Get Your Knees Brown Lad!
By Kevin Webster
I joined the RAF in September 1964 and trained as a Clerk Secretarial in the 301st Entry of Admin Apprentices at RAF Hereford. The scheme had just replaced the Boy Entrant course there, with training reduced from 18 months to 12. Prior to joining up, I'd been in the Air Training Corps, serving with 44(F) (Bradford) Squadron, ending up as a Cadet Sergeant. I suppose the air force and military life was in my blood. My brother had joined up as a Boy Entrant MT mechanic five years earlier, and had also been an ATC cadet. I think we were both very influenced by our father, who had served as a Sergeant in the West Yorkshire Regiment in Burma during the war. Dad's tales of wartime life and particularly the wonders of the Far East left a vivid impression on us. He joined late in the war, because of his age, but the yearning to visit faraway places was certainly made much stronger from listening to Dad's stories.
My postings in the RAF were:
- 3 S of TT, RAF Hereford, Sep 64 to Aug 65
- HQ FTC, RAF Shinfield Park, Aug 65 to Mar 67
- HQ MEC, RAF Steamer Point, Mar 67 to Oct 67
- HQ BC (later STC), RAF High Wycombe, Oct 67 to Sep 72
- SHAPE, Mons, Belgium, Sep 72 to Aug 74
- 100 Squadron, RAF West Raynham, Aug 74 to Sep 75
- HQ P&SS (RAFG), RAF Rheindahlen, Sep 75 to Mar 78
The focus of these recollections is on my time in the Middle East, during 8 months of active service in Aden. As one of the "much maligned" who hardly ever went near an aircraft.
I was just turned 19 when I climbed on board the VC10 at Gatwick for my first overseas tour. I was being sent to HQ Middle East Command in Aden, to take part in the withdrawal of British forces from the Gulf. It was an active service tour, and that meant that people were in the habit of trying to kill us. Arriving at the Easter weekend, I had a few days before reporting for duty. I was billeted in a former camel stable (so we were told) up a steep hill overlooking the bay. What a glorious view from my bed on the verandah of the building, out across the beach and the water! Sleeping in the open air, but warm, was a new experience. I went to the beach next day, fell asleep, and got badly sunburned on my back and shoulders. So bad, I couldn't move from my bed for two days. New arrivals were invariable referred to as "moonies" due to our pale white skin.
First appointment after completing the arrivals procedure was a briefing on the political situation and ground defence training. There would be frequent guard duties and we were told quite frankly that we always stood the chance of being shot at or bombed. Most everyone took their turn on guard, regardless of trade. That didn't bother me much at first. I was a pretty good shot and had spent many hours on the range with all kinds of weapons. I'd had the crossed rifle badge on my left sleeve ever since I'd been in the cadets. Guns were things I was well used to, but I got a shock the first time I went on guard.
Instead of the beautifully polished, individually appointed Lee Enfield ..303 that I'd been used to taking down to Bisley for shooting competitions, the example I drew from the rack in the Defence Ops Centre was a well-worn, semi-rusty and distinctly dubious one. I removed the bolt and looked down the barrel. "My God!" I thought, "I hope I don't have to defend anybody with this relic!"
Guard duty was a 24 hour period - two hours on, four off. There were mobile patrols in Land Rovers and static sentry positions. There were beats that you had to walk, like some village bobby safe back home in leafy Sussex or somewhere. The worst ones were where you were on your own. Many a night, I would crunch my way along the beach, gripping my rifle so tightly that the knuckles whitened, listening to the water gently lapping against the pebbles. I'd stare out across the black water, waiting for the group of heavily armed terrorists to arrive in their rubber boats. Then, I would quickly slam a round up the breech and drop to the sand, quickly dispatching Her Majesties' enemies one by one. Well, five of them at least, because they only gave us five rounds of ammunition each!
Fanciful stuff. It certainly kept the adrenalin flowing. Well, I was only 19 after all and younger lads than me had won the VC in years previous. One day I was standing guard at the entrance to the base, when a truckload of Paras drove by. They made fun of my aged Lee-Enfield, showing off their new self-loading FNs and Sterling SMGs. I threw a few good-natured insults back as they disappeared in a cloud of sandy dust.
They were the ones who put their lives on the line though. I think we understood when they came back from their patrols and got blind drunk and smashed up the NAAFI canteen. We were rank amateurs at the fighting game, but I did feel some kind of power with a loaded rifle in my arms. Nobody ever expected young RAF clerks to even fire their weapons in anger I'm sure, but I was ready.
One night, in a sentry box outside the hospital, I was gazing down at the Cold Store at the foot of the hill. Part of the brief was to keep an eye on the place, which was a frequent target for terrorist attacks. Suddenly, a figure appeared from out of the shadows below a block of flats. He was acting furtively, looking left and right. Then, two more joined him. They huddled together, and I saw the flicker of light as they lit up cigarettes. There was a curfew in place, and they knew they shouldn't be out there.
One of the men pointed to the Cold Store. He seemed to be looking for something in the folds of his robe. The signs were disturbing. Totally disregarding the orders we'd been given, I quickly snapped off the safety catch and chambered a round. I took aim through a link in the wire fence in front of the box. The Arab moved slowly towards the gates of the Cold Store compound. I could reach the telephone that connected with the Ops Centre, but the suspect might throw a bomb before I could call for help. I calculated the range, flipped up the backsight and set the wheel to 200 yards. Too far for him to hear any warning I was supposed to shout. This was no harmless paper target I was pointing my Lee-Enfield at, but a living, breathing human being. He might be completely harmless, just having a smoke with his mates. He might have kids. For the first time ever, I was pointing a loaded weapon at another person. A mass of thoughts raced through my mind - would I squeeze that trigger?
The week before, I'd been on patrol when a mortar bomb fell close to us. These people were not the kids I'd played war games with in the back streets of Bradford. All my training in the ground defence classroom, all my hours of practice on the range told me that if necessary I would have to shoot this man and had the ability to do so. Sweat began to run down my body in rivers. I thought about the oath of allegiance I'd sworn down at Hereford the day I got the Queens Shilling (or rather 30 shillings). Was this what it was really all about? Did this nameless Arab pose a threat to the defence of the United Kingdom and Colonies? What if I fired and they discovered he wasn't carrying a weapon, would I be court-martialled? What if I missed and he got his grenade over the wire?
It seemed like an age, but was probably something like less than half a minute, from the moment I slipped off that safety catch before the situation was resolved. At the end of the street leading to the Cold Store, the lights of a vehicle came round the corner. The headlights were very close together, which could only mean one type of vehicle - the ubiquitous Land Rover. The man in my sights turned and fled back into the building, along with his compatriots. Thank God for the British Army!
I unloaded my rifle and made a call to Ops Centre. Panic over. My hands were trembling as I lit up a cigarette. That was the best cigarette I ever smoked in my life. To the day I die, I will never know if I would have shot that man. I just thank the Lord I didn't have to.
That's my most enduring memory of my time in Aden, but there are others. For the last three months of my tour, I shared a room with a couple of lads from Northern Ireland. One was a Protestant, the other a Catholic. They got on great with each other, but I remember them telling me that one day there would be a civil war in the Province. Up to then, I'd hardly heard about Northern Ireland. Just a year later, their awesome predictions came true. Maybe now after 31 years they'll all be able to unload their rifles and breathe a sigh of relief.