The story of my six years in the Royal Air Force began on November 6th, 1974, when an eighteen-year old Alan Place turned up at the recruiting office in Bristol, from the moment I took the oath until I finished my tenure, six years later, I officially became a number and as any service man or woman will tell you, “You never forget your number.”
I joined up with five other lads from Bristol; Pete Brewer, John Amos, Brian George and two more whose names I cannot remember and it was not long after leaving the office I had the first of many encounters with service humour; I was asked by Pete, “What was I going to be?”
After many years of taking photographs, some of which my late father said were good-that was a real compliment as he hardly had a good word for me- fate destined me to carry on in the trade during my tours, “Photographer,” I replied to Pete’s question.
John decided to change to change Photographer to Pornographer, then-fortunately- decided they couldn’t call me Porno, so I got nick-named Pernod and the name stayed with me through basic training and trade training; it wasn’t until my first posting the name got dropped and I wouldn’t hear again until a few months before I came out; more about that in due time.
We got on the coach to go to Temple Meads train station and got our train which was heading for RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire, to start basic “square bashing.”
This journey was the first time I had been on a major train journey and the longest trip since our family left Yorkshire in the winter of 1963, so I was on edge from the beginning; even if I was travelling with other people.
Things went to plan until we got to Nottingham and then the wheels came off the trolley. Pete saw a young lady and went to chat her up, making us late for the next connection from Nottingham to Grantham, fortunately the schedule wasn’t too rigid and the missed train didn’t matter too much as we had to wait for some lads from Scotland to arrive, before we set off in the back of the lorry for “Swinders” or “Swinditz” as the camp was joking re-named by our group.
Our first weekend was an eye-opener which led to further contests lasting until 8 flight passed out six weeks later, having taken all but one contest with our rivals at 9 Flight-which we decided to give away; we thought they should have some little joy for their time, as we beat them at everything.
The opening weekend is a ritual called “Armoury call out,” the name tells you everything you wish to know, if somebody raids the armoury you need to respond as quick as possible and we did; 8 Flight turned out in dressing gowns and slippers in a few minutes. After about ten minutes 9 Flight turned up in full kit and got a roasting for being late-their punishment was another weekend lost for a repeat call out. Our billet consisted of sixteen chaps, there were twelve Scots, three English and a Welshman and I can confirm that if you spend a lot of time with somebody, you develop their speech tendencies. At the end of the basic training, I had a definite Scots twang to my voice, which confused people as I had not lost my Yorkshire accent either.
I made some good mates during this time and over time lost contact with most of them after trade training at RAF Cosford. One friend from my basic days did turn up again, a few weeks before I left Germany and I am almost sure I caught sight of another, but that was only a glimpse out of the corner of my eye and at a distance.
As with most service personnel, the first weeks are designed to break or make you and they almost broke me-I wanted to go home half way through-the constant shouting by the Corporals and the stripping of your name as you become a number are all designed too de-humanise you. Another theory I can verify, no matter which service you join, you never forget your number-over 30 years later and I can still recite my ID without thinking.
Not many memories remain from the fist six weeks, mostly we spent the time doing drill training, marching for hours on end and learning to carry and shoot a rifle-something I never mastered, being right handed but only able to close my right eye. The shooting range did leave a lasting impression on me, one day I was told to pick the rifles up and instead of handling the stocks; I grabbed the hot barrels and burned my palm.
Another incident occurred during the CS gas chamber, I found myself unable to breathe through my nose-the result of a sporting accident, five years earlier-and had to be sent out, this was the last encounter with the chamber in my six years. Some of the lads forgot the warning and did what most service lads do, then found the crystals do not react well with your private regions. No lasting damage was done, other than a few red faces.
One of things 8 flight mastered quickly was “Changing arms on the march,” this involves crossing the rifle from the right side of the body to the left without breaking stride, our flight got the trick in a couple of minutes-it isn’t all that hard, honestly. Unfortunately, with having an awkward length of stride, marching for me was hard at times, if I walked at my pace I walked on the man ahead’s boots and if I slowed, the man behind walked on mine; this lead to an amusing incident in one of the hangars. Our Corporal was getting tired of trying to get me to march in step, so he yelled, “Place, get out of my sight!” Half an hour later, when the session was over, he looked around and saw no signs of me, he called out “Place, where are you?”
I emerged from behind some large bins and replied, “Here I am, Corporal.”
Confused, he asked, “What were you doing behind there”
Not trying to be a smartass, I replied, “You said to get out of your sight, so I did.” After a while, even he saw the funny side of the situation.
During the time at Swinderby, my friend Jerry Darnell-from Norfolk-and I got known as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ as we did a good double act for “On the trail of the lonesome pines,” with me taking the bass section of the song.
Two of the lads in the flight were brothers from Newcastle, Phil and Rob Walker, the Walker brothers were not built for running and like me were often at the back in races, which meant we had to take the lead in the next relay leg. This practise of the PI teachers did lead to an amusing evening; we were called back to do some extra laps-or so we thought-after tea, we had to report to the gym block to meet the PI. When we got there, he said “I don’t want to be here and I know you don’t, so just run to the flagpole and back and let’s call it a day.” Instead of doing a three-mile circuit, we ended up doing a run of less than 400 metres.
During one of our regular soccer games, I had an interesting discussion with Phil Walker, the crux of the matter was my ability as a goalkeeper, Phil said, “Why didn’t you stop the goal? We are behind now.”
As I usually ended up between the posts-nobody wants to be a keeper-I replied, “If you had scored half of the chances you missed, my error would not matter, if you want to change places, feel free; I’m sure I can score the ones you missed.” My comment killed that argument.
However, we did have a follow-on discussion later, this time about the reason for me kicking the ball up field, as we lost possession Phil said to me, “What did you do that for? Now they have possession.”
Without thinking about my reply, I said, “True, the difference is, now they have to get the ball down here, whereas if I had given you the ball and you lost possession, they would be in our goal mouth before we could react,” Phil was again lost for words, he realised I was right.
Being the keeper gave rise to a lot of arguments, most ended because nobody wished to change places with me. I had the following discussion with Phil’s brother, Rob, after he saw me rushing out of the goal to tackle a forward, “Why did you dash out, Al?”
“The ball had been kicked over our defence and I was able to see the direction it was heading. At this point, the advantage is mine, the forward has to halt to check the direction and alter his path to collect and control the ball. Once he does that, I am lost, with control of the ball he can do what he wants and I have to contend with other forward running in. If I get to him first, the least I can do is buy us some time while he has to think of what he is able to do with me approaching fast and this could force him to make errors.”
The friend I thought I caught sight of as I was leaving Germany many years later was another good keeper, a Scot called Alan Lilley. From memory, Alan went onto become a cook in the RAF career; that is a job according to some friends I had at the time, would have suited me. My choice would have been Radio Operator.
Back row-L to R- Andy Fuller, Phil Hamilton, (?), Terry Hughes, Al Place
Front row-(?) Jim McKenna, Brian Phillips, Jerry Darnell, Alec McSurley.