EARLY DAYS - Cardington


Our transport turned into the main gates of RAF Cardington and drew outside the guardroom. The corporal driver ordered us out and, grabbing our suitcases and civvy gas marks, we scrambled over the tailboard. A corporal in a red cap ran his eye over us and told us to wait there. It was early December, 1940, and I had at last got my feet on the ground of an RAF station. It had seemed an interminable wait.

When war was declared in September ’39 I was a clerical officer in Air Ministry. I had already been seconded from my usual desk to serve in an Ops room below King Charles Street pending the posting in of RAF personnel. Once back in the old Adastral House, Kingsway, I asked about a release so I could join the RAF. The understandable management line was that while the Department was expanding, some staff with Reserve obligations had already been mobilised and other staff in 20 plus age groups were being called up for National Service. Therefore no volunteers need apply.

This was disappointing, but to do my bit I joined the Adastral House ARP organisation as a fireman. When the red alerts came during working hours, or when I was rostered during the silent hours, I put on blue overalls and steel helmet to climb to that great British institution, the Air Ministry Roof. With stirrup pump and bucket I prepared to douse any incendiaries that the Luftwaffe might lob our way.

In May ’40, Dunkirk and all that, I hoped management might relent, but no. Perceiving a change in the threat to the Roof I became a founding member of the Adastral platoon of the newly-formed Local Defence Volunteers, aka the Home Guard. Now at the alert I went to the Roof with my WWI Canadian Ross rifle and five rounds of vintage .303 ammo, ready to deal with any Totenkopf battalions or Panzergrenadieren that the Wehrmacht might push our way.

But the Battle of Britain in the autumn caused a change of mind and in late October it was agreed that chaps wanting aircrew duties with the RAF or, at a pinch, with the Fleet Air Arm, could apply for release. I got the green light and made for Victory House, just up Kingsway, where there was a recruiting office. After a few tests I was provisionally accepted and given a rail warrant to Cardington and seven days RAF leave to say farewell to any loved ones.

Outside the Cardington guard room we civilians were chatting away as a few more turned up. About twenty in number, from various backgrounds and destined for training in different ground and air specialities. After a while we were rounded up by a general purposes corporal who marched us, in a fashion, to our hut. I had gathered by then that, collectively, we formed what was known in the trade as ‘an intake’.

Our hut corporal got busy. He gave us all sorts of cleaning and polishing supplies and took us for walks up and down the barrack square, and introduced us to many of his friends from the corporals’ mess. There was the bouncy one who appeared each morning at 0 Heavens double 0 for some pre-dawn PT, or a run, or both; the worried one at the cookhouse with all those spuds needing peeling; the two smoothies in the orderly room and pay accounts who, respectively, gave us each a seven digit number to remember and a pay book, and the white-coated chap in sick quarters who explained how we should display ourselves for the MO’s inspection. Finally, the lugubrious equipment basher who did what he could to make us look something like airmen from his poorly stocked shelves.

Each of us got just the one suit of blue but not much in the way of matching accessories. Subsequent kit inspections were pathetic. We set out our other shirt and collars, the other pair of socks, housewife, buttonsticks, eating irons and the curious cap/comforter. The latter was a length of tubular knitted scarf and we learned to push one end inside and rollup a brim to make a woolly hat. It was the only form of headgear available and we were thankful there was no bobble on top.

We lads had got on well enough for the first day but there was a defining moment on day two where esprit de hut took a quantum leap. It was a rotten day, starting with the MO doing his stuff with bluntish hypodermic needles. We cleaned our hut to management’s satisfaction and were promptly moved to another which also had to be scrubbed and polished. After, we were given yet another hut to work on. Our protests about aching arms were rebutted on the lines that we needed to keep active to allow the inoculations to circulate. By evening we were all completely knackered and aching all over, so by common consent we had an early ‘lights out’ and went to bed.

Sleep was elusive as we tried to find the attitude of least discomfort on the unyielding ‘biscuit’ mattresses with many a muffled curse and groan. Then from the darkness a voice asked if we’d heard the one about something or other. We hadn’t and soon the groans were replaced by tentative chuckles, then hoots of laughter as we ran through our respective repertoires. I recall that mine about the chap with two wooden legs went down well in those politically incorrect days. After an hour of merriment we were all relaxed and fell into a natural sleep.

Next morning stiffness and soreness were soon forgotten as we recalled some of the more memorable punch lines and we pulled together in our daily tasks in some spontaneous but unspoken common purpose. We wouldn’t claim to have invented ‘bonding’ because it had been going on for centuries in barracks, trenches and ships. What we had was far removed from the superficial corporate image contrived half a century later though the latest vacuous buzz-word.

Next evening the hut could have been stock footage from the archives, with a couple of solo schools, chaps writing home and one poor lad struggling to get a shine on a reluctant button. I was puffing my pipe and reflecting on the thought that the RAF was run almost entirely by corporals. Apart from the MO we’d seen few of higher rank.

The peace was broken by a door opening suddenly and a demand that we stand by our beds. The Station Warrant Officer had called and stood with his Blakeys and hobnails seeking traction on the bit of lino we’d polished mirror smooth to catch out the corporal. Maybe the SWO had come to welcome us, to say keep up the good work and his office was always open, and finally to wish us well in our chosen fields of endeavour.

Actually it was more on the lines that the hut looked like a third-rate Middle Eastern brothel after a heavy night and he expected better when he came back later. But we could play games too. We got the ends of the beds dead in line, hid a few bits of discarded clothing and left a couple of polish tins open to give the atmosphere of hard work and got away with it, just.

The daily routine ground on – PT, lecture, inspections, fatigues and the evening session of drill. In the semi-darkness a keen-eyed observer would have made out 20 assorted topcoats (mainly raincoats, some greasier than others) moving roughly in the same direction back and forth. Woolly blue-grey headgear at one end, brown brogues, suede and co-respondent shoes at the other and in between, the cardboard boxes, tins and pouches holding our civvy gasmasks. It’s no wonder they waited till dark to let us on the sacred square.

One day there was an outbreak of Personnel Occurrence Reports on the notice boards. We were listed and I was glad to see they’d got my number right and had spelt my name correctly. My job description was 'Aircrafthand, general duties, under training pilot' and I had the substantive rank of aircraftsman second class. As a civil servant I could believe any piece of paper signed at the bottom, so I could now feel properly enlisted, inducted or whatever.

The time came when Cardington could do no more for us. We were off to Melksham in Wiltshire for basic training together, so clearly no specialised instruction was on the cards. Activities would be on the barrack square and the 20 yard range rather than the runway or the bench. Lectures on gas, parts of the rifle and musketry would not touch on theory of flight, the finer points of carburettor tuning or double diode pentodes. We would be together for another three weeks before going our separate ways and making new friends.

Two of the three other aircrew hopefuls would sadly be lost in the next few months, but at Cardington we had gained the spirit of comradeship to cope with the future. As for the present, we would be on a course rather than an intake, so that was progress of a sort.

Links & Notes

RAF Cardington http://www.controltowers.co.uk/C/Cardington.htm
RAF Cardington photo album http://s133.photobucket.com/albums/q51/norwichpaul/RAF%20Cardington/
Cardington, Bedfordshire on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardington,_Bedfordshire

page last updated 15 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010