Eye Witness 1938.

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Paddy Hamilton Crockard RAF Cardington February 1938

A few years ago I had the absolute honour and pleasure of meeting 93 year old Paddy Hamilton Crockard who enlisted at RAF Cardington back in 1938! Mr Crockard was revisiting the area with his family and very kindly agreed to meet me in Shortstown to share some of his memories of his time spent on the camp all those years ago. I never thought I would be fortunate enough to meet anyone with first-hand knowledge of life at the camp in its first year as a recruitment centre so this meeting was very special for me.

Mr Crockard was born on 23rd November 1919 in Ireland and as a boy and teenager had always dreamed of becoming a pilot.  He had hoped to join the RAF at 16 but needed his father’s consent which was refused so it wasn’t until he reached 18 that he could apply to join. As soon as he was 18 after attending Grammar School and a Technical College he signed up at a recruitment office in Belfast. It is interesting to note that although he enlisted in Belfast he was sent miles away to RAF Cardington for his “Square Bashing.”

Paddy arrived at Cardington in February 1938 and at this point would have been one of the earliest intakes to the camp which had only just begun operating as No 2 School of Recruits. It is known that in the early stages of 1938 RAF Cardington was not fully equipped to deal with the sudden influx of men and indeed Paddy recalls having to wait for a week or so for a uniform to be issued. Paddy also remembers that the camp seemed more like a Flying Club to him than a recruitment centre. Initially the training in the first year took three months and Paddy was paid the princely sum of 14 shillings a week with two shillings a week deducted for “billet damage”. This practice was a bone of contention for the thousands of recruits who were to pass through the billets throughout the years as of course the billets were kept in pristine condition at all times.

He has good memories of his time spent on the camp - he recalls a church on site, a NAAFI shop, and playing cricket on Wednesday afternoons and going to the cinema in Bedford on Saturdays. He also remembers being woken at 6.30am each day which he didn’t enjoy!

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Arthur Markland - one young man's account of enlisting at RAF Cardington in 1938.

I feel really privileged to be able to show here an extract from the memoirs of Arthur Markland who served with the RAF from 1938 – 1947. This wonderful account describes the experience of a young recruit arriving at RAF Cardington in 1938. This is every researchers dream! His account gives us a really fascinating first-hand insight into life on the camp with some great snippets of information and is a very important piece of our history. It is a shame that I never met Arthur as I would have loved to shake his hand and say thank you.

A huge thank you must go to Arthur’s son Brendan who made all this possible by making contact and sending in the following:

"Many years ago (early 1990’s) my father wrote his autobiography in order for the family to know more about his early life. A large part of that book relates to his time in the RAF (1938 – 1947) when he met my mother at a Sergeants Mess Dance in Manchester.

He started his career, as a recruit at RAF Cardington (early1938) and I thought you might be interested in his descriptions of his time spent there. He loved his association with the RAF, and in 1992 –1995, I was privileged to take him to several RAF re-unions at Manchester Airport (613 Squadron). Dad was posted to RAF Ringway during the early part of the war, and of course it helped that his family home was nearby in Salford. He ended his career as Pilot Officer (non aircrew) just after I was born. My father and mother Maureen died in 2016 four days apart, (he was 103 and my Mum 96). They both requested that donations at the funeral be sent to RAF Benevolent Fund. I’m currently digitising his autobiography and adding more pictures relevant to his story. Hence my search for information on RAF Cardington. I hope to get the book reprinted and given to members of the very large family they left behind, (5 children, 16 great grandchildren and 5 great great grandchildren.”

A huge thank you to Brendan who made all this possible by making contact and sending in the following:

Arthur Markland - photo taken in 1943 when stationed in Bombay, India. Now a Warrant Officer

Arthurs memories of RAF Cardington: 

I Join the RAF and I am Posted to Cardington ….

LEAVING HOME

The next morning at 8.00am I left the family home, after a tearful goodbye with my mother, and went to the corner of Moorfield Road and Bolton Road to catch the bus to Manchester. This was where I had caught the bus over the last ten years, on my way to the office and all sorts of things went through my mind - Was I doing the right thing?  Or was I making a big mistake?  It was then I remembered what my future would have been if I had stayed and I knew that I had made the right decision. I made my way to the Recruiting Office in Peter Street, and from there I travelled down to London with five other eager young men in their 'teens and early twenties, accompanied by a middle aged man in RAF uniform. On either arm, just above his sleeve were three interwoven letters 'PPR', which at a distance resembled a coat of arms, such as worn by a warrant officer. They stood for, we were informed, 'PAID PENSIONER RESERVIST', and it was he who acted as a travel courier with us on the journey.

We boarded the train at Piccadilly and I remember how during the journey the poor man was bombarded with one question after another about life in the RAF. "Where were we going to now?  How long was the training at the Recruit Depot?  How long before we got leave?  Had he served overseas?  What were the prospects for promotion?"  These and dozens of other questions bombarded the poor man, right, left and centre. He must have been quite used to it and didn't mind in the least.  He told us that he was doing this trip twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.  We were going to West Drayton in Middlesex, but he told us that this was only what was termed a Reception Depot and that we would only be there for one whole day and that we would be leaving for the Recruits Training Depot on Wednesday.

ARRIVAL AT WEST DRAYTON

We arrived in London and travelled on the Underground railway to West Drayton where we were met by RAF personnel on the platform. Here our courier from Manchester, wished us good luck and left us, and we climbed into an RAF truck outside the station and made our way to the Reception Depot. We all slept in a barrack block that night after a meal in the canteen. The next morning, after breakfast, a large crowd of us, there must have been over a hundred, from all parts of the country, assembled to be addressed by an officer. He told us he was there to administer the oath of allegiance, and, once we had taken that, there was no turning back, we would be in the RAF for the full term of our service, which, in my case, was nine years initially. If anyone had any doubts, they could leave now if they so wished, and believe me, there were actually two or three who did just that! We all had to hold a Bible in our right hand and repeat, word for word, the Oath of Allegiance spoken by the officer. Then we had to sign an official document, to the effect that we had done so.

We were then told that next morning we would be catching a special train which would take us to a place called Cardington, near Bedford, which was the home of the No 2 RAF Recruits training depot, which would be our home for the next three months. I managed to scribble off a postcard to my parents, just to let them know what was happening.

The next morning we caught the special train, accompanied by a nucleus of RAF personnel in charge of us.  During that day we arrived at our new headquarters - RAF Cardington.  Cardington which was about one and a half miles outside the town of Bedford, was one of the oldest RAF stations which had been built at the end of the First World War. It was the home of the famous airships, the R101, and it was from where it had flown on its last flights which ended in disaster and the tragic deaths of 48 people. The huge hangars, which had housed the monster airships were still there, but were now used as storage depots.

No.2 RECRUITS DEPOT - CARDINGTON

On arrival, we were all allocated to a numbered hut, each of which contained about 28 beds. At one end there a single room which was the quarters of the senior N.C.O. We were introduced to the Corporal and Sergeant, who would be responsible for our squad training over the next three months. We also met the Flight Sergeant who was to be in charge of the whole flight of 140 men, who would hopefully be in the final "passing out parade" in three months time. Each hut contained 28 folding beds, with a wooden locker at the side of each bed and a metal locker on the wall behind, to take some of our kit.

Our first job was to parade to the stores to collect three blankets (KHAKI), two sheets (WHITE), and a bolster slip (WHITE). We then marched to our Hut, where our Corporal instructed us on how to make a bed -- RAF fashion, using the three square mattresses to form the base, which were known in the RAF jargon as "BISCUITS" for some reason. Firstly a blanket was spread over the wire mattress of the bed, the "Biscuits" were then put on top. Over the "Biscuits" was spread a doubled blanket, then the loose ends of the blanket on the wire mattress were each folded over, then came the two white sheets and finally the third blanket. In winter this could be varied and the double blanket placed over the top sheet and under the third blanket - thus giving you a thickness of three blankets.

Sometimes in winter it was so cold everyone ended up with their RAF greatcoats and uniform jackets also on top, in order to keep warm!

Each morning the beds had to be folded up and the "Biscuits", blankets, sheets and bolster also folded and arranged in a certain manner on the bed, ready for inspection.  After breakfast, the next morning we paraded again - life after that was just one parade after another for the next three months. This time we marched down to the main stores to draw our kit.  This consisted of one large kit bag, two uniforms (jacket and trousers) Field Service Cap, one flat peaked Ceremonial Hat, Badges, shirts, ties, underwear, boots, plimsolls, socks, hairbrush, clothes brush, boot brushes, metal polish brush, button suit, housewife (sewing kit), washing equipment, haversack, rucksack, greatcoat, waterbottle, towels, gas mask, folding canteen, knife fork and spoon, gas cape, an enamel mug and waterproof cape. The method of receiving all these articles was quite simple - in the stores itself was a large counter, behind which were about twenty equipment assistants. We paraded in line and walked past each one, stopping just to hear the equipment assistant yell out the details of the articles we were to receive. These were promptly flung across the counter to be caught anyway we could, as we passed to the next one. All this time our arms were getting fuller and fuller. Most of the smaller items we managed to stuff into our kitbags, which fortunately was the first item we received, and the rest we carried back to our hut the best way we could. On arrival at out Hut, the Sergeant informed us to get dressed into uniform as quickly as possible. We were given string and sheets of brown paper, told to parcel up our civilian clothes and address then home, after which we paraded again down to the Camp Post Office, where we had them weighed, paid the postage and left them for onward transit.

At last, after a couple of days, we were actually in uniform and began to feel, for the first time as though we were actually in the Air Force. From that day on it really started - we marched to the Armoury to draw our rifles and bayonets and we were fully kitted out. Each day thereafter was an unending slog, - from Reveille at 6.00 am to Lights Out at 9.30 pm - of endless parades, foot drill on the square, marching, physical training with the P.T.I instructor, rifle drill, gas drill, rifle shooting on the range, lectures on the R.A.F. ranks, ceremony and traditions, and in between, three times a day, we paraded and marched to the cookhouse for meals. If we wanted a variation in our daily arrangements, we got that too, when they marched us to Sick Bay to receive our vaccination and TAB inoculation "jabs". Come what may, after a visit to the Sick Bay, on such occasions, you could always rely on what your next duty would be - rifle Drill on the Barrack Square! The theory was that if you kept your arm moving by drilling you would recover from the jab so much the quicker. It didn't always seem to work out like that, however, and on the very hot days that summer, some of the chaps just seemed to drop like a stone and their rifle would clatter onto the parade ground making a heck of a noise. The N.C.O's voice on such occasions would yell "leave him there - don't move" and we would just go on drilling. A few minutes later he would come round and the N.C.O would tell him to stand easy at the side.

I remember the first week we started drill on the square, we passed a squad who had already been there at the Camp about ten weeks, and I was very impressed with the way they performed. They reminded me of the RAF team you see at Olympia on Remembrance days. The Flight Sergeant used to delight in telling us that they were due to "pass out" next week, but with the present shower he'd got (us), he didn't think we were ever going to make it. I cannot begin to tell you of some of the insults that were hurled at us during our three months on the square. However, I think I can say that in one of his milder moments he might be heard to say "Come on! Swing those arms! Bags of swank! -- Then in a voice of derision -- you're marching like a lot of Piccadilly prostitutes".

FATIGUES WEEK

Halfway through out training was our "Fatigues week". This meant that for a whole week, we did no drill or marching or PT - but it was no respite - "Fatigues" was so much worse. Each morning we paraded and the Flight Sergeant called each name in turn, with the actual day's duty to which he was allocated, anywhere in the whole camp. For example, you could be on sentry duty for 24 hours at the main entrance to the Camp, Cookhouse fatigues, fatigues cleaning and polishing floors around the Medical Section or Station H.Q., acting as labourers in the Equipment Section, cleaning the roads in the Camp of litter and so on. Most of my week was divided between cleaning and polishing floors in the Medical Quarters and duties in the Cookhouse. When you were on Cookhouse Duty you were called at 5.30 am and reported to the Sergeant in charge Cookhouse at 6.00 am, from whom you received your working instructions. I recall that most of my time seemed to be spent in cleaning dirty dishes after meals, emptying scraps into bins, washing thousands of plates (this was the canteen for the whole Camp), getting them dried and stacked on hotplates ready for the next meal - either dinner or tea as the case may be. I do know that it always seemed that just after we had dried the last plate from breakfast - the first airman was already lining up for his dinner! Other chores of course were peeling potatoes and other vegetables, cleaning and polishing huge pans and cooking equipment.

HUT CLEANING AND INSPECTION

I have not mentioned one other soul destroying job which used to occur once a week. That happened each Friday evening after tea - it was called "Hut cleaning" or as our Sergeant used to refer to it with a sardonic smile "AMAMI NIGHT !". The hut and its contents had to be thoroughly scrubbed, washed and polished from roof to ceiling. In order to accomplish this particular chore, jobs were listed on some paper on a notice board, and each member of the hut, each week, was allocated a particular job, e.g. washing and scrubbing the floor, cleaning and polishing coal scuttles, buckets, mops and brush handles, shovels, dusting the tops and sides of metal lockers, cleaning electric light bulbs and fittings. Each Saturday morning, after breakfast, beds had to be "lined up" in one continuous line, an airman's kit had to be properly set out and displayed in a certain order on the bed - each article being in exactly the same place on each bed. On the clothes hook at the rear of each bed was hung the webbing, pack, haversack etc., all perfectly laid out with all the brass buckles polished to perfection. The doors of the wall cupboard, above the bed, were open to display the rest of one's kit all nicely stored and stacked, again in a precise order as laid down in the regulations. When all this had been done first the Corporal came round, then the Sergeant, lastly the Flight Sergeant all making comments about adjustments to the kit layout that was needed. Sometimes this was done in gentle tones and sometimes the bed was tipped up, all the kit clattered to the floor and the luckless recruit was told to get it done again - "Pretty sharp or else!". When the N.C.O's were satisfied we were left, each beside our bed space, waiting for the dreaded arrival of the C.O. for his inspection. Suddenly the Sergeant yelled "Hut - Atten - Shun!" . Everyone stood to attention as in walked the C.O., possibly a Wing Commander, followed by his Adjutant, the Station Warrant Officer, our Flight Sergeant, and lastly our Sergeant. A strict examination was given to each kit and any adverse comments by the C.O. quickly noted by the S.W.O to the Flight Sergeant who made a note in his little book, for any action to be taken against the airman concerned. The Adjutant, usually a F/Lt wore a pair of white gloves and delighted in passing his fingers over the tops of cupboards, to see if any dust came off on his gloves. Everyone just held their breath until the inspection was over and when they had gone the Sergeant yelled "Stand Easy " -- What a relief!

ON AFTERNOON PASS

After our week of "Fatigues" we were told that we would be allowed out of the Camp, on an afternoon Pass, for the first time. The Sergeant said we had just about learned how to wear our uniform and walk in "an airman like manner" as he put it, but he warned us to behave ourselves in town or woe betide! The custom was that you had to book out at the Main Guard Room of the Camp, giving your number, rank and name to the Corporal in charge of the Guard Room, this was normal at all RAF Stations, for the rank below Sergeant, who were not required to book out. At Recruit Depots, however, there was a slight refinement. If the weather was fine, a Corporal was seated outside at a trestle table, but before you were allowed to approach him to "book out" you first had to stand smartly to attention in front of another Corporal, who eyed you up and down, checking your uniform, brasses and boots. If he was satisfied, he would nod his head, you approached the second Corporal and booked out. Not everyone got through the first time, and they would be sent back to their hut to repolish brasses or their boots. I suspect they just used to turn back every fifth or sixth airman as a matter of course, whether there was anything wrong or not. I was lucky I got through together with two of the chaps I had joined up with, Eric Smith and Colin Blackshaw. We walked into Bedford, which was a very pleasant town, through the centre of which flowed the River Ouse. Nearby there was a very large Boys public school and there always appeared to be plenty of activity on the river with regattas. As I recall we walked round the town saw a film at the Cinema, had tea in a cafe and then strolled back to Camp.

A week later there was a large Air Exhibition held on the aerodrome, which was open to the general public, and we were all allowed to attend on a Wednesday afternoon. There were flying displays of all the latest types of aircraft which at that time, were as I remember, Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, and Wellington and Whitley bombers amongst others.

UNDER CANVAS

When we reached our last month in training we were informed by our Flight Sergeant that we were moving from our "cushy quarters" as he so kindly put it, into bell tents under canvas, until we passed out. We weren't exactly enthusiastic about this news, as it meant sleeping on bed boards, six to a tent, and there was precious little room to store one's kit. there were six clothes hooks strapped around the centre pole of the tent, and on these we had to hang our webbing equipment and our greatcoats. the weather turned for the worse and we had an awful job trying to blanco our webbing equipment and polish our brasses. Once they were hung up, in the damp air, they seemed to lose their polish and we had to do them all over again.

At the end of June I had received a wedding invitation from two of my friends in Light Oaks Tennis Club. Geoff Wallwork and Nora Wheelhouse. They were a lovely couple and the wedding was to be on July 28, but of course it was impossible for me to attend as my course would not end until the middle of August. I remember the day of their wedding very well, not only was it my birthday, but it was pouring with rain and I was lying in the tent, feeling "dead to the world" from inoculation jabs the previous day. I lay there thinking of all the gang back home, who would be having a marvellous time at the wedding, and the thought crossed my mind -- "What am I doing here? I must be mad!". I remember making an almost superhuman effort, dragging myself out of bed, putting on my waterproof cape, and staggering down to the Camp G.P.O. where I managed to send a Good Luck Telegram to Geoff and Nora. That was one of those days when I was at my lowest ebb.

THE PASSING OUT PARADE

Our last week of training arrived and also our Final Passing Out Parade. As we marched on to the Square, at one end was the RAF Central Band playing a series of marches. In the centre of the parade ground was a large dais with a canopy which housed many top brass and the Air Vice Marshall who was to take the salute. Everything went like a dream and the whole Flight moved, marched and did their rifle drill in unison, moving like one man. Then came the final march past with the Air Vice Marshall taking the salute, whilst the Band played the "RAF March" and "The Lincolnshire Poacher", which is the theme tune of the RAF college Cranwell. We then marched back, to our tented accommodation. On our way back, we passed a squad of recruits, newly arrived, who stood watching us, mouths open; I could just imagine their Sergeant saying "Yes you might well look - they've just passed out! - But you lot will never make it - not in a hundred years!". Ah well - three months is a long time.

POSTED TO R.A.F DIGBY

The next morning we were told by our F/Sgt that our posting instructions for our new Units were on the notice board. Everyone crowded round to find out where they were going. Many were going to other training establishments as fitters, wireless operators, cooks, flight mechanics or drivers. I looked at the list and found that AC2 Woolford and AC2 Markland were posted to RAF Digby for accounts training. Next morning we drew our travel warrants from the Orderly Room, our rations from the Cookhouse, and we were taken to the Railway Station by RAF lorry, and we then caught the train for RAF Digby in Lincolnshire. We looked through the train window and said our last farewell to Bedford and RAF Cardington. It had been a real hard slog, but I had survived and I felt fitter than I had ever felt in my whole life! "

Thanks again to Brendan for making these available - Jane

Website compiled by Jane Harvey.