Many of my fellow employees had served in the forces. I started work in 1960, only 15 years after World War 2 ended. The following decade and a half was to see Britain’s military in action in Korea, the Middle East, Cyprus and Kenya so national service was to extend until December 1960. I missed being called up by two years.
Some of my co-workers had been involved in war-time service although that did not apply to many as the motor industry was, and is, a young man’s ‘game’. Those who did serve in the war were almost invariably in REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and had engineering training in the forces. At the time, these men appeared quite old to me but of course they only needed to be about 35 years old in 1960 to have spent a couple of years in WW2 service. With this hindsight, I look back at them with more respect than perhaps I accorded them at the time.
I know that there are some aspects of the military life that would have done some good for me. There was some inner discipline in them that certainly was not intrinsic to my being. Most but not all of my ex service colleagues were tidy workmen who looked after their equipment. They kept hand tools clean and in good condition. They were always easy to find being kept in an orderly fashion in the tool box. Generally, but not exclusively, they carried themselves in what could be described as a military manner. Upstanding and straight backed, they almost marched around the workshop.
Most young men had the option of deferring their service until they had completed their apprenticeship or job training as long as it was genuine vocational training. Some of my colleagues had deferred and had come from the forces quite recently. Others had not deferred but had, instead decided to take advantage of training offered by extending their national service into a limited regular service.
As far as the value of all this to a workshop like ours was concerned, I have no doubt that the infusion of men with military training had a very definite positive effect. These were well trained men who had known hard times and had the ability and mindset to tackle and succeed at their appointed task.
I have not many stories of the horrors of war. They did not talk about them, although some must have encountered some awful situations. What they did talk about were incidents that related to their job.
Even on national service and after WW2, some of my colleagues had been in very hazardous situations in Korea,fighting Mau Mau terrorists in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus and of course dealing with the stress of the Cold War in Germany. In fact much of the relevant experience that found its way into our workshop was transferred from Tanks and other Military vehicles maintained and repaired in Germany.
Some of the ex military men were ex RAF of course and they perhaps more than any others fitted the stereotype of the day. In some cases there was a moustache on the top lip. Overalls were a lighter blue and although Brylcreem was not necessarily the order of the day, they were certainly less likely to be covered in the oil and grease that many of us absorbed.
Of course Mr Dapper Geniality was an ex RAF man. At the time he was lampooned as a Brylcreem boy, Fighter Pilot, Spitfire Jockey amongst others, never to his face of course; he was the boss! Much of the banter referred to his driving style which would have fitted quite well in the cockpit of the Spitfire. He had two speeds; fast and stop. His driving was, however, not much different to many of us at that time.
I did not know definitely that he had been in the RAF until fifty years later when a story appeared on the local television news programme. It turned out to be about Mr Dapper Geniality himself. He was in fact a celebrated Lancaster bomber pilot during the war and had flown a number of missions over Germany managing on one occasion to land a crippled plane and saving his crew. He was decorated for his actions.
A striking example of the need to be careful with tools is the subject of one of my favourite stories told by one of my colleagues who was an airframe fitter in the RAF. National service but post WW2 and in North Yorkshire, this individual had been carrying out repairs and maintenance on a Hawker Hunter jet fighter. The work required some access to the cockpit of the plane. On completion of the work, a pilot took the plane for ‘literally’ a spin. Whilst flying upside down at a speed which demands utmost concentration, a pair of pliers dropped into the glass dome of the cockpit cover. The pilot immediately shouted down the radio in highly descriptive language giving a brief commentary of the occurrence. This was heard in the hangar which had a radio receiver on loud speaker. According to my friend, this announcement was followed by a stampede of all mechanics to ensure they could produce a pair of well grounded pliers. My friend did manage to produce but I will never know where he got them from!
Another incident relayed to me by a different air frame mechanic involved him being required to slide down the air intake of a jet aircraft to check the state of rivets in the cowling. He had to be well down the intake tube to carry out a visual and manual check. Generally, aircraft have a cover in the intake to avoid the ingress of foreign bodies but of course this had been removed for access.
So the mechanic was well down the tube when he heard a jet engine start to fire up and rotate. His immediate thought was that it was the other engine on the twin jet he was working on and he had to get out as the next thing to happen would be the starting of the engine that was inches from his head. These intake tubes are very smooth and kept clean and shiny. They do not have hand hold or foot grips. His only thought was to exit the tube as fast as he could and that involved too many seconds of slithering like a snake but in reverse!
He exited the tube to find that the engine started was on the plane next to his in the hangar. Thinking it through later, he realised his worst fear could not have materialised as there were safeguards. His reaction was natural but unnecessary. The concept of a huge person processor rotating at 100,000rpm and dragging you in bodily would cause paranoia in anyone.
Next time you see a convoy of army trucks and it is not an uncommon sight in East and North Yorkshire look underneath the rear and you will see a white circle painted on the rear axle. The purpose of this circle is so that it is visible to vehicles following as part of a convoy which for operational reasons might be travelling without lights. Obviously, in the dark only the lead driver will have any idea what the route is and all the others follow a white circle without the time or option of looking around and enjoying the view.
One tale that came out over a cup of tea in the canteen, as was so often the case, involved the operational deficiency of the white circle. On a war time training exercise in Northern Ireland prior to a major offensive in Europe, a convoy of trucks was making its way through the countryside. Even now, Ireland is blessed with less light pollution than we have in the UK evidenced by the stumble back to friendly folk after a couple of drinks in the local pub when we visit family on the emerald isle. Back to the tale! This particular convoy was out much longer than expected and could have been a cause of a major international incident. Reports came in later that residents of the Republic of Ireland had reported a large convoy of military trucks trundling through the neutral state that was not in the habit of providing assistance or friendship to the army of Great Britain. The driver in truck number one had missed his way only to recognise his error when making his way past a hostelry at kicking out time. The name of the pub and the unmistakeable sign of its best selling liquid were the best hint he had to find his way back home as directly as possible. I suppose the lesson was well learned that it was a training run and for that reason less likely to be repeated in Holland, Belgium or France!
The footnote to this story is the unit involved were part of the exploratory set up organisation for preparation for the disastrous Arnhem (Bridge Too Far) venture. The man who told me the story recounted that his regiment were marching along a flat road in Holland with a drainage ditch on either side. Totally exposed! From behind them came sudden commotion and the ground either side of the marchers was disturbed by tiny explosions. An aircraft flew past them with a piercing roar the like of which none of them had ever heard before. It turned out they had been strafed in what had been one of the earliest known attacks by jet aircraft. The most outstanding element to the attack was that nobody heard the plane approaching, only its passing.
Many of those in service spent a great deal of time in the UK. They would regularly be given free time that would allow visits to local hostelries. One group had a relationship with the sergeant that was far from benevolent. He was regarded by most as a bully demanding no respect. On one leave sortie out of camp to the local pub, they had discussed what they would do to him in their wildest dreams.
Little did they know the opportunity that would present itself to them on their return to camp. As they walked towards their hut, they saw a motor-bike leaning against another hut. They had been drinking for two or three hours and were ready for reintroducing their bladders to the latrine. The motor-bike belonged to the sergeant. There were plenty of them to keep eyes peeled. Petrol filler caps did not have locks in those days. Petrol and urine were similar in colour and viscosity. They took turns to urinate into the petrol tank.
They had just settled into their bunks and began to relax when they heard a motor cycle start up and power off into the distance only to begin coughing and spluttering before there was the roar of silence followed by a spontaneous breakout of laughing fits from the bunks. Nobody was ever punished and it did not make the sergeants’ behaviour any better but it was certainly easier to live with.