3 - The Gathering of the 'White Flash' Boys

The Reception Wing at Babbacombe was merely a 'get in, get your kit, get it on your back and get out' unit. We were marched about, initially in our civilian clothes, and waited interminably in corridors for our turn in swearing the oath and getting jabs, flying kit, uniform, Form 1250 (ID card) etc. Finally, after one week exactly, we queued for our rail tickets to Initial Training Wing (ITW) - our destination for a more prolonged stay. There were several Initial Training Wings spotted at well known former holiday resorts around the country, at one of which the cadet would spend his next ten weeks of service on ground training. Hotels at these resorts had been requisitioned to house the thousands of RAF cadets who would pass through on their way to glory or oblivion. I was chosen to occupy a bedroom at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough, No 10 ITW, in the company of several other room-mates. ITW appeared to be totally dominated by a group of Physical Training Instructors (PTI) perpetually dressed in white pullovers. The curriculum was devoted to reading the riot act, RAF law, and the PSI (an abbreviation which, I seem to remember, represented the cash fund of the President of the Services Institute; I don't believe any RAF man had the faintest notion who this President was, but we were fairly certain that the PSI was a fund which could be plundered by clever officers). There was also a bit of navigation plotting, some practise in Morse code, and drill, drill, drill. But at night we dressed ourselves in our bright new uniform with the luminous distinguishing badge of our trade (the white flash in our forage cap) denoting that we were the cream of the cream, aircrew cadets with Brylcreemed hair. I did not drink or smoke then, so what my new friends and I got up to I cannot remember; but showing ourselves off to the public might be near the mark.

It was at this unit that I saw for the first and only time an officer of a military Service weeping in front of his men. In the middle of a groundschool period we were summoned en masse to report to the main room of the building. The Squadron Leader CO of the unit came in when we had all gathered; I was in the front row of the seats. He announced the dreadful news that we had among us at the hotel a 'tea-leaf', indeed a 'half-incher'. He appealed to this person to give himself up, otherwise there would be a blot on the unit's escutcheon, at which point I could see the tears begin. It was quite embarrassing, believe me. Whoever was the thief was not caught, as far as I know.

The course continued and I felt myself getting fitter and fitter. Lots of sporting activity took place on the beach immediately below the hotel. On the landward side was another ITW (No 11, I think) also housed in an hotel. The area between the two buildings was used as a parade ground for both ITWs. After five weeks had elapsed, half-way through the course, we were suddenly ordered to get into our 'best blue' uniform and polish up for an inspection parade. When we were suitably lined up, the PTIs carried out a meticulous pre-inspection and, to repeated cries of ''Quiet in the ranks'' we hissed to each other ''What the hell is going on?''. Soon a staff car appeared on the scene and out stepped a gallant Air Commodore, taking his place (after much saluting here and there) in front of us. A super-inspection, we thought, but no instructions were given to open-order march. He then declared to the throng that, due to the exigencies of the Service (how often was I to hear that one?) our time at ITW had to be truncated and we were forthwith to move out for a posting to a flying training unit in a foreign country, and we would be deemed now to have completed the ITW course. He then inspected us, or rather moved amongst us, speaking to a few and wishing us bon voyage. This officer with the very thick single rank-band on his sleeve, wings and masses of gongs on his chest, seemed like God to me.

Two days later we had packed all our gear and moved off in the late afternoon of 18 August 1941 to board a special train at Scarborough railway station, encumbered by kitbag, full pack and full haversack. Our immediate destination was the transit camp at RAF Wilmslow, just south of Manchester. We arrived at Wilmslow station after midnight. There was no transport, so we had to march. It is quite a distance from the station to the camp (about one-and-a-half miles) and even when you got to the Guard Room you could have a good further half-mile to go to reach the right section hut. With all our kit to be carried, the journey was horrendous, fit as we were. When we finally reached the required hut, the agony continued with the supply of blankets to be signed for and then carried to our quarters, a bell-tent with nothing to illuminate the scene but a single oil lamp (exposed lights were frowned upon in blacked-out Britain then). Mud surrounded the area, kit was piled anywhere a space could be found and it was an utter shambles. But our spirits were lifted to some extent by rumours doing the rounds that we were to go to the USA for the start of our flying training.

We spent the next few days in the stores queue, the medical queue and several other queues. Then each of us was issued with a large suitcase of the cheapest cardboard obtainable, then off to an area where hung dozens of light-grey civilian suits and where we were invited to play the lottery of trying to find a suit which fitted. Finally, we were all packed off on leave for a few days to say goodbye to our dear ones. When we returned, we collected our suitcases (I can't remember how our kitbags were dealt with) and marched back the way we had come from the railway station so shortly before, with the general public staring at us in amazement. Did they think it was the Military deserting them, leaving them to their fate under Herr Hitler? I was not sorry to see the back of the place and presumed that I would never see it again. Twenty years later however, I drove up that same road from the station to the officer's married quarter on RAF Wilmslow which I was to occupy during my final tour in the service of the RAF.

 

Copyright William C. Wood 1997.