- RAF West Kirby -

We found ourselves approaching the end of our fourth week with a rising sense of expectation and excitement, for on Saturday afternoon we would be free to walk out of the main gate for the first time. In those days the working week ended at mid-day on Saturday, not four o'clock on Friday afternoon. On several occasions during the week we had been paraded and thoroughly inspected in our 'best' blues and in shoes, not boots. Marching had by now become second nature to most of us and it was only those unfortunate few who lacked the genetical make-up to ever accomplish it correctly, who received the DIs' wrath. But without exception we were all denounced as idle, because the gleam on our toecaps did not equal that of our boots, and we were made very aware that this sad fact would very likely scupper our long anticipated weekend escape.

It was true, but not because we had been lazy. Our shoes were clean of course and they had hardly been worn at all, but the more flexible construction allowed only a small portion of the toe to be brought up to the highest state of 'bull' and it had always seemed more advisable to concentrate on our boots. So for the next three evenings our shoes received a frenzied bulling but we paraded not without trepidation on the Saturday. There was much tutting, clucking, sighing and head shaking amongst our NCOs, but after a short committeee meeting with our Flight Commander, he eventually announced that he was sufficiently satisfied with our 'turn out', and that we would be free from 1300 of that day until midnight of the following. This was a rather theoretical 'thirty-six' hours of liberation however as for the majority it would not be a cost-effective proposition to travel to and return from their distant homes in such a short timescale. Even though we realised that the whole shoe business had probably been a cynical ploy, we felt very proud of ourselves and gave our Pilot Officer a combined and very willing perfect salute, for he had acquired our additional respect. However, Corporal Abbott begrudgingly announced that we had been effing lucky indeed and launched into a long lecture on how we should behave in the critical eyes of the civilian world.

At two o'clock a small group of us marched purposefully past the Guardroom, the white painted lifting barrier and by an entirely out of place silver Meteor jet aeroplane which stood on a patch of grass.

Main Gate area
Then through the open gates in the tall tennis court type chainlink wire fence, and we were OUT! It was a real moment of great joy, as we had been dreading the last minute bellow of 'Airman!' from the Service Police manning the guardroom, whose only joy in their miserable lives was obtained in the discomforture of such innocents as ourselves for the most trivial of reasons. One's hat at a few degrees from the correct angle or walking in an idle manner was quite sufficient for one to be kept at attention and in receipt of a verbal onslaught outside the guardroom for as long as it amused the SP to practise his unpleasant art. They were the ultimate guardians of discipline and they felt that all the recruits needed to be reminded of that.

Having studied the Ordnance Survey map that hung on the wall of the NAAFI, we knew that The Camp was near the hamlet of Greasby and that it was a two mile walk by footpaths to West Kirby so we followed other groups of airmen taking this route. As soon as we were out of sight of our prison we were able to relax and adopt a more casual gait. I remember the happiness of that sunny afternoon, strolling through the grassy fields, but I cannot recall much about West Kirby - or was Hoylake the name of the small town at which we eventually arrived? I recall a park, tennis courts and a very large lake on which many small sailing dinghies manned by incredibly small boys jostled for competitive advantage. However, I do not recall anything worth calling a beach. Certainly a foreshore, then mud and in the distance... yes it may have been the sea. Perhaps we enjoyed an ice, or perhaps a cup of tea. And then we were retracing our steps for we did not want to miss our evening meal. It seems now that our little outing must have been a great anti-climax, but I assure you it did not seem so at the time.

Sunday morning saw us embark on a much more interesting adventure, and we were only too ready to be out of our hut after the previous evening's bullying episode. Graham had obtained agreement by post with his parents for him to bring two friends home for lunch and tea. This time we marched briskly down to West Kirby (or Hoylake!) where we boarded the electric train for Liverpool. The area was well ahead of the times with it's electric rail system and soon we had the brief excitement of being conveyed beneath the Mersey before coming to a halt in the Central station in Lime Street. There was a popular song of the day in which the singer laments the incarceration of one Maggie May, a lady of ill repute, and the fact that because of this she would be unavailable to conduct her business in Lime Street. Therefore both Colin and myself could not resist conducting a serious scan of that street as a somewhat embarrassed Graham attempted to drag us to the correct bus stop. We were hugely disappointed not to identify positively the profession of any of the ladies we saw. Writing this now, how silly that sounds. How on earth would well brought up nineteen year old youths of those days know what prostitutes would look like? And even if we had seen such a creature, what would we have done? Without any shadow of doubt, we would have scampered off as fast as possible with our tails well between our legs, that's what.

Our bus passed close to the huge new Cathedral, through many busy streets and on into an extensive dormitory area of council houses. A short walk and Graham was being effusively greeted by his parents, and Colin and myself felt that it was not fair of us to have taken up Graham's invitation. But then we were warmly greeted too, and before long tucking in to a beautifully cooked roast dinner. A few hours later a lovely tea and all too soon it was fond farewells and thanks and we were back on the bus, Graham clutching a parcel of goodies. Lime Street was much busier and there did seem to be people hanging around in groups, but it was more important to catch the train than to even pretend to be interested in that dangerous and expensive sport of inner urban ornithology.

Week five was scheduled to be a week spent carrying out 'Fatigues', but it was a week buoyed up with the wonderful prospect of 48 hours at home. There is only one task that I wish to describe in detail, so I will dismiss the remainder in one paragraph.  There was the floor polishing: who else could be better to maintain the gloss of the flooring of the many Admin offices as us recruits, now we were so skilled in that art? Dressed in baggy one-piece washed-out khaki denims, one felt so utterly menial, swinging the bumper in narrow corridors, especially when ceasing briefly to stand to attention when any of the many bumph-shuffler officers wished to pass. How the time dragged when 'working' like that, as slowly as possible.  Then there were Cookhouse duties. We had to act as servers at the mid day and evening meals, wearing white aprons, white half sleeves and silly cooks' hats. In the morning or afternoon we may have 'eyed' the potatoes. No, we did not not peel them, in the RAF a machine did that. Managing half a sackful at a time, this device induced the potatoes to rub against themselves and against the rough inner surface of the metal bowl that contained the water in which they swam. Thus their skins eroded away, but the eyes remained to be picked out with the sharp point of a knife. After that various huge cauldrons needed to be cleaned and there was the usual awful Tin Room duty to be done.  Away from the cookhouse, another activity was the white repainting of edging stones and a variety of inanimate objects, thus to fulfil the old RAF maxim of 'If it moves salute it, otherwise paint it white.' In addition there was a large amount of gardening to be done. Each day brought a different duty, but the worst of all of these was the much dreaded Coke Heap.

I have described the large coke stoves in every hut. For us they were merely objects of little beauty placed there for us to polish. In the winter however, which throughout the whole of the RAF, always started on a certain day in October and continued until a certain day in April (I believe), then they were needed for the true purpose intended, and they had a pretty voracious appetite it seemed. The coke to serve these was largely accumulated during the non-heating season, and each Squadron had a secured area in which throughout the summer months, gradually was built a huge truncated pyramid of the wretched stuff. In the RAF one was not allowed to have a normal pile of coke, it was neccessary to have a 'smart' pile of coke. Hindsight allowed a heap architect to know what the dimensions of the base square must be, and thus it was possible to mark this intended perimeter with a broad white painted line on a concreted surface. Coke was then brought in those huge specially made high sided lorries and dumped within the square. Those initial heaps were considered to be very unsmart, so they had to be raked into a much lower but homogeneous mass to fit the white outlined perimeter, and if the sides of this smarter and lower pile were tapered inwards a little, then the acme of heap smartness was in prospect. The next day more lorry loads of coke arrived but they would be dumped willy-nilly as the lorries could not be allowed to desecrate the smartness of the embryo heap. However the architect, (taking a tip from the Ancient Egyptians, no doubt) had designed a ramp of coke on one side, and if scaffold planks were laid in serial fashion flat on this and on the upper surface, then it was perfectly easy for a chap to fill a wheel barrow, push it up the ramp and spread the contents around on the top, wasn't it? And to help those fellows make it flat, if a number of white posts painted with red and blue bands were inserted vertically downwards into the coke, they would have no excuse for not keeping the top surface perfectly level would they?

With that I have set the scene. The eighty or so feet square of the massive heap was almost twenty feet high the day we came to it, and the ramp doubled back on itself to reach the top. A civilian in a brown overall and bowler hat was the 'Stack-Fuerher' and he dwelt in a little wooden hut. He indicated that we should put on the Wellington boots we saw piled in a heap in his hut. Wellies are fine if they fit and you have thick socks and you don't walk far in them and only keep them on for a short time. Well for us of course exactly the opposite applied, and those evil boots had already been used by countless generations of earlier recruits. There was a pause as we sat in the early sun and waited for the coke lorry to arrive. When it did we could hardly believe the huge volume of material it decanted and we were all set coughing by the fine dry dust cloud that arose. There were about ten wheel barrows and we set to with a will and soon successive barrows were being wheeled up the ramp. The civilian watched for a while and commented that if we went on like that we would be about right, and he went back to his sanctum to peruse his Daily Mirror. We split ourselves into loaders, pushers and spreaders, changing about after every five barrow loads. It was tiring work, although the barrow loads weren't that heavy, the ramp was rather too steep. However, after about twenty minutes of sustained effort, the newly arrived pile was about half gone and we all took a short break. We reckoned this wasn't too bad really, hot and dirty yes, but look, the pile was half gone already. We resumed work and within half an hour had cleared the rest, and we slumped down, happy that it was done. However with barely five minutes elapsed, we could hardly believe it but another damned lorry appeared! The civilian thrust his head though his half opened door. 'I should get on lads if I were you, there will be another load before mid day and then three in the afternoon, and all's to be up to the top and tidy before you get off.'

That day turned into the most miserable one I had ever experienced in my life so far. A shovelful of coke is not heavy, but there were so many thousands of them needed. The levelling of the top with special wide and deep rakes was every bit as hard as the loading at the bottom. The dust cloud was always present, and the heat of the sun unremitting. The boots were ill fitting or split and the soreness of our feet was little less than that of our blistered hands. But like the good soldiers we were, we got the miserable job done.


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Text © 2005 D.C.Adams