JOINING UP

They emerged on to the Finchley Road from the Underground Station and stood indecisively. It was soon apparent in which direction they needed to go as they saw a number of young men, many with escorts, moving in a direction along the side with the high brick wall.

His mother, his elder sister, Pam, and he followed these. Many of the other young men, he noticed, were like him, with female escorts. At some tall iron gates that were open he, and the others with escorts, were embraced and released to enter into the grounds. It was journey’s end or, the beginning of a longer journey that would take them from their homes, perhaps to other countries and, in some cases, from which they would never return.

There were backward waves to the cluster of people remaining at the gates. departing from their sons, brothers, nephews, friends and returning to their daily lives in wartime Britain from where they had come to make these farewells. It was a Saturday on 11th September and the young men were recruits reporting to enrol into the Royal Air Force at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. It was to be their last day as civilians and their first as airmen for an unforeseeable future.

He was ushered , along with the others, up a wide flight of steps and into a large room and asked to sit on the chairs available. It was like being back at school except those that did the ushering wore uniforms. Their days ahead were sketched out by a speaker and the longer view touched on. ‘You will be here for four weeks and during that time will be issued with your uniforms and all other clothes. Your civilian clothes will be boxed up and returned to your homes. You will have the necessary inoculations for overseas service. You will be issued with a pay book and your pay will be two shillings and sixpence a day. This will increase as you pass your exams to become fully trained airmen. (BLOG – Wartime – Continuity Drill – and the need for straight arms) The next speaker was the Corporal who was to take charge of them for the next four weeks. He would march them to their Billets where more details would be made available and any questions answered, meanwhile ‘please form up outside in ranks of three.’

Still in civilian clothes they were marched out of the iron gates and along the Finchley Road with Corporal Pearce calling out the timing – left, right, left, right. It felt all very strange to him. On St John’s Wood Road there were blocks of flats on either side and from some of these came a volley of shouting – ‘get some time in – get your knees brown’ these from earlier recruits, from their billets and with all of a week or so service ahead of them.

At a block of flats called Cavendish House they were led into the forecourt and halted. Told to dismiss and file into the building to find themselves a bunk bed on any one of the four floors and then report to a reception room on the ground floor.

There followed the induction period for the Cadets that kept them occupied on a level and at a pace that few had experienced before. The bunks they slept on were three tiers with no mattresses but what were called ‘biscuits, three sections for easy storage. The rows of WC’s with no doors or privacy, the rows of washbasins packed so close together that morning shaving was a struggle and where B was to abandon the open razor shaving that he had used at home.

When the scramble for settling into their billets at Cavendish House seemed over they were ordered out of the building to assemble in the forecourt and marched by Corporal Pearce to an equipment store where they were kitted out with their uniforms and other clothes as well as holdalls and kit-bags. With apprehension they saw that amongst the equipment were boots which B had never worn before and were to be the cause of many painful blisters until a replacement issue of shoes was made as, apparently the issue of boots had been a mistake.

With the equipment side finalised they were marched along London roads to an area that they were to discover was the London Zoo. All the animals had been evacuated to more distant places of the country and a cookhouse had been installed. Here they were marched three times a day for their meals and it was here that many of them saw cockroaches for the first time. Almost on a daily basis.

With the daily living at such close quarters one might have expected friendships to begin forming but the pace of everything they were required to do and the almost complete lack of any rest time meant that at days end they only felt like climbing into their bunk beds to sleep.

The activities kept them marching about London most of the time and it could be seen that once the boots had been exchanged for shoes there was a marked improvement in the co-ordinated way they marched as a group. An innoculation station had been erected along a nearby street and three times were they marched here to receive three injections each time. As they ended each session, Corporal Pearce was there to tell them to make their own ways back to Cavendish House and to refrain from drinking any alcohol for the next 24 hours. This last advise was mainly ignored.

For some reason any cadet who wished to have a 24 hour pass to go home half way through their four weeks was allowed to apply and B did, asking a fellow cadet on the lower bunk to accompany him. ‘Jock’ Daylrymple was from Fife and they had formed a sort of acquaintanceship. His arrival back at home after only two weeks away, and with a friend, was a surprise to his family but it was not long before the two were being shown off to the neighbours.

The weekend passed all to quickly and they entered into the second half of this whirlwind induction with a session at Seymour Hall swimming baths where they  stayed all one morning quite naked. There was then a visit to an Odeon Cinema at Swiss Cottage to see a film on the dangers of Venereal Disease. It had been rumoured that the tea they were served was laced with Bromide to inhibit their sexual drives.

By the fourth week their group was marching around the London Streets to their various venues with a snap and a precision that spoke well of Corporal Pearce’s constant hectoring. At one session he had kept them drilling for two hours because from the ranks an intrepid – or clueless – unknown cadet had dared to whistle at a passing officer’s attractive female companion. In this way they learned that, as a group, when a miscreant could not be identified, collective punishment was often inflicted on the group.

These initial four weeks had almost erased the fads and privileges of ‘Civvy Street’ and started to make them feel that they were now part of a greater and more exclusive World on where they could concentrate their pride and loyalty. At the end of the fourth week they were marched to Paddington Station to board a train that would take them on to the next stage of training.

DECEMBER 2019