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Thursday, July 18, 2024

…ad Astra

My posting was to RAF Chivenor, near Barnstable, North Devon and I found the usual wooden hut, but divided into three sections, each holding about 5 beds and a coal fired stove. The walls were lined with composition board. Adjacent to the bed opposite mine was a large colour photograph of Princess Margaret, probably a centre fold from a magazine such as Picture Post, common at the time. The next occupier of that bed looked at the picture and started to tear it down, to reveal a large hole in the wall lining. He hastily replaced the picture, as we all knew the phrase “barrack room damages”, which we would be responsible for, although the originator was long gone, probably after a fight with a broom. From time to time our billets were inspected by an officer and NCO, for cleanliness and damage and on one visit, the officer commented “Good clean and regal billet”. What was not noticed was that wind entered the gap under the lining, creating the effect of breathing on the royal breast.
At that time the electricians were in two groups, Aircraft and Ground. I was in the latter, so did not touch an aircraft during my two years service. As the title implied we dealt with everything except aircraft and the only aircraft item we were involved with was charging batteries, both those carried on aircraft and those used to start the engines. So we manned the battery charging room, taking turns by day and night. The engines were started from a Trolley-Accumulator, which carried a number of heavy duty batteries, larger than car batteries and charged by wheeling the trolleys to surround the charging room, via large plugs into sockets around the building. These Niphan plugs were very unwieldy on wet freezing nights, as we had to clamber over the large trolleys to check if the batteries were fully charged, so that another could be wheeled into place.
With leave, sickness and courses, we were often short of a spare hand in our section. On a rota, one electrician spent a week as Duty Electrician, sorting out any problems on the camp, by day and night. One regular job was to switch the Flasher Beacon on before dusk, situated in a distant part of the airfield. This had several large neon tubes, which flashed the station call sign at intervals to advise any nearby aircraft. We would get a call telling us that the beacon was to be switched off again, usually in the small hours, as there were no neighbouring flights, with the usual threat that if you do not get out of bed and switch it off “you will be on a charge”. This of course disturbed everyone. We had the use of the Station Bicycle for this purpose, which was satisfactory riding out, but having reached and switched off the beacon, I was still dazzled by the light and the airfield was pitch black. The Air Traffic Control office was the only light left on, so I headed for that and then could find my way.
Another regular call out was to the Station Police billet, to repair a fuse. The SP’s regularly ironed the knife edge creases in their tunics by plugging in an electric iron into the lamp socket, which naturally was against standing orders. On one occasion I was returning to camp by train overnight with another airman and we both slept through a call that the train would divide and we went on to the next resort. When we eventually returned to our camp we had overstayed our leave pass, as the SP on duty at the gate had pleasure in telling us, and that we would be on a charge, probably meaning a fortnight in the cell at the gatehouse, with chores. Then he suddenly looked at me again and said “You are one of the electricians” and I agreed, so he said you had better get back to your Section and we will forget it. Two wrongs sometimes make a right !
We frequently had to service the flare path, along the side of the runway, with aircraft taking off or landing very close. The lamps were sodium type. On my first experience I accompanied a more experienced airman and when I stopped to find suitable tools to remove a casing, he said “No need for that, just give it a kick”. A very useful lesson, which I repeated many times! We had to report to a Flight Control Caravan as we first approached the runway and on one occasion I was told to be careful as “they were a fresh lot of pilots and they are all over the place”. The camp was a conversion airfield from piston engined aircraft to jets.
Another electrician, who had signed on as a regular, but decided he wished to return to “Civvy Street”, was trying to plead mental illness. When he was Duty Electrician, and so confined to camp for the week, he was also manning the battery charging room by day. He left camp and next day was marched in front of the Group Captain to receive punishment. I was detailed as one of his guards and I was worried as I had not shaved that morning, but this went unnoticed as his long list of charges was read out. He had left camp without leave, left the charging room unattended, left the keys to the charging room “open to theft” in his billet, and so on. He was sentenced to several weeks in the guard room, which left us one man short to cover other duties.
Following his pleading he was sent to RAF Wroughton, in Wiltshire, for examination by a doctor skilled in mental illness. The visit was over the New Year and two escorts were required from the Electrical and associated Instrument Section. The senior NCO was very considerate and found a Flight Sergeant who came from Bristol and myself from Wiltshire, with the suggestion that we hand the prisoner over and then could visit home for the week end. On the train journey we changed trains and whilst waiting for the connection our “prisoner” asked if he could use the toilet block on the platform, and we agreed. We were not handcuffed and he entered. After some time the “Flight” said “Do you think there is an exit at the rear?” and we both went to investigate, but there was no other exit. The prisoner eventually appeared and said “I hope you chaps were not worried?”
On arrival at Wroughton on Friday we were told they were on 48 hour leave, so could not take charge of our prisoner, but we could stay there and look after him. The “Flight” quietly said to me that he thought the prisoner would be no trouble before his interview, so he proposed to go home to Bristol for the night, returning next day, when I could go to my home near Devizes, stay the night, New Year’s Eve, and return next day. We successfully completed these arrangements and I made a surprise visit to my parents. The prisoner completed his interview with the doctor and the “Flight” was given papers with his report to take back to our Station Commander. During the trip back to our camp the prisoner continually begged to have a sight of the papers, which might give him suitable information for future examinations. This was resisted. The prisoner was safely returned and eventually saw the Station Commander again. After some time we learnt that the prisoner was being posted to another camp, in Wales. This was the usual service answer for awkward men, move them on, but in this case it was sensible, as he came from Wales and would be nearer to his family.
We had annual visits from the Officer Commanding the Area. One lunch time the Airmans Mess suddenly appeared with white table cloths over the usual bare wood, with flowers. Also potted palms and some of the RAF orchestra at one end of the Mess. The meal was unusually good and we could truthfully answer the visitors that the food is good. They also visited our workstations, which had linoleum flooring, normally scratched by boots. Our Corporal told me to go to the Naffi and tell the Chief that their floorpolisher was due for its regular checkover and she gladly gave it to me. We polished the floor satisfactorily and returned it to the Naffi, saying it had past its tests and she thanked me gratefully! Our wooden benches were clad with sheet metal which had been painted with gloss paint, which was badly scratched by the items worked on. Again I was instructed to borrow some black gloss anti acid paint from the battery room and this made them very bright and shiny, but one would assume the bench had not been worked on. Then I was told to fit a small component to an electric drill and be seen to be working on it when visited, so I did so, stripped it again and refitted it again, and again. The officer inspecting eventually looked around the workshop and commended us on its smartness.
Chivenor had a cinema on camp, the “Astra”. Imagine what is was like when full of men, when showing a film featuring Marilyn Monroe! On the day of our de-mob 3 or 4 us, unknown to each other but linked by having commenced our National Service on the same day, assembled to see an officer individually, who suggested that we might rejoin as a regular. I told him that National Service had interrupted my career and I was looking forward to recommencing it and continuing the necessary qualifications. When I joined the others they could not understand why I was not carrying papers to rejoin and when I asked how they had replied to the officer, they said they might rejoin, as they did not wish to hurt his feelings!
So ended my time with “Per ardue ad Astra”, (The RAF).
Bridport History Society will meet on Tuesday 12th October at 2 for 2.30, when Brian Bates will talk about Villians, Victims and Tragedies, from the Dorset Archives, his latest book. (Still on Zoom).

Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.

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