'You're Having a Laugh'

A light hearted look at my time with the 24th Entry

Les Lawson

These reminiscences of Boy Entrant training have been provided Les Lawson 24th Air Radar.

February the 16th 1955 was a momentous day for me, it was the day I joined the Royal Air Force. I arrived in the afternoon at Cosford station, crossed the road to the main gate where we fifteen and a half year old boys were gathering. There we met a very pleasant man with a friendly face, having three stripes on his arm, and introduced to us as Sergeant x, also present was Corporal x. We were taken to some old wooden huts, which were to be our billets for the duration of our initial training, 'we'll collect you later', they told us, 'and then go to the cookhouse for something to eat, I expect you are all hungry.'

So here we were, the boys of the 24th Entry. After we had all eaten we were taken back to our billets, lights out was to be at 21.30. Just before that time our 'friends' with the two and three stripes came in and told us, 'training starts tomorrow and we will be in charge, you will be sworn in, issued with uniforms etc,' and with a very friendly 'good night lads, sleep well' turned the lights out and left. The lull before the storm.

At about 06.20 the following morning the radio blared out, the door was abruptly kicked open, lights switched on, and our stripes stormed in both bellowing 'out, out, out,' they then proceeded around the billet, kicking and shouting at each bed and boy in turn until everyone was up. We had evidently changed overnight from being 'pleasant lads' into the lowest form of low life, were 'orrible little bleeders,' as we were constantly reminded, were lazy, miserable, untidy and scruffy; but no worries our stripes were the men to sort us out, and to make us worthy members of Her Majesty's Royal Air Force. The last of the boys off to the washroom were subjected to further verbal 'encouragement' as they left.

The Sergeant and Corporal were to be with us for some time. A swift medical, bend over, cough etc, we were sworn in then issued with our service number. And so it was that I became, 1930721 Boy Entrant, Lawson. Haircutting followed, (which cost us 2/- per month), then the issue of uniform plus loads of complicated webbing, large and small packs; a pair of ammunition pouches, water bottle, mess tins, mug and irons, denims peaked cap and beret, all jammed into our kit bag. We marched back to the billet and after stitching on our wheels (arm badge) and fitting cap badges we put our uniforms on.

All of the clothes were new, the socks seemed to be made of a delicate blend of natural fibre and wire wool, and when the foot complete with sock was placed into the rigid boot, the tender foot came off second best with raw skin and blisters everywhere. The boots really were something special, I always imagined the leather was obtained from a Mammoth, frozen in a glacier millions of years ago, somehow retrieved and made into boots especially for us. They did not have a toecap, and had absolutely no 'give' whatsoever, we were not issued with or allowed shoes. The shirt collars and cuffs were lined with fine sand paper and commenced to wear the skin as soon as you started moving. The underwear was equally abrasive and caused no end of sores and itches in extremely vulnerable places.

We all formed up outside, desperately trying to remember our service numbers. So began our three months basic training. The corporal was in charge of us all on a daily basis the three-striped 'buffoon' only appeared occasionally. We marched about the square quite aimlessly for hour after hour, day after day, sometimes in greatcoats and full webbing other times greatcoats only, with our corporal exercising his lungs constantly. Inspection took place every morning when usually someone was charged with one thing or another. One morning three stripes stuck his face in mine and said ' have you shaved lad'. This was all a bit tricky as not only didn't I have any whiskers worth shaving I didn't have a razor either. I think he just wanted to see blood. The resulting charge did not come to anything.

Most of the boys produced some 'specimen' boils, usually on the neck, some on the backside, no doubt due to the abrasive nature of the clothes, I grew mine on the bend of my right elbow. It was painful and once bandaged by the MO I could not salute properly, that caused me a few problems especially on pay parade. While marching to the cookhouse I evidently wasn't swinging my arm well enough, our corporal halted the flight and bellowed in my ear 'if you don't swing your arm you ''orrible little bleeder'' I'll break it off and (with voice rising to a crescendo) ''hit'' you wiv the soggy end.' My bandaged arm was accepted as a suitable excuse and I fell in at the back of the column.

Mid winter cross-country runs were another pastime, in shorts T-shirt and those boots; route marches were another favourite. On the coldest days old, extra heavy, .303 rifles were taken out of the deep freeze, and with frozen hands we learned to march about with them, on pain of something absolutely dreadful if you dropped the thing.

The rifle range was also quite special, after firing the .303 we were introduced to the Bren Gun; after some very brief instruction on its use we were off to the range again to fire it. We were to fire five live rounds each, we formed a line then one by one we lay down on the ground behind the only gun with a loaded magazine beside it. The instructor then continued 'make sure safety catch is on;' clicking noise, 'switch to single shot,' more clicking, 'load magazine,' scraping sound; 'and when I say fire take off the safety catch, take aim at the target and fire when ready, when finished switch the safety catch on'. All went well for the first few of the boys, one or two even got close to the target, then came Richard's turn. He lay down behind the gun, the instructor continued 'make sure safety catch is on, switch to single shot, load magazine, when I say fire' he got no further a loud brr brr brr and Richard's rounds were all gone god knows where. He was picked up by the scruff of the neck and the backside of his trousers and thrown out. The instructor returned as if nothing had happened and the next one in line, with nerves torn to shreds stepped forward.

Happy times were also spent with the RAF Regiment, learning how to bayonet hanging, straw filled sacks while shouting one's head off, the sacks on the ground were the most difficult, the tendency was to put your foot on first, then bayonet your foot, I was shouted at a few times for that. We also found out how to clean a .303, how to maintain a Bren gun, how to swing on a rope across a water filled ditch without falling in, a few did, fortunately I was not one of them. Great fun.

The RAF staff in the cookhouse had one very neat trick that caught me out a few times, it occurred when mashed potatoes were served. These were served with an ice-cream scoop and when you held your plate out to them with one hand a vulnerable thumb appeared on top of the plate, upon which the hot potato was immediately and expertly plopped. If you dropped the plate all hell broke loose, cheering shouting and stamping of feet, with the orderly officer rushing over to find out what was going on. It paid to concentrate when standing in the queue.

When in our billets if an officer or NCO entered the first person to see him shouted 'officer (or NCO) in the billet' everyone then stood to attention where they were. One kit inspection was very educational, the door opened, someone shouted 'officer in the billet' and we all stood to attention at the foot of our beds, with all of our worldly goods neatly folded upon the bed in the prescribed manner. The officer walked in followed by three stripes, followed by two stripes, he in turn followed by a flunky with a clipboard. The entire group looked at each bed in a critical way as they passed slowly by. Eventually the officer picked up a not so neat sock and unrolled it, revealing a large hole in the heel with another in the toe. Turning to three stripes the officer said 'sergeant, why has this man's sock got a hole in it?' three stripes then turns to two stripes and repeats 'corporal, why has this man's sock got a hole in it?' the corporal then turns to the airman and shouts, 'why has your sock got a hole in it?' 'It wore out corporal' came the rapid reply. It then all goes back up the line, 'he says it wore out sergeant'; 'he says it wore out sir'; 'tell him to get it darned sergeant'; tell him to get it darned corporal'; 'get it darned and report to me at eighteen hundred hours, flunky makes a note and they move off to the next bed. Strange people these.

By the middle of May 55 our square bashing was almost over and our trade training about to begin in earnest. It was around this time that 'Our Grand Day Out' occurred. It was announced that we were to be taken by train to Wolverhampton to watch the RAF play the Navy at football, the match was to take place at Molineux, home of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The following morning practically the entire camp was paraded on the square, resplendent in best blue uniform, we marched to Cosford station where a special train waited to take us to Wolverhampton. Once off the train we formed up in side streets ready to march to the stadium. Just to prove that the taxpayer was getting value for money we had the drum and trumpet band to lead us off, with the pipe band following at the rear of probably five or six columns. As we formed up in these residential streets children and adults appeared at practically every door; our stripes flitted about us smiling, trying to look all fatherly, they even called us 'lads' again. 'Smarten up lads the ladies are watching', no doubt hoping for an ego boosting smile from a lonely lady or two.

Right dress; right turn; the band struck up and off we went, with young happy children running along beside us; at the sound of the band more front doors opened, more and more people poured out onto the pavement to admire the free show. With stripes calling a steady, left right, left right, still looking fatherly, watching, smiling and nodding at all the ladies. All went extremely well and according to plan, that was, until the band went round a corner.

A uniformed body of men marching, (or as in our case boys), is an inspiring sight, a rhythmic chomp, chomp, chomp of heels on the pave, heads erect with arms swinging, truly a wonderful sight. Even for us boys it was always pleasing marching behind the band; the band seemed to create a more purposeful stride, a more energetic, happy and proud bunch of men. Time and distance did not seem to matter so much.

Unfortunately when the band went round the corner we could then hear the pipe band bringing up the rear, out of step with the trumpet band in front. We became a writhing, twisting mass trying to get in step with the pipers. Both stripes were rushing up and down shouting 'get in step', left right, left right. Some of the good folk of Wolverhampton started laughing. We had just about settled down when the front of our column went round the corner and could then hear the trumpet band. Off we went again writhing, twisting, kicking the man in front and being kicked by the man behind, both stripes by now very red in the face, rushing to and fro bellowing 'get in step, get in step'. The happy children running along beside us also joined in calling 'left right, left right', get in step, get in step, ha, ha, ha.

We made our tortuous way to the stadium loosing our step at every turn, both stripes looking like they were about to die of embarrassment, with the knowledge that the locals instead of being impressed had probably had their biggest laugh in years. We eventually arrived, were dismissed and walked in; we stood in a hole with our heads at about pitch level. The match was dull, we were cold and I am not sure who won, every now and then a faint cheer could be heard over the sound of rumbling stomachs, we were always hungry. After the match we marched back to the station, the bands remained silent and we had no trouble. We never did find out which bright spark it was who decided to have both bands, one at the front with the other at the rear, hopefully they were in serious trouble with someone. I have never been back to Wolverhampton; just in case someone recognises me.

Every Sunday morning we had church parade, after being closely inspected by all and sundry we marched off to church. Almost all of us were Church-of-England, some were Roman Catholics some Other Denominations (OD's). C-of-E's along with the OD's marched off while the very few RC's were dismissed and set off in small groups. The cunning plan, (which would have pleased Baldrick no end), was to declare ourselves to be RC's, to fall out and make our way smartly towards the RC church, as soon as everyone was out of sight double back to our billets to put our feet up; simple. As we made our way to the church an officer came the other way, we saluted smartly and carried on, unfortunately he called us back and asked us where we were going, 'to church sir, we're RC's.' 'Never seen any of you lot there before' he said, 'and not only that you have already passed the church.' It would have been a good idea to find out where it was beforehand.

Two of the three of us got five days the other three. However every cloud has a silver lining. Three of the five days I got were spent marching about for an extra couple of hours, the other two on cookhouse fatigues. It was there, in the kitchen, that an angel in a white hat appeared, and uttered the unforgettable words, 'you boys hungry.' A full 'English' of biblical proportions followed, as much as we could eat, then bread and marmalade and mugs of tea. Those two evenings were probably the only two when I didn't go to bed hungry.
It was back to the C-of-E the following week.

Someone discovered a supply of sliced bread no doubt pinched from a nearby cookhouse. We 'toasted' the bread under the electric iron, it turned out wafer thin but tasted ok even without butter or marmalade. One evening with toasting in full swing and the billet full of the aroma the door opened and the orderly officer walked in. He sniffed the air, and as we all stood to attention, he traced the source of the smell to the iron. Potential disaster. With a huge smile on his face however he turned and left, which was quite fortunate really as another couple of minutes and the toast could have caught fire, which would have been a dreadful waste. The Officer probably recounted this story in the mess for years after.

Nobby, one of the boys in our billet (he passed out with the 25th) joined the drum and trumpet band, not to play an instrument but to wield the mace. He would often be seen outside practicing whirling it about, throwing it into the air and catching it. He eventually led the band and as we marched behind we would see the mace fly into the air time after time. Hot water was fed from the boiler house to various parts of the camp in fibreglass covered pipes, where these crossed a road they were supported by steel girders high enough to allow a lorry to pass underneath. These pipes obviously became a challenge; the mace just had to go over, and after a few failures success followed accompanied by cheers from us lot marching behind. One fateful day however, the mace soared into the air and came down between the pipes and the steel girder, and there it stayed. Much laughter followed as we all marched beneath it. The mace remained there for a couple of days for all to see, then reappeared in the hands of a smiling Nobby. (See photograph)

I remained in the Air Force for one year one hundred and sixty six days. During that time I spent eight weeks either in hospital or on sick leave and so lost a lot of training. Sometime in either June or July 1956 it was suggested that I was going to be relegated to the 25th, it therefore came as a surprise when I was discharged.

In 1957 I received my National Service call up papers. I was sent to see a specialist in Upper Harley Street, London, where I was examined. No more was ever heard of National Service so I presumed that I had failed that medical. I spent my second spell in hospital at Cosford with pneumonia, maybe that was the reason.

I look back with fond memories of my time at Cosford. I will never forget, after a freezing morning on the square, being dismissed and running to the NAAFI wagon for a cup of tea and a 'Nelson' the most filling cake of all.

1930721 B/E Lawson. L. J.

This was written for my children, but I thought it may stir a few memories for some of the old 24th Entry boys.

Les Lawson
Feb 2010