- RAF West Kirby -

Coombes explained his mysterious absence over the weekend to some of us: he had obtained permission to go home! And he had returned in his own car! He casually said that the getting of permission hadn't been too difficult really, one merely had to apply in writing in the official manner, make a good case and talk nicely to several officers. Behind his back he came in for many sneering remarks about creeping and worse. However the other two 'Oxford' lads and myself soon ceased those thoughts when Coombes offered to 'run us home', the following weekend, when we were due to be at liberty for 48 hours. He said this would avoid ourselves having to be beholden to the British Rail timetable and would only cost us a share of the petrol. He showed us his pride and joy tucked away in an official parking area in a distant corner of the camp. Morris 8 Series E tourerIt was a Morris 8 series E tourer painted in a smart two-tone green and black, and dated from before the war. Apart from an MG it was almost a car to die for in those days. We were most impressed and full of envy and couldn't think how Coombes could have possibly afforded it. Although I owned a motorcycle (being bought on instalments from my brother) I certainly did not yet aspire to own any sort of a car. It was just not possible at my age.

Thus having bade farewell to our envious comrades who were waiting for lorries to convey them to a railway station, Friday afternoon saw the four of us in the open top car, driving out of the camp under the suspicious gaze of the Guardroom SPs. They no doubt could only imagine officers owning cars and as we passed it was difficult to prevent ourselves from proffering them the two fingered salute. We soon found that Coombes liked to put his foot down and he drove in a very competitive way, that is, as far as the little 905ccs sidevalve engine would allow with four up. We had to deploy our chinstraps because as we were in our 'best blue' we were obliged to wear our 'cheese cutter' daft hats, despite the fifty five miles per hour gale rushing past our heads, which for those sitting in the rear seats, the windscreen did little to alleviate.

In nonchalent style Coombes demonstrated how roundabouts could be 'straight-lined' to avoid losing speed and we had an exhilarating ride down to Chester and on to the A41. Coombes said we must get to Brownhills as fast as possible, and then we would be half way home. My geography was rather hazy I have to confess, so could not visulise the route, but Coombes knew where he was going alright and Brownhills duly appeared and was passed. Coombes explained that he wanted to avoid Birmingham and hammered on somewhat in the fashion of a latter day Mr.Toad. Eventually Banbury was signed and I knew Oxford would soon be in prospect. After a non-stop four hours on the road, I was dropped off at Hinksey, a mere half mile from home, and the others zoomed off down the A34.

I will not bore the reader with my reception on arriving home except to say how relieved my mother was to find that I had not shot myself nor perforated myself with my bayonet or had done either of those to anybody else. That weekend I did little apart from cleaning and polishing my Douglas but as it was very new to me I did not dare to take it very far. Its 350ccs engine was so fearsomely more powerful than that of my dear little 'clip-on' 25ccs Cyclemaster, the machine on which I had passed the Driving Test. However, the weekend flew by and all too soon I found myself at the appointed place peering anxiously down the road for the first glimpse of Coombe's little Morris. Only ten minutes after his predicted time he screeched to a halt and then he was off again in his usual style. 'Banbury Cross in the half hour, and we're back on schedule' he grinned at me. Some 160 miles and four hours later, at 2200 hours we were presenting our 'twelve fifties' to the 'armed' (with pick-axe handles) guards at West Kirby's main gate and then were trickling slowly past the dreaded Guardroom, fearful of any challenge.

The following morning our weekend away seemed like a dream as we marched around the Square suffering Abbot's unsubtle hectoring. But this time there was a difference: we were marching in our shoes. The previous Friday afternoon we had handed in our boots for repair. Abbot had inspected every one in the process, for he had demanded that every steel heel plate must be worn through to the leather by that time. He had forever been bellowing at us to 'dig em in, dig em in' as we marched. Indeed one of his main pleasures in life had been for our flight to cause any other flight marching nearby, to break step due to our conflicting heavier and more synchronized scrunching as our heels chopped down into the asphalt. After our first victory in this game we all joined in whole heartedly to indulge our corporal as he steered us ever closer to an approaching flight, especially if that flight belonged to another squadron, and it became our pleasure too, to hear the other flight's DI bellowing at them to regain their step.

It might have been that week when we had to endure the terrors of the infamous 'Gas Chamber'. Those who had already suffered this particular torture always took huge delight in exaggerating their experiences to the gullible sprogs, as indeed my brother had to me. So I was not looking forward to the horrible choking near death sensation, being artificially resusitated, and then the ensuing dreadful on-going vomiting. One morning we were herded to a part of the camp previously unknown to us. At the top of a grassy field near the perimeter fence there was a low building reminiscent of a wartime air raid shelter. RAF Regiment instructors issued us with our gas masks. A begoggled rubber face mask from the snout end of which, a thick ribbed rubber tube led to a red tin containing the life saving filtering chemicals. We learnt the 'Gas Rule' whereby if in time of hostilities we should ever see an approaching suspicious low cloud, we must assume the presence of gas. We must let out a bellow of 'GAS!', then bend down, blow out and pull on the respirator. We did just that several times and the instructor checked that everybody had got them on properly. Then he explained the testing procedure, designed firstly to give us confidence in the efficiency of the respirator and then to experience the effect of the tear gas from which we had been protected. We would march into the Gas Chamber wearing our respirators. We would watch him ignite the gas emitting capsule. When he considered the gas sufficently dispersed to all parts of the room, we would march round six times breathing deeply. On a signal from him we would remove our masks. We would then march around again in a conga like circle singing 'Roll out the Barrel' until he opened the exit door. We should then march through the door in an orderly manner and sprint around the field until our eyes ceased to stream. 'OK lads? Got that? Any questions? No? Good. Here we go then. Form up single file'.

He led us into the dismal concrete tomb and closed the well fitting door. He extracted an object from a tin box, placed it upon a plinth in the centre of the floor, lit a fuse with a Swan Vesta, and we all watched anxiously as a thin mist arose from it. Soon we were wreathed in it, and he set us to marching around in a rather rectangular 'circle'. It was not possible to go on holding one's breath any longer, and magically I discovered there was nothing much to smell apart from the odour of rubber, so yes my respirator must have been working fine. Then he signalled to remove the respirators, but we were reluctant to do so. I took a few last deep breaths and peeled mine off. Initially I could feel no bad effect but my eyes did start to water slightly, although so far I had not breathed out or in. The instructor had to pull off some of the respirators forcibly, but of course his remained on. Some people were spluttering as soon as we began circling again. I knew that I would be able to hold my breath for perhaps thirty seconds, but after that it would be difficult to not take a very deep breath. Somebody started the required singing and we had to do two more circuits before the door was opened. My eyes were certainly streaming, but there was no choking sensation for me, and I did not feel sick. The silly thought entered my head that perhaps all the gas had been inhaled by my companions? Then we erupted out into the field and raced around it as directed, gulping in the good honest Cheshire air. I didn't feel too bad at all apart from my eyes, but I thought it prudent to imitate my companions and I pretended to nearly vomit a few times. It had turned out to be somewhat of an anticlimax: perversely, I felt cheated and wished that it had been just slightly worse!


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Thanks to www.morrisregister.co.uk for the picture of the Morris 8 tourer. Their site is well worth a visit if you wish to rediscover those old cars.

Text © 2005 D.C.Adams