Lost in the Garden of England

SHQ staff at West Mailing, Kent, in 1947. James Skinner is on the right end of the front row.

SHQ staff at West Mailing, Kent, in 1947. James Skinner is on the right end of the front row.

Early in 1946, on my 18th birthday, a buff envelope ominously marked ‘O.H.M.S.’ landed on my doormat alongside the cards. It contained an ‘invitation’ from the RAF to join them for the ‘D of PE’ (Duration of Present Emergency).

After completing ten weeks of square-bashing and fatigues and five weeks on a pay accounting course, I was re-classified as an AC1 – one grade higher than a common ‘erk’ – and posted to West Malling, Kent, to join 29 Squadron as their pay clerk.

Before reporting to the new station I was given ten days’ leave which expired at 23.59 hours on a Saturday night. Determined to make the most of it, I caught the last train from Victoria (22.18), the journey time being an hour. Unfortunately a fellow passenger wrongly advised me to alight at Malling station – three miles before West Malling. The ticket collector promptiy told me that I was at the wrong station and gave me some complicated directions on how to reach the RAF camp on foot. He then plunged the station into darkness, whereupon every street light in the vicinity followed suit. I was alone in a blacked-out ‘Garden of England’ and in no mood to appreciate it.

It was a hot, steamy August night, and wearing a uniform, greatcoat and boots didn’t help. My ‘big pack’ – a large, square haversack – was strapped on my back, a smaller pack hung over one shoulder, and my kitbag, bulging to the brim, bore down on the other. I set off, trying to follow the directions, and getting nowhere. After about two hours’ walking I came upon a solitary house showing a light in an upstairs window. I knocked at the door, which after a while was half-opened by a cautious figure in pyjamas. I told him I was lost and almost begged for a drink of water. He kindly obliged, gave me more directions and I went on my way.

Almost 50 years on, Mr. Skinner returned to West Mailing to stand at almost the same spot where he d reported after a night beneath the open sky.

Almost 50 years on, Mr. Skinner returned to West Mailing to stand at almost the same spot where he d reported after a night beneath the open sky.

A few weary miles later I came to a main road – hitherto it had been all country lanes. Then over the brow of a hill a bicycle appeared, carrying two RAF lads, one in the saddle and one on the crossbar – judging by their erratic progress they’d obviously enjoyed a good night out. I managed to stop them and ask the way, but their slurred reply was so incoherent I needn’t have bothered. As they rode off, singing hopelessly out of
tune, I debated whether to turn round and follow them, or continue up the hill. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt, hoping that the drink hadn’t blurred their sense of direction. After another mile or so, however, I realised I must have literally gone round in circles, and that if I didn’t lie down soon, I would fall down. The weight of the kitbag, two packs and greatcoat had taken its toll, so I turned off the road into a wood, found a clearing, and using my kitbag for a pillow, sunk into a fitful sleep.

Daybreak and its accompanying birdsong soon arrived, and I awoke covered in dew
and partially refreshed. I pressed on for almost two hours, passing endless orchards and hop fields, when suddenly a sight for sore eyes appeared on the horizon. It was an airfield windsock -1 was on the right track at last! Like the three wise men following the star, I kept it in my sights until the bitter end -only it wasn’t really the end, as it was flying at the extreme end of the aerodrome, and I had another mile to walk.

When I finally arrived at the guardroom to book in, I’d officially been absent without leave for eight hours, and I didn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed when the SPs told me that in fact, I needn’t have reported until 08.00 hours on the Monday morning!

I couldn’t have guessed to what extent the goalposts could be moved when training camps have been left behind!

James Skinner