Richard Underwood in the Royal Air Force.

Richard Anthony Underwood left school at fifteen-and-a-half and joined the Royal Air Force to undertake eighteen months training as a medic.


After completion of training, aged seventeen, I was posted to an RAF Hospital Nocton Hall, near Lincoln, for a two year posting which was divided into three sections. A third of the time I worked on a medical ward and a third of the time I worked on a surgical ward. On both wards I worked under the supervision of a ward sister who was the only registered nurse on the ward.  Everyone else working on the ward was an RAF medic similar to myself, so as well as doing the type of things that a health care assistant would do today, we also undertook additional work, injections, wound dressings etc., that in civilian hospitals would usually only be done by a nurse.  The final third of this posting was spent as an administrator in the hospital ENT clinic.

At the end of my two year posting at the RAF hospital, aged nineteen, I was sent on a two year posting to the station medical centres at El Adem and Tobruk in Libya.


RAF El Adem Crest
RAF El Adem Crest
RAF El Adem from the air.
RAF El Adem from the air.

RAF El Adem was an air-base of over two-thousand personnel situated in the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by desert, about twenty miles inland from Tobruk. The station sick quarters (medical centre) usually had three doctors and about nine medics similar to myself. This meant in practice that everything not undertaken by doctors was undertaken by the medics, with tasks being rotated every few weeks.

These tasks included working in the:

Office – acting as a receptionist, administering doctor’s appointments, maintaining medical records etc.

Dispensary – dispensing any drugs prescribed by the doctors, re-ordering drug stocks from the UK, etc.

RAF El Adem at ground level
RAF El Adem at ground level

Treatment Room – dressing wounds, giving injections, suturing minor wounds, etc.

Ward – caring for in-patients unable to be flown to RAF Hospital in Cyprus, autoclaving and sterilising instruments, glass syringes etc.

Ambulance – Regular duties, together with an ambulance driver, as a paramedic on 24 hour call to accidents or emergencies on the base, etc.

Casevac – Occasional duties accompanying casualty evacuation of patients by air to the RAF Hospital 500 miles away in Cyprus, or to the British Army Hospital 500 miles away in Benghazi.

In addition to the above, following three day course at RAF Akrotiri Hospital in Cyprus, I was made responsible for a portable x-ray machine at El Adem, taking all x-rays and developing all the films.


Entrance to RAF Tobruk
Entrance to RAF Tobruk

Tobruk was where families of the servicemen working at RAF El Adem, and civilian contractors, lived. RAF Tobruk was a small garrison that also contained an RAF school and it had it’s own medical centre with two doctors, two ambulance drivers, two medics, and several qualified nurses.

Also in the town there was a Salvation Army canteen where I met my wife, Linda May Craske, who was the same age as me but who had arrived in Libya to work for the Salvation Army when only sixteen years old. We got married in the garrison church, and my ambulance driver was the best man.

I worked from the garrison for about nine months, sometimes administering doctor’s appointments and sometimes as a paramedic, with duties including sleeping-in and being on call for forty-eight hours at a time to provide emergency medical support to all RAF families and civilian employees living in the town.

At the end of my two year tour in Libya I was posted to RAF Wattisham, just outside Ipswich in Suffolk.


On return to the UK, aged twenty-one, I was stationed at the medical centre at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, where I served until leaving the RAF.  My duties there fluctuated between administrating appointments with the doctor, working in a treatment room, a dispensary, and a small ward.

English Electric Lightning in near vertical flight
English Electric Lightning in near vertical flight

I was at RAF Wattisham in what was a particularly tense time during the cold war. English Electric Lightning jet fighters were stationed there that were kept constantly armed, and with pilots constantly ready to take off at a moments notice.  With a speed of over twice the speed of sound the Lightning fighters were tasked with intercepting and shooting down Russian nuclear missiles whilst still over the North Sea.   Lightnings were capable of almost vertical flight, and this enabled them to reach three miles high in around three minutes of flight.  Their job then was to travel at twice the speed of sound into the North Sea, and to shoot down as many Soviet missiles as they could before they arrived over the UK.

This would have made Wattisham a prime target for Soviet missiles, and during my time at Wattisham there were constant lectures on how to survive a Soviet nuclear bomb attack (I kid you not … drop to the ground, preferably behind a wall, and close your eyes to avoid the glare!)  There were also frequent alerts of imminent missile attacks during which the base was locked down.  These alerts were of course, thankfully, all a drill to test our readiness, but this was only notified after the event so there was always a nagging doubt that ‘this alert‘ may be a real one.

My specific duties in the event of a nuclear attack, assuming I survived, was to un-mothball a hermetically sealed ward in which to look after the patients (that would have been fine) and to periodically leave that sanctuary to measure the amount of radiation in the air outside (which would not have been fine and which may well have proved fatal).

The Russians were stopped from firing their nuclear missiles at us by the knowledge that missiles would be fired back at them, thereby ensuring mutual destruction of their towns and cities too. This policy was known by the entirely appropriate initals of the Mutually Assured Destruction policy and was known by all and sundry as the MAD policy.

As a result of the madness, I left the RAF whilst still only aged twenty-one.

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