In Defence Of The Realm 1954 to 1959
John V. Diamond
In June 1954, at the age of seventeen and eight months
with my General Certificate of Education in hand I had to make a big decision,
be a National Serviceman or sign on?
At that time, we lived at Walton on Thames and opposite us lived a Group Captain in the RAF with his family. My father had served in the RAF so there was a ‘strong tie’. The Groupie suggested that I apply for a Ground Radar trade given my interest and would be better than air radars.
This finished at the end of the four-week break 48-hour pass, I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle who had a flat in Canning Street, Liverpool, but I had to be back by 23.59 hours Sunday night. About 1am the hut lights went on much stamping, saluting accompanied by all ‘The crown heads of Europe’ including the Station Duty Officer! In amongst this lot was ‘P’ handcuffed whilst the duty whatever, bundled up his kit and we never saw him again. Apparently, he had asked to attend an outside (the camp) church evening service, afterwards he caught the train to Liverpool trying to get home and was apprehended by the MPs. After this experience, that went around the intake like a bush fire, whenever we were told to jump we all asked ‘How High! There was no doubt that I was the fittest I have ever been, due no doubt to Sergeant Ransome, how can I forget his name, who had a way with words like, “Airman am I hurting you?” No we would reply, to which he replied “I bally well should be I am standing on your hair, get it cut!” Anyone caught laughing or sniggering spent time in the Mess hall ‘tin-room’, or learning a trade as an assistant Ablutions Attendant! – Put your hand up John!! (I went back to West Kirby in 2003, but all I could see were the front gates and the old married quarters now privately owned. But the Marigold café in West Kirby, near the supermarket, does a real good fish and chips, mushy peas with apple pie and custard – trust me!)
The ground radar installation was about half a mile or so from the living quarters. When it rained, the idea was not to be in the first three rows as it usually rained parallel to the ground. A ground sheet and leggings were ‘de rigueur’ for this walk! Although there was a concrete path that wound its way to the installation, in the depth of winter and snow, airmen in the first three rows were liable to disappear if they missed their footing from the path! I cannot remember too much of the classrooms and practical areas, but, with clarity I can recall some of the wit and humour of trainees over many years written on the toilet walls! They gave the reader inspiration to their endeavours of the moment!
There was a weekend social life with visits to Bath or Bristol. Some airmen went to dances with trainee teachers at their college, or there was the local dance hall at Marlborough. But, on the 48 hour passes, there would be a fleet of coaches that would take you to London and return the Sunday night. If you wished to go by rail, you would get on the ‘Chippenham Flyer’ (from Calne to Chippenham) and then catch the express to London.
Of the course, memories are short but the tests were ‘multi choice answers’. Such questions like which is correct (a) E=IR (b) I=E+E/R (c) R+R=E/I (d) E=I x I x R. Or if Black = 0, write out the colours to read resistor values. To assist your “bad, boys,” memory there is a version that we all chanted off by rote! However, this is now very politically incorrect! Nevertheless, one can still remember. One lecturer reckoned that you could get 25% without even trying, and, if you got less that was for putting your name on the sheet of paper. In the middle of the course I got a real bad dose of the flu, high temperatures etc., and got carted off to hospital. Here they had WAAF nurses but I really must have been ill or dreaming! When I passed the final exams, AC1 Diamond proudly displaying his ‘sparks’ badge asked to be posted to, the Middle East, the Far East, or South East England.
West Malling was home to 25 and 85 Meteor night fighter squadrons with 154 a reserve squadron that flew on weekends. Sometimes the Oxford University squadron would fly on a weekend in their ‘Tiger Moths’. If a pilot requested a GCA approach it took a ‘cut lunch’ just to do an identification turn and the whole lunch hour to do an approach! West Malling was often on operational standby for this was the ‘cold war’ era. This meant that there were two fighters with trolley accs just off the runway threshold with ground crew, whilst aircrew waited in the planes for the green verey light from ATC.
They worked in tandem with the USAAF at Manston, near Ramsgate. Manston also had CPN4 equipment; there was an occasion that our stores had run out of magnetrons. We phoned Manston to ask if we could get one of theirs. No problemo, thirty minutes later this enormous cargo plane arrived taxied around to us opened the rear doors, handed us the magnetron, and took off.
CPN4 equipment had two radars, a search radar and precision approach radar. When I was on duty, I found that looking at the screens, listening to 'patter' the operators were saying to pilots, the identification of echoes, made tuning to get the best picture quite easy. As you know it’s not kicking it, it’s knowing where to kick it!
On cold nights, the operators would be outside the truck around the coke-fired stove in the nissen hut restroom. When ATC called, I would call the rest room and shout “harpic”. Like its commercial counterpart when the plane was ‘on finals’ it would turn (clean round the bend) with eight miles to touchdown. Amid scrambling for seats and headsets, the approach would begin. There were times when harpic was called and there was no response! My first time was a direct ATC order ‘Do it!’ And I did, as well as several times later!
The operators had all served in WW2 and were either Air Gunners or Navigators. The search operator was a sergeant Air Gunner who had a timing problem when marching, swinging his arms in time with his feet! He was always left out of any station parade. When he retired after 22 years service, he received a long service medal and the citation “22 years of undetected crime”.
One regular search radar exercise was the ‘step down’ approach, i.e. Victor Tango you are now at ten miles on a heading of 06 your height should be ‘xx’, Victor Tango you are now 8 miles on a heading of 06 your height should be ‘yy’, you are now 1 mile from touchdown look ahead and land. Normally this worked but one night the reply came back from the pilot ‘In one minute I will land in Chatham High Street where are you?’
The PAR operators were all officers. One with white hair, an absolute gentleman, two impressive rows of medal ribbons used a spare nissen hut to repaint his early 1920’s open tourer and then drive up and down the back taxiway, just like the flying car in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. We made the end of this hut removable so that he could work on the car assisted by the diesel fitter, when he was on duty!!
Another was Flt Lt Toby Foxlee, an Australian. He had been Guy Gibson’s rear gunner and drove a late 1920’s Austin 7 Saloon. (Later, in Australia, I was to meet and work with one of his pilots S/L Jack Leggo DFC a Dambusters legend and a fantastic bloke). One day being late ‘harpic’ was already called he swings around the truck jumps out his car but the front wheel continued on across the grass towards the runway, ‘get the bastard back’ he shouted. We never ever found those wheel nuts!! Interestingly the car just sat there on three wheels.
However, it was at night that he came into his own! I would listen to his strine voice “...nicely on the glide path, turn port 2 degrees for the centre line…now turn port 5 degrees for the centre line, according to my radar Alpha Bravo you are now flying sideways….” As we all fell about laughing. Another favourite when a pilot was on finals part of his spiel was to say ‘lower your undercarriage and check your three green balls’. Should a pilot say he had a red one Toby would suggest he visit the MO on landing. Sometimes pilots had to do blind approaches, usually they were all over the glide path and centre line like a fiddler’s elbow, occasionally a plane would do a perfect approach Toby Foxlee would ask the pilot direct if he had his eyes open, should the reply be yes Toby would abort the approach and tell him to ‘go around again’.
I asked him once during night flying why he allowed aircraft to fly higher than the glide path at about four miles out and then give them a correction at 3 miles. In that Aussie drawl, “Well mate when they fly low over my chook farm the noise puts the chooks off laying!” - (And, ‘that’s fair dinkum mate!”) He returned to Australia and although I never met him, he apparently ran a Shell Service station in Capalaba, Brisbane until he retired.
Regularly the Squadron Leader SATCO, another WW2 with ribbons would come over. His tea would be there waiting, as he sat with WO Brown and reminisced. Great stories of the RAF and times in Egypt and the Mediterranean etc! You could have written a book.
In ATC there was a national serviceman, I think his surname was Little, about to complete his 2 years National Service, when this S/L decides to tell him to get a haircut and report to him afterwards. The guy’s hair had been growing in the teddy boy style and indeed, there was a good DA! Three times, he was sent for a haircut! Some months later he writes to the S/L and wrote that because of his ‘neat’ haircut he had been offered a job as a floorwalker at a store opposite the Lewisham clock tower (if its still there).
Air firing was a favourite with joy riders. A Meteor day fighter would pull a chain mail drogue behind it. Meteor night fighters would fire live rounds at the drogue and I understood it was also filmed. Night fighters never carried a navigator during ‘live firing’ so the chance to fly was available. I took the chance one day. After take off the pilot asked me had I been flying before, no I said, immediately he turned the plane up side down and all my Christmases came at once!! However, that was nothing for when he fired the guns; the whole airframe seemed to shudder and shake and I am sure a few rivets fell out! Terra firma never felt so good! I can claim to being shot at by friendly fire when an armourer on the other side of the airfield decided to be Tom Cruise in Top Gun and forgot to check for live rounds that ricocheted of the runway and went through the end of the nissen hut where I was sitting!
Flying like driving a car can have its down side. One summer’s day, there was an all ‘squadron scramble’. The radar was put on full alert and fully staffed either in the truck or like me outside. Every available plane of each squadron were assembled on the taxiway at the threshold in pairs. The first pair took off climbing high, the next pair climbing low, then pairs high and low alternately. One plane seemed to take off too high, or perhaps too close to the one in front. The plane was about six feet from the ground going past us with engines screaming losing height. It went off the end of the runway and into a field of strawberries being picked. The plane went straight through the pickers with the wing decapitating the farmer. It came to rest in some trees. The pilot was thrown out and broke his neck. The navigator was killed in the cockpit. There was nothing we could do, except get those aircraft back down.
Socially, we drank in the village pubs and if really thirsty by the time you had walked up the hill to the station, you could have a quick half in ‘The Startled Saint’. Alternatively, we went to the dances in Maidstone on Saturday night. The army and navy usually had a fight leaving us alone.
At least we got to pick the good ‘birds’! Only once did I miss the last bus (about 10.45pm) back to camp and walked the 8 miles along the A20 and then some apple scrumping from the orchard on the airfield. One bus trip an airman with many rounds under his belt gets on the bus at West Malling village for the trip up the hill to the station gate. On the way he picks a fight misses and hits me just under the eye, then he fronts up to a pro boxer ‘who restrains him’, but the gate guard had been alerted and the RAF dogs were better than fists. I got carted off to the hospital and the airman was not seen for a few days!
From time to time, there were dances at the camp in the NAAFI and busloads of girls were brought in! The NAAFI used half of the Mess dining hall permanently and the dining hall could sit most personnel at one sitting! Outside the NAAFI was a call box, by lifting the receiver and tap tapping one could call the RAF camp without paying. RAF West Malling 2112.
To commemorate the Battle of Britain, the station was opened to the public, after all they did pay us! A hangar was set up to show what happens around the station. I was given the job of ‘spruiking’ the GCA with a working model.
GCA staff shared a 20-man dormitory with the rest of signals and the telephone exchange operators. Some of the shift workers used to do a late shift at nearby factory packing strawberries and other fruit. About midnight they would come in with a large tin of the night’s spoils. It was worse than being in a chocolate factory!
Many times, I would ‘stand by’ in the telephone exchange. I could answer calls from group straight away, on my bike with night rations issued from the mess to the truck.
When on standby there was really nothing to do, but you had to be there just in case, we were kept busy by the gardens beside the Nissen hut, which had been established during or after WW2, so folk lore said!
Part of the Nissen hut was set up to check radar equipment ‘offline’. This was very handy when intermittent faults occurred. It also allowed me to learn about the equipment as the USAAF Manuals were ‘very detailed’! I remember WO Brown particularly because he was interested in training the staff on the radar equipment, often supervising what we were doing. He would then test our knowledge of the radar and diesels too.
One winter when Vulcan bombers were new, one landed and after taxiing around did final checks on the threshold for takeoff. SAC Diamond on his bike waited for the runway light to go green. It did, the pilot must have had wing mirrors, as I got level with the exhaust of idling engines; suddenly they are given full throttle blowing me off the end of the runway into a pile of snow leaving the legs and one bike wheel showing according to ATC.
We had GCT training every so often. Two amusing incidents come to mind. We were all trucked over to Gravesend for rifle and LMG training. Being left handed was a gunnery problem, my legs went the other way, and when I did fire the LMG, the bullets grazed the top of the range and gave a passing ship something to think about! – Well, that was what I was told.
The other was airfield security, 303 in hand and ‘on patrol’, the RAF Regiment sergeant gave the order ‘your attacked’, we were supposed to drop to the ground wherever. In that, eerie silence that followed the sergeant asked an airman at the back of the patrol ‘Are you dead? Well you should be the enemy just shot you. Why didn’t you drop to the ground like everybody else?’ “I didn’t want to get stung by the stinging nettles!” (Much suppressed laughter).
After one of these sessions, the station had a 48-hour defence test with flying night and day. We had to defend the radar from the ‘enemy’ whose job it was to put a cross on the radar and if this happened, the radar was deemed to be out of action. After about six or so hours we heard that some enemy had put crosses on a squadron’s planes rendering them destroyed. The enemy was fair dinkum! Everybody was issued with a 303 rifle and singly we had to patrol around the truck. To ‘turn out the guard’ we devised a long length of cable with a switch in the patrol’s hand. In the nissen hut there was a hoover rigged up to come on if the switch was pushed. Whenever something suspicious occurred, we had to turn out the guard. There were many sightings, besides the NAAFI wagon, which carried bombs in their buns! But most of them were imported RAF regiment or Military Police with dogs, but we still had to challenge them. Good dog Rover, put your teeth back in! About 2.30am in the morning I am walking up and down holding my rifle in case someone was watching, when all of a sudden this shape appears about ten yards from me in the grass and from behind a runway sweeper. I pushed the switch and said “Halt who goes there put your hands up”, much like the farmhand and the Polish pilot in the film ‘Battle of Britain’. Everyone turns out, checking for others and me with my rifle in the ‘enemies’ back, his hands in the air, walking him to the nissen hut. When we get him inside, he gives his rank and number. He is the Commander of the ‘enemy’. I have been sticking my rifle in his back! The MPs are quickly on the scene and he is taken away. The next morning it’s around the station that it was John Diamond who did it!
However, back to Radar, with my SAC on my jacket, I was sent to RAF Locking to do a Junior Technician Ground Radar Fitter (Nav) (M) course based on MPN-11 radar. This course and the GRM course would be the basis of my life after demob. Unbelievably I really learnt a lot and enjoyed the course! One of the practical jobs we had to do was make a ‘heat sink’ using a crocodile clip and two pieces of copper. The pieces of copper had to fit the teeth on the clip and be soldered in. These became very useful and even today I use them occasionally.
However, come the weekend, it was Saturday nights dancing down the Winter Gardens, the mixed grill in the cafes, the pictures and sometimes walking back to Locking. The course was through summer so I was able to go swimming in the municipal pool on Saturday afternoon and ‘watch the landscape’ for those testosterone loaded afternoons! (I was back there in October 2003 and the latte in the Winter Gardens coffee shop was one of the best I had).
Some decided to try the 6d. a pot scrumpy cider at Banwell, one course member reckoned 1/6d worth was more than enough. Although not a wowser, scrumpy was too rough for me! After all, there was tales of the odd rabbit or hare, whole as in complete, being thrown in for more ‘flavour and body’! Eventually we all passed and received our J/T, one stripe up side down. Proudly, I went back to West Malling.
After a few months, I was posted to RAF Biggin Hill. CPN4 was also the equipment and we were ‘more at risk’ than at West Malling being closer to the runway about twenty yards.
Biggin Hill had a squadron of Hawker Hunters and they took off up the ‘hill’ on the runway. The runway was/is, like a steel car ramp for DIY mechanics. This ‘hill’ made it impossible for the GCA to scan through touchdown by about 10 feet or 3 metres. The ‘step down’ approach here was not practiced too much as if a plane undershot the runway threshold, they would either crash on the road, or, worse still hit the cliff which was the other side of the ‘hill’. Flying was different here as there were different kinds of aircraft landing and there was a flying ceiling of 1500 feet.
I will never forget one outstanding occurrence. There was a squadron exchange with a Belgian Air Force squadron of Hawker Hunters. The first plane landed OK, the second blew a tyre but was able to keep on the runway. However, the third blew two tyres on landing went off the runway straight at the GCA and I am standing in front. Because of the ‘hill’, we heard the bang but did not see the plane until it gets over the hill. By this time, it is 50 yards and closing! Brown corduroy trousers were the order and a fast pair of legs! Luckily, the plane sank into the grass and stopped undamaged. All the planes had their tyres changed.
The Belgians were here to take part in an exercise. Now the ATC spoke English and the pilots Belgian! The ‘hill’ in the runway gave pilots a short takeoff enabling them to fly almost straight up. “Foxtrot Yankee you have exceeded 1500 feet please return to that level”. “Please repeat, I don’t understand your command” in faltering English!
Biggin was good as there was a Sally Ann across the road and my favourite aircraft the Spitfire often flew and in one aerial combat out manoeuvred a Meteor jet. We were told that the cameras on board both planes recorded the Spitfire won. So much for progress.
Since my family now lived at Wallington, I was able to cycle home most weekends. In fact the roster was 1 weekend on duty/maintenance, next a 48, next a 72 and next a 96! My father used to ask who is defending the country. The final mile into Biggin Hill was the back road through New Addington that came out just past the main gates, but right beside a café that had a jukebox. I always used to play Oh Bernadine by Pat Boone!
However, this did not last long as I was sent to RAF Locking again, this time to do an AN/CPN4 conversion course! The instructor was a bit peeved I knew more than he did operationally, practically and sometimes theoretically. One day he got me up in front of the class to tell them how it operated. Just before I started, two officers also came in. I started my spiel. The result was that Training Command tried to nab me for a teaching post, but I was off limits apparently. Perhaps my RAF career would have taken a different turn! When there was class practical, I was given some of the class to train. If you have done any training, you know you learn more that way. However, it was good to renew the old haunts as it were! I had attained the exalted rank of Corporal and therefore could go to the Corporals Mess and meet people well outside my normal training area. One Corporal in charge of an apprentice’s flight told me this story. A new entry of boy entrant recruits had started and it was Friday night ‘bull’ night. He had been calling for volunteers, “Who has been in the Air Force Cadets”, up went the hands, “Who has their gliding certificate” up went a couple, “Well glide over the windows”.
Constructed by Dick Barrett