By Mike Stanley.Armourer.

(I first wrote this about 2002, and it was published in The Halton magazine. I expect those of you who read it then have forgotten the story -- I know I have. As Brian is short of articles I thought to recycle this one; for those who never read it, for those who did and forgot it, and for those who read it and wished they hadn't. Mike.)


"Stan! Stan! Your kitbag's on fire!" An insistent voice remorselessly dragged me up from the deep sleep I was enjoying.

It was sometime during our second year; the great dispersal had taken place and I was now in 1 Squadron 2 Wing. I think it must have been the half term of the winter of 1956. The room was empty when I got in, as I had returned to Halton from leave well before any other of the room, or the block, and was soon was in my pit and fast asleep. In those days I slept the sleep of the innocent, or dead drunk, so never heard any of the other blokes coming in at the witching hour of just before 2359, and I doubt if they had tip-toed about because sleeping beauty was sleeping.

As I came to the surface, with that voice still in my ear, I took it for a prank, as the lads were prone to waking slumbering apprentii to ask them if they wanted to buy a battleship, or some other hilarious jape. I told the voice to go away, not in those exact words but I made my meaning clear.

"No Stan, your kitbag really is on fire. Look!"

My kitbag was stowed behind my bed, on the heating pipes that ran around the room. I sat up in bed and turned to look behind me, and sure enough there was reddish tinge at one end of the kitbag, resembling the glow from a cigarette. What I did next I blame on being half asleep, and fully stupid. I jumped out of bed, grabbed the kitbag and rushed down the centre deck towards the doors that opened onto the landing.

The extra oxygen, forced into the kitbag by my precipitous gallop, caused the dull red glow to become a flame and then an inferno. One onlooker later described as if I was carrying a 'gynormous' Olympic torch - which leads me to believe the year was 1956, the year of the Melbourne Summer Olympics. Incidentally, Dick McTaggert, former AC 2 cook's helper, who returned from Melbourne with a gold medal in boxing and the rank of Corporal, worked in the 1 Wing cookhouse, and one of my many claims to fame is that I spent some time with the great man. Before his elevation to Corporal he would be scrubbing tins in the tin room, aided by me, and sundry others, swept up by the press gang of the Orderly Corporal and Sergeant looking for apprentices to be put on 'fatigues' in the cook house.

But back to the saga of my flaming kitbag.

Out on the landing I quickly grabbed a soda-acid fire extinguisher from the selection of fire fighting equipment available. I banged hard on the operating knob but nothing happened. Fortunately Burt, who occupied the bed space next to mine, and had alerted me to the conflagration, was on hand to point out that I had not removed the safety clip. All I can say in mitigation is that I was still half asleep, and still fully stupid. After removal of the clip I hit the operating knob, and a fierce stream of water shot out onto the flaming kitbag, sending burning bits of canvas all over the place, but failing to quench the fire. I was all for grabbing another extinguisher but Burt, an 80th man and a fellow armourer, suggested sticking it the bath and turning on the tap, which we did. I placed the soggy remains of the kitbag in the drying room, cleared up as much of the mess on the landing as possible, then got back into my pit and slept like a log.

Came the dawn.

I had to report the use of extinguisher fire, type soda-acid, quantity one, to the squadron orderly room, which was presided over by Flight Sergeant Arthur Lenz, a man whose presence filled me with dread, and whose look turned my bowels to water.

He was surprisingly sanguine, and asked me why I had felt the need to use said extinguisher. He showed a remarkable lack of surprise when I told him to it was to extinguish my kitbag, as if such an event was a common occurrence.

"How did the fire start?"

"Dunno Ch... er, Flight Sergeant, it was alight when I got woken up."

"Hmm, - do you smoke?"

"No, Flight Sergeant." Which was true...I didn't take to the noxious weed until we were at Summer Camp the following year, and then only to keep the flies at bay when seated on the thunder box. Capstan Full Strength were my coffin nails of choice, and it's a wonder the stink of them didn't keep Lavender Dan at bay as well as the flies.

Chiefy Lenz inspected my fingers for traces of nicotine stains but found none.

"Keep your kitbag until the next clothing exchange parade. Meantime you can check that the rest of the fire extinguishers in the squadron are serviceable."

Out of a dozen soda-acid extinguishers at least three had no soda-acid bottle under the operating much for Health and Safety.

What was left of my kitbag was put into my tall locker. Next Saturday we had the usual block and kit inspection by the flight commander. All my kit, laid out on the bed, passed muster but for some reason the officer, a relatively new Flight Lieutenant, decided to open my tall locker. Bad move - a blackened, stinking, 'thing' fell out at his feet, sending up a cloud of black dust and bits of charred canvas. He was surprised, very surprised, jumping back from this 'thing', he may have even let out a tiny shriek.

Chiefy Lenz told him the kitbag had been set afire, and the Flt Lt, obviously trying to regain the dignity he had forfeited by his girly reaction, and to put the fear of God into me, asked him:

"Can he be charged for destroying government property? Recklessly endangering the lives of his comrades? Unlawfully smoking in the billet?" Chiefy Lenz gave a slight shake of his head as the Flt Lt went through his list, finishing with that all-encompassing crime, "conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline."

He might not have retained his dignity and prestige, but he certainly gave me the collywobbles, as I imagined myself in Colchester glasshouse for the remainder of my service career.

The officer was satisfied that he had put the wind up me with a vengeance, so left it to the SNCOs to see what I could be charged with, and went on to inspect the rest of the room , but I noted he didn't open any more tall lockers.

There hadn't been much in the kitbag; just the two side packs we were issued with, one holding my school and workshop exercise books, and the other holding my hockey boots, my rubber hockey boots. As luck would have it was the latter that had sustained the worst damage. The side pack with the boots had a hole burned through it, right at the junction of the side and back panels, the thickest part of the webbing, which shows the heat generated from a fag end, which I'm sure was the cause of the fire. Someone had flicked their dog end in my general direction as he came through the door, and I suppose it was lucky it hadn't landed on the bed, or in my hair.

My exercise books escaped major damage, only bearing the marks of the fire extinguisher used on the blaze. Several book covers had swirls and whorls of green, yellow and brown, quite psychedelic, if the term had been invented then, which it wasn't.

About three weeks later there was a clothing exchange parade, and I duly attended Clothing Stores with my evil looking, and smelling, kitbag. The rubber of the hockey boots had melted, adding another foul smell to the already pungent stench of burned canvas, webbing, and stale fire extinguisher fluid.

At the Clothing Stores the age old ritual of exchanging kit commenced. The usual 'shirts', 'socks' and 'shreddies' were dealt with by the counter staff, until I presented my kitbag to a shocked looking store basher.

"Sarge!" He shouted in astonishment "There's a bloke 'ere 'oo wants to exchange 'is kitbag!"


A wizened, sweat-stained desert veteran of a sergeant appeared from a cubby hole.

"A kitbag?" He asked that question with all the emphasis Dame Edith Evans had managed of that memorable line from 'The Importance of being Ernest.'

He stared at me in disbelief. "Look at you; haven't got your number dry yet and you want a new kitbag? I've had mine since I joined up in nineteen plinky plon...what's the RAF coming to? In my day you would have been court martialled and shot..." You can probably imagine his tirade? I just stood there, ears red with embarrassment, as all the store bashers came out from the woodwork to view the apprentice who had burnt his kitbag. Eventually the sergeant ran out of breath and invective, and my kitbag was replaced.

I imagine he kept the Sergeants Mess agog with the tale that evening.

Webbing equipment comes under the domain of those fearless men of the Royal Air Force Regiment - at least it did in those days. I was rather apprehensive of approaching the Ground Combat Training office with the damaged side pack, half expecting to be doubled around the square, or sent over the assault course, for my temerity in damaging a Rock Ape possession, but actually changing the side pack was a doddle.

I went to the Regiment's store hut, where a Rock Ape corporal barely looked up from his copy of the Beano when I asked to exchange the side pack. "Chuck it in the corn..." He waved his hand in the general direction ..."and pick up one from off that shelf."

Eeezy peezy lemonysqueezy.

I made the exchange, thanked the corporal, who just grunted and kept his eyes glued to the Beano, and left. Actually when I think of it he was probably doing the Time's crossword.

So that was my fifteen minutes of fame. Never found out who it was that flicked the dog end. No one ever was charged, and the kitbag had a long and happy life, until my daughter took it with her when she went off to work as a groom at a horse riding academy in Essex. She returned, a year later, sans kitbag. I think a horse may have eaten it, or it might have been one of the grooms; they were paid bladders.