During their second year at RAF Halton an Apprentice Entry would spend a two week 'Summer Camp' under canvas at RAF Woodvale, which is located near the sesside resort of Southport in the county of Lancashire.
RAF Woodvale holds the claim to fame of being the last airfield to fly operational sorties of Spitfires, although these sorties were out over the Irish Sea collecting humidity and temperature readings for meteorological forecasts rather than in a combat role. Nevertheless, the sounds of a Merlin engine roaring overhead would have the 'smokies' of the Entry sighing in rapture at the iconic sound.
RAF Woodvale can add another reason to its claim to fame as it was there I took up smoking.
We had set out from RAF Halton at seven of the morning to march the four or so miles to Tring station to entrain for Southport. The sun was blazing from an azure sky as we stepped off, in full marching order with rifles at the slope, following the pipe band off the parade ground and down to the Wendover - Tring Road, where the pipe band said –- piped -- their farewell, and we continued towards the railhead, now marching at ease with rifles slung over shoulders.
All the kit required at summer camp we carried with us. The large back pack contained our work overalls, P T kit, working boots, socks, shirts, shreddies, etc. We had no civilian clothes to worry about as we were not allowed civvies at Halton. Washing and shaving kit was carried in a side pack on one hip, with a full water bottle on the other hip. The two ammo' pouches on our manly chests held no ammunition but cleaning kit, and anything else that could be stuffed inside them. We wore No 1 Home Dress -- our best blue uniform with peaked caps; buttons and badges gleaming, and our best boots spit and polished. Our mode of dress at Woodvale would be beret, PT kit and /or denim overalls, with working boots. No 1 Home Dress was only worn on the journeys between Woodvale and Halton or to visit Southport.
We arrived at Tring railway station in good time. As in all arms of the military of every country in the world it had been a case of 'Hurry up and Wait', and we kicked our heels for a good hour or two before our train pulled in. Several carriages at the rear of the train had been reserved for us 250 apprentices, and once aboard we sped north. There was a certain amount of uncoupling and shunting when we arrived at Crewe, the well-known but little loved railway junction in the north of England, before our carriages were coupled to another train. Some hours later we arrived at Southport station, from where we were embussed, by Bedford 3 ton lorries, to RAF Woodvale.
Under canvas meant what it said on the box. We slept in six-man tents; the ablutions were in a marquee type tent, with a daily water bowser bringing in the means of abluting. The field kitchen and cookhouse stores, manned by cooks detached from RAF Halton, were in hessian and canvas encampments, and the mess hall was another large, marquee type, tent. All very different from the brick built facilities of RAF Halton, and in fact what impelled me to start smoking were the field latrines.
When I say 'latrines' I am not referring to pits dug deep into the ground to collect effluent but a canvas and hessian shrouded line of thunder boxes.
When seated at ones devotions, grunting and straining, squadrons of bluebottles would buzz around your head; acrid clouds of tobacco smoke were the only half-decent remedy to keep them away from private parts.
After my first visit to the latrines, and the subsequent flailing at the fly swarm accompanying me, I made a beeline to the nearest tobacconist/newspaper shop situated just outside the camp. Unfortunately, most of his stock had been sold, leaving only a few packets of Capstan Full Strength cigarettes on his shelves.
Being a tyro in the ciggy stakes and not knowing the strength and pungency of the brand I bought a packet of twenty.
I later learned this brand was the smoke of choice of roadmen and navvies.
My first drag of a Capstan cigarette was nearly my last as my virgin lungs struggled to adapt to the tar laden smoke. My eyes swam with tears; I coughed, spluttered, and choked, and only the fact the powerful fumes and the wreathing reeking smoke deterred the swarms of bluebottles harassing me stopped me from chucking the packet away.
As time at Woodvale passed I learnt to smoke my one a day -- I was as regular as clockwork in my movements in those far off days -- without choking, coughing or gagging, but one Capstan Full Strength cigarette daily was as much as my lungs could handle.
We were under the tender care of the Rock Apes at summer camp and they made certain sure we lived rough; none of that namby-pamby hot water shaving or cotton bed-sheets for the likes of us. We slept in blankets, and scraped at our juvenile hair growth with blunt razor blades and cold water. Fortunately, my facial hair was very fair and practically non-existent and what did show could have been licked off by a cat's tongue. I never tried that method as a scrub with a rough flannel usually sufficed.
A Squadron Leader, whose surname I never knew as he was always referred to as Rommel, commanded the Rock Apes. This Rommel was not so much The Desert Fox as a Desert March Hare and as nutty as a fruitcake. He well may have served in the Western Desert during the war; men who stayed out too long in the sun went sand happy. He always repeated an order twice. 'Mount the TCVs -- mount the TCVs'. None of us knew what he was on about until a Rock Ape corporal told us it meant Troop Carrying Vehicle.
After mounting the TCV, or three ton Bedford, as we knew them, Rommel would stick his head out of the observation hatch of the leading vehicle and wave his arm. 'Forward the TCVs -- forward the TCVs 'and off we'd go to who knows where. When we arrived at our destination Rommel's head would reappear in the observation hatch. 'Dismount from the TCVs -- dismount from the TCVs'.