JANUARY 2003 ON HIS & HER MAJESTY’S SERVICE.
My grandson, Jonathan, asked if I would relate the happenings during my time as a National Serviceman in the RAF this occurring from September 1951 to September 1953.
I had joined British Timken, Birmingham, in 1946 as a trainee draughtsman and remained there until it was time to do (!) my National Service this being some six years after the second world war.
Prior to that I had completed my education up to the age of fourteen and went to work in the Buying Office of Joseph Lucas in Great King Street, Birmingham, a complex, six storeys high, and covering two sites adjacent to each other, spanned by a bridge across the road which bisected the two; but that is another story.
The first thing I discovered was how to spell British Timken; having collected the tea- a junior’s job – I found that the Manager had corrected my attempts at the word Timkin, as pronounced, which I was doing on a drawing board, learning the technique of printing.
In those days labour was at a premium as a large percentage of the male population was still engaged in the battle to rid the world of German Nazi , Italian, Japanese and Soviet attempts at Imperialism, a form of domination which was intolerable. I must have been acceptable as they kept me, and another sixteen year old, on.
At that time training in engineering, unless one was a brilliant scholar (I was not), was through apprenticeship and, if sufficiently intelligent, attending Technical College, mainly theoretical, and leading, ultimately, to National Certificates at O level and A level ( Ordinary and Advanced ). Universities were for the brilliant ones and those who could afford it; a different picture, today, thank goodness.
These were achievable, over a normal period of three years for the O level and a further two years for the A level, which, together with further endorsement subjects, would cover some seven years; this on a part time study. The company allowed for day release each week to attend Aston Technical College ( eventually Aston University) and we were required to do a further two evenings per week for the endorsements.
All of this would allow for application to become an Associate Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a highly desirable attainment at that time. I learned, ultimately, that only 3% of those who started these courses completed them. It was quite a strain attempting to achieve these qualifications and keeping a job going at the same time.
I completed the O levels and carried on into the first year of the A levels and almost ended up with a nervous breakdown, failing in one subject, which meant that I was then called up for National Service.
The design of taper roller bearings, in those days, required a very good knowledge of trigonometry and mathematics, which I eventually acquired, using a slide rule and ten figure log tables to twelve decimal places. Computers did not then exist in the form we know them today.
Timken was where I met my beloved wife, Jean Iris, a treasure – but that is also another story.
Came September 12th, 1951 and I was required to present myself at RAF Padgate, Lancashire, for training, and aircrew selection, which covered a period of about one month. A rail travel warrant was sent by post together with instructions.
I arrived, somewhat nervously, at the camp and we were marched to our billets in our civilian clothes; we were then marched to the stores to collect one mug (china) knife, fork and spoon, the essentials for feeding. Our first meal I remember well as I saw a mound of mashed potatoes with all the eyes left in!
During that week we were kitted out in RAF uniform and subjected to a haircut which was a scalp. We were marched everywhere and subjected to
a certain discipline, which was sublime compared to what was to come. All civilian clothing was bundled up and posted to our homes. We were in the Royal Air Force.
We were indoctrinated into the regime and discipline acquiring a number, essential, it was explained, to commit to memory as pay parade took place every Thursday and the number was the means by which we would receive our pittance. I was earning at the rate of £4 per week at 21 years, which dropped to 28 shillings per week with a further deduction of 2 shillings for the RAF Benevolent Fund.
I was struck by the archaic way of communication, particularly when making requests or applications. Such documentation, hand written, started with
Sir, I have the honour to request------- terminating with---- Your obedient servant
Such procedures existed in the seventeenth century, as reading Samuel Pepys will show.
A series of interviews then ensued culminating in a visit to RAF Hornchurch, in Essex, one of the Battle of Britain bases, now an Aircrew Selection centre. A train trip to London with an underground out to Hornchurch was a little adventure and in a somewhat relaxed atmosphere.
We were subjected to various tests, both physical and psychological, hearing and sight being crucial for selection. One chappie was discovered to have a perforated ear drum and he thought it highly amusing as he had been aware of it all along, but enjoyed the scam.
My interview was with a rather bored Squadron Leader who asked me why I had removed my hat on entering the room after having saluted him. My reply, to the effect that I considered it only polite to do so, resulted in him taking an interest in the discussion and his asking rather pertinent questions such as what role I would like to carry out as a member of an aircrew team.
I replied, pilot, and asked why, stated that should anything go wrong I would want to be in a position to control. He seemed impressed and offered me four years as a possible aircrew member.
At that time I was in a state of flux. It was obvious that I would have made a good navigator with my mathematical capability and knowledge of trigonometry as, at that time, calculations were by slide rule and tables. But I could not see myself tied to the RAF for such a long time, especially as a number of conscripts were being offered aircrew for two years.
I decided against that path and elected to return to Padgate and try the engineering side. To my amazement, in discussions with my wife, years afterwards, I discovered that she would have been very happy had I taken such a career step and, in some respects, I regretted not doing so. However, pictures were different at that time and I could only see such a period as too much out of our lives as we were then engaged to be married; a completely different scenario.
Padgate loomed and I found myself as a trainee airman on the first part of the training; a twelve week course in discipline, marching, parading, bulling ( highly polished boots, brasses and webbing which, if not done correctly, resulted in disciplinary action). The first day, for all, was a balling out session from 0630 hours to lights out at 22.00 hours. All surfaces in the billet were to be clean, highly polished and free from dust; kit inspection could be imposed at the will of the NCO.
There was a young fat boy who just could not stand up to the situation and started to blubber. In came the Corporal and seeing the situation, immediately brought all of us to attention and proceeded to tear this young lad apart. No longer did he cry; he was too afraid.
Such treatment was our impression of hell on earth but eventually we grew accustomed to the regimentation, even the verbal abuse meted out on the parade ground where the NCO would deliberately spit into one’s face (supposedly a dressing down), his face being but ten millimetres away. He was waiting for retaliation knowing what the consequences would be- further discipline or even time in the guard house; not unknown.
We eventually passed out from basic training, a fit and disciplined force, to be scattered everywhere into various RAF activities throughout the UK and, for some, overseas. My destination was Saint Athan, South Wales, a bleak, wet and very cold place in January.
Engineering training was intensive and we were taught the use of machinery but mainly small tools, hand operated, as we would be out on some remote location without access to sophisticated equipment and be required to maintain aircraft.
Such things as files became second nature and we were required to file blocks of steel to absolute square within 0.001 inch; quite a task but achievable. We were taught the aspects of aircraft design and construction, pneumatics, hydraulics and surface controls. Many of these I already had a good basic knowledge of; some were interesting, others boring.
This training covered a period of sixteen weeks with frequent tests, practical and written, checking our progress to ensure that when we went on to a station we would function. We were all subjected to a series of inoculations to prepare us for overseas at the end and we were then told where we would be located.
In the late part of the 1920s the government set up training facilities for aspiring fliers, known as Auxiliary Squadrons, which were based on University faculties; thus, County of Warwick, 605 Squadron, based originally at RAF Castle Bromwich, was now located at RAF Honiley, not far from Warwick, Kenilworth and Coventry, together with other RAF branches such as the MU ( Maintenance Unit) for Avro Anson, twin engine transport aircraft and the Military Police.
This was my destination for the remainder of my National Service and it appeared, initially, to have a great disadvantage because, by the very nature of its operational role, we would be working week ends with time off during the week.
So, instead of going abroad, I would be working on an Auxiliary Squadron with its apparent disadvantages as, I had arranged for Jean, my future wife, and myself to visit a furniture store to purchase our bedroom suite on the Saturday of the week I arrived.
I duly presented myself at the Adjutant’s office, the day after my arrival at Honiley, with the request for Saturday off, and I received an adverse reaction in two ways, the first when I failed to insert the required Sir, was told about it, and the second when I came to attention and informed Flight Lieutenant Peat, the Adjutant that I was withdrawing my application. This did not augur well for the future and I was very sore with the treatment afforded my dignity. However, I found this officer to be a good and fair man and he looked after me in a number of ways; and I him, for the record.
The Squadron was equipped with ten De Havilland Vampire single gas turbine fighter aircraft, the engine being immediately behind the pilot, the airframe consisting of twin boom fuselage and high tail. Although still used on main line squadrons, the general impression was that these aircraft were suitable only for auxiliary squadrons as they were obsolete, already, for first line defence and attack; new aircraft being introduced all the time, such as English Electric Canberra, Lightning , Hawker Hunter, with improved versions of the Gloster Meteor.
To complete the picture, there were two Gloster Meteor Mark 7 twin seat, twin gas turbine, trainer aircraft and an American two seat trainer, single engine, propeller driven aircraft known as a Harvard.
My role, as a conscript serviceman, was to carry out daily inspection of such aircraft and attend for start up and re-fuelling, which, on very open and bleak surroundings, was onerous, to say the least. Gradually, becoming acclimatised to the job and acquiring various skills, I was used in more complex work and began to understand what life was all about on the squadron.
We carried out some very complex modifications and servicing work on these aircraft, equivalent to MU level; beginning to realise that I was a source of cheap, skilled labour, this rankled with me as I was, I suppose, a bit of a rebel and was constantly getting into hot water by my outspokenness.
There were some very talented personnel on the squadron, both in instrumentation and material fashioning; one, John Hodges, was brilliant and certainly I admired him immensely as he re-constructed his motor bike frame to use telescopic forks, front and rear and introduced the relatively unknown disc brake. He also built three trivets, in aluminium, for use in a pressure cooker, enlarging these to accommodate larger quantities of vegetables for a sergeant with a large family.
The sad thing was John was not rewarded for this exquisite work; so perfect that it appeared as though the trivets were actually formed by press tools.
Previously, I felt that being on an Auxiliary Squadron was a disadvantage, but this proved to be the reverse as, having adjusted to working weekends and bank holidays, I discovered that from Monday evenings to Wednesday afternoons- for sport – I could resume my studies at Aston Technical College on the Tuesday and this I did in the autumn. Additionally, I discovered that one of the Auxiliary Flight Sergeants needed a draughtsman, part time, and I used the Wednesday, not on behalf of Her Majesty ( His Majesty, king George VI had recently died), but on mine, being paid for my time in the design of furnaces.
Ron Dyne ran a small manufacturing facility in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, which was started by his father, a Russian émigré who had escaped from Communist Russia and subsequently anglicised his name; the average Englishman would have had difficulty in the pronunciation of the original.
His father, at that time, was in his eighties, a brave man to have made such a move but, perhaps, he was driven to it as there was terrible persecution in Russia after the Communists came to power.
There I was, a little more comfortable, earning a little more than my pittance and, come Sunday evening, I would obtain a lift to Birmingham, either with Ron or someone else, or thumb a lift; transport was haphazard in those days.
One of the lads went home to Burton on Trent where his father had an engineering business ( he was furious when he lost the services of his son), and his son would do the same as I did, working Tuesdays and Wednesdays, occasionally giving me a lift near to Birmingham where I could then pick up a bus to home as he had a car of his own.
Summer Camp was quite a revelation. Every year the Squadron would take off, overseas, and all would be transported to this new location for two weeks when we would be required to perform the same functions whilst everyone, especially the week-end Auxiliary boys with extra pay, had a jolly good time in their new environment.
The first occasion, for me, was to the island of Malta, at the end of June; we were all fitted out in tropical kit and, as I had already been jabbed to the hilt with everything against tropical infections, I avoided medical parade, which all the others, including the week end personnel, had to have.
In preparation for this the Vampires were fitted with extra fuel tanks beneath each wing, enabling them to fly to Malta non-stop, and problems were encountered with these as they had never been fitted before to these aircraft. There was a central mixer valve, to balance the flow from each tank, and it was discovered that there was corrosion and an uneven distribution affecting the trim of the aircraft in flight. One pilot was instructed to jettison his tanks but failed to achieve this and had to carry on flying around until he could balance the aircraft sufficiently to land it.
A Hastings aircraft, four engined, propeller driven with all the seats facing aft and the tail sitting on the ground was provided. This flight took some eight hours and was quite a bore; certainly the longest flight I ever undertook up to then. We landed at Luka which, at that time, was still used as a military airfield and were transported to Ta kali airfield, currently under the control of the Naval Fleet Air Arm.
We were not exactly welcome and there was a RAF regular squadron stationed there who also made us unwelcome as they were trying to maintain good relations with the Fleet Air Arm and considered us a bunch of amateurs unlikely to behave ourselves. How right they proved to be.
We were allocated billets, stinking hot, full of flies and other undesirables, such as mosquitoes, cockroaches and fleas. Our meals were taken in the open from, effectively, a field kitchen, and our work day commenced at 06.00 hours and lasted until 13.00 hours, after which, if any servicing, or repairs were required we would work under erected tarpaulins, or a small open ended hangar to protect us from the sun. I remember picking up my tool kit and discovering the tail of a lizard that had been trapped beneath; a strange phenomenon, this.
We were required to operate under a strict security code, no civilian personnel being allowed on the airfield- although they did- it was impossible to keep them out.
One of our duties was to provide a security guard each night, this located in one of the guard houses, the remotest, with something like a three mile walk from the billet, and we would be sent out on patrol in teams of four, for periods of four hours on and two hours off, walking the perimeter road in our segment and checking frequently that the aircraft were secure.
A remote open ended hangar would house one of our aircraft undergoing repair. All aircraft would be protected with awnings and covers over intakes and cockpits to prevent ingress of dust and sand in high winds.
Relations had not improved; to the contrary as, one night, some of the regulars had got themselves well and truly sloshed and were creating quite a noise from the billet they were in. The problem was that it was in proximity to the Naval Commanding Officer’s house and he was sufficiently incensed as to go across and tell them to shut up only to be greeted with the rejoinder to’ piss off and not bother them’ When he informed them who he was they all laughed and told him again, in much stronger language this time, to’ F’ off.
The Officer Commanding 605 Squadron was summoned to the Station Commander’s office the next morning and given a real dressing down for this behaviour and he had us all on parade, with a twinkle in his eye, and proceeded to do the same to us in the morning sunlight with temperatures already reaching 35 Degrees C.
Things began to get worse towards the end of our stay, especially with the regular RAF squadron who were receiving some rough treatment from the Naval Air Arm. This would, of course, involve LAC Rogers 2531127 and I was the leading light in what followed.
One night I was on guard duty patrolling round the aircraft when a small car came up the perimeter track, an ancient Austin Ruby; I stepped out from between the aircraft and the driver swung the car around and came to a halt in front of me. It was the duty officer, a young smarmy character from the regular squadron, who asked me if everything was in order. I replied that it was and he continued on his way, disappearing into the distance. The airfield undulated and such a vehicle was lost to sight.
Some time later I was patrolling down near to the small hangar when this little car again appeared, the same procedure being followed. Again, I was asked if everything was in order and I replied that it was, whereupon the car took off and then came round in a large circle coming to rest in front of me. This obnoxious officer then leaned out of his window and said that all was not well, that when I chose to inspect the aircraft in the hangar I would discover that all the covers had been removed and that I was now on a charge of negligence of duty ! He then drove to the guard house, informing the corporal in charge that I was to be charged.
Having put all the covers back and ensured that all was in order, I returned to the guard house at the end of my tour of duty, this being 02.00 hours. The corporal said, ‘sorry Rog, I have to charge you.’ and he did, with form 252. There being nothing else to do I kipped down to await my next stint two hours later.
At about 03.30 hours there was quite a commotion at the guard house door and there was the duty officer protesting at the treatment afforded him by one of the duty airmen which, he considered, was totally unnecessary. What had transpired was quite exhilarating
Some time before 03.00 hours this disreputable character had carried out exactly the same procedure but was caught in the hangar removing the aircraft covers. This was all in the dark; he had a torch but this was ignored and he was told that he was under arrest for interfering with an aircraft with intent to damage it. He then informed the airman, who was swinging a truncheon, that he was the duty officer and could produce evidence to that effect, to which the reply was, it was too dark to examine any documentation, that he should immobilise his car, give the airman his keys, then walk the three miles to the guard house when everything would be cleared to his satisfaction. This he had to do and that was when I was woken up by his protestations, as he then had to walk back to his car some three miles away.
There was a sequel to this the following night as, all the 605 pilots, on hearing what had transpired, and fed up with the treatment they had received, stole across the airfield and pushed one of the regular squadron’s Vampires all round the perimeter track, some four miles, and placed it amongst our own; a feat, which left me amazed. I am not aware of the reaction within the regular squadron hierarchy.
Some weeks after our return I was summoned to the Adjutant’s office and informed that there was a charge on the file for dereliction of duty. Flight Lieutenant Peat, somewhat amused, then informed me that he did not intend to proceed with this and, as far as he was concerned, as long as I kept the aircraft serviceable, that was all that really mattered.
This came from an officer who, I am sure, was one of the instigators of the revenge tow. It also helped, considerably, in my relations with the other personnel as they sympathised with me and I realised that esprit de corps really did exist.
We were used and were required to take responsibility for engineering repairs and modifications to aircraft which were, in my opinion, not to our level of competence. We had not been trained to that level and, although we were supervised, there were situations when we had to take decisions which, we felt, should have been at a higher level. Inevitably, when I pointed this out I was dismissed with the instruction to get the job done and not waste time.
There was a form 700 which the airman servicing the aircraft had to sign and there were times when I was very unhappy putting my signature to it. On one occasion, the AOC ( Air Officer Commanding) arrived in his personal Meteor, in a beautiful white flying suit and inspected us all . I was considered to be a risk and was removed from the path of the AOC being located in the hangars housing gliders- quite a surprise as I had no idea that there were gliders on site. I had not seen any activity at all in this area.
The outcome of this visit, which embraced the whole of RAF Honiley, was my being sent to Saint Athan for further training, and an instruction to our Commanding Officer to make the Meteor Mark 7 trainers serviceable as the AOC would not tolerate, for a moment longer, these aircraft being out of use for twenty months.
A further month of rather intensive training resulted in my promotion from Leading Aircraftsman to Senior Aircraftsman, the highest attainable rank as a National Serviceman, in this discipline and, at this stage, an incident occurred which, again, brought me close to trouble.
Should an airman be deficient in items of kit, such as webbing, clothing and, in my case, the badge of rank of LAC a deficiency chit would be issued to establish that such items would not be considered as stolen or lost. There we were, one Sunday, in the mess awaiting a midday meal and dressed in our best uniform, without our badges of rank. A mess sergeant suddenly spotted us in the queue and ordered us to remove the slop bins. I protested that we were dressed in our best blues and that there were other airmen, in their working clothes, available. It was obvious that he had picked on us as our uniforms showed use and were at a high standard compared to the rest.
He threatened me with a charge of insubordination and I said that we would carry out his order but that I would seek a redress of grievance as he had purposely chosen us knowing full well that we could have fouled our best clothing.
As the duty officer came round to check if everything was in order I stood up and stated that I wished to institute a redress of grievance against the sergeant and I must have caught him unprepared as he stood, for a while, wondering what to do next. Of course, he tried to talk me out of such action but when I insisted on my rights he asked me to put in writing my request ( Sir, I have the honour, etc).
I replied that I would do so, requesting his name and that of the sergeant.
I duly presented my written request and some days later I was summoned to the office of the Station Warrant Officer, the highest attainable rank as an NCO ( Non Commissioned Officer) and one addressed him as Sir.
He was straight. He explained that should I proceed as requested it could take a long time and also could affect the position of the sergeant should the redress be granted. I think this was tantamount to a Court Martial but I could not be so adamant as to insist on my rights and I stated that I was at Saint Athan for technical training and I had no intention of fomenting trouble. He then asked if I would leave it with him to deal and I agreed.
Some time later I was in the mess, again queuing for my meal, when I encountered that self same sergeant behind the counter. He looked at me with some malevolence as he had probably been ticked off by the WO. Noticing that I had no rank identification he asked me for my deficiency chit and I took great pleasure in slowly removing my wallet, emptying the contents and eventually presenting him with my chit. We understood each other and resumed, as far as possible, normal relations.
I was promoted to the prestigious rank of SAC and was issued with my three bladed prop badge of rank, which I promptly sewed on to my uniforms just to ensure that my relations with the sergeant remained at below blood letting level and returned to RAF Honiley to be confronted with further problems, this time of my own making.
One has to be aware that, as late as 1952, food was in short supply and Honiley mess had not seen cheese for months. Lo and behold, there was an enormous tray filled with slices of cheese, Cheddar at that, and I could not resist taking some for later in the billet. I should explain that I was located in the corporals’ billet and these characters were regular airmen with years of service. They included cook house personnel and we frequently had fry-ups on Fridays and Saturdays, in the winter months, on the billet stove, especially when they had been out drinking at the Boot inn.
There I was with this cheese, really surplus to requirements and, come Monday evening – our week end- I left the billet with the wrapped cheese
in my small suitcase and walked to the guardhouse to be confronted with a snap inspection.
I was charged with theft of 10 ½ pence of cheese, removed from the cook house, again contravening statutory regulations, and was confined to barracks pending my appearance before the station CO. This was a miserable period.
After a week I was marched to the CO’s office and stood there attempting to explain away my actions. I was never a good liar and decided to plead guilty and was given seven days CB ( confined to barracks ). There, in the background, was Flt. Lt Peat.
Being confined to barracks meant appearing, in full kit, including webbing, and on parade, participating in raising and the lowering of the flag morning and night. Here again, I was asked for my deficiency chits, as I had no accoutrements, and was abused verbally by the duty corporal, a member of the military police, who stated that I was a lucky ----- and made sure that I paid for these deficiencies by scrubbing the two jail floors every day.
I was prevented from using the NAAFI club, which amused me, as I rarely used it and there were kit inspections just to demonstrate how naughty I had been.
Returning, briefly, to the AOC’s visit, two rather hilarious happenings are worth relating. The first concerned the security of the airfield and we were required to participate in a battle against the RAF Regiment, effectively airmen in kahki uniforms; they were needed to defend airfields and installations against attack by the enemy but, on this occasion, they were the enemy.
We were deployed in front of the airfield control tower, complete with rifles, rounds of blank ammunition and required to prevent them from capturing the control tower. This was quite farcical; they poured in over the hedges and no one would, in their right minds, have been stuck out where we were with rifles and nothing else!
I passed my blank cartridges to one of the younger chaps who blazed away with great pleasure, little realising the amount of work required to clean his rifle barrel.
Everything came to a screamingly funny halt when the station fire engine arrived on the scene and the crew foam sprayed all the attacking forces and ceased only when an order to do so came over the Tannoy ( public address system) from the AOC himself.
To add to the battle interest, John Hodges had obtained a length of steel pipe, welded a cover on one end, then drilled a small hole in the tube and, hey presto, we had a cannon. The procurement of a dozen large potatoes from the cookhouse and a plentiful supply of acetylene gas meant that we were in business and could continue the battle. This continued for quite a while as the cannon was quite effective (certainly in terms of noise) culminating in an announcement over the Tannoy, again from the AOC, threatening severe punishment to the perpetrator if such activities did not cease forthwith. We fired two further broadsides just for the pleasure.
Re-conditioning of the Meteor Mark 7 aircraft commenced and we were required to carry out MU maintenance level work requiring removal of engines for complete overhaul and the removal and modification of certain components of the aircraft structure. This was serious work and was carried out on site as the MU responsible for such work was unable to deal with it owing to a heavy work load.
Again, this aspect of responsibility sat heavily on my shoulders. Yes, we were supervised but not to the level I considered to be effective and I remember, vividly, being told to get on with the job when I queried the modification instruction involving a hydraulic component that was not even fitted to the aircraft.
Additionally, I followed a procedure simulating the jettisoning of the aircraft canopy which was a composite embracing both cockpits and found this to be functional and duly signed to the effect that it was in order. All hydraulics and pneumatics were functional and all control surfaces, together with their control cables, were realigned and tensioned. It was with some misgivings that I signed the form 700 for my part of the overhaul.
The next day, it being a Friday, one of the regular pilots acting as test pilot flew the aircraft and reported everything to be satisfactory on return, this meaning that the Meteor was available for the squadron use. On the Saturday various aircrew took it in turns to fly the aircraft and practice what was known as re-lights requiring the shut-down of both engines, in flight, and re-starting them by the force of the air speed and switching on electrical power.
In the afternoon this practice was being carried out over Birmingham when one of the pilots reported failure to achieve re-light and instructions were given for them to bail out. They then reported that they were unable to jettison the canopy and would attempt a crash landing on the airfield. All of this was very closely controlled and we were unaware of the drama until it had happened.
The pilots attempted to land at Honiley but were too high for such an attempt and carried on towards Coventry airport, approaching over Kenilworth, crash landing in a corn field just short of the main runway. Had they been two hundred metres further back they would have hit a hillside but, thank God, they achieved a perfect wheels up crash landing; they walked away unhurt.
An investigation ensued involving some high ranking engineering officers and, as to be expected, I was called to assist in the examination of the aircraft, much to my concern. The investigating officer was required to establish why the canopy could not be jettisoned and we went through exactly the same procedure that I had undertaken during the overhaul. Astoundingly, for me, everything worked perfectly. I was thanked for my help, but he did not volunteer an opinion or comment on his findings. He knew, and I knew, that that canopy was functional in every way.
I never learned the reported findings, or comments of the two pilots but I believe that these two brave men, realising where they were, over Birmingham, elected to disregard their CO’s order to bail out, and attempt to bring the aircraft down with least hazard to people below. That they achieved all that they did was a miracle.
Soon after this it was decided that the aircraft armaments should be checked out which required that each Vampire should be flown to an airfield, at Houghton Park in Cheshire, which had a firing range and facilities for alignment of weaponry with rapid turn round.
An Airspeed Oxford, twin engine, propeller driven and of ancient vintage was procured to fly the armaments team and myself to receive and service the aircraft. Take off was at a very early hour and as we climbed the aircraft door flapped open ( poor service crew ) affecting the aircraft trim which was very sensitive. Fortunately I was able to move and secure it, much to the relief of all aboard. We arrived at site and spent the rest of the day frantically testing and turning the Vampires round in quick succession.
We returned to the Air Speed Oxford to discover that the aircraft had not been re-fuelled and it was not possible to fuel up as everyone had departed. The pilot decided that there was sufficient fuel to get us back to Honiley but was concerned that we would be arriving in the dark with no ground lighting at the airfield. We passed over Birmingham airport in the dark and attempted a landing without lights. He achieved this and, removing his helmet, he drew his hand across his forehead wiping away the perspiration. A close run thing.
I come now to one of the saddest and most awful experiences of my life that will, forever, remain in my memory. In September of 1952 a coach party from 605 Squadron was arranged to go to the air show at Farnborough, a recently instituted yearly event which enabled the western countries to show advanced aircraft and demonstrate their performance characteristics, such being the Hawker Hunter and the latest version of the De Havilland twin boom twin engine DH110 an advanced version of the Vampire and destined for Naval use, capable of exceeding the sound barrier
John Derry and another pilot flew this aircraft for test and experimental work attempting, successfully, to break the sound barrier at over 1,100 km/hour. The aircraft, one of two prototypes, should not have been used as it had not been checked out following previous flight trials. Nevertheless, they decided to demonstrate the performance of this aircraft to the crowds attending that day.
We had arrived; accompanied by my fiancée and other friends, we chose a place on top of a hill looking down on the main runway going from left to right of us. After a while we decided that this vantage point was too remote and we moved downhill nearer the main runway.
We had a picnic with us and we were seated on the ground when we heard two very loud bangs followed by more noise and then the sight of the DH110 passing, at height, immediately above and moving at right angles to the main runway. It had exceeded the sound barrier
There was another runway at approximate right angles to this main runway and the aircraft made a left turn with, as announced on the public address system, the objective of making a low pass over the second runway away to our left.
We watched this manoeuvre and saw the aircraft line up. Suddenly what appeared to be smoke surrounded the aircraft and we were aware, to our horror, that it had broken up and we watched, in apparent slow motion, two engines scream overhead followed by the cockpit slowly cart wheeling and landing in the crowd to our left.
The engines fell in the crowd on the hill, where we had first stood, killing some thirty people. John Derry and his co-pilot died, together with a number of spectators, where the cockpit had crashed against the barrier.
The show must go on, was the decision and I felt that this was so wrong; compounded by the fact that Neville Duke, the Hawker Hunter test pilot, carried out a low level pass along the main runway just as the truck carrying the dead from in front of us passed by.
Communication, in those days, was very limited and, with the announcement on the radio of this tragedy, our parents were unable to determine whether we had survived until our arrival back home in the early hours. An event full of promise and interest, marred by an accident which no one could have foreseen; structural failure as a result of metal fatigue, a little known phenomenon; to be repeated in civil aircraft such as the De Havilland Comet, the first all gas turbine driven passenger aircraft and the four engine turbo-prop Lockheed Electra.
With increased sophistication of aircraft, more complex instrumentation and the need for more intelligent ground staff there had to be a way of retaining key personnel. They could not all be corporals and sergeants as this was really an administrative function and, therefore the Technician rank was introduced commencing with Junior Technician, Corporal Technician and Chief Technician.
Such ranks were identified by inverted chevrons and such personnel were controlled by a Flight Sergeant, who had both administration and technical roles. This was the situation when I arrived and I could appreciate the sense of this. However, the standards for such an important function did not impress me in the least.
There came a need to man the stores and I was allocated to this job, ostensibly for a limited period of time, but, after three months of absolute boredom I started to play up and eventually the Chief Technician, coming upon me with my feet up on the counter, ordered me back to the aircraft. I had my tool kit all neatly assembled, ready to go. We did not get on too well and on one occasion he accused me of dumb insolence.
He could have proceeded against me but, I suspect, he would have had a difficult case to prove, especially as I had started to play for the station football team and we were beginning to perform well; I am sure that I would have been afforded protection by the station Warrant Officer.
I was learning.
Sport was the responsibility of the station Warrant Officer and he looked after us very well with special diets and time off when we wanted it. However, in my case, this proved to be difficult as I was attached to 605 Squadron but, never-the-less, I was favoured.
What I find difficult to recall is how I managed to do this on Wednesday afternoons as I was working for Ron Dyne in Birmingham.
Additionally, I had played three times for Aston Villa third team on, obviously, Saturday afternoons and Mush Gallaghan looked after us. At that time we were classed as amateurs and could not, therefore, receive payment but Mush would come up the coach isle giving out ten shilling notes to cover our travel expenses; and that was a lot of money considering that I was receiving approximately 2 pounds at that time.
Life, for me after this, became a little hum drum but Jean, my fiancée, and I were to be married in April of 1953 and we had plenty to do in this direction.
The station football team were in the semi-final of the cup for Wednesday footballers and this was played against RAF Castle Bromwich where the referee had to halt the game because of some chicanery on the part of this team. They had arranged for a twin engine Dakota to be parked up near the football field and to have its engines run up, ostensibly on test, but to create a blast of air to help in scoring goals to our disadvantage. The aircraft was removed after the Referee threatened to cancel the game and we won handsomely.
The week of our marriage, towards the end of April, was the cup final, played on a ground which was part of BSA ( Birmingham Small Arms ) in Sparkbrook, Birmingham and we won this final 2:1 much to the delight of the Warrant Officer and the station, but I then had other things to concern me with; our wedding on the Saturday.
It was a lovely day but cold, everything going well until, during the reception, a very flustered photographer asked to speak to me and informed me that all the photographic plates had been knocked to the floor and smashed in the dark room. Thus, we all filed out from the reception and posed once more. Such is life.
We honeymooned in Tall-y-Bont, near Barmouth, in Wales and, again, we enjoyed beautiful spring weather, very cold, but such a delightful area; then returned to Birmingham, to rented accommodation, and married life, which was not blissful as the woman we rented the rooms from turned out to be a grasping, embittered person.
I had elected to live out, which meant a marriage allowance but this was eaten into because of travelling costs back and forth from Birmingham to Honiley. Jean, my wife, was badly treated by this woman, so much so that we decided to find other accommodation and my Aunts came to the rescue with a flat in Handsworth, which became available.
This also presented a problem as the owner required key money of £50 before we would be allowed to take the flat up and that sum of money was a small fortune, representing some three months earnings. My Aunt Agnes, one of the most delightful persons ever, gave us the money as a loan, which we were grateful for and paid this sum back eventually.
Keeping everything in perspective, I had four months to go in the RAF and we were making arrangements for the summer camp, in June, this to Sylt, an island off the north German coast, previously an aircraft development site and fighter airfield of the Luftwaffe. The usual frenetic activity was taking place and all was a race against time.
On the Sunday evening, prior to departure, Ron Dyne gave me a lift home to Birmingham and we passed down the Witton Road side of the Aston Villa ground and came to a halt in a small traffic hold up at the bottom.
This being the early fifties, Birmingham City Council had decided to remove trams as they were supposedly uneconomical to run. The sight that confronted us, the reason for the hold up, was a group of men pushing the chassis of one of these dismantled trams from the depot, on our right, into the centre of the road with the intention to push it back again but into another bay.
We sat watching this manoeuvre with interest; so also a man, on his bicycle coming the other way; so engrossed was he that he ended up spread eagled across a parked car. Ron and I were helpless with laughter and so were all the men pushing the chassis as they had stopped for a rest and saw, as we did, the inevitability of the situation and they just fell about in hysterics. Ron could not continue to drive and switched his engine off until we could recover ourselves.
So, off we flew, in Dakotas, to Westerland-a-Sylt, to enjoy some wonderful weather and a stint in German Luftwaffe accommodation, second to none with double glazing and facilities far in advance compared to the UK. We worked from 08.00 to 15.00 hours and had delightful food in the mess. I was struck by the RAF sergeant chef, who spoke such good German, that he was able to control a whole team of Germans employed in the kitchens.
There were no fences, but the perimeter was patrolled by German civilian guards, with dogs. We were told to be careful with Bare Bum Beach, the RAF terminology for Abyssinia beach, a nudist part allocated to those who desired, and to be careful to use the designated site entrances. A party of us went to BBB and walked along only to find ourselves embarrassed with clothes on; we took them all off and had a lovely, comfortable, time in the sun, playing in and out of the sea.
Inevitably I became lost on one of my walks and tried to enter the station site, illegally, to be confronted by a guard and his wolfhound. I had to produce my identity; he produced his authority, making it clear, in typewritten English, that I had contravened regulations and was, consequently, on a charge. What was new?
On the Saturday afternoon, at the end of the first week, I was walking along past the hangars when, suddenly, a Mustang fighter, propeller driven aircraft flew straight between two of the hangars and, naturally, I was frightened out of my wits! Imagine; this plane could not have been more than fifty feet above the ground! This performance was repeated time after time and eventually I discovered that it was the Station CO, demonstrating how flying should be done. Some experience!
The one remaining Meteor Mk 7 was used to tow targets for shooting practice over the north sea and I often wish that I had had a flight in this aircraft. It would have been a fitting finale to my time in the RAF but there were other things brewing.
Some weeks after this sojourn in Germany there I was in front of the Adjutant, Flt Lt Peat, to answer the charge of contravention of regulations. I explained that I had got lost, could not see the entrances from where I found myself and, he accepted my explanation and dismissed the charge.
Towards September, and my release, Ron Dyne, for whom I had been working, part time, reached the decision that he could not employ me full time and arranged an interview for me with Serck Radiators Limited, eventually, my new employers.
Came the day and I presented myself at the adjutant’s office to receive my discharge certificate and to learn, by letter handed to me, that my services would still be needed, in the Royal Observer Corps, where I would be required to attend, weekly, for aircraft and fighting sea vessels identification sessions. Oh my, could they not let me go in peace?
At the guard house there was a taxi- not for me- but for a recently arrived officer. There I was, with my kit bag, and walking, when the taxi driver drew up beside me and suggested that I avail myself of the lift to Knowle, free of charge. Things were beginning to change.
POSTSCRIPT: I completed my HNC, together with all the endorsements and became one of the 3% of those who achieved it. I also became a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and, eventually, a Fellow of this august body.
HAROLD HD ROGERS C.ENG. F.I.Mech.E. (26-11-2011)