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Legion Magazine - Passing Muster

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Passing Muster
By Rosemarie Hutchinson
Legion Magazine, July 1986


I lean against the hangar wall and watch the action on the tarmac. It is crowded with air force other ranks. Soon all this blue-clad humanity will be dragooned into orderly flights by harassed NCOs. This is going to be the absolutely ultimate parade. The Kind is coming, the Queen too, and as an added attraction the two princesses. It is the year of Our War 1944. The place RCAF Topcliffe, Yorkshire, England.

Though it was six months ago, it seems only yesterday that I said farewell to my good parents in Canada. I can still hear my mother shouting instruction: ``When you are on the ship, Rosemary, be sure to walk round the deck 10 times everyday. There is nothing like fresh air to prevent sea-sickness!’’ She should know, the sight of a row-boat makes her throw up, a rubber duck in the bath-tub brings on a convulsion. 
About the first person I had seen on boarding the Queen Elizabeth was my friend Charlie. I should have known that was inevitable. She and I seem fated to spend our service life in harness. We have already done 18 months together as motor-transport drivers in Newfoundland. But I was glad to see her. Life with Charlie is never dull. She tends to involve herself in all sorts of scrapes and unsuccessful scams, carrying me with her into endless trouble. However, she is a cheerful girl and has a blithe spirit in adversity. So far, I must admit, we have not run into much, but in war-torn England you can never tell.

I hope she gets back in time for this parade. Having been stricken by hunger pangs, she has sneaked away to the kitchen door of the officers’ mess to inveigle food from some overworked  cook to sustain her during the inspection. Only Charlie would have the nerve to do this just before the advent of royalty.


Now I can see her weaving her way through the crowd clutching a paper bag.

``What’s in the bag?’’ I ask.

``Say, the King must be staying to lunch, no spam today. I got roast beef sandwiches in here all plastered with Gentleman’s Relish, whatever that may be.’’


``It’s like pickle, my father uses it all the time, he even puts in on sardines.’’ I have a sudden nostalgic flashback to our dining room in Montreal and see dear old Dadsy with the pickle bottle at the ready by his elbow.
Charlie digs into the paper bag and fishes out two hunks of bread bulging with juicy meat. I eat in such a hurry everything gets wedged somewhere round my tonsils.


``Didn’t you bring anything to drink?’’ I ask.


``For crying out loud, I told you to come with me. I had some orange squash, could have had beer instead, but I was afraid I might breathe on the brass.’’


At this moment I heard the sergeant major calling out the markers. Charlie looks around wildly for somewhere to stow her empty paper bag and finally wedges it behind the hangar door. At the call to fall in we shuffle on to the tarmac and I lose sight of Charlie in the general upheaval.


After the usual fuss and flap we are sized into flights and I end up in the front rank two down from the marker. I can hear a sergeant bawling at someone and figure it must be Charlie being dumb. That girl does not know her left from her right.
Now, in a parade, the front rank is not a good position if you wish to remain invisible, which has always been my aim in service life. You are much better off in the middle or rear rank.


Important people invariably talk to front-row persons when reviewing a parade. However, it has been my experience that these important people also tend towards certain types. I you look all gung-ho and hearty you are sure to be singled out for a question. On the other hand if you droop like some tired old horse, obviously wishing you had never heard of the air force, let alone joined it, important people home in instinctively, as it is clear you need backing up lest you collapse on the ground entirely.


The best way to avoid all this unwanted attention is to stare fixedly at the horizon looking slight idiotic. Important people steer clear of idiots, though this is sometimes difficult as there are so many about. I have practised this policy with great success since leaving Manning pool  and have yet to be asked a question on parade.
I cannot see much of what is going on as we are at the rear directly behind a big flight of WAAF. On either side of the tarmac four Lancasters have been drawn up, no doubt for authentic decoration. Their great wings cast shadows at our feet.


Although my view of the royal party is nil I can tell at once when they arrive. There is a sort of breathless hush and the NCOs glance down the flights to make sure we are all behaving .


Now begins the raison d’etre for the King’s visit. He is awarding medals to aircrew. One by one as their names are called these recipients march up to have the awards pinned on their chest. Then comes the tragic names, the posthumous awards. These me will never wear medals they sleep forever in England or Europe, of cradled in the depths of the sea. I wonder what Charlie is thinking. Her brother was killed at Dieppe.


The inspection begins. I hope it will be short as my legs are getting tired. To pass the time I stare up at the Lancasters. How big and deadly they look as they loom over the tarmac.


Suddenly our flight is called to attention. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a group of people approaching, their leader awesomely recognizable. Incredibly they bypass the marker and stop in front of me.


It is an indescribable sensation being eyeball to eyeball with the King of England. I am quite numb. Never again in this life will I be such a centre of attention, or feel so inadequate. Four very senior officers, air marshals, have their eyes on me, also a WAAF senior person with scrambled egg on her cap whom I have never seen before and our own women’s division commander, who sill boil me in oil if I do not do her credit.


But they all pale into insignificance as I meet a pair of very blue eyes. The King looks magnificent in the uniform of Marshal of the Air Force. He asks me kindly where my home is and do I like England. I remember to says ``Your Majesty’’ to the first question and ``Sir’’ to the second. He passes on down the ranks and I fervently hope I have not  looked like the tired old horse. Won’t my mother be pleased! She will tell all her friends, making it sound as though the King had invited me to Buck House for tea.


Later in the mess hall Charlie asks me what the King said. When I tell her, she remarks rudely: ``Wonder why he’d bother talking to you.’’ I tell her it is because I have such an intelligent and beautiful face, a rare combination. She laughs so hard she chokes on a Brussels sprout.

But much much later Charlie is not laughing at all. In the early dawn I wake in our Nissen hut to see her sitting on the cot next to mine, smoking. The only lights comes from the evil little stove that, belching smoke and coke fumes, keeps us all warm through the night. I go and sit beside her on the narrow bed, asking what is wrong.

``Ah.’’ She says sadly, ``the parade today has made me think of Dicky. He was my twin, you know.’’ Her only bother too, this boy killed at Dieppe.

So we sit together in the gloom ruining our lungs with cigarette smoke, grieving silently for the dead youth of our generation.

King George VI inspecting members of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division