Training as an Air Signaller in the R.A.F 1955-1956

The fast flow of passing hedge-divided flat green fields, the low wisps of cloud beneath a mottled ceiling of greys, blues and creams... I was approaching Dishforth in Yorkshire on the fast train, decades after being stationed there in the R.A.F. Here it was I used to fly up in those local clouds, this familiar sky above the patchwork of virtually the same fields. I have not seen the same general combination of light effects and cloud formations elsewhere. Here there used to be reliable morning mists called ground fog that enabled me confidently to delay my saunter down to the flights to see what flying programme would be on for the day until sometime before lunch! Flying conversion training for Transport Command entailed lumbering up off the runway and back down time and again, day or night, while the pilot of my crew gained experience of flying the cow-like Valetta transport aircraft. Interminable rumbling around a night airfield past the blue-and-orange taxi-lights between repeated flights and landings, both twin-engined and 'asymmetric' one-engined. Or else it was very long flights around the North Sea with the continuous crackle of headphones on and streams of Morse code contacts to make and log.

At the aircrew selection board, to which I had originally applied in the hope of becoming an R.A.F. pilot, it turned out that I had a greater talent for recognising dots on earphones than for steering dots across simulated radar screens. No one had briefed me on anything about this or I could have done far better. Learning the guitar, mostly by ear, had probably enhanced this ability. This apparently combined with my misfortune in a leadership test in getting my five men across an imaginary river with an imaginary barrel of explosive by use of a real swinging pole presumably to help make me conclusively unfitted as officer and pilot material. The pole, by the way, was hung on a hefty spring which we discovered too late! When the first of my team tried to swing across the chalk-outlined 'river' on it, his weight on the pole's spring wedged him joltingly in the middle of the 'river' with an all too real collision in mid-crotch. All this contributed to making me an Air Signaller and thus a future non-commissioned officer, perhaps also along with a trace of the accent that I had assiduously acquired when trying to be 'less posh' at school in my pronunciation.

Like so many of my peers, Britain's most worshipped heroes were the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain, and nearly all would-be aircrew aspired somehow to fly in Fighter Command. If there was one area that received dynamic publicity and admiration in those post-war days, it was almost anything to do with aircraft, jet engine technology, flight achievements and - not least - defence against the most fearful threat of the era (if not of every era thereafter), nuclear attack. At least, flying in the R.A.F. as a signaller was better than many another trade to which a conscript might be allocated. National Service it was called, though it doubtless cost the nation more than it ever got back. But at least we were kept out of trouble and brought a few steps closer to manhood. 'Becoming a man' I now think mainly of learning self-discipline. I was fortunate to be subject to a regime that encouraged development more than it imposed discipline externally. Under flying training as an Air Signaller in the R.A.F., self-centeredness was ground away while both professional and general self-confidence was encouraged. The main discipline consisted in living an ordered life, adjusting to physical and social limitations on one's freedom, having to relinquish many normal comforts and habits... all of which taught that I could manage fine without them. It bore resemblance to the renunciation of a monastery and brought some of the same fruits for personal growth.

Air Signalling is a profession which proves that practice makes perfect. Not that I became perfect myself. But what at the beginning of a two-year training in Morse code sounded like a rapid-fire jumble of almost indistinguishable sounds was eventually decipherable and I could note it at speed (25 'words' a minute), the 'words' invariably being groups of random letters or numbers, masquerading as coded messages.

For most of us, air signalling was a way to deal with the unavoidable two years of National Service. But I did not become a national serviceman, as I had expected. Instead, by signing up as regulars (for all of 9 possible years) we would earn a fair wage as sergeants after the initial training year and we would also be flying regularly and even abroad. We came to know some of those who had instead opted for the obligatory 'sentence' that many felt National Service to be. I think the following ditty captures the spirit that prevailed for most of them who held the lowest rank and were known as 'erks':

The ordinary erks on their two-year terms
- spud-bashers, orderlies, medics or drivers -
Servicemen doing their National time
slowly as snails, lowly as worms
sought only the glory of demobbed survivors
skimping on a/c pay, cheap NAAFI fare
contrived to be nought but exceptional skivers.

A 'skiver' was one who slacked, dissembled expenditure of effort, absconded and who generally found a way of making R.A.F. life easier than it was supposed to be.

My first meeting with the R.A.F. was at Cardington Base in Bedfordshire, where perhaps millions had first joined (my issue number was over 4 million). Many aircrew recruits had their first welcome at a Nissen hut under the supervision of a certain non-commissioned officer who had the incredible name of Corporal Bollock! No sooner had I entered than some thoughtful fellow took me aside and told me this, so that no grin-crooked face or other crisis would arise in the awful presence of the corporal himself. The same warning was given to all and sundry. When all were present, the corporal introduced himself in a loud voice and gave a mild enough run-in on things when a very late and rather stocky arrival threw open the door and in beery Yorkshire tones announced himself and his arrival with an extravagant throwing out of arms, "Hello chaps, I'm delighted to meet you all. I'm Learoyd!" At this, Corporal Bollock, beside whom the late arrival was standing, almost bawled out, "And who are you!" Learoyd said something like, "You didn't catch my name, perhaps, but I am Learoyd and I have just had my last fling at a pub bar where there was a lady with the most beautiful child-bearing hips... ah, you should have seen her... but, forgive me for going on like this, and pray, who are you?" There was a moment of utter silence during which everyone's concentration doubtless peaked. "I'm Corporal Bollock!" was the reply. "Well, I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Corporal Bollock", smiled Learoyd without batting an eyelid and he extended his hand for a shake. I had previously never come across such a cool customer as this Learoyd and I was dead impressed.

Among the news that was broken to us by the corporal was the unheard-of fact that we signaller recruits would shortly be signing on for nine years regular service! Almost all of us had come under the distinct impression that we were to sign on for three years! I still think that this must have been a bureaucratic trick to get us there. Naturally there were many protests, and when this was later confirmed, we were given 24 hours to think it over, or else to go home and then await the call-up for ordinary National Service. I would certainly not have signed up had we not found that in our hut were some chaps who had been doing Air Signaller training and who had failed the course and one who had opted out. They assured us that we could safely sign up for, if we changed our minds later, we could at will opt out of the course and just complete the remaining National Service time, as they were themselves now about to do. We were assured most firmly by them that nothing more than the statement that one wished to leave 'on personal grounds' was required. The result was that all of us signed up for nine years!

Thus we became 'sprogs', that is, raw recruits easily recognisable by our new weirdly-fitting uniforms complete with pimply black leather boots, berets that stood up misshapenly like over-leavened bread and by our relaxed civilian gait and Enfield rifles shouldered somewhat askew. Some of us got a compulsory issue of shin-length vests and also had to try to barter outsize trousers.

Air Signallers Swanton Morley 1955
see detailed information and name here

After a few months of square-bashing, Morse code exercises and various kinds of theoretical teachings, the rest of the first year was mostly basic flying training, starting in wartime Ansons and progressing to Perceval Prentices. We were 12 persons on the same course, living in the same barrack room, together all day and almost every day, sharing in the same ups and downs. Being at R.A.F. Swanton Morley, in the depths of the Norfolk countryside and isolated two miles away from the nearest village, we even had to share most of our leisure time. One important acquisition from this close group life was gradual adaptability of opinion and openness of attitude. It became a very positive experience of the unity possible when there is esprit de corps. Living through all this to emerge on good terms with all of the other survivors required a certain honing-down of the ego. There definitely wasn't much one could get away with in the way of conceit or deceit, of covering up personal weakness or of selfishness.

In retrospect I find it remarkable how the twelve of us quickly found our places in the group. After some weeks in an arrival barrack, we moved into an oblong barrack dormitory room and chose our places. It turned out that the affiliations that proved closest and most stable were already clearly reflected in the positions everyone occupied in the room. Two fairly distinct circles of friends emerged, one at either end of the barrack, while those without definite connections and one regular misfit had chosen beds in the middle of the barrack, emphasising how they were somewhere between the two sub-groups. There was no real antagonism between the two circles, but a difference of attitude, partly towards military organisation, partly on varied matters. I belonged naturally to the more humourous of the two sub-groups. We took ourselves in general less seriously than the others, among whom was the elected course leader... a keen aspirant to officer status who was some years older than the average with some previous experience from the police force in Rhodesia. We were the less conservative ones, more inclined to expressing deviant opinions and having fun.

I was on good terms with everyone, apart from a problem person in the group who couldn't get on with anyone and took particular exception to me. I eventually understood that it was envy of my friendships. On the pretext of my having uttered some criticism of his continual complaints against everyone, he challenged me to a boxing match. At first I was inclined to accept, simply out of blind observance of the usual rule of young men. It was to be decided on the next day, so I had time to sleep on it. I realised that I had no desire to hurt him, and also that I would lack the necessary aggression, which he had in plenty and more besides. Altogether I considered it best to back down graciously and give him the pleasure of the usual taunts of the low-minded. I simply said, I have no desire to hurt you and I see no value in it, then said not a word, whatever he said. He thought he had claimed a victory over me, which was o.k. by me... but I remained popular while he became less so. I was rather sorry for him.

Learoyd, who was one of the in-between group and a joker too, was always a good friend who could truly amuse me. Considering our minimal National Service pay during our cadetship, he convinced me one weekend when we had no cash for a fag between us, to go around the camp in the guise of a crippled beggar while he solicited funds on my behalf. He trained me to appear deformed in hands, face and body and to move crabwise, then stage-directed my appearances at strategic spots around the camp wherever airmen were to be found. With Learoyd's rattling tin and ridiculous baksheesh patter, we were somewhat successful too... some thought it an amusing enough show of pecuniary desperation to donate sixpences. He had actually worked selling at Yorkshire markets and he would expound on the smart methods of the 'Dutch auction' to me.

The general unity of the whole group was achieved through our having to adjust to routines and rules that applied to us collectively and which in turn brought about self-discipline in each person. The rewards of good work were made dependent on achievements but, if one person failed in a task, the whole corps bore the responsibility and loss of privileges. This made team effort necessary in almost everything we did, from cleaning floors, drilling and parading to success in flying exercises. We did not even mind drill, for we had become something like a corps de ballet, taking pleasure in our snappy precision of movement like one body. If someone disagreed and would not conform to the rule, the others had to help him until he saw the reason or otherwise learned to adjust to the situation. If the ego was too big or rough-edged, it would soon be rubbed down into a smaller, smoother shape. The alternative was that a cadet who was unable to adjust would be moved to another group or even removed from the course. This never occurred as far as I knew, though some failed the course on theoretical abilities or air-work (that is, airborne signalling exercises).

Traditional kinds of military training discipline were enforced, though since we were aircrew trainees, it was mostly verbal severity without any bite, and while it was being administered we sometimes saw a suppressed giggle behind the hand of a corporal or officer. The more serious punishments were attendance on special parades in full uniform, 'jankers' including duties like spud-bashing. Disciplinary charges were even trumped up against us so that we could have a taste of this extra discipline! The hearing or 'trial' had to be taken seriously, even though the officers could not conceal their amusement at the whole mock judicial procedure for matters like not removing invisible dust from a windowpane.

When the whole group failed a room inspection, there were many threats of reductions of the number of hours leave for a weekend pass. Only twice did any such thing occur, and it was Learoyd who caused the only complete stoppage of a weekend pass. We had been warned that a very strict inspection was due, with corporal followed by sergeant, our reporting officer and even the camp's adjutant. Having failed the first inspection for mere insignificant details, we were eager to pass the next one an hour later to get some weekend leave at least. But Learoyd's toothbrush, when held up to the light by a very irate corporal, was opaque with clogged toothpaste.

When demanded, "What's this?" he replied, "A toothbrush, corporal." The toothbrush was passed on back from echelon to echelon and the adjutant gave us a brief warning address of a further inspection in two hours. The serious sub-group were somewhat fed up with Learoyd, who nevertheless claimed complete innocence. On the next inspection, however, thought the toothbrush was perfect, he was found to have only a tiny tube of toothpaste... a sample tube.

"What do you think this is?" demanded the corporal in strident voice. "Toothpaste, corporal" was the cocky reply. That did it. No leave that weekend for insubordinate behaviour. The serious gang were mad at Learoyd, but only for a while for the rest of us simply had to laugh.

In things requiring cooperation or conformity, it was eventually achieved through time by the to-and-fro of discussion or of action and reaction. Otherwise one could soon see how life without a genuine consensus could become intolerable and a solution was best for all. The degree of mutually-appreciative camaraderie and informal, sensible ease of relating in work and in leisure, I have not experienced anywhere since.

One incident probably confirms what a good measure of group unity we had achieved. One of us called Geoffrey insisted that he had seen psi phenomena and that we could surely experience the same. Many were sceptics and made fun of the idea but, when challenged in discussion, agreed to give it a try. Darkening the dormitory, we tried some table-lifting which was unsuccessful and waited for some spirit 'tapping' that didn't occur; all due to an excess of humorous comments.

After some altercations about the spirit to approach it in, we tried another of Geoffrey's suggestions. This involved forming a closed circle, standing with linked arms and clasped hands. One person was sent out of the room while the remaining eleven secretly selected one person in the circle to concentrate on. The 'outsider' was called in and stood in the centre, was blindfolded and turned around so that he ended up not knowing towards whom he was facing. He was to relax and do nothing until he felt inclined to fall in some direction or other. The results were impressive to us because each person went out and all - except for one person - fell straight towards the pre-determined person on whom the group was concentrating. We repeated the 'experiment' again and again. The one person who was unsuccessful was upset and wanted to try it over and over, but it made no difference. We consoled him that it didn't really mean a thing.

From the start all of us were eagerly waiting for the day when we would actually fly, for which we had to drag out many months of drills and studies. The great day approached at a snail's pace as we practiced air signalling for weeks on end stuck on the ground in 'Harwell boxes', closets which had nearly all the equipment we would later use in the air. The simulation of contacting the ground operators, battling to sort out who was who and how to get atention by morse signals, was effective training. As the magic week approached we were initiated into the arcana of flight preparations, seeing parchutes packed, learning the safety procedures and, glory be, finally getting our hands on one or another piece of flying gear, which was issued sporadically as items became available. Some had nothing but a flying helmet, other a suit but nothing more, but each new item was paraded in our billet. (See example)

Our first several flights were in the old twin-engine Ansons where we could have an instructor beside us as we carried out the tasks of equipment operating, making radio contacts, direction finding and keeping the log. The eureka day, however, came with our first flights in the single-engined two-seater Perceval Prentice planes. These were often piloted by former wartime fighter pilots, not least some of the famous Polish Battle of Britain pilots. Unfortunately we were not allowed to talk to them unless they did so for technical reasons. Nonetheless I was one day flown by an elderly Pole who informed me he was going to chase down a Statocaster air liner that flew above us. Perhaps he was still longing for a dogfight, or more likely he was bored and wanted some light relief. No long after that we came upon a very tall slanting column of smoke from a bonfire - it was a very calm day - and he entered the smoke and dived down along it. He took no heed of my100 feet of trailing aerial dragging behind us, but happily it did not tangle up.

Another day the fleet of Prentices were abroad over Suffolk and my pilot suddenly announced "Engine failure. Prepare to bail out". I began to wind in my trailing aerial withput releasing th holding screw, so it broke off. The Flying Officer came on the R/T again and said we were at 1000 feet too low to bail out so, "Prepare for emergency landing". There were mostly ploughed fields with hedges below us and the one we could make it to was criss-crossed with very deep drainage channels. My pilot landed on the ploughed ground, the plane bouncing and shaking enormously so that my large transmitter nearly jumped out of its seating onto me, which could have been fatal. Coming to rest at last we opened out plexiglass canopies and emerged, soon realising that the drill was to open them before landing due to the near likelihood of the fixed undercarriage snagging a dike and turning the plane upside-down to entrap us within. The pilot accepted a cigarette and made off to find a farmhouse to phone from. Another Prentice flew over us and radioed for assistance to Martelsham Heath R.A.F. base. Soonish, as I stood beside the plane, a helicopter landed close beside and left an airman to guard the plane since locals including children had somehow rushed to the scene seemingly from nowhere. The 'copter pilot set off searching for my pilot and, one picked up, flew us into the base. It was so top secret that I had to get a pass signed by a Wing Commander to go through a gate so as to relieve myself! Within the hour an Anson from Swanton Morley landed to fetch us back and I was met by excited friends who considere I had been lucky, lucky to have the experience! (see newspaper report)

The final technical examinations over, those of us who survived at first go were ready to 'pass out', which was a fitting term. Not only did this involve a formal drill parade before the assembled station where we were awarded our air signaller wings but it included a visit the evening before to the local hotel in Dereham for a dinner and drinks. I did actually pass out after the do and, while on the bus back to the station, I unwittingly threw up the lavish dinner on one of my course mates. Not my proudest moment, but one which put a lifelong stop to such unpleasant boozing. We went out various ways on leave and I never met most of those bosom pals again. We were now sergeants and benefitted from a large pay rise which the government had introduced in preparing to recruit only regular defence forces.

I was posted firstly to Abingdon for a parachute instruction, a training and dispatcher course. Then to Thorney Island (near Portsmouth) for a conversion course to Viking aircraft. The transition to living in a Sergeant's mess with our own rooms and money to spend was comparative heaven. Then, nearly two years since joining up, I went to Dishforth in Yorkshire for training on Transport Command Valetta aircraft. Half a dozen of the new signallers I knew well were there too, so we had a social life while the many months of conversion training went on, visiting local spots such as the Grand Hotle in Harrogate, dance halls in Leeds plus a trip one weekend to Farnborough Air Show. I got a girlfriend at that time and, since the R.A.F. provided a leave ticket to any place within the UK (with return), I was able to follow her on her two week holidays in Jersey without travel expenses.

Upon my return, the consequences of being in a fighting force began to get home to me when I found out well in advance that I was to be posted to Aden. All political discussion had been both officially taboo and factually non-existent during our training but, as Aden with its guerrilla warfare loomed over my horizon, I began to wonder what I was doing and why. I certainly did not relish getting stuck for two years in that inhospitable country and climate where doubtless no modern musicians of note could be met. It was becoming clear that those going to Singapore would be fighting guerrillas by dropping supplies and troops in the difficult mountainous jungles. My undying ambition of becoming a musician was slipping away and I had to make a serious choice on that score. I felt that the R.A.F. had treated us badly from the start in not informing us before we joined up that the period required for an Air Signaller had increased from three to all of nine years. Having to sign the dotted line within a matter of hours, or be trashed and sent away as a kitchen help, a filler of holes or whatever for the rest of nine years I figured was quite unfair. Then, by chance, I heard that a good friend who had failed our conversion course, when sent to a reallocation unit, was directly offered to leave the service.

While ideas of looking for a way to withdraw from the Air Force after all were yet few and far between, the famous Suez invasion took place. One morning I got up late, as usually was the case in the season of morning ground mists. There were invariably no morning training flights before 10 a.m. at the earliest. My friend Ginger Berriman and I strolled up to the hangars chatting. But the entire fleet of serviceable transport aircraft had been flown off by the teacher-trainer staff early that morning en route to Cyprus. Their main destination was Suez, where they dropped paratroops and supplies. Some weeks later they returned with tales of derring-do... only one of the Valetta aircraft could boast of anything like action, having received a few machine-gun bullet holes in its tail. The Suez operation was a great military success initially... but a yet greater political fiasco. An RAF pilot who refused to fly a bombing mission from Cyprus was court-martialled and sentenced to death. Whether he was reprieved, I do not know but this whole operation began to penetrate my apoliticism. This brought home to me how, even in my case, serious consequences might follow if I flouted the rules.

There was a strong class element to it all because an NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) was not able to resign as was a commissioned officer. There was no one to whom I could apply to for advice, as we were mostly kept in the dark about such issues. I had assumed that to fail my airwork would only have taken me off flying duties and left me in some RAF limbo for 7 more years while the crucial years of my youth sped away. It now seemed that the best way to get out and have some reasonable career was to somehow 'work my ticket', as it was known in the vernacular. Whether this would be unethical or not, I weighed up against the entire unethicality of the subtle ways in which we were virtually conned into 'taking the Queen's shilling' by the initial bait of a 3 year sign up, which was a direct con. The close comradeship, the flying and the skills I mastered had borne me along until then, but now our special group was dispersed and I was faced with two years in Aden, considered a hole (camels, sand and Arabs) to which no one wished to be posted. Fortunately I met my good friend who had 'got the chop' at the wedding party of another from our original group and he assured me that he had immediately been given the free option of having his 9-year contract as a regular cancelled and to leave with his National Service completed. This was a relief to me, so I soon planned not to pass my final air examination.

Eventually, I did this too, but not without much difficulty and a long period of uncertainty I decided to feign gradually failing competence. To fail in flight exercises in which I had previously had not the slightest difficulty proved to be a test of ingenuity and nerve. With an experienced old hand breathing down my neck and occasionally breaking the rules to help me out by adjusting my transmitter etc., I had to fake errors very realistically. Once on the ground after a 6-hour examination night exercise over the North Sea, my instructor informed me, as I recall it, "Sergeant Priddy, I don't think I've ever seen a worse botch-up... but you're a nice chap, so I'm going to pass you, but only just!"

I had yet to complete a final unmonitered long distance flight. My logbook from that exercise was a glorious hotchpotch of every kind of omission and futile mistake. It earned me an eventual call to the Wing-Co, who hummed and hawed while trying to get to the point. I did not know whether it would be an investigation leading to court-martial or a transfer to the unit where I could opt out of the service. Once I realised with relief which way the wind was blowing, I was quite sorry for this decent chap trying his damnest to console me about my failure, to boost my confidence praising my behaviour till then and painting pictures for me of other likely successes in some other branch of the R.A.F.

I told my friends all from the start and they were all solidarity and understanding. We had reached a genuine respect for each other's feelings and decisions. So they supported me during the nerve-wracking attempt and kept very quiet about it. My motives in getting out of the remaining 7 years of service were admittedly self-protective and not so much of the higher moral sort. Yet the decision was not a light one. The facts of air force life and all it implied had became the clearer to me. My immature ideas about flying in the RAF fostered by wartime exploits had faded. I thought a lot about what I would be fit for if I came into civvy street at the ripe old age of 26 with nothing but air signalling talents... and the Morse code seemed ready to be replaced by radio telephony anyhow. (The Morse code was made fully obsolete just before the end of the century). Such are the trials of personal survival for young uninformed persons who easily get into situations which they deeply regret. It was hard to give up the comradeship and, as time went on, I lost touch with all of those with whom I had shared over a year in close company. Nonetheless, events showed that I had made a liberating choice so that, by the time I would have done my 9 years, I had explored two other professions and was in the process of taking my philosophy PhD at University of Oslo.

Previous to my National Service, I had done two long world voyages years on afour-year apprenticeship in the Merchant Navy before opting out. Though this had however been legal enough, strong pressures against it were exerted on me by a company ships master. I saw too much alcoholism and sadly lonely and isolated older officers to inspire me to stay. Society did then often expect a 16-year old to stick with an immature decision for the rest of his working life. I later knew well a charming fellow called Michael Bell who had been signed on in the Royal Navy while a 14-year old on a training-ship and found himself inextricably tied into twelve years of service! Until my forties, I still had occasional repeated dreams of being sent back to sea, sometimes agreeably but sometimes on yet another long, lonely voyage, sometimes on unfriendly vessels or under conditions to depress the spirit. They say that once a seaman, always a seaman. The same doubtless applies to airmen too. Every so often I have an unpleasant dream of being back in the R.A.F. and waiting on airfields either because I am having to start National Service all over again or because I am being re-drafted.

The final R.A.F. episode: walking over frosty roads one freezing cold but sunny December morning to the guardroom of High Wycombe R.A.F. station, I was to become another transient. My air signaller's wing and Sergeant's three stripes still intact, I took off my illegal leather gloves (an affectation, for officers alone were allowed to wear them) so that the duty M.P. would not charge me for it. (R.A.F. Military Police were sticklers for correctitude and all spit and polish). The duty guard, to my amazement, was a semi-uniformed, unshaven lounger with his feet on the counter, busy solving a crossword amid tea and biscuits. "'Ullo, whatcher want, mate?" was the greeting. Further surprises were in store.

I was directed to one of those eternal hump-backed corrugated iron Nissen huts. As I opened the door I was almost blasted backwards by a huge cheering from within. A small mob-in-transit, consisting of rejected but undejected reject pilots, navigators and signallers were ready to welcome another of their kind effectively with a brandy bottle ('to revive any flagging spirits'). This former wartime fighter base of High Wycombe had degenerated into a re-allocation centre for both aircrew, equipment and spare parts. I was hoping for demobilisation, of course, but still felt uncertain of the outcome. It was either 'demob' or 'remob' (thought of as to leave one mob or join another). I marked time there while my papers went through whatever they had to go through (one never knew) before making official my change back into mufti.

Meanwhile I throve at the Sergeant's Mess where to help out I took over the running and accounting of the bar from the officer who had interviewed me. He had already compensated me for agreeing to this task over the Xmas/New year holiday period by granting me 2 weeks more leave with pay than my quota allowed. I had used the time to apply for jobs and go to interviews. During this I drove to other R.A.F. bases in an official car with an aircraftman as chauffeur in pursuit of duty-free bottles of selected beers and spirits for the bar. I also learned of the skiving secret of my sergeant colleagues who were sorting, listing and re-allocating equipment returned from the abortive Suez engagement. They had been dragging their heels on a job that could by then have been finished... reckoning that they might make it last for a few more years. The attraction was having that posting very close to London, the virtual absence of most normal R.A.F. activities like parades and the considerable extra income generated by their daily teamwork in solving all lucrative newspaper and magazine crosswords and competitions! They had apparently quite a broad expertise between them in different fields of knowledge, such as Byzantine architecture, opera and so forth. They took it in turns to develop the smoke-screen of paperwork and cooked books that kept the military bureaucracy happy to keep on ticking over in their favour.

These sorts of situations were not so uncommon in those days. One National serviceman at a radio repair unit collected enough nuts and bolts from equipment that came through to start a specialist nut-and-bolt shop in London when he got out. Two sergeants were posted to an airfield base where some of their paperwork never arrived so they were not reckoned as on the work strength. Without occupation, they wandered around and eventually set up in a partly-obsolete hanger their own office in which they stacked old filing cabinets and constructed a bar and a light kitchen where they whiled away the times, chatting and entertaining visitors. They developed a 'front' to keep stray officers happy by pretending to amend dated copies of air traffic manuals. Their deception - or their bureaucratic plight - was eventually discovered after more than a year by some inquisitive officer.

My papers came through and I found I had completed my National Service and become a 'Z reservist', which sounded like a member of a secret force but actually meant that I was listed among those who were the very last category for call-up in the event of atomic war! Quite a boon.