It is time to say a little more about certain aspects of our crowded conditions and the associated joys of such domestic non-bliss.
Our hutted accommodation was comfortable enough, although today even convicts could not be housed in such basic style. The beds were firm but unexpectedly comfortable, the days of straw palliasses or even the more recent three piece'biscuit' mattress, happily were no more in the RAF. We slept between sheets and had adequate blankets, so we were warm enough too. But as it was summertime, I am personably unable to judge the efficiency of the two iron coke-stoves. However, Ron Cripps' bitter experience was that the coke ration was far from adequate, the meagre allowance permitting only a small fire in one of the two stoves. In the coldest weather this frequently led to covert foraging expeditions to obtain supplies to which the participants were not entitled. The interior of our hut was always very clean: it was required to be kept that way. We swept our bedspaces daily, and 'bumpered' the highly polished brown linoleum floor daily too and to avoid scuffing it we were obliged to skate around on small pieces of old blankets provided for that purpose.
These days, the quantity of issued clothing might seem inadequate in some respects. I think we were provided with only three pairs of of the aertex underpants. One to be wearing, one to be available for kit inspection, and one to be away for the week at the laundry. There were only three shirts too, although each had two detachable collars to go with it. And I believe, three pairs of socks only. However, National Service drew from all stratas of society and thus some now possessed more clothing than they ever had before, and were able to enjoy a standard of hygiene probably never previously experienced. Unhappily some chose not to though, and this was before the days of underarm sprays and to be seen using talcum powder would have brought forth catcalls questioning one's masculinity. However Coombes was required to keep a 'Bath Book' in which to record the names of the bathers, and the RAF thinking was that once a week was a satisfactory frequency for it's proletariat - the airmen. In addition to this we were herded into the showers after the PT sessions for a swill down, although sufficient time was never allowed then for a proper wash. Notwithstanding, even those with the lowest standards could not avoid becoming partially clean. Each week we were allowed to send one sheet and one pillow case to the laundry, and the previous top sheet then became one's new bottom sheet.
Every evening was required to be spent in the fettling of one's kit. To start with there was the 'blancoing' of one's webbing belt, rifle sling and sometimes the haversack known as the 'small pack'. Then the various small brass buckles etc., on the belt had to be polished with 'Duraglit', and sometimes the buttons on our 'best blues' and greatcoats too, for both items of clothing needed to be ready for a snap inspection at anytime. In addition it was advisable to spend at least an hour in the 'bulling up' of one's boots, but happily this mindless occupation was also spent in pleasant chatter with one's neighbours, as although there was a 'Tannoy' loudspeaker in the room, no music of any kind ever emanated from it to provide evening amusement. When our rifles had been issued to us they had to be cleaned and oiled on a daily basis too. It was vital to polish one's beret badge to an extreme degree, as being at eye level, any smear was certain to be detected. We had been required to shrink our berets during the first week, this being achieved by a process of soaking in cold water, then leaving on the pipes in the drying room overnight. In my case this resulted in small cracks appearing in the leather rim of the beret and I dreaded this being noticed by those in authority.
The extremely fraught kit inspections started in the first week. After having been shown the exact position in which to lay out every item, no excuses were allowed for any infringement. Once a week our Flight Commander accompanied by an unknown Flight Sergeant and Corporal Abbot ruthlessly inspected the room, the ablutions and the laid out kits. We soon found that nothing escaped their combined scrutiny. Dust on the top edge of a wardrobe door perhaps or the unpolished inside edges of a brass buckle were all grist to their mill. At an early point the Flight Commander exhibited an unusual talent. On discovering a microscopic incipient hairline crack in someone's mug, he inserted the tip of his leather-bound swagger stick (his 'wand of office') into the handle of the mug, and with a deft flick he launched the offending object into a trajectory over his shoulder. He had not turned to direct his aim but whether by intention or not, the mug shattered on impact with the tall iron stove. It was difficult to resist applause, and admiring such skill, apart from the unfortunate owner of the mug that is, we all looked on this officer with renewed respect.
The heirarchy demanded and enforced automatic subservient respect for their officers, but without knowing their pedigree it was a difficult thing to give unreservedly. But had any been revealed as wartime aviators, as I now believe many were, they would have had respect in bundles, by right. To this end it would have helped if we had been taught to decode the colours of the medal ribbons most officers wore so prominently on their chests, but incredibly that was not part of our education. However, respect could also have been so very easily earnt, we were always very ready to truly respect our officers, but there needed to be a reason, and any reason would do, as the trivial incident related shows. The occasional kind word would have sufficed, a glimpse of humanity, instead all we received was an unbroken and demeaning lofty indifference in best Trenchard tradition. But such was The Service requirement, and anyway, what operator of any sausage machine has regard for the individual particles within the mass of gristle he so robotically processes?
To further illustrate my point, even the detested Corporal Abbot was able to gain a modicum of genuine respect by revealing a chink in his case-hardening, this significant event taking place one Saturday evening in the NAAFI. We were living through the days of 'Skiffle', and many people had fun in replicating its catchy beat on improvised instruments. Corporal Abbot revealed his unexpected talent on the one-stringed tea-chest double bass. By skilful tensioning of the broomhandle shaft at least three distinct deep notes could be elicited from this crude device. In the warm and smoky atmosphere, for over a period of two hours, and sweating copiously, Abbot strummed his hand raw on the parcel string to produce the booming notes while one of his two companions thrashed away at a washboard, and the other produced a hint of some sort of tune from his tin basooka, while we the audience bawled out the words of the hit songs of the period. With a couple of pints inside us we were unashamedly ecstatic with our unstinting applause. 'Abbot's alright isn't he?' we agreed. And so he might have been off-duty, but of course he returned to his normal sadistic self on the following Monday, although our terror was no longer of quite the same intensity. In retrospect that event might be seen as a somewhat transparent 'bonding exercise', but if it was, in those days none of us knew that any such artifice was possible.
In the main we were fed adequately but not splendidly so. The standard RAF greasy breakfast started the day and a thick porridge was always available too. The midday lunch and the early evening dinner were similar in nature, something meaty, various overcooked vegetables and chips or 'Pom', a slurpy potato imposter. Followed by a variety of puddings. If one was not fussy he certainly didn't starve. At all meals tea and/or coffee was available by the mugful and those attempting to discern their future from the dregs were intrigued by the white sandy sediment at the bottoms of their mugs. Was this the dreaded 'bromide' we had heard and joked about? It was the subject of much adolescent ribaldry and discussion amongst my small group of friends. The consensus was that it was difficult to know if in fact we were being subject to this military enforcement of libido suppression, as we all felt pretty enfeebled by the end of the day anyway, and accordingly slept like the dead, and I for one do not recall being disturbed by troubling dreams.
However one idiot at the other end of the hut on the opposite side would sometimes announce to all who were unfortunate enough to be within earshot, that he had awoken with a 'stalk on', and as I had always been blessed with good hearing, I was unable to prevent myself from becoming aware that he was prepared to demonstrate the deplorable fact, but he was a manic idiot at any time of the day. The word 'gay' had not been hijacked at that time, the term was 'queer' for those of that unhappy brotherhood, whose activities were illegal and especially so within the armed services. That title only ever entered conversation when the hard men amongst us related tales of their expertise in the administration of physical abuse, their favourite target for that pastime being those who gave them the slightest cause to be considered 'queer'. The self styled hardest man in our hut was a tall brute from Sheffield who made it quite clear in his ignorant way that he deeply resented being called up and that he hated each one of us, always snarling a warning if one's gaze should accidently meet his. He had a like minded crony from an adjacent hut, Jock, a similar surly brute. He shaved with a cut-throat razor and we somehow received the impression from him that it would be his chosen weapon if physically challenged. Sheffield's only other crony was the manic 'stalk' idiot, who slept adjacent to him, but he was the least hard of the unholy trinity. The three drank together in the NAAFI and their huddled group always gave the impression that they were plotting some evil scheme. Together they were a group to be avoided, not the easiest thing to achieve in the close confines of our hut. When Jock came to visit his fellow conspirators there was always a discernable tension in the air, and I believe that our Senior Man Coombes was pretty much intimidated by the Glaswegian, I think we all were to some extent.
All that is, except Stanley. I clearly remember the occasion when the visiting Jock left his two friends and ambled to Stanley's bed space brandishing his open razor, probably not with the intention of using it though, but merely to impress. Totally unfazed, Stanley took out from his bedside locker a large bone-handled sheath knife, and I watched petrified, anticipating then a possible bloody outcome. Stanley, wearing a fixed thin smile, demonstrated to Jock that his blade was extremely well honed too, and I heard him say quite conversationally in his slow considered way, something like 'I have to keep it as sharp as this as sometimes there's a poor wee ailing lamb to be put out of its misery. But you must understand that in our corner of the world any sort of real man reckons to settle a difference of opinion with the arm wrestling, not bloodshed.' Jock glowered at him for about half a minute, receiving only Stanley's steady half smile in return, then realising that he had lost the inititive, he stumped back to his two cronies and all around blew audible sighs of relief. I never heard what was the cause of their problem, but some time later not Jock, but the Sheffield brute, foolishly took up Stanley's offer of an arm wrestling contest, perhaps because he was the heavier man. Though slighter in build, Stanley was certainly not puny and indeed he consisted entirely of wiry muscle, no doubt as a result of his hard outdoor farming life, but he had acquired the technique too. So to our loud cheers, Sheffield duly was vanquished, and although after that he remained a most unpleasant character and best avoided, and everybody continued to hate him, he was somehow a little less frightening.
That same trio were the perpetrators of a nasty bullying incident, an event which to our eternal shame, none of us witnessing it were brave enough to stop. One of those in Jock's hut was reputed to be the son of a Vicar, a shy but thoroughly pleasant lad, but who always seemed to be living on his nerves. It transpired that between them the terrible trio had noticed that at bedtime this lad would go to the ablutions still fully clothed, but return attired in his pyjamas. It seems that the Manic Idiot, primed by Jock, had followed the lad and heard him saying his prayers in one of the lavatory cubicles. The trio decided that the punishment for these combined eccentricities should be an application of bootpolish to the poor lad's private parts. They chose the weekend of our initial liberation (see following page) for their assault, a bedtime when Coombes was mysteriously absent and Stanley had also not returned, and they pounced upon the vulnerable lad as he emerged from the lavatory booth in his pyjamas. Hearing the hullabaloo from the ablutions, some of us rushed to the scene, but shamefully we were all too easily intimidated by Jock's evil eye and we were repulsed by his and Sheffield's combined growling threats to deal with us likewise. The silently weeping victim had only a few minutes in which to attempt to clean himself before lights out.
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Text © 2005 D.C.Adams