which consists of the villages of Crich, Fritchley and Whatstandwell

National Services 1953 – 56

Memories recorded by Tony Lester in 2004

With the advent of the recent D-Day celebrations, it put me in mind of the time I spent in the R.A.F.

It was made law that all males reaching the age of eighteen years, would be required to serve two years National Service. Around my birthday, I was asked to report to Derby for a medical etc., quite a few local lads went on the train to Derby. We went to a building on the Market Place and had our tests and we were all passed A1. We requested and were accepted to serve in the R.A.F.

The other lads duly went and completed their service, but being an apprentice joiner, I was deferred for three years to complete my 'time'. In August 1953,1 went through all the tests again and decided I would go in for three years. When I told them I was a brass player, it was suggested that I go for an audition for the R.A.F. Central Band, so my late Uncle Ewart and myself went by train to the Bands H.Q. at Uxbridge. The musical director, Wing Commander Sims made me welcome and I was given a 'Besson' Cornet to warm up on. I passed the audition, but as in the services, there was a 'sting in the tail'. I would be required to sign on for a minimum of ten years and as I had been recently engaged to my wife, it wasn't an option.

In September, I was told to report to R.A.F. Cardington in Bedford, for more tests and interviews and finally being 'sworn in' to the R.A.F. I was then supplied with all my kit. We had to get 'dressed up' in the uniform, then parcel all our 'civvy' clothes up to be sent home.
The late Dave Rollinson gave me a few pointers to service life. Take spare dusters, boot and shoe laces and two boot polish brushes all for using on kit inspections. It saved quite a lot of time later, as the laces had to be tied properly and the wooden brushes had to be scraped with a razor blade.

The next day we were given a packed lunch, the 'Queens shilling' for enlisting and set off by train for the 7th school of recruit training at R.A.F. Bridgenorth, Shropshire. Up until then, life had been normal, but we were greeted by several 'D.I.'s' (Drill Instructors), shouting and raving, 'asking?' us to get in the so and so transport to be taken up to the camp. When we got there, we were allocated to our huts, twenty-two men in each one, plus a corporal in a room of his own at one end. Normally, with flights passing out all the time, the hut should have been immaculate, but as it was a large intake, we were given huts that hadn't been used for ages. They were filthy with rubbish about, broken lamp shades etc. which were classed as 'barrack damages' and we had to pay for them, they also had to reopen another cook house and toilet block, so we only had cold water for the first fortnight, a good start. We then went to a large hall, where we were given a talk by the CO. (Commanding Officer), who wished us well and to work hard. Then an airman asked if there were any brass players. He took our names and told us to report at the band room next morning. We were then marched (in a fashion) to the cook house for tea, afterwards we unpacked our kit and settled in. Later our corporal came in and laid down the ground rules and showed us how to fold our bedding, blanket, sheet, blanket, sheet, with another one wrapped around the whole lot. It looked very neat and easy, until we tried. Some blankets were thicker than others, which made some rolls very uneven.
Next morning, we were aroused about 5.30 a.m., told to wash and dress and be on parade for breakfast at 6.30 a.m. At eight o'clock some of us went to the band room, while the others had their first marching drill. At the band we were issued with instruments, I had a soprano cornet. We had to practice from eight to ten o'clock and four to five in the afternoon. We did a passing out rehearsal and the real one every week.

Meanwhile we carried on with basic training. We had been issued with rifles and drill took up a lot of time. We had lectures on R.A.F. history and education classes. We had now got our kit up to scratch and the hut was 'gleaming', we had some exciting times with kit inspections. I had mastered the art of 'bulling up boot toecaps' early on and did them for other lads who couldn't manage them for one shilling (5p) a pair and it took some time. The 'pimples' on the toe caps had to be removed, by rubbing with a stone, then a spoon handle, a tedious job. The toe cap was then covered in boot polish, well rubbed in then a bit of 'spit' on a duster and more rubbing, more polish and spit until a hard gloss appeared, woe betide anyone whose boots were not sparkling. One lad (Bull Happy) did his boots all over, he finished recruit of the squadron and won a cup.

We had to go to sick quarters for our injections. We lined up and went behind two tables. An injection in each arm and a vaccination, then rifle drill to get it going round the system.

One week was 'fatigue week', where the recruits took it in turn to run the camp, under the permanent staff, the cookhouse, filling sandbags on the range, tidying up and the best recruits were on main gate guard duty.

We had a day on the range, firing the rifle and bren guns, which I enjoyed. Some couldn't control the 'kick' (recoil) and sported an aching shoulder. We visited the gas chamber (tear gas), that was alright until we had to remove our respirators, then the tears began which lasted quite a while, which made it a big joke to those who had been in earlier.

After four weeks we were given forty-eight hours leave and buses were laid on to all parts. The Irish lads had four days and had to travel in 'civvies', what a laugh we had, they had all sorts and sizes of clothes out of store used for them.
We had plenty of sport (if we weren't too tired) on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, our squadron won the football cup.We had to have another injection "the big one' which we had one Friday afternoon, which knocked us out for the weekend, as a result of which I developed a large boil on the back of my neck. I was on parade with the band and it burst, so off to sick quarters I went to have it dressed, I was also excused having to wear a collar for a fortnight.

Being in the band got us off a lot of drill, the assault course and unarmed combat, but we still had to do camp patrols at night. Some lads thought the bandsmen were 'skivers' but we asked the corporal what he thought about it and he said they didn't really mind as they had to have a band for the parades. Once a week we played at the officers mess for dining at night, afterwards we had a meal of what the officers had, very nice.

Armistice day came and we played for the full camp parade and service, the square was full. Afterwards, along with a squad of the best recruits, we marched through Bridgenorth with 'bayonets fixed and drums beating' to the war memorial, then back to the camp for a late slap up dinner. One afternoon of the following week, we were told of our postings. 1 was going to Germany, a bit of a shock at first. At the same time we were told that band members would do no more drill as they were getting the squadron ready for the passing out parade.

The 'big day' came at last, after eight weeks of training, stress, strain and a lot of laughs in between, we were considered fit to join our permanent stations. We were all up early to get ready, to put on a good show. Every- thing went off alright and the band played together for the last time as 'our squadron' passed out on parade. Relatives of the lads were invited and a good number turned up. Then back to the big hail for the presentations. We won the sports cup and had the smartest recruit in our hut. The CO. then gave us another talk and wished us well for the future, then it was time to collect our kit bags, travel documents and say our good-byes. After eight weeks you get to know people pretty well.

We had a pretty good time and I can't remember any really serious falling out. I never met up with any of them again among the thousands of airmen I met in Germany.

We were taken down to the station, no shouting this time, and we caught the train to Wolverhampton. We were going on seven days welcome leave. I had got to go back to camp the following Tuesday in transit, waiting to go up to R.A.F. Lytham. The time had gone very quickly and it was mostly enjoyable.

After my weeks leave, I returned to Bridgnorth for a couple of days, then travelled up to Lytham, which was wet, misty and cold. On the Friday, armed with packed meals, we set off for Harwich, where we arrived around 8 o'clock, we had a meal, then moved along to the ship. I had been talking to a lad who was coming back off leave, who groaned when he saw the name of the ship "The Vienna". He said "she tended to roll a bit even in a normal sea." and it was quite breezy that night. He also said, "Try and get on the bottom deck near the front (bows) with a top bunk (out of three) if possible."

After a mug of tea, I got in my bunk and around 11 o'clock we set off. The boat was rocking before we got out to sea. I woke up once and could hear the waves hitting the sides of the ship, and can remember thinking, "only the thin steel plates between us and a lot of water". Anyway I went off again.

When I woke again, at 6 a.m., we had docked at the Hook of Holland. After a seven hour journey, I could see the wisdom of my friend's words now. The deck was awash, and slippery with the contents of some people's stomachs. Being in the top bunk was a definite advantage.

As we got off the ship we were given a coloured disk. There were four trains to different parts of Germany, so every one knew which coloured train to get on. The trains had corridors with six to a compartment, very comfortable. We set off through Holland at ten o'clock. A waiter came round giving us tickets for lunch, 1st or 2nd sitting, which we had around 11.30 a.m., very nice. We came to the border and a customs officer got on and walked through the train, and got off again, I don't know what he was looking for, but he carried a revolver at his side.

We were going to North Germany (the blue train) between Hanover and Hamburg, so got two more meals. The train kept dropping troops off, and a sergeant told us ours was the next stop. Everything was well organised. We got off at a station called Buckeburg, around 9 p.m. Saturday evening. We were taken to a castle, which had been turned into a transit building where we stayed the night. We had a room each with a bed, chair and wash basin. The fire was laid (two matches supplied), the fuel was man-made blocks which soon caught fire and gave off a good heat and I enjoyed a good night's sleep. The next morning, (Sunday), we had breakfast, and later on we set off by train again and arrived at our final station around 7.30 p.m. where we were taken by coach to our R.A.F. Camp, Fassberg, on Luneburg Heath. (I found out later it was only a few miles from Belsen Concentration Camp. The local Germans would never talk about it.)

We drew some bedding from transit, had a meal and went to bed.Next morning we were taken to S.H.Q. (Station Headquarters) where I would spend the next two and a half years. To "arrive", it happened at every camp, we were put on the "strength" of the camp, so we could claim rations, and given a blue card, with names of all the sections we had to sign in at.

We then went to our accommodation, (blocks). Each one, made of brick, had eighteen rooms downstairs and twenty above, with three corporals' rooms at the end. We had four men to each room, making a total of around 152 men plus four or five corporals in each block. We had showers and baths on each floor, central heating, double glazing, wood block floors, a large attic we used for indoor games, and large dry cellars below. The Germans built them for their men in the 1930's. With fir trees planted between and around them, the camp could hardly be seen from the air.

After dinner, four of us reported to S.H.Q. We had to see the Chief Clerk, who told us about our jobs. I was to work in the Document Section, where all the airmen up to the rank of Flt.Sgt had all their "Docs" kept, around 1,500 sets. There were three flying squadrons, four R.A.F. regiment squadrons (to guard the camp) and a mobile repair unit. We had a corporal, three airmen and myself in our office. It was a busy place. We recorded everything that happened to the men, promotions, leave, charge sheets, when they were due a rise to accounts upstairs. All the "Docs" were kept in cabinets, in squadrons, and after a while I knew where everyone was located. It was a very interesting job which I enjoyed doing.

Christmas came (1953) and the camp shut down for several days. We had a large Christmas dinner with the officers serving, to some good natured comments from the airmen.

We went shopping to Fassberg Village just outside the camp, where we could get most things: second-hand radios, new cameras, (very cheap, the owner back dated them) and watches etc. to avoid paying duty at customs when going home on leave.

I joined the drum and bugle band which played on parades etc. It got us off guards and some duties etc. I played football for S.H.Q. in the Station League for the Station in the North German R.A.F. League, some trips taking two days, and the local German team on Sundays. Most of their pitches were made of sand and never got water logged, with very few injuries. We played a Dutch Air Force team, and the game started with the ball being dropped from an aeroplane.

Our corporal and two of the airmen went on demob, which left two of us to run the office, and I went back to work most week nights. (I got rations for this: tea, milk, sugar and snacks etc.) Some of the lads used to come over for a cuppa around 9 o'clock. I quickly learned it pays to have 'friends' in various sections: the police, sick quarters, ration clerk and equipment sections.

I signed all leave applications, so that put me in the "friendly" league, not that I could, or even did, stop anyone due to leave. One lad once did slip through with no leave to come, and I got my knuckles rapped for that.

Due to men going on demob, the band finished owing to lack of members, so I became "Station Bugler", which got me off all parades etc. I just had to appear 'out of the bushes' just before the CO. came to take the salute, and play the "General Salute", the Last Post etc. on Armistice Day, and outside the church.

Being a "regular", (anyone who signed on for more than two years), I was due 42 days a year in the UK and ten days in Europe. A National Service airman with eighteen months to do just got two lots of fourteen days in the UK.

In April a friend and I went to the Harz Mountains Leave Centre for ten days. It cost hardly anything, and as we had taken ration cards the food was free, as was amusements, snooker, etc. shops at the centre and in the nearby village, and as there was plenty of snow around, winter sports. We could walk through the woods but the Russian Border was close by only yellow paint blobs on the trees to separate it. If you strayed and got captured it took about a month to get you back again. The Russians used to have listening posts on the "Brocken" Mountains, but they have stopped now I think.
We had three good meals per day and at lunch and dinner a four-piece orchestra played light music. What a life! At night, back at camp, they had a "German Big Band Night," all good musicians.

We had "Bull nights" every Friday night, a big clean-up of the block and equipment, but as I was on my own in the office now, I worked most nights. We had parades and defence schemes, digging holes on the airfield and being "attacked" by "The Sherwood Foresters" who burst onto the airfield around two o'clock in the morning firing blanks and shouting.. The "Umpire" said "we picked them off as they came into the open, so we had won", then we filled the holes up again. The officers in the "Command Bunker" were nearly all, well alway on rum.

I had local leave, Dusseldorf, Bonn and Cologne and other places I wouldn't have seen but for National Service, all at very small cost.

We went to Berlin to play some army teams, which we beat. Travel was by train at night, by order of the Russians, blinds down through their section. We had a 'peep' at the stations, they were all the same, Russians walking the platforms with machine guns.
We played on a pitch at the side of the 1936 Olympic Stadium with two or three inches of snow on the ground. A sunny, very cold frosty morning, we went to the stadium very smart. We went on a coach tour through the four sectors, you could go on the under- ground "U-Bahn" as long as you stopped on the train; an enjoyable trip.

Our camp was among fir trees and there were plenty of re squirrels about, they came on the window cills for scraps. The camp , although off the beaten track, was well organised, a very large dining hall, a N.A.A.F.I., Malcolm Club, Families Shops, Cinema every night, four programme changes per week, heated swimming baths and a station football stadium, below ground level with terracing and a running track round, all built for the German Air Force, first class.

We had German civilians on the camp, typists, cleaners, cobblers, tailors and security guards who patrolled the camp at night with Alsatians. It used to take a policeman on horseback around one hour to go round the perimeter of the camp, it covered a large area. We had eight or nine football pitches on the airfield.

July 1956 arrived, and it was nearly time for demob. The time had gone quickly, and on the whole I enjoyed it, I had met hundreds of airmen from all over Britain, made a lot of friends. I had a lot of German mates in the football team. Nothing was too much trouble to help me. I always had a hot meal after an away match, back at the club.

At the beginning of August 19561 made the last of my sea crossings back to Innsworth in Gloucester, to be demobbed. We had to stay overnight and had one or two bottles of cider to celebrate our coming return to "Civvy Street". It didn't take long the next day to get finished, say our good byes and head back to Crich. Here then, has been a very brief look at three years National Service.

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