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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
RAF dreams turned into coal dust
By Paula Dear
BBC News Online

Warwick Taylor's experience of the war was not quite what he had been anticipating.

As a keen schoolboy he had signed up for the Air Training Corps, and served three and a half years in preparation for joining the RAF.

But in 1943, aged 18, his number came up in a government ballot that meant he was sent to work down a South Wales mine for two years.

Warwick Taylor
Warwick Taylor has mixed feelings about his time at the South Wales colliery
Mr Taylor, 77, was one of nearly 50,000 'Bevin Boys' called up to help produce enough coal to keep the war effort going.

"I had wanted to be in the Air Force, then this wretched scheme came along," said Mr Taylor, who lives in Dorset.

A critical shortage of miners had resulted in desperate measures from the then Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin.

After the government failed to prevent experienced coal miners being called up to serve in the armed forces, Bevin resorted to putting numbers in a hat every two weeks and drawing out two digits.

I don't think, at the time, we really felt like we were making a contribution
Warwick Taylor

All men whose National Service Registration Number ended with that digit were sent into coal mining, and any refusal to comply meant a heavy fine or imprisonment.

"I was very fed up and cheesed off about it," said Mr Taylor, who has an MBE and is vice president of the Bevin Boys Association.

"Any appeals we made fell on deaf ears."

But their work formed part of the Home Front effort, the celebrations of which have this week been given a boost with lottery cash.

'Initiation drop'

With no experience of mining, the men were sent to one of 13 training camps for four weeks.

Mr Taylor and hundreds of others were put up in a purpose-built hostel.

"The first time we went down the mine was called our 'initiation drop'. There was a regulation speed in mining of 30 feet per second. They let us drop at 70 feet per second.

"It was horrible. I kept thinking the rope was going to snap."

The eight hour shifts down the mine were physically demanding and mentally tough.

Some men suffered from terrible claustrophobia and were discharged, he said.

Mr Taylor had an illness of his own to contend with.

"I contracted double pneumonia three weeks into the training course.

"They sent me in a taxi to Newport hospital, and on the way the driver said we had to pick someone else up.

Bevin Boys reunite
The group has regular regional and national reunions for old Bevin Boys

"A young woman got in - she was in the final stages of labour. I couldn't do anything because I was drifting in and out of consciousness."

After six weeks in hospital and a life-saving dose of a new drug - penicillin - Mr Taylor was sent back to the colliery where he stayed until after the war ended.

"I played up a bit. I said I'd had enough because the war was finished and we were still there.

"They said I had to complete my national service, so I eventually made it into the RAF."

With hindsight, says Mr Taylor, the part played by those who stayed in the UK was a vital one.

"I don't think, at the time, we really felt like we were making a contribution, but now I'm glad I went through what I did.

"It was an experience and it taught me a lot, especially about the miners."

His work with the Bevin Boys Association has taken him around the country, giving talks and holding reunions. He has also written a book on the subject, the Forgotten Conscript.

And it has helped him appreciate the fate that could have befallen him.

"When I was recovering in hospital from the pneumonia I was in a ward with five other soldiers who had been critically injured in the fighting.

"I remember thinking that could have been the outcome for me."

Terror of the blitz remembered
07 Apr 04  |  Northern Ireland

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