I can remember discussing which trade I should take up with the airman at the recruiting office. I was talking about exotic things like armourer, radar operator or aircrew. All I didn’t want was to be a bloody clerk! I’d had clerking up to my neck.
“Well, looking at your results, you'd make a good clerk and there are different types of clerking jobs” he said.
“Don’t want clerking!” says I
“Air traffic control has clerks in the control tower,” says he.
Bingo! The control tower! I’d seen that on my visit to the met office, with Skipper in Manchester airport. That was the life for me! Where do I sign! Just give me the keys & I’ll drive off in it right this minute!
This life changing moment was brought about by talking with friends, a lack of advice from parents and the government making me join up anyway. It was only to be for three years when I signed on. By happenstance, it was a good decision. That was to change later on.
I had to report to Cardington, a couple of miles from where I was born. Half the guys couldn’t leave camp as they were National Service & could run off. I was a volunteer. So I went off to see the grandparents on Mile Road. (I shouldn’t have bothered!)
Then, once we had been kitted out & filled in the dozens of forms required, it was on to Padgate, nr Warrington for 8 weeks of basic training. I knew they pushed you around a bit & did a lot of shouting, my mate Malcolm had told me that. It was hard work & different from anything I had experienced before. It showed me how to take responsibility for myself and how to avoid get into deep trouble. Taught me ironing, boot & brass cleaning. We were made to put lots of effort into marching (“Throw them arms back. Lets see bags of swank!”). They put the fear of God up me a few times too. I got to fire guns on the rifle range too, I loved that! We didn't get off that Padgate camp for about four weeks. Almost from the beginning I became Tich & it stayed with me for the next twelve years.
Early on in the training, I’d had a good day. I wasn’t in trouble. I was mastering the stuff we had to learn. I’d done everything I needed to do. So why not go off to the NAAFI for a char & a wad? (11) There I was, happily striding out and whistling (another of my annoying traits that people hate, that I picked up from my uncle Ken) and everything was right with the world. I heard this person coming up behind me. Nothing wrong with that, life was good! When this drill corporal shouted, inches away from my ear “What do you think you are? A bloody dickie bird? Shaddup!” Welcome to basic training AC2 Lowe! They just thought they needed to grind you down to nothing & then rebuild you, until you are fit to travel to the rest of the world, be a credit to Her Majesty & kill foreign johnnies without question!
I can recollect a young evil sergeant who waxed his moustache like a WW1 soldier and a corporal Tiger. Did he give himself that name or was he really the son of Mrs. Tiger?
Recalling my session, about the two times table with T. Lloyd Jones, I saw a guy humiliated & broken by pressure on the parade ground. He was finding it difficult to do a manoeuvre to the satisfaction of a drill corporal. He was pulled out & humiliated in front of the platoon. The corporal called the sergeant, they harassed him, screaming & shouting. After a bit, I don’t think he could have given you his right name. Was it to show us the power the staff had? Was it to illustrate it was the guardhouse for failure? Was it just power being used to make the NCOs feared? I understood the need for most things that happened & I always felt I would survive the experience. Jumping up & shouting “Corporal present” when they entered a room, was only early on at Padgate, the real air force was different.
I had never witnessed the class divide as there was in the forces. Almost each rank had to have its own outfit & badges of rank, its own area & it's own rules. Corporals had to have their own area in the Naafi; Sergeants had their own separate mess, as did officers. Like ladies have to have a separate toilet, officers needed to pee somewhere different too. Officers could be trusted with cheques, mess credit bills & alcohol, because they were deemed to be gentleman. The higher you rose, the more the privileges you had. Different dress codes & requirements for all. It didn’t surprise me; I’d just never been this close to it. The old joke probably had some truth to it. “At the dance tonight, Officers may bring their ladies, NCOs may attend with their wife’s and other ranks can bring their women”. They used to remind you that you weren't saluting the man, you were saluting the uniform & then continued to demonstrate their God given superiority to rule over the lower species.
You stood in line on pay day & when your name was called out, you shouted your last three of your service number, marched forward, saluted to the officer & you got it all in notes & coins in your hand. There was no paying into a bank account or having a cheque book unless you were an officer. There were no debit or credit cards or "holes in the wall" to get your money. Everything was paid for in cash. Banks were only open from 10:30 until 3:30 & never over the weekends. To make a large purchase, you could take out a Hire Purchase agreement. You paid each instalment with cash & if you had the misfortune to be a women, you had to have a man to do it for you!A very good film to see was Noel Coward’s classic, “In which we serve”, (being made at a much earlier time than I served). It shows the system that still had its remnants in force in 1956. Its not that the film is accurate, but it accurately shows how the people of my father’s age, thought the world should be ruled. It was normal to expect the officers to have sherry in their Bovril, to keep out the cold. When the ships captain (loosely based on Lord Louis Mountbatten) went home on leave to his cottage in rural England, his batman went with him. No leave for the servants then? “After you’ve unloaded, you can help cook with dinner” he announced. They also had a maid and the two perfect children & wife, all speaking with cut glass accents. As you went down the ranks of junior officers, NCO and the able seamen, so they became less elite & more common. It was the British class system! Noel was proud to show it off & illustrate that’s how we won the war under this system.
I got a 48-hour pass halfway though the “square bashing”. All dressed up in my new uniform, my mum was in tears greeting me with “Its my son, its my son”. (David was in stitches). In the four weeks I’d been away, Elizabeth had got a new boyfriend & a man who I really liked, made me salute him, as he was an officer in the cadet force. Welcome to the real world. It's time you grew up airman Lowe.
After Padgate, I went to Shawbury near Shrewsbury to be taught the hidden secrets of ATC. (Air Traffic Control). “Air Traffic clerks are there to collect, collate, record & disseminate information”. This was more like it. Real aircraft. Betty Windsor owned them all and I could play with them. The phonetic alphabet was changing over from Able, Baker, Charlie & Dog to Alpha, Bravo, Charlie & Delta. You used this method, to make sure there was no misunderstanding as you spelt out words over the radio. I enjoyed all parts of this training. The only thing I could not cope with was the Morse code! (12) Thank goodness it wasn’t considered essential. It was just a mess of dots & dashes in my ears; some people heard a tune that the code tapped out for each letter. Not me! I was hopeless!
The teaching was excellent. I did notice a tendency to throw in jokes & impossible orders that we had try and take action upon. I seem to remember a test halfway though the course. They were obviously trying to put more pressure on us, throwing in telephone calls, emergency calls & calls that we should have known to ignore. I heard a call to “flood the runway, we have a Sunderland coming in!” Of course, it's questionable that all AC1 trainees would know that a Sunderland was a flying boat! Plus, could we actually have known if it was possible flood a dead flat load of concrete?
In the early years, we could only get away from camp with passes that were checked by Military Policemen at railway stations. They were limited time things, 48 or 72 hours usually. I’m sure this lasted only until the demise of National Service & was a hang over from the war.I owe so many rides to people who picked up service men, whilst hitch hiking home. I travelled the length & breadth of the country, wearing my uniform, rain, hail or shine. During the war, it was common practise to give lifts. I had no trouble during my first few years. You could see a line of service men, at major junctions, all thumbing a lift home (& sometimes back again). There were no motorways then, just trunk roads. They where the A roads you see today such as the A6 or A1. They all started out as the main roads that fanned out from London. They carried the heavy traffic along & across Great Britain. Being stationed in Lincolnshire next, I was going to have to cross the centre of Great Britain by the courtesy of truck drivers mainly. We were hoping to get away quickly, during those few hours away from camp; it was such a common sight to see lines of men in uniform on all our trunk roads.
My first real posting was Cranwell, the Royal Air Force’s officer training college. The Brylcreem boy’s equivalent of Sandhurst for the pongos. Oh my God, I can hear all the RAF slang coming back! Brylcreem was a hairdressing product. Its purpose was to keep combed hair in place while giving it a deep shine or gloss. It was unknown to us then, that it was stabilised with beeswax! Of course, the army used the name "Brylcreem boy" as a derogatory term for all airmen, just as we called them pongos! (Dictionary refers to pongo as “Any large Ape”).
Positioned around Sleaford & Grantham in Lincolnshire, Cranwell was like all airfields flat & exposed. It was my next home for about 18 months. A strange feature of Cranwell was that the Officers college hall was separated from the airfield by a main road, the B1429. It linked the A15 with the A17! Goodness knows how they deal with security nowadays.
Whenever you were posted to a new station, you got a form to fill in with signatures from each of the sections, such as the gym, hospital, clothing stores etc. They claimed this was so you could get used to the layout of each place. No one was interested in you & anyone would have signed it. I doubt if anyone would have checked that you actually went to these places. Being a good boy, it never occurred to me to cheat! Being a sad git, I quite enjoyed it, wandering around and wasting time. I was probably reverting back to daydreaming if I was honest. The whole place smelt of Avgas (the fuel jet aircraft used) and cut grass. The sounds were of Vampire jet trainers starting up & taxing & skylarks twittering above the runways.Up to now, I can only remember being billeted in wooden huts with two large cast iron stoves as the form of heating. Cranwell had huge dormitories in brick buildings with two floors with central heating. They were considered very advanced. Bull nights, (any night designated to cleaning the billet) was so much easier. Gone were demented corporals looking for the impossible. Gone were the sergeants, whose whole outlook on life, was to belittle & humiliate. Just a normal inspections, every month or so. Make it look clean & tidy; shine the floor with wax & a buffer. Many are the hours spent on bits of blanket under my feet, swinging this large weight on a stick. First throwing down the wax out of a large tin, using a lump of wood to flick the stuff around. The wax was spread by the buffer and rubbed in, then polished by the same thing with a blanket underneath it. A great lustre could be got up after years of this practise. Windows polished, everywhere dusted, toilets cleaned, beds made & trained for life, to expect someone to check behind the radiator or over the door jam, looking for a way to get you into trouble! We got soft later on, and used electric buffers.
I can remember the food being plentiful if plain. Suitable for hungry young men with English tastes. There were always the rumours of bromide in the tea, to cut down the ardour. (This rumour was very prevalent later on, on Christmas Island). Old hands advised you not to upset cook, as he may spit in the food. As a shift worker mostly, you were always looking to see what lunch/tea hour you had allotted. We ate big breakfasts full of fat. It was not a problem, we were energetic & walked everywhere. I think the only thing that became a lazy habit was lying on your "pit" (bed). There was always a table & chairs but they were always occupied by guys playing cards, so the only personal area was your bed & lockers.
Cranwell had three airfields under its wing. Cranwell had the Vampires for the more advanced students, Barkston Heath was used for the flying of Piston Provosts for the first year cadets & Fulbeck was used for “circuits & bumps”. That means that aircraft flew in to practise landing the aircraft, rolling along the runway & taking off immediately. Fulbeck’s control tower was manned only as required. I enjoyed my stay at Cranwell, but once I was moved to Barkston Heath, it was even better. We did stay in wooden huts again but it was much smaller & not was many “brass hats” (senior officers) hanging around. The junior years of cadets were bussed out here. The formality was less. I made great friends with two guys from the sick bay, often staying in the sick beds, as they were much more comfortable & of course, there were very few people sick! (I do remember they had to attend to an airman who walked backwards into a propeller once! If I remember rightly, he lost part of his bum but survived)
I got to do guard duty at Fulbeck. I loved that. A weekend away, with two guys doing their own cooking. No other staff, no pressure & the ability to sit in the control tower with the binoculars & while away many an hour. It was a great thing to do, when you’d run out of money.Fulbeck had a locked hanger. You could easily get inside. No lights, just gloomy shadows. Inside was stored, what looked like the aircraft from WW2. Both German & English. I understood that this is where they were stored before they were put in the Air Historical Branch's static aircraft collection. Some were obviously damaged. I was only about 18, and I daydreamed & loved aircraft. It was so easy to get carried away, the thoughts of heroes flying these things in the war. Thoughts of injured & dying men coming back after terrifying missions in the dead of night. It was this experience & conversations I had during the long night binds, that cured me of any belief in ghosts that I might have. Someone said, that he didn’t believe in ghosts, because if there were any, they would be hundreds on every wartime airfield in the country. Young, terrified men, dying alone in the heat of battle or expiring at the many places they landed. Thousands, aged 18 to 25, frightened & dying without their mothers, wife’s or sweethearts in a strange place. He thought that it would be worse for Americans; they weren’t even in their own country.
I found it comforting that these airfields in the middle of nowhere, with old and battered aircraft, weren’t haunted, sad places. They were all, just the remains of a dreadful war. Places that we had to carry on using, with respect to their memory.
It was at Cranwell I began my lifelong love of photography. I brought a 35mm Ilford Sportsman. Absorbing all about f-numbers, film speeds, depth of field and still taking very average photographs. I enjoyed it. Frequently ran out of money to buy & process the pictures I’d taken!
I began frequenting a coffee bar in Sleaford. Thought it was cool to order “Black coffee, double sugar”. Spent too much money playing the jukebox and unsuccessfully chasing women. I always seemed miles behind my colleagues. Whether they bragged or got a lot more than I did, I never knew. Somehow there was a reason I was unsuccessful!
Barkston Heath was so good for getting “gash” flights. You’d just turn up at the squadron offices & ask if there were any available seats on any aircraft flying out. If you had the time, you could go anywhere. One day (it must have been winter) a friend & I asked as usual to see if there was anything available. There was a Vickers Varsity aircraft flying up to Edinburgh, dropping something off & coming straight back “in time of tea”! That’s for us! The Varsity was a variation of the Vickers Valetta, the difference being it had a position slung under the belly for map reading. A sort of bomb aimers couch! That’s how it got its name of the "pregnant pig". The trip was glorious! The countryside was snow covered further up north. I found a map and read my way the whole journey up. We weren't very high; the detail I could see as I lay in this couch was astounding. There it was laid out below, roads & railways. towns, villages & farms. Lakes & rivers. All glistening with snow. I could make out people & the smallest details. I was in paradise. Free trips in a bomb bay, going to Edinburgh Turnhouse and drinking coffee provided by the crew, no wonder I adored flying! When we arrived, we were circulating the field for ages, I saw a very pistol go off (A gun for firing off different coloured flares) & down we came. The radio had packed in & we had to wait until it was replaced. By this time, it was getting late & I had a date with a young lady at the coffee bar. I knew I was late, but once I apologised & told her the reason, all would be fine. Don’t you believe it! People just didn’t “nip” up to Edinburgh in a day! She hit me with an umbrella for coming up with such an unbelievable story.
In that period, it was considered a good thing for an airman to want to fly, if he got the chance. I once asked if anything was going up, “Yes” came the reply “there’s a two engine conversion, if you fancy” Did I ask what a conversion was? Did I give a toss? It was a flight & I’d take anything! Well a conversion is where a pilot, who fly’s one kind of aircraft, goes up in another type of plane & is shown the characteristics of how it handles. A rough translation of this would be, they took it up, threw it (& me) around a bit & came back!Another time, a piston Provost was due to fly in the local area, as this officer had to make up his flying hours. I got a “bone dome” & mask, strapped myself into this side-by-side trainer & off we went! I loved it! He let me fly the aircraft, taught me about the trim control by winding it on until I couldn’t hold the damn thing straight and level. He showed me where all the instruments were & what they did. We did all sorts of manoeuvres; even let me try looping the loop. The fatal bit came when he said “Do you fancy a bit of low flying?” Oh yes! That was for me! Give me some of that! My God! It was so uncomfortable! As you get nearer to the ground, the hot air comes up to meet the cold air & it’s a bit like riding on cobbles, only harder! Maybe I wasn’t strapped in too tightly, but I thought I was going to loose several teeth, many fillings and at least one kidney. The damn thing switched backwards & forwards, on its wing tips & I’m sure this guy was within inches, not feet, of any given object. The sun was beating down on my helmet & cooking my brains at gas mark 7. We went round a tree. Well to be honest, it looked like the tree was growing dead straight, only sideways! That was as close to throwing up, as I ever wanted to get! He put the aircraft down, taxied round to dispersal & I sort of fell out! Later, I was proud I wasn’t physically sick, but I couldn’t have got much closer.
Because all kinds of people were called up to do their National Service, the R.A.F. was full of interesting people. One guy was a film editor. (13) He did tell me which film he got his first chance to edit. Of course, I can’t remember. I was really into film & photography, it was great to meet someone who was actually out there earning money, and doing a job they wanted to do.
A tall slim guy with very angular features was a graphic designer. He smoked a pipe, invented a car racing game we played, carved the cars accurately. He got loads of brownie points for making the Notam notice board look professional. (NOtice To AirMen). He knew a friend who had gone to America and was designing advertising for the American automotive industry. How exotic was that!
Gunga, a shambling corporal, was told that massaging the head could stop baldness. He spent hours ambling around while rubbing his widows peak constantly. He must have thought that going bald wasn't attractive at our age.
Although I was very keen on photography, with hindsight, it is amazing what I didn’t photograph! I cannot recall ever taking a picture of any aircraft! There was a great chance to photograph the WW2 aircraft in the hanger, but did I? Not one! In a hut near air traffic, there was a mural on the wall, done by American airman during the war. Did I photograph it? Nope! I’m fairly sure it was because I was a little stupid & chicken. There was a restriction on taking pictures, probably a hang over from the war & there was an element of security. But, being a good boy, obeying the rules, taking no chances & probably being frightened of being caught out, I chickened out of a great opportunity.
It was much later I found out that Barkston had been used as a base for the American 61st Troop Carrier Group with C-47s (DC3 Dakotas) towing Horsa and Waco gliders & was operational during D Day & the Arnhem landings. (14) My interest in history was getting stronger then. My curiosity was dampened by fear of getting into trouble. I didn’t take risks and life & opportunities floated past me.
I was moved between Cranwell & Barkston a couple of times. It was about 1958 that I decided to sign on for 12 years instead of just the three I was doing. Oh hindsight, where art thou! I can see the flight sergeant say “and for just another nine years, you get £100 AND all that extra pay!”. That £100 didn’t last too long. I needed music! It had to be in the new “stereo”, it must be portable because I was going to travel, so I bought a truly portable record player with the money, plus, of course, some records. (Too many, if the truth was known!). I bought a Phillips stereo, with a crocodile head pick up. It had a detachable speaker for real stereo separation. £60 it cost, it was a small fortune then. My God, it was my pride & joy! It was soon after that, I heard about my next posting and I wouldn’t be able to carry a stereo where I was going.
My big mistake was not spending the money on some kind of transport. Airfields were never near anywhere, I should have got a set of wheels! Not that it mattered where I was going.