An Erk’s Progress: 2. I Join The R.A.F.

An ageing Ramsay MacDonald talked of hard times and shrinking National Income and hoped for better things in the future. Conscription was being introduced in Germany and Hitler demanded “living space”. Despite warnings from many politicians of impending war Britain escaped from reality by plunging wholeheartedly into the celebrations to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.

It was a beautiful summer with long sunny days. A house cost around £500, a car £200, petrol was 1/6 (7.5p) and 20 cigarettes 11d (4.5/5p), and at the Theatre Royal Ivor Novello’s “Glamorous Nights” was the great theatrical event of the year.

Mid year, Stanley Baldwin’s National Government took over from Ramsay MacDonald. Hitler and Mussolini were beginning to stalk over Europe and it was gradually beginning to sink in that something had to be done to restore Britain’s sadly depleted Air Force. Radar was discovered and perfected by a team led by Sir Robert Watson-Watt and the first plans to expand the R.A.F. were laid.

It was against this background, together with the unemployment situation in Scotland in 1935, which prompted me to take the following course of action. Having read the glowing promises of good food, good pay and good prospects etc., which at that time appeared on the R.A.F. recruiting posters and in the national press, I, together with two friends, applied to join that select band. First of all there was a medical and written examination to be passed, neither of which presented any difficulties, and soon we were assembled at Glasgow Central Station where we accepted the “King’s Shilling” prior to embarking on the overnight train to Euston.

In those days new recruits were received at West Drayton where all the niceties of protocol were observed – until such time as they had taken the oath of allegiance to His Majesty King George V, his heirs and successors. Thereafter it was a somewhat different tale. Our pay amounted to the vast sum of two shillings a day, but it was impressed on us that we got paid for Saturdays and Sundays as well.

After about a week we were herded like cattle into a canvas covered lorry and transported the short distance to the R.A.F. training depot at Uxbridge. Here was to begin a life of sheer hell, which was to last for two months.

Even before we dismounted from the truck we could hear several raucous voices bawling and shouting orders. This was accompanied by the stamping of many feet and the calling out of numbers by many voices. We were soon to find out what it was all about.

The barrack blocks, of which there were about six two-storey buildings, were named after famous battles in the 1914-18 World War. Our particular one was “Kut”. The main entrance was in the centre-front of the building and then there was one barrack room on either side of the stairs on both floors.

In the middle of these buildings was that hallowed piece of ground known as the square, which we were to get to know so well in the days to come. We soon learned that it was forbidden to walk across the parade ground and it was always a case of the long way round the perimeter path.

The barrack rooms were fitted out with beds, white wooden lockers alongside, and steel lockers above each bed. Behind each bed and under the steel lockers, three wooden pegs protruded from the wall. The walls were painted with green gloss paint halfway up and the remainder of the walls and ceiling in yellow or cream gloss. The only relief consisted of numerous photographs displaying the correct way in which we would be expected to wear our various types of uniform and equipment.

Breakfast was at 6am and then it was out on the square wearing open neck blue-grey woollen shirts, navy blue shorts, grey stockings, web belt with bayonet, and flat peaked cap. The forage cap was not yet in use. So it was we were initiated into the ranks of the feet stamping, number calling rookies, which we had heard on our arrival.

Everywhere squads of about twenty-four men were being drilled by corporals or sergeants, and we in our turn were advised that we might well have broken our mother’s hearts but we wouldn’t break his. With a few exceptions the NCOs appeared to get some sort of sadistic pleasure from making their men’s lives as miserable as possible.

It was whilst we were standing easy after a particularly hard spell of square bashing that another squad passed by and a tall figure leaned over and said, “See you in the N.A.A.F.I. later.” It was Jim Cummings who had been at school with me. He, it appeared, had arrived at Uxbridge about a week earlier.

After tea I made my way to the large marquee, which was considered good enough for the newly arrived “sprogs”. We weren’t allowed to use the proper N.A.A.F.I., being the lowest of the low.

Jim was there already and introduced me to some of his friends. We sat down at one of the white deal tables and were soon exchanging stories and speculating as to our future and whether or not we had done the right thing. Pre-war R.A.F. Uxbridge was a dreadful place. Many a time we thought that life in the Foreign Legion couldn’t have been much worse.

Our day consisted of a mixture of drill, PT, fatigues, and unadulterated “Bull”. We were permitted to leave camp each evening until 23.59pm – in theory at any rate! In practice it proved to be not quite so simple. One had to present oneself, in best blue pantaloons and puttees, at the guard-room complete with swagger cane (a black stick with a silver knob bearing the R.A.F. crest, about 18″ long.) Thereafter one was at the mercy of the NCO acting as service police who carried out a thorough inspection which more often than not resulted in the poor rookie being sent back to his billet as unfit to be seen in public, but without being told why. The food was absolutely atrocious and although the Orderly Officer and his retinue passed through the dining halls three times daily nobody dared to complain.

This was all at a time when the R.A.F. was going through a great expansion programme and Uxbridge became so overcrowded that quite a lot of us were transferred to a sub-depot at Orpington in Kent. Our quarters had been a First World War military hospital and still contained two huts full of ancient warriors who had been so severely broken, either physically or mentally, that it was unlikely they would ever again be able to lead a normal life.

All in all the days passed fairly quickly and discipline, though strict, was nothing like that which we had obtained at Uxbridge. Eventually we completed our initial training and at the passing out ceremony would have compared very favourably with any Guardsman.

Now came the time when we had to choose which trade we wanted to follow. I volunteered for training as a wireless operator and was posted with one or two others to the Electrical and Wireless School at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. It was adjacent to the R.A.F. college and we were billeted in wooden huts.

I no longer recall the names of those who were members of 23 squad, except for one, but some are dead to my certain knowledge and others might well be too. Anyway they were without exception a wonderful bunch and we got on marvellously well together, getting into all sorts of scrapes, which eventually earned us the name of “The Rabble.”

The course lasted for a year and our civilian instructors spared no effort in trying to install into us some knowledge of the theory and practice of the communications business. Morse code up to 25wpm, Aldis lamp 8wpm and semaphore 12 wpm. Then there was the procedure to be learned and on top of all this, A.O.C’s parades, church parades, and so on.

Came the day when we were called upon to put our training to the test and we were marshalled on the tarmac apron suitably attired in Sidcot and goggles. The aircraft were twin-seater, open cockpit Westland Wallaces, and once airborne we had to contact ground control, exchange a few simple messages, change to another frequency and repeat the process. I don’t even remember the flight, because I was so busy operating and trying to prevent the slipstream from blowing my pad and pencil away.

The camp boasted a fine cinema and it was here I saw some of the finest films ever made. At the end of our year having obtained our “sparks” badges we were once again given a choice of three stations to which we would like to be posted. I selected two in Scotland, but came off even better ending up at R.A.F. Abbotsinch – now Glasgow Airport. (I was there last year and with the exception of the old H.Q. block, nothing now remains of the original camp). Anyway the signals section staff consisted of one Sgt Bolton, two corporals, Joe Izatt and Tommy Butler, and a chappie, Bradford, of whom we saw little as he spent his whole time in the transmitting station, where he had his bed, and as I remember used the water from the fire buckets to wash in. Three wavelengths were kept open, one to accommodate the aircraft of 602 City of Glasgow Bomber Squadron, one for the normal day to day communications between stations of the group, and a third one, listening only, where a civilian operator spent his entire time taking down coded met reports for the weather men.

Tommy Butler was a fellow who had finished his service, but had rejoined for four years when the expansion took place. He was a real gentleman and went out of his way to ensure that I learned everything necessary to enable me to become a good operator.

King George V had died whilst I was at Cranwell. His successor Edward VIII had abdicated in favour of his brother George, Duke of York, who became our new monarch. It was the occasion of his coronation in 1937 that brought about my next move, a temporary one this time, under canvas in Kensington Gardens. The weather was dreadful and it was no easy task to keep our boots dry let alone polished.

However, came the day and the sun shone most of the time. We were detailed to line Constitution Hill and took up our positions at some ungodly hour. Here we stood all day with only a sandwich, apple, and bar of chocolate to keep us going. In addition, of course, there were the occasional supplements from the crowd behind us. We all thought we would get a Coronation Medal, but in the event only our Station Warrant Officer Purdie got one. He was a fat little chap who never really liked me, chiefly because I came from his home town and knew his family background. No sooner was it all over than my posting came through to Donibristle just across the River Forth from Edinburgh – nearest town Inverkeithing with Dunfermline close by.

Here I became friendly with Eddie Ellis who hailed from Coupar in Fife, and the two of used to sally forth into “Dumps” when not on watch. I am pleased to say that Eddie and I still exchange Christmas cards and the occasional letter. Unfortunately he wasn’t posted there long, but I was to meet up with him later on in warmer climes.

My sojourn at D.B. was a short one, broken only by a two-week trip to Honiton in Devon where we took part in the annual Reds versus Blues exercise in which the Army and R.A.F. played at war against the Navy and Fleet Air Arm. My happiest memory of this event was when one of our pilots of 22 Squadron (Wildebeests) accidentally dropped a torpedo – unarmed of course – on the carrier Furious. He couldn’t have chosen a better named one, because his superiors were understandably furious with him.

It seemed that just as one was getting used to a place and getting to know the people there, a posting was bound to come along and spoil everthing. So it was at Donibristle and I was soon on my way to Evanton, a small village quite near Dingwall in Invernesshire.

After a rather tedious journey I arrived at my destination. It was an old wooden-hutted camp, which had been used the previous year by the Navy. It was in a disgusting state of dilapidation, but as there were only six airmen there we didn’t mind too much, taking the best of everything to make ourselves comfortable. The five other chaps had only just arrived and we were soon joined by a Squadron Leader Cullen who introduced himself as our C.O. and asked who we were and what we did as a trade.

After the initial pleasantries he decided we had better raise the flag and so we dragged ourselves into some sort of order whilst this was done. I was then despatched to the barrack Warden to draw the keys of the Wireless Cabin where I was instructed to “get in touch with the outside world”. Imagine my horror to discover on entering the cabin that the apparatus had been dismantled and was laying about all over the floor.

When I succeeded in pulling myself together I decided to make a start by putting all my accumulators on charge. The charging room, fortunately, was still intact and I soon had them bubbling away merrily. Next I set to work trying to figure out which part should go where in the transmitting room. The transmitter was a very old type T.19.B – medium wave of course – with one valve and a tuning system that depended on a number of plugs being inserted in the correct sockets. The wavemeter was equally old, but somehow or other, more by good luck than anything else, I managed to get a good current reading in the aerial ammeter with the pea-lamp glowing beautifully in the wavemeter.

My next problem was to find out which wavelength I was supposed to be on and the callsigns of the station I was supposed to contact, together with my own callsign. I approached the C.O., but he didn’t understand about these sort of things and when I asked him for the confidential books relating to “X” signals (similar to “Q” code), W/T procedure etc., he nearly had a fit. “That is confidential information,” he said, “and must be kept locked up,” in his safe.

What to do now! Well, I knew there was an R.A.F. Station at Leuchars so I decided to appeal there for help. The Orderly Room Clerk got me put through on the only phone to Leuchars where I explained my predicament to the N.C.O. of Signals. He was astounded at the C.O’s ignorance and supplied me with my callsign “O3R”, and also his own and those of the aircraft of the F.A.A. Squadrons which were due to come up next day from Lee on Solent. He said I wouldn’t be able to hear the aircraft at first, but that he would act as link for as long as necessary. I was very grateful to that chap for he was as good as his word and helped me tremendously on the following day.

The arrival of the two Squadrons of Swordfish coincided with the arrival of a new C.O, a Wing Commander just returned from India. Squadron Leader Cullen then became his Adjutant and was amazed when I was able to get my confidential books from the new “Winco” with no trouble.

I also received an unexpected “gift” in the shape of six naval telegraphists who were assigned to me for watch keeping duties since most of our work would be concerned with communications between ships of the Home Fleet and the aircraft from the Furious and Courageous carriers. These fellows were well steeped in naval discipline and used to sit to attention if addressed by one of their officers. They also, quite rightly I suppose, were sticklers for keeping to the letter of the law as far as their operating was concerned and wouldn’t have dreamed of departing from the laid down procedure under any circumstances. That was until they heard me sending “GN”, goodnight, as I was closing down one night. Next night one of them, rather more daring than the others, followed suit to his Guard Ship FF3, but obtained no response – not till the morning when there was a knock at the door and a Lieutenant Commander asked to speak to the person in charge and was promptly passed on to me. “Compliments of the C. in C. Home Fleet,” says he, “I have to report that the symbol GN was made by your station last night contrary to regulations as laid down in the operating procedure manual.” I asked him to convey my apologies to the C. in C. together with my assurance that no such dreadful thing would happen again. I forgot to mention that I was still a humble AC2 all this time, so was greatly relieved to learn from the O/R clerk that a Corporal wireless operator was coming to take charge of things.

Meantime I was having endless trouble from some rather junior Naval Officers who had been making a practice of hanging about in the signals cabin when off duty, chiefly I think because there was always a pot of coffee on the stove. The situation became such that it was well nigh impossible for the ratings to carry out their duties efficiently and I had to draw their attention to a notice on the cabin door clearly indicating that signals was out of bounds to all unauthorised personnel. They took not the slightest notice, however, and I was left with no alternative but to invite the adjutant to intervene on my behalf.

Cullen had at one time served on board the Furious where he had not been too kindly treated by the Navy so he was delighted at the chance to get a bit of his own back. He had been drinking and was just in the right mood for a show down. My, but he tore into those poor fellows and, although I felt sorry for them, at least it had the desired effect and we never saw them again. I had an additional bonus in as much as Cullen and I got on famously from then on.

Hildegarde was very popular at this time and used to sing regularly on Radio Luxembourg. Her signature tune was, of course, “Darling je vous aime beaucoup.”

Another popular programme which claimed our attention every Sunday from Luxembourg was a serial about Dr. Fu Manchu and his “Yellow Peril” and we used to sit glued to the set in much the same way as TV addicts do today.

All this time the contractors had been busy building a brand new camp and it was now ready for occupation. So the old camp was closed down and we all moved into the new buildings. The Wireless Cabin was really nicely done out with all new receivers and comfortable swivel chairs. The transmitters, also modern and up to date, were housed some distance away, which meant that someone was needed to look after them. My old friend, Joe Izatt, at Abbotsinch had finished his time so I wrote advising him of the vacancy. He in turn applied and was given the job as a civilian wireless operator mechanic i/c transmitters.

A wireless operator was needed at a small place called Meikle Ferry on the shores of the Dornoch Firth not far from Tain. It was just my luck to have to go, but as it was only a detachment and not a posting I wasn’t too upset about it. It turned out to be a marine craft section fitted out with three power boats each about 30ft long, with a roomy cabin for the coxwain and a not quite so roomy one for the wireless operator and rest of the crew. Our job was to sail out to the mouth of the Firth each day, moor to a buoy and stay there till evening. This was on the edge of the air-to-air firing range and we served the dual purpose of keeping a watch out for trawlers in the danger area and as an accident tender in case of any mishap to aircraft.

It was an exceedingly cold winter and we had great difficulty in getting our engines started in the morning. Most times we had to take the plugs out and warm them up in petrol-soaked burning rags. The sea could be quite rough at times and it was rather frightening being tied up to a huge iron buoy which would be one moment away down below the boat and the next high up above like some giant sledge hammer about to smash our comparatively small craft to smithereens. When it was time to cast off I never ceased to marvel at the courage of the crew members who would wait until boat and buoy were almost level and jump from one to the other, untie the rope, wait till the two were level again and leap back on board.

We used to amuse ourselves by pretending we were pirates and if a trawler should happen to enter the “danger” area we would circle round her and demand that she heave to. Usually they would take our little bit of nonsense in good part and it was not uncommon for us to receive one or two nice fish by way of an unofficial fine. These were more than welcome for the food at the camp was scarce and of poor quality. Indeed quite often we would sally forth after dark armed with clubs and Aldis lamps.

The latter, having a powerful beam of light, held the rabbits spellbound and it was a simple matter to kill them. On one occasion the C.O. shot a stag and we had venison for dinner. It was the first and only time I ever tasted it and I can remember how disappointed I was having always imagined that it would be something out of this world.

It was decided that in addition to our duties on the air firing range our small fleet was to be increased by two armoured boats, which were to be used as mobile targets for bomb practice, and were advised the two boats were awaiting collection at Invergordon. So over we went to pick them up only to learn that they didn’t have a crane strong enough to lift them into the water. Each boat carried two tons of armour plating over the crew’s cabin. They had to be transported by road to Inverness and we went along with them. By the time we arrived it was dark and so we had to spend the night in a sailors’ home. A real rough old place it was too. We had about six beds in one small room situated right up in the attic where a small skylight window was the only source of daylight or fresh air. We must have been somewhere above the cinema because from the skylight window it was just possible to see the glass roof over the entrance to the foyer.

Next day the boats were transferred to the water and we set off for our home base. The sea was rough and each time the boats rolled, instead of righting themselves fairly quickly the weight of armour would hold them over until one wondered which way they would go. The coxwain’s only forward vision was through a narrow slit in the plating and as neither the compass nor radio were working we somehow or other lost sight of land, and were beginning to get a bit worried when one of the chaps just spotted Tarbert Ness Lighthouse way over on the port bow, and before long we were safely home.


Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 3



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