Contributed by Rob Everitt

The first night...

The 204 th Entry arrived at R.A.F. Halton on 6 th September 1965. As new recruits, sometimes called ‘rookies’ (but more usually just ‘rooks’), we were allocated a room in either block 11 or block 12, on No. 1(a) Apprentice Wing.

Each room contained sixteen beds in two rows of eight, with a tall and a small locker next to each. Each bed-space also boasted a small rectangle of carpet. Behind each bed a small wall-light allowed reading for fifteen minutes after the main fluorescent lights were switched off at ten pm. The central strip of floor between the two rows of beds was called the centre-deck, and was treated almost as hallowed ground, to be polished with heavy, bristled implements called bumpers. The bedding on each bed was a striped counterpane, with corners tucked in as neatly as possible in the approved hospital manner; four grey/brown blankets, two sheets and two pillows with white pillow cases.

Blankets and sheets were to be folded each morning into a neat cuboid shape, called a 'bed-pack'. This chore became so onerous that later on many ways of beating the system were tried, such as fiddling a spare set of bedding and keeping the bed-pack intact in a locker through the night, or folding a fraction of the bedding in such a way as to resemble a full bed-pack, and risk discovery during the day. Either way appeared to consume more energy than actually making a proper bed-pack.

The kit that was issued that first day consisted of a 1-pint china mug, a towel and a set of overalls. The next few weeks was punctuated by the sound of shattering china, as fragile pottery and teenage boys are not a happy mixture. Luckily the NAAFI was able to supply suitable plastic substitutes for 1/-. The overalls came in a limited number of sizes for the initial issue, and those apprentices above or below the average stature were doomed to march around looking even less elegant than their colleagues of more median size.

Most of the first day was spent in the rooms getting to know each other, and trying to make sense of strange accents. There were also isolated games of Brag, no one having learned how to play Bridge then; and later on a few pillow fights.

That first night was, for many, the first time away from home alone, and although everyone put a brave face on the loss of all home comforts, there were many who could not help feeling a pang of apprehension, and the first twinge of home-sickness. Most people suffered from this to some extent or other, but for some it never eased, and they were the ones who quickly decided that service life was not for them.

Attestation and basic training...

The day after arrival, 7 th September 1965, the entry were ferried in the coach down to 3(a) Apprentice wing, where the transition from civilian to serviceman was completed by a ceremony of attestation. Service numbers, for many the only number ever fully memorised and subject to instant recall forty years later, were allocated. Solemn oaths were sworn to serve the Queen and obey orders from superiors, then everyone tumbled out of the block to find the coach had been despatched back to M.T., and from that moment on the 204 th Entry marched, EVERYWHERE!.

The first two weeks were given up to basic training, and spent learning to march in step and without the tick-tock motion of arms and legs on the same side moving together. A skill never fully mastered by some. It was also a time for shearing of exotic hairstyles by the camp, no pun intended, barbers. This left all recruits with a similar shaven coconut appearance that was attractive to all women of a certain age with memories of lost loves in the trenches. The haircuts were nearly, but not quite, as painful as the succession of injections to protect against all known diseases. These were administered en-masse with a seeming disregard for hygiene using a system taken from the Henry Ford handbook. For the hardier recruits it was entertaining to watch the queue and try to predict which of the others were likely to keel-over.

Kitting out took place and supplied collarless shirts, stiff collars, woollen socks and drawers cellular. When the serge working trousers and blouse were issued there was not an inch of the body not exposed to the service equivalent of a hair-shirt. There were also bits of grey canvas in the shape of belts, straps and bags with numerous pieces of awkwardly shaped brass attached, and soon all were breathing in the unique aroma of Blanco and Brasso. Another smell that still evokes that time is the particular brand of orange floor polish that came in big shiny tins and had none of the soft lavender scent of the domestic stuff like Mum used.

Initially the administration of the entry fell to the lot of Sgt Perry and Cpl Duffy, but these were replaced before too long by Sgt ‘Sooty’ Corbett, fresh from 7 years duty as a prison guard in Aden; and Cpl ‘Robbie’ Hood; under the supervision of a Flt Sgt, ‘Buddha’ Weir -- named for his physique. The officer in charge was F.O. Payne, who later became 2nd i.c. with the arrival of Flt Lt Bradley. Instruction in the art of cleaning, constructing bed-packs and general service behaviour was carried out by Leading Apprentices (for some reason known as Snags) from the 104 th Entry, under the watchful eyes of a large genial Sgt App called ‘Jumbo’ Hooper, and a not so genial Cpl App Hunt. His nickname was ‘Isaac’ for reasons that only became apparent when it was spoken aloud.

After two weeks intensive square bashing, and other activities meant to knock off all the rough edges, the real training began. This was divided into three parts. Trade training, which took place in workshops proper to the trade being learned; schools education to continue where our civilian schools had left off (given up?); and General service training, which was more drill, P.T. and lectures on other aspects of service life. In addition, Wednesday afternoons were given up to sports, of which there was an unparalleled profusion available to suit all tastes and abilities.

The first two weeks also introduced the entry to that peculiar service tradition called ‘bull-night’. To begin with every night was bull-night, and hours were spent scrubbing, polishing and cleaning every square inch of the block. The first inspection caused an audible gasp to go around the room as white gloves were produced to check for dust in places that could hardly be reached and certainly not seen. Nevertheless after a fortnight of late night polishing and early morning buffing, it was taken in the stride. After that bull-nights became a week activity and some spare time was allowed.

Lesiure facilities...

The NAAFI provided a welcome haven from the barrack rooms, as well as supplying cups of tea, chocolate and various types of meat in pastry cases. It also had a jukebox that played ‘Walk in the Black Forest’, ‘I Got You Babe’ and other current hits of the time. The shop was able to supply us with yellow dusters, Brasso and boot-polish, as well as Blanco, collar-studs and all the other items necessary for service life that were impossible to get from civilian shops. Upstairs there was a snooker table and table-tennis table. For those people interested in films the Astra cinema was situated a five-minute walk away down a steep flight of steps. For those people who were interested in up to date films it meant a trip to Aylesbury. It has to be said however, that for 1/6d, or 2/6d for the well off with a taste for luxury, the Astra offered good value for money. The programme changed three times a week, and sometimes managed to show films that were reasonably up to date, though more often they dated from a few years before. The cinema manager always wore a black suit and bow tie, and served hot-dogs in the interval. He also had a habit of lurking about when the national anthem was being played to ensure we all stood up on cue. It has to be admitted that apprentice audience participation predated those sing-a-long films that are currently in vogue, and it could be a little hard to follow dialogue in some of the more boring offerings, but for those films that found favour (Zulu springs to mind) there was no more an appreciative audience.

Another facility available to apprentices was the Halton Society. This was collection of separate clubs housed in a sprawling warren of wooden huts between 1 and 3 wings. The clubs catered for all manner of hobbies, especially model making of all kinds; printing, which proved a good moneymaker for its members; and collectors of stamps and other artefacts. If none of the above appealed there were two bands that always needed new members. The best of these was the pipe-band, which led the way down the hill, and back again, twice a day to schools and workshops. There was also a brass band, which did its best. The corps of trumpeters, as well as playing fanfares at important parades and celebrations, provided a person (not always very popular) to play reveille each morning, and lights-out at night.

The first few weeks were designed to remove all trace of individuality from a quite disparate group of young people. To this end civilian clothes were not allowed to be worn, even in the evenings and at weekends. After the first term this was relaxed to some extent, provided the civvies conformed to strict guidelines. No jeans. Grey flannel trousers, no drain-pipes. Black barathea (whatever that was) blazer, R.A.F. tie, and plain white cotton shirt, the plainness of which extended to the weave as well as the colour. Eventually a more relaxed attitude prevailed, though it was still ordered that travel to and from leave would be in uniform. In those days service-men were expected to stand out from civilians and be proud of it, though the train journey from Wendover homewards always began with the toilets packed with apprentices changing into civvies.

Instructors and training....

The instructors at Workshops, and the teachers at Schools, were a mix of service and civilian. The academic side of apprentice training took the form of mathematics, physics, English and general studies. For someone who left school before reaching ‘O’ levels these were quite daunting, and something to be endured with grim stoicism. Most of the teachers were good-natured enough but there were some who seemed to enjoy having authority over so many young men, and would point out dirty shoes or long hair as avidly as Sooty Corbett. The science facilities especially were good for that period in time. There was a wind-tunnel, and machines that stretched, bent and broke bits of steel to test their strength. Although there were no computers, or even pocket calculators, apprentices were allowed to purchase a slide-rule to assist their calculations. If nothing else it was a great help to those who still had difficulty with seven and nine times tables. The first weeks of trade training were spent learning to file metal accurately, and in the case of airframe fitters, how to rivet two lumps of aluminium together. The tedium was relieved for a couple of weeks by the initial airfield phase of training, when real aircraft were experienced, usually with a mop or broom on the dusty upper surfaces.

Many of the civilian instructors on the airfield were quite elderly, and at least one had experience of working on Vickers Vimys dating back to World War I. He told us the Vimy technical manual consisted of a single twenty-page volume, of which there were sixteen full-page pictures. His description of checking that the rigging of the giant biplane was correct, by releasing a canary between the wings, was a particular favourite. Apparently, if it escaped there was a wire missing. The bus ride down to the airfield was enlivened by everyone rocking from side to side in unison, which made the double-decker sway alarmingly, and also by everyone jumping up and down at the exact moment we traversed the hump-back bridge in the village, which resulted in the bus crunching on the hump, and the driver complaining about the lunatics he was forced to transport.

Pay and conditions...

Gross pay for the youngest members of the entry on joining was £2-12-6d per week. Of this 32/- was drawn in cash, and the remainder, after National Insurance deductions, was saved until leave was allowed. April 1966 saw a rise to £3-3s per week. Even for the time the pay was not much, even with all necessities provided by the R.A.F. Nevertheless, before decimalisation the money bought so much more than it did even a few years later, and most people just about managed to last from one payday to the next. A couple of shillings a week were deducted for the ‘Entry fund’ which went to subsidise haircuts, and other worthy, but vague, benefits.

Each room had the benefit of a radio speaker that piped a virtually non-stop stream of pop music and chatter into the ears of those who wanted it, and also those who did not. Those were the days of the pirate radio stations and the favourite listening was Radio London, where Tony Blackburn et al honed their skills before moving to wider audiences. There was also Radio Halton, run by volunteers to provide its inmates with service news, gossip and info, and a succession of request programmes which usually descended into inter-entry slanging matches, when one or the other of the rivals would request ‘Little Children’ by Billy J. Kramer for the other one. Every evening the commencement of Radio Halton’s programmes was announced by the first few bars from ‘633 Squadron’, which still has more power to evoke the memories of bull nights than mosquitoes for at least one of the 204th.

As the months went by the 204th lost the title of 'junior entry', and were hoping to gain some added status by later arrivals being allocated some of the more onerous tasks around the Wing. This did not happen at first and there was much complaining about the 204th having to put out hundreds (or so it seemed) of chairs for various pass outs and other functions. Dissatisfaction reached a high level, and little aid was forthcoming from official sources, so a protest was planned and executed. One dark (but not stormy) night a large contingent of 204s effected entry into the Regiment block where all the chairs were stored and arranged them around the side of the square as if for a parade. The following morning the Wing Warrant Officer arrived and did a massive double take at the chairs and went into the Wing H.Q. with a puzzled look on his face. When he emerged a few minutes later the puzzlement had been replaced with fury, and he started shouting at everyone to start putting all the chairs back. Everyone, that is, except the 204th, who were by now on the double-decker buses, and cheering, as they headed off for the day on the airfield.

Entry stunt...

It had grown into something of a tradition at Halton that as an entry approach the end of its training it performed some form of stunt, that was usually meant to amuse all except those who were the target. Some famous ones included the taking of an aircraft from the workshops and putting it on the main parade square; stealing all the socks on the camp and hanging them along the telegraph wires down to Wendover; and removing all the flagpoles from the camp and hiding them in the woods. Two successful stunts witnessed by the 204th apprentices were the stealing of a pair of sentry boxes (while sentries were on guard) by the 105th Entry; and this was followed by the 203rd Entry stealing a large ceremonial cannon. Both of these were from the Army College at Sandhurst. This led to a very ambitious attempt to go one better, and involved a plan to steal something from Windsor Castle. The exact details of the plan were kept a closely guarded secret, even from each other it appears, and the ensuing chaos is best followed by reading the account on the discussion forum under the heading of ‘Mandalay Bell’. Suffice to say that taking a few hundred chairs from an unguarded block in a place everyone was familiar with, did not prepare anyone for breaking into a castle guarded by the Welsh Guards, especially when (unbeknown) Her Majesty was in residence. The alarm was raised and chase given. Some apprentices escaped, some did not, but the end result was universal, and even those not in on the plan were roused in the early morning to be counted, grilled about their involvement, and left to stew about whether the forthcoming pass-out parade would go ahead.

In the event it was decided that it too embarrassing for all to air such goings on in public, and after a long and painful reprimand to all, whether involved or not, the pass-out went ahead.