Other National Service Stories 4 National Service RAF – NSRAF

12 Dec


By Duncan Hamman.

To most young men of today the words “National Service” will not mean anything but between the years of 1949 and 1960 to men of 18 years of age they meant a complete disruption to their life. At this time, upon reaching 18, the man had to serve in the Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force for a period of 18 months and in 1950 this was increased to two years. If the man was serving an apprenticeship he was allowed to delay his National Service until he was 21 and if a man was willing to serve his time working down a coal mine instead he could do so. But there was no escape.

In 1950 I reached the age of 18 and it wasn’t long before the dreaded buff coloured envelope came through the door telling me to report for my medical examination. There was a group of about 30 and a nursing sister made us all strip completely naked before we marched into a large room. About twelve doctors were positioned round the perimeter of the room and each one had a female secretary – which caused a great deal of embarrassment to the naked men. Each doctor had to check a part of our anatomy and his secretary would record his comments before the recruit moved on to the next doctor. It was like a conveyor system. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I had been colour-blind for 18 years without knowing about it! I passed the medical examination and later had an interview to decide which of the three services I would serve in. I certainly didn’t want the Army or Navy and the only way I could ensure selection for the RAF was to volunteer for an extra year of service – was I mad?

Some time later I received a travel warrant to RAF Cardington, near Bedford. After a sad goodbye to my mother I arrived at London Road Station, Manchester, now known as Piccadilly Station, and met up with a small group of young men all heading for Cardington. The journey was terrible for me as I was the only non-smoker in the carriage and had to spend the journey breathing in second hand smoke. We were at Cardington for only a few days during which we were marched into the Clothing Stores where shirt, trousers, tunic and boots were thrown at us. No attempt was made to measure us so when we arrived back at the billet we had to swop with each other in order to get a uniform that was anything near the correct size. We were issued with our Service Number and told we would remember it to our dying day and, although it was over 50 years ago, I can still remember it without any trouble – it was 4058739. We also had an intelligence test and from the results were graded into 24 groups. If you were in Group 1 you were some sort of egghead, and we had a very uncomplimentary name for those in group 24, as they would be employed on the most menial of tasks. I ended up in group 11.


Then it was off to our next camp at RAF West Kirby, near Liverpool, for “Initial Training” which was more commonly known as “Square Bashing”. Here we faced the most unpleasant eight weeks of our lives as we were screamed at, insulted and abused by the corporals day and night. They took great delight in thinking up new ways of making our lives unpleasant. The slightest excuse was used to enable them to punish us and they had some very painful forms of punishment. They would drag us out of bed in the middle of the night for a parade, which meant we had to clean our boots and buttons and iron our uniforms only to be told the parade had been cancelled. We were called out for parades sometime two or three times in a night and another corporal delighted in waking us up at night to clean all the toilets. After a few weeks of this treatment it was little wonder that at night it was common to hear someone in the billet sobbing in the darkness. We also spent many hours marching up and down the square doing rifle drill. To look a corporal in the eyes was classed as dumb insolence and was severely punished so we had to look at a point two or three inches above their heads while they screamed abuse and insulted us. We were taught how to fire a rifle, a handgun, a Bren Gun and a Sten Gun. We had lessons on how to throw a hand grenade and also how to kill the enemy with a bayonet. At last this terrible time was over and we had our Passing Out Parade, which took place in pouring rain so we were soaked to the skin. Then it was home for two weeks leave.


Next I was posted to RAF Compton Bassett in Wiltshire which was a training camp for Wireless Operators, known as WOP’s, and Teleprinter Operators, known as TOP’s – I was a TOP. Here I was taught to type starting by typing to a drum beat which was increased in speed until we reached 25 words a minute. We had practice cards to type from but after typing each one fifty times we knew them off by heart so we moved on to the morning newspapers. We would type everything in the Mirror then swop with someone for the Express and start typing its contents. As we neared the end of our training we were sent to the Medical Officer for inoculations, one of which was against Yellow Fever. This was a sure sign that we would soon be off to the Far East, most likely Singapore. We were all injected with the same syringe and needle, something that would never happen today and if you were the last in line you had a painful time with the blunt needle. As I didn’t fancy the idea of the Far East I deliberately failed my final tests and was called in before an officer who told me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t think you have missed the boat by failing.” When my comrades set off for Singapore I was doing an extra fortnight of training – so I did miss the boat, much to my delight.


After a spell of cleaning dirty pans in the cookhouse I was posted to RAF Wartling, near Bexhill on Sea, Sussex. This was a radar station and as it was top-secret we were all warned about not talking to strangers. The billets were a few miles away in the middle of a wood and it was the most dirty and disgusting place I had ever seen. It was more like a third world refugee camp. The radar fascinated me and, although I wasn’t permitted, I used to sneak in whenever I could. On the screen we could see aircraft in northern France and even ships sailing up the English Channel.

We had two ghosts in the area. One was a headless Drummer Boy and the other was a lady in her wedding dress. Although we laughed at these stories I had a very frightening experience after missing the last bus and having to walk back alone in the dark. I put it down to having an overactive imagination. (No, I hadn’t been drinking!!)

Shortly after I arrived at Wartling it was decided to demolish the ‘refugee camp’ as a new luxury camp had been built for us at Cooden Beach. It was very posh and had every convenience but the biggest surprise was that there were females on the camp. These were members of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce) Also the Planners had slipped up as the women’s quarters were situated next to the men’s quarters so there were fun and games for a while until a fence was erected.

About this time the building of a new top-secret underground bunker was started. We were all told that if we breathed a word about the bunker we could be shot at dawn. This was a bit stupid as the Barmaid at the local pub knew all about it as the building team stayed at the pub and talked about it every night. We had to do guard duty at the bunker and during the night we guards would lock ourselves in a room and the RAF police would let their dogs free to roam the building, and they were very fierce. This was a bit inconvenient if you needed the toilet during the night! Sometimes officers would try and catch us sleeping on guard but we had a system to overcome this. As soon as the officer phoned for his driver the telephone operator, who was listening to the call, would warn everyone that the officer was on his way. Of course when the officer arrived we were all patrolling with fixed bayonets and shouting “Halt, who goes there?” at anything that moved. One officer sneaked into the bunker by way of the ventilation system, but he was attacked by the dogs and badly injured.

By now I was getting very near the end of my National Service and I was ticking the days off on my calendar. As far as I was concerned this had been a complete waste of three years of my life although I must admit it did change me and made me more able to stand up for myself. One day I was ordered to see the Commanding Officer (Wing Commander Hamilton) and he asked if I would consider signing on for another five years. I almost laughed in his face – what a joke.

Best Wishes


2 Responses to “Other National Service Stories 4 National Service RAF – NSRAF”

  1. Stan robinson January 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    I was the master controllers assistant for 12 months at Wartling, I sat beside the senior officer and basically controlled all the operational station ie all fighter control radar cabins, the large auto plotting table ,the tote, all phone lines to hq, USAF, NATO Germany etc. it was a fantastic job. If the C.O. Group captain or sqd.leader Lacy were in charge you had to wait for their orders before doing anything but most master controllers trusted our judgment for nealy all routine jobs like aircraft RTBs, cabin stand down etc.routene running of tote and personel changes etc. this was a pretty efficient system but the two officers mentioned used to get in a hell of a mess at busy times through failure to delegate and quite simply overloaded themselves. Mind you as neither were very popular we offered no help,indeed if you did they would put you on a charge for simply trying to If we had got into a shooting war they would not have suvived. We used to work in 8 man crews consisting of one officer fighter controller, a flight sergeant , occasionally a corporal and 5 SACs the senior of which usually took the corporals place. It made for a very close nit team just like a bomber crew, and we used to go out together as a group, when no one was around on duty it was all Christian names whatever the rank.
    I served 1957 to 1959 and also represented 11 group and the RAF at national model aircraft competitions.


    • John B Reynolds July 31, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

      I served at Wartling from 1954/56 and entered cabins at the last site.I was Peep reader for a Squadron Leader controller and anything interesting came our way. One of the last tasks was the speed record by the FD2 from Boscombe with a visit from Peter Twiss afterwards. Then the Squadron Leader went To Florida with F86 dogs from Manston so I joined the shooting team for Bisley. Very happy days. 2728197 SAC Reynolds.


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