This article was first published in The Haltonian, the magazine of the Royal Air Force Halton Aircraft Apprentice Association, in 2002 and republished in 'First & Last', The Journal of the 81st Entry RAF Halton Aircraft Apprentices, in 2013. There may be some words and phrases which will be unfamiliar to my reader A glossary is attached.
"Jack, Jack, your kitbag's on fire!" An insistent voice remorselessly dragged me from the delicious dream I was enjoying, where Sophia Loren and Kim Novak were each vying for my attention; I had already dealt with a voracious Brigitte Bardot.
The barrack room had been empty when I returned from half term leave; I had gone straight to bed and was soon 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 hours, and I doubt they had tip-toed about because sleeping beauty was sleeping.
As I came to the surface, the dream destroying voice still in my ear, I took the information of my kitbag being on fire as a porkie. Those coming into the barrack room when most of the inhabitants were asleep were prone to waking slumbering apprentices and asking if they wanted to buy a battleship, or some other ludicrous question. I thought I had been woken by some similar late arriving 'comedian' and told the owner of the voice to go away, not in those exact words but using language which made my meaning crystal clear. Nonetheless the voice persisted.
"No Jack, your kitbag really is on fire. Look."
My white canvas kitbag was stowed behind my bed on the heating pipes that ran around the room. I sat up and turned to look behind me. Sure enough there was a reddish tinge at one end of the white, cylindrical kitbag, making it appear like a glowing cigarette.
I blame my subsequent action on being half asleep, and fully stupid. I jumped out of bed, grabbed the kitbag and rushed down the centre deck towards the doors which opened onto the landing. Bad move. 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 the scene as if I was running along carrying a 'ginormous' Olympic torch.
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 Steve, who occupied the bed space next to mine and had alerted me to the conflagration, was on hand to point out 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 stream of carbon dioxide shot forcefully from the extinguisher nozzle onto the flaming kitbag, sending pieces of burning canvas pirouetting into the air but failing to quench the fire. I was all for grabbing another extinguisher, but Steve, a fellow armourer, suggested sticking the kitbag in the bath and turning on the tap, which we did and the fire went out.
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 went back to my pit and slept like a log.
Came the dawn and 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 intimidating stare turned my bowels to water.
He was surprisingly sanguine about the use of the extinguisher, only asking why I had felt the need to employ said extinguisher. When I told him it was to put out my burning kitbag he displayed a remarkable lack of astonishment, as if such an event was a common occurrence.
"How did the fire start?"
"Dunno' Ch ... Flight Sergeant, it was alight when I got woken up."
"Hmm – do you smoke?" Smoking was forbidden in barrack rooms, although the air was often thick with tobacco fumes.
"No, Flight Sergeant." Which was true, I didn't take to the noxious weed until at Summer Camp the following year, but that is another story.
'Chiefy' Lenz, never a man to take anything at face value, closely inspected my hands and fingers for traces of nicotine stains, or signs of the use of pumice stone for the removal of such stains, but found nothing to prove me a liar.
"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."
In case you think he was giving me carte blanche to fire off all the remaining extinguishers I should explain that a bottle of sulphuric acid sits under the operating knob of the extinguisher and can be inspected by unscrewing and removing the operating mechanism. At least four of the two dozen soda-acid fire appliances in the squadron accommodation had no bottles of sulphuric acid under the operating knob – so much for the RAF Fire Service and Health and Safety Inspections.
The sad remains of my kitbag were stowed in my tall locker to await exchange at the next clothing parade.
.... There is more of this story ...