Memories of a National Service Airman 2486768 LAC. Pilling. George.
RAF life started at Padgate on 4th September 1950 at the age of 21, I had just completed my apprenticeship as a Mechanical Fitter. After being kitted out, I was given my ID number, which I will never forget. Also, I remember the first meal I had in the mess "Bubble and Squeak" which was a shock to the palate. I remember the hanger which was full of girls modifying uniforms, as instructed by the tailor who had been around the billets with his stick of chalk marking the surplus material our baggy and ill fitting uniforms. Then next stamping our ID number on our kit bag and each item of clothing, in the wrong place if you didn't move then fast enough.
Next we were transported to Kirkham to be moulded into an airman, six weeks of marching, polishing and bull. On arrival we were split up into different huts and told to choose a bed space and remain there until our Corporal Drill Instructor arrived and that he would introduce himself to us. I remember a lad named Penvose who before the DI had arrived said that he thought it was time we were given something to eat. He proceeded to the small room at the end of the hut were the DI Corporal had his quarters and knocked on the door he was invited to enter, in a Oliver Twist style asked when are we going eat. The hut seamed to shake as if it had been struck by a tornado with bellowing shouts of you'll bloody well eat when I decide its time to bloody eat, Penvose retreated with this cry ringing in his ears, lesson one learned. It was a very cold winter, coal was rationed out and supplies were running low.
Rumours were going around that we were going to be sent home until the situation improved. On parade this particular morning we were told that the CO would be making a special announcement that evening at 1800 hrs over the Tannoy system, this is it we thought, off home for a few weeks. The all-important announcement came "because of the severe shortage of fuel I regret to announce that we must close (long pause) the station cinema until further notice".
We had to do all what seemed stupid things, like scraping all the paint off a Duro-Glit tin and polishing it until it glistened like some prize cup and displayed on your locker. Polish the billet floor and walk, or slide over it with big felt pads on your feet. Clean the "Ablutions" a word I'd never heard of before until then, at first I thought it must be some part of ones kit. Fold blankets in a fashion that made them look like a multi-layered biscuit, placed at the head of the bed. But when all this training ended, there were very few that didn't feel some sense of pride and achievement when it came to the "Passing out parade".
After square bashing was over I along with my friend Bill got transferred to the other side of the camp at Kirkham, to be trained as an Armourer Mechanics (Bombs). While in training we were also required to do guard duty but because I was only 5ft-4ins I was not allowed to stand guard on the "main gate" which was on the Blackpool New Road, apparently they didn't want the passengers on the coaches on route to Blackpool know that the RAF had little airmen.
Therefore small people had to do security patrols at night, which had advantages because I found out that the RC Church remained open all night and the place to go to keep warm.
Wednesday afternoons was sports afternoon a popular activity was cross country running, some of the crafty ones would hide their civvies somewhere start the run in the direction of their clothing, change and then head for Blackpool.
On completion of trade training we went to Weeton for a few days, then down to 5 PDC at Hednesford to await a draft posting to MEAF (Middle East Air Force).
My memories of Hednesford are still very clear, like catching the midnight train from Manchester to Stafford on a Sunday night after a weekend pass, getting a bus from the railway station back to camp only to find everything in the billet, beds and bedding where damp. Something else while I was there, I remember there being a permanent staff guy that kept a Raven in a cage outside of his billet, it was rumoured that he wasn't a "full shilling" but the RAF wouldn't admit to it because of a possible pensions claim.
After about three weeks at Hednesford our draft was transported to Rugley station and then by train to Liverpool, the train went right onto the quayside and we boarded the "Empire Pride" for a non stop, ten-day sail to Port Said and Egypt.
On the quayside at Port Said we were given our postings, I was ordered to take a train to Kasfareet were I and a few others would be met and taken to RAF Kabrit and next day report to the orderly room of 683 Squadron.
It was at Port Said that I had to say cheerio to my friend Bill Roberts, I met Bill on the train when we were both going to Padgate and have remained friends ever since. It was on that day I realised what part luck plays in forming your life, Bill's service number was one below mine and he was the same trade but he was posted to RAF Shallufa and remained there for all of the eighteen months we were to spend abroad. I became a member of a mobile squadron and destined to travel and see places that I could never have dreamed of visiting.
I duly reported to the Engineering Officer F/Lt Cantarus, (Nicky the Greek) who explained that the Squadron consisted of four Lancasters (Photo Reconnaissance) Mk1s and a Vickers Valetta for transporting equipment and supplies.
The Lancasters had been removed of their armaments and my job would be to maintain all equipment associated with the aircrafts bomb bay, winches, freight panniers and containers, loading and securing the payload. He also explained the task of the squadron was to carry out an aerial survey of East Africa; this was followed by the Aden Protectorate and Iraq. He also realised that I may not be fully occupied, so I would be expected to be general handyman and repair items of equipment not covered by maintenance schedules. After this briefing I reported to the crew-room met the Chiefie and the lads. Being a mobile Squadron of about just over one hundred strong, we had enough men of each trade to support ourselves providing the station we were posted too had the accommodation.
At RAF Aden most of us had to sleep outside on the veranda of a barrack block. The squadron comprised of senior staff lead by a Squadron Leader, aircrew, ground crew, we had our own admin staff, cooks etc and even a fire fighter.
On arrival the non-aircraft related staff would report and supplement the station staff, cook to the cookhouse, fireman to the fire station etc. This arrangement made for a very close knit group and was very friendly bunch with Officers both aircrew and admin treating other ranks with mutual respect.
Because of this integral arrangement all discipline unless involving station property was dealt with at squadron level. I remember an instant when one of our Lancaster's was in the hanger having a major service and one of the riggers asked if anyone was in the cockpit and with an affirmative reply requested for him to turn on the hot/cold air shutters, the guy in the cockpit asked its position, by the side of the pilot's seat shouts the rigger, is it the one with the red handle, yes, no, too late down drops the jettison pipes, high octane all over the hanger floor and P/E set running below. To add to the scene our Engineering Officer was passing on his bike when this happened, but apart from a general rollicking by the officer I can't recall any further action being taken.
I remember when I got in trouble while a Eastleigh, I took it upon myself to move a David Brown tractor out of the way, but I accelerated a bit to fast and hit and damaged the wing of a Tiger Moth which was kept in the hanger for exhibition displays.
I was duly charged and ordered to report next day in my best bib and tucker before the Station Commander, on arrival at HQ I was informed that SC was too busy and our own Squadron Leader would deal with the charge. He said he was amazed when he was told what I'd done for he said, I always regard you as one of the more intellectuals on the squadron and awarded me with seven days cc. Later in the day I met our Adjutant who said, you were lucky this morning, I said that I thought I was, to which he replied I'm sure you were. I think, my reward for being an amicable sort of person and I had not been in trouble previously. I didn't do all the seven days I managed to get chits to say that I had to work. With regards to the togetherness within the squadron, some of our riggers went down to the hanger in their own time with fabric, dope and paint and repaired the wing.
After spending a few weeks at Kabrit we up sticks and moved down to RAF Eastleigh. We called in at Wadi Halfa before flying on Omdurman and from there by road for a two nights stay at RAF Khartoum. The transit mess was change from the airmen's mess in Egypt. Here we had waiter service and the waiters dressed in pure white galabieh, red fez and red cummerbund. There was a stall just inside the camp gates with leather goods. He once got a mention in the RAF Review, the tale went that a P/O new from Cranwell asked Ali the price of a leather bag so many ackers came the reply, the P/O proceeded to pay, no, no says Ali, first you must barter. Ali's other claim to fame that he was the slave driver on the boat when the original "Four Feathers" was being filmed. I visited the then famous Grand Hotel at Khartoum.
Next day we flew to Juba, a very primitive airfield they refuelled using a hand pump from barrels, from they're to Nairobi for a six months stay.
RAF Eastleigh was a first class posting the home of the AOC East Africa. Both the food and Barrack Block type accommodation was superb following even a short stay in the back end of the Universe. It was from here that the survey started and the "Lancs" would fly around a fixed radar beacon, at a fixed height filming a six-mile wide section of the ground below. At the end of each sortie a map on the crew room wall, which had circular bands scaled to five-miles wide radiating out from the centre, which was the fixed beacon site, a section of the one of bands would be filled in after the film had been developed and accepted. Occasionally there would be gaps in the days filming this was due to low cloud or more often by ground haze caused by the intense heat of the day. Filming at six-miles wide gave an over lap to allow for drift.
Another great experience for me, I flew with a ground crew down to Livingstone which is near to Victoria Falls in what was then Northern Rhodesia to collect a Lancaster which on "take off" the Pilot had noticed he wasn't getting any air speed reading and aborted, he tried to brake but reached the end of the runway, swung the plane around and hit the tail plane against the trunk of a tree. It was later found that an insect had crawled inside the Peto head and blocked it. An MU team had repaired the plane, but on the morning of our departure on we noticed that one of the main wheels had a puncture.
This meant that there would be a further delay while a replacement was flown down from Nairobi, which gave us the opportunity to visit the Victoria Falls and the surrounding area. I also saw the most unusual site on the hard standing at Livingstone airport a "Tudor" belonging to South Africa Airways lying on its belly with all its "prop blades" bent up at the ends. Apparently, someone had inadvertently selected "under-carriage up" while the aircraft was parked and when the Pilot started to rev up the engines and with the brakes on, the forward thrust of the engines over came the mechanical geometrical lock of a tail wheeled aircraft and the plane collapsed.
Also, while at Eastleigh the squadron had a detachment based at Dar-es-Salaam and the lads set up a bar and opened it up to the general public. The profits from the bar helped to bolster squadron funds and paid for many treats.
One day, there was great excitement when the DH "Comet" the first jet powered passenger aircraft arrived for tropical trials, piloted by de Havilland's chief test pilot "cats eyes" Cunningham. What a beautiful sight and what a lovely smooth landing it was, just like a big bird hovering over the runway, then rolling to a stop. However, come the first and what turned out to be the last take off, because the thrusts from the jets blow half the runway away. The runway was constructed from hard red sand called murrine; it looked like a big red cloud passing over the airfield. The aircraft and ground support team moved over to Entebbe.
The visits into Nairobi were always enjoyable travelling by bus that had sprung seats and wooden seats in rear on which you could ride for free. I remember the shop security was a night watchman who sat outside the shop and had a brazier to keep him warm. On one occasion four of us hired a car and went for a tour up the Riff Valley that was fantastic to see some of the wildlife.
With regard to security on the camp that was carried out by the East African Police, we did a security patrol at night, which consisted of walking around the various sections of the camp finding the Policeman responsible for guarding that particular area, signing his little book verifying he was awake at the time you located him.
Later that year it was back to Kabrit to spend Christmas in the Canal Zone because of the pending trouble, that of ousting King Farouk and take over by General Neguib. The Station Commander said that no bars were to be built in the billets, which was the normal practice at Christmas. Normally the billet judged to have the best bar would be awarded free beer all round. There was also a shortage of beer and cigarettes in the NAAFI, but fortunately 683 were doing flights to Aden and Cyprus for navigational training so the aircraft would return with the panniers in the bomb bay loaded with goods. By rights they should have landed at Fayid for customs clearance but on the pretext that they had a problem with under carriage or something they would get permission to return to Kabrit, with customs driving over from Fayid as fast as they could to meet them, but of course too late.
On Christmas Eve after work we were ordered to parade outside Squadron Orderly Room there we were presented with two bottles of beer (Stella) and fifty box of cigs (Cape to Cairo) all paid for from the profits of the Dar-es-Salaam bar. On Christmas Day two of our officers some-what inebriated came around the billets putting people on a charge and ordering them to report to our CO's office immediately, they then marched you in read out the charge "Sir, this airman was found not drinking on Christmas Day" very serious this says the CO "I will award this man two bottles of beer, march the man out, again paid for out of Squadron funds.
In January of 1952 we move again to Aden and RAF Khormaksar to start surveying the Protectorate and then Somaliland and Eritrea. Aden though it was a steaming hot place with 90 % humidity I found the stay very interesting and enjoyable. At that time Passenger Ships from the UK were arriving loaded with English people emigrating to Australia under the Government £10 scheme. The shops down in the town would open up for business respective of the time day or night when ever a Australian bound boat arrived. The passengers were allowed to come ashore to buy presents etc. On occasions we would meet some of the girls off the ships and offer to show them around the shops and barter for the goods which they where interested in buying, often the trader would say "you're in the RAF, come back when the boats gone out" and the price would then have reduced by 50 % anyway.
I had a friend serving in the merchant navy that I had kept in contact with and in a letter he told me that his ship was going to call at Aden. Because Aden is a shallow water port everything has got to be lightered ashore, even the RAF had a couple of launches for this purpose. The crew were billeted with me, which later proved to be fortunate in deed. I located the offices of the shipping agent responsible for my friends ship while in port and I enquired about the details regarding the ships visit. He told me that the SS Silver-Tarn wasn't staying long, only for about eight hours for bunking and that he himself was only going out to it with documents and wouldn't be on board very long, but he did agree to take me out with him and that I could stay on board to see my friend providing I could make my own arrangements to get off. So here's were my mates that worked on the launches came in useful, at an arranged time this large white launch appeared along side the Silver-Tarn with RAF flag flying, I boarded the vessel and was taken back to the jetty. My friend remarked the next time we met, he bet his shipmates thought I was the AOC for RAF Aden or somebody else as important.
I joined the camp concert party which put on a couple of shows each year, it was all good fun and some of the gang where quite talented. Officers as well as ordinary erks were members and pulling rank was taboo. Before I joined the cast I had learned how to do a mind reading act that was my spot in the show as well a being a member of the chorus.
One sketch was a Tavern scene "The Drinking Song" from the "Student Prince" with real ale to drink, on the opening night one our two had a little to much because it was free. On the second night we were all limited to two bottles each.
The Squadron had a special job to do; it was the time when Princess Elizabeth and the Duke flew down to Nairobi to stay at Tree Tops Hotel. We had to have two Lancs on stand by, one at Wadi Halfa and the other at Juba; this was in case the Royal Flight suffered a mishap on route. Both aircraft were loaded with blankets and medical supplies etc. Then a few days we were awakened during on the night to be told that King George V1 had died and the exercise had to be repeated for the hurried return home of the Royal couple. With the death of the King and the crowning of the new Queen meant that I could say I've served under two sovereigns.
There were two camps at Aden the other being RAF Steamer Point, that was were the WAAF's, were based. A funny incident I remember, when one of the lads on our camp had an uncontrollable manly urge and one night went down to Steamer Point, with a pair of wire cutters and cut through the perimeter fence and forced his way into a Billet, to his sorrow he'd picked on the lady Provo Sergeants bedroom. So it was off to the slammer for that poor guy.
During our stay we managed to obtain some leave, our CO arranged for navigational training flights twice a week to Asmara in Eritrea.
So several of us had seven days leave with a party going out and others returning on each flight. The airfield at Asmara gave problems to a Lancaster because a short distance away from both ends of the runway were mountains, so everybody had to pile into the cockpit to transfer weigh ratio, which assisted in getting the tail wheel off the ground, as quickly as possible.
We had a detachment with a radar beacon based up in the Yemen, supplies and mail was parachuted in to the site on a weekly base. On one occasion I was flying on one of the ration runs when we had an emergency. We arrived over the drop zone, one pass over had been completed, and two of the four containers had been released successfully. On our approach for the second drop the chutes of the two remaining containers blow out while still attached to the bomb bay floor some of the chute cords became entangled around the tail plane. We were in a valley at this time and the chutes were acting as an air brake reducing our air speed to 90 knots, which is the stalling speed for a Lancaster. The pilot somehow got us out and we headed for home. Arriving back to base it was very unnerving to see all the emergency crews lined up awaiting our landing, which I am pleased to say was ok. After the incident was the court of inquiry and all that entails. The incident was also reported in the RAF Review with a sketch picture showing a Lancaster with the two chutes ballooning out from each side of the fuselage. I have often wondered if this incident gave somebody the idea for using a parachute to assist aircraft braking systems.
It was then northwards in May to the massive RAF base at Habbaniya in Iraq. The distance around the perimeter of the camp was about 15 miles. There was even a taxi business operating with in the camp and they charged the same fare irrespective of the distance you travelled. Also, within the camp was an Iraqi village, it was fenced off from the main camp with its own entrance. We were allowed inside to visit the cinema, or the tailor's shops were you could have a suit made up within a couple of days and souvenir shops etc. During the interval at the cinema there was a boy who wore a long coat in which there must have been about fifty pockets and in each pocket was a bottle of "Coke", he would run up and down the isles as fast as he could selling the drinks. This was the hottest place I've ever been, in August the temperature reached 135° F and the water in the open-air swimming pool was 90°F. There was a chicken farm associated with the camp and everybody got served one egg each day in some form or other, fried, boiled or scrambled. While station at Habbaniya my Mother sent me a parcel for my pending birthday in which where cigarettes and milk chocolates, imagine the state in which it arrived, after travelling by sea and in the heat of the Persian Gulf.
It was from here that I started my trek towards Blighty on the 9th August 1952 got my form 1394 "Brief statement of service and certificate of discharge" and I flew to RAF Fayid and then to the PDC RAF Kasfareet to await a flight back home.
It was at Kasfareet that I met up again with my old friend Bill Roberts; I'd only seen Bill once since the day we arrived in Egypt. That was during that sort stay we had at Kabrit over the Christmas period, he managed to arrange the visit by being the escort to the Padre, escorts was a requirement during these troubled times.
A few days later we boarded a Hermes of RAF Transport Command for our flight back to the UK and RAF Lynham with a short stay in Malta at RAF Lucca for refuelling and a meal.
We took a train from Lynham to London then onwards No5 PDC Lytham for demob and then transferred to Class H Reserve.
Later, I was called upon to do reserve training for two weeks at RAF Hemswell and at that time I was still in contact with a Bill Thwaite who was an Engine Fitter on 683 Squadron, he had been demobbed and was working on a farm near to the camp. We arranged to meet during the middle weekend of training and I stayed at the farm with him we had a great time and reminisced over a pint or two.
I have had no further involvement with the service days until I saw a letter in our local paper asking for people who had been in the RAF doing their National Service and interested in becoming members of the association to make contact, which I did.