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A Lighter Shade of Pale Blue Chapter 1.

by Reg O'Neil MBE

Contributed by 
Reg O'Neil MBE
People in story: 
memoirs of Reg O'Neil, WW2 Radar Operator
Location of story: 
England and middle east
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4507832
Contributed on: 
21 July 2005

Chapter 1
The morning of the 14th. June 1940 dawned with the promise of a hot, sunny day, the kind of day that one would expect for June in England.... but what lay in store for me I had no idea! It was a day that would go down in history as, unbeknown to me; it was the day that the German army entered Paris. It was also the day that I was to enter the Royal air Force.
During the previous September (1939) I, like many others made my way to the local recruiting office to make an offer that surely they could not refuse! I was putting my services at the disposal of the Royal Air Force. My details were taken and I was told that in due course, I would be required to take a medical. Some months later, I was submitted to an examination by seven doctors, the last, having been convinced that I was all in one piece and capable of using all my faculties, suggested that I should provide a sample in a small flask that he provided and directed me to disappear behind a screen to fulfil this task. Being unable to perform, I was directed to the "small room" at the end of quite a long corridor, where I was able to accomplish my mission but then I had to make my way back to his office, to my great embarrassment, clad in only my trousers and holding the flask I was confronted by several ATS girls, much to their amusement.
On my return to the M.O. I was asked what trade I had chosen. I replied that I hoped to become a "WOP/AG" (Wireless operator/Air gunner), to which he replied: "Oh no you are not!" I asked the reason for this statement and was told that due to the fact that I had varicose veins in one leg, flying was out of the question. On my return to the recruiting office it was agreed that I could take a wireless mechanics course and that I should return home to await orders as to where and when I should report.
Several months later, I returned to the recruiting office to enquire why I was still at home and not serving my country? With some embarrassment I was told that my papers had been 'pigeon-holed' and mislaid! However, it appeared that the trade of wireless mech. was now over subscribed. Would I like to take "ACH/GD”? (Aircraft hand/general duties) with the opportunity to remuster once I was in! This I agreed to do and so returned home to await my "marching orders".
Several weeks later I received instructions to report to a reception centre, which was a part of the "Marks and Spencer" store in St. Michael's Lane, Croydon, at 10.00 hrs. on the 14th. June 1940.
(I have often wondered at the coincidence of the trademark of "St.Michael" being the same as the address!) On that fateful morning I left home with my "small kit" and, of course my civilian gas mask packed in its cardboard box, to arrive at Croydon some time around 09.30hrs. There I met up with some forty other recruits. We were grouped together and put in the care of an RAF Corporal to escort us to Royal Air Force Station, Uxbridge. We formed up into a "snake" of pairs to be marched to East Croydon Station, very reminiscent of a Sunday school outing and feeling very conspicuous with our attaché cases and cardboard boxes hanging round our necks.
After an uneventful journey through London via the Southern Railway and the Underground, we eventually arrived at Uxbridge station where we detrained and formed up to be marched to the depot. Just at this moment a very young and obvious "sprog" Pilot Officer, Chaplain entered the station en route to parts unknown, complete with kitbag and many other items of clobber, laden like a packhorse. The Corporal said to us: "Watch, this is how you should greet an Officer" and smartly threw a salute, to which the U/T Padre dropped all his kit and coming to attention, returned the salute. That was our introduction to "Higher Command"
Arriving at the depot we were taken straight to the stores to be issued with 'irons' (a knife, fork and spoon) so that we could repair to the cookhouse for a meal. We were also provided with a large pint china mug that, we were told, were on loan and must be returned in good condition on our departure. Failure to comply would be the forfeiture of one shilling to cover the cost of the lost or damaged mug and one shilling for its replacement! (Our introduction to service fiddles). To enable us to put our newly acquired 'irons' to the test we were taken to the NAAFI. It was explained that while we still had money, it was highly recommended that we patronise this establishment in preference to the airmen’s mess next door. Many thought fit to explore the latter establishment before parting with what remained of their worldly wealth, but on filing past the hotplates laden with food of doubtful origin it was decided to take advantage of the menu of pie, beans and chips on offer in the NAAFI.
Following this repast we were "asked" to fall in outside and were escorted to a hut some distance away in the grounds, there names were read out and we were segregated into two parties of roughly equal numbers. One party was told to sit in the sun and talk amongst themselves whilst the rest of us were invited to enter the hut. Inside we found rows of chairs upon each was placed a Bible. We were invited to take a seat. Once settled, an Officer entered and greeted us with a "Good afternoon gentlemen, you are here for attestation". There were one or two murmurs of "Will it be painful" etc., then we were invited to be upstanding, to hold the Bible and "say after me etc." The mood then seemed to change and we were informed in no uncertain terms, that now we were members of the Royal Air Force. A sergeant appeared and shouted: "Get fell in outside you ******** lot". We seldom, if ever were "asked" to do anything again! We were IN.
Outside the hut we rejoined the other group and one bright spark asked why they had not been invited into the hut, to which he was told that we silly ******'s had volunteered whilst the others had been "called up". We then marched for what seemed miles to various huts and buildings, from one of which we were given a number. We were all given seven figured numbers, whereas many who followed in later months received six figured ones. It was to confuse the enemy, we were told! Next we found ourselves at "Pay accounts" to receive, if my memory serves me correctly, the sum of eight pence (old money), which was to enable one to purchase boot-blacking and button polish. Of course, it would be a debit on our pay.
We were then marched to a barrack block, "Mons" I believe it was named, and to be allocated a room, which was to be our home for the next few days. Next we were to discover the clothing store where expert civilians sized each one of us up and shouted size numbers to the "store basher" behind the counter, who then placed a tunic, trousers and cap, (two off each) into a heap on the counter then slid along to the next issuing bod, who would add various other items of clothing, (Shirts, 2, airmen for the use of) etc. I was asked what size collar I took and for the life of me could not remember! Size 13½ came to mind and that is how I replied. (Later, when I tried to explain why my collars didn't fit, I was told "hard luck" you can't change them now.)
Laden with a new kit bag and our "free issue" we were taken back to the barrack block and allocated bed spaces, on which stood what at first appeared to be a relic of the Spanish Inquisition! An iron framed device made up of flat iron slats covering two frames, one of which slid into the other to make, so we were informed, a chair when it was not extended as a bed. Upon this contraption rested three, square "biscuits" of horsehair, which doubled as a mattress, or the upholstery of a chair. Dumping our kit, we were taken to the bedding store to be issued with three blankets, two sheets and a cylindrical canvas bag into which had been inserted a long tube of horsehair as a pillow, a deadly weapon if used in self defence!
Back in the billet we were instructed to number each and every item of equipment, then came the "trying on" session, what a comedy that was, very little fitted and having numbered the items there was no chance of swapping. There were hats too big or too little, trousers and tunics too large or too small, very little seemed to fit anyone! However, we were told to wear whatever would fit and parade outside. Never had so motley a crowd appeared, some in civvy hats, trousers or shoes. Others in civvy jackets and shirts, every possible permutation of service/civilian garb was evident. Next we were led off to the sick bay to be jabbed and vaccinated so that next morning we would not be able to wear this apparel due to swollen arms.
The Corporal in charge told us that should we encounter other bods wearing similar dress to ours, but of a superior quality and cut, it was the custom that he be saluted, he being an officer. He did stress that we would not be saluting the wearer of this attire but H.M. the King, whose uniform it was that we salute. Later that evening a group of us were making our way to the NAAFI when we met such a person approaching. It was too late to take avoiding action, so a mass salute was attempted. The officer brought us to the halt then congratulated us upon our efforts but, pointing to his sleeve upon which appeared a badge depicting what appeared to be galloping horses above the cuffs, assured us that it was not the thing for airmen to salute Warrant Officers.
Three or four days were spent at Uxbridge being "kitted out", days that were to seem like weeks. Long queues were to be seen outside the one and only telephone kiosk as internees tried to make contact with the outside world. Groups of future airmen were to be seen standing behind the railings that surrounded the premises, looking wistfully at the civilian passers by and realising what it must feel like to be a caged animal in a Zoo. Trolley buses passed within a few feet and yet could not be boarded, a prisoner of one's own choosing. There was little solace from the current expression of the period, "Serves you right, you should never have joined!”
On arrival at Uxbridge, the international situation did not look at all good, our troops had just returned from France via Dunkirk and the chances of it "all being over by Christmas" looked far from promising. During our few days stay, it appeared as though everything was collapsing, we had lost our freedom. Paris fell that week and the French capitulated. We were a very bewildered group of potential "Erks". Would we be invaded before we received our basic training?
So much happened during those few days that we were to spend at Uxbridge that it is difficult to remember much apart from the more humorous events. One thing that became quite noticeable to me, and was to be repeated many times in the future was the fact that it seemed a certainty that where ever a group of airmen were billeted together, there would be one who owned a "Rolls Razor" and to ensure that everyone within earshot should be aware of this luxury, he would arise at 06.00 hrs. Or earlier, and strop it to awake everyone in the billet. Many suggestions were made as to where this instrument should be stropped came from beneath many blankets, most of which would have proved physically impossible.
On the fourth or fifth morning, we were awakened very early and told to pack our kit in preparation for a move out. Our civilian togs had to be parcelled ready for despatch to our homes and we were to parade for an early breakfast and be ready for a posting for "Square-bashing". After breakfast our mugs had to be returned to stores where they were inspected for any damage. It seemed rather odd that nearly every mug had developed a crack or chip during the few days they were in our possession! In consequence, most had to pay the one shilling for the damage and another for the replacement! The damaged goods were replaced on the shelves in readiness for the next intake. On our return to the billet, we were instructed to collect our kit and parade outside for transportation. We had been provided with "haversack rations" which consisted of some bread and bully beef. Finally, we returned our bedding to the bedding store.
At this moment in time, we had received no instruction on how to assemble our webbing, so everything was crammed into kitbags. As most were suffering from the effects of vaccinations and inoculations, it was with swollen arms that we tried to load our kit and ourselves on to the lorries that were to take us to West Drayton station where we would entrain for destinations unknown. Rumour was rife that we would be sent to Blackpool, Morecombe or Wilmslow. All were wrong! After meandering through the English countryside for several hours we ultimately found ourselves in the unknown town of Bridgenorth in Shropshire on a very hot June day. We detrained and paraded in the station yard where a couple of RAF lorries stood waiting with tailboards down. "We won't all get on those" came a cry from the rear, "Not on your Neddie" retorted an N.C.O., who had come to welcome us. "Throw your kit in the trucks and then get fell in, in threes" came the order. "We shall march to the camp, it is only three miles". So off we set, hot, tired and hungry. We were allowed one or two rests for a smoke en route but we plodded on, in the heat of a sweltering June sun, up hill and down dale, mostly it seemed, up hill. Eventually we arrived at the camp and were immediately taken to the stores to be issued, on loan, a pint china mug! We didn't pay too much attention to whether it was chipped or not, we just wanted to get to the cookhouse and have it filled with tea. One of the most welcome mugs of tea that I can remember.

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