- RAF West Kirby -

While our boots were away for repair, we were taught how to 'slow march'. This mode of progress is usually reserved for ceremonial occasions, and when done properly in perfectly synchronized step it is most impressive to a civilian audience. One merely has to raise the foot and pause it momentarily, slide it forward without contacting the ground, then hover it momentarily before placing it down. No stamping and crashing of heel involved now, for this is the stuff of funeral parades. So round and round the square we went practising it and then alternating it with normal marching speed, for the transition is a likely time for chaos to ensue. But we soon got the hang of it, because by this time everybody knew that was the way to avoid the most hassle.

Our Flight Commander addressed us and said that we had entered the build up period for our passing out parade, and that gradually that would become our priority. He seemed to have come out of his shell now, he addressed us confidently and politely and we appreciated that. When he started marching in front of us, while the NCO's harried us from the sides, we liked that even better, for the abuse was greatly reduced, no doubt for the fear that the Flight Commander might think that it was directed at him.

Throughout our training we had been in the habit of finding out what future indignities were in store by perusing the wall planner chart in the Flight Office, which as already described was situated in one corner of our hut. Two days were mysteriously bracketed together marked 'Wales', and we could see that Guard Duty was in prospect. While what happened during the former event remains perfectly clear to me, the exact details of Guard Duty as performed at West Kirby have faded I'm afraid. At best the memories of that have become inextricably mixed with the same duty performed later at RAF Locking. This is not really surprising as what was required at either establishment was pretty much identical. I cannot remember the duration of either duty but it would typically have been of two to three days and I think at West Kirby was done over a long weekend, Friday evening until Monday breakfast time. It involved an almost Naval type of watch-keeping, two hours of duty followed by four hours off, and during the time 'off' one was not permitted to leave a special guard hut located near the Guard Room, apart from that is, being marched to the nearest cookhouse for meals.

There were two types of guarding to be done, Main Gate and Patrolling. When carrying out these our only weapons were pickaxe handles, but at no time were we trained in the effective use of these, particularly against an armed intruder. I do not recall that that rifles were even kept in the guard hut, but possibly there may have been some in the Guard Room, kept there under the eyes of the SPs. There were no personal walkie talkie radios in those days, but we were provided with Acme Thunderer type whistles. Always we worked in pairs, presumably the idea being that while one was being shot at by the intruder, the other guard could run away while frantically blowing his whistle. At no time were we briefed on the approved procedure should such a dire crisis arise, a state of affairs entirely at variance with normal RAF practise.

During the four hour off period we were expected to sleep in our clothes on the diamond mesh of the bed frames, as no mattresses were in evidence and certainly there were no blankets available, and in addition the room lights were never allowed to be switched off. With some men chosing to play noisy games of darts or cards, all in all sleep was hard to come by. I believe that we were not intended to 'go to bed' properly because then, in the event of an emergency the off duty men could be called out with minimum delay. A Guard Commander corporal organised the rosta of these duties and he had to keep a log to record his efforts. I well remember a stylised entry in official parlance - "During their period of duty all the men received a hot dinner".

Guarding at the main gate was a somewhat embarrassing affair : who was I to accost these lofty NCOs and Officers to demand sight of their 1250s? However these would normally be proffered in good humour unless the person was inebriated, when initial refusal to do so was not uncommon from the NCOs. This led to a perplexing situation for the guard seeking to do his duty honestly as it was difficult to 'demand' anything from a Drill Corporal. Such a situation could be resolved by making frantic signals to the Guard Room window whereupon a SP would languidly emerge to complete the identification. Tipsy officers on foot were very few and far between thank goodness, but the one I encountered played the game at my second request for ID - a second smart salute with 'Excuse me Sir but I have to ask you for identification" -, and I think it was more a case of his bemused state having prevented him from having noticed any guard in the first place. Officers usually went out in cars when it was merely a question of saluting and raising the barrier, but on their return the barrier could not be lifted until the identification had been scrutinised. It was a tedious business all round, but everybody had to be challenged, and it would have been a punishable offence for having failed to do so.

Patrolling was a better prospect and was usually alternated with a stint on the gate. There was a long preordained beat to follow and a timetable to be kept to as well. At night the Orderly Sergeant or even the Orderly Officer could make surprise appearances at any point to check that the guards were following the schedule. Throughout my period of guard duty at West Kirby it rained heavily and I found that my poncho style groundsheet worked well. At night we were required to wear our greatcoats with the webbing belt around the outside and that kept the rain out very effectively too. Overall it was a miserable experience, made very much worse by being unable to get any worthwhile amount of proper sleep due to the impossible conditions in the guard hut.

A little light relief was provided by our Flight Commander's requirement that within three weeks, and in our spare time, groups of us should create a model of something, anything would do, the choice was ours, and a small prize was to be awarded. We were split into groups of five or six and my group had the great advantage of having Coombes in it. We had a short committeee meeting and happily elected Coombes as our chairman. He allowed us to make suggestions of suitable subjects but his idea was undoubtedly the best. He suggested that we make a model of the very distinctive Vanwall racing car, that he was pretty intimate with it's details, and that he had some ability in modelling in clay, and that he believed that he knew where clay was to be found. Two of our group were pretty apathetic types but one Saturday Coombes led the remainder to the field of the Gas Chamber. He took us to a deep slit trench we had noticed there and soon two of us were pecking out lumps of brown mud with our bayonets from its water filled bottom while Coombes supervised us from above. We had brought the highly polished galvanised bucket from our hut to receive the gooey mass and eventually staggered back with it threequarters full.

In short, Coombes did all the rest. He spent about an hour pulverising the mud, and then allowed it to settle overnight. The next day he turned it out onto a newspaper and set about 'knocking it up'. It was pretty obvious that he had done this sort of thing before. First he achieved a rectangular block about a foot long and then with his penknife set about sculpting it. A couple of days later, wearing a slightly smug grin, he amazed us by producing a small plan of the car! Coombes had had the cheek, he said 'a modicum of inititive', to write off to the Vanwall company telling them what he had to do and requesting pictures of the car, and they'd done him proud, providing two postcard size pictures in colour, and the outline plan. Every evening after that he busily scratched away at the clay and the car gradually emerged. I cannot remember what the other groups created but in due course, despite the many tiny cracks appearing all over it, our Flight Commander was very impressed with Coombe's model and to the envy of the others awarded us the prize - half a dozen small bottles of beer.

Part of our training provided by the RAF Regiment instructors involved map reading, a skill which I aready possessed in part, but the use of compass and map together was new and interesting. It seemed that a two day overnight exercise was in prospect, sleeping outdoors in pairs in improvised tents made out of our groundsheets. But then came the rainy weekend of our Guard Duty, and a rainy week followed. The two day event was cancelled to be replaced with an all day very long hike in North Wales. I recall a very early breakfast and a long drive in a three tonner to a point in the region of the Horseshoe Pass, which is above Llangollen. Perversely but happily, the rain ceased during our drive, and when we climbed down from the lorry, we found ourselves in weak sunshine at a derelict slate quarry. Coombes was given the map reference of our objective and the deadline for our return. There was a requirement to obtain documentary evidence that we had achieved our task, and the use of roads was to be 'avoided as far as possible', and we were strictly forbidden to enter any public house. Those of us who could, eagerly and independently decoded the six figures and found that we were required to reach a church in a tiny hamlet some nine miles distant, the name of which now eludes me. Nine miles that is, if we were equipped with wings. This news caused howls of resentment from the likes of Manic and co., who declared there was no way they could walk twenty miles in one day. I wasn't sure whether I could either as that distance was double what I had ever done before in the Scouts. But the protesters knew there was no option and as a group we scaled the tip of broken slate to reach a likely looking starting point at the top.

Ascending the slate tip
Fortunately we were travelling with little equipment, just smallpacks containing our groundsheets, the issued waterbottles and the issued packed lunch. No rifles thank goodness.

The slowly descending track, probably the route of a former light railway led to a very minor road three miles on, and Coombes announced that a fast start would be to our advantage. With him leading, and Stanley bringing up the rear, within the hour we were on the tarmac having a short breather. Having started at the top of a 'green' mountain we were now surrounded by similar hills on all sides. After our rest Coombes suggested that we should march in threes along this valley road, briskly but without undue crashing of our heels. In a mile or so we turned off into the fields in an attempt to go 'cross country' as required. The idea was to follow a stream which took a far more direct route than the road. But our combined map reading skills were insufficient to reveal that this route would turn into a tedious and tiring sequence of many short ups and many short downs through which the stream had managed to cut a narrow steep gorge. Nor did the map indicate the area of toe-cap ruining scrubby heather, or any of the boggy terrain which was all the worse due to the recent rain, nor the hawthorn or gorse and certainly not the requirement to climb occasional tall stone walls or barbed fences, so progress was inevitably and unacceptably slow. It is putting it very mildly to say that there was much grumbling in the ranks. The only relief was provided by the amusing antics of the many sheep surprised by their unexpected encounter with our blundering human flock. When the opportunity presented itself we were only too happy to take a stony farm road which meandered back to the road we had left, but which in itself gave little forward progress. After more road marching we reached a very suitable old drover's road and that took us up to a higher level, and then at last we could see our church spire in the distance. This silenced the muttering and mocking dissenters in our group who for some time had been advising Coombes rather impolitely that he was totally and utterly lost. Our present track eventually joined a narrow 'yellow' road on the map, and an hour later we were in a tiny village consisting of the church, a chapel, a one petrol-pump garage, a hovel of a pub, a tiny shop and a few impoverished looking stone and slate cottages.

We were all hot and sweaty and our legs certainly ached but nobody yet complained of blisters, this being without doubt due to our boots having been so well broken in by those long hours spent on the drill square. The idlers flaked out on a little village green, but Coombes led the rest of us into the churchyard, and on into the church. We removed our boots in the porch and the cold slate flooring was bliss to our sweaty feet. We had been issued with sheets of paper and pencils with which to compile our 'documentary' evidence. Coombes demonstrated how to take brass rubbings and with varying success we soon had several impressions from a variety of worn brass plate memorial tablets. There was a card in the church which told of its history, and Coombes used this from which to dictate a precis. After that only when Coombes had completed a sketch map of the village, showing the main buildings and road names etc., did he start to eat his own sandwiches.

We were only at the village for about half an hour for our leader was keen for us to start retracing our steps. Coombes had to make a short persausive speech to get the shop-bought Tizer swigging and protesting idlers on their feet. He simply told them that yes, we were all tired and yes, we did have ten miles to go. However, we had more time in which to return than it had taken to arrive. To our advantage there would be no pioneering involved on the return journey. We would take regular short breaks, and the sooner we left the slower we could march. Manic yelled rudely "Coombes tha sounds just like t' bloody officer." Our leader smirked and replied "Really? Well they haven't seen fit to promote me just yet, but many thanks for your vote of confidence anyway", thus raising a good laugh having cleverly rebounded the intended insult as something sounding more like a compliment.

We refilled our waterbottles from a tap at the garage, formed up, and watched by a few urchins marched out of the village in fine style. There was no sensible alternative route and that march back can only be described as grim. But we had to march, for that is the only way for a group to make speedy progress. We rested for about five minutes every half hour, but at each break Coombes was forever checking his watch and recalculating the speed we needed to achieve. The final three upward miles were dire and Coombes was pretty exhausted himself and as he had developed blisters much earlier, about which he had kept quiet, he hobbled, but determinedly so, at the head of our column. We were not marching now, with the result that we became a crocodile spread over a quarter of a mile. I didn't care what anybody else was up to, I could only think about my own sore feet and having to go on placing one painful foot in front of the other, head down and glumly contemplating Coombes overadequate bum swaying a few yards in front. Stanley, who was by far the fittest of us all, worked valiantly as whipper-in, and his work became vital as the most vociferous of the moaners lagged the furthest behind but they tended to respect his down to earth encouragement whereas they were forever in contempt of Coombes' 'posh Head Boy' words. When we finally reached the top of the slate tip Coombes waited until the final limping straggler, who was being half supported by Stanley, finally appeared. Then we descended as we had left, as a group under his command.


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Text & Colour Picture © 2005 D.C.Adams