We were probably all virgins even though we were eighteen. It was a more innocent age and of course you didn't 'become a man' until you were twenty-one. Though at eighteen you could still be called up to fight for your country and presumably, if necessary, die for it too. In fact nearly four hundred of us National Service men did in places like Korea and Malaya.
National Service, universal conscription of all young men, started in 1947, two years after World War II ended. The reasons were only too apparent. There was Germany to be occupied with 100,000 troops; and Austria too. In the Middle East there was Palestine to be policed, Aden to be protected, the Suez Canal Zone to be held down - as well as Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong and a chain of lesser military bases. At first it was for a period of one year but financial crises, the advent of the Cold War and the Malaya emergency led to the National Service Amendment Act in December 1948, increasing the period of service to 18 months.
Not that we understood the background to any of this at that time, except perhaps for a few 'barrack-room lawyers'. Certainly all we knew that in 1951 we were here for a year and a half and it was going to be hell. Basic training (what the Americans call 'Boot Camp') was just that. Sergeants, Corporals, Lance Corporals shouting at you, nose to nose so that your face was covered with flying spittle, if you walked when you should be running, stepped on the grass if you should be on the parade ground, allowed your shoulders to droop, swung your arms to high - or not high enough, had too little - or too much blanco on your belt and webbing, had a fingerprint on your brass and couldn't see your face in the toecaps of your boots, which were probably the wrong size and rubbed sore places on your heels and eventually caused blisters.
But that was for six weeks and unbelievably it passed.
I was in the Royal Air force. Aircraftsman 2nd class Peter Preston - the lowest of the low, a sprog, AC2 plonk but learning. In an excess of zeal, or probably because I couldn't stand much more of the training camp at RAF Wilmslow, I put down for 'Overseas'. Someone afterwards told me that that was the best way of ensuring that I remained in England - and so I did.
After square bashing, I was trained as an RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) and later was added Direction Finder/Bomb Plotter which meant that I supposedly knew how to speak on the RT to aircraft and also had memorised the alphabet letter identification names. In those days we Brits had our own system which started "Abel, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox. . ." though later we adopted the American "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot . . .". My first posting was RAF Bawtry, not far from Doncaster but for a nesh Southerner like myself, it seemed not far from the Arctic Circle.
It was a bitterly cold Saturday evening and there were apparently only two of us deposited on Doncaster Station off the London train, bewildered, slightly frightened, I suspect - I know I was, chilled to the marrow after the warmth of the train, waiting, not sure what to do next. We had our haversacks on our backs, and those huge white rucksacks on our shoulders which contained everything we owned, with a blue stripe at the bottom and our name and number stencilled on the side.
The other lad was taller than me, dark hair, what I could see of it under his beret, a frown on his face. I went up to him.
"Are you for Bawtry?" I asked.
His face cleared. He smiled. I decided he had a nice face. "Have you come to take us to the camp?"
I owned up that I was in the same position as he was and we sat down together on a railway trolley, two orphans of the storm, and waited for something to happen, something maybe better than the driving rain with flakes of snow in it which was what we were being dealt with at the moment. Maybe.
"Peter Preston," I said.
"Jim Ross," he said. "You talk funny, kinda posh."
I sighed inwardly. He had me there. Product of a middle-class family and brought up in a middle class suburb of North London and a minor public school, I thought I talked the same way as everyone else. Certainly the same as the announcers on the wireless. But once in the airforce I realised I didn't. I talked 'posh' and to escape teasing knew I'd have to change. I thought I'd managed to get some of it out already. One thing I decided to introduce was the use of the words 'fuck' and 'fucking' which seemed to be the passwords for most of my peers, verb, adjective and exclamation. But I knew I was still slightly self-conscious about them and sounded like it. They didn't slip out with the practised fluency of my compatriots.
I attacked. "You talk funny too," I said. "Where do you come from?"
"Nottingham," he said, "the town with three girls to every one lad."
"Fucking lucky," I said, but I knew it sounded wrong.
He nodded and pulled his greatcoat tighter around him. "We're gonna fuckin' freeze soon," he said. It came out all right with him.
But we were suddenly saved when a shout came from along the platform. "Oi, you fuckin' sprogs. I'm not fuckin' waiting' 'ere all fuckin' night." A corporal, twin chevrons on his arms, appeared under the lamplight. He used his words all right too.
We followed him out of the station. A small lorry was outside. Sitting at the wheel was a sergeant tapping irritably on the dashboard. The corporal got in beside him and we climbed into the back. We seemed to be the only passengers. The lorry started with a jolt and Jim and I fell together in a huddle on the floor.
Ten minutes later we drew up at the gate of the camp. The Sergeant called us down and we stood, our uniforms covered in dust from the floor of the lorry, at attention. He looked us up and down, obviously not liking what he saw.
"Disgusting," he said at last. "Next time I see you I want you to be fucking spotless. What do I want you to be?"
"Fucking spotless, sergeant," said Jim and I together.
We showed him out ID cards. "3132849 AC2 Preston," I said.
"Oh very lah di dah," said the Sergeant and Jim introduced himself. "Take 'em to the transit hut," Sergeant said to the Corporal. "They'll have to stay there until Monday before I can get them booked in through admin. Show 'em where they can eat and get 'em out of my sight." This last finishing in a frightening roar.
The Corporal took us off. "Don't pay too much attention to Sergeant Bingham," he said. "His bark's worse than his bite, and he doesn't like guard duty especially on a Saturday night. I'll show you where you can get a bite to eat and then take you to your quarters."
He took us round to the back of the cookhouse where two miserable-looking National Servicemen were peeling potatoes, obviously a punishment for some heinous wrong. The cook looked sour and disagreeable but he provided us with some spam sandwiches and a mug of sweet tea. Then, as part of the punishment for the offenders, as he pointedly showed them what he was doing and equally pointedly excluded them from the 'treat', he gave us (and the Corporal) each a doughnut covered with sugar and we were despatched to the transit hut.
It wasn't as it happened a 'hut' at all but up a flight of steps to what once presumably had been the upstairs of a stable. Inside were two beds, one bigger than the other. There was a window which looked out onto the darkening sky. Two uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs were arranged against the wall. There was no heating and it was bitterly cold.
"Sorry about the lack of a stove," said the Corporal. "Can't have one here as the whole building is made of wood. Fire risk and all that. I suggest you both sleep in the big bed and use all the blankets. Top to tail, of course and no larking about." He winked at us. "I'll collect you in the morning and take you to breakfast. The latrines are in the building opposite."
He disappeared, his boots clunking down the wooden steps.
We sat on the bed and finished off the sandwiches and doughnut.
"What did he mean 'top to tail'?" I asked.
Jim grinned. "You know," he said, though it was obvious that I didn't. "We sleep at opposite ends, head to tail."
"Your feet on my pillow?" I asked. "I'm not sure I'd like that. What if they stink?"
"He thinks it will stop us, er, doin' things." For the first time Jim looked a bit embarrassed.
Innocent as I was, I did have some idea of what 'doing things' could constitute. "No chance of that," I said with what I hoped was hearty sincerity. I'd never had a chance of 'doing things' with anyone else, male or female, and the prospect was not altogether distasteful.
"Too right," said Jim, equally convincing.
I peered out of the window. Snow was coming down thickly, almost obscuring the solitary lamp light from the road outside. "I don't fancy going out in that to the bog," I said, using another word I'd picked up along the way and which I felt more at home with. My parents of course would have used the word, 'toilet'.
Jim joined me at the window and stared out at the blizzard. "Nor me."
Greatly daring, I hazarded. "I only want a piss. I'll do it out of the window. No one will see."
We opened the window letting in a great blast of cold air and snowflakes. Then, together, we unbuttoned our trousers and pissed into the night, twin arcs blown this way and that by the wind.
"Christ," said Jim. "Me todger's frozen," when we had finished. "And so am I. Let's get to bed."
We took the solitary blanket off the smaller bed and laid it onto the larger one. "We'll skip the top to tail. Last one in's a sissy."
Even with that challenge we didn't exactly throw our uniforms in a heap. When there's an inspection liable at any time of day and night, you don't want your uniform looking like a crumpled shit bag. Uniforms, in the eyes of NCOs are sacred things and they have to be hung up, cosseted and kept pristine. The dust on ours would have to wait until tomorrow but folding trousers and hanging jackets carefully over the back of the chairs was an essential.
The RAF issue pyjamas so we both put them on, keeping, I noticed, his underpants on. I did the same. As I had stopped to see what he would be doing, I was last.
We huddled under the blankets, giggling, Jim poking me in the ribs and muttering, "sissy".
"Not," I said. "I'm just polite. Wouldn't keep a lady out of bed before I got in."
"Who you calling a 'lady'?"
"If the cap fits."
We wrestled a bit, muttering alternately, 'sissy' and 'lady'. Then I felt something happening in my groin and not wishing Jim to know I was getting excited, and perhaps be accused of wanting to 'do things', I turned over so that my back was to him.
"I'm fuckin knackered," I said, for once sounding as if I was getting it right. "See you in the morning."
For a moment there was no sound or movement from Jim and then I felt his body move towards mine, his front against my back. We seemed to fit well, he being slightly taller than me. "Just for warmth," he said, his breath against the back of my neck. "G'night, Pete."
'Pete'! I felt as if I'd been accepted. His body was warm.
"G'night, Jim," I said. "Sleep tight. Hope the fleas don't bite."
I wondered if I'd get to sleep with such an alien though not unwelcome presence in the bed with me but I was tired. It had been a long day. The last thing I remembered was Jim's arm coming over and holding me, his hand clenched against my chest.
Protected, I slept.
* * * * * *
We heard the Corporal's boots on the wooden steps in spite of the deadening snow. Immediately we were both out of bed and Jim even had the presence of mind to chuck one of the pillows to the other end.
"Hands off cocks, on with your socks," said the Corporal as he pushed open the door.
And we were already doing that.
Whether Sergeant Bingham had decided that two airmen in a bed wasn't a good idea, or if he'd been prodded by a higher authority to settle the intake of two new ACs, I don't know but immediately we had had our breakfasts, sausages and tinned tomatoes, bread and margarine with plum jam and the usual tea (spiked as the rumour always had it with bromide to reduce sexual desire - never worked with me) we were shepherded into a barrack hut.
It was indistinguishable from any other service hut, the inside painted a sort of cream, the floor covered with lino which was polished and buffed to a high degree, ordinary metal beds down each side, the blankets and sheets folded into the regulation pattern at the head of each bed. Beside each one a flimsy looking wooden cabinet in which personal belongings were arranged symmetrically. There was a smell, familiar from square bashing camp of polish, Brasso and the healhy sweat of young men. In the middle of the hut was a circular stove. I could feel its heat even from the door. A distinct improvement on the freezing cold of last night's lodgings. There'd be no excuse, though, of cuddling up to Jim.
The inhabitants, at first sight a great number, but later they resolved into only a dozen guys, all appeared young and obviously National Service but most looked relaxed and at home from their longer stay. They got to their feet as the Corporal entered, standing more or less to attention, but without the alacrity of training camp.
"At ease," said Corporal Taylor, scarcely needing to say it. "Couple of new lads for you bringing us up to full complement. Fill 'em in will you. We're off to the range tomorrow." He turned to us. "There's two empty beds." He pointed to the two furthest from the stove, turned and left.
Such was our introduction to Hut 22, the Bombing Range crew, on the whole as amiable a bunch of guys as you'd wish to meet. At first sight none stood out except a scrawny, ginger-haired lad who looked about thirteen and spoke with a Scots accent so broad as to be almost incomprehensible. But as they crowded round more individuals began to stand out, a tall, spectacularly handsome guy with the nickname Bo (or it might have been Beau - I never saw it written down) and a dark-haired, dark eyebrowed, olive-skinned youth who was called Spic, and didn't seem to mind (there was no such thing as political correctness in those far-off days).
Gradually the secrets were revealed, both in the hut and later in the NAAFI canteen where we bought buns, fags and more tea (presumably unspiked).. We were the crew of a live bombing range. our job to record the skill and precision of the pilots and bomb aimers who dropped 25 pound smoke bombs on a target range some ten miles away from the camp.
They'd been awaiting us to bring them up to the full complement so that the range could be used night and day, seven days a week. Whom they planned to bomb we didn't ask and were never told. There were two crews, each of six men, one under Sergeant Bingham and the other under Corporal Taylor and we'd take it in turns, week on, week off, to man the range.
"It's a fucking doddle," said Bo. "And usually on our week off we can skive the parades and stuff which the others on the camp have to do."
When we went back to the barrack room, we listened to Radio Luxembourg until Corporal Taylor, who had a small individual room at the end of the hut, shouted, "Switch that fucking row off," and we went to sleep.
And so, on Monday morning, Bo, Spic, a thin, sulky looking lad with incipient blond curls, not surprisingly called Curly, Jim and me clambered into the lorry driven by Sergeant Bingham and set off for the range. I was a bit disappointed that we weren't in Corporal Taylor's squad but I guess I was lucky that both Jim and I were picked for the same shift. It would have been more sensible for the two new guys to be split up, but when do the Services to anything 'sensible'?
The actual range was an unlovely place. The snow had melted and left pools of grey water between the tussocks of grass which was basically what the range consisted of. There was a tall wooden structure at one end built on stilts with two storeys above and in the distance another, not quite so tall. A flight of wooden steps led up the side giving access to the two levels. On the ground beside the taller building was an arrow painted yellow and, we were told, somewhere in the middle was a triangle, also painted yellow, which was the target. At night both these could be illuminated.
The sequence of events was rudimentary. A plane came over, saw the arrow pointing to the target, dropped its bomb as near as the target as it could. This exploded on landing and produced a column of smoke or at night a flash. The spotters in the two towers focused their 'telescopes' on the smoke and read off the bearings. Another guy, on a map of the area, moved two 'arms' along the given bearings and where they crossed the bomb had landed. It was then possible to read off how far and in what direction the bomb had failed to hit the target.
It only needs people to fuck up a system as simple as that - and objects of course.
Like on the first day I was on duty - not my fault of course. As RTO, I was on the radiotelephone. The pilot of the aircraft called us up, told us the approximate time he'd be with us, then announced when he could see our arrow pointing at the target. Then a quick run down and he'd announce the release of the bomb.
Comfy in our little observation hut on the top floor, I sat with my headphones on, though there was a loudspeaker so that they weren't really necessary and my microphone. By my side was Bo with the telescope pointing out through the window, Spic was at the map waiting for the instructions. Sergeant Bingham was in the easy chair drinking a mug of tea and smoking a Woodbine.
In the other observation tower, Jim and Curly were waiting, one at their telescope, the other waiting to pass the details of his reading over to me.
To an onlooker, I suppose, we looked like a well-oiled machine, uniformed, efficient, ready for action - only Sergeant Bingham letting the side down.
The loudspeaker crackled as did my earphones. Then a voice. "Hatrack Control, Hatrack Control" (our call sign). "This is Able, George How (his call sign). How do you read? Over."
"Able George How, this is Hatrack Control. Reading you loud and clear, strength five," I answered, then remembered. "Over."
"I'm twenty miles away," said the voice. It sounded young. I wondered if he was any older than I was. "I can see your arrow. Permission to proceed. Over."
I looked at Bingham, puffing away at the thin stick of his Woodbine. He nodded.
"Alpha George How," I said. "Clear to proceed."
I remembered the other outlook. I picked up the receiver of the landline. "All right Hatrack two? Bomber coming in."
Jim's voice answered. "OK, Pete," he said knowing Bingham couldn't hear. "We're ready for anything."
There was a pause while my heart pounded. Bingham puffed away contentedly. Bo, sitting next to me, his hand in his groin, was rearranging himself. I wondered whether excitement made him feel sexy.
The voice came over. "Hatrack Control. Bomb run commencing. Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Bomb gone."
We peered out of the window, could see nothing, only the grey sky, the tussocky grass. "Where's it gone?" asked Bo.
"Did you see anything, Jim?" I asked.
"Not a fuckin' thing."
"Must be a dud," said Bingham.
I swallowed my disappointment. "Sorry, Alpha George How, looks like we have a dud."
"Shi . . ." came the voice, cut off. Swearing over the RT was a cardinal sin. Then his voice again. "I'll go round again. Over."
"Understood," I said.
We repeated the procedure. This time a plume of smoke curled into the air. "There it is," I said to Bo, but he had seen it and he focused the telescope on the mark. "Got it," he said. He read off the bearing.
"Got it, Jim?" I asked. I heard him asking Curly for the bearing. There was a pause and my heart stopped. What if he'd fucked it up. I found I was using the word even in my thoughts. Must be becoming like the others. Then his voice. "Zero, four, five," he said.