Published: 15:20, 13 April 2021
| Updated: 15:25, 13 April 2021
Following on from our previous feature on National Service, another ex-National Serviceman has got in touch.
He is Mike Fitzgerald from Chart Sutton, who was the Mayor of Maidstone in 2007 and is well known to many for his work with the Royal British Legion, the homeless and many other good causes, as well as being a founder of the World Custard Pie Championships.
Mr Fitzgerald, now 83, received his call-up papers in 1956.
At the time he was living in Tooting, London, and was apprenticed to a book-binder. As such he could have deferred his call-up until his apprenticeship was completed, but decided instead to go in straight away.
He said: "I took the decision that if I waited till I was 21, I would be out of kilter with all the other recruits. It seemed better to get on with it."
He was assigned to the Royal Air Force and did his basic training at Bridgenorth. Afterwards he transferred to Shrewsbury for trade training and was rather looking forward to an exotic posting overseas. At the time British servicemen were still stationed all across the world.
Instead, Mr Fitzgerald was sent to an RAF Communication Centre at Watnall near Nottingham for top secret operations monitoring air traffic over the UK.
He said: "I thought being in the RAF, I might get to see the world from above. Instead I spent my time in an underground bunker, which we were told would help us withstand a nuclear attack." (It was a time of increasing tension between the USSR and the West).
Mr Fitzgerald's job was to monitor incoming flights to the UK picked up on radar and to check them against filed flight plans. If an aircraft couldn't be identified, it was assumed hostile and fighters were scrambled to intercept it.
He said: "There were probably a couple of scrambles every month. We were under some pressure because with an airplane approaching at speed there wasn't much time to ascertain whether it was friendly or not. It seemed like a very responsible job for an 18-year-old."
Because the station had to be monitored 24/7, Mr Fitzgerald and his colleagues had to work shifts. He said: "We did a morning and evening shift and then an afternoon and night shift."
This had the unusual advantage that every now and then the aircraftsmen had a straight three days off.
Many National Servicemen took the opportunity to travel home to see family, but the enterprising Mr Fitzgerald found a causal job in Blanchards Bakery in a nearby village. He said: "I spent my time working the machine to make crumpets."
Asked whether the RAF didn't object to his second job, he confessed: "I may not have told them."
However, the money came in handy to supplement the meagre National Serviceman's pay. He said: "When I was in, I think the pay was one pound, two shillings and thruppence (£1.11 in decimal money). But the RAF only ever paid us the pound, the extra they automatically put in a Post Office Savings account for us."
Watnall was unusual in other ways. Mr Fitzgerald said: "It was really only a camp and a field. We slept in Nissen huts with 10 beds down each side and a fire in the middle.
"But Hucknall Airfield was close by and a number of the officer pilots were billeted at our camp. Because it was such a small place, we shared a mess with them, which was unusual."
That lead to rather poignant moment.
Hucknall was used to test new aircraft designs - including one known as the Flying Bedstead, which was a prototype for later vertical take-off planes. (It's proper name was the Rolls-Royce Thrust Measuring Rig).
Sadly, while Mr Fitzgerald was there, one of the pilots crashed and died while trying an early design of the Comet 4, which the RAF used for troop transport, even though they were designed for use as a commercial airliner.
Mr Fitzgerald said: "I had been talking to the chap in the mess the night before. It was a very sad moment."
Watnall remained operational as an early warning centre until 1961 by which time Mr Fitzgerald had long since returned to civilian life.
He said: "I absolutely enjoyed my time in the RAF. I felt I was doing an important job and I tell you, I have never in my life felt as fit as I did when we finished our basic training!"