The Road to RAF Tangmere
My journey to Tangmere started in October 1954, though the cause was events of the previous twelve months. At Latymer Upper School in 1953 I had gained A levels in physics, chemistry, pure and applied maths and been awarded a Middlesex Major County Award to read Engineering at Imperial College. The government of the day had decreed a major expansion in university places (without the necessary funding) so there were in the first year intake – including repeaters – 126 of us but only 60 second year places. The B.SC Part I exams loomed and I duly attended the “revision lectures”, all important as the papers were set by our lecturers! As I was living at home, I had been able to spend much of my grant on LP records and had cut too many lectures - to build a garage for my parents’ recently acquired “new” car, a 1939 Morris series M saloon. Inevitably, I ploughed and in October 1954, while I was working in the "tin room" at McFarlane's biscuit factory on the Great West Road (where empty 15" cube biscuit tins returned from grocers were washed and relabelled) my National Service call-up papers arrived.
So my journey to Tangmere, via RAF Cardington, RAF Hednesford, No. 2 Radio School Yatesbury and hospital RAF Wroughton began. My rail warrant took me to RAF Cardington for kitting out. Usually one’s stay there was not more than a week, but I had been marked down as a POM – potential officer material – on the grounds that I had been leader of the school orchestra for my last two years at Latymer. The process of evaluating POMs seemed very protracted and I remained at Cardington over a fortnight, at the end of which time they decided that I was not, after all, officer material. This, I later found out, was a blessing indeed and I travelled to a square-bashing camp - RAF Hednesford. I have no fond memories of Hednesford – only the other sort, but at least, in view of the inclement weather on Cannock Heath in November, we were spared a week under canvas. I remember stumbling along a rough path in the pitch dark from the station, across Cannock Chase with several others, all following someone with a tiny torch, hoping he knew where he was going. We arrived at the camp and I remember one morning heading in the dark towards the cookhouse for breakfast, battling against a gale, amidst rain travelling horizontally, protected only by my groundsheet. Breakfasts were served in a stainless steel tray with separate departments for porridge or cereal, fried food (egg, bacon and the inevitable baked beans) etc. I collected mine, found a spare place and sat down to eat. Now some people have a strange sense of humour – I first ran across this while working in the tin room at McFarlane's, in the interregnum between Imperial and National Service. During one tea break, a fellow in the same straits as myself calmly removed the top from a sugar shaker, added a large dose of salt from a salt pot, replaced the cap on the shaker and shook vigorously – just for amusement, he explained.
At breakfast that morning I was the victim of another such joker; when I stood up the chair came with me. Someone had poured golden syrup on to the wooden seat, there being little difference in the colour, or I might have noticed. Returning to the billet, I changed into the trousers from my best blues and hung the other pair in my tall locker. Over the next few weeks I tested the progress daily and eventually found the syrup had largely dried out. Wearing the working trousers, I found that they collected a layer of dust from whatever I sat on and thereafter the seat never wore out. This was just as well, since, as national service men, we received a smaller clothing allowance than regulars – grossly unfair, we thought, as our clothes obviously wore out as fast as theirs. At long last the 8 week stint at Hednesford was up and after a few days’ leave, in January 1955 I travelled to No.2 Radio School, where I was accommodated in Hut 6 of X lines, and embarked upon a 36 week air radar fitter’s course. With a dire shortage of boy entrants or other suitable regulars to train for the job, the RAF was forced to accept national servicemen on the course, even though they were unlikely to spend much more than a year on the job once trained.
My A levels and B.Sc Pt I (failed) served to get me upgraded by three entries, sparing me the boredom of basic electrical theory, before starting on equipments then in service in the RAF. One of our instructors was a national service pilot officer who had had his national service postponed while he finished his engineering degree. We discovered he was chronically short of money – living in the officers’ mess was a severe financial strain on a national service officer's pay – at smoking breaks he was always grateful to accept a fag and a light from one of us. Unfortunately, I fell ill one evening whilst trying to clean greasy roasting pans in the cookhouse, on jankers (for some minor peccadillo I can’t recall – it was doubtless responsible for my demob papers recording my “conduct” as merely “good” rather than “exemplary”), and took to my bed. I looked so ghastly that others in the billet called an orderly from the sick bay; taking one look at me he decided I was not a malingerer and I was admitted. So the following morning I was absent from defaulters’ parade and a redcap from the guard room had to walk across the considerable distance to the sick bay in pouring rain to inspect me, while I had merely to lie to attention in bed – apparently there was no mechanism for postponing any part of my seven days jankers. Later that day I was transferred to RAF Wroughton, a service hospital near Swindon, in what we called a “blood wagon” and they called an ambulance but was basically just a Bedford garry. Every bump in the road, even the most minor, caused an agonising pain in my belly, and on arrival I was in theatre at the double, just in time, I was told later, before the appendix would have burst. Following the operation, lying in bed recovering was bedevilled by a medical orderly with an endless stock of wildly funny jokes, impossible not to laugh at – pulling painfully on internal stitches. Following a week’s sick leave I returned to No.2 R.S. where I was naturally back classed to where I would have been originally.
Life at Yatesbury was relieved by laughs and good companionship, as well as by the japes of various eccentric acquaintances. One such had provided himself with “visiting cards”, carrying on the front the RAF recruiting poster text – “There’s a place for you in the RAF”. But turning it over, on the back it simply read “MINE”! Later I bought a clapped out 1934 Hillman 10 (with gear selectors in the box so worn that one could not be sure, on engaging second gear that first had disengaged) for £45 and returned home most weekends on a 36 or 48 hour pass. The Hillman resided in between times in a disused hanger, along with an assortment of other cars and motorcycles belonging to either trainees or camp staff. I had three regular passengers who each gladly paid me ten bob return fare to London, the fare on the coach being fifteen bob. This left me somewhat in pocket in spite of the miserable performance of the Hillman, which returned just 25 miles to the gallon of petrol and 75 miles to the pint of oil. Arriving back at Yatesbury after the midnight deadline would, of course, have invited problems and although this never happened, we had our scheme already prepared. Ken, one of my regular passengers, had the odd facility of being able to put on a very convincing nose bleed at will. Had we got there after midnight, the plan was not to go as far as the main entrance, but show the poor erk on duty at the officers’ entrance our medical emergency and say we needed to proceed directly to the sick bay. At the end of the 36 week course (the need being now so desperate that the RAF was soon training “24 Week Wonders”, as we called them) I duly passed out as an air radar fitter with the rank of Junior Technician, proudly wearing one inverted stripe on each sleeve. I queued to collect my rail warrant to Tangmere and sign a paper which was thrust in front of me. Having been brought up never to sign anything I had not read, I started to peruse the document, at which the flight sergeant in charge became incandescent and perforce had to sign without further ado, as did the airman in the queue behind me.
It turned out that he, Tony M., had like me been assigned to Tangmere and we travelled there by train, after very nearly one whole year in the RAF. We booked in and were allocated to a hut where we settled on two adjacent pit spaces, the start of a friendship which endures to this day. Then off to the cookhouse where we arrived just after the evening meal had finished serving. A sullen cook told us we were too late and the junior officer on duty asked whether we had collected our subsistence allowances. The reason for the extreme haste of the flight sergeant at Yatesbury now became abundantly clear, and hearing that we hadn’t been given any, he shrugged – it was clearly a common occurrence - and ordered an even more sullen cook to provide us with something. Our hut, one of a row of four or more, had originally been built to house WAAFs, which explained why the toilet block contained a long row of “sit downs” while a single “stand up” had later been shoe-horned in at the end of the row of wash basins. Tangmere was little different from the other camps I had seen – neat bedpacks had to be made daily, sheets sent off to laundry and redistributed, and every so often an officer would come round on kit inspection. We soon learnt that whoever he was, he always moved down one side of the billet and back up the other, in a clockwise direction. This was convenient as there were always people with a pair of socks, a tie or whatever missing. As the officer passed down one side past a set of complete kit layouts, behind his back items would be tossed across the gangway to complete layouts on the other. Only much later did I learn the technical term for this.
The inhabitants of our hut had mostly enjoyed a good education and we all got on well together - Tony and me, and Gus, Trevor, “Dickie” Bird and others whose names I can’t recall. We had very little problem with the corporal who inhabited the single room next to the hut’s entrance and whom, for some reason, we called “Dakkers”. We had audio equipment and long playing records of classical and other music, we had the occasional wine and cheese party in the evening and there were various billet games. One of these was table climbing. One knelt on the table in the middle of the hut, lowered an arm and a leg over the side, followed by the body, grabbing the other side of the table with hand and foot and completing the circumnavigation back to the original position without touching the floor. We soon settled into the camp’s routine and I was drafted to the radar section. This was located at the opposite side of the airfield from all the other buildings, and entailed a drive half way round the peri track in a Bedford garry. I drove it once but our usual driver was another Tony, Tony Dubois. To distinguish the various Tonys, each was given a nick name – our driver became Tony Dubious. Occasionally, for amusement, half a dozen or more of us in the back of the garry would jump in concert from one side to the other and back, causing the vehicle to snake violently. A shout from the cab would order us to pack it in; if we did not comply the result was a crash stop leaving us all in a heap in the back with a few bruises to boot.
My job in the radar section was to service AI10, the radar carried by the station’s Gloster Meteor NFll night fighters of 29 squadron. At No. 2 Radio School I had been trained on Eureka, Babs, IFF and, the most interesting of the bunch, Gee Mk III, in fact anything but AI10. However I soon had the measure of this ancient kit that had seen service in WWII; the fault was usually low sensitivity, reported by the crew. This was due to low emission in the row of knob-shaped glass-topped octal pentodes – replacements were apparently unavailable, either from RCA or anywhere else. So each time I took them all along to someone we called “Pilley”, in the section’s stores, a smallish square room with shelves all the way round. He would take them and carefully put them in a box on the shelf to his right, then provide replacements from a box on his left. When empty, this box was moved to the right hand shelf and all the boxes moved round one space. So eventually, either you or someone else would be issued with the valves you had just returned. Pilley stoutly maintained that the rest did them a power of good, but we were not convinced. Christmas 1955 was approaching and someone brought a very tall candle; we calibrated this with “days to go” to Christmas and ceremoniously burnt it down one day’s worth daily. Various games and other activities were indulged in to relieve the monotony, for example one might see an airman due a few days leave standing in front of the dish of AI10, the beam with its 75W average power output aimed at his genitals – this was claimed to be a sure way to avoid an “accident” with his girlfriend or other lady. More technically inventive was the “Jools Alarm”. This consisted of a pre-war American radio with the usual valve line-up and line cord, modified to act as a two-tone sound generator. Flying officer Jools evidently held some sort responsibility for the radar section - we never discovered exactly what; normally it ran perfectly satisfactorily if somewhat unconventionally under the beady eye of “flight”, our flight sergeant. With the remote situation of the section, there was usually ample warning of F/O Jools’ visit and anyone who noticed him setting off from main camp or on his way round the peri track would switch on the Jools Alarm – “Rabbits”, “foreigners” or other private initiatives would instantly disappear followed by a quick tidy up. The Jools Alarm was actually the second incarnation of the old radio. Previously we had set the IF stage oscillating and the local oscillator to about the same frequency. With a telescopic aerial attached to the local oscillator circuit we had made a theremin, which kept amused for quite a while.
During the course of the winter I was given responsibility for the daily checking of the Eureka/Rebecca beacon which was housed in a hut involving a trek across some long wet grass, snow or worse. In view of this I was issued special cold/wet weather boots which, with their thick woven nylon insoles, were very warm, comfortable and much sought after. The task consisted of checking that the kit was all switched on and connecting the antenna lead to a Megger to check that the resistance was not less than 10MΩ. One then had to sign the log sheet for that day, or for the last seven days or however long it was since it was last checked, which all took a little time. I was just finishing when the phone rang – I hadn’t even realised that there was a phone in the hut – and a furious officer wanted my name and number and ordered me to get the kit back on the air instantly as “I’ve got pilots flying around up there who can’t tell where the hell they are.” Fortunately I was not charged and I never Meggered the antenna again. When the task was taken over by someone else, I was forced, regretfully, to surrender those boots. It was coming up to Easter 1956 and I caught a cold which settled in my sinuses and involved copious nasal discharges of disgusting looking sticky brown mucous. The sick bay put me to bed, but after a few days with no sign of any improvement, packed me off to RAF Uxbridge, the second RAF hospital I was to see during my service. At least I could sleep at nights there. Each night at Tangmere a Landrover was tanked up full of fuel and the filler cap padlocked in place. The NCO I/C the guard room for the night was instructed that by morning the tank had to be empty, ensuring that the station’s perimeter was regularly patrolled. To minimise the time spent away from the comparative comfort of the guardroom, it was driven flat out, not usually in top gear, round and round the peritrack and through the camp, to minimize the mpg. Hurtling round the peri track as if in a grand prix, at full tilt it approached the sickbay with a screech of brakes as it prepared to negotiate the right-angle turn between the buildings, with tyres squealing in protest as it passed within a few feet of my bed.
At RAF Uxbridge I had twice daily inhalations of menthol, daily jabs of penicillin and every other day a sinus wash-out, an unpleasant business. After the best part of two weeks, the doctor treating me said that penicillin didn’t seem to be doing any good and he would try this new stuff called streptomycin. The result was miraculous: two days later at the next sinus washout there was absolutely nothing to wash out – so I became aware of antibiotic resistance long before it became a subject of common concern. Reviewing this startling result the doctor, a Squadron Leader May (no relation), prescribed a week’s sick leave and as that would take me up till Ash Wednesday he extended it until after the Easter break. On my return to Tangmere I was redeployed to RSF Air – the flight charged with ensuring a plane’s radio kit was all ready and correct before flying. I never worked on any of the NF11s of 29 squadron so I don’t know who looked after them. My job consisted in making sure the radar kit in the Hunters of No. 1 and No. 34 squadrons was all present and correct. Since, in my time at Tangmere, the radar intended for Hunters had never materialised, my job was to go up into the nose-wheel bay and release the catches securing the radome with one hand, whilst with the other arm supporting the radome itself, which was awkward to say the least and would have been impossible had my arms been shorter. On one occasion, I dropped the thing, leaving a nasty scratch on the plastic microwave-transparent nose of the radome. The purpose of removing the radome was to check that the lump of cast iron make-weight, which was fitted in lieu of the non-existent radar, was securely attached, a job I felt was rather a waste of 36 weeks of training at Yatesbury. During the warm days of summer I often snuggled down out of sight in the pilot’s seat of a Hunter with the Daily Telegraph and concentrated on the cryptic crossword – this was the only type of plane I ever sat in at Tangmere (though we had clambered around the fuselage of a Lancaster at Yatesbury) and I never left the ground once during my two years. Had I ever been caught, my excuse was that I was waiting for the armourer in the nose-wheel bay to finish.
With Hunters radar-less, night exercises were left entirely to 29 squadron. With its extended fuselage to accommodate the AI10, the NFII drooped slightly over its undercarriage, a case of stretched rivets perhaps. Rumour had it that the squadron leader of 29 squadron said before such an exercise, that if the intruders (Canberras) were going to come in at up to 63000 feet, “we won’t play, we’ll just turn round and go home” – the NF11s had a ceiling of 29000 feet. NF11s needed a “trolley acc” (bank of accumulators on wheels) for ground start while Hunters with their cartridge start alternatively needed a “PE set” for testing all the electrics. This was a generator powered by a Ford 10HP engine, all mounted in a tow-able (or man drag-able) four wheeled housing. I had one of these on my charge and was supposed to inspect it, start it up and sign the record card daily. In practice this happened not even weekly but more like monthly. Then one day I was informed that it had to go in for a minor star service, so I set about signing the record card – but horror, there was no accumulator in the thing. Then I realised the significance of the civvy contractors who had come in a week before to paint the inside of the hangers; clearly one of those got himself a new car battery at my expense. I confessed my problem to Flight, the flight sergeant i/c RSF Air and he commented that I was a silly fool, wasn’t I? a comment with which I could not disagree. Initially this sounded rather unhelpful, but I suspected there was more to it than that and after lunch, without a word, he simply pointed to something under one of the benches. On inspection, this turned out to be an accumulator clearly labelled with white paint “29 Squadron”. I carefully removed all traces of the paint, fitted into the PE Set, sent it off for service and all was well. Presumably, when the appropriate time came, someone in 29 squadron would work the same wheeze at someone else’s expense. Years later, when working for Plessey on the SCRA subsystem of Ptarmigan, a REME sergeant attached as liaison officer enlightened me on the terminology; whether it be accumulators, socks or whatever, it is called a “mobile deficiency”.
Probably the greatest excitement during my time at Tangmere was when the station appeared in all the national papers and questions were asked and answers demanded in parliament. Guard duty was one of those chores which came up now and then – on one occasion I found myself on guard duty one weekend while simultaneously being duty radar tech, due to the malevolent manoeuvrings of a Lance Corporal responsible for the duty radar roster. On another occasion, when fortunately I was not on guard duty, a Landrover full of RAF police drew up at the main gate and was admitted by the lad on the barrier without being challenged to show their papers. They then marched into the guardroom, said they were IRA men dressed up as RAF police and announced that they were taking over the station, although I believe they did not succeed in obtaining the keys to the armoury. It must have been a nasty shock for our Group Captain to be woken up in the middle of the night with such unwelcome news. It turned out that the visitors were RAF policemen dressed up as IRA men dressed up as RAF policemen. The national papers had a field day, although they did not mention (perhaps they thought it would spoil a good story) that if the IRA wanted to invade the camp there were ten miles of perimeter fence consisting of little more than posts with a strand or two of wire, entirely surrounded by open farmland. Later, my time was also taken up by the “orange swindle”, run by another member of RSF Air. In a lockable metal cupboard in the hanger just outside the RSF Air office, he kept bottles of orange juice of a proprietary brand, delivered weekly as required by the milkman, who also delivered to other various buildings around the camp. In the hot weather of summer these bottles sold like hot cakes, at a tanner a go, to thirsty airmen, and when he was demobbed, I inherited the business – perhaps no one else wanted it. By the time some of the bottles had been in the cupboard for best part of a week, the orange fruit had all settled into a thick sludge at the bottom, below a pale orange-coloured liquid. He showed me the art of secretly giving the bottle a quick upsidedown shake before handing it over to a customer, though I found many were well aware of this – their thirst overcoming any qualms on that account.
In October 1956 my national service came to an end and I had secured a place with GEC at their Central Research Labs, Wembley, as a student apprentice on a “thin sandwich” course – six months at the labs alternating with six months at Acton Technical College (later rechristened “Brunel College of Advance Technology” and, later still (after a move to Uxbridge) well after I left, as Brunel University). Following national service Tony and I both took degrees, he in chemistry and I in electrical engineering, leading to a lifelong occupation for each of us, he with just one firm, in my case split between three different companies. With Plessey in the 1980s I was involved in studies for RAE Farnborough covering subjects such as multi-channel transmitters with electronically steerable beams, or countermeasures against aircraft fitted with terrain-following radar. The contacts I thus gained occasionally secured for me tickets for the International Air Show and at one of these I bought an illustration, about A3 size, of a Hawker Hunter, S sierra in the colours of 34 squadron. I also discovered some photos I had taken at RAF Tangmere (we were not supposed to, but of course we did); some planes in a hanger, an accident refuelling a Hunter with aviation fuel all over the place, and a picture of me holding an enormous spanner, sat in front of radar and the service manual of an entirely different radar, by a window. On my first visit to the Tangmere Aviation Museum it dawned on me that I was standing in front of that very window, in what had been the new Combined Radar and Radio Workshop, though the window no longer looked out onto the airfield. The CRRW (which was opened only a few weeks before my demob) had boasted some very smart test consoles for particular pieces of kit, benches and backboards with fitted measuring instruments embedded, engineered with acres of heavyweight brown paxolin sheeting. For no obvious reason one had a small slot next to a built-in meter. When the new CRRW was being shown off to a VIP, an Air Commodore no less, this particular desk suddenly lost all power. A corporal, the least important member of the party, stepped forward and inserted a shilling into the slot and the power instantly came back on. Everyone was so surprised and/or embarrassed that nothing was said at the time. Or later, as it transpired that it was the said corporal’s last day in the air force and no one ever found out who was his accomplice round the back by the desk’s mains switch.
Years later I came across the photo of myself in the CRRW and the other photos, and donated them, together with the picture of Hunter S sierra, to the Tangmere Aviation Museum. I have not seen them on display; perhaps they are languishing in a drawer somewhere, or maybe I shall see them on my next visit.
Dave May (sometime 2735809 J/T. May D. I. H. )