- This is from the "magnum opus", Dad's memoir of his life up to middle age.
Having been found to be breathing I was declared fit and asked to select the Service of my choice. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to see some of the world and I opted for the Navy. I was then told that I should be going into the Air Force. I had the temerity to ask why they had offered a choice in the first place and, to my amazement, I was told. It was suggested that if a conscript opted for the Army, which was most in need of manpower, he would be given his choice. Perhaps they felt that these psychological confidence tricks were justified. I duly received orders to report to R A F Station Padgate. Here we were treated in a very gentle way and kitted out with knife, fork and spoon, button stick, boot brushes and many other necessities, as well as two uniforms, 'Best' blue and 'Working' blue, together with shirts, vests and so on. We marked all these items with marking ink or metal stamps, as appropriate, in order to indelibly identify, in my case, that they were the property of 2364380 AC2 Chapman G S.
Following further gentle discussions about what the RAF had to offer as a career we were again asked politely to walk over to a lecture room to see an Officer. He repeated what a good life was in store if we 'signed on' and provided all the necessary paperwork. I remained with the rest of the 'NO' brigade ie all of our intake and we were suddenly treated like any normal recruits, shouted at and told to, "Double up smartly". Many of the lads cried themselves to sleep and I could not understand the sort of home life that led to this. Our 'civvy' clothes were all packed in the suitcases we had been told to bring and these sent home. I was informed that, as an AC2, my pay would be 6/6d per day ie 45/6 (£2.271/2p) per week. I opted to send home some pay as an 'allotment' and survive on the remainder.
I decided that the best way to avoid any trouble was simply to obey orders and volunteer before an order was given and I would thereby have only myself to blame. We were marched off to the Station Barber and told that we could have a free hair cut. In response to, "How would you like it cut?" I said that I would like it cut so that there would be no chance of being ordered, "Get yer 'air cut!" The rest of the lads said that I looked like a convict but I merely responded that I couldn't see it. Several of those with expensive hair styles were sent back for a repeat on the following morning but had to pay for it. Of these, some were still said to be in need of a hair cut that afternoon, this time with the added incentive that if their hair was still too long, their names would be added to the roll of honour on F252. Form 252 is, of course the RAF Charge, commonly referred to as being 'put on a fizzer'. After a week at RAF Padgate we were posted to our various basic training units ie 'Square Bashing' Stations. I was posted to RAF Station Bridgnorth. The induction briefing was that there would be no chance to leave the Station except after six weeks and then only for a local visit if we were considered ready to be let loose on an unsuspecting world. There would be no other chance to leave the Station until the eight weeks of basic training was complete and we had been 'Passed Out'.
On the following morning I was walking back into the billet and swearing roundly about the cold water for shaving when I suddenly became aware that Corporal Adams, whose bunk was at the end of our billet and was to be in charge of us, being our drill instructor (DI), was looking directly at me.
- "COME HERE LOFTY!"
I suddenly felt anything but lofty and followed him to his bunk. He said, "I've chosen you as the senior man of the billet." I muttered thanks and he went on to explain what my duties were. Basically, it paid to nominate the tallest man as 'senior' because he was less likely to be intimidated by the others. I was required to see that the billet was occupied by at least one person while the rest were at breakfast, to organise the cleaning of the billet, to get the men to 'fall in' when required and act as 'right marker' when we were on parade.
For the next two days corporals Adams and Hoskins, who were both due to be released and were therefore fairly 'laid back' put us through our paces and we looked less of a shambles every minute. On the third morning, a Sergeant appeared on parade and asked for any Electricians to 'fall out'. I stepped forward and found myself alongside Corporal Adams. We were sent into HQ and there we were asked if we would rewire some billets which were needed and the Works personnel could not finish in time. This was regarded by all and sundry as a 'cushy number' and we were still working on this when Marjorie's wedding day approached. Our CO was an RAF Regiment Squadron Leader. Now the sternest disciplinarians are to be found among the RAF Regiment personnel. Their duties are basically to guard airfields. Compared with other RAF personnel they are generally less technical and are usually derided as 'Rock Apes'. Corporal Adams suggested asking for a 48 hour pass on compassionate grounds. Fear and trepidation go nowhere near describing my feelings when the Flight Sergeant marched me into the CO's Office. I was amazed when the CO just bade me "Good Morning" and asked why I wanted to see him. I explained that I wanted to go home to my sister's wedding and he asked where it was to be held. I didn't simply say "London" but answered "West Kensington Sir". There followed a short discussion about the work that Corporal Adams and I had been doing on the billet wiring and the CO, Squadron Leader Lindsay, then asked me if I could install a door bell at his house in Shepherds Bush. I explained that it would not be possible during a 48 hour pass but that my partner in Westken Electrics could easily be persuaded to do the job. Thus it was that a six week 'sprog' was seen being driven to London in his CO's car while nobody was allowed off the Station.
The wedding went off well, the only hitch being that the photographer disappeared, in possession of all the negatives. The only photographic record that Marjorie and Frank have is therefore the 'proofs' and a number of copies of these have been made. The groom was the son of Mum's brother Reg who emigrated to the Channel Isle of Jersey. Uncle Reg had called on us during some of his wartime leaves from the Army and his twin sons, Reg and Frank, had joined up soon after the war. Frank 'took a shine' to Marjorie and hence the wedding. I went back to wiring and 'square bashing'. One of the impossibilities of service life is being expected to do the impossible. It was usual to have one set of underclothes in the laundry and the other set on. When the order was given to be on parade in PT kit and a number of men in my billet had been moving coal on the previous day, they could be expected to be somewhat blackened. Sergeant Moulson was an ex Marine who had been well decorated and had no need to be anything other than a very good NCO. However, he had a sadistic streak and put six men on a charge for having dirty underwear.
I asked to see the CO, was asked why I wished to see him and replied that I wished to Redress a Grievance. I was ushered into the CO's Office and was amazed to find that I was alone. I explained that I felt it to be unfair that the men had been charged, it not being possible for their vests to be clean after coal heaving in vests and denims. I was then asked why I considered it to be any concern of mine and replied, "Well Sir, I am the Senior Man of the billet." The CO thanked me for the information, called in the Flight Sergeant to dismiss me and each man was then marched in in turn. Each was asked what he was doing on the previous day and when he replied that he had been heaving coal, the CO simply said, "Case Dismissed."
Another example of volunteering which turned out to my advantage was when we had been on the range. The NCO asked if any of us could drive. Two volunteers stepped forward and I hoped that I would be shown what to do because this would be my first driving experience. However, the NCO simply told us to drive a couple of brooms around until the place looked clean. The rest of the lads enjoyed a good laugh. Some few minutes later the laugh was on them as we drove past in the truck on our way to return the weapons to the Guard Room, leaving them to enjoy the brisk march of a mile and a quarter.
There were the usual fun and games in which groups of lads get involved. On one such occasion, the person appointed to relieve the room orderly failed to appear so that he missed his breakfast. The lad concerned was not as clean as he might be and so the 'kangaroo court' felt that the most suitable punishment was a good scrubbing. Held upside down in a cold shower, the unfortunate recipient was scrubbed with a stiff broom. He was cleaner and more punctual after that.
There was one final episode which I have always regretted not pursuing. On the final night of our stay, having all 'Passed Out', with me as Right Marker (owing to my height) there was a challenge regarding the strength of certain individuals. During the act of lifting three men, single handed, the two outside the victim would hold him down, blindfold him and then apply boot blacking to certain parts. No NCO would normally get involved in such activities but Sergeant Moulson could not resist it and joined in. Three of us went to his billet and told him that unless like treatment could be given to him, the Senior Medical Officer would be notified and we would not be posted on the following morning. There was very considerable pleasure at the result but I have always felt that it would have been more sensible for the RAF to be rid of Sergeant Moulson.
During my time at Bridgnorth I had sat a trade test, which was probably a psychological battery and resulted in high marks which gave me a choice of trade. I opted for:
1. Air Traffic Control 2. Radio/Radar Mechanic 3. Electrician
I was given Electrician because there was a shortage of tradesmen. Or as I said during the discussion which followed the test and was asked what they meant by choice, "Take it or leave it". I was posted to RAF Station Coltishall as an Electrician U/T (Under Training) to await my trade course at RAF Station Melksham, Wilts. RAF Station Coltishall was equipped with Mosquitoes (23 Squadron) and it is not surprising that they left a lasting memory. The train journey from London finished by a branch line from Buxton Lamas, near Norwich. The Ticket Collector had no chance, being offered London Transport 4d 'bus tickets, Woodbine packets and any other green paper that could be shoved into his hands, having put down his lantern to give him a chance to accept the offerings. After a fairly short stay I was posted to Number 64 School of Technical Training (No 64 S of TT), at RAF Station Melksham, Wiltshire. The course was most enjoyable, being largely a revision of some of the work that we had covered at Wandsworth Technical School. The course should have been of sixteen weeks duration but I, once again, volunteered, this time to stay on the Station for two weeks at Easter while the majority were on stand down. The duties were three days of Fire Picket and three days Guard. The six days gave ample opportunity to explore the area and to enjoy the freedom of the NAAFI and other such establishments. We only had one minor problem when I asked an Officer for his (F1250) Identification Card. The request was perfectly reasonable but he took umbrage at the fact that the inspection was too cursory. For the rest of the Stand Down he was stopped and had his car searched every time that he passed through the gates. We took great pleasure in closely examining every F1250, comparing the photograph with the holder and carefully noting all the relevant details.
We were paraded, thanked for our devotion to duty and then given an extra two days and sent on leave. When the time came to leave Melksham I was pleased to find that I had been promoted to AC1. The basis for this earth shattering news was that my marks were above a certain level. I only met one idiot at Melksham and that was an Officer who was on Orderly Officer duty one particular day, asking the usual question, "Any Complaints?" I said that the cabbage was gritty. There were several similar complaints and the Flight Sergeant Cook was asked to comment. He said that it had been grown on sandy soil and the idiot Officer then threatened to charge us all with making a frivolous complaint.
I was posted to RAF Station Lindholme near Doncaster and settled down to enjoy the title of Electrician G S Chapman and get to work on aircraft. The Station was home to an Operational Conversion Unit (23O OCU) which retrained ex Halifax and Stirling crews to fly Lancasters. Knowing nothing of the obscene political background of the aircraft business at the time I enjoyed being involved with what I thought to have been our life saver in time of war. There was also a Fighter Affiliation Squadron using Hornets and Mosquitoes. The task of these aircraft was to 'attack' the bombers, using camera gunsights, the bombers taking evasive action. It is normally a two-man job flying a Mosquito but the very local nature of Fighter Affiliation meant that the flights were usually a one-man job and therefore a spare 'bod' could be taken on the flight. There was never any shortage of volunteers. In fact, anybody 'in the know' kept very quiet about the arrangements. Not everybody wanted to go on a sortie owing to the fact that the aerobatics were inclined to upset the stomach. In the event of disgracing oneself and missing the sick-bag the aircraft could be cleaned for one at the modest cost of 5 shillings (25p).
Other aircraft were kept on the Station because Lindholme was also the home of Number 1 Group Bomber Command Headquarters. The Group aircraft were two Proctors, an Anson and an Oxford. The greatest flying opportunities were offered in Lancasters and, later, their more modern counterparts Lincolns. At that time it was normal to be ordered to fly in an aircraft that one had been servicing. There were no complaints on this score. I was amazed at the loss rate of 'Lancs' and three of these may be of interest. One blew back into a ditch and broke its back. The second was the greatest tragedy which came anywhere near me in the RAF. The crew had flown two tours of operations together during the war and included two DFC winners. One night, they decided to take a trip round the countryside instead of the planned night sortie and did not make sufficient allowance for a range of hills in Cheshire. They were all killed and it was suggested that it would be impossible to sort out the bodies. The weight was made up approximately with soil and they were buried with honour. One day I was standing in the Electrical Section, (NAAFI break) drinking tea and watching a 'Lanc' landing. It gradually approached the ground and it became obvious that the pilot would not, or could not, lower the undercarriage. The rear gunner had rotated his turret so that he could jump out as they taxied passed Air Traffic Control and collect the crew wagon. As the 'Lanc' hit the runway it slewed round and the rear gunner was thrown out. Luckily, there were no serious injuries and, having seen the crash, our first thought was to get to the scene in order to disconnect the batteries. Two of us drove straight across the grass but, in spite of our short journey, the CO was there first. As he walked through the fuselage he met the pilot, Flying Officer 'Chalky' White, coming out. Loosely translated the conversation which ensued was:
- CO: "What the hell Chalky?"
- Fg Off White: "Sorry Sir! I forgot to put it down!"
- CO: "You'd better come for a ride with me."
The flight gave all the watchers a great deal of pleasure as the CO gave a short demonstration before he handed over control. There were two stings in the tail of this story. Firstly, Flying Officer White was the Chief Test Pilot of the OCU and secondly, we only had one 'jinx' aeroplane and that was L (Love) which, for some unknown reason, was disliked by all the aircrews. The CO quite deliberately selected to fly 'L'. For the benefit of the uninitiated it may be as well to add an appendix to this story and it is that, in order to prevent the pilot from landing with the undercarriage 'UP', there is a switch which is operated by closing the throttles and operates a warning horn. This is of the standard pattern as fitted to motor cars (albeit designed for 24 volt operation) and was still blaring away some 18 inches from where the pilot's head had been.
We had been re-equipping with Lincolns for some time and there was a rumour that the Squadron was to be posted to some distant spot in the Middle East. 'Jabs' were being talked about and some actually delivered. Finally we were moved, 'lock stock and barrel' to RAF Station Scampton near Lincoln. Only a surprisingly small number of 'Lancs' were fully serviceable and the CO personally signed the Form 7OO for any which were doubtful, including one which made the short trip on three engines. The AVRO Lincoln was equipped with an all electric mid-upper turret and I applied to attend a short course at RAF Station Kirkham, near Blackpool. There was very little time (or money) to enjoy the pleasures of the seaside but I promised myself that I would go back one day.
There followed another trade test at which our Warrant Officer was due to ask me a series of questions, my answers to which could result in my being promoted. WO Alden was an interesting character who was also from London. His normal response to a telephone call was, "Gas Light & Coke Company." One morning, I was in his Office when he made the usual reply, very hastily followed by, "Yes Sir, I'll be there immediately Sir." He gave up being the GL&CC after that. When I went in for the trade test he offered me a Woodbine which, as usual, I refused and he began to ask me how the Bristol B17 turret worked. He was baffled by the Ward Leonard control system and he fairly quickly gave up, saying: "It's obvious that you know what you are doing so I'll put you in charge of the Battery Room as well. Congratulations LAC Chapman, now piss off."
The Electrical Officer at Lindholme, Flight Lieutenant Fallon, left us shortly after we arrived at Scampton, to be demobilised. His replacement was Flt Lt Roberts, who took the whole section out for a meal every month. We each contributed a small amount each pay day and 'Robbie' paid for drinks all round. The newer officers were often on Christian names terms, especially the Entertainments Officer. I represented the Section on most committees and had started a dance band, with me playing the string bass. Probably the last involvement with Flt Lt Fallon was when he took me into Lincoln to purchase a new string bass. We played once a week and were paid £1 for this. Our drummer was 'Eddy' Taylor, who is now the leader of the 'Ted' Taylor Five. We made two records at a studio in Lincoln. Neither of these made it into the top million. My rate of pay as an LAC was 8/6d per day (59/6d ie £2.971/2p per week). The band earnings were therefore very welcome. The other 'extras' were casual earnings at the Station Cinema. The pay for an evening in the cash desk was 15 shillings (75p) and, when it was my turn, projecting brought in £1 for an evening.
The senior pilot in the Fighter Affiliation Unit was a P1. P1 Ward would not have benefitted financially from promotion and preferred to remain with the senior NCO's. He was an excellent pilot and, having his wife was still living in married quarters at Lindholme so he was always keen to fly back there at the slightest excuse, for example, to fetch spares. On one occasion I went with him to fetch a generator for a 'Lanc'. As we approached the circuit he said, "Here grab this will you." With that he let go of the control of the Airspeed Oxford, leaving me to 'fly' it or rather to hold it steady from the co-pilot's seat. There was none of the usual finesse like:
- "You have control."
- "I have control Sir."
He then proceeded to wave his handkerchief out of the side screen. There was an answering response of waving teacloth from his wife. He re-took control of the aeroplane and landed. After I had collected the generator we made our way back to Scampton. Ward actually thanked me for the mid-week trip home to see his wife.
We had two Tiger Moths in to take part in a Battle of Britain Open Day. The more senior of the two pilots was given the task of satisfying himself that any other pilot was competent to fly the machine. This is quite usual for a visiting pilot to satisfy the Station Duty Officer of his competence by a simple demonstration flight. The visiting pilot had a most unfortunate manner and seemed to be suggesting that P1 Ward had insufficient flying experience to be entrusted with his delicate Moth. Ward took the Moth, with the visitor as passenger, and completed the required demonstration. He then flew a series of aerobatics which was a joy to watch. Having made his passenger sick he then flew inverted so that the wretched man was sick up his own nose. Ward then landed the Moth.
Scampton had been used by the Americans before our arrival and they had mostly left. There was one Skymaster, one of two that had kept the Station provided and one Dakota which had a damaged wing tip owing to a collision with the hangar door. After it had been repaired I worked through the Daily Inspection (DI) routine laid down in the manual for the DC2 and although it was far short of serviceable, the American pilot, who had been flown in from Mildenhall, simply shrugged and took off. The Skymaster left the same day with the remaining few Americans.
I recall a new arrangement by the RAF when they introduced Grade 3 tradesmen. Electricians were Grade 2, requiring a 16 week training course and the 'powers that be' decided that a shortage of manpower could be overcome by giving 8 weeks of training and thus introducing Grade 3 types. We were lucky in that Ron Green, an ex-greengrocer's assistant, was a likeable lad and we were all willing to help him but there was no way that he could ever learn the rudiments of basic electricity, let alone enough to be able to manage even the simplest aircraft servicing. The problem was finally resolved by cancelling the crackpot scheme. We had a bit of excitement as a result of the Grade 3 scheme, in the form of an Armourer. He went to do a DI on a Lincoln mid-upper turret and failed to check whether the guns had been unloaded. The inevitable result gave the Chief Technical Officer, a Wing Commander, quite a fright as twin 2O mm canon shells flew over the hangar roof. The 'Wingco' had a chat with the lad who had only just arrived and had not heard about air to sea firing exercises in peace time and let him off with a caution and the statement that he was short handed as it was and didn't want to lose another man to the Glass-House. It was simply a matter of waiting to see that the shells had not landed anywhere unfortunate before losing the paperwork.
One day we were asked to go to help the TA by installing the lights in their marquee at Skegness. When we arrived we were welcomed by the TA Colonel and his wife, whom I had previously met as Madame duCourzy Macdonnell. She was far more friendly than on our previous meeting but we still had nothing in common.
The system in the RAF at that time was that each Wing, eg Servicing Wing would take it in turns, for a week each, to 'hoist the colour' ie to raise the flag on the parade square each morning. Any airman who worked overtime would be excused Colour Hoisting. I always managed to find work to do in the Section until an acceptable time, return the keys to the Guard Room, evidence of the overtime and hence be excused 'Flag Wagging'. A much more acceptable choice was to be Night Flying. The best excuse for flying was the testing of a mid-upper turret. The specification was that rotation of the turret should take no longer than a set time, 8 seonds if memory serves me well. The fuselage must be horizontal throughout the test and the best way to ensure this was in flight. The pilot could always be relied upon to oblige and was normally pleased for such change in routine which relieved the boredom. The 'spare' parachutes, ie those not being worn but stowed on the side of the fuselage, made a comfortable bed, resulting in quite a good night's sleep. A notice which read: 'NIGHT FLYING' on the end of one's bed next morning ensured peace until a civilised hour when one could get on with such important tasks as snooker practice etc.
Another regular 'skive' was to work overtime one week-end in four. We were paid each fortnight and so we were very hard up in the intermediate weeks. A week-end on overtime (a Saturday morning would suffice) gave us a 48 hour pass on the following week-end. The next week-end was spent on Camp and the week after that it was again time for CO's Inspection, followed by a 48 hour pass which actually started at 11.00 on the Friday.
Another advantage of Service life was that marksmanship was always encouraged and one could always get an issue of as much ammunition as was necessary to complete the practice. I recall firing 75 rounds of 0.303 on several occasions.
An Electrician who was a particular friend of mine, known as 'Scouse' had similar tastes in jazz. He was responsible for servicing the Link Trainer which was used for training pilots, forerunner of the Flight Simulator. He was always most helpful in arranging sessions for me and I quickly discovered that I could make a passable job of 'flying' the machine until 'Scouse' put the hood up, at which point I immediately went into a catastrophic spin.
There were other, more valuable advantages which I didn't appreciate until later. I seriously considered 'signing on' to stay in the RAF as a career but nobody, including the Education Officer, seemed inclined to assist with any transport to go to evening classes and, during a leave I made some enquiries at Wansworth Technical Institute. I bumped into Mr Barrett and he pursuaded me to start on an Ordinary National Certificate Course, the first year being exempted. Back from leave I was sent to RAF Station Kirkham (still no time or money for the seaside) to be demobilized and found myself back in Civvy Street. Before casting the uniform aside I feel that I should mention the fate of our old Group Captain who accepted the blame for all the misfortunes of the Squadron (final score 7 'Lancs' in 8 months), was posted abroad and seen again some 12 months later, promoted to Air Commodore.
I must mention one girl friend. She worked on a War Office switchboard and could easily contact any Service establishment in the Country. WO Alden was quite understanding about such calls. One of our group had been a photographer in Civvy Street, working for Beadon Studios in Nottingham and I have a large number of snaps of airmen doing various silly things and illicit pictures of Service aeroplanes. It is almost certain that my initial interest in photography was kindled by him. He also played the clarinet in our band. He was learning to play the drums but did not cause us any discomfort because he used a practice pad to tap out his paradiddles. I feel somewhat ashamed at being unable to remember his name.
Many people who were conscripted claim that their National Service was a waste of their time. My view has always been that, until I got married, these were the best two years of my life. It would be quite easy to fall foul of the system and, in fact, we had a Corporal who was somewhat bombastic and did not choose to make life easy for himself and others. One day he had his motor cycle upside down in the Section (I have never understood why). The Flight Sergeant asked, "What's this then Corporal?" To which he replied, "It's a motor cycle Flight Sergeant. Why do you ask?" A clear case of a well deserved 7 days 'jankers' which could so easily have been avoided by being civilised.
I had become very involved with aircraft and the Air Force and was very sad to leave. One of the highlights of my time at Scampton was when we went into the Officer's Mess to effect some minor repair or other and were able to look at a series of oil paintings of many of the 'Aces' who had served there, together with copies of the London Gazette citations referring to their decorations. I remember Bader, Cunningham and Gibson and we all visited the stone, marking the grave of Nigger, Gibson's dog.
I was quite proud of the report given in my F381OA Service and Release Book which reads as follows:
- RAF Character V G
- Proficiency A Superior
- LAC Chapman has shown himself to be an able and conscientious tradesman and an outstandingly enthusiastic and keen participant in service affairs. He has been employed for the last fifteen months on aircraft electrical equipment servicing and was selected for specialised maintenance of aircraft electrical turrets. He is specially recommended for electrical maintenance work requiring ability and enthusiasm.