National Service

Memories of Mervyn Upton

28th August, 1930 ~ 29th November, 2012


National Service

Some time ago, there was an ITV series called ‘Get Some In!’ The opening song contained the words… “Though you’re in the RAF, you’ll never see a plane.” … How true.

After school, while waiting for my National Service medical examination, I managed to scald my right ankle. This delayed my call-up by about six months until I could be passed Grade One.

Thursday 29th March, 1950 was the fatal day. I went to Temple Meads Station to board a train to Padgate, near Warrington. On the platform I encountered BL, a boy I had known at school so, we travelled together.

More young men joined the train and, when we disembarked at Padgate, the platform was crowded. Several corporals herded us into coaches and lorries and we were driven to the camp. We alighted and walked through a door marked ‘Welcome to the Royal Air Force’ and we were given tea and biscuits – the only biscuits we were given during our service!

Then, after formalities – form filling, instructions etc – we went to collect a mug and irons (knife, fork and spoon). The ‘store types’ issuing this equipment must have seen too many B-class western films…they slid the mug containing the irons down the length of a long table for us to catch. One poor lad was slow and his mug crashed to the ground and shattered. When he asked for another mug he was informed there were no spares – his mug was on the floor in pieces – a timely introduction to Service life!

We were then ‘marched’ to our huts where an ancient sergeant showed us how to make a Service bed and gave us tasks to do each morning to keep the hut clean.

During the next week we were fitted with our uniforms, received lectures about service life and requirements and received the dreaded ‘jabs’. A few fellows fainted but this was expected and they were soon dealt with.

One day, during morning NAAFI break, several chaps from the hut came charging into the building almost helpless with laughter… BL had bumped into one of the hut’s heating stoves, knocked it over and the chimney had fallen into the hut. Fortunately, the stove was not a-light at the time! Somehow, later, we managed to reassemble the parts to look reasonably normal.

We were informed that we would be posted to West Kirby for basic training and, on Thursday 5th April, an unpleasant Scottish corporal arrived announcing “I’m yer muther for the next 8 weeks.”

We were taken, by train, to Lime Street, Liverpool and then to West Kirby. Here the station band was awaiting us and we were marched uphill into the camp. The working day was over and heads appeared at billet windows, ironically, to cheer us.

We reached our huts that were the billets for ‘B Flight’. The sergeant was in an angry mood. It seemed that we were to go on leave the next day for Easter Grant. We had to prepare (with his four corporals) ‘leave passes’ for all of us (about 100 men). We went to the Airmen’s Mess for a meal and a sergeant came round shouting “Any more for coach tickets to Bristol?”

For ten shillings (50p) I would be taken to Bristol the next morning so a ticket was purchased. My parents were surprised to see me home so soon and I proudly wore my new uniform.

On return, the training began in earnest – marching, PT, shooting, aircraft recognition, education. For the latter, we were divided into three groups – those with Higher School Certificate or a degree, those with School Certificate and those with neither. We, in the first group, did not go to classes but were allowed to go to the station library – a chink of civilization. Otherwise, it was indifferent food, frequent bullying and petty regulations.

The lads in my hut were a mixed bunch but mostly got on well together. An exception was the two Scots men – nice, decent fellows but they hated each other. One was Campbell and the other was McGregor. C always referred to McG as ‘that cattle thief’ and the response was ‘I’m no a cattle thief.’

The senior man was a big, tough Cockney. Was he a member of a Kray-type gang? He seemed to like talking to me as our backgrounds were so different. However, he was a good comrade (more later).

Z was a Jew of Czech origin. He was a shrewd, intelligent chap with one weakness – he was a very deep sleeper. His bed was at one end of the hut and, one night when he was asleep, his bed was carried, without waking him, to the opposite end. He was so puzzled to see strange faces in the beds near to him when he awoke. Another night, his face was blackened with boot polish and, despite the giggles, he did not realise anything was wrong until he looked in a washroom mirror.

Being the only Jew in the Flight, he had nowhere to go during ‘Padre’s Hour’ –there were three groups…Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Other Denominations (Free-church men). I went to the latter group where the Padre was a Methodist minister. I realised that, if Z was isolated during these periods, he would be grabbed for fatigues so, each week, he changed his religion. When he was an OD he came with me and I briefed him about what would happen. None of the NCOs discovered his deceptions.

We all thought S was attempting to ‘get his ticket’ (obtain a discharge as he was mentally unfit). The NCOs saw through his tricks and he was given silly tasks to do. He would be sent around the camp, from corporal to corporal, seeking the keys to the drill shed. The shed had no doors; it was a roofed structure with three walls with the fourth side open. It was used for drill in wet weather. One night, just as he went to bed, the hut corporal came in and told S he thought there were intruders outside. S was made to dress and go outside with his rifle, wearing his gas mask to look for them.

He was not allowed on the Square for the passing out parade because he could not be trusted to behave normally.

The last night at West Kirby will never be forgotten.

Basic Training was over, the next day we were to go on leave and then a posting for Technical Training. I was to go to Yatesbury to be trained as a radar operator. We went to bed, the lights went out and we settled down to sleep. Suddenly, the lights came on and the hut corporal, with two friends, appeared. All were drunk. They yelled that they were going to tip us all out of bed “Oh no you won’t” said the rough senior man. The response was “hark ur bigmouth, trying to be tough” and an unfortunate was tipped out of bed.

The SM was out of bed and knocked one corporal over a bed. Then he floored the other two. It was like a bar scene in a B Western film. In turn, the corporals staggered to their feet, only to be knocked down again. Then cheers and general noise brought in the duty corporal and SM was ordered to dress and go outside. The three drunks staggered away and SM returned. Of course, no action was taken as a Court Martial would have dealt severely with the three drunks – loss of rank and detention.

One other West Kirby incident:

My scalded ankle reacted badly to RAF socks and boots and a giant blister appeared. I was categorised M&D, told to wear plimsolls and limped behind the flight when they marched to various camp locations. I had to watch and learn the drill movements being taught. One evening I walked to post a letter at the box just inside the camp gates. A voice yelled “Airman!” and I was confronted by an SP (Service Police) sergeant who told me I must wear boots like him when I came near the main gate. Eventually, I was able to show him my M&D form. He snorted and disappeared into the guard room.

On a wet afternoon, I arrived at RAF Yatesbury. Next day we were informed that there were no vacancies on the radar 0perator course and so we would have to spend a week on cookhouse fatigues. (My parents kept me at school to obtain an HSC so I could peel potatoes? – A typical way in which the RAF wasted ability).

At last the course began, our group included an ancient corporal who was in his late-forties and claimed to have been in the RFC. Half way through the course, an exam was set and, when the results were read to us, those of the corporal were not given. He was taken from the room and never seen again at the radar school reverting to his original trade – ACHGD.

I came first in this exam and, also, in the final one. We all passed and rushed to have the ‘Sparks Badge’ sewn to our sleeves. Postings came for everyone except J and me – the last and the first on the pass list.

We were put into a billet of cooks and spent the next few weeks trying to avoid fatigues – a not too difficult task at Yatesbury.

The Sparks Badge was useful – we could go to the front of the Mess queue before the trainees.

Food at Yatesbury was interesting. Much of it came for Harris, the meat firm famous for its bacon, ham, sausages and pies, who had, in those days, a large factory in nearby Calne. Local young ladies were referred to as ‘The Sausage Queens’ by Yatesbury airmen.

Yatesbury, the home of ‘2 Radio School’ was a large camp dating from 1916. The flying field closed in 1947. The station closed in 1967. All buildings were removed and the site reverted to agriculture.

Three good things about Yatesbury:

  1. Thirty six hour passes, each weekend, so I could come home. Sodbury Queen Coaches had an office in a hut and ran many services including one to Temple Meads Station.

  2. There was a Malcolm Club – far superior to the NAAFI – better food, served in better conditions by middle-class young ladies

  3. Very little ‘bull’ and very few parades. Once, the whole camp paraded on the Drill Square and there was much rubbing of boots on trouser legs. A large number of officers were also present. We were all called to attention and onto the Square ran two policemen, two hatless airmen and two more policemen. An announcement boomed out that the two airmen had been court martialled, being found guilty of theft, and sentenced to a period in Colchester, the military prison. Then they were run off The Square to the guardroom. A week or so later, the process was repeated.

My bed was near the rear of the hut and, shortly after arrival, in the middle of the night, I was aware of someone entering the hut and going to a bed on the opposite side middle. Next morning, an unfortunate discovered his watch was missing (I always kept mine on my wrist at night). Much searching and fuss next day. The SP (Service Police) was called in and we were all taken to the guard room for questioning. I found myself confronted by an SP sergeant who asked me the time. I looked at my watch, told him the time and showed him my watch. He said he wasn’t interested in it. I described what I had seen and there followed two rather strange questions…”Did I have any close friends in the hut?” Answer “No, all were strangers as we had been on the camp for only a few days.” Next, “Do you like the police?” Answer “I don’t know any.” This left him somewhat bemused and speechless. I was then dismissed. The culprit and watch were never found.

Eventually, J and I were posted to RAF Wartling, the radar station near Pevensey, between Eastbourne and Hastings. There were five sites:

  1. The CH Site – an early war-time radar with three 230ft radio masts

  2. The Ops Site – Operations Block, Station Headquarters, Officers’ Mess and SP Billet

  3. There were also three later wartime radars…Types 7, 13 and 14.

Type 7 was for fighter interception and raid reporting

Type 13 found heights and was usually u/s

Type 14 for raid reporting low flying aircraft.

  1. Two very small radio sites, transmitters and receivers

  2. The Domestic Site, partially in Wartling Wood (for camouflage?)

Later, a sixth site was acquired in Herstmonceux Village that had been a DP camp where the fighter plotters were billeted.

It took six months ‘on the job’ to become a fully qualified radar operator with promotion to AC 1 (and more pay).

Rates were AC1 – 4 shillings (20p) per day, AC2 – 5 shillings (25p),

LAC - 6 shillings (30p), SAC - 7 shillings (35p). Not having risen to higher ranks, I do not know their rates of pay.

J and I were slowly introduced to the working of a GCI cabin (Ground Control Interception). One day, not long after arrival, I was on a standby watch. We were on the premises but not using the radar. The officer in charge had a bright idea. We were informed that he had School Certificate in mathematics and would teach us Pythagoras Theorem. I opened my big mouth and told him I had mathematics in Higher School Certificate!!!!

The poor chap was left speechless. This was typical … many of the National Service airmen were very bright, having obtained Oxbridge Open Scholarships; others had university places reserved for them and some, like me, had booked places in training colleges. The officers were, mostly, lazy and intellectually undistinguished; the NCOs often of limited intelligence and the regular airmen were often illiterate. Fortunately, there were some exceptions. National Service enabled them to have employment – without it they would be occupying labour Exchanges, seeking jobs.

Corporal M was an ACHGD (Aircraft Hand-General Duties) usually referred to as ‘Bog Wogs’. They did all the odd jobs – keeping the place tidy,

cleaning the toilets etc. Cpl M was proud of his clean urinals and would visit and use them before meals. If he saw any dirt, he would scrape it off with his spoon, wipe it with his thumb and proceed to have his meal. It was noticeable that, when he was duty corporal, numbers on morning parade were few. He must have had a rocket because, the next time he was on duty, he told the queue of airmen waiting for evening meal he wanted a 100% parade the next morning. One wag informed him that there were 105 chaps in the camp...”We’ll have 105% parade” he replied and he wasn’t joking!

Sometimes, the chief cook used him to cut the cubes of butter given to us for use on our bread. Usually, we had to scrape his filthy finger marks off the butter before we could eat it.

One day, when duty corporal, he came to waken us and ensure we got up. One lad took no notice and stayed in bed. He knew a few tricks and, when M pulled off his blankets, a fist shot out, narrowly missing M’s head. M was breaking an RAF law by touching an airmen’s bed that was occupied and could have been court martialled. The airman had a perfect defence. He was awakened and a reflex action had caused him to shoot out a fist.

Sometimes, during night guard, Cpl M had to be given an early call. You knocked on the door of his room. The atmosphere was fetid. The light was put on and you observed a lump under smelly blankets. A slimy hand appeared, took your pencil and signed the early call book. You staggered out seeking clean air, sometimes feeling sick.

Paddy and Jock were ACHGDs. Both were left over from the war and had reached the rank of LAC. They were illiterate. When I arrived on camp they were LACs. I was an AC2. When I left they were still LACs and I was a SAC.

In my hut dwelt Larry who did not wash very often. Others began to know this and, one evening, the door burst open and in came a group of toughs from the MT section (Motor Transport). They said “Larry, we hear you don’t wash. Come with us.” They picked him up and carried him to the static water tank and lowered him inside until he was just above water level. …

“If you don’t wash, you’re going in.” Larry began to wash regularly!

Larry had a prized mug. Unlike the standard service issue, his was a fancy specimen. One evening, he went to the NAAFI and the rest of us had some sort of wild game in the hut in which the mug crashed to the floor and shattered. We collected the shards and took them to the NAAFI. Larry was playing cards and we walked to the table and appeared to be watching the game when a piece of broken pottery appeared on the table followed by another and another. Larry laughed “Someone’s mug has been broken.” Then he recognised the origin of the pieces and was, to understate the mood, not greatly pleased.

It was a winter’s night and talk in the hut mentioned the 9 foot ghost of a drummer that haunted the nearby Herstmonceux Castle. It was thought a good idea to get a small chap to sit on the shoulders of a six-footer to give us an indication of the size of the apparition. The small chap, wearing the big fellow’s greatcoat, improved the appearance of our ‘ghost’. Outside was moon-lit with deep shadows from the camp’s trees. The ‘ghost’ was near the NAAFI when an ACHGD appeared. He stopped, stared and rushed back inside. He did not see us as we were hiding. We entered the NAAFI and the poor chap was shaking. When asked the trouble he stuttered, “It’s out there.” We revealed our creation and everyone present rushed out to see and enjoy our ‘ghost’.

Exercise Emperor was held in September 1950. ‘War’ had broken out and we were in the front line. J and I were considered too inexperienced to man one of the two fighter control cabins, so I was sent to ‘The Floor’ to assist the fighter plotters manning the control table. I went to CHB (Cabin Chain Beamed) where all aircraft in the area were plotted. I enjoyed this position so much that I requested to stay there and, later, found myself I/C of B Watch when only an LAC. Very secret work was done and I had the power to order from the room any stranger, no matter what rank, if something happened.

Meanwhile, the CO spied J on The Floor and ’hit the roof’. He wanted to know why such a scruffy airman was there and poor J was sent for and ordered to return to his billet (about a mile away) to smarten up and report back to the CO, Sqdn Ldr Viles.

One night an emergency watch was required and, hearing of this, we all went to bed, the lights being extinguished. Shortly afterward the door was opened, the lights put on and the SWO shouted “Any radar operators in here?” No response, we were all ‘asleep’. He shouted louder ~ no response. Then he threatened to charge all of us. Chas, the barrack-room lawyer, broke first and lamely said “We’re all radar operators.”…”You’ll do, get dressed and report to the guard room in five minutes.” There was a commotion outside, giggles and a voice saying “He’s got Chas.” In a very much quieter voice the SWO said “Silence you men. There’s a room full of men asleep.” They departed and we could start to reveal the laughs we were barely able to suppress… Chas swore!

One of the worst tasks was to be selected fire piquet for a week. One of us had to stay up all night and, during the day, we had to perform unpleasant odd jobs. Once, when I was involved, a practice alarm was sounded with a ‘fire’ at the disused CH site. Before the duty driver could arrive with for the fire engine, the fire corporal ordered us on to the back and set off driving at a tremendous pace although he was not a qualified driver. Death was very near that evening as the machine sped along the narrow road with frequent

ditches. Suddenly, he turned off the road, the engine tilted and equipment fell off. Later, the corporal said he thought it was one of us but he couldn’t stop as he was on his way to a fire. On arrival, we tried to connect hoses to the pump but they had all been rolled in reverse so it took time to rectify the fault and, after a struggle, the corporal managed to start the pump. Lots of questions were asked afterwards by the officer I/C fire fighting.

At another practice, when I was not on piquet, somebody summoned the local fire brigade. It was a part-time unit who, later, sent the camp a bill for their services. More rockets!

There was a plan to defend the main radar site if it were attacked. The off-duty watch would come across the marshes as a relief force. I was off-duty when a daylight exercise was attempted. Of course, we had no weapons.

The few rifles were in an armoury at the radar site. We travelled partway by lorry and then set off across the marshes led by the SWO. We came to a water filled ditch. “Follow me” ordered the SWO and he jumped and fell in!

He scrambled out on the other side and ordered the next man. He fell in, as did number two. The rest of us were ordered to walk along the ditch to find a bridge and so, after traversing a number of bridges, we arrived at our destination. Shortly afterwards, a night version was attempted. This time I was on watch and, during our rest periods, we patrolled the inside of the camp. (We were only permitted to man the radar tubes for an hour before relief). The station defence officer had equipped himself with a revolver and blank ammunition. This time, a few brave lads were to be an attacking force. Flying Officer J thought he saw the ‘enemy’ and opened fire, badly scaring a villager cycling home! Eventually the attackers and relief forces arrived, wet and thoroughly covered in mud.

For Pay Parade, money had to be collected from a bank in Pevensey by the adjutant. He was driven there by the duty driver and accompanied by an SP (Service Policeman) armed with a revolver. Arriving at the bank, the SP would stand by the door with a drawn weapon. When the adjutant emerged he would return to the car and replace the revolver in his holster. Of course, the revolver was empty.

In an isolated camp like Wartling, the NAAFI was essential and provided us with snacks and meals, drinks and confectionary, soap, polishes etc.

Some of the young ‘ladies’ provided other services. One was known to pass nights in the room of the medical corporal. He was such a nice chap that his activities were well concealed. Once, when road-works were nearby, a red light was placed outside the NAAFI quarters with the words ‘Knock twice and ask for Mary’.

The NAAFI building was a useful place for relaxation and card games were frequent. Not for money, that had to be done in secret. It was there that I first saw television. At that time reception was not possible in Bristol.

Sport was not considered to be very important at Wartling. On arrival, I was asked if I played cricket. The reply “I am a wicket keeper” was answered by “We already have one.” An attempt to raise a rugby team was made with just sufficient numbers for the team. Our first game was a disaster. Football, hockey and rugby went to Tangmere Aerodrome for matches. At that time, Tangmere was an operational station, home to Nos 1 and 29 Squadrons whose fighters we controlled. It was very many times bigger than Wartling and we lost by a very big score. Our opponents were bigger, faster, fitter and better trained than us. From then on we narrowly lost games. Perhaps the best ones were our two visits to Kenley Aerodrome where we lost 5-3 and

11-6. Our opponents were mainly officers and our highest rank was LAC but we were well received and entertained. We also saw some real aircraft as we were able to view the Ruster 5s of 661 Squadron and a solitary Spitfire.

Our final match was against Royal Artillery, Crowborough and we could only raise 14 players. An extra kit was taken and our driver was forced to play to make up the number. Surprisingly, we drew 8-8, our best result.

Summer evening games of Softball were organised between the various sections. I played for the radar operators and, after a disastrous few moments in the outfield, it was realised that I was an effective infielder. In one game we beat Signals 30-7 and I caught 4.

One highlight of camp life was the annual dance that was held in Eastbourne. As a non-dancer, I volunteered for guard duty that evening. Camp was virtually deserted all evening so I sat reading in the guard room, occasionally disturbed by a visit from a rather worried duty officer who wanted to know if all was well. Sometime after midnight, lorries could be heard and the lads returned in various states of inebriation ~ some staggering in, some being assisted and a few being carried. All were supposed to book in and most did ~ one booking in and promptly re-joining the queue to repeat the process a couple of times. When all was quiet I booked in those I remembered seeing return and checked the bed spaces of the others. All were present.

About 25th August, I went on leave to be at home for my 21st birthday, returning to Wartling on Monday 3rd September to commence clearing and, on Thursday 6th September, I was discharged from the RAF. Memories, good and bad and a tatty piece of paper recording my service remain.

In August 1952, I was required for Reserve Service for two weeks. I was sent to RAF Chigwell in Essex where I encountered two other radar operators. Unfortunately, we were sent to the wrong place as Chigwell was the base for radar fitters and mechanics. The SWO was not pleased. He could not employ or misemploy us so he told us to keep out of his sight…time was spent reading in the Education Section.

After a few days we were posted to RAF Hillingdon which joined RAF Uxbridge to the west of London. After losing ourselves several times on the tube system, we eventually arrived. The duty SP was not pleased to see us. He had never seen such scruffy airmen in all his life and, if we did not smarten up, he would be after us etc, etc, etc. After about ten minutes of this tirade, we managed to explain we were reservists. He almost had a heart attack and a weak smile covered his face ~ “I hope you enjoyed my little joke” he said “you will want a meal and accommodation” and he promptly phoned for these services. His final words to us were “If I can help you in any way while you’re here, please let me know.” Whenever we saw him afterwards, he always enquired if all was right with us. (Reservists had Members of Parliament to whom they could complain about their treatment in the service. Obviously rockets had been received from Westminster and Whitehall so reservists were treated with kid gloves!).

Hillingdon was different from the other stations I had known. Food was much better with a choice and we sat at tables covered with cloths. While there, we were taken to a truly historic place…the control room of 11 Group from which the battle of Britain was won. It was deep underground, ready for instant re-use and guarded by an SP. The radar, an unfamiliar type, was at Heathrow Airport.

For lunch we went to the MCA canteen. We went there from the radar site by public bus, paying 2d for the ride. Tickets were retained to obtain repayment. After lunch I went into the Public Enclosure to watch (and log) aircraft. In uniform admission was free.

The second spell of Reserve Service was different. A hutful of reservists was collected at RAF Sopley, near Christchurch, Dorset. We were there to participate in a major exercise. Radar cabins were now underground and another new gear had to be mastered. We did not like the attitude of the officers and had an opportunity for revenge…

Typically, someone had made an error. The exercise ended at midnight on Sunday and our period of service ended at midday on Saturday. We were beseeched to stay until the end as they would be short-handed. As men, we declined, perhaps leaving behind people who realised that civilians would not accept the treatment given to servicemen.

Return to Wartling

In August 1977, Janet and I holidayed in Sussex, stating at Cleaver’s Lyng, Herstmonceux, so I could return to Wartling. The CH masts and the operational site had vanished, the latter place could only be identified by a bridge over the ditch. At the domestic site, the portion where my hut had been was a large garden and house. On the opposite side of the road, a wood had replaced the camp but remains of buildings could be seen in the undergrowth. There was a footpath through the wood where the main road of the camp had been. Janet photographed me standing to attention on the spot in the public road where we paraded each morning for flag raising at 8.00hrs.

Two more memories of Wartling:

Wartling had three civilian chaplains ~ Church of England, Roman Catholic and Other Denominations (OD) who was a Methodist Minister.

The CofE and RC chaplains were rarely seen but the OD chaplain came regularly. He was Rev John Wynne of St Aidan’s Methodist Church, Seaside Road, Eastbourne. I saw him frequently and he encouraged me to attend his church which I did on Sunday evenings when service duties permitted. Christmas 1950, the day before most of us departed for Christmas grout, a carol service was held in the NAFFI. Mr Wynne brought some of his choir and the other two chaplains were present. Officers and service NCOs joined us and the proceedings got off with a bang when the SWO sat down and the chair collapsed! Afterwards, the chaplains were invited to the officers’ Mess. Mr Wynne declined as he had to escort, safely, his choir back to Eastbourne.

It was reported that, sometime after midnight, a laughing crowd emerged from the Officers’ Mess, including the RC chaplain who staggered to the wall of the Ops Block where he urinated!

We reported the plots of aircrafts on our radar to two other stations. Overseas ones went to RAF Rye, an all-male station like Wartling, but, inland ones were sent to RAf Felixstowe, a mixed station. Soon we became familiar with the young ladies at the end of the line and names were exchanged. Conversations were strictly not permitted and one of the crew found himself in trouble with the CO when he was heard asking her the colour of her hair and eyes and her vital statistics. Maureen Butler and I were more discreet and were soon exchanging letters regularly. This relationship lasted until college work and life prevented the writing of long letters. We never met.