Tom was a National Serviceman who served at 101 Signals Unit Brockzetel and lived
at RAF Jever. He went back with a visiting party of ex-101 Signallers in May 2008
and during the visit Tom told us that he had been a National Newspaper Editor,
a Lancashire Councillor (still is) and also edits a small local newspaper called
"The Idle Toad". Over the years Tom has written in the Idle Toad about his
experiences of National Service and he has kindly allowed us to reproduce three
of those articles here.
Tom Sharratt tells the truth about National Service
SEVERAL of these so-called "reality" television shows over the past 12 months
or so have claimed to show what National Service was like.
They take a clutch of young lads and put them through military drill, discipline,
and barrack-room living and think it shows how today's lads would match up to their
Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. Kid gloves were not standard
issue for drill corporals when I was called up.
The idea of National Service -- yes, in my mind it still starts with capital letters --
was that the Government could make up numbers in the armed services by conscription.
Conscription? That means forcing every able-bodied person in the land that's not
female to join the armed forces for a fixed period. From 1947 to 1962 it was two years.
Though politicians didn't realise it at the time, the result was that Britain ended
up with a bunch of stroppy, unprofessional soldiers, sailors, and airmen whose only
interest in life was crossing off the dates on their demob charts. Fighting? Forget it.
It was two years of utter boredom and loneliness. It was also a time of hilarious
misadventures, a time when you formed friendships that would last you for the rest of your
You never forget your service number. To this day, almost fifty years later, I still
identify myself as 5031420 when I phone my RAF comrades or write to them.
One friend in Nottingham invariably replies as 5031417 (he was three places ahead of
me in the queue when we joined up) and another, in Blackburn, always greets me with the
words GET SOME IN!
This is a service joke that no-one who hasn't been in the forces will ever understand.
It refers to the fact that he got his call-up five weeks before I did and I was therefore a
sprog, a lesser being in the order of creation who had not got as much service in as he had.
No, it's not funny, is it? I've never thought so, either.
Joining up meant RAF Cardington, a bleak camp somewhere in Bedfordshire. It was a
reception unit where you got your kit and your first service haircut.
Kit? If it fits, you hand it back. Haircut? Everything off. And you had to pay
for it too. The only other thing I remember about RAF Cardington is that it had the biggest
aircraft hangars in the world, where the R101 was built.
In the 1930s airships were thought to be the future of aviation. The R101 proved they
weren't. It crashed in France.
After Cardington, Bridgnorth. If you thought Cardington was bleak you hadn't seen
RAF Bridgnorth was perched on a windswept ridge somewhere in Shropshire. It consisted
of vast squares of parade-ground tarmac and endless rows of wooden barrack huts. Here we
spent eight weeks of hell that were, as we later realised, the funniest in our lives.
Every minute was drill. We even had to march to the cookhouse, and marching is a risky
business if you don't know how to march.
The entire camp was laid out on a square grid pattern, and at every intersection there
was a giant water tank to provide an emergency supply in case any of the huts caught fire.
Each day a different victim was ordered to march the squad to the cookhouse, and one day
the poor sod who was put in charge hadn't a clue how to do it. He could manage
QUICK MARCH but after that he was lost.
So were we. At the first intersection there was no RIGHT WHEEL and three men were
in the water before we heard HALT.
Then there were pits. Pits are beds. Pits are where you try to spend most of your time.
One poor lad in my but was called Bill Beechey. Bill was a master skiver. He spent more
time in his pit than any of us.
But one day he came a cropper. As he lay in his pit, fast asleep, our drill corporal came
in. He spotted AC2 Beechey fast asleep. His eyes glinted with malicious glee.
Now Corporal -- well, even after all these years, I'd better not give his name -- was the
perfect military man. Toecaps that put a mirror to shame, trouser creases that could slice
hairs, and a cap with a slashed peak so vertical over his eyes that it would have brought tears
of envy to a regiment of guardsmen. His greatest skill was to pronounce corporal the army way
-- coprl, with a long o.
He crept silently -- yes, crept, in those big boots - up to Bill Beechey's bed and roared:
Something happened then that I have never witnessed since. I swear to this day that Bill
Beechey, still recumbent, rose vertically three feet from his bed in absolute shock. Poor Bill.
He was still a good skiver, though.
I draw a decent veil over the common indignities of basic training. Standing in a line and
being told to drop your underpants and cough is not, to my mind, worthy of record; nor is the gas
chamber -- stinging eyes and a sprint round the football pitch singing Davy Crockett -- or
bayonet practice. Bayonets? Airmen?
Then came the moment of glory: the passing-out parade. It is well named. One thing that
servicemen do on passing-out parade is pass out. Guardsmen do it regularly.
And there is one military crime that surpasses all else. It is called Dropping Your Weapon.
We were told endlessly that if we dropped our rifle we should go down with it, feigning
unconsciousness and being carted off by the medics.
And what did I do on passing-out parade? Yes, you've guessed.
But I didn't go down with it. I reckoned that nobody could spot one individual out of a
thousand in identical uniform, so I did the unmentionable: I bent down and picked it up.
Don't tell. Snowdrops - RAF police -- are still on the lookout for that anonymous AC2
The next step was trade training. I went to RAF Middle Wallop and was taught how to be
a fighter plotter. You've seen them in war films, pushing little numbers round a big map.
But when I reached my final destination, No. 101 Signals Unit in North Germany, they didn't
want fighter plotters -- they wanted radar operators. So I was retrained and then, naturally,
spent the rest of my service as a unit clerk.
The job consisted mostly of sending and receiving, piles of paper and arranging urgent
distant postings for randy airmen who'd got local girls pregnant.
Don't forget: we were the front line, defending the realm in the Cold War. I'll tell
you more about that next time.
Learning How To Be Shouted At
IN JUNE the Idle Toad published Chapter 1 of the military memoirs
of 5031420 Aircraftman Second Class Sharratt, T. E., R.A.F. (retired),
which described the heroic misadventures of basic training during
National Service forty years ago. Here, in Chapter 2, he resumes the
IF THERE is one thing you have to get used to during basic training it is being
shouted at. You are shouted at morning, noon, and night. Not that you've done
anything wrong, anything to deserve being shouted at. It's just that those who
are your bosses like shouting.
I described in my last article how I ended up at Royal Air Force Bridgnorth,
the hellhole of Shropshire. It was there, to his intense delight, that Drill
Sergeant McDevil spotted a minuscule trace of shaving cream behind the lobe of
my left ear on the barrack square one freezing November morning in 1956. Morning?
At 6am it wasn't even dawn.
Drill Sergeant McDevil was from Glasgow. I do not know much about Glaswegians,
but I do know one thing for certain: all Glaswegians become drill sergeants in the RAF.
It was not enough to tell me simply that I had a trace of shaving soap behind
my left ear, nor was it enough to inform the rest of the innocent young lads standing
next in line on that frost-bitten barrack square. Oh, no -- standing there in the
bitter Shropshire wind, Drill Sergeant McDevil felt obliged to tell all of Glasgow.
And he did it very well.
If I'd had the choice, I'd have given up shaving then. If you can't shave
without leaving a trace of soap behind your ear, you're not fit to be in the Royal
So it was quite a surprise that after eight weeks, I qualified. Perhaps it
was my other skills.
Like sizing the squad. This was my favourite drill manoeuvre. The purpose
of sizing the squad is to put the tallest on the left and the shortest on the right,
with all the rest in between according to height.
The beauty of this was that at 6ft 2in I was the tallest in the squad, and -
yes, you've guessed -- the tallest in the squad has nothing to do. All he does
is stand still while the rest cavort and cartwheel around him. Standing still,
I felt ever so smug. They were all being shouted at, and I wasn't. It made a
change -- a big change.
After basic training, trade training. The RAF is very diligent about trade
training. Never mind these clumsy fools who Drop their Weapon on Passing-Out
Parade. Anyone can do that. But when it comes to trade training we want to put
men where they matter.
Like AC2 Oik. He was from the West Country, born and brought up in Yeovil.
An apprentice air fitter on helicopters. Knew how to build aircraft from
beginning to end. They made him a cook. Yes, really, they did.
And then there was AC2 Plod. Good at languages (spoke three), got a place
at Oxford, volunteered for the Russian course. No good: fighter plotter.
So you didn't end up where you'd be most use. Never mind your abilities:
you went where the RAF wanted you.
And then there were POMs. POM stands for Potential Officer Material.
Every intake had to provide POMs and they were chosen by the time- honoured
service method of You, You, and You.
It was awful. It was embarrassing. All your mates hated you. An
initial interview with the flight commander and then the station commander.
In the end, it was a relief to fail.
Next -- Life in a German bog: No. 101 Signals Unit, the British Empire's
last defiant bulwark against the threatening hordes from the East. Be patient.
Shouting to get rid of the Russians
LAST YEAR, in a sensational literary scoop that left the
publishing world weeping with envy, the Idle Toad acquired
the exclusive worldwide rights to the military memoirs of
5031420 Aircraftman Second Class Sharratt, T. E., R.A.F.
(retired), whose heroic misadventures graced our pages
in June and December. Here, in a third extract, he describes
what happened when he was posted to the famous No. 101
Signals Unit, stationed in the middle of a North German bog.
WE HAD a cunning plot. The Royal Air Force needed radar stations,
ostensibly to keep an eye open for enemy aircraft heading west in vast
numbers across the Iron Curtain to destroy NATO but more often to find
its own fighters that had got lost. RAF fighter pilots tend to get lost
The radar station I was sent to was called -- well, no, I'd better
not tell you its name. After all, I've signed the Official Secrets Act.
My lips are sealed.
It was buried deep in a North German bog, one of those endless,
dull brown expanses that fill in the spaces between German towns when
they aren't full of pine trees.
The cunning idea was that if the entire unit was buried and camouflaged
the Russians would never spot it.
Good idea. So it went down deep, all three storeys, and the guardroom
at the entrance was craftily disguised as a North German farmhouse. Yes,
you had to hand it to them: it looked just like a North German farmhouse.
What worried me was the 100ft Type 80 radar dish revolving endlessly
in the farmyard...
...and all those nodding Type 13 height-finding radars behind
it. Somehow, I felt they might be a giveaway.
The road didn't help much, either. In an effort to be co-operative,
the local German authorities had built a road to the site. It was over
two miles long and straight as an arrow pointing straight to the site.
Unfortunately it was made of white concrete. We were told you could see
it from the Kremlin.
There was something else that dented our confidence, too: Military
Missions. (Click to see a full description of these Missions.)
The Allies had an agreement with the Russians: you let us come
and look at your radar stations and we'll let you come and look at ours.
So every three months or so a dull green Volkswagen would turn up at
the front gate and three Russian officers would get out and start taking
pictures. We were given sten guns (but no ammunition) and told to shout
I think this was supposed to frighten them away but it never did.
They took all their pictures and hopped back into the Beetle and disappeared
up the road until next time. I rather envied them their job -- it seemed
a right cushy number.