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, 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 again nothing happened. I admit I panicked. A flaming kitbag in my hand and an inoperative fire extinguisher ... disaster stared me in the face. However Steve, a cool voice of reason, suggested I try another extinguisher from the selection of four, and the next one I chose worked.
For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of the soda-acid fire extinguisher I should explain the water in the extinguisher contains bicarbonate of soda, hence soda-acid.The acid, sulphuric acid, is contained in a frangible bottle under the operating plunger. When operated the bottle is smashed, allowing the sulphuric acid to react with the bicarbonate of soda in the water to produce carbon dioxide gas, which forces the water out in a powerful stream when the extinguisher is directed at the seat of the fire.
‘Roger’ so far?
The chemical reaction was practically instantaneous. A mighty stream of water jetted out and impacted on the 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 but one of the few with brains, suggested sticking the kitbag in the bath and turning on the tap. I did, and the fire went out, maybe I should have thought of that in the first place.
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 to the squadron orderly room the use of extinguisher fire, type soda-acid, quantity two. The office 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 extinguishers, only asking why I had felt the need to employ them. When I told him it was to put out my burning kitbag, and the first one had not worked, he displayed a remarkable lack of astonishment, as if burning kitbags were a common phenomenon.
“How did the fire start?” He said.
“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, especially from an aircraft apprentice, 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, as one of the extinguishers failed to operate 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 the bottle of sulphuric acid under the operating knob of the extinguisher 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.
It is only when I came to write up this story the thought came to me ‘Why would there be no bottle?’
Lack of quality inspection at the factory of manufacture, or is there some monetary value in a small bottle of sulphuric acid, and they had been nicked from out of the extinguisher?
If anyone comes up with an explanation I would be grateful to be informed
The sad remains of my kitbag were stowed in my tall locker to await exchange at the next clothing parade.
The following Saturday we had the usual room and kit inspection. Unusually the inspecting officer was the Wing Adjutant rather than one of our own Squadron officers.
Flying Officer Poole had been commissioned from the ranks and was a former clerk, a pen-pushing paper shuffler; a trade looked on with contemptuous disdain by aircraft apprentices, of which Poole was well aware. I don’t know Flying Officer Poole’s given name but he was known to us as Cecil, naturally abbreviated to Cess.
All my kit, laid out on my bed in the prescribed manner, passed muster but for some reason Flying Officer Poole decided to open my tall locker. Bad move – a blackened, stinking ‘thing’ fell out at his feet, sending up a cloud of black dust and bits of charred canvas. He was surprised, very surprised, and jumped back from the ‘thing’, letting out a tiny ‘eek’ of a shriek.
Chiefy Lenz informed the shaken officer the kitbag had been set afire and was awaiting exchange. Poole, desperate to regain his dignity, forfeited by his girly reaction to the kitbag falling at his feet, reacted by putting the fear of God into me.
“Can this apprentice be charged with destroying government property? Recklessly endangering the lives of his comrades? Unlawfully smoking in the billet?” He continued with a lengthy list of ‘crimes’, many I think he made up on the spot, finishing with that all-encompassing catch-all crime ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline’.