Issue #45 (May 1985)
In the summer of 1947, when I was eighteen, I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force. During initial training (boot camp) we were asked for our occupational preference; lorry driver sounded fine to me. I had no ambition other than to pass the next two years in peace, since my employers continued my civilian pay and promotions. During National Service I earned more than most NCOs.
We took aptitude tests en masse, the results were reviewed individually, and our occupations in the service of His Majesty were established. On the spatial relations part of the aptitude test I had answered all choices except one which I couldn’t [quoteright]fathom out. This worried me in case they wouldn’t let me be a lorry driver. It turned out to be a novelty for the sergeant arranging the job placements to see almost all the questions correctly answered, and he was happy to discuss what the book said was the right answer for the one I’d missed.
He then delivered the verdict. “You’ll make a fine Radio Mechanic, Gregson.” I think they were short of radio mechanics that week. My protestations that I didn’t know the difference between DC and AC were to no avail. “Don’t worry lad, we’ll teach you.” And so they did.
I was now an “erk,” Air Force vernacular for an aircraftsman. I was posted to RAF Yatesbury, Number 2 Radio Training School, to become a radio mechanic. Yatesbury is on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in the southwest part of England, well secluded from the distractions of civilization. The nearest collection of habitations is the village of Calne, famous throughout England as the manufacturing home of Harris’ sausages. Guess what we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One of us scrupulously measured and recorded in a notebook at each meal the length of all the sausages he consumed. At the end of the course he announced he had eaten enough sausages to reach between the stumps of a cricket pitch, i.e. a tenth of a furlong. [a furlong is 220 yards -TW]
The CO. recognized that his path to glory lay in cranking out qualified radio mechanics, not in running an obedience training school. Our studies were disturbed as little as possible by parades, extra duties, or fatigue parties. Thus number 2 Radio Training School was not unlike being in the sixth form of a public school full of high-spirited youngsters asked to cram for England. We enjoyed the place, and worked diligently in class all day and in our huts each night, for twelve weeks.
The huts were poorly heated. In 1947 England suffered a severe fuel shortage. Extra-curricular activities included learning to install a 5-watt light bulb in a tin can as a substitute hot water bottle. One enterprising erk learned enough Ohm’s Law to remove the carbon rods from two flashlight batteries, mount them six inches apart in wood, float the wood in a fire bucket, connect the tops of the rods to the power supply and get shaving water very quickly. The rest of us learned how to replace the fuses with big English copper pennies.
If we dressed sloppily the NCOs would roar at us from a distance, but it was understood by all parties concerned to be kindly meant and for our own good. We were rather like children enjoying being chased by adults.
During the war Yatesbury had been an operational flying base. The immense parade ground was originally a runway for bomber aircraft. There were four “wings” of trainees, a thousand in each wing. There was another wing of permanent staff to run the place, Admin, catering, MT, etc.
Each of the four wings had one cookhouse and one mess hall. We were allowed one hour for lunch. We would take our cutlery and mugs to morning class. When the noon bells sounded we ran to the mess hall at top speed to join the queue. One thousand hungry teenagers would form a line in about two minutes. If you dawdled, you found yourself behind nine hundred and ninety nine others. Speed, as they say, was of the essence: second helpings went only to the swift. World foot race records were broken daily.
Occasionally a wing would hold morning get-togethers called “parades” for such quaint purposes as watching somebody hoist an ensign up a flagpole. Assembled in ranks of three, phalanx after phalanx, a wing of a thousand erks occupied an insignificant part of the enormous parade ground. In winter the winds came whistling to us across Salisbury Plain unhindered by any obstacle other than the monoliths at Avebury and Stonehenge. “Lazy” winds we called them, because they went through you instead of around you. Parades were not normally popular entertainment.
However, two parade ground episodes remain vivid in my memory.
The first was a monthly Colour Hoisting Ceremony. The band came early and held a short rehearsal in the biting wind. The CO arrived late on a bicycle, parked it behind the reviewing stand, removed his bicycle clips, mounted the steps, faced us, and the festivities began.
The sequence of events on such occasions was:
- thee ensign was raise
- the CO inspected the men whilst the band played.
- all ranks marched past the reviewing stand at the salute and then exited the parade ground stage left, so to speak.
Eventually one trombone player wrested his slide free from the icy grip and perpetrated a long brazen screech straight from the torments of hell. It petrified everyone including the bandmaster. He stood there with arms raised in supplication, jerking his head from left to right as one instrument after another broke free to add a scream of torture to the cacophony of atrocities.
The CO wisely abandoned all thoughts of inspection and returned to the rostrum. Through a subordinate, he announced the end of phase two and the beginning of phase three. However, he announced, due to the freezing weather we were to march at the double to the end of the parade ground and double back, re-form near the rostrum, and then do the salute and march past.
The unlucky officer whose lot it was to start the march past misunderstood these new instructions. He was a former aircrew member patiently awaiting his return to civvy street after years of defending his country. A short man not much over five feet tall, he wore a greatcoat which almost reached the ground.
He did a smart right turn and shot off at top speed toward the end of the parade ground. There he executed two sharp left turns and raced back to the reviewing stand where he should have stopped and resumed normal marching pace. Instead, he raced past the rostrum with head turned right, gloved hand wobbling about near his cap, greatcoat flapping round his ankles or streaming out behind him, and knees going up and down like pistons. He vanished down the road back to camp.
A startled NCO took off after him with elbows sawing the air in an effort to match speed and direction. The rank and file followed their leaders, stumbling with laughter, and holding their stomachs. One thousand men did the fastest march past in all of military history.
That wintry scene is etched in my memory in monotones of black and white and dark gray. It was like a silent newsreel parody of Napoleon leading his soldiers from Moscow in the style of a Mack Sennett chase scene. The CO also found it hilarious. We left him alone on the rostrum helplessly hanging onto the flagpole, almost hysterical with mirth, wiping his streaming eyes.
The other parade was even more memorable. But first, some background information.
An erk on the permanent staff burgled a house in Calne and wound up in front of a civil magistrate. Military law permits “an officer friend” to be present in court to say a few good words on behalf of an accused aircraftsman. When the magistrate asked, “Have you anything to say for yourself?” an officer was present and upstanding.
He spoke of the lad’s hitherto good record, pointed out that this was a first offence, never been in trouble before, and so on and so forth. He himself had probably never been in a court before under such circumstances. He was no doubt anxious to do a good job and, as can so easily happen, he overdid it. He asked the magistrate for leniency on the grounds that “after all, this lad is stationed at Yatesbury.” The magistrate sat up and asked “Just exactly what does that mean?” The officer blundered on to say: “Everyone knows there’s no discipline at Yatesbury.”
This was too good for the local paper: an enterprising journalist coloured it up and fed it to one of the national dailies in London. The pundits at the Air Ministry were horrified by the subsequent press headlines and ordered an Air Vice Marshal to make an immediate investigation. He arrived at Yatesbury next morning and was walking along School Road when the noon bells sounded for lunch.
The Air Vice Marshal was almost trampled to death in the two minute stampede of four thousand hungry students each trying to be first at the mess hall. Not only that, no one gave him a salute. Few of us even saw him.
His report to the Ministry must have confirmed their worst suspicions. A day or two after his visit we heard the sound of military music and marching feet as a detachment of the RAF Regiment came in through the main gates. The RAF Regiment is to the RAF roughly what the Marine Corps is to the US Navy, but under direct RAF control. A sort of infantry, they look after airport ack-ack defences, for example. The British army wasn’t available to the Brylcreem Boys, as they fondly called us. The RAF Regiment polished their buttons and shined their boots and were to be an example to us all.
Along with the RAF Regiment came Warrant Officer Bancroft, transferred on a moment’s notice from RAF Cranwell. Cranwell Royal Air Force station was a showplace, as well as a training center for all manner of skills. Number 1 Radio Training School was located at Cranwell. Former colonies gingerly emerging as new nations would send their fledgling Air Ministers to see what a well run Air Force should look like. If the Soviet Bloc countries expressed curiosity about the RAF they could always drop in for tea and a get a demo of the proper way to do things. It was said of Cranwell that if it moved you salute it. If it didn’t you whitewashed it.
Warrant Officer Bancroft was the man in charge of discipline at Cranwell. It was Bancroft who saw to it that Cranwell personnel behaved themselves and dressed impeccably. No one at Cranwell ever embarrassed the Air Ministry.
Bancroft was of medium height, bulldog jaw, barrel chested, with modest decoration ribbons, pencil thin black Gable moustache, gimlet eyes, and always in very good voice. His clothing was immaculate. Look for the military tailors next time you’re ordering shirts in Jermyn Street after crumpets in the Cavendish (Bentinck Hotel in the TV series the Duchess of Duke St.), and you will see. They have dummies in the windows modelling Bancroft’s style.
His voice was East End London: Cockney accent and no aitches. Had he spoken quickly he would have been incomprehensible but he spoke slowly enough and his meaning was always unequivocally clear. The pundits probably felt a warm glow simply by listening to him. He would not have been suitable for a recruiting poster however; his expression was a terrifying scowl. He certainly terrified us.
Our academic atmosphere promptly changed. One lunchtime I left the cookhouse in a hurry to get back to class carrying a half pint mug of tea too hot to drink. I dumped it on the ground under the cookhouse, right in front of the baleful eye of W/O Bancroft. He lectured me for five minutes on my inadequacies, itemizing several I hadn’t thought of. I learned of the grave disservice I was rendering the innocent British taxpayer whose efforts provided free tea for ingrates like myself. I received a capsule course in sanitation laced with the moral virtues of thrift. The top button of my battle dress blouse was undone: I heard on the best authority how I resembled “a sack of excreta tied around the middle, laddie.” When he was done with me I felt two inches tall, miserable, and insignificant. The man was a master. I have never again dumped tea in my life.
The old days were gone. No more casual rambles to school discussing homework problems on the way. We smartly paraded at eight o’clock for inspection by Bancroft, then marched to class in an orderly fashion. God help anyone who slept in.
Within a week we were tame and compliant. However, within another week our problems were resolved. This is what happened and I kid you not.
One frosty morning all four thousand of us paraded at eight o’clock for school. Bancroft was late for the first and only time. We waited and we waited in the bitter cold, our breath rising in clouds in the damp air, chafing at the delay. Bancroft finally arrived at a brisk pace, wheeled round, and surveyed us briefly. We were absolutely under his control, awaiting his orders. The barrel chest heaved as he drew breath to bring us to attention.
In that suspenseful moment the silence was broken. A thin but clearly audible voice floated out of the ranks on the icy air. The voice said:
“Sir, they also serve who only stand and wait.”
We couldn’t believe our ears. It is, of course, forbidden to talk whilst on parade. Thus two crimes were being committed, the worst one being lese majesté toward Bancroft. Bancroft couldn’t believe his ears either. He looked at us with wide open eyes and roared in astonishment:
“Oo said that?”
We were stunned. The wrath of Jehovah was going to smite all of us for the sins of one. Bancroft’s eyes narrowed, and bored into us, collectively, severally, individually. We prayed, eyes focussed just above the horizon. We all knew better than to compound the felony by accepting the invitation to reply.
Bancroft raised his voice and roared again: “OO SAID THAT?” Another interminable silence.
Horror piled on horror. Another voice piped up, a different voice, the voice of a choirboy with a West End accent. It helpfully dropped three words into the frosty atmosphere:
“Milton did, sir.”
A pregnant pause followed. Then came Bancroft’s command: “Ten SHUN”, followed quite unexpectedly by: “Open order ... MARCH”. This is a manœuvre in which the middle rank doesn’t move, the front rank takes one pace forward and the rear rank steps back. Why we were doing it on this occasion mystified us. All became clear with Bancroft’s next order, uttered in his best parade ground manner and with all his considerable authority:
“MILTON! One pace forwarrrrrrrd MARCH!”
We couldn’t believe it. We held our breath and of course no one moved. Our spirits soared to the heavens. Then, two more orders: “Stand at EASE” and “Stand EASY.” Bancroft then began to go along the ranks demanding and examining our identity cards.
The word spread in whispers. “He’s looking for Milton!” A titter began which grew to laughter. Laughter from four thousand ex-schoolboy throats, whose labours over the Restoration poets had paid off in a most unexpected way. The laughter rolled around the camp and echoed back from the school buildings. It swelled to the heavens and gave thanks to the Maker for deliverance from evil, and forgiveness for those things which we ought not to have done.
Bancroft realized he had completely lost control of the situation. Even worse, that he was the only person present who did not know why. “Paradise Lost,” so to speak. He abandoned the effort to find Milton and delivered us to school.
The camp quickly returned to the good old ways. Somehow this latest Yatesbury incident was reported in the Daily Mirror and Bancroft was soon back at Cranwell. In the few days before his return he philosophically accepted the situation: somebody must have explained it to him. He took to answering his phone with “Milton ‘ere.”
The innocents had nobbled the finest disciplinarian in the Royal Air Force.
Paul is one of those wonderful story-tellers who has a vast range of personal experiences that he draws upon for his humorous vignettes about his life. He and his wife Madeleine lived in Placerville until his death in 2006.