National Service for 18 year olds in the 1950's

A nostalgic look at RAF service in the 1950s

RAF Memories

Reminiscencies of a Nationl Serviceman/Regular in 1950's

National Service was inevitable for myself and contempories born in 1934. In the early weeks of our 18th.year, we received a command to attend the Ministry of Labour and National Service on a specified date to register. Failure to do so rendered one liable to prosecution and imprisonment.

So it came to pass that in the weeks leading up to my 18th. Birthday, I received a brown envelope instructing me to register. On 5th. April 1952 I took myself off to the appointed place, namely the offices of the Ministry of Labour and National Service in Charles Street, Otley and duly registered. It was the day before my 18th.Birthday. [This was thankfully, the only time in my working life that I ever had to attend the "dole office"]

Events moved swiftly and on the 8th. May 1952, I reported to the recruiting office in Leeds for a compulsory medical to determine my fitness to serve King and Country. I passed this medical as being A1 and this sealed my fate. I had no excuse not to obey the call. It was on this day that I took "The Kings Shilling" and committed myself to being a three - year regular. The blandishments of the recruiting officer who pointed out that the pay for a Regular was £3/3/- per week whereas National Servicemen got 28/- were enough to convince me! As I was a member of the Air Training Corps at the time of enlistment, and having obtained a proficiency badge, I was assured entry into the R.A.F. with a trade of my choice. I chose to train as a wireless operator.

So, on Tuesday the 3rd. June 1952, having received a travel warrant, I reported to R.A.F. Cardington in Bedfordshire. This was a thrilling experience for me as I had never before travelled more than a few miles by train and now there I was, travelling to the Deep South! I travelled by train from Otley Railway station [The station and line did not survive the Beeching cuts] changing in Leeds and then on to Bedford. An R.A.F. lorry completed the journey from Bedford.  First picture of Sprog in uniform. RAF Cardington  during w/c 3rd. June 1952.  

I arrived at Cardington at about 5p.m. and along with other recruits was allocated a billet. Mine was Line C1 Hut 421. The following 2 or 3 days were taken up with being issued with kit. As this was on a fairly hit and miss basis, several visits to the camp tailor were required to make the uniform presentable. There was also the compulsory haircut. At this stage of our service lives it was a bit like a holiday camp, as, apart from not being allowed off camp limits, discipline was minimal. However, the fact that we were in the service now was brought home to us when we were issued with brown paper and string and instructed to parcel up and send our "civvies" home. It was here that I became 3513350 A.C.2 Brogan M. It was also in Cardington that I was introduced to pints of hot orange in the NAAFI. I remember one incident in Cardington. In the week we were there we were "kitted out" Part of the kit was a set of eating irons –knife, a fork and a spoon all with our service number indelibly stamped. Also issued was a pint mug. With this equipment we were "marched" to the airmen’s mess. Unfortunately, we had at that stage not been instructed about the proper way to carry our irons and mug while marching. Some carried them on the right and some on the left as we marched. This resulted in a crash of shattered mugs. Replacements had to be bought in the NAAFI that evening!

After about a week in Cardington, I and other recruits were put on a train and transported to R.A.F. West Kirby on the Wirral. This was a "square bashing" camp where we were all to receive a rude awakening. Our first contact with drill instructors was a terrifying experience. I am sure that none of us had been so verbally and crudely abused with such ferocity in such a short time before. I made the mistake of trying to retrieve my kitbag from a heap that had been deposited on the floor from a lorry. I was promptly identified by a D.I. as one for special treatment. He had my name and whenever he wanted a scapegoat in later weeks he remembered me. We had arrived at Meols station in Cheshire this was a short distance from the camp proper[if my recollection is correct] and we were made to "march" there. -[ I think] What a sight we must have been to the locals. Bewildered, all sporting our new haircuts we went higgledy-piggledy fashion through the streets to the accompaniment of verbal harassment from the D.I’s.Passing out from West Kirby. I have  autographs of most of my billet companions. I would be pleased to forward a copy of this photo to anyone who recognises themself

The following eight weeks were alternatively a nightmare of endless "bull", billet inspections, square bashing [We were taught Guardsman drill.]This was the old style drill where we were required to complete drill moves with our legs horizontal from the knees and crash down with our studded boots.[ This was probably connected to the chronic bad back I suffered in later years] We did this drill to the shouts of one pause two. We were also one of the last intakes to be instructed in the Slow March, [a practice subsequently dropped I believe from the courses to follow] physical training and cross-country running. I do not recollect having any trouble with the physical training regime so I suppose that my very active cycling activities prior to call up enabled me to cope with this without any difficulty. On the plus side was the fact that we were all young men together. We had to pull together in our billet to keep it up to the high standard expected and insisted by our instructors. Another thing was that we were all strangers to each other. This meant that we had to make new friends as on arrival at West Kirby we were allocated billets in alphabetical surname order, so I was with the A’s B’s and C’s. The friend that I had during the journey to Cardington from Leeds, having met him in the recruiting office on 3rd. June which was the initial point of departure for us, was Ken Smith from Leeds [he was later to become my best man] He was so far removed from me in all that was going on in our training routine that he might as well have been on the moon!

One of my most enduring memories of my time here was the cry of "PADS" every time any one entered the billet. The floor shone like glass and everybody except the visiting N.C.O was required to skate down the centre of the room with felt pads underneath their boots Also, on "bull nights"-a weekly routine, I remember inmates of the billet being dragged up and down the billet on a blanket to induce a high gloss on the floor. It was also a fact that no matter how hard everyone tried, the Orderly Officer, on his inspection, always found something wrong which often resulted in the whole complement of the billet to having to repeat the chore. I also remember one incident with regret now. One of our members in the billet left a lot to be desired in his personal hygiene habits. So, as a group we decided he should have a bath and he was carried out fully clothed and dumped in a bath of cold water. Unfortunately, during the struggles in the  move into the bath he fell onto the edge of the bath and lost some of his front teeth. He learned a hard lesson that night. I also remember that quite a few of my fellow recruits took up smoking at West Kirby. This was brought about by the fact when we had short rest periods we could relax on the grass [June] if a person was seen not to be smoking he was often selected to run an errand of some sort because he wasn’t doing anything! Solution – become a smoker. [I resisted this and have been a lifelong non-smoker.]

After the first six weeks of training we were considered sufficiently well trained to be allowed out of camp. Most of us made a bee - line for New Brighton, which was close by. We were conveyed there by lorry and we were picked up to return to camp at a specified hour. I do not recollect anyone failing to return on time as our experience of the first six weeks of discipline had already conditioned us to know what to expect if we stepped out of line. I have no recollections of what I did or saw in New Brighton or inded, who I was with.

On completion of training I was promoted to the rank of A.C.1 and was now to move on for trade training. This meant that most of the billet residents would go their separate ways and that friendships that had been born out of adversity would end. I had opted to be a wireless operator and I was posted to R.A.F. Compton Bassett in Wiltshire. On arrival there, I was allocated a bed in Hut Y20. This was to be my home for the next five months, which was the duration of the course. It was also the home of Ken Smith; Pete Watson and Phil Gowan and we became firm friends. It quickly became evident that there was a much more relaxed regime here and I settled in to my new life thankful that the haranguing of the D.I’s was now over.

High Jinks at Compton Bassett Summer 1952. No memory of names to faces. I would be pleased to forward photo to any of the pictured erks if they recognise themself.

The next five months were a series of endless [it seemed] sessions of learning to send and receive Morse code at an acceptable speed to be useful when I was eventually posted to an operational station. We still of course had "bull night" plus kit inspections as well as parades, but by comparison with the first few weeks of service life they were tolerable. Even being billet orderly for a week on rota was bearable. We had of course the occasional guard duty to fit in with course work. These were long boring nights of two hours on guard and two off over a twelve- hour period.

Our social life was pretty low key. It consisted of many nights spent in the NAAFI drinking pints of hot orange or playing cards purely for fun. We did not have the money to gamble with, nor indeed were we gamblers. We played a game called Find the Lady in well brought up circles, but we had another name for it in the service vernacular! The nearest place of note was Chippenham and a little further afield was Devizes. Both of these places were visited from time to time. Devizes I remember had a very large NAAFI Club. There was not only Compton Bassett in the area but other R.A.F. and Army bases. During the weekends those of us from the North of England who could not get home on a 36 hour pass, spent most of the time in the billet. I remember one activity vividly. We made a high pile of mattresses in the centre of the billet and took a running dive over the top. The pile was gradually raised until we could no longer clear it. We landed on other mattresses laid on the floor. Also, I remember that once a week – on Sundays we got a cream bun in the mess at teatime. Another vivid memory is of the two pot bellied stoves in the billet. During cold weather these stoves would be stoked up to remain lit throughout the night. During the night darkness these stoves could be seen glowing red –literally red hot. We had to let them go out from time to time to remove the build up of "clinker" We could not have done this at West Kirby as the stoves there were in pristine condition. They were "bulled" incessantly by the residents and never once saw flames. Thank goodness my time there was in the summer!

The training eventually came to an end and there was then the dreaded end of course examinations in radio theory and Morse code proficiency. It was everyone’s nightmare to fail and be either C.T’d or F.t’ d. F.T’d meant further training. This was in effect being put back a week or more for remedial training. The most dreaded action was being C.T’d. This was being thrown off the course for good and being posted to another branch of the service. This meant of course, that five months of drudgery had been a complete waste. Thankfully I passed with 61% overall and so ensured that I would soon be posted to an operational station. At the time I was convinced that I had been lucky to pass. I was never one of the top students. One person who was in the top few was an airman by the name of Green. - Would love to hear his version of events! He inexplicably failed and was F.T’d. I, who did not expect to pass, did so. At the time I was sure that there had been a mix up in the marking as he was 3513351 and I was 3513350 [ATC Numbers] I did not however test the theory. It was do unto others as they would do to you!!

The end of the course came just before Christmas 1952. All the camp "stood down" for the festivities and I went home on leave. I returned to Compton Bassett some time in late December and lead an indolent life for a few days until I received my first posting to Coastal Command at R.A.F Kinloss in Morayshire. This could not have been much further from home. In our last few weeks at C.B. we had been invited to indicate our posting preferences. I had opted for Yorkshire, Lancashire and Lincolnshire in that order. With typical perversity I had been posted to the North of Scotland. A fellow airman whose home was in Brora in Sutherland – in effect just across the water from Lossiemouth was posted to Lincolnshire!

I bade farewell to Compton Bassett forever I thought [future circumstances were to conspire against this] and on 6th. January 1953 and headed for Kinloss. This was a long journey, which entailed first of all travelling to London and then getting the overnight sleeper to Inverness. No sleeping compartments for erks though, it was get a compartment, draw the blinds and hope no one else came in to prevent stretching out on a seat. [Corridor trains in those days] I was accompanied on this trip, by "Joe" [properly Anthony] Marsden from Huddersfield. Joe was a member of the Mountain Rescue Team and he had had the foresight to bring cans of self-heating food available to the MRT so we did not go hungry on the long journey. On this journey we should have left the train at Aviemore Junction and the taken a train for Forres. This line later suffered a Beeching cut. However, in the early morning – about 05.30, the instructions of the porter in broad Scottish were not understood by us and we continued on to Inverness. From there we had to get a train to Forres. After six months of life in training camps a vast difference awaited me. No more petty "bull" No more D.I’s bellowing. All-in-all, a much less hectic life-style. I soon settled in my new home in a billet annexe by the name of Star of Markinch. This was on the shores of Findhorn Bay and so close to the beach that we were able to collect driftwood to keep the billet stove going. We also enjoyed a very mild winter in comparison to that which was being experienced in Yorkshire, thanks to being directly under the Gulf Stream. My initial disappointment at not being on the camp proper was tempered by the fact that being about half a mile away from camp and not being within the confines of the guard-room had its advantages. With this in mind I settled into my new way of life. The only parade that I had to worry about now was the monthly Commanding Officers parade, which, after West Kirby was a breeze. I remember vividly my first visit to the Signals Section. It had only one transmitter/receiver. [A 1475] I think. There was a message in the section from the Signals Officer that I have never forgotten. It read- "The practice of ending transmissions with spurious dits is to cease forthwith. Procedure as laid down in B. J .C. P. 124A will be strictly adhered to" [This will only have some significance to wireless operators!]

In Kinloss I became friendly with a billet mate from Bradford. I cannot recollect his proper name but he answered to "Brad". On one 48 hour pass I travelled home as pillion passenger on his motorbike. An extremely uncomfortable, twelve-hour journey, in horrendous conditions. So much so, we abandoned the intention of getting home in one go and took bed and breakfast en route. I had borrowed flying suit and fur lined flying boots, but these were no protection from the cold. I made the return trip by train! There was an excellent train service to Inverness from Leeds in those days. I took the 09.05 hrs. North Briton from Leeds to Edinburgh. Then a connection to Perth. From there, a train to Forres via Grantown on Spey. [The latter line no longer exists. - Dr. Beeching!] The journey took about twelve hours.

On 1st. April 1953 I received some surprise but welcome news. I had been posted. Where of all places? R.A.F.Topcliffe in Yorkshire [Topcliffe had just been vacated by Transport Command] I couldn’t believe my luck, Topcliffe was only about 35 miles from my home and my girlfriend. During the period the 8th.April I travelled home for a weeks leave only to return to Kinloss to "clear camp" prior to my move. Further surprises awaited me when I arrived at Topcliffe, my good friends Ken Smith. Pete Watson, Phil Gowan and Joe Marsden had also been posted there and we all took up residence in Rhine Block Room 4 [Later moving to Bruneval Room 1] Although Joe Marsden and I had travelled to Kinloss together, we did not see much of each other as we were in different billets and on different shifts. Rhine Block had previously been the home of the WRAF and my sex education was completed by the graffiti in the toilet block!

My posting to Topcliffe was the start of a rather mundane period of service life except for a six-week period of detached duty on an exercise at R.A.F Bad Eilson [Headquarters 2nd Tactical Air Force, Germany.] We were first of all sent to Lytham St. Anne’s near Blackpool and then put on a non-stop troop train to Harwich. From there we were conveyed to The Hook of Holland on the troopship S.S. Empire Wansbeck. This was a flat bottom boat and as I could not master the hammock and the crowded fetid conditions, I spent the night on deck under the stars. In the morning we were transferred to a train to continue to Buckeburg Barracks- the former headquarters of the Gestapo. [It was on this train that I had my first encounter with a "continental breakfast" and I have had an aversion to cheese ever since.] This meal was the first one since breakfast the day before as feeding arrangements for the U.K. portion of the journey had broken down. On arrival at Buckeburg I was allocated a place in a large tent with about a dozen others for the duration of my stay. However, on my first foray into the Airman’s Mess I met up with John Phillips an old school friend from Otley. He was on permanent staff at the camp and he told me that there were spare beds available in his billet. I promptly moved in and so instead of sleeping in a tent for the duration of the exercise I had a comfortable bed in the barracks. While I was at Buckeburg, I was able to visit the town of Hamelin [the town of the Pied Piper] which was close by.

 Detached duty at RAF Bad Eilson Germany for six week exercise. This tent was intended to be my temporary home except that one of my Otley school friends was on Permanent Staff and there was a spare bed in his billet.

When the exercise ended I returned to Topcliffe and I managed to go home most weekends to see my girl friend, either by train from Topcliffe [Dr. Beeching had not yet done his worst and trains for Leeds from Thirsk stopped at Topcliffe, Ripon, Harrogate and Horsforth – the latter station where my girl friend lived] or hitch-hiking which in those days was relatively easy for a young man in uniform. There was a train at 23.15hrs.on Sunday from Leeds, which I caught on more than one occasion. Quite often, meeting up with Ken Smith who lived in Leeds.This train terminated at Thirsk and was not scheduled to stop at Topcliffe. Nevertheless it did, due some judicious communication cord pulling!! I can remember on one occasion the guard shouting that it was not a proper stop and that we all should get back on board. Fat chance – it was a long walk back from Thirsk. My good friend Pete Watson who lived in Nottingham, was an expert hitchhiker and he liked to travel to a timetable. On more than one occasion he arranged for me to be picked up at Wetherby at a specified time. His system was to avoid lifts in lorries at all costs. If he had arranged to meet me it was not unusual for him to ask the driver to divert off the A1 to pick me up.

I and my group of friends spent many hours in the Salvation Army Canteen buying food to supplement service meals and playing table-tennis for hours on end. Life moved on for me until one day I read daily routine orders to find that I was on the preliminary warning roll [P.W.R.] for a Far East posting namely R.A.F. Changi [Singapore] This really threw a spanner in the works of all my plans as I was now courting and did not want a separation of eighteen months. What could I do to prevent this?

A drastic solution was brought to my notice – apply for advanced trade training as a Telegraphist 2 .The course would last for three months and when completed, I would have less than 18 months to do in the service. Postings to Changi were for periods of at least 18 months. The downside of it was that the course would be at Compton Bassett, a place I thought I had seen the last of. Anyway, I bit the bullet, applied for the course and on 31st. December 1953 I found myself again under a training regime. I took up residence in Hut Z19 alongside my friend Phillip Gowan from Topcliffe who had already started the course. We were later be joined by Ken Smith on 28th. January followed by Pete Watson on 24th.February. So the Topcliffe foursome was together again [We did change billets during the course but I did not record the number]

It was on this course that I found myself on a charge [Form 252]. This arose because by this time I was an "old sweat" Leading Aircraftman, having been in the service for nearly 18 months. It came about by me being found in bed long after Reveille by the Orderly Corporal, and his resolve to show his authority to some of my hut companions who were in the early days of their service. For my transgression I received 5 days C.B. [confined to barracks] with the endless nitpicking inspections and duties, which the moronic R.A.F. police revelled in inflicting on any unfortunate airman who came into their domain." Snowdrops" in spite of their power over "erks" who fell foul of them were universally hated. These individuals, who were usually L.A.C’s [as was I] with the protection of two stripes as acting corporals took great delight in making life intolerable for the ordinary airman.

 Ready for Defaulters parade at second visit to Compton Bassett.

I completed the Teleg 2 course by the end of March 1954 and having obtained a pass mark I was able to leave Compton Bassett for good this time. As a result of this, I was promoted to the rank of Senior Aircraftman and received an increase in pay. I had also succeeded in preventing my posting abroad.

Life as an airman now became routine, I did as little as I could get away with. As I was in a shift workers billet we were exempt from weekly billet inspections due to the fact that we worked night shifts – or were supposed to. Scheduled night flying seldom went beyond 1 a.m. We could quickly take to our beds and then cry night shift privilege in the morning should anyone try to mount an inspection. During the rest of my time in the service I took every opportunity to go to see my girl friend, often by train, mostly without the sanction of an official pass. [RAF Form 295] Many times I was absent without leave and had committed two further offences by technically breaking out of camp and then breaking back in again. Good fortune favoured me and I never fell foul of the morons with the white caps and white webbing. On one occasion, three Officers who had responded to my hitchhiking thumb drove me back to camp from Ripon railway station. -Another Beeching casualty.[I did not know they were uniformed Officers until they stopped] When they asked if I wanted to be dropped at the guard room I had to admit to them that I was AWOL and had been to see my girlfriend. They very kindly drove straight past the guard room and let me out of the car at the rear of the Officers Mess. A rare breed! Officers & Gentlemen.

My service life came to an end in May 1955. I resisted the promise of promotion to Corporal if I signed on for a further period and returned to civilian life. I have mixed feelings about my time in the service. Had it not been compulsory, I do not think that I would have chosen it as a career. The plus side of it was that I made some very good friends some of whom I am still in contact with fifty years on. My good friend Ken Smith became my best man when I married in August 1957 and we are still in contact. Ken lives in Otley – where I was born. Pete Watson and I exchange regular visits, Pete lives near Alfreton, Derbyshire. I have tried to trace Phil Gowan and Joe Marsden without success. It may well be that one or both of them may now be deceased as they, like me, are now well over 70 years of age.

The negatives? They hardly seem relevant now.

Regrets? Only one. I wish that I had gone to the Far East instead of Compton Bassett for the second time. Not to get away from my girl friend who was later to become my wife, but to see some of the world that I probably will now never get the chance to see.

Glossary of terms used.

D.I. Drill Instructor.

Erk. The Service term for an Airman.

Bull. Spit and Polish.

Square Bashing. Drill.

A.C. Aircraftman.

L.A.C. Leading Aircraftman.

S.A.C. Senior Aircraftman.

N.C.O. Non - Commissioned Officer.

Bull Night. Weekly Spit and Polish.

N.A.A.F.I. Navy, Army and Air Forces Institute.

F.T. Further Training.

C.T. Ceased Training.

Clearing. Procedure for leaving one camp, to proceed to a new one. Signatures had to be obtained from heads of all sections on camp, to confirm that you did not have any items on loan or that you should not have. [Sometimes initiative was called for when signatories were not available! particularly the Mountain Rescue Team]

Dr. Beeching. The infamous man brought in to "rationalise" the railways by destroying them.

Teleg 2.Telegraphists. Able to send and receive Morse code and operate a Teleprinter.

Snowdrops. Military Police. So called because of their white caps.

A.W.O.L. Absent without leave.

The final touches to this document were made on 26th. May 2003. I was surprised by how much I could remember after all these years. The fact that I discovered that I had saved diaries for the early part of the years 1952-1954 helped to bring the memories flooding back. With hindsight, I am glad that I had the experience of life in the service and I do not think it did me any harm. It is true that it was a great leveller. I met many young men from different backgrounds and made some enduring friendships. We took the rough with the smooth and often made our own amusement on camp. We were always a friendly bunch and I don’t recollect any bad incidents. None of us had very much money and though there was often an element of borrowing and lending, there was very little theft [having said that, you did not leave your watch and wallet unattended on your bed] The only things that were taken from me were my eating irons during my first visit to Compton Bassett. I made up for that by relieving someone else of his! Someone somewhere had a set of irons stamped 3513350.

I think that one word sums up my experience of service life - "Camaraderie! "

Michael Brogan 2003. Ex. S.A.C. 3513350. R.A.F. June 1952 – May 1955.



My efforts to trace Phil Gowan and Joe Marsden have failed and I accept that now they are only part of my memories. I do not intend to make any further additions or alterations to this document.


Michael Brogan 31st. May 2004 in signallers code AR AR AR.

This is not the end, by complicated means, I at last found Phil Gowan 0n 4th. May 2005. I visited him at his home in Louth and have since spoken to him on the phone. We have promised to keep in touch and exchange visits. Perhaps now I should look for Joe Marsden? We shall see.

Michael Brogan 6/5/2005.

I cannot resist adding to this document one final note.

I visited RAF Changi in November 2007 and January 2008. It is now Singapore Airport and I passed through it on my travels to and from Australia. What goes round comes round!! It appears that I missed a unique opportunity in life. Hindsight is a wonderful gift!!.

One final note directly relating Service Police in the above document. :-

I referred to the RAF police as morons. I make no apologies for this. In my experience they were a very unpleasant, nay sadistic, bunch of individuals, determined to grind the ordinary erk down They took perverse delight in putting any airman leaving camp via the Guardroom in trepidation that one of them might find fault – real or imagined, to prevent exit from camp. It’s hard for a civilian to comprehend how much power they had and how some of them abused it. There may have been some good ones ,if there were, none of them crossed my path

It is with great sadness that I have to report the death of my good friend Pete Watson. Pete [Big Youth] succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease in 17th. August 2013. He had been ill for some time. I was able to visit him in August 2012 in a nursing home in Brighton where he subsequently died. RIP my good friend Pete. Peter Frederick Watson 15/4/1934 - 17/8/2013


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