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RAF veteran Alan Richards celebrated his 100th birthday on June 13, an occasion he celebrated with family at Castle View Residential Home in Caerphilly. He has written this piece about his first day in the RAF
My first day in the forces
The things that happened to me during my first day in the Forces, though they seemed unique to me at the time, probably happened to many thousands of new recruits in some way or another. We were all venturing into the unknown and most were leaving home on their own for the very first time.
My decision to join the Royal Air Force was probably triggered off by the Battle of Britain. I was enthralled by the daring efforts of those brave young pilots during the dark days after the surrender of France, when the very existence of our island depended on them. They became my heroes and I went to the cinema more often than I usually would so that I could see every newsreel that came out.
I made my mind up that, if possible, I would become one of them. I decided to volunteer for the RAF hoping that, as I had volunteered, I would be able to choose my desired career. I was just 17-years-old.
I told my parents of my intentions and my father’s reaction was that I was foolish to volunteer and that I should wait to be called up. I respected what my father said as he had served in the Somme during the First World War. He would very rarely talk about his experiences during that time, and he always said that he hoped none of his children would need to go through what he and his friends had gone through. He had obviously seen and probably done many things that he preferred to forget. He had learned things the hard way and one of those was ‘never volunteer’.
I persuaded him that I was very keen and quite serious about my decision and so he gave me his blessing and his written permission to volunteer, as I was very much underage. The following morning I went off to town and proudly presented myself at the RAF Recruiting Office, which was in the Friary. I was given a short interview by the recruiting officer followed by a written intelligence test. Then, together with several other would be recruits, I was given a very thorough medical test. We were then told to return that afternoon for the results of those tests. After an hour or so I returned to find out what my future held for me.
I was delighted when I was told that I had all the necessary standards to be able to join for training as ‘Aircrew’. I was disappointed however when I was told that my age was against me. I could join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and I would be called when they considered I was old enough. I decided to do this and signed the forms of enlistment. I was given my number 1338552 and issued with a badge to show that I had volunteered and told to keep myself physically fit so that I would be ready for my call.
When I got back Home my parents were obviously relieved that I was not to go immediately and I know that my father was hoping that the war would be over before I needed to be called. This was not to be and my four brothers would also follow me into the services. I enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from my pals because I had volunteered, but that soon wore off and I settled down to a normal life for the next 12 months.
In September 1941, the letter arrived to instruct me to report for duty on the 22nd at St John’s Wood Receiving Depot. Also enclosed was a rail ticket for Paddington where I was to report to the RAF Police. I was excited but panicky as I realised that now I would be on my own. My Father’s advice was: Obey the orders given by superiors immediately so as not to get into trouble; Keep clean and smart at all times; Write home as often as possible so that they would know that I was well; and, above all, Never volunteer; Make sure that the uniform I was issued with was comfortable and ask for a pair of boots one size larger than I normally wore so that I could wear two pairs of socks. This would help to avoid the formation of blisters on my feet when we started drilling and marching. This proved to be good advice.
On the morning of the 22nd, my father and brothers bade me a cheerful “good luck” as they went off to work and school. The parting from my mother and two young sisters was very tearful, but I did finally get away and boarded the bus to Cardiff to catch my train to London. On arrival in Paddington I contacted the RAF Police as instructed and was to board a lorry standing nearby. There were a few lads already aboard and we chatted. We eventually were off and arrived at the receiving depot, where we were told to dismount and line up in three ranks. An officer addressed us and told us that we would be at this ‘flight’, as he called it, for four weeks. During this time we would receive our uniforms, be inoculated, be documented and receive our basic training in marching, saluting and drills “Square Bashing”.
We were then counted out into groups of twelve and handed over to a Corporal, who would see us through the next four weeks. We were to have a very hard day the next day and so we should get an early night, according to the Corporal who marched us off to a nearby hut where we were given a very good meal.
After the meal we were taken back to the “flight”, which turned out to be a block of flats taken over for the duration. We were marched in and found that all the rooms were bare of all furniture and even the doors had been removed. Our group of twelve were billeted on the first floor, four to a room, and the Corporal used a small room that had obviously been a kitchen. There was only one toilet and a very small bathroom. In the room was a pile of blankets and some funny looking mattresses. They were only two feet square and very thin. The Corporal told us to collect three of these mattresses, which he called ‘biscuits’ and two blankets. Place the mattresses on the floor and tuck the blankets under the mattresses to hold them together. Then we were told to undress and place our clothes neatly at the foot of our beds. He told us not to bother getting out any pyjamas we had brought, as we would in future be sleeping ‘in the buff’ as he put it.
We did as we were told and spent a very hectic hour trying to wash and shave in that small bathroom. We did eventually work out a system to enable all of us to get everything done in a fairly reasonable order.
When we finally made it back to our room we slipped into our beds and those blankets were very rough indeed. This was when I made my first mistake. I laughingly said to my companions that I had never had to sleep like this at home and that I thought we would at least have been given a pillow. There was a shout from the room occupied by the Corporal: “The man who is talking will come in here immediately”. I jumped up from my bed and ran, naked, into his room. I was subjected to a volume of abuse that I won’t record here. He did say that I was a “Blanketty Blank” trouble maker and to make matters worse a “Welsh” trouble maker. I would probably end up in the “glasshouse” before the end of the four weeks.
By this time I was physically trembling, not from the cold, but from sheer terror and I was relieved when he told me to get back to my room and “watch it”. My room mates must have been just as terrified as I was because they didn’t say a work but only managed a weak smile. I fell on my bed and huddled under my blanket. I buried my head in my hands, struggling vainly to fight back the tears that were welling up in my eyes. Eventually, from sheer exhaustion and fright, I drifted into sleep. So ended my first day in the Services.
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