A NATIONAL SERVICEMAN’S PERSPECTIVE 1959-61
SIGNALS SERVICE

by Neville Webb

 

 


RAF EASTLEIGH - COMMUNICATIONS CENTRE

In September 1959, aged 21, the end of my apprenticeship with the Ministry of Supply drew near, together with the prospect of National Service (NS). Following a medical at Reading, I went through the process
of leaving RAE Farnborough and awaited an early call-up, which came shortly afterwards. I wondered what life would be like in the Royal Air Force (RAF) over the next two years and what would I eventually be doing. However, it was largely wait and see.

Entry into the Royal Air Force was at RAF Cardington. Here, as new recruits, still in civilian clothes, we waited over the weekend. All there was to do was walk around the camp and wonder at the two huge airship hangers. Going inside one of these huge hangers, one was almost over-awed by the space inside.
It was from Cardington that the R 101 Airship left on its fatal flight on March 1930.

A train took us from RAF Cardington to Bridgnorth railway station, where we arrived on a dark and wet evening. Clambering into RAF buses we were driven to RAF Bridgnorth. Arriving at the camp, our first taste of life in basic training began with Drill Instructors noisily banging of the sides of the buses and shouting at us to `Get out,’ which of course we quickly did.


RAF BRIDGNORTH - BASIC TRAINING

RAF_Bridgnorth - Wikipedia

The Sorting Out Process

18 Flight "B" Squadron (Hut 207) contained a mix of Regular airmen and National Servicemen. One difference between these groups seemed to be the level of general education. Most of the NS airmen had at least "O" level G.C.E's or had completed an apprenticeship with technical qualifications. NS airmen could also be readily distinguished by their older style issue uniforms and, financially by their lower rate of pay.

Basic Training: RAF Bridgenorth, 18 Flight "B" Squadron (Hut 207) October 1959

Early in basic training we took written tests to determine our potential aptitudes; these tests were not difficult. However, for NS airmen the results of these tests would likely determine their future role in the RAF's scheme of things. At any rate, we never knew the results. On parade one day, all airmen with G.C.E's were asked if they wanted to try for officer training or aircrew. Out of interest, I had a brief interview with a slightly pompous young Flight Lieutenant, who made it very clear that while I was welcome to try, in his opinion, I would not be successful.

Basic training in 18 Flight included the usual marching and drills and lectures on things military. One NS airman in 18 Flight, who'd worked in a design office and was reputed to be clever, lacked the required coordination for marching. His arm and leg on the same side moved almost in unison. This problem was simply solved by placing him in the middle of the marching group. Lectures and films on nuclear attack placed emphasis on survival by hiding under something and not looking at the nuclear flash. For some reason 18 Flight had the highest number ever of `marksmen' results on the range. I still cannot believe that approximately forty AC2’s, most of whom had never fired a rifle before, could become instant marksmen.

Hut 207’s tasks included a turn at cookhouse duty. Getting up at 5 am and peeling potatoes provided a small opportunity for personal rebellion. I looked for the largest potatoes and reduced each one to the smallest possible size by cutting away large slices rather than peel the skin. Another task given to Hut 207 was to clean the windows of empty huts using a rag and “Brasso” polish. Soon it was suggested if each can of Brasso was emptied, the job would be considered done. A few of us emptied out what Brasso we had left in our cans, while some of the keener regular airmen kept cleaning away and doing the best job possible.

Towards the end of basic training we were given our individual postings. Those who had signed on as regular airmen went to the trades they'd asked for, mostly as Station Fireman or Cooks or RAF Military Police. My posting was to Number 1. Radio School (Ground) at RAF Locking, Weston-Super-Mare. We asked each other lots of questions about our postings, but few of us had any answers and nobody bothered to inform us.


RAF LOCKING: No.1 RADIO SCHOOL

Roots of No 1 Radio School

I arrived at RAF Locking in December 1959. Everybody was in some type of class and always seemed to move around in class groups. Discipline was not as rigorous as in basic training. Still, there were hut inspections, turns at guard duty and Saturday morning CO’s parades. Once more we polished windows
for hut inspections; cans of Brasso polish seemed to follow us around. These parades were often cancelled at the last minute, because of bad weather, much to the annoyance of airmen who could have gone home the night before. Naturally, on Thursday nights there was some praying for rain.

Airmen under training lived in old wooden huts connected by a warren-like maze of corridors. Across from the huts were four or five large hanger style buildings where training took place for trades such as ground radar and telecommunications. As new trainees, our particular trade had not yet been determined. Training began with two weeks of classes on math, basic electricity and electrical circuits. The twenty-five to thirty airmen in my class were mostly NS AC1s and some regular AC1s and a few regular Senior Aircraftmen (SAC).

It was made clear that those who failed these initial tests would not train as a Junior Technicians (JT) and would be trained elsewhere as SACs. Perhaps the motivation to succeed was the thought of wearing the unique Junior Technician’s single inverted stripe, with the lightning flash below. I don't know how well I did on these tests, but I recall making some mistakes.


RAF Locking: Class TF9 Preparing for CO’s Inspection.
Polishing corridor windows.


A few classes were selected to stay at Locking over Christmas and guard the camp. Of course, I was oneof the lucky airmen to be selected for this responsibility. With an early Christmas leave over, it was strange to return to a largely empty camp. At night we carried pickaxe handles patrolled around the mostly empty huts. We soon found out that guard duty at night was not really checked on. Finding an empty hut, we stretched out on bare bedsprings for a short sleep; this went on for all our turns on guard duty at night.

On one occasion I was on night guard duty in the armoury with a rather laid-back NS airman. Around 1 am, having nothing better to do, he began looking around until he found a large push-button on the wall. Pushing this button did not seem to produce any result, so he tried again. Well, an alarm went off in the guardroom across the road. Luckily for us the gate guard looked across and saw nothing was wrong in the armoury. The story went around that this NS airman had failed basic training at RAF Wilmslow, and had been kept back there even though that camp was closing down.

Training as a Telegraph Fitter – TF9 Class

In January 1960, eight of us NS airmen were put into a Telegraph Fitter class (TF9). The lads in TF9 were a good group. Tom Wilson, Malcom Johnson, Ralph Hudson and Brian Howarth came the Midlands and from northern England, George Henderson came from the Scottish border; Jim Pierra worked at Vickers and Harvey Harrison was a Merchant Marine radio operator. All of us in TF9 had completed an apprenticeship or technical training and gained either City and Guilds or National Certificate programs at various technical colleges.


RAF Locking: Telegraph Fitter 9 Class, November 1959 – August 1960.
Back Row L to R: Tom Wilson. Malcom Johnson. Neville Webb. Brian Howarth.
Front Row L to R: George Henderson. Jim Pierra. Ralph Hudson. Harvey Harrison.


Two of the instructors for TF9 were three-year regular Sergeants, possibly with HNC qualifications. Course work included detailed DC-AC theory and calculations; types of electrical motors; electronic principles applied to valve (vacuum tube) circuits and the application of basic electro-mechanical mechanisms.

Multiple-choice tests could be quite tricky, as likely correct but wrong answers were included for the benefit of the unwary; this seemed to particularly apply in AC theory. To prevent guessing, tests were supposedly marked `rights minus wrongs.' We were told that a mark of less than sixty percent would result in you being dropped from the course.

Some forty years on, readers are challenged to quickly answer the following question:

An acceptor circuit is connected to a 250 v. 50c/s supply. If the circuit is tuned to resonance, and then the resistance is doubled then:-

a) Current will be doubled.
b) Resonant frequency increases.
c) Voltage across the inductance is halved.
d) The L:C ratio is halved.

Later in our training, we were all given the opportunity to take the SAC General Mechanic test, it was said just to give us extra pay. The test questions were not particularly difficult and we did a simple filing and fitting test. At some point we had to solder coded wires correctly to a multi-pin socket. Now, we all sported the SAC `three props' on our arm and our pay went up to about seventeen shillings a week.

Course training included the principles of Line Telegraphy; the construction and servicing of the Teleprinter 7B MK10; Automatic Transmitter MK 2A; Receiver Perforator; Printing Perforator 85R; Keyboard Perforator 7P/N3; Teleprinter Measuring Distortion Set (TDMS) 9067/8 and the Relay Test Set (RTS). Training was also given on Multi-channel Voice Frequency (MCVF) equipment and its operation. The complexity and design of the electro-mechanical units was amazing.

Training on telegraph equipment was detailed with respect to principles of operation, component parts, maintenance and faultfinding. Practical tests on each type of equipment might include simple faults such as a fuse taken out, a power supply not plugged in or a pin removed from a valve (vacuum tube) or making minor mechanical adjustments. A small class and good instructors were the keys to success.

Our training on cryptographic equipment took place in a small secure brick building inside one of the larger buildings. Before working on this type of equipment each of us had to sign the Official Secrets Act. The training on various types of cryptographic equipment provided details of equipment function, circuit features, basic enciphering method and fault-finding. We were allowed to make some notes and ’block diagrams.’ During training, these particular notebooks stayed in the secure building. When you reached your final station, you could request that these notebooks be forwarded to you.

Some Recollections from RAF Locking

One dark winter evening, all airmen were told to go to their huts and stand by their beds. Apparently, a WAAF officer had reported that an airman wearing a black sweater had been looking in through her window. The Tannoy announced that all airmen were to stand by their beds. A short while later, around came the RAF Police; "Do you have a black sweater?" I answered "No." If I recall correctly, Jim Pierra (TF9) standing opposite was wearing a large black sweater. Asked the same question, Jim answered "No" and the police just walked out of the hut.

Weston-Super-Mare was only a bus ride away. Usually, the only time we went outside camp was on Sports afternoon and on Thursday evening after being paid. 1960 was the time of drinking espresso coffee and visiting the pubs. I palled up with another NS airman from Newport, Keith Dallimore (in a ground radar class). We used to go to one pub that sold hot chicken and mushroom pies and Guinness. The bus ride back to camp could be upsetting to one’s stomach!

Bristol had a good selection of ‘pubs’ and so did Bridgewater. With local cider at two shillings a bottle (bring your own empty bottle) one had to be wary, since the `scrumpy' had quite a kick and gave a bad headache! By and large, for me Thursday night was down to Weston-Super-Mare, home on Friday evening and back to camp late on Sunday night.

On Sunday night, the late train from Newport to Bristol was crowded with forces types. At Bristol, buses were lined up outside the station. These buses went to Forces camps all over Wiltshire and Somerset. Arriving back at Locking about 1 am, we used to walk down through the quiet camp and head for a vending machine that sold cartons of cold milk; then on through to the maze of corridors leading to our respective huts. Returning from one weekend home, I heard that a regular airman, who always looked dirty and apparently never washed, had been `dry deck broomed' by his hut-mates.


Completion of TF9 Training and Final Posting

On August 17th 1960, all of us in TF9 passed our training as Telegraph Fitters and got to wear the Junior Technician inverted stripe. My "Chuff Number" began to take of a new meaning (`Days Done’ divided by `Days to Do’). At RAF Bridgnorth, I had drawn a large `spiral snail’ diagram. The spiral was divided up into 730 days. Beginning at the centre, the days were filled in and quickly moved around. Of course, as the spiral moved outwards the longer it seemed to take for the days to pass by.

Our postings were listed on the notice board at the administrative office. Only three of TF9 went overseas:
I think two of the lads were already married and the others intended to do so. George Henderson went to Malta and Harvey Harrison went to Cyprus. My own posting was to Aden, which everybody thought was highly amusing. However, nothing was final. After spending a week at RAF Innsworth, I flew from RAF Lyneham out to RAF Khormaksar, Aden. On arrival, I was immediately told I would be going on to Kenya,
a far more desired posting.

RAF EASTLEIGH, NAIROBI: COMMUNICATIONS CENTRE

RAF_Eastleigh - wikipedia

In September 1960, I flew in a Royal Rhodesian Air Force Argonaut from Aden to Embakasi Airport, Nairobi. If memory serves me, I was the only passenger. In a very short time I had seen a good deal of the world at Government expense. The time for pay back was now due! RAF Eastleigh was situated on the edge of Nairobi, and the area around the station was “out of bounds.” The RAF Communication Centre had radio links to RAF Stanbridge and communication centres in Malta, Cyprus, Aden, Gan and Singapore.


RAF Eastleigh: Communications Centre, 1960-61


At RAF Eastleigh the airman's living quarters were permanent brick or stone buildings. I found a "pit-space" in Block 11 Room 3, with about twenty other airmen. These airmen included administration staff who worked regular daytime hours, and other communications technicians.


RAF Eastleigh: "Pit Space" - Block 11 Room 3.


The On-Line Cryptographic Section

RAF_History.html

We always entered the Communications Centre through a door at the end of the building. To reach the
On-line Cryptographic Section one had to pass the front desk, the commanding position of Corporal Porteus, the large RAF Policemen. The On-line Cryptographic Section was at the end of a corridor with branches off to other communications sections. Nearby, was a small room for the Sergeant who used a Typex machine to code and decode signals requiring additional encipherment. To enter the restricted
On-line Cryptographic Section you pressed a doorbell. A small shutter in the pale green steel door would open and an eye would peer out to see who was waiting to enter.
Fixed to the outside of the door leading into the Cryptographic Section door was a small "house" with a little green `Pixie’ inside. The words underneath read as follows:

"To those of you who think you are Smart and Clever read this -

Put your finger in a glass of water
Pull your finger out.
The size of the hole that is left
Is the measure of how much
You will be missed.

I never heard anybody being smart or clever about his work, and still believe these words to have some relevance in the work place today.

The On-Line Cryptographic Section was always called `Pixie.’ I’m not sure whether this was because of the little Pixie fixed to the door with his message or, because of an acronym possibly such as PIX, (similar to PBX) that described this restricted section’s work.

I believe a Sergeant Holmes was in charge of this section with a couple of Corporal Technicians, the rest of us being Junior Technicians (JT). During my first week in this section I was put on regular hours and worked with JTs who showed me the operating methods and procedures necessary to keep the cryptographic equipment on-traffic. Nothing was written down and there seemed to be quite a lot to take in and remember. In this section you learned on the job. I do not remember any formal discipline. NCOs and airmen and just turned up for their watch and did their jobs.

Two types of on-line cryptographic equipment were in use. One type of equipment comprised a rotor system and the other type utilized one-time tapes. The rotor on-line equipment was stacked in racks with sheet metal panels around the sides, though the front panels were left off for access. I hadn't trained on one of these types of equipment and, this in itself was a learning experience. In spite of having circuit diagrams available, I drew some `block diagrams’, to at least be able to quickly figure out how things were connected and worked. Working in this section was rather like being in the company of thousands of very loud knitting needles with the electro-mechanical equipment continuously clicking and clattering away.


On Watch

crypto/menu.html

Work in the Communications Centre was based on “Watches,” on a `2 days on and 2 days off’ system. 'Watch duties on the first day were from 8 am to 12 pm and 5 pm to 11 pm; on the second day our watches were from 12 pm to 5 pm and 11 pm to 8 am. For example, the MCVF (Multi-Channel Voice Frequency) Section, the Telegraphic Equipment Repair Section and telegraph operators worked the 2 days on and 2 days off.

Watches in the On-line Cryptographic Section were 2 days on and 1 day off. This meant coming off night watch in the morning, sleeping part of that day and then going right back on afternoon watch the following day. However, this section shut down for Saturday afternoon and Sunday, so once in while you would end up with a two-day break.

Only two Jnr. Techs ran the on-line cryptography equipment. Going on watch for the first while kept you hopping until you got the hang of things. During the daytime watches, one could always get help from the section day staff. During the evening and night watches if the equipment for one circuit went down, another spare rack could be `patched’ in through a PBX plug board set-up. When the equipment for two circuits went down at the same time things did get hectic. Equipment was pulled out of racks and laid on the floor and spares plugged in. The objective being to keep the secure circuits on-traffic.

Working with electro-mechanical equipment often let you quickly identify what was wrong. However, often it was simply trial and error to find failed parts and then plug in replacements until things worked. Towards the end of one night watch we just gave up on trying to fix things and left it for the on-coming day watch. I think the single JT in the telegraph equipment section often had easier night watches. If a replacement teleprinter was needed, we had to phone his section and possibly wake him up.

Before going on the 11 pm to 8 am watch we would arrive about 10.15 pm and cook-up bacon and egg sandwiches in a room just off the side entrance. During the night watch if the equipment decided to behave, it was sometimes possible for one of us to lie on the floor and try for a brief sleep while the other kept an eye on things. This usually didn't last for long, as either one secure circuit or another went off-traffic and equipment had to be reset.

Warnings of a circuit coming off-traffic might be a phone call from the MCVF section or by checking the signals `in clear’ as they went through the on-line cryptographic equipment. The circuit teleprinter output
would change from a `clear’ to a garbled output. Cryptographic output was never monitored with a teleprinter, as it was simply a jumble of characters, figures, letters and line-returns, as well as being noisy.

Towards the end of my time in the cryptographic section, `five-minute' logs were kept for the times equipment went off-traffic. This was done by filling in squares on a large grid sheet. With equipment continuously in use, the number of times off-traffic time occurred seemed to increase. When a circuit came off-traffic, the equipment for that circuit had to be reset and synchronized with the on-line cryptographic remote section on the other end of the circuit. This provided the opportunity for a brief teleprinter `chat' with the JT at the other end of the circuit. I 'chatted' a few times with Ralph at Stanbridge (TF9), and possibly once with George (TF9); during their time on watch they seemed to be more closely supervised by their NCOs. I believe that I was once the subject of signal from RAF Gan to our CO - "get Nev off the circuit" - because I’d spent time `chatting’ to an airman. An instance of the now accepted `on-line chat.’

At RAF Eastleigh, the Royal Signals (Army) had their own Communication Centre. Their signals staff always appeared starched, pressed and polished. Watch workers at our centre usually dressed "mixed dress" (blue and khaki), but we always did our job. I never polished my cap badge the whole time I was there and had holes almost through the soles of my shoes. As an observation, the NS JT's were as good at their jobs as regular airmen. I have always wondered about the RAF method of posting personnel, as four JT "Webb's” ended up in this communications centre at the same time: Myself, Al Webb, Terry "Boots" Webb (MCVF) and Bob Webb (MCVF).

At Christmas time, teleprinter greetings were sent to our communications centre from other centres on the CAF Network. This was only at this time that somebody mentioned that our section was part of the Commonwealth Air Forces (CAF) Network. These greetings comprised Christmas scenes made up from XX's and OO's. These were likely saved on punched tape, and I expect these tapes took some time to make up. Our section never got around to doing this. It was said to be possible to "patch" oneself around the world, but there was never an opportunity to try this.


Off-Watch

Life in the barrack room was congenial. We were a mixed bunch, including day administration workers at one end of the room with `odds and ends’ from the various sections in the communications centre. An African "dhobi-boy" made our beds for a few shillings each a week and swept the place through. Our mattress were home to bed bugs, flat round bugs that would move quickly across your skin at night and bite. These bugs laid their eggs in the corners of the mattress. Putting a match to the tiny eggs would burst them. One day, a pile of new mattresses was placed outside our barrack. Two of us looked at the pile, then quickly took two new mattresses and left our old “bed-bug” mattresses under the top of the new ones.

Jim, a regular airman JT worked in the MCVF Section and really identified with his job. Jim often went to bed wearing headphones connected to a short-wave radio. Jim tuned his radio to the MCVF channel in use when he came off watch. In the morning Jim would wake up and say, "They've changed the channel." Some evenings we went to the camp cinema or six to ten of us played "Heart's' or `Hunt the Lady.’
RAF Eastleigh was also the base for a number of RAF flying squadrons and army types, but we didn't mix with them. The NAAFI across the way was not a particular `hang-out' for us, though the Tiger Beer was drinkable. At one time, a communications JT drank too much beer and passed out, turning a very light shade of green; we just dragged him into the shower and left him. I was on night watch for a few times with this character and was surprised one night to find him working in just a pair of shorts.

One day RAF Eastleigh made the local press in picture and I quote:

“To the delight of the airmen at Royal Air Force, East Leigh, this (a) dustbin
was flying proudly over the parade square yesterday outside the dining hall.
It remained for several hours.”

On the photo I have a note written, for the above, that states, “A better one (event) the other day – Hanged the CO in effigy!” I seem to recall a stuffed figure in a blue battle dress hanging from the flagpole.

In spite of what seems to be all work, among other things we did get time to bus down to Nairobi, visit a Game Park, climb Mount Longonot in the Rift valley and travel to Mombasa. I visited other parts of East Africa during two short leaves, but that's another set of stories.


Junior Technicians Neville Webb (L) and Pete Braddock: On the Equator, Kenya,1961.


RAF INNSWORTH
Leaving the Royal Air Force

RAF_Innsworth - wikipedia

Like every serviceman I was asked to `sign on’ but declined - a decision I have thought about ever since. Leaving Nairobi one Thursday night by United Airways Britannia, on a mostly army flight, we arrived at Stansted the next day and given a travel warrant home for the weekend.

It was back to RAF Innsworth on Sunday evening, where I briefly met Harvey Harrison (TF9). On Monday morning, along with other returnees from overseas, I threw my uniform onto the already large pile of airmen’s kit already on the floor and walked out of the RAF.


REFLECTIONS

During the two years of National Service we were trained for a job, then did the job and left. I once calculated my hours in the Communications Centre, at twenty-eight shillings per week, worked out at six-pence per hour, but that’s a very minor point. A few years later, I mentioned in conversation that I’d served in what was called `Signals Command’, and was very rudely told, “There was no such Command.”

With hindsight, the training in the RAF was designed to produce skilled trades people, and in this they were successful. Probably, I should have made more use of the technical training I received, but the opportunity never really arose and I never went directly back to what I had trained during my apprenticeship.

Looking at the names and photographs of the lads in TF9, I have often wondered what they went on to in their lives, but have never followed through on this. I enjoyed my time in the Royal Air Force, particularly in what is known as the Signals Service * and could probably walk back in the door and start all over again.

* Signals Command

LINKS: Satellite Views of RAF Stations.

Satellite Images: www.local.live.com - needs high speed service.
RAF Stations: Note the semi-circular "entrance" roads.

1. RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire Airship R101 fame, see the two large airship hangers (been inside); the camp and the huts on the NE side of hangers, all gone.

http://local.live.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardington%2C_Bedfordshire

R101 Roll of Honour Site: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Bedfordshire/CardingtonR101.html

http://www.rootsweb.com/~engbdf/cardington.html

http://www.galaxy.bedfordshire.gov.uk/webingres/bedfordshire/vlib/0.digitised_resources/r101_mast.htm


2. RAF Bridgnorth: Most or all of the buildings gone; two million RAF Servicemen passed through there:

http://local.live.com/bridgenorth


3. RAF Locking, Somerset, Weston Super Mare - Number 1 Radio School. All of the old wooden huts are gone.

http://local.live.com/locking

4. RAF Kormaksor, Aden

http://local.live.com/aden

Close Zoom to Base and Crater City.

http://local.live.com/crater

5. RAF Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya
(no close up available - centre top airfield):

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