- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. Ken Armstrong
- Location of story:
- London & India
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site on behalf of Mr. Ken Armstrong and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The Life of a Conscripted Airman, by Ken Armstrong
I was exactly seventeen years and twenty days old when war was declared against Germany. The Radio and newspapers were full of the Government plans for calling up the reserves and announcements followed on further plans to call up the male population, in well-planned batches according to age. The lowest call-up age group would be eighteen but these were not called up for some months. It was obvious I would receive my call-up notice when I reached eighteen years or soon thereafter so I saw no point in volunteering immediately. Consequently, I continued in my existing employment in a Solicitor's Office in Arundel Street in London, almost opposite the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand.
London had been undergoing changes for some months as everybody from the Government down sensed that war was inevitable; but now war was a fact the momentum of change was expedited. Air Raid Shelters were erected in many Streets; Shelters suitable for a Family were delivered to House holders if a garden was available, and those who received such a Shelter spent at least one week-end digging a large hole in which to erect the Corrugated Iron Shelter. Air Raids were expected and very heavy casualties were anticipated. Sandbags became a very common sight, particularly around Government buildings, Police Stations, Hospitals etc.
Fear of air raids affected many people, and an early order from the Government was the evacuation of all school children. They were labelled like parcels and taken to addresses all over the Country under the control of their teachers. The principal of the firm of Solicitors I worked for decided London was likely to be too dangerous so he closed the office in Arundel Street and all the work was transferred to his private address in Sevenoaks. Most of the staff were transferred too, but apparently he decided, with good reason, that it was not possible for a few of us, including me, to travel from north West London to Sevenoaks on a daily basis so two of us were transferred to the City Office which overlooked Ludgate Circus and Ludgate Hill.
This was the period, which came to be known as 'the phoney war' because there were no air raids, no invasion and no battles fought on the western front. This provoked a peculiar atmosphere among the civilian population which could be summed up as 'what sort of war are we fighting'. It couldn't last of course, and the first sign of a change was the defeat of the British, French and Belgian Armies by the Germans in Western Europe. The French placed their entire strategy on the Maginot Line — a defensive line which almost surrounded France. It didn't quite enclose France and the Germans found the gap and swept through in their thousands. This forced the English to retreat before they were cut off. The retreat continued until the British reached the channel coast, where they congregated in the vicinity of Dunkirk. The evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk has been well documented and details need not be recorded here, but, although the evacuation was described as a success, as indeed it was, it was also a defeat!
I had no need to enrol in the Air Raid Precaution Scheme at the outbreak of War as the Scout Troop to which I belonged had virtually ceased to exist and I was simply transferred to the A.R.P. as a messenger. My job was to wake up Wardens when the Yellow Air Raid Warning was received. In theory this was sound practice, but for many reasons it wasn't workable. When a yellow warning was received the duty Warden called me and I then got up, dressed and cycled round to all the wardens attached to our Warden's Post and got them out of bed and on patrol. Time after time the all clear came through and I had to cycle around finding the Wardens on patrol and advising them that they could return home. It will be appreciated that this was very unsettling. Sleep for a whole night became a memory, as every night a yellow warning came through but no red air raid warning was received and no air raid developed. The practice had to change and it was arranged that there would be no call out by messengers, but that the Wardens would come out of their own accord if and when the Air Raid sirens sounded.
Life then followed an almost normal pattern! But it could not last. London was the target for sustained air raids and in the weeks that followed air raids became a nightly occurrence. It was around this time that another messenger and myself were made up to full Wardens, all of whom were on a voluntary basis.
The Wardens Post to which I was attached was a hundred yards or less from my home, and it was situated in a corner of the road which happened to be at the top of a hill and facing South, so we had a view over a large area of London and at the height of the air raids it seemed as if the whole of London was ablaze; not that we had much time for sight-seeing as we were bombed as heavily as any other part of the capital. To watch the Anti Aircraft shells bursting was like watching a fireworks display. Searchlights and brilliant white flashes followed the path of the bombers and were an indication of the whereabouts of the planes.
How much damage was done to aircraft we never knew, but on one occasion I saw a direct hit on an aircraft, and the result was a tremendous explosion — far bigger than any anti aircraft shell. Bombs, large land mines, said to be the size of a telephone box, attached to parachutes and incendiary bombs rained down every night and life became difficult. In addition to the bombs etc., that were dropped by German Aircraft, the fall out from the Anti Aircraft shells was almost as dangerous! The explosion of the shell resulted in hundreds of steel fragments falling to earth and causing damage and injury. Every night we had air raids and still we had to get to work every morning.
Incendiaries caused a great deal of problems. They were dropped in their hundreds, frequently unheard as they did not make the same noise as a falling bomb. They made a noise more like a fluttering, and as soon as they hit a solid object, burst into flames, another Warden and myself became adept at dealing with them. As soon as they were detected, we grabbed a Stirrup pump, jumped onto our bicycles and raced to the scene where we dumped a sand bag on the incendiary bomb, then dealt with the fire, before it got out of control. Considerable experience was necessary as some incendiaries included an explosive charge that was ignited after it burst into flames and could seriously injure anybody close to it. From my office in Lincoln's Inn Fields I could watch the dog fights between our Fighter Planes and the German aircraft.
Travelling to work became an obstacle race to avoid debris from bombed buildings, bomb craters, fire engines, trying to put out fires, and ambulances. A full night's sleep was a thing of the past. One slept when an opportunity occurred. The first night when there was no air raid had an air of unreality about it. All the Wardens were on duty, nearly everybody was in an air raid shelter, and the tube stations were packed. It was very quiet and it seemed everyone was keyed up, waiting for something to happen and holding their breath. But the air raids on London ceased, at least for some time and gradually life returned to a semblance of normality.
The Call-up age was eighteen, and on my eighteenth birthday I became liable to be called up. A notice in newspapers and on the Radio gave instructions on the procedure and dates on which to register and very shortly I found myself at an office where I registered and, on being asked if I had any preference for Army, Navy or Air Force opted for the latter. I was medically examined and passed A1. Some weeks later I received the ominous brown envelope with O.H.M.S. on the top, and inside was an order for me to report to Cardington R.A.F. Station just outside Bedford. I was also sent a Railway ticket, but to my surprise it was a return ticket and the accompanying notice advised that the purpose of the exercise was to assess my aptitude for training as a Wireless Operator. At Cardington, we went through various aptitude tests and after three days we were told to go home. I must have satisfied those in charge because I passed A.1. and in another month or two received another brown O.H.M.S. letter and another railway ticket but this time it was for outward journey only. It was my call-up papers!
My call-up papers ordered me to report to R.A.F. Padgate, a station which did not enjoy a good reputation even to those not in the R.A.F. Fortunately my stay there was of short duration and consisted of being issued with full kit, being photographed and receiving identity discs and pay book.
My main recollection is that it was bitterly cold but the sight of stoves in the huts cheered us all up considerably until we were told that there was no coal. I was glad to put on my uniform and the greatcoat as protection from the cold. Our stay at Padgate was mercifully short, and in a few days we were bussed to the Railway Station and boarded a train for an unknown destination. It was not a long railway journey, only as far as Blackpool, where we were allocated to civilian Billets.
Houses that used to be the boarding houses where one stayed whilst on holiday were requisitioned, and there we were put up, sometimes four to a room. Boarding houses were always a very hit or miss affair, and wartime boarding houses were no exception. The first billet to which I was sent was a miserable house, and the landlady was equally miserable. We were provided with breakfast and an evening meal. Rations for this were calculated on a per person basis, so everybody should have had the same quality and quantity of food. This did not apply to this billet! After a few days we all submitted a complaint and following an investigation, the billet was closed down. My next billet was a great improvement. The food was of much better quality, and better cooked. The landlady did as much as she could to make life as pleasant as possible and for the first time we received our full ration of food.
My stay at Blackpool was for about three months and consisted of training in all its aspects. The mornings were spent on the promenade for drill practice and marching, rifle shooting or on the sands for PT. It was still early in the year — around March — and it was decidedly chilly in shorts and singlets in the brisk wind that seemed to blow for ever. Every afternoon we were marched to what before the war had been a billiard and snooker hall. All the tables had been removed and in their place were hundreds of ordinary tables on which were fixed Morse keys. At the head of each table a Morse instructor sat, often an ex Merchant Navy Radio Operator, and for two hours he taught us the Morse code. At the end of each week there was a test and the speed at which the Morse was sent increased by two words a minute. The final test was at eighteen words a minute. Having successfully completed the course I was eagerly looking forward to a week's leave. No leave was allowed during the course. At the end of the leave I was posted to Madley in Herefordshire, for further training in Radio Operating.
The leave passed all too quickly and it seemed that in no time at all I was back on a train to Herefordshire. This was a normal R.A.F. camp so we were in ordinary billets. Wooden Huts holding perhaps twenty men, with a Corporal in charge. Training re-commenced immediately, again with the main emphasis on the Morse code, but it also included the Theory of Radio — both receiving and transmitting, and getting familiar with a number of R.A.F. Radios — Semaphore and Aldis Lamp use and the methods of preparing messages for transmission.
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