- RAF West Kirby -

By the end of the second week we were becoming reasonably profficient at marching around our parade ground and performed the variety of manoeuvres within that activity so well that we received occasional begrudging murmurs of mild contentment from our DIs such as 'Thats better' or 'You've almost got it' interspersed with the usual abuse. The RAF liked its marching flights to look neat and tidy as a group and to aid this tall people were required to be at each end and the shortest in the middle. This was achieved by a process of 'sizing', which went something like this.

Standing there in our three ranks, on hearing the order 'Tallest on the right, shortest on the left, into two ranks...size!', the man in the corner position of the existing back rank had to march smartly off to his left for 20 yards or so and halt facing the front. Then the second man followed, but he halted behind the first separated by a couple of paces. Then all the rest followed and arranged themselves alternately alongside these two 'markers'. When all were reassembled thus in two ranks, the order 'Size!' was given, and then the fun started. Each individual within the two ranks noted the height of his neighbours and if there was a discernible disparity he was required to fall out of the rank and reinsert himself elsewhere into it at a more appropriate position, and the tallest man had to be on the very left and the shortest on the very right. So chaos would ensue as men inserted themselves only to find they were still incorrectly positioned, so had to repeat the process and reinserted themselves again elsewhere in the line, all this shilly-shallying being but impatiently tolerated by the DI while the true graduation in heights was achieved. Of course differences of opinion of height always occurred, but in these cases the DI always volubly insisted on using his casting vote in the matter, and usually announced his speedy adjudication in traditional uncalled for and far from eloquent manner, e.g 'You! F***ing move where I says'

Despite all this, eventually two ranks of linear gradient became established. The next bit of fun was the requirement to 'Right Dress'. No, not cross dress, nor even 'change into the correct attire'. This meant 'stick out your left arm at a right angle and prod your neighbour's shoulder several times with your curled knuckles, while at the same time keep on shuffling your feet a lot'. Then we were commanded to put our arms down, et voila - all the men were the regulation distance apart. Next came the awfully cunning bit: 'Front rank to the right, rear rank to the left... ranks turn'. After that the end man on the left of the rear rank was required to march off to a new spot, and the next two followed but fell in alongside him. After that the remainder fell in aligned with these creating three ranks. However, the former two lines became one because the shortest man in the front rank turned about to follow the shortest man in the rear rank, the new single line thus having a U bend in it. Thus by merely following the man in front the flight eventually became formed up in ranks of three again.

It was easy, any fool could have done it and many did, but invariably our initial attempts at this process were denounced as a 'F***ing shambles' and that 'pregnant baboons could do better'. I don't think any of us had ever encountered a baboon let alone a pregnant one. Later we agreed that Corporal Abbot must be familiar with them though and someone suggested that perhaps he had had a rather more intimate involvement resulting in their state he described.

Old Sweats, especially Guardsmen will undoubtedly find some fault in my explanation of "sizing", even to the possible extent of having confused my "lefts" with my "rights", in which case please do not bother to contact me, but please feel free to continue to mutter into your beards.It hardly matters now does it, but gosh I would have been in terrible trouble if I'd got it wrong then! However, the sprogs amongst you should believe that this is a close enough explanation, and if you have followed it carefully, you will see that the final formation will consist of beanpoles at each end, and squits in the middle, from whom people of more average stature taper up towards each end. There, has that whetted your appetite for military service? In this way the inherent lust for 'smartness' within our superiors was partially satisfied.

Sessions of PE and mini lectures concerning RAF lore were interleaved with the marching, but each day was a tiring one. In the evenings we were required to burnish our boots and buttons, and also to polish and 'bumper' the linoleum as at any time we were likely to be rudely castigated if the sheen of any of these three did not match the expectations of Corporal Abbot. As a result only a few people dared to find time to visit the NAAFI to sample the beer.

Then the looked forward-to day saw us marching in single file through a small steel door into a dark oil flavoured tomb, this being the Armoury. Lee Enfield RifleWe were each issued with a Lee Enfield .303 rifle together with a webbing sling and a nasty looking short 'pig sticker' bayonet. Having briefly been shown how to carry our new toys propped on our left shoulders we marched back to our billet, and immediately realised what a torment to the shoulder and wrist, this weapon would be. That evening we all played with the things, working the bolt, aiming at a friend and pulling the trigger. Coombes, who had obviously been the leading light of his school cadet force, said that it was fearfully bad practice to aim them so, the reasoning being that despite all precautions to ensure otherwise, it was just possible that the thing might have a bullet concealed somewhere within it. Stanley and our ex-gamekeeper were familiar with guns and both were full of admiration for this weapon. They said that it could kill at a mile, and that the bullet carried for three. They showed us the neat compartment in the butt containing the pull-through cord, three-by-two cloth and oil bottle, and they demonstrated how to use them. Then all the rifles were locked away in the racks provided, but with the bolt of each removed and in the owner's bedside locker.

The following morning started as usual on the square, but with us proudly bearing our rifles. At first we just marched around with them while receiving individual advice on how to achieve the correct slope of the rifle as it was carried propped on the shoulder. It was of paramount importance that one's rifle was at the correct official angle, the RAF would have ceased to exist it were not precisely so, you must understand. After that we found that there were many things one could do with a rifle, the most important of which was something called 'presenting arms'. This did not mean giving it to someone else: no, no, dear me no, it was an alternative form of the en-masse salute. From a position of standing at ease holding the thing butt-on-ground at the side of the left boot, angled forward gripped in the left hand, a series of manipulations followed. These ended up with the rifle held up vertically in front of one's nose, it having travelled via the right shoulder and having been given a hefty slap with the right palm on its sling covered magazine on the way from there. At the same time the right boot became positioned at fortyfive degrees and to the rear of the left with its instep touching the heel of the former. Plenty of scope to go wrong there! The slightest individual variation in technique was instantly spotted by our hawk eyed DIs and rewarded with the most indignant invective, to say the least. However, despite this harrassment, as with all things military, we did eventually get the hang of it, and to tell the truth it gave one some considerable satisfaction when on parade, in being able to do it perfectly correctly and in total unison with the remainder of the flight.

But what of putting this weapon to the use it was intended? Between sessions of marching we were trained in small groups by members of the RAF Regiment in the art of handling the thing safely, cleaning it, loading bullets into clips of five, then loading two clipfuls into the magazine, adjusting the sights, the theory of aiming and firing correctly, and finally the etiquette of the firing range. Then one morning we were marched without our own rifles to the remotely situated Range to fire other ones kept for that purpose, this being done over a very modest 25 yards, but at commensurately small six inch diameter roundel targets. Each man of a group of six had a clip of five brass cartridges placed into his palm, and each cartridge gripped a sinister grey pointed bullet. The six took up the prone position each with an individual member of the RAF Regiment standing over him as his personal tutor. With our grips on the weapon and leg positions having been adjusted by our tutors, and with the safety catch checked to be on, we were allowed to press the five cartridges from the clip through the slot in the bolt down into the magazine. The order came 'In your own time, fire!'. Then with a twist and slide of the bolt one had a cartridge 'up one's spout', or more correctly 'in the breech'. Safety to 'off' and the deadly weapon was ready.

It was only then as I peered through the backsight that I realised that I ought to have brought my spectacles with me to West Kirby. At school I had discovered during a Physics lesson that my right eye was slightly short sighted. Although not noticeable when using both eyes, I had gone to the lengths of obtaining a pair of National Health spectacles, although I rarely used them. But this was the very circumstance when correction was needed, for that wretched target seen by my right eye only through the sight, was somewhat blurred, and because it was difficult to hold the rifle perfectly still, that blurred target kept wavering about. But I eventually had to squeeze the trigger and the noise and recoil amazed me: ear defenders were not available or even considered necessary in those days. The general idea was to get all the bullets onto the target and I was pleased to find that I had managed that, even if they were spread all over it. Then it was somebody else's turn and I was allowed ruefully to peruse my perforated target, which I compared with Stanley's. His were all within an area of about two inches in diameter, although not quite in the centre. He kindly gave me an additional tip on aiming technique, saying that one should not dwell too long on the point of aim.

When all had completed firing their intial five rounds, we were all to have another try, with the requirement to group them closely, and preferably near the bull. Failure to get them within a three inch circle might even result in the dreaded 'back flighting' which at this stage meant leaving the present flight and joining an incoming band of sprogs. While waiting for my turn I studied the line of targets and found that if I squinted my right eye the correct amount, the blurring reduced a fraction, so that was the technique I had to adopt. Mercifully my next five bullets, each discharged as the bull crossed the sight during my first waver and not the fifth, managed to take themselves to just within the circle of the Sergeant's perspex gauge, and although they were way out to the east, that was just sufficient to pass. Stanley and the Gamekeeper both achieved superb tight groups near the middle and with others were awarded a crossed rifles Marksman badge to be sewn near the cuff of their uniforms.

With ears ringing from the morning's shooting we lounged around outside the gates of the range while others fired their fateful salvoes. We idly watched cardboard boxes which had contained the bullets being burnt in an oil drum. Suddenly there was a loud crack and we saw a bullet which must have perforated the metal drum, coming spiralling towards us, and it dropped to the ground close to our feet. It amused us to think that a round should have managed to evade the stricture of the counting out process, crumbs we'd had to almost to sign for each one.

In many accounts of military training, much is made of that involving the bayonet. Author kneels, Graham holds shears and Colin skulks behind man in the PT kit

Yes we did have to charge at straw filled sacks and poke them with the little spike attached to the business ends of our rifles. But I remember it as a rather half hearted affair, all over within half an hour. However, later on, good use was made of the implement as a gardening tool, and in the photo on the right, I assure you that the small spike in my right hand is my bayonet.

The Bren Gun training was a different matter.Bren Gun We all had to achieve great familiarity with the dismantling and reconstruction of this highly regarded light machine gun (LMG) and to do it very speedily and again we were taught ably in these skills by the RAF Regiment. In addition we had to be able to load the thirty round curved magazine within a very few seconds. Using the same ammunition as the rifles, this weapon would automatically keep on firing until the magazine was exhausted provided the trigger was held depressed. As the LMG had no special cooling, a spare barrel was part of the kit, and this could be exchanged with an overheated original in next to no time. When we fired the Bren on the range we were required to shoot 'small bursts' of two or three rounds. Ten rounds had gone before my brain released my finger from the trigger, such was the rate of fire. The Bren was equipped with small 'bipod' legs to steady it. Firing from the hip was for film actors only.

One day we were marched off to a part of Roosevelt's precinct which was a grassy field reaching to the boundary wire. We were deployed at ten foot intervals in a long line, flat on our stomachs facing outwards towards the fence with our empty rifles aimed at it. We were told that this was to be our 'Ground Defensive Position' in the event of an 'emergency'. We were not told the anticipated nature of such an hypothetical scare, or whom the enemy was expected to be. However there was not much choice in that, for the only conceivable contenders in those days would be either the Russians or the Irish IRA.


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Text&Colour Picture © 2005 D.C.Adams