John Ibbotson

For Queen and Country

I was 18 years old. Naive and ignorant, (although I did not think so at the time!). I knew I was eligible for National service, life was on hold.

The letter came, report to Fulwood barracks for x-ray. 3 weeks later another letter, report for a medical at Penworthham. During the medical, I had to take an aptitude test to join the R.A.F. The doctor checking my heart told me I had a heart murmur and was about to die! 2 weeks later a cardiologist examined me and said there is nothing wrong with you. Get fell in! Being naive and ignorant, I actually believed that if one joined the R.A.F, one could actually fly! With that in mind, I applied for aircrew selection.

I reported to R.A.F Hornchurch for aircrew selection. After 4 days of aptitude tests and medicals with 40 other would be “Biggles”, 21 of whom were chartered accountants! We were told that the R.A.F was not taking National Service aircrew, but if we would sign on for a minimum of 12 years, we would be considered. All but one breathed 2 words, the second word was “off’. We were then bussed to R.A.F Cardington; we were allotted a wooden barrack hut and wandered in casually picking a bed.

There was a sudden scream!! We looked round and there was this apparition, an immaculate NCO, hands on hips, glaring at us. He was miffed because we had marked the highly polished floor with our shoes! I had, of course heard swear words before, and used them, but this gentleman’s fluency and delivery was a work of art. The expletives were bellowed out non stop. We had to remove our shoes, and never enter that hut again in other than in stocking feet.

During the next week we had to clean and polish this hut until it gleamed, in between we were issued with a uniform and other kit. We were taught how to make our bed (envelope corners), and how to make a bed pack. The bed pack was usually thrown across the room if it did not come up to perfection, by the N.C.O.

Our next stop was R.A.F Hennesford, near Stafford, square bashing! Before the wheels on the bus had actually stopped turning 6 NCOs appeared, all shouting and threatening using language, which definitely isn’t used in select drawing rooms! We were lined up and told that Hennesford was not to be “bulled” too hard as it had been condemned in 1935, but had been kept open for various reasons, World War II being one! So it was fragile, but still had to be cleaned.

The hut we had was similar to Cardington, There was a cast iron stove in the middle, but no fuel, None was issued, so we had to ‘forage.’ Each night we sneaked off to the coke pile, this was painted white to stop thieves, we removed the white coke and took the coke from underneath and then replaced the white coke! ‘Initiative.’

During the next 8 weeks, we were taught to march, swing our arms, drill with a rifle, salute, clean our shoes and boots till they shone and other kit we were given. All this was done at the ‘double’, and threats and verbal abuse was constantly bellowed at us. About the third week, when I realised that I wasn’t going to die, I actually began to enjoy it in a perverse sort of way. We had all met up as strangers, now we began to ‘bond’ as victims of misfortune. Barrack room humour began to appear. Several of the gentlemen I was with had a repertoire of rugby songs, which we use to sing out particularly the ‘naughty words’, and the comedians began to surface!

The 3rd week was ‘chore week’ when we had to clean everything in the camp! I was detailed to report at the cookhouse at 5am. The food was vile!! I watched in disbelief as a so called cook began to crack eggs onto a large tray. He then added oil and then fried the eggs for 5 minutes. He then turned the heat down and poured hot water over the eggs and left them until breakfast 2 hours later. The yolks were then black and the whites a congealed yellow. The eggs were then sliced into squares and served!!

On each table were a sliced loaf and a slab of margarine straight from the fridge, and greengage jam. I do not like greengage jam!!

Lunch and dinner were equally horrible. The cookhouse was filthy, dirt encrusted windows and generally dilapidated. We realised of course, that this treatment was intended to condition us to obey an order without question, so we slowly lost our fear so that when an N.C.O. ran at me and bawled “ if you don’t swing your F****** arms I’ll tear the f****** off and beat you with the soggy ends!” I actually found it rather amusing, there were many such sayings used.

We were then asked to choose an occupation in the R.A.F, I decided I just wanted an easy life, and on enquiry was told that ‘fighter plotting’ was a good skive, so that was it. I got 7 days leave, and then reported to R.A.F Middle Wallop for ‘trade training’. I rather believe one could learn all about fighter plotting in one afternoon, but we were there for a month. It was quite pleasant, the food was good, no one shouted. This was the R.A.F proper.

Towards the end of the month I was asked to ‘volunteer for overseas’. I had German ‘0’ level and had managed to fail advanced. I thought it would be fun to practise in Germany, I therefore said I would like to be posted to Germany.

A week later I was given my posting 277066 Ali Ibbotson J. Feaf. Where is Feaf? Perhaps it’s in Scotland! I asked the flight sergeant, where is Feaf? ‘What do you want to know for laddie? I have been posted there. Laddie, you have just joined the Far East F*** Air Force. Oh Dear!!!

I got 10 days embarkation leave, and told to report to R.A.F Innesworth, Gloucestershire. There I was given tropical kit and inoculations against diseases I could encounter. A few days later I went by train with other people to Southampton docks and boarded the SS Asturias, a troop ship. A troop ship is not a cruise liner, we slept between decks in a large space on 3 tier tubular steel folding beds.

Each morning we had to scrub the place out and clean everything. The afternoons were free, but no entertainment was provided. The food was good.

There was a storm in the Bay of Biscay. I am not sea sick, but being surrounded by men vomiting everywhere, together with the smell made me feel nauseous.

We sailed down the Med, down the Suez Canal, Red Sea and stopped at Aden. We were allowed off the ship for a few hours, I was glad to get back on the ship, Aden is an awful place! We sailed on to Ceylon and again were allowed off the ship. Ceylon is a very nice place.

On returning to the ship, we were then told our destination. Myself N.S.D.C Malaya! I had heard of Malaya but was rather vague as to where it was.

We sailed on to Singapore and there left the ship. I and a few others spent a weekend at R.A.F Chingi, a lovely place! We were then given a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition, and put on a train for Malaya. There was at that time an ‘emergency’ and the British were fighting the ‘Communists’. Fortunately the train was not attacked and we arrived at our destination. We had been on the train for 24 hours, 96 degree heat and 96% humidity, not very pleasant.

Our destination was R.A.F Butterworth, an air station on the N.W corner of Malaya, opposite Penang Island. A beautiful place, I then realised how lucky I was. We lived in one storey blocks, 4 to a room. We had a little servant to clean for us (2/6 per week), The camp had a swimming pool next to the beach.

There was very little work to be done, and we spent the next months swimming and strolling down the empty beaches. Nights out and weekends in Penang! A wonderful time. Later I spent 3 months at Kuala Lumpur and then home.

Going home is very different from coming out. One is just given permission to leave! Get the train to Singapore. Get to the docks on time, sail home. The sail home is quite different, we are now seasoned warriors’ going home, very relaxed. Because I was in Malaya ‘during the emergency’, I was given a campaign medal the GSM. When I wear it and I am asked what is it for, I say that it was for bravely and courageously fighting off the sinful native maidens on the beaches of Penang, which is just about right.

I returned home, aged 20 years; a well travelled young man, have seen sights and had several ‘adventures’.

I would not have missed it for anything!!!

John Ibbotson