National Service.

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I am often asked what happened to new recruits when they arrived at Cardington. The daily records  give very little detail of the various stages each candidate would go through so I could never give a definitive answer.


However I had the good fortune to come across a document outlining the processes for new arrivals at the station in 1954. National Service candidates were enlisted for two years and Regulars signed up for at least three years and had a better rate of pay. The original document outlines the treatment of both types of recruit  - the document is too faded to show here but I have recreated it as shown left.


On close inspection  there is very little difference to the way the two types of recruits were processed. The only difference appears that the regular recruits had dental inspections whereas the National Service did not have this pleasure. From start to finish the whole procedure for a recruit to be fully enlisted was three weeks.

Peter Frost's Cardington, late 1950's. Peter Frost in uniform 2nd right, 2nd row. Read his story below.

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A group of Lab Technicians - do you recognise anyone?

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Harry Pethen, National Service 1956/7.

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Harry's fellow recruits - from left to right. Ivan Woodhall, Roy Edge, Harry, next person unknown, Malcolm Cooper, Phil Savin and Pat Kehoe.

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Peter Frost's story Cardington, late 1950's.

I briefly encountered Cardington in January 1957 as the main kitting out station for recruits. I was assigned to a flight (similar to a platoon) and sent to West Kirby. I was somewhat delayed at basic training for a period in sick quarters having a skin condition treated. I started in one flight and finished up at another after about three weeks delay. I was earmarked for the Dental Branch due to a five year apprenticeship as a Dental Technician. One could only enter the RAF as a National Serviceman if one had GCEs or trade training. About two thirds of recruits were NS and the rest had signed on for three years or more. I had further training as a dental clerk orderly for another three months at Halton in Bucks. As part of this I acted as tutor to the other trainees when we did simple Dental Mechanics. I was assigned to a Wing Commander dental surgeon after I had qualified as an Aircraftsman One (AC1). We travelled on a weekly rota of Bentley Priory, Stanmore and Northwood, I being a dental nurse. This took up nearly the first year of my NS. Eventually my re-mustering came through and I was back at Cardington as a Senior Aircraftsman, SAC working as a dental technician. Those in my group were sent on a refresher course to the main Dental Laboratory at Uxbridge, one of the first RAF stations. I became very ill, Asian Flu and I was in the sick quarters for about a week, then I had a week's sick leave.

The time at Cardington was very enjoyable and I was able to participate in badminton and tennis. We had a block membership at The Bedford Lawn Tennis & Badminton club. Every Wednesday we had a sports afternoon and our tennis team visited a variety of bomber stations in East Anglia. The Vulcans and The Victors were the mainstay of our nuclear bomber fleet. The Officers and other ranks mixed up to play in our pairings but at tea time we were segregated. At the dental and medical departments the relationships between the other ranks and officers was good because most of them were NS.

We had duties, fire picket, and guarding the armoury comes to mind. The camp was domintaed by the huge hangars of the R101 and R100 which after the tragedy over Beauvais in France the concept was abandoned. Many of the graves in Cardington are testament to the disaster. We had the Balloon Unit who were involved with barrage balloons strange for the V Bomber age. Due to this we were classified as an operational airfield and had a state of the art fire tender. This had to be driven a few miles every day to keep it operational. So the picket was fun.

Armouy duty was quite serious, the IRA were a threat then in 1958. We were woken at about 5am in the morning by the previous guard. We collected our rations for 24 hours from the cookhouse and had to announce a password to gain entrance to the armoury. We cooked our rations at the appropriate meal times and the officer gained entry by using another password.

I obtained permission to study for my final City & Guilds at the Borough Polytechnic, London SE1. I used to make up my sandwiches in the cookhouse for my evening trip from Bedford to London. Our canteen rations were not very good, watered down golden syrup on a white sliced loaf with watered down margarine. In the cookhouse they had butter, cheese and ham. We received about 25 shillings per week as NS. We couldn't afford to use the NAAFI more than about once a week.

Peter Frost

RAF National Service 1957-1959

April 2012

Thanks must go to Peter Frost for sharing his story.

Harry Pethen was called up for National Service in 1956.

A Pass allowing Harry to leave his quarters when off duty and permission to wear plain clothes.

More recruits in 1957 back row left to right first young man unknown, next Harry, next Keith Moore, next Roy Edge, next two unknown. Front row left to right Tom Cottam and Walter Paling.

Harry Pethen  - National Service 1956 - 1957

Harry Pethen  was called up for National Service and served in the Record Office Department at Cardington in 1956 & 1957.

“I (as one of about a dozen of us (AC2s/AC1s/LACs) spent my first nine months case papering the National Service intake averaging about 1,000 lads per week i.e. documenting the fine detail of where they (& their parents) were born, their religion etc , etc. The non church going recruits often could not confirm their birth parish ,which no doubt accounts for a disproportionate number apparently registered as born in the default parish of “St Johns!”.

Our work place was one of a long row of hutments about 100 yards from our living quarters. We soon learnt where the others in the team came from, and made sure that the papers for a recruit from someone else’s patch was exchanged for another. Each Flight of some 20 plus men was marched in on the hour, and sat on benches at one end of our work hut awaiting their names being called.


As an experienced  “Case Paperer” and LAC, I then graduated to the role of one of the two “N.S (National Service) Strippers”. No, sadly this was not as exciting as it sounds. It defined the stripping, collating, recording the bundle of documents accumulated for each recruit & despatching them as necessary. One of the forms was sent to the RAF Provost Marshal’s Office, no doubt charged with vetting and security checking all service intakes. The most difficult cases, so far as we were concerned in case- papering involved recruits born in communist & some other countries of concern to Great Britain, who could take up to an hour to case-paper, compared with the 15/20 minutes for an average recruit.


NS Stripping was undertaken in the ROD HQ hutment at the back end of which was the Office of the ROD Commanding Officer, usually a long service Flight Lieutenant – whose word was law! I recall the one occasion upon which I entered the C.O’s office “on a charge.” As I had a BSA 125cc Bantam motorcycle, I didn’t have use for one of the free rail warrants issued each year, so gave it to a fellow airman from Leeds. Now, this was strictly against rules, but unlikely to attract attention, unless very unlucky or if the recipient was daft enough to misuse the warrant & bring himself to notice.  The idiot, whose name I still clearly recall, instead of using my warrant to get home to Leeds and back to Bedford again, hitch hiked home and presented the rail warrant at Leeds rail station on the Sunday night for the return journey to Bedford. This irregular behaviour caused the ticket clerk first to check his identity & then call in the RAF police who decided to report the pair of us. On the Monday morning we were marched up to the HQ Building at Cardington, questioned separately by RAF police & charged with the improper use of a rail warrant.

The RAF police tried hard to get each of us to “confess all” by stating that the other had admitted selling/buying the warrant. Fortunately the two of us were canny enough not to admit to anything & the charges were remitted to our ROD Commanding Officer to hear. We were both later quick marched in to the C. O’s Office, shouted at to remove berets, the charges were read out & we were then cross examined. To our relief we were finally given the benefit of the doubt, admonished and told not to do it again – which I certainly never did!”

Thank you so much Harry!

Eye Witness National Service 1957 - 1958 Geoff Coppock

I was so pleased to have received the following information from Geoff Coppock who was at Cardington for his National Service initially in Jan 1957 and then later between May 1957 - Jan 1959:.

"I am Geoff Coppock number 5039109 and served 18 months of my 2 years National Service at Cardington alongside David W Brown 5039108. We did our square bashing at RAF West Kirby then we went to RAF Compton Bassett to train as Teleprinter Operators and when other members of TP12 Class were sent to exotic parts of the world Dave and I were returned to Cardington which was very handy for weekends off to get home to London.

We both belonged to the Classical Music Club and both attended the camp C of E Church where Dave, an accomplished musician having later mastered the E flat horn also played the organ for Sunday and weekday services. At Cardington we joined John Collingridge in the Communications Department (a small room next door to the camp telephone exchange which was known as The Teleprinter Room). John Collingridge was later posted to Aden and kept in touch both during and after we were all demobbed.

The telephone exchange was run by female staff during the day and Male staff at night. There were two Beryl's, Joan, Sylvia and Betty. Beryl Bowler as she was known later married Dan a civilian balloon engineer in, I think the middle of 1958. Not a lot happened during our 18 months at Cardington but I can confirm we were both happy to be there.

Dave and I kept up our friendship until the middle of 1959 when I got a job as an Overseas Telegraphist with Post Office Cable & Wireless Services at Electra House on the Victoria Embankment in London. If my memory serves me right Dave went back to work for Barclays Bank. We lost contact as my shifts at the Overseas Telegraph services then covered a five and a half day week from 0800 to 2200 and night duties.

My grateful thanks to Geoff for this invaluable information,

Walter Paling. National Service 1956/9.

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Walter Paling in 1957.

Like Harry Pethen above, Walter Paling was also attached to the Records Office Detachment at Cardington - indeed the two have remained friends since meeting there in the late 1950's. Here is Walter's story.

“What was life like? Well initially, I with others reported to Cardington via Bedford Station, once inside the gates closed!! We were issued with a pint pot mug, and "irons", that’s a knife spoon and fork, with your service number stamped on later. I did not know Harry at this time. Once we had meals we had to wash our irons in a metal trough, which was either red hot or freezing cold. Tough if you dropped them in the trough, you could then be charged with "failing to protect Her Majesty’s Property", although I doubt it would stick.  After being kitted out I then went on to RAF Hednesford in Staffordshire for square bashing which would last 8 weeks, I loved that, as you had to climb trees, etc. and in that time I went from 8 stone to 9 stone. Not all the things we did made sense, but as you were not in a position to comment, you got on with it.

After that I went on an Admin course at RAF Hereford, and after 6 weeks there, we told of our postings. Two of us were going to RAF Barnwood Gloucester, but at the last minute we were told we were going back to Cardington, hence the expression what comes around, goes around. That’s where I met Harry for the first time. I was there from Aug 56 to Apr 59, I was a 3 year regular, due to the fact I was buying a motor bike on the never-never, and could not live on £2 a week!!! I also came from near Stamford in Lincs, so unlike Harry who came from Harrogate, I went home every week.

What can I tell you? We at the Records Office Detachment lived in wooden huts, worked in wooden huts, not the glamour of SHQ with their central heating, we had coke stoves to keep warm, lit by applying floor polish to get them going, toilets were outside in a separate building, it was up to us to make sure the boiler did not go out. There was a cinema on the camp called the Astra, somewhere near the SHQ building, when after a "bull night", or domestic evening, we used to go there.

I recall I borrowed Harrys motor bike one evening, coming back to camp there was a cinema near Bedford Railway Station, and in those days you queued for the 2nd house sitting, when suddenly a black cat ran across the road in front of me, I braked, fell off, nobody came across from the cinema queue in case they lost their place! Harry went mad when I told him; luckily not much damage was caused.

When Harry used his bike either to go home to Harrogate or see his girlfriend in Bournemouth, he would come back frozen, so much so that he would keep his hat on to keep warm whilst asleep, Oh happy days, good friends were made, and enemies too. As I was a 3 year man, (Harry was a 2 year man) I was promoted to Corporal, which meant I had a private bunk in the hut. I will never forget what happened one freezing cold night after going to the camp dance-----that’s another story!!!

When everyone was demobbed as you would say, The Bull Public House was the drinking parlour, and if you were sober you would catch Birches buses back to camp. If not it was uphill to the camp via Shortstown. A walk down to Cotton End pub was another, together with the Turnpike at the bottom of the road leading into Bedford.

Bedford had a lot of memories for me, I passed my Motor Bike and Car test there, the test centre was near the Granada Cinema (which had a restaurant upstairs those days), on Thursday evening there was a camp dance when lots of local girls would attend, admission was free to them. My Dad, who no longer is with us, in the 1920s when he was young saw the R101 airship take off from Cardington on its way to India, sadly crashing in France killing most of the crew, the hangars I am pleased to see, remain. I have played football in one of those - massive inside."

Our thanks to Walter for sharing these memories.

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Wilfred Dunning. National Service 1957

Wilfred Dunning. National Service 1957. Paul Dunning was kind enough to send in this photograph of his father Wilfred at the station in 1957. Paul explains:

“Hi, I have just come across your site and am very interested in it. I have an old photo of my father and four other lads who did their National Service at RAF Cardington it was taken in 1957 (my father did his National Service late because of a serious illness….) My father is at the front on the right his name was Wilfred Dunning who came from Thornaby-on-Tees there is also a Pete Coulson in the photo if I come across any more info I will let you know.”

My grateful thanks to Paul.

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Laurence Searing 1953 (ish)

Laurence Searing 1953 (ish)

The photo left was sent in from Paul Searing who informs us:

“Here is a photo of my father Laurence Searing he is the one looking at the  photographer far right. As far as I know he was at RAF Cardington in 1953 ish and was employed as a driver sergeants (or officers mess). Could be it was National Service? My father in law Fredrick Wiltshire is also already on this website (see RAF Servicemen 1945-1965).”

My thanks to Paul Searing for sending in this photograph of his father.