Flight Sergeant Sweet was the senior NCO i/c all matters concerning radar operators at West Beckham. He lived in the 'married quarters' attached to 'A' Site and sent me a message to meet him at 'A' Site one morning; not to go to Bard Hill. I arranged for somebody to deputise, and duly attended his office.
He explained that there was to be a massive NATO exercise. The scenario was that without warning, the UK was under all-out air attack from the East, and in defence, we were to mount a twenty four hour watch for four days with existing personnel. This to be known as exercise 'Dagger'. Meals were to be sent up from base and we were to sleep on blankets piled on the tech-stores floor. It was obviously to be all hands to the pumps. Our senior NCO was to actually do some operating, and the camp CO at the time happened to be the only officer in the RAF who had been a radar operator, so he sat in with us also. The date was fixed, and I advised everyone to get maximum sleep in preparation. The CO was naturally in charge, and he arranged that we should all work on until unable to stay awake, when individuals would be allowed to stagger to the tech-stores and sleep for one hour. The next man woke you after what seemed like five minutes, and back you went to the tubes. We all smoked in those days, and as there was no air conditioning, the air was barely breathable. The man doing guard was responsible for continuous tea production, but it was sleep that was mostly required. As we could not leave the tubes, meals would have to be taken individually, but during the first night of exhaustion, the thought of bacon, egg, tomato and fried bread for breakfast kept you going.
I was detailed to take notes and write a report on the exercise. It was plain within only half an hour of commencement, that we were to be totally ineffective as a functioning station. I was on the PPI at the start, and was passing plots and estimations on formations of up to twenty aircraft. Gradually these formations merged and estimation of numbers became impossible. The aircraft were all dropping 'Window', the name for foil-backed thin card about half an inch wide, and of a length calculated to match the wavelenth of our transmission: spcifically designed to cause maximum interference. The appearance of this on the PPI made plotting hopeless. The tube normally showed solid green overland and near black over sea. An aircraft over sea showed as a bright glow on the black. Now however, the whole of the sea was green, save for a few small patches where the 'window' hadn't overlapped. Through these patches aircraft could be seen from time to time, but there was little time to plot them. It seemed to us a complete fiasco. As you couldn't see out of the block, only the clock indicated the approach of breakfast. The lorry was heard arriving and the first two left. In the present emergency, we were allowed to bring the meal into the block. The first two re-entered and displayed their 'breakfast'. On a plate were two sandwiches of very thick bread filled with thin slices of unidentifiable tinned meat. Large pieces of fat and gristle made up the bulk of the 'meat', and the only detectable flavour was pepper. Corned beef would have been food for the Gods in comparison. Bread, margerine, marmalade and hot tea completed the meal. I'd had some pretty awful meals in the RAF, but I thought this was again taking 'character building' a bit far! The CO also had to partake of this gourmet feast, and from the language he was using, I gathered it wasn't quite up to his standard. He rang base from the guardroom, and we learned that ears had been assaulted at the other end. Thereafter, hot meals were brought in containers and there was no further dissent. The exercise fully exposed our defence vulnerablity using only wartime technology and peacetime levels of personnel.
There wasn't much I could do to pad out the report; the results were obvious. All the other stations involved must have reported similarly. The single positive result was that the participants were virtually dead on their feet at the end of four days, having had a total of about eight hours sleep. Because of 'window', the hand recorded plot sheets were a shambles, rendering analysis of the exercise impossible. We used to clean the plotting tables with CTC [carbon tetrachloride] from the fire extinguishers hanging on the wall and four days activity had all but emptied them! The powers that be, had craftily arranged the exercise to end on a Friday night, and I think we all slept right through the weekend. Handing my report to the 'observer', and commenting on the shambles, I was told that new technology and hardware was nearly in place, rendering the stations we were currently manning obsolete. This exercise had been used to prove the point to the Government planners.
During the summer, I and a few like-minded, approached the CO for permission to carve out a cricket pitch at 'A' Site, and arrange for the loan of equipment from Wing HQ, Sutton Bridge. A bag containing some obviously unwanted bits arrived, but they were adequate for our purpose. We decided on a reasonably level area in the shadow of No 1. aerial tower for the wicket, but it was hard going dealing with long coarse grass with just shears. We only had 'sports afternoon' Wednesday, and the weekends to work on it, so the grass seemed to grow as fast as we cut it, but we set up the stumps and forgot about National Service for an hour or two each week. There was a disused hut at base and curious as ever, I peered through the almost opaque windows. It was empty save for a folded table-tennis table. Enquiry revealed that during the war it had been the 'sports hut'. We got permission to scavenge enough wood to make a light shade to suspend over the table and were in business. It was quite well attended and very many hours were spent improving our games.
There was nothing much to attract me into Sheringham or Holt, the nearest towns, so I rarely left the camp. This meant I retained most of what little money we were paid, which sent out some sort of telepathic signal to the 'borrowers'. We were paid fortnightly on a Friday in the empty NAAFI, the princely sum of £2-6-8, and in the evening I had to listen to a succession of hard luck stories culminating in requests for loans. I usually complied, but most would pay me what they had borrowed previously only to request it again immediately. I was only caught once; this by a golfing Scotsman. He was passionate about the game, and spent all available spare time on the Sheringham course; all available money as well it seemed! He was unexpectedly posted with no time to pay me, so he offered me his ice skates, which fitted, and two sessions of golf instruction on the Sheringham practice field. It was this or nothing so I found myself the next Saturday, club in hands being instructed. We spent about five minutes on the preliminaries and I was ready to hit the ball. Ready, but not able! My club head went above, beyond, in front, behind, but in what must have been a dozen swings, the ball remained undisturbed. I decided Golf was not my game and handed back the club. I have never been tempted to try again.
A vacant bed in our five man room was filled by a Frenchman! His English father had met his French mother during the Great War. They had remained in France, and worked up a wine exporting business, which survived WW2. Our man, Frenchy, as he was predictably known, presumably had dual nationality. When it was time for National Service he elected to join British Forces rather than French. The wine business had an outlet in London to which he was a frequent visitor, so his English, though not good, was passable. As his place of domicile was France, his decision to join British forces meant that as he had been called-up by the French and not responded, he was registered a deserter. He looked more like the archetypal Prussian than French, with a square head and cropped blonde hair. He only needed the monocle to complete the picture. Several English words and phrases always eluded him. Instead of saying, 'This size', he said, 'This side up', crisps were always cripps, and at cards, diamonds were always pronounced the French way, the 'i' was pronounced 'ee'.
FLOOD at Salthouse
I've forgotten whether it was early or late in 1948 when the lorry returned one morning from Salthouse without water. We had already poured away what was left in the container, so water had to be found quickly from somewhere. I queried the driver who said that the road , which was in a deep cutting descending into Salthouse, had sandbags across it stacked about three feet high. Although visibility was down to about fifty yards due to snow squalls, he was sure the sandbags were holding back the 'sea'. As the location he had given was about fifteen feet above the coast road through Salthouse I assumed he was mistaken. He offered to take me to the barricade to see for myself.
Sure enough, lapping against the sandbags was a dirty green sea. Back at Bard Hill the driving snow completely screened Salthouse from us, but the roar from a heavy sea did seem closer than usual. When the snow had cleared, we could see the houses of Salthouse were submerged to the upstairs floor level. We learned, after the crisis had passed several days later, that the water level had risen suddenly, not gradually as with a river flood. One family told me that mid-evening an unusual noise against their front wall proved to be their rustic garden seat rising outside the window. Immediately, water entered under the front door and round the window at some pressure. They had only seconds to grab what they could and dash upstairs.
The smooth East-West coast line about a mile North of Salthouse has not always been so smooth. It seemed that possibly a hundred years ago, the area containing Salthouse formed a natural wide shallow inlet from otherwise elevated ground to East and West. It was decided to join these elevations with a shingle barrier, leaving Salthouse on comparively dry reclaimed land along its coast road. This must have been quite a feat for that time; the barrier was several miles long, and in places thirty or forty feet high. There was a house on a natural rise on the barrier, and supply cables to it were carried on poles along a track from the coast road. When the snow cleared we could see from our height at Bard Hill the full extent of the flood. The tops of the poles were about three feet out of the water for about a hudred yards from barrier and coast road, but totally submerged in between. Next to the house was a wide breach in the barrier, and the sea was the same height at Salthouse as beyond. When the flood had subsided, I saw pieces of straw forced by the pressure of water right through the tongue-and-groove joints on the doors of a pub yard. Apparently a similar breach in the barrier had ocurred around 1878.
The end of my two year National Service was in sight, so I produced a plywood plaque with two windows showing numbers on two rotating discs at the rear to count down the days from 99. Life moved on almost without incident.
I think I still had about thirty days until demob, when a message from Watnal ordered us to close down and immediately return to base. It was only 1500hrs and we didn't normally finish until 1700hrs. At base we found the whole camp on the move toward the cinema hut. The CO got up on a chair and explained that the 'cold war' had escalated, and that all demob had been put back by three months! This took me to April 1949. Back in the hut, I removed my demob counter from the wall, to be replaced when I could show less than a month again. You were left with the strong feeling that this might well happen again - and again! Most conscripts were sustained in normality by their demob date, and this news brought to many, an angry depression. Civilian life had been placed on two year hold for us all, and there were as many different reactions to this extension as there were people affected. Some got drunk, some just went home and waited to be arrested. I, of course, carried on as though nothing untoward had happened; having been brought up never to expose emotions, nor ever step out of line and incur the displeasure of those in authority. Throughout the war I felt that I was the only one in the family feeling fear during the blitz; following my parents example of suppressing all outward show. Within a few days, the grumbling and unrest had died away, and life settled back to the RAF norm. Luckily none of my watch went awol.
Demob came at last for five of us at West Beckham, but we didn't leave the camp all on the same day. We met up again, signing off at Sutton Bridge en route for the de-kitting and demob centre at Kirkham. At Sutton Bridge, you finally entered an office where a Squadron Leader with many medal ribbons invited you to sit on a chair facing his desk. This was an unprecedented event; to be seated in the presence of an officer, and you were immediately on your guard. His tone was friendly as he asked how you had 'enjoyed' you time with the RAF.
Even at this late stage, you were still unable to speak your truth for fear of retribution, so you uttered the standard phrases that suited his ears. He took your blue pay-book away, and filled-in the green pages of a new yellow one. He began extolling the delights of life in the modern RAF, now coming into existence. He commented on my good character and exemplary performance so far, and offered me the immediate rank of sergeant, should I choose to sign-on to stay in the RAF for the next three years! This meant that I would skip the two ranks of Leading Aircraftsman and Corporal, but would have to remuster to the education branch. It must have taken all of two microseconds to consider and reject the offer. After all, I could only see a future based on my two year past experiences which added up to a big minus. I didn't believe the offer anyway!
It is natural to remember pleasant, past experiences, and for me the most pleasant of the past two years was my time spent at Bard Hill in summer. The solitude of the gorse-spattered moorland with the sea to the North and the small wooded hills inland were always a welcoming pleasure. True there were remnants of barbed wire fences, and ruined huts, but these were reminders of a long war now over, and so added to the pleasure.
At Kirkham, everything but what we were dressed in was taken away. We visited many sections to be signed-off, and many counterfoils were torn from our new yellow pay-books. The Pay Office was the last on the list, and here you received what was known as your 'credits'. This was all the money now owed to you by the RAF, and as you signed for it, you were told that you were no longer an airman, but while in uniform, were still subject to RAF discipline. We were issued with a railway warrant to our chosen destination, and a ticket enabling us to use the YMCA in Manchester as a base until the train was due.