Guest Blog: My Dad’s National Service 1950-52Posted: February 17, 2010
February 2007 / Revised 4/2009
P.S.C, BA (Open), ACIB, FGS, AMRI, Curator(Hon) Oxford University Museum Fellow of The British Institute for Geological Conservation
A NATIONAL SERVICEMAN AT R.A.F. IBSLEY: 1950/2
I was called up for 18 months National Service in the RAF on 19th January 1950. There were many induction paths to follow; mine was – Padgate – West Kirby – Bawdsey, for Trade Training as a Fighter Plotter.
Padgate I remember as a lot of young men in ill-fitting uniforms singing mournful choruses of ‘Good Night, Irene’ – all very homesick and hormonal.
West Kirby – square-bashing – end of that story.
Incidentally, in 2004 during one of my geological excursions I was able to stay ‘B & B’ at Bawdsey Manor, which was by then an International Language School; ‘B’ was sole occupancy of a cottage on the estate while ‘& B’ was a short drive to the Manor house to eat in the one-time Admin. Block/Officers’ Mess – which I had not previously entered unless accused of some terrible breach of King’s Regulations.
Towards the end of the Bawdsey course volunteers were sought for an overseas posting (Changi, I believe) and I duly volunteered. However, everyone but me was drafted and I was sent off to RAF Ibsley, arriving there some time in March/April 1950. There was a certain malicious satisfaction to be derived a few weeks later when my course-mates from Bawdsey arrived at Ibsley, following cancellation of their overseas posting – but not before they had undergone the full course of painful inoculations!
Initially I was billeted on the lower level of No.2 Accommodation Site and transported daily to RAF Sopley GCI station (surface block at that time) to ‘Protect The Airspace Of Western Democracy’. Unfortunately Bawdsey had trained me on a horizontal plotting-table using magnetic bits and pieces and it soon became apparent that I had the kind of brain that could not cope with writing backwards with crayons from behind a Chinagraph screen. I suppose that there was some element of desperation involved when I was transferred to the Fighter Marshal’s section – a small group of airmen who talked to the fighters and gave them D/F positions, all under the direction of a good-tempered and patient Sergeant (a fairly rare species). The Sergeant sometimes took his team-for-the-day down to Sopley in his Austin Seven – a much more civilized mode of transport than the usual 3-tonner ‘cattle trucks’.
Having spent three years in a naval boarding-school I was used to discipline, rules and restrictions so I settled into routine fairly happily, apart from when the Government decided that National Servicemen should serve for two years instead of one-and-a-half because of the Korean War. Home was in Portsmouth Dockyard and I became a regular hitchhiker.
Being a fairly ingenious youth I soon found that displaying sporting pretensions was a good way of avoiding extra duties “Sorry ‘Flight’, the Cross-country Team is scheduled for a training run” – even if it only involved a trot across the moors behind the camp to a welcoming pub (but we didn’t mention that bit, although with his experience, he must have suspected). Of course, I’d justify it as being more worthy than skulking in a hut. I led the team to fairly undistinguished results in Cross-country events at RAF stations Tangmere, Benson and a trip to North Weald for 11 Group Sports, with results long forgotten. I won the Station quarter-mile in 1950 (second in ’51) and anchored both the Medley-relay and Tug-of-War Fighter Plotter teams to victories in the 1950 Station Sports – by the way, I still have the medals. I had been successful in Rugby Football at school but found that trying to bash strong young men out of my way was rather more difficult than massacring schoolboys – so I gave that up.
Among my black-and-white blurry ‘snaps’ I have annotations that there are images of:
Eric Burdett, Jock Slaven, Bob Weightman, Bill Elliott, Tony Marner, John Hill, Allan Wiseman, Allan Godfrey, and John Knight. There are somebody else’s rather better pictures of the
Cross-country team in action, showing Jerry Owens, Colin Stephenson, Terry Belcher, Allan Godfrey and Pete Wills. Hidden amongst the other bodies are John Figg, Ivor Rice-Jones and Andy Cardwell (and me).
Among the interesting characters that I knew and befriended was Leonard Setright, a hut-mate and introspective intellectual, mad keen on motor-racing, who introduced me to the sport. We often went out in his Morgan 3-wheeler – far too fast, of course. Len became a famous motoring journalist and author, writing in magazines like Esquire and Playboy; because of his influence I attended at least one of the car-race meetings at Ibsley in 1951. Then there was the virtuoso pianist who never seemed to play anything other than ‘Sabre Dance’ or was it ‘The Ritual Fire Dance’?
As for Air Force duties; these included unloading barbed wire at the now defunct Ringwood railway station and a never-to-be-forgotten Night Infiltration exercise where a group of us started in Sopley village, tasked with infiltrating the GCI station in the face of searchlights and patrols. We were instructed to make maximum use of natural cover, skulking in hedges and ditches – unfortunately the weather was blowing a gale with horizontal rain, so a few of us came up with the idea that the ‘enemy’ would be looking for us in cover so we would walk up the middle of the field, looking like a patrol and getting wet but not muddy. To our surprise and disappointment (?) we were soon captured and incarcerated in a warm, dry guardroom. There was one truly remarkable event, involving a major air exercise when, for some reason that I have forgotten, data flow to the main screen was interrupted for a short while and information about the exercise was temporarily taken from the D/F Table – which I was temporarily in charge of! We were ‘fixing’ continuously, the bearing-setter lads were working their socks off and I was carrying a mass of call-signs, heights and vectors in my head. My brain was crystal-clear, my concentration intense, to a level that I have never achieved again. Burnt-out at 19 years of age – tragic. I was distantly aware of an audience but when someone sought to relieve me, a distant voice said – “Leave him alone, he’s the only one who knows what’s going on”. Eventually, the situation was resolved, I was relieved, thanked and told to take the rest of the watch off. Actually, sensible management as by that time I was exhausted and no use at all to anybody – just as well I was ‘off-watch’ as I remember going to sleep in a chair! Time passed and, to my surprise, having been LAC and SAC, I was promoted to Corporal – surprise compounded because nobody told me face to face, just that I happened to read the Station notice board. This meant a transfer to the upper site at Ibsley, was it Hut 312? where, amongst other ’deficiencies’ I had to sign for many, many feet of wooden shelving, long since fed into the central cast-iron stove.
Eventually, 18th January 1952 came along and I left Ibsley forever, as I thought. I resumed my career in banking, ending as an Administration Manager attached to a Regional Office for ‘hatchet jobs’. Along came retirement and a new ‘career’ as a geological educator (unpaid) and Honorary Associate Curator, Geological Collections, Oxford University Museum (still unpaid!) but no thought of RAF Ibsley, although I had been living in Lymington (a mere19 miles away) since 1966. Eventually I discovered the annual ‘History with Wings’ fair and that there were societies for former inmates of Ibsley and Sopley. I then learned that that long-ago good-tempered and patient Sergeant with the Austin Seven was living in Fordingbridge and I had great pleasure in telephoning him to say “Hello Jimmy, I’ve not spoken to you for fifty-five years but how are you?”. Yes, it was Jimmy Moir and I am very happy to have had another opportunity of working with him on ‘Bygone Days’.
But that’s not the most amazing thing – and here’s hope for all of us with failing memories – on the second occasion that I met Jimmy I suddenly said, without any prompting “Was there a Flight-Sergeant Enticott?” – answer ‘yes’ – but I had not given him a thought for all those fifty-five years, so where did that come from? Don’t despair, it’s all in the mind, somewhere, even if buried deep!
So, this isn’t an autobiography, just random memories set down to give a flavor of what it was like for some to do National Service in the 1950s and a continuation of the ‘Ibsley Story’ after closure of the airfield. Less important in ‘The Grand Scheme of Things’ but it was important to us at the time.
If anyone out there can amplify or correct, I’d be pleased to hear from them.