As the war in Europe came to an end these Ultra machines were no longer needed so the factory was shut down, the girls sent back home and men of the right age, like me, were called up for service in the forces. The war in the Far East was still active and we obviously thought that that is where we would be sent after training. Some did of course but not me. I was called up for the RAF and given the choice of three trades, Service-Police, Medical Orderly or Cook. Well I did not see myself as a copper and I did not fancy emptying bedpans, so stupidly I opted to be a cook. I had to report to RAF Padgate to be kitted out and my first few days there were an eye-opener. It was so sad to see quite a number of lads, 18 & 19 years of age, crying because they were homesick and missing their mothers. I was missing a wife and baby daughter and just had to get on with it. It was also an eye-opener to find so many lads of that age group who were unable to read or write. After ‘Square Bashing’ at Padgate I was sent for trade training at Halton, the Royal Air Force Number 1 School of Cookery. This station was also the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the training place for RAF Apprentices. It was very strict and regimented there and I was glad to finish my course, which was mainly spent scrubbing floors, or in the classroom. A few days were spent on what was known as ‘The Burma Road’ where we were taught how to make cooking stoves and ovens from corrugated iron, sand, water and petrol. I was glad that I never had to put it into practice. We learned how much, or how little, an airman could expect in the way of rations. It was drilled into us so much so that I have no difficulty in remembering it now. In 1945 daily entitlement for an airman was one shilling and eight pence halfpenny per day. For an airwoman (Waaf) one shilling and four pence halfpenny, for an officer, who had to pay extra messing fees, it was eleven pence halfpenny per day. We did get to see instructors making pastry but there was very little training in practical, hands on cooking, for cooks to be. I reckon we had 60% theory, rules and regulations in the classroom, 30% scrubbing floors, 10% practical, which included the ‘Burma Road’ so did not involve actually handling food. The ‘fun cry’ when we were on our knees with buckets and mops was “You too can be a cook”
Next stop was RAF Wilmslow in Cheshire for post course training and there we were allowed to do a few things, like boiling potatoes and making gravy. Wilmslow was a WAAF Intake Centre where girl recruits had their first experience of service life. One breakfast time boiled eggs were on the menu, a very difficult dish to produce in a batch of over 300, so the corporal in charge of the shift decided to put the eggs in trays in the steamer. When the poor girls cracked the shells they found that instead of egg whites, the perfectly cooked yolks were encased in green. After three weeks of this ‘I WAS A COOK’ and posted to RAF Broadwell in Oxfordshire, to spend a few months with Transport Command. Wonderful, it was an Air Force station that actually had airplanes on it. This was the station where most of the Dakotas, with Horsa Gliders attached, ferried the airborne troops to actions across the channel on D-Day and later to the battle for Arnhem. I enjoyed myself there, it was a working station and one felt useful. I had spells in both officer’s and airmen’s messes and found it quite hard work in both. There were no such things as 8 hour days or 48 hour weeks, if the job needed doing it had to be done. However I managed to get a 24 hour pass for one Saturday and arranged to go to RAF Compton Bassett, to meet up with a friend from Letchworth who was doing his ‘Square Bashing’ (i.e. Initial Training) there, having been ‘called up’ some months after me.
The corporal in charge of the airmen’s mess put me in touch with a Waaf who was going to RAF Yatesbury on the same day, so that I could help with her luggage. Early morning I met this young lady at the Guardroom and we set off on my first experience of ‘Hitch Hiking’. It was brilliant, didn’t even need to raise a thumb. The first car stopped, in we got and informed the driver where we were headed for. When he dropped us the same thing happened again, first car along picked us up and this was repeated all the way to Swindon and Yatesbury. Here the Waaf got out and the driver took me on to Compton Bassett. I met my friend and we went into Swindon to have a few beers together, then he went back to Compton Bassett and I started to hitch hike the fourteen or so miles to Broadwell. It was now a very different story, it was dark and I did not have a young pretty Waaf with me. Drivers ignored me and as it is a very rural area there was no public transport, so I had no option but to walk the whole 14 miles. I arrived back in camp and got into bed at about 4am, to be wakened by the early call bod at 6, because I had to be on duty at 6.30.
On an active station, differing from a training camp, Officers did not want to be saluted all the time so except in the vicinity of Station Headquarters, nobody bothered. However spuds had to peeled, tins and cooking pots had to be washed so, if there were insufficient bodies available from men on ‘jankers’, a couple of officers would arrange for some poor mugs to be charged for ‘Failing to salute an officer’. Strangely I don’t remember any of them showing resentment of the scam. The difference in the feeding of Airmen and Waafs, compared to Officers I still remember. A favourite sweet in those days was a Lyons fruit pie. These could be purchased in civilian shops and were very good value at two pence each so obviously they didn’t cost anywhere near as much to the bulk buying RAF. However Airmen and Waafs were always served a whole pie plus a ladle of custard, Officers received half a pie, which had to be cut diagonally and with just a small amount of custard placed over one corner. Squadron Leader Jimmy Edwards, who later achieved fame as a comedian on radio and television, was stationed there and I found him to be the most obnoxious officer on the station but he was good to the lads by providing transport to big football matches. He often filled a Dakota with airmen and flew them to Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds to see a game. One of the cooks in the Officers Mess was LAC Ted Lester whose hometown was Hitchin, 3 miles from my home in Letchworth. I only knew him for a few weeks in 1945 before he was posted, on detachment to Norway. The next time I met Ted was in 1976 when he bought and came to live in the bungalow next door to us in Letchworth, thirty one years later.
At Broadwell, Officers complained that they did not get enough chips with their meals and were told the reason, ‘there was not sufficient oil or fat available’. No problem, a Navigational Training Flight was arranged and three Dakotas flew to Naples and brought back barrels of olive oil. I think they got so many chips then, they got tired of them. Another time they decided to have a big dinner party and this time the Navigational Training went to Southern Ireland, where there was no food rationing. They came back with everything needed for the finest meal I have ever seen, chickens, pork, beef, sugar etc. etc. There was even a pigs head which finished up with an apple in it’s mouth, as the centre point of the servery. It was noticeable that the two Customs Officers (one should be on duty to attend every aircraft arriving from overseas) were in the Officers Mess bar when these flights returned. It was at Broadwell that I had my first experience of flying. I asked a pilot who was doing flying training if there was any chance of going up and he agreed to take me. They were supposed to be doing ‘circuits and bumps’ that is take off do a circuit, then touch down and go up again using only one engine. Dakotas were said to fly more smoothly on one engine than they did on two. We did this a couple of times and then he decided, as it was my first flight, to use both engines and fly over the Bristol Channel. I really enjoyed this and always made sure afterwards, that he got an extra egg or bacon rasher if I was on duty when he came in for breakfast.
Sadly I was posted again and the rest of my time in the RAF was not very exciting, although it was good fun with lots of friendly banter and horseplay. One of the funniest japes I saw was played on a lad who did not like taking a shower and there were no baths in the ablution blocks. There was however a big kitchen sink type bowl, used for filling buckets I think, and this chap, who was Scottish and stammered badly, used to get into it. One day he was happily soaking in nice hot water when some comic threw a bucket of cold water over him. He jumped out of the sink, stark naked except that he still had his socks on. He chased the joker who had thrown the water half way round the camp causing a lot of amusement to us all. My posting was to RAF Kirkham, a demobilisation unit and I was sent out to the Freckleton site, a detachment station which was used to accommodate time-served airmen returning from overseas, for the two or three days it took to go through the ‘demob’ procedure. There were 4 cooks on each of two shifts and normally we could cope but on one occasion, with a lunch time meal prepared for the 30 permanent staff, some 1,800 airmen arrived. By the time we had fed them all, which was only managed by sending our MT drivers to other sites to beg, borrow and steal rations, it was well into the afternoon and the mood of the men waiting was quite nasty. The next morning we received notice that two ships would be docking at Liverpool, 1,800 men would be transported in and would need meals. Authorisation to collect rations from the NAAFI stores at Fulwood Barracks Preston accompanied the notice. The paper work was accurate in every detail except, it was three days late and nearly got four innocent cooks boiled in their own stew pots.
After a few weeks I was sent down the road to another detachment, RAF Warton. This site provided the same ‘demob’ service but on a much bigger scale, it was mainly for UK based airmen. It was here that I took my first Trade Test, which consisted of making a batch of Rock Cakes, something we never had to do during normal work. Passing this test meant that I was promoted from AC2 to AC1 (Airman second class to Airman first class) and a rise in pay. I don’t remember what it amounted to but it was very small. After getting my AC1 I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and was soon promoted again to LAC (Leading Aircraftman) and moved from Airman’s Mess to Officers Mess. This meant cooking in the same kitchen but serving in a different dining room AND I WAS ON MY OWN. In the Airman’s Mess there were some eight cooks on each shift and one tended to do just one little part of meals. My move meant I had to do the lot. The first evening meal was a complete disaster, I had boiled cabbage in a large iron pot (called a fish kettle) and drained them by holding the lid and tipping the kettle over a gulley in the floor, which channelled the boiling water to a drain. The steam scalded my arm, I let go of the lid and away went my cabbage down the gulley. As the meal had to be served in the next few minutes drastic action was needed. With a fish slice I scooped the cabbage from the gulley washed it in a colander and placed it in the tureens, for the officers to eat. By this time my dessert of baked stuffed apples were over cooked, a soggy mess in the oven so I pulled all the skins off and served stewed apples with raisins and custard. It is hard to believe but one officer enjoyed his meal so much he sent me in a pint of beer. If only he had known ---- I wondered ---- and ‘what had he been used to?’
From the Officers Mess I was eventually promoted to Corporal and put in charge of the kitchen in the Station sick quarters, a small hospital of three wards. I learned a great deal there about the real business of cooking and am reasonably sure that we didn’t poison any patients while I was in charge. While at Warton I played postal chess with my friend Alf, who was still in ‘civvy’ street. The whole billet used to look forward to my letters from him and there was plenty of advice on what my moves should be.
Together with a Sergeant Palmer (medical) we scrounged a small film projector and used to put on film shows for the patients in the wards. The films we obtained from the local cinema in Lytham, which were kindly loaned to us after they had been shown to the paying public for three days. We had to rewind them using an old gramophone to revolve the receiving spool while I held the emptying spool on a pencil. The spools had to be returned to the cinema in a very short time and although we had learned how to, we had no time to make decent repairs to frequent film breakages, caused I am sure by our Heath Robinson type rewinds.
Some incidents still remain in my memory of my time at SSQ Warton, one of a patient who had tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a lorry. He was kept in a locked room with a Service Policeman on guard. No shoe laces, no belt, no tie, no braces and nothing sharp. All food had to be minced and the poor chap had to eat it with a wooden spoon. I did arrange for him to have egg and bacon but it had to be minced. With another incident I was instructed, by the Medical Officer to prepare four pints of Saline solution. It was a very hot day and two chaps who had misbehaved were put on ‘jankers’, in full kit they had been made to march up and down for some considerable time. One had fainted and the other demanded to report sick, something you can ordinarily only do at 08.30 hours. So they were brought to Station Sick Quarters, diagnosed as de-hydrated and I had to hand them two pints of salt water each. I didn’t stay to see them drink it.
Another incident, very tragic, occurred on the 12th December 1946, the day after my son Barry was born. I had been saving leave in order to be at home and help Jean for a while following the birth. Marie, who was just two and a half years old, was being looked after by my sister Annie in Oldham while Jean was in the nursing home and I had to collect her to take her home. For the first stage of the journey I ‘thumbed a lift’ to start my hitch hiking to Oldham but had only travelled a few hundred yards when we were involved in a smash which resulted in the death of a cyclist. One minute we were driving along then we spun out of control a black shadow went over the window and we stopped facing back down the road we had just travelled and there was a dead man laying on the bonnet. At the spot where the accident happened the roads were icy and causing vehicles to slide all over the place. The inquest decided that no one was to blame but it did affect me quite a lot. For some time afterwards I was even nervous travelling on a bus and was sure that I would never have enough courage to ever drive a car. I did have one more attempt at hitch hiking and this was definitely the last time I would do so. ‘Chalky’ White, a nursing orderly who came from Tottenham persuaded me to join him and hitch so that we could get home for a weekend, neither of us having sufficient cash to pay rail fare. Our first step was to check if any RAF transport was available and this got us to Wigan. From there we got one of the mine lorries which took us as far as Birmingham, then a big van right to Finsbury Park where we parted company. The journey was great, very successful --- but --- it took about two months before I was completely clear of the coal dust that had got into my uniform great coat while in the mine lorry.
A good point about Warton was it’s position, halfway between Preston and Blackpool and we used to go to football matches and see many famous players, Stanley Mathews, Stan Mortenson, Tom Finney and Bill Shankly on a regular basis.
Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 17/11/2008 18:04