No 7 Training Regiment - Basic Training

When it came to my National Service call-up, there was no doubt in my mind that I would plump for the Royal Air Force. After all, I had grown up during World War II, at a time when many of us young lads wanted to be Spitfire pilots, although we were blissfully unaware of the poor average life expectancy of such gallant young men during the Battle of Britain. I had also served time in the Air Training Corps, learning about the theory of flight, navigation, aircraft recognition and even marching drill. And so it was that, in the summer of 1952, I had to subject myself to a requisite medical examination, completely starkers in front of a team of doctors ("Cough"). I was then required to attend a selection board. I was one of about fifty 18-year olds who had stated a preference for the "Brylcreem Boys" and we were crammed into a small room for an address by an RAF recruitment officer. He first asked us to show our hand if we had served in the ATC and my hopes rose immeasurably. He then asked for an indication of those who had attended grammar school. As a former secondary modern schoolboy, it became clear then that my chances were diminishing fast. The officer then announced that there were only two or three RAF vacancies at that time.

An RAF recruitment officer then interviewed me personally and began by asking me to confirm my keenness to join the RAF. He then asked me whether I would be prepared to sign on for a short-term engagement of three years. I immediately began to prevaricate, searching my brain for a suitable reply, because I knew that there was no way that I would commit myself to more than the (then) compulsory two years service. The officer, mistakenly thinking that I was undecided, suggested that I think it over for a few days before indicating my decision on a postcard that he provided. He then suggested that I "had better go along the corridor to see the Army chappie".

The Army recruiting officer enquired about my principal civilian occupation, which had been a photographic darkroom assistant, and my main interests or past-times. As I was a keen motorcyclist, I stated that I was interested in anything to do with motorcycles, having been an enthusiastic member of the respected Bexleyheath & District Motorcycle Club. Encouragingly, the officer then suggested that, as all the despatch riders were in the Royal Corps of Signals, I should put my name down accordingly and I nodded in agreement.

A few weeks later, I received in the post an order to report for my National Service at Catterick Camp. Accompanying the order were a railway travel warrant and a postal order for my first day's Army pay in the sum of four shillings. My father had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII and, on the eve of my departure from home, he advised me (a) to keep a low profile; (b) not to be first or last in the queue for anything; (c) not to volunteer for anything, because if it was for something worthwhile, someone would be picked for it; and (d) not to get in with any bad girls in the local town. The last piece of advice was the only matter remotely related to the "birds and the bees" that he ever gave me, and that at the age of 18!

As a Londoner, I had never before been further north than Wembley Stadium and, after travelling what seemed like all day, I finally arrived at Richmond station, Yorkshire, in the late afternoon. Outside the station were some Bedford 3-ton lorries and a senior NCO barked out an order that I and the rest of us poor souls should board the lorries for the short journey to the infamous Catterick Camp, about which I had previously read alarming stories in the newspapers. After a couple of miles or so, we arrived at our destination - No 7 Training Regiment at Baghdad Lines. Little did I realise then that the name Baghdad would return to my consciousness many years later, with the allied invasion of Iraq and the fall of Sadam Hussein's regime. From that moment, it seemed that our feet never touched the ground for the next four weeks.

We were taken first to the quartermaster's stores to be issued with our kit. None of our pieces of clothing really fitted us, although we were informed that if it failed to do so, we could return it for an exchange later. We were then marched to our living accommodation, comprising rows of brick-built, twin barrack rooms - each pair of rooms separated by washroom/toilets, which we soon learned to refer to as "the ablutions". With no time to spare, it was then off to the dining hall ("the cookhouse") with our issued individual mug and knife, fork and spoon ("eating irons"), for an evening meal. I cannot now recall the meal, but I'm sure it bore little comparison with the home cooking to which I had long been accustomed. Then it was back to our barrack rooms for the evening, to square away our kit and equipment in our bedside lockers, before "lights out" at 10.30 pm. Being rather meticulous, I was somewhat slow in accomplishing this task and much of my stuff was still on my bed when the lights went out. It had been an eventful day and I was by then extremely tired and anxious to get a good night's sleep before the next day's reveille at 6.30 am. After floundering around in the dark, it must have been past midnight before I finally managed to get my head down.

It had been a chastening experience but a learning one, being cast into a barrack room with 19 other rookies from every part of the UK and from every walk of life. It took me some time to get used to the various regional dialects, whether Geordie, Yorkie, Scouse, Scots, Welsh, etc., and I never managed fully to understand the Glaswegians. Although we were new to each other, we soon realised that we were all in the same boat and a great sense of comradeship developed among us.

Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, we were each given four injections; I think two in each arm. That evening, most of us experienced a swollen and very painful arm, apparently a normal reaction from one of the injections. However, one lad suffered a very bad reaction, becoming acutely feverish, and he started shouting and writhing about on his bed in agony. It took about six of us to restrain him, until medical staff arrived to take him to hospital. Happily, he was returned to us none the worse a couple of days later.

We were soon busy on the daily task of polishing the brass buckles, etc. of our kit with a tin of Brasso and blancoing our webbing. Newly issued berets (ours were navy blue) were usually large and floppy. If there was a sure way to tell a rookie soldier from his dress, it was the presence of a cloth thing the size of a dustbin lid on his head. This is very evident from any group photo of rookie squaddies during their basic training. We soon discovered that the best way to shrink berets was to soak them in alternate rinses of hot and cold water.

Much of our basic training comprised daily sessions of marching and rifle drill. These were supplemented with weapons training, including the cleaning of our Lee Enfield 0.303" rifles, and dismantling and reassembly of a Bren gun. Time was spent on the firing ranges for rifle target practise and a token experience of firing a Sten gun and Bren gun. After our time on the range, we were shown the procedure for cleaning the interior of our rifle's barrel after firing. This was achieved by pouring eight pints of scalding hot water through it, followed by a string and cloth device called a "pull-through". One lad asked the instructor how one could be expected to accomplish this task in battlefield conditions, without hot water. The NCO's short and snappy but crude reply was "You piss through it"!

The daily marching drill was very exhausting in the hot summer weather. Once, when we were unable to perfect a particular movement, our drill instructor marched us between two vacant barrack rooms, presumably to shield us from view, then ordered us to mark time on the spot for half an hour, which amounted to nothing less than physical torture. Discipline was quite harsh and it was not unusual to be punished for the slightest misdemeanour. At one point, I began to wonder whether, after two years, I would still retain my sanity.

There were classes in various topics such as personal hygiene and sexually transmitted diseases, and visits by the local padre for talks on religion. We all looked forward to the mid-morning NAAFI break, it being a welcome relief from our travails.

One afternoon was spent pretending to be the infantry and we practised charging across an empty field with our rifles, through a shallow river and up the other side, all the time shouting and screaming at the top of our voices to instil fear in an imaginary enemy.

The instructors were constantly looking for transgressors to perform evening or weekend fatigues -various menial chores such as "spud-bashing" (peeling potatoes in the cookhouse kitchen - not by the saucepanful or bucketful, but by the galvanised steel dustbinful). Although having done nothing wrong, I was once ordered to report to the main Officers' Mess, near Catterick Camp Centre, for gardening duties at the front of the building. Officers came and went at frequent intervals and, being extremely conscious of the requirement to salute all officers, I found myself repeatedly stopping my work to do so. After an hour or two of this, a kindly officer stopped to advise me that I should just get on with my work without bothering to stop and salute.

One Saturday night, Yorkshire suffered heavy rain and strong winds. In the early hours of the following morning, the door to our barrack room burst open and in came some sheep, apparently seeking shelter from the storm - there was no fence around the camp to stop them coming in from the surrounding countryside. The clatter of their hooves on the floor woke everybody and several of us jumped out of bed to chase them out again.

Towards the end of our basic training, we were taken on night manoeuvres in the countryside. With our faces camouflaged to conceal our pale faces, the entire intake was divided into two sides, one attacking and the other defending. I was on the attacking side, whose objective was to invade a defended area, climb to the top of a small hut and extinguish a paraffin lamp shining above it. In the absence of the moon or stars, the night very black indeed - so much so that it was impossible to see anything at all. It was agreed that we should create a diversion to draw the defenders away from the hut, enabling the remainder of the attacking force to achieve its objective. To my chagrin, I was deputed to create the diversion. In the blackness, I must have crawled about a quarter of a mile towards the defended area and, when close enough, I stood up and ran around in a demented fashion, yelling as loudly as possible. I was immediately targeted by at least a dozen defenders, who pounced on me and threw me to the ground. Surrendering meekly, I sat up just in time to see the lamp being extinguished. By the time we were returned to our barracks, it was about 1.30 am and the next morning's parade was just a few short hours away.

Whilst I was at 7 TR, Field Marshal Sir William "Bill" Slim, the famous Australian World War II general, decided to retire and embarked on a tour of British camps to bid an official farewell to the Army. When he arrived at Catterick, we paraded before him, so that he could inspect us. At the end of the ceremony, we gave him a rousing three cheers, raising our berets in time-honoured military fashion. On another occasion, we were visited officially by the then Minister of War, who might have been Antony Head.

Mid-way through our course, we were each required to complete a written test to determine our aptitude and suitability for one of a variety of trades. I was informed later that I had been selected for training as an Operator Keyboard (or teleprinter operator) at No 4 Training Regiment, also at Catterick.

At the conclusion of our training in the basic skills of soldiering, all that remained was our Passing Out Parade. We spent the evening before the Parade pressing our uniforms, cleaning our kit, and cleaning and polishing our barrack rooms ready for an inspection whilst the Parade took place. We were all in the mood to celebrate the end of our "square bashing" as it was called. About mid-evening, one bright spark in our room filled his mug with water, thrust open the door of the opposite barrack room and threw the contents at the nearest occupants. This quickly developed into a water fight between the occupants of the two rooms with, alternatively, one group trying to keep its room door shut and the other trying to force it open. The situation escalated dramatically when a stirrup pump and fire bucket of water were brought into action by the other room. They managed to force our door ajar sufficiently to poke the hosepipe nozzle through and squirted water all over us, our walls, our beautifully polished floor and, horror up horror, our newly cleaned rifles which were standing in a rack just inside the door. Hostilities took a further turn for the worse when someone decided to turn the entire escapade into a pillow fight. It wasn't long before one of the pillows burst, its feathery filling exploding and sticking to everything, including the wet rifles. At that point, peace broke out and we spent the next three hours cleaning up everything and restoring the room and its contents to pristine condition.

We had been confined to barracks for the four weeks of our basic training, presumably because the Army didn't want us rookies exposed to the general public until we had been fully trained and resembled "proper" soldiers. Our Passing Out marked the end of our confinement and it was something akin to being let out of prison.

No 4 Training Regiment - Trade Training

My move to 4 TR at Gaza Lines, up the hill towards the Richmond end of Catterick Camp, came as a relief, although it didn't mean that the discipline and parades had been left behind. Our accommodation was an improvement, being a very large, three-storey, brick-built barrack block, facing a large parade ground. Almost all the training rooms were several hundred yards away, on the other side of the main road that ran through the Camp

My keyboard training began with four weeks on ancient typewriters, the initial aim being to learn touch-typing, i.e. typing without looking at the keys. It was emphasised that we should type rhythmically, as it would be speedier in the end. To assist us, a recorded piece of rhythmical music was played to us continuously and, to this day, I can still remember it note for note. To reinforce the need for rhythmic typing, our instructor banged a wooden stick on the tables in time with the music. Woe betides any trainee who allowed his eyes to stray to the typewriter keys, as the instructor would then rap the culprit over the knuckles with his stick.

After four weeks, our training changed to teleprinters, which were markedly different. Typewriters had four rows of keys, with numbers on the top row. Teleprinters, whilst still having a so-called "QWERTY" keyboard, had only three rows of keys. The machines could type the alphabet only in upper case letters (i.e. capitals). Numbers were on the top row of keys but could be accessed only by use of a "shift" key. It took a little time to accustom ourselves to the change but, once this had been achieved, we soon regained our previous typing speed.

In addition to typing classes, we were instructed in the various procedures for sending and receiving messages, and the various classifications of urgency and confidentiality. We were also taught how to wire up a teleprinter to batteries in battlefield conditions and I still have the notebook in which I drew the diagrams. To pass the typing course, we had to be able to type at a modest average speed of 30 words per minute, which I managed comfortably. Teleprinters, being electro/mechanical devices, could not operate much faster anyway. In later years, I was able to type at greater speed on a typewriter, perhaps 60-70 words per minute, despite using them only occasionally.

Having left our basic training behind us, we were allowed out of barracks when not on duty and began to explore the immediate area. The middle of Catterick Camp, unsurprisingly, was known as Camp Centre. It had its own railway station on a branch line that was used by squaddies going on weekend leave. A short distance from the Camp Centre was a NAAFI Club, an "Essoldo" cinema and a social/recreational centre called Sandy's Home. Visiting the area many years later, I was surprised to find that the NAAFI Club had been converted to an indoor swimming pool, but I have been told that it has since been replaced by a supermarket. Halfway between Gaza Lines and Camp Centre was an Army sports stadium, where the Royal Signals "White Helmets" motorcycle display team practised its routines.

At weekends, we sometimes visited the town of Richmond, the nearest place of civilisation, or Darlington. Richmond was pleasant enough, having a cobbled square that was used as a terminus by local bus services, and a small variety of shops. Darlington struck me as being rather industrial; probably because I can recall only the rather grimy works of the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company Ltd.

As all soldiers knew, it was most important to read the daily orders that were posted on various notice boards around the barracks late every afternoon on each weekday. Weekend orders were posted usually at Saturday lunchtime. One weekend, I secured a 36-hour leave pass and was determined to get back to London for some respite at home. The weekend orders were late appearing and, taking a chance, I decided not to wait for them. On return to Catterick after the weekend, I was horrified to learn that my name had appeared on the orders for weekend guard duty. During my absence, a supportive barrack room colleague, Andy Anderson from Islington, London, saved my bacon by reporting for guard duty in my name; a magnificent gesture for which I was eternally grateful. A few days later, I returned the favour by undertaking one of his guard duties but, to this day, I still feel greatly indebted to him, as I would otherwise have been in serious trouble.

On one occasion, a regimental boxing tournament was organised, with everyone ordered to participate. It coincided with my requirement to undertake a 24-hour guard duty on the main gate of Gaza Lines - it being the only occasion when I welcomed such a task. I finished my guard duty in time to witness the last few bouts, in which there was much mis-matching of competitors and numerous bloody noses! Towards the end of our trade training courses, we were invited to state three preferences (not choices) for our working unit posting. Being keen to get home at weekends as often as possible, my first preference was the War Office Signals Office in London, whose staff were based at Woolwich, about five miles from my parents' home. My second choice was the London District Signals Regiment at Hounslow, on the western fringe of London. My third choice was Southern Command Signals Regiment and, although I had no idea where it was located, I thought that it must be somewhere in Southern England, perhaps even close to London. In due course, I was informed that I was to be posted to Southern Command in Wiltshire.

I had arrived at Catterick in the heat of the summer and it was now December, with four inches of snow lying on the ground. Having seen a small part of Yorkshire at both its warmest and now its coldest, I couldn't wait to get away from the place. Departing Catterick for the last time, I spent Christmas on leave with my parents, with orders to report to my working unit at Southern Command's Salisbury Plain District headquarters at Bulford Camp immediately after.

Southern Command (Mixed) Signals Regiment

After my Christmas at home, I made my way to Central London to catch a train from Waterloo late on a Sunday evening. The destination on my travel warrant was Salisbury and I had no reason to question it. The train, which was full of soldiers and airmen, stopped at Andover and I was surprised when almost everybody else left the train. I thought this was rather odd, but thought nothing more of it as the train continued its journey, arriving a little later at Salisbury. It was then about 1.00 am. The station was almost deserted but I managed to find a porter (there were such things in those days), who gave me the good news that there was a bus service to Bulford Camp. The bad news was that the next bus would not leave Salisbury until about 6.30 am. I had no option but to bed down on a mahogany table in the station's waiting room. I had been unaware that, every Sunday night, a fleet of buses waited at Andover Station, ready to take servicemen to all the many Army camps and RAF stations around Salisbury Plain.

In due course, the porter woke me and directed me to the bus station at the opposite end of the High Street and, boarding the bus for Bulford Camp, I noted that I was the only passenger. As the bus left the city, it became evident that a thick fog blanketed the countryside. The bus conductor alerted me when the bus reached Bulford and the fog was so dense that I was unable to see anything at all first, certainly not an army camp. I then spotted a dim light about 100 yards away that, as luck would have it, was shining from the guardroom of my working unit, the Salisbury Plain District Signals Regiment, at Beacon Barracks. The unit's main purpose was to provide communication services for the adjacent District headquarters. Southern Command's headquarters were at the requisitioned former stately home of Wilton House, just outside Salisbury.

The fog didn't lift for five days and it was only when it did that I first saw the extent of our barracks, which were just below Beacon Hill, a viewpoint on the A303 trunk road. On the other side of the A303, about a mile or so away, was the Royal Aircraft Establishment airfield of Boscombe Down. My barrack room was shared with an assortment of colleagues, including other Operators Keyboard like me, Operators Wireless and Line, Despatch Riders and others. From the upper floor of my barrack block, it was possible to see the distant outline of Stonehenge

Bulford Camp also housed some other units, such as the Northumberland Fusiliers and, subsequently, a battalion of the Rifle Brigade. Outside the confines of the various barracks, there was a fine Garrison church, a Post Office and a small cinema that showed only old films and "Dan Dare" serials. There was also a small square surrounded by civilian shops with corrugated steel roofs, known locally as "Tin Town" for obvious reasons. Although there was a Wilts & Dorset bus service to Salisbury, there was little in the way of entertainment for me there other than the cinemas, as I was not and never have been a pub-goer.

Most of my civilian friends were, or had been, in the RAF for their National Service and they assured me that life would be much easier once I got to my working unit. This proved to be singularly untrue in my case, as there was a weekday morning parade and inspection, and a monthly barrack room and kit inspection. After being on Signals Office night duty, it paid to become scarce the following day, lest the Regimental Sergeant Major was on the lookout for "fatigue wallers". Evening and weekend guard duties occurred more regularly than I cared for, particularly as I was looking to get home at weekends.

Although Bulford Camp was in Wiltshire, it was still within striking distance of London. A colleague suggested that, when my next 36-hour weekend pass came round, I should try hitch-hiking to London. As a now confident and mature 18-year old, I had no qualms about this and, at the next opportunity, eagerly climbed Beacon Hill and emerged onto the A303, to start thumbing at passing drivers in the traditional hitch-hiking manner. Civilian drivers were generally sympathetic to National Servicemen in uniform, perhaps because the drivers themselves had been in the Armed Services. Most lifts were given by car or lorry drivers, although I once travelled a few miles on a Bren gun carrier - a tracked Army vehicle not unlike a very light tank. On one occasion, the driver of a furniture lorry stopped for me and, as we neared London, he mentioned that he had to make a detour to Uxbridge in West London for a delivery. At his destination, I found myself obliged to help him to unload furniture from the lorry, in return for his lift. Leaving barracks at about noon on a Saturday, I would usually reach the outskirts of London mid to late afternoon, seeking to be dropped off at Hammersmith. I would then catch an underground train from Hammersmith to Embankment. From the nearby Charing Cross station; it was only a 35-minute train journey to my parents' home at Bexleyheath in the South-east London suburbs. During my time at Bulford, I hitch-hiked home on 43 occasions, but always returned on Sunday evenings by train, as it was almost impossible to hitch-hike at night-time.

One weekend, there was a compulsory Sunday morning church parade. After the service, we were ordered to form up some distance along the road, to undertake a march-past for Officer Commanding Salisbury Plain District, who was positioned on a saluting base in front of the church. A few local residents turned out to view the proceedings, including a group of teenage girls, who were standing alongside the saluting base. As we approached the Officer Commanding, the girls started giggling and it distracted us. Losing concentration, we got totally out of step, much to the disgust of the Officer Commanding and we became a complete and utter shambles. The next day, we were reprimanded and informed that, as a punishment, we were to be confined to our barracks for the next five days and required to spend each evening on litter picking.

Amesbury village, about two miles from Bulford, had a small cinema which had a wooden floor, but no carpet, and the heating wasn't up to much either. Each time a squaddie entered the cinema and walked down the sloping aisle to his seat, the sound of his studded boots on the wooden floor was so loud that it was difficult to hear the soundtrack of the film. There wasn't much else in the village, apart from a first floor cafeteria where one could perhaps get a cup of tea and cheese roll, but at least it was a place to be away from the camp for an hour or so.

For those remaining at camp over the weekend, the place to go on Saturdays was Salisbury. I found it a splendid city with a magnificent cathedral, market square, plenty of shops and couple of cinemas, including an Odeon with a mock Tudor frontage. I was usually back at camp by the evening but, when the public houses closed on Saturday evenings, it was commonplace for pitch battles to take place in the market square, the drunken antagonists being members of various Army and RAF units.

A couple of months after arriving at Bulford, I was sent on detachment to the Royal Signals Records Office at Caversham, close to Reading, Berkshire, where another keyboard operator and I were responsible for maintaining a teleprinter link with the War Office in London. We were billeted at a Royal Army Pay Corps barracks in the Reading suburb of Tilehurst, but the RAPC were concerned only with providing our accommodation, feeding us and giving us our weekly pay. There were no morning parades, no kit and barrack room inspections, and definitely no fatigues or guard duties, and I viewed it as my Shangri-la. At the Records Office, most of the staff appeared to be civilians (or at least dressed in civvies) and us two full-time soldiers were left to our own devices. A 36-hour pass was guaranteed every weekend and we were allowed to dress in civvies on Saturday mornings, ready to go home. Regretfully, after only three weeks there, I was sent back to Bulford after a decision to transfer responsibility for the teleprinter link to the War Office Signals Regiment.

Back at Bulford, my Signals Office working shift was fairly routine. I sat at a "QWERTY" keyboard, sending messages to or receiving them from other teleprinters in the UK. It has struck me many times in recent years that I still do much the same thing now, only on my computer. There was an adjacent room, where the wireless operators worked their shift, but I knew very little about their activities. One day, a fellow Londoner sat at his communications wireless twiddling the knobs, seemingly becoming more and more frustrated by the minute. On enquiring about his problem, he said that he was trying to establish a net, although I had no idea what that was. After trying for the best part of an hour, he suddenly exclaimed "Sod it", threw down his pencil, turned off the wireless and put his feet up. I decided that it was none of my business and heard nothing further of it

Another of my Signals Office colleagues began to experience strange "fits" whilst on duty. He would appear to become faint and collapse on the floor, remaining there for a few minutes before regaining consciousness. After this happened several times, he was instructed to report to the Medical Officer, who sent him to Tidworth Military Hospital for observation, but he was discharged after a few days, as nothing was found wrong with him. I suspected that he was endeavouring to secure a discharge from the Army on medical grounds - a practice customarily referred to as "trying to work his ticket".

Boscombe Down airfield was the venue for testing prototype or pre-production aircraft. When the prevailing wind was in a certain direction, aircraft would take off and fly over our camp on their climb-out. Among other aircraft, I saw the delta-winged Avro Vulcan bomber and the anti-submarine warfare Fairey Gannet. It was not uncommon to hear the sound of aircraft in the sky high above us breaking the sound barrier, which would rattle the windows of our Signals Office.

Our issued uniforms were often ill fitting and, in particular, battledress blouses were rather baggy and lacking in style. Whilst on leave one weekend, I persuaded my sister, who was handy with a needle and thread, to modify mine to give it a more "tailored" look. On my next morning parade and inspection, I was concerned that I might be in some kind of trouble, but no comment was made, either by the Regimental Sergeant Major or the Squadron Officer, so perhaps they were suitably impressed.

During the second winter of my National Service, I was appointed as a Signals Office Superintendent, although without the usual authority of a lance corporal's stripe. One night, Wiltshire received a particularly heavy fall of snow and, the following morning, the snow was so deep that all despatch rider runs had to be cancelled. I was on Signals Office duty at the time and an urgent package arrived from District headquarters, addressed to Command headquarters at Wilton House. It would normally have been sent on the next despatch rider run but, come lunchtime when my shift ended, the package was still sitting on the counter, although clearly visible. Unfortunately, I neglected to point it out to the Superintendent of the next shift and the package remained on the counter for several hours. It transpired that some top brass officer had sent the package and, when he discovered its failure to arrive at its destination, he ordered that the culprit be disciplined for it. As a result, I was charged under the usual catch-all offence of "Conduct prejudicial to good Army order and discipline" and appeared before Major Hinton. Having heard about the extenuating circumstances, he took a sympathetic view and merely admonished me without punishment. Accordingly, the charge sheet was attached to my disciplinary record for three months, to be taken into account if I were charged again during that period. In the absence of any further charge, the charge sheet would be destroyed when the three months expired.

With only a few months of my National Service remaining, I was drafted into the Squadron Office as a clerk, as there was a shortage of staff. My duties included the care and maintenance of disciplinary and leave records, the issue of ration cards for those going on leave (even in 1954, some foodstuffs were still on ration following World War II) and the printing of daily orders. In due course, I removed the charge sheet from my disciplinary record and still have it as a memento of the only time I was put on a "fizzer". My short experience of working in an office proved to be the precursor of a long and successful, white collar, civilian working career, culminating in 26 years as a local government officer for a London borough council.

In the Spring of 1954, a replacement Regimental Sergeant Major arrived in my working unit. I have long forgotten his name, but remember that he had some gold teeth and was a very strict disciplinarian - he was (as they used to say) "a sadistic bastard". He seemed to derive enormous satisfaction from severely punishing other ranks for the smallest misdemeanour and he was far worse in this respect than any warrant officer or non-commissioned officer that I encountered during my basic training, or since. Morale among the troops went downhill fast and there were even murmurings of rebellion. At that time, the "Daily Mirror" newspaper had been publishing a series of damning articles about the Army's harsh discipline and ill-treatment of conscripts, and the RSM dared us to write to the paper about him. Fortunately, I had to suffer him for only a short period before my demob and I was very glad to see the back of him. A couple of months later, a former barrack room pal of mine revealed that things had become so bad after my demob that, one night, about 20 of my former colleagues had gone over the wall, i.e. absent without leave. Most of them endeavoured to make their way towards the West Country but all were arrested within a few days. I never heard of their fate.

When I had only a couple of months to serve, I prepared a "Demob Chart" like many of my colleagues and fixed it to the inside of my locker door, marking off the days that remained as time went by. When I had only a couple of weeks or so left, I announced to my barrack room the number of my remaining days at each morning's reveille. It was about this time that I attended an exit interview with 2nd Lieutenant Lavender, who asked me whether I would be prepared to continue my Army service as a regular soldier. When I impolitely suggested that he must have been joking, he apologised before admitting that he had been required to make the enquiry as a matter of routine and fully understood my position.

With about three days left, I was no longer required in the Squadron Office, so went off on my own to Salisbury for an afternoon showing of the film "The Wooden Horse". This British production was about an escape by some inmates from a German prisoner-of-war camp and I thought this to be very apt, as I was very soon to make good my own escape, from the Army.

The next day, I was told that if I secured the necessary clearances, I would be able to leave the Army a day earlier than scheduled. I could not believe my luck and needed no further prompting. I hurried around the camp with a clipboard, seeking signatures from all and sundry and, by mid-afternoon, I had completed my mission except for the signature of my Squadron Officer, Captain Sharp. Nobody knew where he could be found and I searched all over the camp in vain. The time moved on to 5.30 pm and I was in a state of despair. Then someone suggested that I try his home, so I borrowed an Army bicycle from the guardroom and rode up to the officers' married quarters, a mile or so from the barracks. When he came to the door, I apologised for disturbing him at home (he was a polite and kindly man) and asked him to sign at the foot of my clearance form, which he did without hesitation. I then rode back to camp as fast as possible and, after saying my goodbyes to the rest of the lads, I picked up my readied kitbag and booked out at the guardroom, that being my final act as a National Serviceman. I walked out of the camp for the last time on that fine June day and boarded a bus to Andover Station, where I caught the next train to London.

The following day, I reported to a Territorial Army unit at Stamford Brook in West London to hand in the majority of my kit. In true Army fashion, the unit's quartermaster sergeant discovered that I was a lanyard short and I was charged the princely sum of tuppence for the deficiency - I still have the receipt!

I have to confess that I did not enjoy my National Service. However, it did transform me from an immature 18-year old into a mature adult almost overnight. I was instilled with sense of self-discipline and respect for authority, developed my self-esteem and became more confident in all aspects of my life. Serving with people from other parts of the country and all walks of life was an enriching experience. It follows that if I am asked whether I benefited from my time in the Army, my answer is always an unequivocal yes.