It may come as a surprise to learn that in the days of ‘national service’ most young conscripts did not serve as combat troops, but as clerks. Many, like my best mate Tom, spent their two years service filling in forms as privates in ‘The Inkslingers’, otherwise known as The Royal Army Pay Corps.
Having worked as a clerk since leaving school, I quite expected to find myself in a similar position after I was ‘called up’, but instead I found myself in the RAF being trained as an air defence (radar) operator.
During that training I foolishly volunteered for clerical duties while on cookhouse ‘fatigues’ (KP) thinking that nothing could be worse than scrubbing floors or cleaning greasy pans, only to discover that the sergeant to whom I was assigned for stock taking was more interested in checking me out than in checking the stores. Obviously I wasn’t his type as I soon found myself back behind a broom.
From that day on I vowed to follow the old service maxim … ‘Never volunteer’ ! … That is until a few months later when I was serving at a radar station and working all hours of the day and night ‘on watch’ waiting for the bloody Russian hordes to arrive from the east.
Now each ‘watch’ had an ‘unofficial’ clerk and I was asked if I wanted to volunteer for the post as the bloke doing the job was due for ‘demob’. I broke my vow in an instant, and grabbed this golden opportunity to work normal daytime office hours.
The job entailed covering for officers and senior NCOs who preferred playing golf or pruning their roses to filling in forms and issuing leave passes. I suppose that I was rather like the character ’Radar’ in ‘M.A.S.H’. I typed up reports and duty rosters and needless to say left my name off of every list except the one used at pay parades. Every so often an officer would turn up to sign the paperwork which I had prepared, after which he would return to his gin and tonic in ‘the mess’.
After a short period in the job I got everything off to a ‘fine art’ and found that I was only working about one and a half days a week, and as I never did fire pickets, fatigues, parades or any other duties, I was able to spend time making new friends among the cooks, the medics, the storemen, the drivers and even the ‘snowdrops’ (RAF police) most of whom were on some sort of fiddle and could help provide the ‘goods and services’ needed to make air force life a little more bearable.
I devoted much of my ‘working’ time to improving my skill at darts and snooker, as the ‘NAAFI’ was next door to the hut where I had my office and I was able to extend the office telephone line to the windowsill of the games room. On fine days I caught up on my reading, sitting in a deck chair behind the hut and out of sight of the prowling ’SWOman’ ( Station Warrant Officer).
You might say that I was almost invisible, for the only time I appeared ‘in public’ was at the weekly pay parade, and then my name was never called, as I was the one doing the calling. I just waited until the paying officer, who was sitting next to me, handed over my pittance after the last man had saluted and marched away.
Towards the end of my two years the RAF decided that it had too many national service air defence operators and started retraining many of them for ‘civil defence’ work, in the vague hope that they would be of some use if ‘the bomb’ went off. Most of the lads on my ‘watch’ were posted to other camps for retraining, but as my name was not on any list I didn’t go anywhere, and I certainly didn’t volunteer.
At that time there was a recruiting poster which read … “There’s a place for you in the Royal Air Force” … under which some disgruntled conscript always wrote … “Yes ! My f***ing place !”
… I guess that I was just bloody lucky.