when the order was to go right, and he proceded in the opposite direction to the main body entirely on his own and our instructor did not stop him. It was not until he reached the edge of the square that he realised that all was not as it should be. Well, he suffered verbally for that, to put it mildly, but there is no point going into the actual words used. I think that the reader will have got the general idea by now that we were forever under a constant barrage of abuse, and in fact that was how it continued for the whole of the ten weeks. Some of the abuse was in fact, quite witty, but woebetide the man who laughed or even smirked, because by so doing he became the subject of the next outburst of invective. To some extent It was always a relief when someone else incurred the corporal's displeasure as it meant a temporary respite from the chance of it being oneself. We found however that the way to lessen the foul language was to do whatever was required quickly and correctly.

Several hours of each day during the first week were spent on that wretched square, but these were broken up by a variety of demonstrations of doing things in the RAF way. For example, how to construct one's 'bedpack', that daily task of making a sandwich of folded sheets and blankets, enfolding that in one further blanket and placing it at the head of the bed, surmounted by the pillow. Incorrectly formed bedpacks were likely to be thrown out of the door when spotted by the DIs. For a 'kit inspection' there was one correct way only to lay out on the bed every item of one's issued kit. If it was done in the slightest way incorrectly, such as the mug handle misaligned, or the spoon not concave side up, the whole lot would be dashed to the floor. Boots had to be polished daily and the toecaps had to be burnished so that they would gradually acquire a lacquer like gloss. Trousers must always have a razor sharp crease down each leg, and we were shown how to iron them. Everything that was required of us was carefully demonstrated, often several times over. Then when we failed in some way we were always accused of being asleep during the instruction. We slowly came to realise that the only way to stay out of trouble was to get everything right.

It is difficult to remember the exact sequence in which the correct responses to the various orders were taught, as there were so many, but I know that we were given an early lesson in the art of saluting. When marching it was done by all the men turning their heads en bloc smartly to the left or right as the officer was passed. When stationary one had to use one's right arm to perform an action that was a cross between waving at the officer and tugging one's forelock. This had to be done in a precise mechanical manner and I think it may have required a two hour session before the most inept of us could achieve it sufficiently well. We were told that we were in fact saluting the Queen's Commission, and not what was contained within the uniform, but it was indeed the man inside that uniform who could cause untold misery for one who failed to acknowledge him in less than the approved manner. Thus one day we greeted the hesitant young officer who was our Flight Commander. One thin ring on each cuff distinguished him as the lowest form of officer, that is Pilot Officer, this title not necessarily meaning that its owner possessed the capability of flight. It transpired that he was a National Serviceman himself, fresh from twelve weeks of Officer training in the Isle of Man. PO Hawkins seemed to be highly embarrassed at having to address us, probably on account of his squeaky voice, so he rarely did, choosing to communicate via one of the corporals, but he was often present at the edge of the parade ground, to convey the impression of being in charge of the more seasoned Drill Instructors. Indeed, in acknowledgement of this, they always gave him the most immaculate of salutes, which he obediently returned, albeit rather less precisely as he always seemed to be somewhat alarmed by the requirement to perform his part of such an exchange. However, he served a useful service in our training by receiving our salutes too, but none other of which we were made aware at that time, apart from being undoubtedly our titular head.

Officers proved to be essential though, in that it was only those of that ilk who were authorised to distribute the weekly pay. It was as if the non-commissioned officers could not be trusted to do this accurately or without misappropriation of the cash. The mundane process of the issuing of pay in the Royal Air Force of that time was taken very seriously. In fact it was worked up into the most elaborate of ceremonies and known as a Pay Parade. Basically, an officer sat at a table with a Pay Accounts clerk at his side. Those hoping to be paid would be called to the attention posture, having been previously arranged in open ordered ranks and standing at ease but expectantly so, in the region of the table. The clerk always arranged neat piles of coins and stacks of notes on the table and he had a ledger containing the names of all those to be paid. The clerk would utter the name and initials of the first on his list. On hearing this a non-commissioned officer standing just to the rear of the table, would bellow out the name in stentorian tones. The airman whose name had been bawled would march smartly in the approved manner from the ranks to the table, whereupon he would peel off an immaculate salute, call out the last three digits of his service number and hold out his left hand expectantly. If the clerk considered he had the right man, he would whisper an amount to the officer, who would select the necessary money and put it in the hand of the airman. Without checking what he had received, in fact without even glancing at his hand, he was required to take one pace backwards, salute beautifully again and carry out a smart about turn and march back to and reinstall himself into his previous slot in the ranks. The stentorian voiced NCO would be watching this performance intently and the slightest infringement by the airman would be noted.

At West Kirby, with so many hundreds to be paid, about ten pay parades would be ongoing simultaneously in the same hangar. Thus, with several stentorian voices attempting to out-bellow each other, there was a horrendous re-echoing aural confusion prevailing at my first pay parade. So I made my first big mistake in the Royal Air Force, in that by inadvertently tuning in to an adjacent and entirely inappropriate stentorian voice, I missed hearing my name. The person behind hissed at me to go forward as my name was called for the second time and I then performed the required pantomime correctly without rebuke until I had bestowed upon the officer my thankful and parting salute, whereupon the sergeant of the stentorian voice addressed me at full volume in a most unkind and uncalled-for manner requiring that I should march to the wall behind the parade and await his wrath.

In due course everybody was paid and after the paraded personnel were marched away, the sergeant, whose shoulders bore the strange legend 'RAF Regiment', marched up to me. With his nose only two inches from mine, he berated me for about five minutes, his voice at it's loudest level. In a most unnecessarily agressive manner he enquired as to the state of my hearing ability. He was utterly contemptuous of my stammered explanation of having been monitoring the wrong parade. He stated that my offence of not obeying an order and of being rude to the officer and delaying the smooth progress of the whole parade was an offence of the highest order, normally causing the offender to receive the RAF equivalent of being hung, drawn and quartered, this being known as Jankers. However, as it was a first offence.... committed in my first week....I breathed a sigh of relief.... and as it was true that my name was the first to be called....although being asleep on parade was certainly no excuse....and because I had in fact carried out the remainder of my part in the charade reasonably satisfactorily for a miserable sprog....but mainly due to the fact that he was a fair minded man....for which I should be abjectly grateful.....it would go unpunished this once. However he would be particularly looking out for my prompt reaction at the next parade. Got that? Right. ABOUT TURN. DISMISS you dozy horrible man. Rejoin your flight. At the DOUBLE! Writing this now (in suitably Bowdlerised form) I realise that the man had been toying with me and enjoying my discomfort. But he was only doing his duty. Jankers by the way, was a standard form of punishment throughout the RAF for minor offences. It consisted of having to report to the Guardroom at several very inconvenient times of the day dressed in best 'blue'(uniform) to be thoroughly inspected, and usually in the evenings one was required to do 'fatigues' for a couple of hours. This punishment being awarded for a number of days commensurate with the gravity of the offence.


Footnote added 4.12.04: Squadron Leader Gledhill's daughter Ruth (possibly "The Times" columnist on religious matters) read this account whilst finding out what the Internet already knew about her father's service history, and although it added little to her endeavour, she passed it on to him, much to his amazement, but happily also much to his amusement. By way of return, he confirms that Roosevelt was undoubtedly the superior Squadron.

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