Air Crew Reception Centre (ACRC) & Initial Training Wing (ITW)
I spent a fortnight at ACRC. The first thing that happened was that I and other new arrivals were marched off to a nearby block of requisitioned flats where we were put into rooms bare except for blankets and biscuits (small square mattresses that could be put together to make a bed). I was in a room with seven others all older and bigger than me: the biggest one of the lot asked "What's your name?". "White'', I answered. "You're Chalky". And Chalky I have been ever since. All were City of London policemen who because they were in a reserved occupation were exempt from call up but could not be stopped from volunteering for flying duties. I was fortunate to have the policemen to look after me and I received much kindness from them. Perhaps because I was so young they looked on me as a sort of mascot!
We were fed in the restaurant at the zoo. There were many hundreds of airmen to cater for and the overstretched arrangements only functioned because we were kept in a long queue and then made to get in, get served and get out in a matter of minutes. The general opinion was that the animals probably fared better than we did.
Quickly we were taught the things recruits the world over had to learn: to distinguish the right foot from the left foot, how to lay out kit, and how to polish brass. One evening, when we were working hard with the Brasso, the corporal came in and looked at what we were doing. He picked up one airman's cap badge and said it was not polished, which puzzled its owner who pointed out that it was shining beautifully. The corporal slowly turned the badge over and explained that it had two sides and both had to shine beautifully! When l was a boy I had always polished the insteps of my shoes so I was in unspoken agreement with the corporal's philosophy of polishing.
After the first few days we were considered presentable enough to be let out. I went several times to a canteen that had been set up in the Rudolf Steiner hall. At the time I had no idea who or what he was, but I was very grateful that he had a hall so near to Lord's.
Our main subject of conversation was to which ITW (Initial Training Wing) we would be sent. As there was one at Torquay I knew where I wanted to go. With its usual perversity the system took no notice of my unspoken wish and instead, on 1 August, put me on a train to Aberystwyth
I spent twelve happy weeks at No. 6 ITW accommodated in the requisitioned Queen's Hotel. By chance I was in the only room in the hotel with its own bathroom, a boon after compulsory sports on Wednesday afternoons. I chose to do cross country running, which occupied only about an hour, so that I could be back to take advantage of the bath before everyone else returned and the hot water supply ran out.
A small, wiry Welshman was in charge of our flight of fifty keen, energetic and not to be put upon young men all hoping to be Observers. He was amazingly good at controlling and looking after us: I remember him with gratitude.
I caught a bad cold and reported sick. The doctor told me I would have to go to hospital, which was in fact another requisitioned hotel on the promenade. I was dosed and put to bed. Very early next morning the matron, a terrifying lady, came round and ordered me to get up and sweep the floor. I wanted to tell her that she did not know how to look after someone as sick as I was and that my mother never made me get up when I was sick in bed at home. But I said nothing, picked up the broom and decided to be better by the time the doctor came round!
A lot had to be learned in a short time but I did not find it too much of a burden, although one morning I was told by Fraser Watt, who slept in the next bed to me, that I had recited in my sleep the entire manual for the Lewis gas operated machine gun. Fraser was a quiet, reliable Glaswegian with an accent so strong that sometimes he could not be understood. We became friends and went about together during our time in Aberystwyth. He went missing when serving in Bomber Command. (1)
I was promoted to be an LAC (Leading Aircraftman). At the next pay parade when my name, number (shortened to "the last three") and the amount I was to receive were called out I froze for a few moments. The amount was £5. I had never been given so much cash all at once in my life before!
One afternoon we were told that volunteers were being sought for special secret duties and that those selected would be on operations much sooner than those doing the normal training for Observers. Most of us volunteered.
At the end of the weeding out process, which consisted of aptitude tests and an elaborate eyesight examination, I and a few others, still completely in the dark about what we had let ourselves in for, were informed that all we could be told was that after ITW we would not be sent overseas for training but to an AONS (Air Observers Navigation School) in this country.
At the end of the course I had my first leave then on 1 November I941 I went to No. 6 AONS at Staverton, an airfield between Cheltenham and Gloucester.
(1) Sergeant F H K Watt was the Observer/Bomb Aimer of a Stirling of 149 Squadron shot down on 8 December I942 by a German nightfighter whilst on a mine laying operation in the Baltic. He has no known grave.