by West Robertson 50B
With the proliferation of light blue berets now appearing in the pages of the Association newsletter, and the high proportion of REME tradesmen serving in the Air Corps, it seems we have forgotten the earlier days of that fledgling sparrow which has become a proud, soaring eagle. But it did not become so without the predatory, sometimes cruel and selfish instinct, portrayed by the bird within the badge. For some, those talons struck deep.
It is not for me to attempt to detail here the history of Army flying, although my father was an army pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), so there is an inherent interest in it. Sufficient to say that the ‘Gunners’ found that a flying platform was ideal for their spotters, and that for a number of years the RAF were prepared to service suitable aircraft for this purpose. Sometime in the Fifties, whether the Air Force no longer wanted this task, or the Army wanted more than was being offered, I do not know. But a decision was arrived at that the Army would operate and maintain aircraft, to within specific parameters, the main criteria being weight.
In December 1957, on returning home after a three-year tour in Malaya, I was posted to 35 Base Wksp. Old Dalby, arriving there about March 1958, where I had the good fortune to be employed in the repair of cameras. Still a 2nd-class tradesman, due to the lack of facilities in the Far East for upgrading Inst Mechs, I started the ball rolling to improve my trade status. But before this could happen, the shadow of those ever-spreading wings brought a touch of darkness to my life. In November 1958, I was instructed to report to Middle Wallop. For the first time in my innocent life, I heard of ‘the Army Air Corps’.
There were six of us on that IE&R course – three ex-boys in Dave Alner, Derek Clover and myself, the remainder regular Inst Techs. What we had in common was that we were all ‘pressed men’ and none of us wanted the job on offer. I remember well the initial introductory lecture, given by a Flight Lt Lloyd, RAF, where he asked who was the camera expert and his comments on how hard I was to come by, “So sit up here in the front”. Later on that first morning, they strapped us, two in each, into their little cloth bombers which, to my eyes, looked like badly made models, but which were in fact the Auster Mk 9. So began my illustrious career in Avionics!
The training we receive must have been adequate, for when, in March, the time came for trade testing, we all passed. Although I must admit that, when stuck for an answer, all you had to do was quote ‘AP 1275A Vol.? Sect.?’ (Air Publications are EMERs in a proper job!) and the examiner was more than pleased! It was about this time that the light blue beret was introduced, not yet in general issue, but available from military tailors. To decide who was posted where, we put all the destinations into a hat and each picked his own. I found I was bound for 656 Sqn based in Kuala Lumpur (KL), so having had just over a year between far eastern tours and, of course, still a second class tradesman.
There can be few happier, or harder working units than that that was Noblefield in those early days. We had cloth hangers and an array of corrugated iron sheds housing the various servicing bays and workshop office. National Service was almost over and the few conscripted men we had were deferred aircraft engineering graduates. With a workshop strength of about twenty, we had teams for hockey, rugby and football, so everyone played everything. Five flights were spread along the length of the country, none of which had an IE&R man, so I spent many of my days away from base and home, but enjoyed the work and got much satisfaction from completing the tasks. In addition to the Inst Mechs, there were a couple of Tels Mechs, doing purely radio work, and one or two RAF men waiting to be recalled. For my first eighteen months with the squadron, there were only two pure IE&R men, so at times we were a bit pushed, what with both bay servicing and hanger work to do. But perhaps it was the fact that we were so busy that I did not think much about the future, although I had approached the OC regarding upgrading and he had promised to arrange something.
Sometime in early 1960, a delegation from REME/Wallop arrived in KL to attempt to persuade the IE&R men to attend a basic electronics course. The Army of the future would be operating bigger and more complicated machinery, they said, and the men on the ground would require these additional skills, but no, it would not result in successful candidates being upgraded! For myself, I declared that I would only consider such a path if and when the course the OC was at present arranging had come to fruition. The OC denied that he had any knowledge of my problem!
As I had done for all the years of my service, I wrote my weekly letter home and mentioned my disappointment in the actions of the OC, a man I had genuinely liked and trusted. Without my knowledge, my parents wrote to their MP and a question was raised in Parliament. The fallout from this action was immediate and all-encompassing, resulting in a trade test being swiftly arranged at the FARELF Training Centre, Singapore, but not a standard test. I was not required to be tested on equipments, and any qualification gained would be lost on my eventual return to REME. My reception in Singapore was disgusting, the testing was, in spite of the previous indications, total and complete and when finished, resulted in failure on the electrics paper, which was lost in the few hours it took me to drive back to KL. Even the OC, when he telephoned the training centre to request the paper, found this hard to believe.
The situation I now found myself in was hardly that hoped for by a career soldier. I was trapped in a Corps that would not upgrade me and, although not allowed qualification myself, I was required to test Air Techs on first-line procedures to allow them upgrading and still countersign the work of others. I requested a posting from the Air Corps, in fact I regularly, possibly weekly, requested a move. How far this action went, I will never know but, with no visible results and with a change in management locally making every day life a bit uncomfortable, I applied to be transferred to the prison service. This action, because I actually went to the local military prison at Kinrara (?), was outside the grasp of the Air Corps and results appeared. Again the ‘big guns’ arrived from Wallop. I was lectured on Corps loyalty, accused of being a selfish trouble maker, and then the future without a technical challenge described. At no time was any mention made of the work I had done, the commendations from grateful flight commanders. Nor the fact that I was conscripted into the Air Corps against my wishes, or that they would discard me as a Class 2 tradesman after however many years it pleased them to retain me. I was allowed to transfer back to REME and was posted to 12 Inf Wksp, Taiping. But the Air Corps was not finished!
With only a few months to serve on my present tour and the unit preparing for a move to Malacca, I began once again to enjoy soldiering. If my new unit was aware of the circumstance of my arrival, I did not know. But I thought it better to bring things out in the open, since I felt that I had nothing to hide and it was agreed that the past was best forgotten. My posting arrived just as the unit moved and it was back to a Squadron at Middle Wallop.
It was with mixed feelings that I arrived at Wallop. It was good to meet so many old friends from my days in KL but, without a future, and a wife to consider, it looked as if the old struggle was about to re-appear. There was however, a different situation in hand and before starting work I was allowed to go to Aldershot for a trade test. Back at work, now a Class 1 Technician, there were strange aircraft to get to grips with. For a start, the Squadron flew helicopters, the ‘Skeeter’, in addition to Austers and Beavers. Without training for we Inst Techs, things had to be picked up as you went along. Also in the pipeline was the Scout helicopter, the dreaded machine that, without some electronic training, it was felt we could not cope.
As the time of arrival of the Scout got closer, it was a case of pleading with any Air Corps authority that would listen to an IE&R man, and they were few and far between, that some action should be taken to familiarise our trade with this new machine. Eventually it was agreed that one man could go to the manufacturer for a two-week course and so spread the word. I elected to send the other IE&R man, Terry Pickhaver, and he left on a Monday. On the Tuesday I started acceptance checks on the first six operational Scouts, flown in by 16 Flight. The only information available to me were the pilot’s notes and some pre-flight data and specifications. That they were all flying before Terry returned brought no comment from the Air Corps. Neither was it noticed, as numbers increased, that to us, they were just another aircraft.
Some time before, another pressed IE&R/Inst Tech and ex-50B boy, Alec Bradley, had agreed to accept electronic training while serving in Hong Kong. He had been flown home, started his course, and came to visit me. He was not happy with what was going on, claiming it was at great variance with what he had been told. It was the old story all over again. The ’empire builders’ of Army flying, it would seem, were prepared to go to any lengths to acquire and retain men, regardless of the consequences to those so roped in. As we talked, we sipped a pint or two, and the decision was reached that we approach the one person we knew of who was not overawed by the seemingly unstoppable powers of Army Aviation, Capt Bingham, my present Workshop Officer.
Apart from sympathy, all we received was a suggestion that since I had already tried to buck the system, perhaps if I were to take the basic electronics course, I could then ‘complain from within’ with some authority. With little else on offer, this seemed a good option so I signed the piece of paper, produced like magic from a desk drawer! Nothing happened for a week or two, then I was told to report to Bordon, taking enough kit for a week’s stay. It was with some surprise that I was handed a slip with a large letter printed fore and aft, and told to wear it in the morning over working kit and to show no badges of rank. Monday morning saw me taking part in a variety of tests, from the old colour charts to an obstacle course, discussions on remote international problems to political strife, then late on Tuesday evening, I was told to report to SEE (Arborfield) next morning.
This seemed a step in the right direction. And so, at the appointed hour, I duly presented myself at the appropriate office. It was then, and only then, that I was informed that I was on an Artificer Selection Board and that I had apparently selected an electronic based trade, so it was necessary that I take the appropriate papers, after this initial interview. Since I had no wish to become an Artificer, and certainly did not want to leave my basic trade, the remainder of that day, and most of the next morning, was spent in ‘discussions’, in which we could not reach agreement. Thursday afternoon saw me back at Bordon, with insufficient time to take the mechanical papers and perform the fitting task, but I suggested that since I had no wish to pass, I would do what I could in the time permitted. The following Monday, I stated my case to the selection board and requested that I leave. This was granted.
After about another month had passed, I had almost forgotten the fiasco. I remember that I was doing a camera modification to a Skeeter, a job which entailed lying under the aircraft working blind, with your hands, lost, somewhere in its bowels, when a kick to my feet preceded a message to report to Bordon immediately. Whether they were the same officers assembled as when last I faced that daunting semi-circle, I do not know, but I had primed myself while driving and was prepared to be down right insubordinate. So I was rather deflated when told not to speak, to report to SEE on Thursday, then again when it looked as if I might, not to speak! I kept stumm!
Arriving at Arborfield, I found Pete Shambrock (50A), newly arrived from Hong Kong and just as confused as myself as to what was going on. But we pulled on our light blue berets and joined a course of basic students for the next nine months or so. Just who made the next decision, neither of us could work out, but shortly after completing our BE course, we were put on a Tels 2-to-1 upgrading course. Having got that under our belts, we were left to stew for a month or so then informed that we were now part of a Tels ‘Tiffy’ course starting in a couple of weeks.
Three months or so into the Tels course, I heard about a Radar ‘Tiffy’ course that had complained that, due to the inclusion of a new equipment and thus extension of course duration, they were losing seniority. This was agreed and promotions were dated from when the course should have been completed. By this time, both Pete and myself had been training for about eighteen months. We had another year to go on the Tels bit and goodness knows how long when the Air Corps got their hands on us again. I requested an interview with the Chief Instructor and suggested that we were not just losing a few weeks seniority as the Radar men were, but years. So what about doing something for us?
I did not understand then, and I do not now, but for some reason Pete and myself were held on the strength of Depot REME during all the time we had been training. So the Chief Instructor at SEE arranged with them that we could join an Artificer Inst course starting in two days time down at Bordon, if Pete and I were agreeable. However, there was nothing he could do about back-dating seniority, and it would be for the Air Corps to take the initiative about re-mustering when we had completed the Art Inst course. Still wearing our powder blue hats, we joined the other five pure Instruments men for the start of the regimental training programme, in a squad brought up to strength by eighteen ex-RN senior ranks destined for ………. the Army Air Corps! Was there no feeding that terrible beast? On completion of that Art Inst course, we borrowed ‘proper’ hats for the little promotion ceremony. Nobody seemed to notice and we were definitely not going to tell! A few days before I left Wallop for the last time, the first of a new breed of IE&R men arrived to join the Squadron. He was totally Air Corps, trained at Arborfield and wearing the REME badge, so perhaps the writing was already on the wall for we ‘pressed men’. There may have been some Inst Techs who volunteered, but I never met them, and there are, no doubt, those who will disagree with me regarding the grasping tentacles of that Corps.
A troublesome side…
There is another troublesome side to the tale! In 1975, I became Inspector of Instruments for 1 BR Corps, based with 63 Station Wksp, Hanover. The resident ASM was an ex-Air Corps Air Tech, converted from VM, who I remembered well as a Corporal from my days in KL. After an absence of many years, and to allow room for more senior Warrant Officers, he had been returned to REME. This man was replaced by another ex-Air Corps man, this time with no experience in REME whatsoever, but for the same reasons. I am not saying that these rapidly promoted men were not worthy of the appointment, but it must have (and, if still happening, continued) created a serious shortage of suitable appointments for those in REME proper who have also worked so well for so long.
Strange but true – on the whole, I enjoyed my service with the Air Corps, but this was entirely due to the company I had the good fortune to meet, and here I may add that it included a high proportion were ex-boys, not the structure nor the management. I admit that there were manning problems initially and that the recruiting of tradesmen from REME who could be retrained quickly was probably the best solution. But to differentiate between the respective trades was wrong and, on being repeatedly advised of this, to blatantly ignore the situation and condemn conscripted Inst Techs to years of stagnation in both trade status and promotion is nothing short of deplorable. To add insult to injury, a couple of years back, I happened to be passing Middle Wallop and saw a sign inviting passers-by to visit the Air Corps Museum. As is common among we old soldiers, nostalgia prompted me to pull in and have a look at what I had helped create. The fifteen or so pounds sterling that was demanded before entry brought my wife and I back to reality, so I will never know if my contribution has been recorded for posterity.