Eye Witness 1960's.

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Memories of Alan Thomas  in the 1960's

First stay  -  May 1960 Signing Up

"My first association with RAF Cardington was in May 1960. Having undergone some tests and a medical at the RAF Recruiting Centre in Swansea I was instructed to report to No 2 RU RAF Cardington. At this time National Service was in force and RAF Cardington was a Reception Unit for both Regular & National Service Airmen. I had volunteered for Regular Service.

This was my first visit to England and having negotiated the London Underground system eventually arrived at Bedford Midland Station. At the exit there was a large board that read 'All RAF recruits report to the Transport Hut located in the car park.'

There I was met by a very grizzly NCO who muttered - sit there and wait for transport. At what seemed an age a Bedford truck eventually arrived and we all just about got a place to sit. We soon arrived at Cardington and at this time we were all a bit nervous and wondering what to expect. We found ourselves in a large Reception Hut where we were given various information and instructions. I can recall being issued with a set of irons (knife,fork,and spoon) and a china mug and being told 'God help you' if you lose these.

We were allocated to a billet (hut) and given some bedding. After bed making we were instructed to report to the Airmen's Mess for a late meal. I believe it was egg & chips which became my main diet for the next few days. Outside the Airmen's Mess there was a large tank of tepid water, everybody washed their irons and mug in this mucky tank which was to say the least not very hygenic. After the meal some of us sat round the juke box in the NAAFI listening to records over a decent cup of tea. Back in the billet some of the National Service lads were seen to be homesick and some in tears missing wives and girlfriends. I had no such worries and for me it was going to be a new beginning. The next morning my group were advised by a very smart Cpl that we would not be needed for a few days and that we would be free to leave the camp. I recall exploring Bedford and sitting in the 6d seats in the Picture Drome Cinema which stood on the site of the now Park Inn Hotel.

Come the day my group of regular airmen were after further interviews instructed to report for attestation  - I believe this was at the Other Denomination Church. Events now came quickly, next stop the Station Hairdressers shop, there were some 8 hairdressers - one style - short back and sides much to the disgust of some of the National Service lads. Next stop was the kitting out hangers located behind the Headquarters building. Here an army of store men issued us with a complete issue of uniforms and kit includimg a Housewife (a small repair kit for darning socks.) Some minor tailoring was carried out on the spot, major tailoring items were ready for collection the next morning. Once we were in possession of all our kit we were marched to the Station Post Room to collect our civilian clothing and send home. I never imagined that some years later I would be the person in charge of this Post Room.

After photographs we were issued with our identity cards - I was now Aircraftsman Second Class D A Thomas. We were now confined to the camp area and I recall the wonder of the 2 large hangars and balloons with baskets which I later discovered were used to train parachutists. On display near the RAF guardsroom was a Spitfire Aircraft. Being curious we stepped on the grass to have a closer view, suddenly there was a loud shout from the Guardroom - " Get off the grass you stupid lot" this was my first introduction to Station discipline.

We were now enlisted men and the order of the day suddenly became "on the double". Some two days after enlistment we were instructed to be packed ready for transfer to No 7 School of Recruit Training at RAF Bridgenorth Shropshire. I remember the day well. Such was the ferocity of the wind and rain on that day that it seemed to take an age to reach the troop train that awaited our pleasure at Cardington Railway Station. I believe the train was steam hauled and as the Cardington Hangars disappeared from view we were now following in the footsteps of thousands of airmen that had gone before us."

RAF Cardington 1963 - 1965 on Postal Duties

I was given a short handover briefing the following morning on unit procedures and after sorting the mail delivery was advised - sorry old chap you are now on your own I have my own duties to attend to. Fortunately for me this once busy Postal Complex was shared by the Unit Taylor. Frank had been a taylor from before the war hence he knew every unit and section, his knowledge and assistance was invaluable during those first few days.

I could not justify occupying a large building designed to service the needs of recruits sending home their civilian clothing and within a few weeks the RAF Post Room relocated to the first floor of the Station Headquarters Building. It was titled Post Room in that there was a busy Civilian Post Office located near the main camp entrance. My working day was now established:-

0830 hrs - Receive all RAF Cardington mail from GPO

0900 hrs - 1030 hrs  - Open for collection of mail

As the postal clerk I was entitled to be issued with a RAF bicycle and at 1030 hrs I would deliver and collect mail to the Sgt's and Officers Messes. The Officers Mess was located on the housing side of the unit and most mornings I would enjoy a cup of tea with the cooks and stewards. Between 1100 hrs and lunch time I with some difficulty tried to look busy by delivering any uncollected parcel or registered item. The afternoon mail arrived around 1330 hrs and the Post Room was open from 1400 hrs to 1500 hrs for mail collection. The afternoon duty was similar to the morning with a teabreak with the Officers Mess cooks and stewards. At around 1630 hrs I would collect all the outgoing mail from the Registry and prepare for collection by the GPO at around 1645. If Sgt Chanbers was not around I would quietly disappear for an early tea in the Airmen's Mess.

Due to the small numbers of Corporals available for Station Duties the dreaded Orderly Corporal came round far too often. During weekdays as Orderly Corporal one would assume control of the RAF guardroom with the assistance of a Duty Airman between 1700 hrs and 0800 hrs. The side gate would be locked at 2359 hrs and if one was lucky perhaps secure some 6 hrs sleep. At weekends one assumed control of the guardroom for 24 hrs the only break was for meals by the Orderly Sergeant. This was a duty that I did not particularly enjoy.

Life at Cardington for me was in the main free and easy for the first 20 months. Certain events them changed my daily routine and in my view events at that time were the beginning of the end for RAF Cardington. During mid 1964 the Youth Selection Centre relocated to RAF Stafford, overnight over 25% of my daily workload had gone. With the Youth Selection Centre gone the Station Cinema closed and as far as I can recall the Saturday dances also came to an end. I now had no bolt hole so I became very vulnerable when some clerical assistance was required in the general office or on the Balloon Squadron Staff.

"The last RAF Postal Clerk to serve at RAF Cardington."

Come September 1964 Sgt Chambers had the pleasure to inform me that my trade (Clerk Postal) had been made obsolete and if I wished to continue my service with the RAF I would be required to attend a 2 month Clerical conversion course at RAF Kirton in Lindsey, Lincolnshire. I completed the course during Sept./Oct 1964 and returned to Cardington as a Personnel Administrator. By this time the Station Post Room had been amalgamated with the Station Registry so I can truly say I was the last RAF postal clerk to serve at RAF Cardington.

Until my departure in April 1965 I spent most of my time working in the General Office, gaining some valuable clerical knowledge. Anyone who has served at RAF Cardington will I am sure agree that it was an experience not to be missed and most would say that it was the Royal Cardington Air Force and not the Royal Air Force.

I would mention that some 10 years later I met up with Sgt Chamber again at High Wycombe, he was then a Warrant Officer and myself a Sgt so I guess we both did quite well from our time at Cardington." (Alan Thomas Dec 2011).

With grateful thanks to Alan Thomas for sharing his personal memories of his time at Cardington with us. Alan has also provided us with a description of the Station in these years which can be found on the 1960-2000 page.

Alan Thomas

Alans original RAF postal armband

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Les Birkett in  1961 

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Laurance Birkett, Lancaster Rd, Shortstown 1961.

Les Birkett - joined in 1961

My name is Les Birkett, I hail from a military family, my faher served with the RAF, I had two brothers in the Army and one brother in the Navy. I joined the RAF at Cardington on 17th Jan 1961. At that time my father Laurence Birkett was serving as the Cpl i/c MT Control at RAF Cardington and we resided in RAF married quarters at no 25 Lancaster Rd in Shortstown. My father served in the RAF from 1942 to 1965. In that we were living in married quarters we were allowed to sleep at home during processing, kitting out etc.

We were conveyed to No 7 School of Recruit Training Bridgenorth by RAF coaches. At that time there were insufficient numbers to justify a troop train from Cardington Station. My entry was the very last National Service intake. All recruits from this time were regular airmen. After Trade Training as a Storeman at RAF Kirton Lindsey Lincs I was posted to RAF Waddington - a V Bomber unit. I had recently got married and with Waddington being such a large Unit there was no hope of a married quarter. At that time my wife was living with my parents. To this end my father came to my rescue, he invoked a little known regulation and claimed me to serve with him at Cardington.

I was allocated a married quarters at 20 Lancaster Rd which was ideal. I  worked in the Technical Stores in the Goods In/Out section  under Warrant Officer Middleton and Sgt Ingham. I recall being on Guard of Honour parades with Cpl Alan Thomas the Station Postal Clerk who I recently met at the RAF Club in Bedford.

When I arrived at Cardington the Station Warrant Officer was WO Polly Perkins , he was the longest serving Station Warrant Officer in the RAF at the time. He was replaced by WO Robbs who appeared to enjoy getting us all into shape for Parade duty. He would march us round the camp in freezing conditions and bring us to a halt outside the Guardroom. He would ask if anyone was cold, if anyone said yes he would march us round again to keep warm. If anyone answered no he would say  - oh good! - and march us round once more. There were several characters serving at Cardington at that time  - one in particular was the Discip Cpl Paddy Brennan  - he had 7 children and occupied 2 married quarters. Another character of note was Flight Sergeant Jim Bradley who was the senior Disciplinary NCO at the Youth Selection Centre. From small time trading from his married quarter he became a major property owner in Bedford.

Many thanks to Les for sharing his story and photographs. (April 2012)

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Tom in uniform

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Tom & car outside the billets in October 1963 - what a fabulous car for a young man to own!

Tom Mccallum - joined in 1962.

Back in June this year I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Mccallum who spent his 21st birthday whilst serving at Cardington in 1962. Not without irony he told me that after electrical training at Mellksham he was asked if he would like to be posted to Hong Kong, Singapore and  Florida to name a few but when he got his orders through he was posted to ....... Cardington!

However this was not without its benefits as he recalls that despite the poor wages he took every oppoturtunity to make the most of his time spent there - be it trying out the various sports available to recruits each Wednesday including golf, sailing and gliding to forming a band to play at local venues.

(continued below).

Considering Tom was only 21 years old at the time we are lucky that he has such a good memory of events and people from 50 years ago. He can even remember his hut number (551 and it was heated!). He recalls quite a few individuals Len Ebbage (sign writer), Eunice who worked on the switchboard and as an usherette, Bob Goodhew, Sheila in the NAAFI, Les Birkett and his father Lorrie Birkett.

He also remembers the civilian camp doctor an Irishman named Dr Macnamara based at Harrowden Rd surgery who when asked to pass men fit for a Tug of War competition simply lined up all the recruits and went along the line placing one half of his stethoscope on each man and passed them all!

Here is Toms story in his own words.....

"You are on a charge lad; those were the first words I heard on arrival at RAF Cardington from Melksham after trade training and had gone home to Scotland on a 48 hour pass but had been delayed on the train (not my fault BR had stopped for no good reason). So I was late and spent my first week and many more afterwards on company punishment "Jankers" as it was known.

One of the first people I met was Junior Technician Jim Frazer & we are still friends today 50 years later. He now owns several hotels in the Cotswolds but the day we met he was also being charged by a corporal Lorrie Birkett whose son Les Birkett I am still in contact on Facebook. Small world eh! But on with the story; I also met on the first day a civvie sign writer Len Ebbage, a musician of some note & we went on to become good friends as we shared a passion for music. Sadly Len passed away a few years back but I still see his widow Hazell & his three sons Ken, Colin & Neville. Colin incidentally was my apprentice when I worked for BT in Bedford so again small world.

I was employed as an electrician at Cardington and one of my duties was to visit the married quarters in Shortstown to check cookers, kettles, irons etc and there were lots of pretty girls! I also helped out on the camp switchboard  - more pretty girls! What a life! On a more serious note we did lots of other things I also worked the lighting at the camp dances and remember meeting Frank Ifield, Freddie & The Dreamers and John Dankworth to name but a few. We also did Honor Guard for the Bedford Crown Court. I also remember doing a service funeral for a WO Sykes who died at Cardington, he is in Cardington cemetary. I went to  his grave a few years ago & all the memories came back, slow marching & firing over the grave etc.

Cars played a big part in my life, they still do. I went on to own my own garage & repair business here in Scotland but back then anything that ran would do. I owned all sorts mostly exotic left hand things that blokes had brought back from abroad. The other memories were learning to fly gliders at RAF Bicester every Wednesday taught by a Polish pilot who had seen service during the war, Flt Lt Kurlowskie or Lefty to his pupils. I nearly killed both of us on several occasions but managed to fly eventually. Sadly Lefty took his own life on Christmas Day a few years afterward.

Speaking of Christmas, on Christmas day the officers came in the mess and served all the food to the other ranks we thought it was a hoot as for the rest of the year we were pretty much ignored. On reflection we were pretty wicked; at one camp dance someone stole the CO's flag from his staff car, also a nice big aluminium sign with RAF Cardington in big letters vanished - scrap was valuable even then! I remember lending my car to SAC Titch Mallett who promptly crashed into the CO's parents who were visiting him, a nightmare as he had no driving licence or insurance. (More jankers!) I also sold my travel warrants to some idiot who gave it to his girlfriend needless to say she did not look like a SAC so more Jankers!

My abiding memories of the RAF was always being short of money so to help out I worked for several garages in Bedford but just got in to more trouble as this was yet another crime in the eyes of the RAF. On a happier note myself and Bob Goodhew & another guy whose name escapes me formed our own band but we did not make it into the hit parade. I also played accordion in The Gate pub (now sadly closed I believe). I also remember a really old plane landing one morning with a film crew and Terry Thomas. They were filming Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (the scene where the plane lands on the train) but we did not know that then so it was not deemed very interesting."

Many thanks to Tom for sharing his memories with us. (August 2012)

Jack Freer early 1960's

Jack Freer had two stints at Cardington, first arriving in 1959 and returning later in 1960. We are very fortunate that he has a good memory as he has supplied names of some of the men he served with and also some names of professional footballers who were there at the same time. He also recalls some of the entertainers who performed on the camp. Here is his story:

“I along with many others was sent initially to RAF Cardington during September 1959 in order to receive our kit prior to being shipped off  to  RAF Bridgenorth for basic training. On completion I went to RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey near Lincoln for trade training in the Supply trade. This training took 6 months and after completion I was posted back to Cardington as my permanent station. I was there until September 1962 when I was posted to RAF Gutersloh in Germany for my final 2 years.

I have attached a couple of photos taken at Cardington albeit I cannot name all the guys. Other names that come to mind are as follows:

George Sim professional footballer, played at East Fife, Biggleswade Town and Bedford Town (whilst at Cardington). John Copeland professional footballer ... played for Arbroath and Cambridge City Town (whilst at Cardington).

Corporal Bob Husband worked in the same department as me ... Supply. WO Chitham who was my immediate boss. Corporal Ron Hodgson who was a very good friend of mine but alas has now passed away ... I still keep in touch with his wife.

Bob Hunt also worked with me in Supply. Jock Mullen who came from Maryhill in Glasgow was always willing to get up and sing with any group who would let him. He actually sang with the Baron Knights before they hit the big time at a local dance hall.

Bedford was a very lively town during the 60's with local dancing in abundance. The biggest attraction on a Saturday night was the Station dance. Rocky Rivers a local impresario booked many up and coming stars to attend and perform. Likes of ... Frank Ifield, Freddy Starr, Joe Brown and Eden Kane.

The local group was the Kingpins who also toured with Gene Vincent, Jimmy Crawford and were regulars at the Conservative Club and Pascalls on a Wednesday and Thursday.Their big rivals were the Stillettos.”

Thanks must go to Jack Freer for supplying this information.

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I am on the right and the guy on the left is Arthur Burley who came from the Manchester area.

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"In the colour photo above the guy sitting on the case is Paul Simpson who was doing national service and came from Walthamstow in London. The guy in the Mac is me".

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In the group photo (above) the guy on the left is Colin Jordon who was in my billet and I am on the right. The guy next to Colin was the PTI Corporal.

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Frank Grant Cardington 1960

Frank Grant has made contact and very kindly allowed an early chapter from his book "Climbing with Ghosts and Angels" (ISBN 978-0-9556989-2-7 price £14.99) to be shown here. This chapter describes his early experience of the RAF as a young man at Cardington.

"Once I had arrived at R.A.F. Cardington in Bedfordshire early January 1960, I soon got in with a motley bunch of misfits who were also signing up as Boy Entrants. There was Paddy who spouted anti-British sentiments and pro IRA messages!, Geordy Brown who liked to drink and climb anything that was perpendicular and on the odd occasions, that which lies on the horizontal, Colin the Mop Head so called because of his large mop of curly blonde hair, soon to be victim to the camp barber, Chalky White who thought it fun to make disgusting loud smells on church parade and yours truly, not yet with two feet on the ground, this being the first time ever I was alone, without parents around.

The first few days were boring. Talks from pompous uniformed officers with large handle bar moustaches, a film about sexually transmitted diseases which invoked a continuous titter when the cartoon male organ on the screen tried desperately to stay erect to demonstrate the journey little sperm were going to make or couldn’t due to the STD, and of course that military pastime of endless pointless marching around the camp in our civilian clothes accompanied with barking mad adults with stripes on their sleeves and who did not understand the meaning of manners and a language that did not include every blasphemous word from A to Z.

I need not have despaired as not all was as continually boring as this. One interesting event occurred just a few days before we were to take the oath which meant that technically we were still civilians and not subject to service discipline, rules or regulations despite what many of the barking mad N.C.O’s thought. The incident happened innocently one lunch time when someone with three stripes and a crown on their grey blue sleeves strode magnificently into the mess hall and shouted for all Boy Apprentices to go to the main gate where a coach was waiting to take them on a trip to somewhere or other. The rest [Boy Entrants] were to go to such and such hanger where they would be shown how to tether and untie an air balloon, for what purpose I have no idea but then service life in those early 60’s had little reasoning behind many of the things we were made to do. Like for example, some years later having to paint the trunks of trees brown alongside a main road through the camp so that when the A.O.C.(Air Officer Commanding) made his annual inspection, he would see all the tree trunks looking the same shade and colour. Then there was the time when the Queen was traveling to R.A.F. Catterick to present new colours to the R.A.F. Regiment and her train pulled into a siding at Bedale just south of Catterick so that she could be up early the next morning and finish her journey after breakfast, the ceremony being at 11am. Next to the siding was a coal yard which we had to continually spray with water during the long cold night to stop any coal dust blowing onto the Royal train. On one occasion some time later, when the Princess Royal was flying in to get into a waiting helicopter to take her to R.A.F. Catterick for another ceremony, it was decided to build her a toilet on the flight plan in case she wanted to go as the nearest female toilet from the flight plan was some way away.

They built this single toilet beside the flight hanger. She landed, got off the plane, onto the helicopter and that was the last we saw of her. The toilet was dismantled immediately despite the nearest toilet for those servicemen working on the flight plan being nearly a mile away!

However, on this afternoon several of us decided that going on a coach trip was far better than standing around on a windy airfield to look at some silly balloon floating in the sky above, so we just made our way to the main gate and boarded the coach pretending to be Boy Apprentices rather than Boy Entrants (the difference being that Apprentices did three years of training and passed out as either Lance Corporals or Corporal Technicians and Boy Entrants did eighteen months training and passed out as either Leading Aircraftman or Senior Aircraftman, ranks just below those achieved by Apprentices. Sitting on the back seats we were very arrogant, proud, elated, chuffed and even excited at what we were doing and even more excited at what delight was in store for us. What a tale we would have for our mates when we returned, green with envy we said. How clever we were they would say. Good thinking they’d chant. Wish we had thought of it they’d moan, and so on. The day would really be ours.

The coach pulled up outside a grey round wooden Nissan hut with a corrugated roof with a sign outside which just said FFI. As we left the coach we were arguing over what FFI meant, chattering like little school children who were about to get a treat of such magnitude that we were making up silly names for what it meant.Our feelings of jubilation was nothing but short lived when we got inside. Shock, horror, stomachs flipping over and over, accusations as to who thought of the stupid idea to get on the coach etc. did little to quell the sinking feelings we all had. The initials FFI was now in full on a stand in the hallway. Foot and Foreskin Inspection. Our feelings of dread was shattered by the loud scream of a corporal who shouted for us all to get in a line and drop our trousers and underpants.

Worse was to come. A bespectacled aged female doctor strode into the room in a short white coat, behind her came a young female nurse. The doctor closely resembled Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films but nowhere near as nice. She lurched along the line of quivering males squeezing our manhood as she went, shouting, “cough you worm”. Just when we thought it was all over and we could cover up our embarrassment, the nurse came along swabbing our testicles with something orange. We never knew what it was but the shock of having her do it was worse than not knowing what she was doing it for.

Once our feet were looked at by a gangly looking doctor who marked my medical card with ‘extreme flat feet’ and we were back at R.A.F. Cardington, the acrimonious battles began when we all started to blame each other for the choice of activity. However, that evening there was a disco in the N.A.A.F.I.* canteen and so we allowed the local young ladies to distract us from our early mishap. *Navy, Army, Air Force, Institution)

However the following morning we all saw the funny side of the previous day until that is after lunch when we were all told to board a coach as we were going to be taken for a ride. Fear became a reality and the funny side went out the coach window when it pulled up outside a wooden Nissan hut with a signpost outside with the initials FFI on it! Any thoughts that once they saw our orange testicles, we would be spared the embarrassment of having to go through it all again but then this was the military!

Later, after being sworn in as a serving member of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, I was given a train ticket and put on a train for R.A.F. Cosford just outside Wolverhampton. When the train pulled up at Albrighton Station, every carriage door was thrown open and a tidal wave of sweating little bodies spewed out onto the platform. The 39th Entry had arrived. I was pleased to see that Chalky, Geordy, Paddy and Colin and myself were all in the same trade and therefore in the same billet lines."

Thanks to Frank Grant for sharing this little incident with us!"- Jane.

A young Frank Grant in uniform.