By Willie KeaysEngines

I knew a lot about life as a Boy Entrant at No 2 School of Technical Training, RAF Cosford, long before I set eyes upon the place. My brother had joined up as an Engine Mechanic u/t in early 1953 and for a time was in the 20th Entry. I was attending the prestigious Royal Belfast Academical Institution having obtained a Scholarship and passed the Public Schools Common Entrance Examination in 1951. My home life was not a happy one so when my brother, whilst on leave, regaled me with his new life in the Royal Air Force I gave up my ambition to go to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth when I reached 18 and instead decided that, as soon as I reached 15, I would follow him.

I reached 15 in March 1955 and applied to the RAF Careers Office near Carlisle Circus in Belfast. Before many days were out I joined a party of about twenty boys, some from the North, some from the South, to travel by ferry to Liverpool and then by train to Wolverhampton and on to Cosford. We were thoroughly examined by the Medical Staff, ‘Cough’, ‘Bend Over’, ‘Had any diseases?’ and so on. A colour blindness test, and one for eyesight was also included and a check for flat feet. Hearing was checked by whispered words from behind: 'Glow' . . . 'Globe' etc. Aptitude and intelligence tests followed and some rudimentary and educational tests, arithmetic, spelling and comprehension. Next I was interviewed by two officers. They seemed very keen for me to become a Radar Mechanic. I explained that I wanted to follow family tradition and become an Engine Mechanic like my brother. They gave up in the end but advised me to think it over.

I was unable to travel home straightaway as I had contracted mild bronchitis and was placed in the Infectious Diseases Hospital at Cosford. (There was also a main hospital elsewhere on the station). After a few days I became an “up-patient” and was able to help out with the daily chores in the two wards. One of these was to wheel a trolley around and deliver meals to the other patients. On one occasion a pudding was left over; I had already eaten mine but I ate this one too.

Consternation! An officer patient had arrived and unknown to me had been placed in a side ward. Yep! I had eaten his pudding. I was then placed in charge of a bumper and spent most of the rest of my time in IDH polishing the floors. When I had fully recovered I was escorted home to Belfast by a Sgt and his wife, happily not in handcuffs.

On 7th June 1955 a group of us once more travelled to Cosford; not an easy journey as a rail strike had resulted in a State of Emergency being declared six days before. When our ferry reached Liverpool we were met by a RAF boneshaker bus and taken to Cosford. Once more I was pressed to become a Radar Mechanic but once again I turned down the opportunity. That day, 8th June, I signed on for 12 years from the age of 18, and became 1931101 Boy Entrant William Keays of the 25th Entry, Engine Mechanic u/t, one of 700 other B/Es in the Entry. At clothing stores we were given uniforms, boots and all the rest of our kit. My working blue jacket was different to everybody else’s. It was not so hairy and was of a slightly lighter shade of blue. It had no eagles on the shoulder. It may have been worn by a small Polish apprentice years before. Waste not, want not!

Cpl “Isaiah” Kemp was one of our Drill Instructors. Isaiah because, either through an accident at birth or maybe a war wound, one of his eyes was higher than t’other. He was meticulous in showing us how to bull our boots, polish our brasses, blanco our webbing from a virgin state, make a bed, make a bed-pack, lay out our kit for inspection, iron our uniforms and use a bumper; I was well ahead on that! After the obligatory “short, back and sides” we met our Flight Commander, Flt Lt Hinton. It wasn’t a speech of welcome exactly; it was more a recital of possible crimes that we might commit and warnings of the dire retribution if we offended. He mentioned ex-Borstal Boys and said that he knew some of us hadn’t worn boots or shoes. He was probably alluding to boys from the South of Ireland.

A few days later, I lay in bed taking stock of my new life. I had to get up earlier and work later. I was forced to do PT and there was a cross-country run coming up, not something I was looking forward to. Then I realised that I was being paid!

Sgt Wood, a cheery little sunburned Welshman, was in charge of our drill. I had been in the CCF so had some idea of its requirements. The weather was fine and we were in shirt-sleeves. It wasn’t arduous with rifles; it was just foot-drill. One day our flight of about 100 boys, was ordered to parade in PT kit. We were going to something called an FFI inspection. We were marched into the Hinaidi Hangar (named after an RAF Station in Iraq). ‘Halt!’ ‘Right turn!’ ‘Open Order March!’ ‘Right Dress!’ Then an MO came along the front rank accompanied by an orderly who was carrying a large glass beaker of some liquid with two glass rods in it. ‘As the MO approaches you, drop your shorts and your drawers!’ came the command. The MO took the two glass rods out of the disinfectant and twiddled in turn with each boy’s important little bits, each time returning the rods to the disinfectant. ‘When the MO has inspected you, pull up your drawers and shorts!’ This was a Free From Infection Inspection. Humiliating! I could not understand how the RAF having given me, a boy of 15, the most intensive medical a few weeks before, suspected that I had caught the clap, or something worse, in the meantime. We were then marched to the cinema to watch a ghastly film about VD and how to avoid it.

We had First Aid instruction from Rock Apes and learnt the parts of the Lee Enfield ·303 and the Bren gun. B/E Jarvis, one of us in Hut D8, was appointed Senior Boy and was given a red lanyard to wear round his left shoulder. He marched us to “Schools” where we removed our berets and sat down awaiting the arrival of an Education Officer, Plt Off Else, a National Service officer identifiable as such by his hairy battle-dress. Jarvis remained standing with his beret on. When Plt Off Else entered the room, Jarvis ordered ‘Sit to attention!’ and saluted. Then the first Maths lesson started. ‘This’, says the Ed. Off. ‘is a plus sign. It means add numbers together’. He then chalked “2+2=4” on the blackboard. Things got a bit more complicated next lesson when he explained the mysteries of subtraction. ‘Golly!’ I thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’

In the Information Room, in “Schools”, was a colourful poster on the wall that showed rank badges. It included the chequered hatbands of B/Es at Cosford, Compton Basset and Yatesbury. Also shown werethe red, light blue, yellow hat bands of Aircraft Apprentices at Halton. Administrative Apprentices at Hereford had green hatbands and Locking Apprentices had dark blue ( I think). This was the first I had ever heard of Apprentices. I was to hear more before long.

An Ed. Officer summoned me to his office in Schools. ‘Would you like to apply to become an Aircraft Apprentice?’ he asked. He then explained that the 3 years Apprentice Course was double the time of a B/E course but, if I passed out successfully, I would become a Junior Technician at the age of 18. If I remained a B/E I would pass out as a LAC at 16½ with a recommendation to be promoted to SAC after six months. Then I’d have to wait for a Fitter’s Course, maybe after reaching 18; there was a long waiting list. I applied for this elevation to the peerage. There was to be an interview with the Senior Ed. Officer., Wg Cdr Seaman. It was the strangest interview I have ever had. I think there were five of us looking to become Halton Apprentices. We all went for an afternoon spin in his big car, maybe a Humber. We visited the famous bridge at Ironbridge and had a cream tea at Bridgnorth where he chatted to each of us. I reckon he was anxious to ascertain that he would not be sending any B/E desperados to the hallowed halls of Halton.

Summer leave arrived. I spent it cycling and hitch-hiking round the South of Ireland. On return to Cosford there was an upheaval in progress. The heavy trades were off to No 4 S of TT, RAF St Athan. My brother had graduated with the 21st Entry and had been posted to 232 OCU, at RAF Gaydon on Valiants. He had rescued me from the evil intentions of the Bullyboys of the 22nd before his departure; they let me know I was in for it when we reached St Athan. That didn’t happen ‘cos I was off to Halton.

I don’t remember the journey to Halton; I don’t think we went through London, a place I’d remember. The 81st were drawing their kit from Clothing Stores when I got there. I handed in three things: my red and yellow chequered hatband, my Polish uniform jacket, being given a form to sign; unwittingly I was to pay for its replacement (!!!!), and my B/E number. I had become 681459 A/A William Keays Eng Fitt(S) u/t; I had the last Service Number in the 81st.

I mentioned Bullyboys above. I wasn’t a B/E very long but I was at Cosford long enough to learn about the bullying that went on there, especially in Fulton Block, a vast complex allegedly the largest in Europe. The senior entry, one of five, ruled that roost at night. Not the good-humoured ragging that we met at Halton, but seriously nasty doings intended to terrorise the younger boys, reputed to be led by ex-Borstal boys who having learnt their dark arts in the School of Hard Knocks were dedicated to inflicting Hard Knocks on others. My brother, during his time in the 20th Entry, and in Fulton Block, had heard about something horrible called “the spoon torture”. Illness caused his re-coursing to the 21st Entry that was accommodated in J Lines so he happily escaped from the dreaded Fulton Block.