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Doing National service in Catterick, Chester and Singapore


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Another veteran has come forward with tales of his days doing National Service.

Robin Kenworthy was brought up in Pembury, but has lived in Staplehurst since 1963.

He served for two years in 1953 and '54, but said: "My one regret is that I didn't sign on for a third year - I was in-line for a Foreman of Signals course if I had."

Robin Kenworthy's National Service days: equipment maintenance
Robin Kenworthy's National Service days: equipment maintenance

Mr Kenworthy, 86, from Bathurst Road writes: Like many I arrived in my Sunday-best at Richmond station where we were herded aboard a dirty, slimy and smelly truck to be taken to Catterick.

Later I discovered the truck's detail had been first to collect swill from the cookhouses and then to deliver coal to the billets before collecting us NIG’s (New Intake Group).

We were dropped off at the cookhouse, issued with a mug and eating irons - and with no chance of a wash - fed stew and stodgy dumplings with reconstituted dehydrated cabbage.

Daddy's tomato ketchup, doorstop-sliced bread, rice pudding and a strangely orange-coloured mug of tea completed the feast.

Thirty minutes later it was "Outside you lot!"

A National Serviceman collects his 'eating irons'
A National Serviceman collects his 'eating irons'

Mug and irons were washed in a tank of luke-warm water with grease floating on it.

Then we were formed into threes to march to the Quartermasters Stores. "Swing those arms up! Up!," the Corporal barked and 48 young lads most of whom did not want to be there tried to co-ordinate four limbs to "‘Eft, ‘eft, ‘eft" without treading on the guy in front who was out of step!

We filed in one at a time, signed the clip board thrust at us and collected a kit bag full of goodness knows what.

Moving down the line it was “Head size? Waist size? Leg size? Chest size ?” - as if I should know what my tailor had last measured me for!

Two battle-dresses later, it was Boot size? I did know that - wide 10G shoe. He spun round, selected two pairs of boots and barked "12" as he handed them to me.

A National Serviceman's kit laid out ready for inspection
A National Serviceman's kit laid out ready for inspection

I collected a bag of webbing and formed up with the rest trying to get every thing into the kit bag without dropping my mug!

We were directed to the billet where we told "Lay it all out on the bed."

Then it was “Stand by the bed” and the Corporal Hiscock proceeded to shout out the name of each piece of kit which had to be picked up and checked off on his clipboard.

Picking on the lad who had the end bed he said: "You are number one. What are you?"

"Number one."

These young recruits were soon to learn their Corporal was King
These young recruits were soon to learn their Corporal was King

"You address me as Corporal! What are you?" he bellowed. "Number one Corporal!"

"From number one, number down the line," he said with a gesticulation that seemed to indicate a clockwise direction.

"What is your name number seven? Shout it out with your number, we all want to hear!"

"Earshaw," said Earshaw, bending over his bed to read his service number from his draft papers.

"You address me as Corporal!"

Robin Kenworthy, right, with a pal in ceremonial whites
Robin Kenworthy, right, with a pal in ceremonial whites

He went round the room at random ticking us off on a sheet.

Then it was "Right! You have two pairs of shorts and two PE tops, strip off, you’re all the same apart from the hair cut!

"Even numbers wear blue and white, odd numbers wear white shorts and red tops.

"Then make a parcel of your clothes and any pansy underwear. There are two sheets of brown paper and two yards of string each on the bed."

That was to send our civilian clothes home.

Robin Kenworthy today
Robin Kenworthy today

There is so much I could write about what followed - some depraved, some hilarious, some plain stupid.

The soldiers adage was: "If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, kick it. If it still doesn’t move, paint it."

Sooner or later everyone was put through a punishment or initiation ceremony.

Our Corporal Hiscock was “busted” for not intervening when a guy was washed down with a soda acid fire extinguisher.

I remember electric irons from Woolworths had a couple of turns taken out of their elements so the sole got red hot to burn polish onto our boots.

The troopship Dilwara took Mr Kenworthy to Singapore
The troopship Dilwara took Mr Kenworthy to Singapore

Brasses from webbing were burned in Brasso in a mess tin so as to get a better shine.

Nearly everyone got Blanco poisioning from scrubbing desert brown off webbing before putting on green.

Perhaps the only really pleasant experience was a day on the ranges.

Latrines were made from a pole over a trench with hessian partitions to preserve modesty and a 50-gallon drum at one end to provide a flush.

As a joke, someone would launch paper boats filled with lighted gun-cleaning materials to float down the trench!

The River Park Ballroom in Chester
The River Park Ballroom in Chester

Before joining up, I had gained by examination a job as an accounts clerk in the General Post Office. The GPO and I had looked on National Service as an intrusion into my career.

But I was selected for training in the most complex technical trade in the Royal Signals using and maintaining equipment such as magnetrons, oscilloscopes, multi-channel communication, teleprinters, generators and telephone switchboards.

Finally, after six months of training from 8am to 8pm each day, with two 30-minute meal breaks and a physical training hour each day, it came time for my posting.

"Is there anywhere you want to go?” the officer asked.

“As far as possible, Sir.” was my answer, thinking it unlikely I would ever travel far abroad with only three weeks holiday at the GPO.

A map of Singapore
A map of Singapore

"Report to Blacon Barracks, Chester.”

There we had a glorious couple of weeks, with evenings out at Quinces Restaurant where the crush on the dance was so intense you could dance with one girl and snog another at the same time, or at the River Park Ballroom.

There was so little to do, we were given the fatigue of cutting the grass between the Spider Blocks (the barrack formation) with only the tiny scissors from our “housewives” (sewing kits). It took forever!

Then the order came “Report to Denbury Camp.”

Another kitting out process, this time jungle green and we had to learn how to put on “putties” on so they did not unravel when marching. (We never wore them again!)

A view of Singapore today
A view of Singapore today

Then it was off to Southampton docks, the SS Dilwara and – Singapore!

I was assigned to 19 Air Formation Signals Regiment and stationed at RAF Changi - though quite why we had to take our heavy great coats to RAF Changi I don't know. They were immediately mothballed. Perhaps it was just to give the quartermaster there something to look after.

We worked a 24-hour shift system but off duty, we would make frequent trips into town.

Even if that occasionally meant missing the last bus home and a 19-mile walk back to barracks!

In the “New World Amusement Park” you could pay to dance with a "taxi dancer" - dancing without any physical contact - and could eat in the Hawker Centres - though this could cause a problem with the other guys in your block as one's breath smelled strongly of beautiful spices afterwards.

Gene Kelly in Singing In The Rain
Gene Kelly in Singing In The Rain

We saw all the latest wide screen films - The Student Prince, Singing in the Rain, Three Coins in a Fountain, White Christmas.

We even made some trips up into Jahore.

I found two school mates were serving in Singapore at the same time as me - one as an MP, the other as a driver to a padre.

We enjoyed paddling around the harbour in a log dugout canoe, and visiting the Botanical and Tiger Balm Gardens.

I paid my respects at the Krangi War Cemetery, which was a moving experience, especially when shown the (then) newly discovered murals painted by the POWs on the hospital chapel wall at Changi.

Singapore in Robin Kenworthy's days, with many building roofed in atap thatch
Singapore in Robin Kenworthy's days, with many building roofed in atap thatch

On the Queen's birthday, we were issued with white ceremonial uniforms and had to parade with the Gurkhas. That was no mean feat for a dozen guys all over 6ft to march at the Gurkha speed of 140 paces a minute! We had to to take half steps to avoid walking on the guy in front.

While there, I also managed my first solo holiday - a month long trip to Hong Kong and a visit to Macau on the Fat Shuan Ferry.

You never know what the future holds!

Over the past 60 years, 11 of my immediate family members spanning four generations have lived and worked in Singapore and Hong Kong.

I have been back a dozen times myself and seen it develop from Malay huts built with Atap thatch to, on my last trip, spending the Chinese New Year in a jacuzzi on the 29th (rooftop) floor of our apartment block.

The Kranji war cemetery
The Kranji war cemetery

Similarly Hong Kong has developed from an over-crowded colonial shipping hub where you rented a sleeping bunk by the hour to the bastion of world trade and finance that it is today,

The Singapore authorities are determined that the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Second World War should never happen again and to this end have created a detailed trail round the sites with animatronic recreations.

On one of my trips I met a party of incredulous Japanese school-children being shown round and watching films about Selerang etc - and they just could not comprehend the actions of their forefathers!

Anyone wishing to learn more - or to get in touch with old comrades from RAF Changi - can visit the Royal Air Force Changi Association.

For other tales of National Service, visit here or here.

One of the Changi murals painted by British POWs during the Japanese occupation of Singapore
One of the Changi murals painted by British POWs during the Japanese occupation of Singapore

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