Westwood Works 1903-2003
At this point, it seems appropriate to touch on the subject of National Service. To those joining Baker Perkins soon after the end of WW2, the words "National Service" possibly conjure up images similar to those portrayed in the TV show - "Lad's Army" - coupled with memories of the black cloud hovering over the end of their apprenticeship, when the dreaded brown envelope would land on their doormat. However, "National Service" had been a feature of life for some time before that - the need to balance the country's security with the availability of sufficient productive manpower having caused problems for industry since WW1.
Britain, unlike other European countries, had always relied on volunteers to fight in times of war. Conscription had been introduced in 1916 when more men were needed to fight in the trenches. Their work in the factories, including Westwood Works, was taken over by women (see Westwood Works in WW1). Conscription was abandoned when the war ended.
During the 1930s, there were 200,000 soldiers in the British army. It was clear that this was not enough to fight the expected war with Germany and in April 1939, an Act was introduced requiring all men between the ages of 20 and 21 to register for six months' military training. At the same time, a list of "reserved occupations" essential to the war effort was published - Dock Workers, Miners, Farmers, Scientists, Merchant Seamen, Railway Workers and Utility Workers (Water, Gas, Electricity). Those employed in these jobs being exempt from conscription.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, the number volunteering to join the armed services was only sufficient to raise a force of 875,000. Other European countries had kept conscription between the wars and were able to raise much larger armies and in October 1939, it was announced that all men aged between 18 and 41 who were not working in 'reserved occupations' could be called to join the armed services. Conscription was by age and in October 1939 men aged between 20 and 23 were required to register to serve in one of the armed forces, being allowed to choose between the army, the navy and the air force.
By the end of 1939, conscription into the armed forces saw more than one and a half million men recruited for military service. A Schedule of Reserved Occupations protected young men in specified key occupations from being conscripted into the armed forces with, by the end of 1940, more than 200,000 men qualifying for deferment of National Service.
As the war continued men from the other registered age groups received their "call-up" papers requiring them to serve in the armed forces. Men who were too old, young or not completely fit joined the Home Guard - to be joined in 1942 by men in "reserved occupations" - see The Home Guard above.
Conscription of so many men created a severe labour shortage in the country - the impact on Baker Perkins of losing so many skilled men is covered in The History of Baker Perkins Ltd - The World War Two Years, and - The Post-War Years - Building for the Future.
In December 1941, legislation was passed that required unmarried women aged between 20 and 30 to be conscripted to help in the war effort. Married women were later included, but pregnant women and mothers with young children were exempt. Women did not take part in the fighting but were required to take up work in reserved occupations - especially factories and farming - to enable men to be drafted into the services, (See Women at War above). At the end of the War, women were no longer required to be conscripted.
War had inevitably disrupted apprenticeship training and in 1945, concern about a possible shortage of skilled workers led to a series of measures being introduced, including the Interrupted Apprenticeship Scheme. This enabled those whose apprenticeships had been interrupted by the war to resume them.
The requirement for a peacetime force larger than that made possible by purely voluntary recruitment led the establishment of a national service system in 1945. The Act initially required a period of one year to be served in the Armed Forces followed by a possible five years in the Reserve. In 1948, financial crises, the advent of the Cold War and the Malaya emergency led to an increase in the period of service to 18 months. This enabled National Servicemen to be used more efficiently and effectively, particularly overseas. The demands of the Korean War (1950-1953) led to the length of service being extended to two years, the liability to further service in the Reserve being reduced with each of these extensions. The period of service remained at two years until the end of National Service.
The "call-up" usually came at the age of 18 but it was possible for a young man to ask for deferment and those who were on apprenticeships or who had started a degree course were usually given deferments, normally until the age of 21, without question. This was not, however, always the case, particularly at around the end of the war, as evidenced by Bob Hay's experiences described in the preamble to Training Facilities.
"National Service" did not necessarily mean joining the three armed services. As Britain was unable to import coal during World War 2, the production of coal from mines in Britain had to be increased. (The problem was said to be exacerbated by the Government failing to declare mining as a reserved occupation, thus creating a rush of miners into the perceived easier occupation of munitions). To meet the need for more labour, it was decided by the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, that from 1943 to the end of the war, one in ten of the young men called up would be sent to work in the mines. These conscript miners were given the nickname "Bevin Boys". An estimated 48,000 boys - who were too young for army service - were recruited into the coal mining industry under this scheme, many being conscripted by ballot, without choice. The alternative was prison.
(After the war ended, discipline amongst the men conscripted for the mines went into decline due to the disparities for demobilisation between them and the men in the armed forces. With the ending of the order for prosecution of Bevin boys for non-attendance it became impractical to retain the compulsory labour force and in 1947-48, 20,000 young men left the coal industry on the completion of their National Service. It was ironic that until the ending of National Service, many young men went into the mines to avoid serving with the armed forces).
Baker Perkins employees were called-up into any one of the armed services, although most went into the army. Some saw action in one or other of the "hotspots" - Malaya, Korea - and others witnessed the H-Bomb tests on Christmas Island in the late 1950s. It is believed that at least two - Roger Ward and Horace "Sos" Mellows - became "Bevin Boys".
Memories of a Bevin Boy
Roger Ward remembers the early days of his apprenticeship and his time as a "Bevin Boy":
"In August 1939, I was fourteen years old, had just left school and had started work at Baker Perkins. At that time, it was difficult to get into work and some boys had to wait up to a year before they got a job. Only a few days after my joining the company, war was declared.
It was not possible to begin an apprenticeship before reaching the age of 16, so until then I worked in the works drawing archives and acted as a general run-about. My wage was 9s 7p (old money) for a 48 hour week; with one week’s annual holiday plus bank holidays. (See also A Pre-War Apprentice).
At 16, I started an apprenticeship and went into the apprentice bay where I milled percussion blocks for 20 mm and 40 mm Bofors guns. (See also Training Facilities and above). On reaching 18, with war work in full swing, I moved into the main works on day shifts and night shifts, working a 72-hour week. In those days all the machines were driven by lay shafts and belts, (see also Power Supplies). The toilets, metal cubicles approximately 4ft high enclosed in a metal ‘shed’, were in the centre of the workshop. The ‘clocking on’ places were positioned throughout the works - if you were more than two minutes late, you lost a quarter of an hour’s pay.
In 1944, at the age of 18 years 6 months, I was conscripted into the coalmines as a ‘Bevin Boy’. The reason why I had to go was that I would not sign any deferment papers. I had intended to go to Cardigan for three days to join the RAF but this was cancelled because my registration number finished with a 9. Here I should explain that, for a short period of time, those whose registration number finished with a 0 or a 9 became Bevin Boys. With no deferment papers, the company could not hold me and I was told to report to Bentley Colliery, South Yorkshire.
The first day I arrived, there was no place for us to lodge, so we slept in the school hall for three nights. The attitude of the local people was, perhaps, understandable - their sons had been conscripted into the forces, were being killed and we were taking their jobs. (Bad government management!). However, being true Yorkshire people, they soon accepted that we could not help the situation and gave us lodgings. I had two sets of lodgings and at the last one; the son had been killed only six months before. In the end, I was treated like a son and I kept in contact with them until they died.
We had four weeks training at Askern Colliery, just north of Doncaster. This turned out to be more like a get fit exercise, following which I was sent straight down the mine.
The working environment was different from anything that I had been used to. We caught the pit bus at 5.15 am - after a short while I cycled the five miles from my lodgings to the colliery - to be down the pit before 6.00 am. The pits were very hot and very dusty and it is understandable why so many miners developed lung complaints. Most miners chewed tobacco to keep their mouths moist. We were fortunate in that we had pithead baths where we could shower and change, but some of the older miners would not use them.
I started as a pony driver, taking empty tubs to the coalface and bringing full tubs back. There were 190 ponies underground at Bentley Colliery when I first started (they never saw daylight) and there were only about 40 when I left - the pit had become mechanised in that period of time. Later, I had the job of breaking-in new ponies. I spent the last six months actually working on the coalface.
I lived in a village called Adwick-le-St, which had a grocery, paper shop, post office and a fish and chip shop. The life of the village revolved round the working men’s club. Every Saturday and Sunday night they had a stage turn. Copious amounts of beer were drunk and Monday mornings were a disaster. You had to look after yourself because fights were frequent, but very often forgotten by Monday.
After 3½ years, I was de-mobbed and went back to Baker Perkins as I had three years’ apprenticeship to finish. This was reduced to two years. During this time, you did exactly the same as a skilled man so, on reflection, it was a form of 'cheap labour’. At that time, it was a ‘closed shop’ with everyone having to be in the union.
I was too old to get ‘day release’ to go to the Technical College, so to better oneself, it was necessary to spend three evenings a week for three years at 'The Tech’ to get the O.N.C., a further two years to get the H.N.C. and another two years to get endorsements. This was hard going when you were already working one month on day shift and one month on night shift. Thank goodness, those days have gone and young people now have many more opportunities. Armed with these qualifications, I managed to get into the Drawing Office and the rest is history. (Roger Ward - 6th July 2007). (Roger went on to become a chief engineer in the Drawing Office, then sales manager, finishing his career as site project manager with Special Projects).
Although the Bevin Boy scheme had ended by 1951, "National Service" or the "call-up" finally came to a halt on 31st December 1960 and the very last National servicemen left the Army in 1963. It should be noted that, on completion of National Service, every Baker Perkins employee was guaranteed their job back - as had been the case with those Westwood men who served in the forces during the war (see The Westwood Men Who Went to War above). Time spent on National Service also counted as part of their continuous service as stated in Baker Perkins Ltd's “Works Handbook” of June 1961:
"Seniority, i.e. length of service, will be all continuous service recorded in the Personnel Records of the Company. Service in H.M. Forces or in time of war in other National Services shall only qualify for computing an employee’s continuous service provided that such National Service was compulsory by statute and provided that the employee concerned was in the whole-time employment of the Company for a period of not less than four weeks before such Service and that he resumed his employment with the Company immediately on release from that Service”.
In fact, the Company sent a letter to each National Serviceman, one month before he was due to be discharged, requesting him to make arrangements to attend an interview at Westwood Works.
The section of this Website that attempts to describe the "unique" culture which permeated Westwood Works and the "family" feeling which this engendered - The Westwood Works Culture - describes the efforts made by the Company to ensure that Conditions of Employment for all its employees compared favourably with any in the Industry. It comes as no surprise therefore, to note that efforts were made to ensure that employees called-up for National Service were not disadvantaged, special arrangements being made for them within the Baker Perkins Pensions and Life Assurance Schemes. The concessions added to the Rules of the Schemes in 1951 are described in The Westwood Works Culture - Company Employees on National Service.
As National Service was a significant episode in the lives of those Baker Perkins employees who were called-up, it is worth recording some of their experiences.
Ron Jones ‘enjoyed’ an eventful period of National Service:
“I joined the RAF on 23rd April 1956, St George’s Day. After kitting out at Cardington, I was posted to R.A.F. Bridgenorth for square bashing after which came a posting to R.A.F. Hereford for trade training.
My next posting was to R.A.F. Wyton, a 100 Squadron Detachment, which had been specially set up to take part in ‘Operation Grapple’ - the British Megaton Trials (Hydrogen Bombs) - on Christmas Island, a remote coral atoll 2 deg. north of the Equator, taken over by the army, navy and air force.
We went to Christmas Island in April 1957, our Squadron’s task being to fly Canberras on weather reconnaissance and sampling sorties after the first bomb was dropped on May 15th 1957. The Island was very hot and humid, with coconut palms, an abundance of land crabs and a few scorpions. There was a small settlement of natives, which I never saw. The sea had a variety of species - sharks, rays, octopi, etc.
There were four nuclear tests, which took place over Maiden Island, about 400 miles from Christmas Island. On the day of each test, we were loaded into trucks until the aircraft carrying the bomb was airborne. If anything went wrong, we had an hour to get off the island!!
(The aircraft involved, XD818, a Valiant of No. 49 Sqn, is now preserved at the RAF Museum, Hendon).
We left Christmas Island in August 1957 and returned to R.A.F. Wyton where our Squadron Detachment was disbanded and I was transferred to 58 Squadron, working on Bomber Command Publications, involving aerial photographs and top secret information, until my demob”.
Walter Seaton joined Baker Perkins after doing National Service.
Called up in November 1949, at the age of 18, and wishing to join the RAF, rather
than the infantry, he managed to persuade the RAF officer who interviewed him
of his suitability for that service by recounting his experiences of watching
the aircraft on Westwood Aerodrome. Somewhat to his surprise, he was accepted
and reported to RAF West Kirby, near Liverpool for initial training.
He recalls being thrown together with boys from all walks of life, far from home, as a very quick growing-up experience. Following this, he transferred to RAF Cosford for trade training, as a flight mechanic. Walter remembers this time as being particularly taxing with a need to assimilate a great deal of information in a relatively short time. Standards and expectations were high but Walter completed the course satisfactorily.
The next challenge was to secure an overseas posting. Of the two previous intakes, only a few of the first went overseas, around half of the second were successful but all of Walter’s intake was posted overseas. This was the time of The Malayan Emergency - a state of emergency declared by the British colonial government of Malaya in 1948 and not lifted until 1960 – a key “hot spot” and Walter was posted to RAF Seletar, Singapore. In May 1950, he boarded a Hastings transport plane at RAF Lyneham and began the long journey to Malaya. These were the days before direct flights and stopovers were the order of the day, allowing Walter an unexpected opportunity to see a fair proportion of the world.
The first port of call was Malta, followed by Fayid – Egypt, Habaniya – Iraq, Maripur – Pakistan, each leg of the journey taking a day, then on to RAF Negombo – Ceylon, for a 7-day stopover before boarding an Avro York for the flight to Changi – Singapore, finally arriving at Seletar, Singapore.
RAF Seletar was central to the RAF’s presence in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1971. During World War 2, the Japanese first bombed Seletar and then operated it as an airfield and support base for Japanese and German submarines. After the War, the base reverted to the RAF, the first of their aircraft to be housed there being the famous Sunderland flying boats. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the base was heavily involved in the Malayan Emergency servicing Dakotas, Beaufighters, Spitfires and Mosquitos operating against Malayan Communist insurgents.
Because of the contrast in skin tone between the old hands and the new boys straight from England, Walter and his intake were known as “Moon Men”. His education in life skills continued, confessing to enjoying every minute of his time in Singapore, forming friendships which were life lasting – over fifty years later, he is still in regular contact with at least four of the men with whom he served.
As a National Serviceman, Walter always worked with a regular RAF fitter and was at Seletar when the first Meteor jet fighters to join a squadron of the Far East Air Force arrived there in December 1950.
|Last of the Spitfires||First of the Meteors|
With the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950, the base – and Walter – was involved in preparing Spitfires that he believes were to be used for photo-reconnaissance in that conflict.
Walter describes life at Seletar as “one hell of an experience”. Life on the camp was made easier by the “Sew-Sew” girls who were allowed into camp to sew on buttons and keep the airmen’s kit in good order. A “bearer” would make the bed and polish shoes for $2 a fortnight.
Saturday nights were spent in Singapore at one of the three amusement centres, with dancing with “hostesses” at 50 cents a ticket, or the Union Jack Club – open to the Army, Navy and Air Force – where the evenings invariably ended with a fight. There were many opportunities for sport but Walter only made it into the football 2nd XI.
Less enjoyable was guard duty at the bomb dump on the camp. Issued with a rifle and 10 rounds, the guard was locked in the compound overnight, a frightening experience that sometimes resulted in panic discharge of the rifle – leading to a long and detailed military investigation.
Walter celebrated his 19th and 20th birthdays and Christmas 1950 in Singapore, flying back to the UK in October 1951 to Lytham St Annes to be demobbed. On attempting to make contact with his family to inform them of his return to this country, Walter discovered that the coin box in the phone box just outside the camp was full of Malaysian coins – the Malaysian 5c and 10c pieces being a similar size to the British shilling and sixpence - allowing the sending of a telegram for only 30 cents.
Walter was awarded the General Service Medal with "Malaya" clasp. National Servicemen called up between 1946 and 1960 were eligible for the various clasps to the GSM for the operations in which they may have served in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya etc.
He regards National Service as something he would not have missed – a
“mind opening experience” in which the need to mix and live with
a wide range of people taught him to look at life from the other chap’s
point of view and which “made me a fairer minded person”.
He joined Baker Perkins in 1954 and after 4/5 years in the Plate Shop and Plate Shop office, he spent 30 years in the CPO. (See also The CPO).
Staff Thomas joined Baker Perkins in 1951 and completed his apprenticeship as a fitter in 1956 before doing his National Service with the RAF. Staff has many vivid memories of his time in the RAF and it is considered to be worthwhile recording his memories in full as they give a very interesting insight into what National Service meant to young men of the late 1940s/early 1950s:
We able-bodied lads were called up to do two years’ minimum National Service in one of the armed forces - Army, Navy or Air Force; I chose the Air Force and was lucky to get in. Before call up, I was given a train pass to Cambridge for a medical to see if I was fit enough – no flat feet, no colour blindness, no piles, no heart murmur, eye test, etc. I spent a day there - quite a new adventure for me as I didn’t know what to expect. Having passed the medical, the day came when I had finished my apprenticeship. I took my two tool boxes home, oiled the tools and stored them away for the next two years in Dad’s tool shed, together with my 350 AJS motorbike.
Through the post came my train tickets to go to Cardington in Bedfordshire for the start of my two year’s service. I remember the day well. It was a Monday (washday for Mam). I had said my goodbyes to Christine the night before and that was the last time I saw her for eight weeks. Yes, the square bashing, as it was called, lasted for eight gruelling weeks.
The train left Peterborough East Station, (now long gone), at about 8.30 am. My father came to see his ‘Boy’ off as he only worked across the line at Moys Wagon Works. I think tears were in his eyes when the train drifted out of the station. There were quite a few lads on the train to Cardington including one from Marholm village. We were all in the same boat, as you might say, conscripted for RAF service and not knowing what was to come. We were met at the station by an RAF truck and taken to Cardington for one week to settle in and to be measured and fitted with our uniforms – one working blue and one best blue uniform, boots, belt, caps, shirts, ties, socks and canvas sack, knife, fork, spoon and mug. We were given brown paper and string to parcel up our civilian clothes to be sent home. I was given a photo/identity card, which had to be worn at all times, apart from bedtime, on the left hand front top pocket of our uniform.
The next week was spent bulling up our boot toe-caps and heels until you could see your face in the leather, and time was spent getting to know our fellow RAF compatriots, getting used to orders, getting up early and getting used to the food, but all in all, it was a quiet week. Then we were herded up for our square bashing posting. We were told to get our kit bags and those like me who had been posted to RAF West Kirby, took the train from Cardington to Liverpool. We were given a food parcel and some sweets and chewing gum. As I remember, the journey was a long one. We were tired, thirsty and as the parcel held only a couple of sandwiches, hungry. Just before the train arrived at Liverpool, I popped a stick of chewing gum into my mouth. At the station we were met by RAF troop wagons, taken to RAF West Kirby and then marched onto a parade ground, three lines deep, in a ‘U’ shape, with officers on a wooden platform with microphones, etc. There were thousands of us there. A corporal saw me chewing, put his mouth to my ear and bawled - my ears rang for ages - “What are you chewing, Airman? Spit it out! That’s better! By God, Airman, you’re in the RAF now, not Civvy Street and you’ll do as you’re told. I’ll be looking for you and will jump on you like a ton of bricks if you do anything wrong!” As he was bawling me out, everyone was looking in my direction. The officers had stopped addressing the men but carried on when this corporal had finished. We found out much later that on every intake into West Kirby, they picked on someone who was chewing and made an example of him, and then all the other airmen stopped chewing instantly, very pleased that he hadn’t picked on them. Apparently, chewing gum was always put in the food package just to make an example of someone and to frighten all the other troops. I certainly lost my hearing for a while!
Thus began eight weeks of training, running, marching, rifle training, bull-**** jobs and being put through the mill. Shouting was the norm for your training corporal, who was never satisfied. Everything was done at the double - always. It was up early, shaving early, ablutions early and early to bed (before 10.00 pm). We were all in a type of wooden Nissen hut, twenty airmen and one corporal to a hut – and would you believe, the corporal who bawled me out was in charge of our hut. “Don’t I know you?” he asked, “Yes, corporal” I replied but at the end of the eight weeks had a laugh with him over the episode.
Everyone was very fit after the eight weeks and glad to get through it. I remember going on a run, coming back to the medical department, getting in line, both arms with hands on hips ready for an inoculation in one arm and a cut and vaccination in the other. My arm that was to take the jab is my bowling arm, and had a lot of muscle. The Medical Officer bent six hypodermic syringes on that arm and finally got some soft skin on my shoulder joint to put the needle in – the lad next in the queue fainted! I also remember that during training we had to stand in columns of three then, at the order, were to line up in single file from the tallest to the shortest. Then from the tallest - who was number one - we had to shout out our number next in line. Unfortunately, the number three in line stuttered, poor lad, and when it came to his shout it was “thr-thr-thr-three.” “Whoa, whoa,” shouted the corporal, “as you were – from the right number.” “One”, “Two”, then came “thr-thr-thr-three” and we never got to number 24. The corporal bawled him out, making things worse, moving him to “Fe-fe-fe-four,” then “Fi-fi-fi-five” then to “S-s-s-six” before taking him out of line, looking up to him, as he was 6’5” or so, and telling him to clear off and hide behind another building whilst our march past in front of the Camp Commander, was going on. We never saw him on the pass out parade as he hid in the corporal’s room. Poor old lad!
All the bull that went on during square bashing was unbelievable – cutting grass with scissors, weeding with your bayonet, painting the NAAFI white, in the dark with no lights on, painting coal white, filling the Officers’ coal bags with coal from the top of the coal heap – why? – so that you had to bull and polish your boots after scuffing them going to the coal heap. Not only did you have to fill the sacks, but also deliver the coal to the Officers’ houses. What with cookhouse duties, peeling potatoes, peeling onions, cleaning and washing, there was little spare time. We learned never to be first in line for your meal in the cookhouse because inevitably the first four airmen were picked (“You, you, you and you!) to serve the rest of the men. Kit inspection and hut inspection took place once a week - kit to be labelled and clean, hut to be polished and dust-free - so the best thing to do on square bashing was to do as you’re told, don’t answer back unless you were asked to and then it was less hassle for you. When you were on your eight weeks’ training, you were allowed out of camp for four weeks and then only for a few hours at the weekend. So, it was quite a relief when those eight weeks came to an end. Training still carried on, though, for the trade you were put into. I was to be trained as an Armourer.
After the eight weeks’ training, we were allowed home for 1½ weeks until our next posting. I already knew that it was going to be RAF Kirkham in Lancashire for my armourer training, but in my case, I was not allowed to go home because I, with about 400 more sprogs (new airmen) was drafted into a squad to line a route in London. We were to be trained at RAF Uxbridge to line a given length of road for the visit of King Fizal of Iraq. The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and family were to be in the Royal Coaches passing through en route to Buckingham Palace. We spent a week at Uxbridge being trained to march a certain amount of paces – stop – face towards the middle of the road, stand easy with our rifles until the cortège came past and then we presented arms! Before the march, we were bussed from Uxbridge to Horse Guards’ Parade, to assemble everyone, with a band leading us. I believe the area I helped line was Fleet Street. We weren’t allowed to move our heads or feet whilst we stood there, so I only think it was Fleet Street. It was a very hot day in June 1956 and a lot of airmen fainted from the heat, but I was all right. The Irish sergeant next in line to me fainted, his body going backwards and his rifle falling forward. “Not the way to faint,” he had said, during our training, “always fall with your rifle”. He didn’t carry out his own advice and was very embarrassed when we got back to camp. After that day, we were allowed to go home for the rest of our leave but the RAF took three days off our leave because we went to Uxbridge. So, a nice few days were spent at home, going in to see my mates at work and to be with Chris as much as I could. An enjoyable time was spent with time to get my motorbike out again and keep it in running order.
I haven’t mentioned anything about pay whilst I was in the RAF As I was conscripted it would be hoped that the pay would be decent. It wasn’t! Pay parade was a mass lining up involving a lot of bull. Your name and number were called out and you had to walk smartly towards the pay officer, coming to a halt, saluting, calling your name and number and finishing with “Sir.” So, it was Thomas 5019335 – SIR! My first pay was 17shillings and sixpence with 4 shillings taken out for barrack room damage done by the last squad in our billet - so my pay was 13/6d, which didn’t go far. At least our travel on the railways was normally free with an RAF railway pass, although to get home on a 36-hour or 48 hour pass you had to pay your own way.
After the few days at home I had to get to Kirkham in Lancashire and be on parade by 7.30 a.m. on the Monday. So, I had to leave the North Station on the Sunday afternoon. Christine saw me off and I met Diddly Driver on the platform. He was going to Kirkham as well and had already been there a few weeks. After the normal farewells, off Diddly and I went. The train journey was Peterborough to Manchester – change for train to Blackpool and get off at Kirkham. Then there was a 20-minute walk with kitbag to the camp. Wooden huts were going to be our home for a number of weeks. Kirkham was halfway between Preston and Blackpool. RAF Wharton was a few miles away and the noise from the jet engines they used to put together there was quite deafening if you lived there.
All the armourers, or should I say future armourers, were put through the paces of learning the trade they were going to work at for the next two years. Learning about armaments, from small arms (rifles, revolvers, Brens and Stens, etc.) to aircraft guns, bombs, fuses, pyrotechnics, colour codes of time delays on most explosives. We learned how to handle these correctly and safely, etc. We weren’t allowed home for a month and that was on a 48-hour pass, but we could go out after our working day and at weekends, although we had to be back before a certain time. I went to Preston and Blackpool for visits but the thing I remember most is the wind. There was wind most of the time I was there. After four weeks I came home, leaving on Friday after 4.00 p.m. and got back in the early hours of Monday morning, before roll call. When Sunday came, I had rather stupidly decided to go back to camp on my 350 AJS motorbike, with a tankful of petrol. I looked at the route and had a fold-up map and after saying goodbye, made my way north. It was a slow journey; there weren’t many major roads, no town bypasses, so I had to go through the centre of all the towns. Wigan was the worst, all cobbled streets and I rattled along the roads, shaking all over. I should have gone by train, but I thought it would be a lot cheaper by bike.
When the training to be an armourer was over, and I had passed the exams, it was time for my proper posting. “5019335 Thomas”, said the Scottish Sergeant in charge of our training “your destination is Waddington in Lincolnshire. This was fine, as it was only 44 miles from Peterborough. Then I had to bike home with my kitbag tied to the pannier and I believe Keith Driver came home with me as he lived with his parents in the same street as I did. It was a week at home for me before I had to report to Waddington.
I travelled to Waddington by train using a train voucher because I was on official leave. Home was to be the upper floor of a 2-storey brick-built block with all mod cons, central heating, bathhouse, shower cubicles, washing facilities in the toilet block, ironing room and clothes airing room. During the time I was there, my living area was always on the top floor, and the furthest block away from the Armoury. The furniture consisted of a metal-framed bed, side locker, next to the bed, and a wardrobe. The area had to be kept polished and dust-free or God help you – “You’re on a charge, airman!”
Once I had settled in, a tour of the Armoury was in order. I was then drafted into the Armoury itself and other airmen drafted into the Bomb Dump crew! All the bomb dump crew congregated in the Armoury in the early morning (8.30 am) and were taken over to the Dump in a Bedford truck. So, it was training for me in small arms, ejection seats, explosive detonators, ammunition, Canberra Bombers, and time expiry dates on explosives in these aircraft.
Sergeant Dyer was my NCO and boss of the Armoury, Corporal Smith was my corporal in charge, Sergeant Smith was the bomb dump NCO with two other corporals to aid and abet him. A young flying officer was in charge of the whole Armoury but I can’t remember his name. He was only twenty years old, younger than me. (I was 21 and 3 months).
When I first arrived at Waddington, within two hours of being in the Armoury, I was put on instant alert for being drafted abroad in connection with the Suez Crisis. Our Armoury had already got a contingent of armourers out there and they were due to come back home within one week. Therefore, we had to remain in camp, not being able to write about our intended excursion into Suez, but I did ring Chris to tell her not to worry, but she’d not be able to hear from me for a few weeks. “Why?” she asked. “I can’t tell you as its secret” I had to reply.
All the lads going out – me included – had our kit packed and all our jabs taken. I was ready to go, in fact. The day came when we received the news that the Suez crisis was over and we were stood down. The panic was over. Our lads coming back were very tanned and told us of their experiences - being on guard, with a rifle and one bullet but not up the spout, and if they fired the rifle, they would be on a charge. What a way to run a guard duty. It made the lads jittery and so glad to get back all right. So it worked out well for me and I could get home most weekends for a 36-hour pass and later, 48-hours.
There was still quite a bit of bull in Waddington, but if you kept your nose clean and did as you were told, then everything was hunky dory. Sergeant Dyer kept his eye on you and if you were clever with your hands then you were in his good books. I thought he was very fair to me but seeing as I was a fitter in Civvy Street, he put a lot of work my way. I’d only been in the camp two months when I was awarded my Leading Aircraftman badge and a bit more pay, plus a Marksman badge, awarded for rifle shooting and getting a certain score. We had an outdoor shooting range, as armourers, often went down there to get rid of old, and dated ammunition.
Our squadron was of Canberra Bombers and we had to pass a series of exams before we were allowed near the aircraft. We were taught how to disarm the ejector seats and make them safe by taking out the cartridges and returning them to the Armoury. We also put up practice bombs under the Canberras for them to drop the bombs over the bomb range somewhere near Skegness. These aircraft might be on a runway apron or in a hanger and we had to perform our duties in all weathers. Part of our job in a major star servicing of these aircraft was to take out the Martin Baker ejection seats and all explosives etc. We, the National Servicemen, found out that our Sergeant Dyer favoured those of us who were skilled in Civvy Street over the junior technicians (their apprentices) because we had the skill in our hands and were capable of doing most jobs. Then we got most jobs and the junior technicians just sat around or played darts in the armoury rest room. The old Sergeant had his head screwed on properly. He knew whom he could trust, which made his job easier. All of our work entailed safety but this was breeched by two corporals from the bomb dump crew who should have known better.
After working-hours, the two corporals were teaching four of their men from the bomb dump the workings of an ejector seat. On the side of the seat is a Drogue Parachute gun that had a barastat inside, plus a cartridge to fire the solid barrel insert that took the parachute away from the seat when a pilot had ejected from a distressed airplane. Apparently, and I don’t know why, these corporals had this gun in their hands, loaded - in the armoury itself and not in the special detonator room attached to the armoury. The barastat operated the gun below a height of 2000 ft. and, as they were on the ground, this equipment was armed. The firing mechanism had a hole in it and through it was fitted a tapered sear and a pin, which was painted red. This sear must always be in position on the seat, if it had a cartridge in, and only the pilot takes this out when he gets in the aircraft. For some reason, one of the corporals was holding this gun in his hand and then took out the sear pin. Of course, the barastat operated and set the firing mechanism into working mode. It exploded and the solid insert shot out of the barrel, went through his stomach and out of his behind. (We only found that out when he was lifted onto a stretcher.) The gun itself shot out of his hand and hit the other corporal on the forehead, knocking him out also. He had ten stitches in the wound. The other corporal was a very lucky man. The solid insert went through his body and missed all of his organs. He recovered after a few months convalescence. The outcome was that only personnel directly involved could show the workings of the gun in our armoury.
The outdated detonators also had to be removed from the pilot’s canopy. An electrician took out the wires and we armourers took out the detonators. There was a detonator and explosive collar on the aileron tube that the pilots moved to alter the flaps on the rudder of the aircraft. The collar was bolted to this tube so that when the pilot needed to eject out of the aircraft, he exploded the collar that split the tube and allowed the joystick to push away from the pilot’s legs, so that he wouldn’t break them when he ejected upwards through the canopy. Sergeant Dyer asked me to take a new armourer with me, A/C Milburn, and change the explosive detonator on a certain Canberra aircraft on an airfield apron in the open air. “Okay, Sarge, will do,” I said. When we got there, an electrician had already dismantled the wire and all that was needed was to unbolt the collar, take out the detonator, which was out of date, refit a new detonator and refit the collar in the same place on the aileron tube. Well, A/C Jeff Milburn did this and thought he had put it back the same, but as it turned out, he hadn’t. Apparently, there had been a modification to the tube, and red lines were painted around the diameter of the tube – this one hadn’t been done. The electrician rewired in the detonator and we closed the inspection hatch. Then the Flight Sergeant in charge of the servicing checked to see that the joystick moved all right and then he signed our servicing schedule. No more was thought about it until two hours later and there was a hell of a shindig in our Armoury Office. Apparently, the pilot flying the Canberra Jeff and I had serviced couldn’t land properly. He couldn’t put his joystick far enough forward to get the nose of his aircraft down. So, he went out to sea and jettisoned his fuel before skimming over the hedgerows to land flatter than he normally would. The outcome was instead of being on a charge and our corporal demoted, we found that the modification to the painting of a line on the tube hadn’t been done. So to the pilot sincere apologies but it was not our fault! After that episode, all Canberras had to be checked and the red lines painted in and not just our Squadron but other airfields and other Squadrons also!
Whilst I was at Waddington, many accidents happened - some serious. After every accident, new orders were posted on the board called S.R.Os (Station Routine Orders) and these new orders had to be carried out come what may.
There was still bull in the camp. A weekly inspection of our quarters - polished floor and dusted lockers - with our kit laid out on our beds and woe betide if we were missing labels or had dirty kit. As I went through the two years, the RAF eased up on that sort of thing, also, there was a 36-hour pass every weekend and we finished our duty on Saturday lunchtime. We had to be back on duty on the Monday. Then the RAF made every weekend a 48-hour pass and only if you were Duty Armourer did you have to stay on camp. I think all of this happened in my last year at Waddington.
Early on, it meant that I travelled home on my motorbike. Later, I sold the bike and bought a Volkswagen Beetle, which was a left hand drive car. At that time, there was the Suez crisis and no tankers could come through the Suez Canal, so there was a petrol shortage. This meant having petrol coupons. The government of the day decreed that car drivers with “L” plates could drive on their own without another driver to accompany them, so I taught myself on the highways and byways around Paston and Newborough. In those days there were just small roads around those parts, not a lot of traffic, and absolutely no estates or houses, just lanes and empty roads. I was lucky; it was a good time to learn to drive. When it came to the time to take my driving test I was still in the RAF and Sergeant Dyer gave me a 72-hour pass to enable me to take my test in Peterborough. I passed, thank goodness!
During my time at Waddington, sport was always on the agenda. If you were handy, you’d be all right. Our Armoury, in the two football seasons I was there, won the Waddington Camp league and cup, and I have a medal, not gold, but a bronze colour, to prove it, camp winners, 1957-8. Our team was pretty handy and I had a Scottish youth international playing next to me in the forward line. I was the centre forward. I scored a lot of goals also, and could belt ‘em with both feet; I enjoyed my football there immensely. Our Armoury team was a good one.
(For Staff’s reminiscences of playing Football and Cricket for Westwood Works, click here).
The cricket team was not a bad one, and we again won a medal for being No.1. in the camp. I can’t remember all the names, but I’ve still got the two medals to prove that we were winners and that I was in the RAF at Waddington. Our Officer in Charge of the Armoury, a young flight lieutenant aged 20, treated you well and was a happy man if you put your heart into the sport and again into your Armoury job.
I had been at Waddington for nearly a year when we received our first Vulcan. The Canberras had been flown out to other squadrons and we had to be trained to work on the Vulcans. After a week, the second one arrived on our airfield. I think our training took about eight weeks.
What a fantastic aircraft the Vulcan was. Our job was similar to the Canberra – ejection seats with a few modifications but the same safety regulations. However, it did have bomb crutches in the bomb bay that were a new concept in holding the bombs. As the Vulcan was such a large aircraft, everything was much higher above the ground. Cranes had to be used for taking out the Vulcan’s ejector seats. Our entrance to the bomb bay and to the pilot’s flight deck was by a drop-down ladder. By the time my two years were up, we had six aircraft at Waddington - well, we did have six, but one wintry day when a large amount of snow had fallen, snow ploughs were out to clear the runway. These ploughs had piled up the snow on each side of the runway and as a Vulcan landed and was travelling along the runway to stop, the wing tip hit the snow heap and swung it around. It finished up flat on the grass and at a funny angle. So, we armourers had to go out to disarm it and make the ejection seat safe. It was possible to see the stricken aircraft from the roadway going along the side of the base. A few days later, there was a report about it in the Lincolnshire paper, which the Ministry of Defence dismissed, even though the plane could be seen from the road. It was soon moved and ready for an overhaul. When this Vulcan crashed, immediately our entire armoury was conscripted to move the snow off the side of the runway, and by golly, it was cold. We were out there for about four hours and got the snow shifted. The Warrant Officer in charge of the party of men gave us rum in our coffee to warm us up. It was such a cold and blustery day.
Only a week later, we had to put more rolls of barbed wire along the airfield adjacent to the Sleaford to Lincoln road. Nowadays the barbed wire fence would be inadequate for security reasons and at any rate, it was not high enough. To get into the camp in the mid-50s you could ride or walk right up to the main gate, Now, there are armed guards at the end of both roads going to up the main gate.
In the second year of my time at Waddington, working on Vulcans was becoming easier. So, my daily life was easier too. The first two Vulcans were giving us trouble with the Drogue Parachute that came out to stop the Vulcan on landing. In the rear compartment was an electrical-cum-mechanical clamping box arrangement. As the Vulcan had reduced speed to slow, the pilot then ejected the chute from its lanyard to this clamping box assembly. Every time the pilot tried to eject the chute, this box would seize up ‘shut’ so the chute would still be attached to the tail end of the Vulcan. The other armourers and I had to take out this box and fit a new one in its place. Heads were put together. Serge Dyer, Serge Smith and our Pilot Officer were wondering why this happened every time the pilot used his drogue chute. As I was an S.A.C and being conscripted, I wasn’t included in the discussions. After about a dozen times that I had to change the assembly, I noticed that each one had a burnt smell from the wiring inside the box assembly. On one occasion when there was a discussion in Serge Dyer’s office, and there was a scratching of heads, I happened to go in to pick up another new box assembly. During the whys and wherefores, Sergeant Dyer asked me what my thoughts were. My answer - that it could be something as simple as the wiring from the pilot’s switch to the parachute box being wired back to front, so that instead of releasing the clamp arms it was just keeping them closed and therefore fusing the armature together - was quickly dismissed by Sergeant Smith. Both the Sergeants smiled and I left to put in the box once again. We had used a lot of these in the first two weeks of trials with the Vulcan. About three days later, I was called into the P/O’s office. The two sergeants were there already. “What had I done wrong?” I wondered. All I got was praise and thanks because our officer had contacted the works where the Vulcan was built and the draughtsmen there looked at their drawings. They discovered that they had the coloured wiring to the box the wrong way around. After we came out of the office, Serge Dyer remarked that it took a conscript on two years’ National Service to work out what was wrong, and to think it out. From then on, we had no more trouble with the box and never had to change them until they needed servicing.
Another job that we had to accomplish on the Vulcan was to fit the atom bomb to the bomb bay. The bomb was brought from the bomb dump on a special cradle and driven under the Vulcan. There were four armourers and an NCO in each of two squads. We had a hydraulic power pack and four long corner jacks to pull up the bomb in its cradle to the top of the bomb bay and into the bomb crutches. The crutches were then locked in position and the bomb lanyard attached to the aircraft. We had to practise these manoeuvres each week until we got the job down to a fine art - and quickly too. The bomb was huge and filled most of the bomb bay of the Vulcan. It was another part of our education in aircraft management.
Waddington had a cinema in the camp, where we had to pay to watch the films. There was a new title every week, but our pay didn’t reach to this, especially if one went home most weekends, so one of the things I took to was making rugs with a special rug-making kit. I made Chris one with her name in it and one for Mam. It kept me off the streets! We had a N.A.A.F.I. but not a games room. In the summer, though, we had our cricket and in the winter, football, and the training. We had Duty Armourer to do, keeping the armoury shut and secure at all times. One was a one-night duty and the other was a weekend duty, on a roster. We were allowed to sleep at night on duty armourer and the armoury had some camp beds that folded up, so that wasn’t too bad a shift. I should think that my two years as an armourer were better than being a cook.
Anyway, back to the Armoury and happenings. I had only three months to do until I finished my National Service when Serge Dyer gave me a job to do in No.2. Hanger. “Go in there with L.A.C Milner, see the Flight Sergeant in charge of the planned servicing and tell him that you are the Armourers to complete the major star servicing on the Vulcan”. This servicing was done to a time schedule by this Flight Sergeant. We went to the hanger to see him and he told us the time we had to take out the ejection seats, by crane, and then after that part of the servicing, we were told the time to enter the aircraft for our next job, which was to take out the bomb crutches from the bomb bay of the same Vulcan. At the given time, Jeff Milner and I took our tools and visited our Vulcan again. When we entered the hanger the Vulcan was on huge jacks and apparently was undergoing landing gear test and servicing. It was all right, said the same Flight Sergeant, we were allowed to go into the bomb bay via the movable ladder. When we got in the bay, there were two electricians there dismantling wires to the bomb crutches. One of these ‘leckies’ was at one end of the bomb bay and the other airman was at the other end. We had perhaps only taken about three crutches out (Jeff was one side of the bay and I was on the other) when we heard a whirring noise which got worse as we went along. I remember looking up above my head and seeing a large copper tank with pipes going to it and a red light on the top. All of a sudden, the noise was horrific. One ‘leckie’ said, “Hold on, lads, the idiots are going to open the bomb bay!” There was a huge bang and I was covered from head to foot in liquid. I wiped this away from my eyes and saw that Jeff Milner and I were covered in green oil. Above us, the large copper tank was just jagged edges with a few pipes to it, with no red light. We struggled down the ladder and the F/S shouted to us and asked what the bloody hell we had done. “It’s not what we’ve done, it’s what you’ve done – you’ve blown this big tank up!” I said. Apparently, this sergeant said that they were changing the hydraulic oil in the system and then realised that they had an airlock in the tank and hadn’t bled the system. All the airmen on the ground were laughing their heads off when they saw these two green men coming out of the bomb bay. It wasn’t funny for us, I can assure you. When we got back to the Armoury, Sergeant Dyer was shocked. He made us go back to our quarters for shower after shower. We had to scrap our working blue clothes, socks and shoes. When we went to the clothing quartermaster to get new clothes and such they said we had to pay for them. (I had only three months to go!)
Jeff and I went back to our Armoury, reported to our sergeant and I told him that there was no way that I was going to pay for these clothes as it wasn’t our fault that we were covered in hydraulic oil. I was going to use my best blue uniform for the last three months. He went to see our Armoury Officer, who went to see the Medical C/O and the two of them managed to get us new working blue uniforms free of charge, no blame on our part. In fact, only two days later, on Station Routine Orders, there was an order that no one was allowed in the bomb bay during undercarriage testing. Good – there would be no more trouble with the changing of this oil in the future as the mechanics had learnt their lesson. Jeff and I were fine after the accident, but we could have been killed if the body of the tank had hit us. What with carrying explosives in our pockets and all the other happenings, it’s a wonder we lasted the two years we were conscripted.
Only two months to go, and it might be thought that they would let me eke out the time. No way! They conscripted two of us to go on a fire-fighting course of one month’s duration. This meant two weeks at Chorley, in Lancashire, and two weeks at Moreton-in-Marsh R.A.F Stations. At Chorley I was driving a fire tender and then operated the water pump at the back of the tender. Not only did we practise around the camp but travelled out on the roads to a huge pit where we could use the water to get used to holding and operating the water nozzle at the end of the line. As we had about four fire tenders around this pit, we finished up having water fights against the other trucks.
The second camp was at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, a small camp with the smallest cinema I’ve ever been in. There were only about two dozen seats. Apparently, Morton-in-Marsh was the camp where the Commanding Officer was Dickie Murdoch, of the radio comedy show “Much Binding in the Marsh”. It was much the same there, learning all about handling water hoses, and St John Ambulance men gave us first aid training.
Watching Moreton playing football and cheering for the opposition, going into town and having a pint of scrumpy cider (we couldn’t afford beer on our pay) but the landlord would only give us half a pint at a time. I suppose this water business was a change from the armoury and, with only four weeks to go to demob, was pleasurable. After these four weeks, it was a train home to Peterborough for a long weekend before going back to Waddington to get signed off. A very happy lad was I seeing as how it was going to be the end of my National Service and back to being a civilian. Anyhow, back to my camp and taking around a form that had to have officers’ signatures from each and every department. This operation was going to be a two-day job at least, trying to catch all the officers. One of my mates in our billet, called Lofty Thompson, and I organised a sandwich and beer ‘do’ in the local pub in Waddington village for about twenty airmen, including Geordie Scorer, Dave Smith, Whitey and Jeff Milner, so we had a good send off.
The day came, and I said my goodbyes to Sergeant Dyer, Sergeant Smith, Corporal and all the lads, picked up my kitbag and clothes, and put them in the Volkswagen I had bought just before the Suez Crisis. I couldn’t believe I was free again as I drove through the gates for the last time. I handed in my 1250 (security pass) and was in a happy state to be a civilian again. When I got home, and for the next week, I took a break before starting work at Baker Perkins again.
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