I graduated from AATS Bircham Newton 60 years ago as I write. Although I was proud to have been awarded the Air Ministry Secretarial Prize for my entry, The Glorious 40th, it later transpired to have been more of a curse than an award. By this I mean I found it very difficult over subsequent years to avoid being selected for VIP duties. Some of you I can hear saying: ”Oh Yeah, working in the rarefied atmosphere of a VIP office, feet up on the desk and with no liability for Station duties. Must have been a doddle.” Those of us that have been so appointed would point out that whilst there were some privileges and advantages (frequent overseas trips in my case being one), the counter was the very long and demanding hours that were worked. On one such posting, I usually left home circa 07.00, arriving back home in the evening circa 21.00. My daughter was in bed when I left home in the morning, and she was asleep when I returned in the evening. Those of you with a sympathetic disposition are reminded that all donations to the Roy Cleife Benevolent Fund are always gratefully received.
To put my experiences in some perspective, these are the gentlemen that at various times in my career I personally assisted. Some were good. Some were bad:
Air Vice-Marshal F D S Scott-Malden
Air Commodore A C Deere
Air Vice-Marshal F D Hughes
Air Vice-Marshal R E Craven
Air Vice-Marshal P G K Williamson
Air Vice-Marshal J A Gilbert
Air Vice-Marshal D P Hall
Way back in the past, a colleague who then worked at PMC told me that was a record. I suspect there may be one of you out there that may know differently.
My story involves one of the individuals above. I tell it because it demonstrates the cunning, guile, deceit, and unflappability that our months of training at Bircham bestowed on us. It also demonstrates the need for communication. Initially, I underwent some hesitancy in putting this to paper: firstly because of its implausibility and, secondly, I did not want to besmirch the names of some of those involved. To resolve the latter, I have decided not to use names of individuals or name the location. Most of the personalities are no longer with us. However, I am sure some of you will be able to put two and two together and identify people as well as the location. Mum’s the word, please. And, of course, it is plausible.
So, the scene is thus. It is May in the hot summer of 1976. My boss had a yacht moored near Henley-on-Thames which he had worked on painstakingly over many months. He had decided to take Friday off so that he could motor his boat down the Thames to St Katharine’s Dock (adjacent to Tower Bridge), raise the mast, set the sail, and travel over the weekend to Bursledon on Southampton Water – where it would remain. His No 2 was an air commodore: the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO). SASO had asked the boss if it would be all right if he left a little early on the Friday because he needed to fly his Tiger Moth up to RAF Coltishall, as he was taking part in a sailing regatta on the Broads over that weekend. The Aide de Camp (ADC) had taken a few days off following the birth of his daughter. I had decided that Friday was going to be my day off too.
On the Friday morning, a certain Station Commander in the Group had been taken ill as he was about to take his place in a parade rehearsal for a visiting foreign dignitary. His Station Medical Officer rang the Command Medical Officer at High Wycombe, who in turn informed the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C).
Some while later when I am in the garden sunning myself the doorbell rang. My wife answered it and brought to me a rather agitated Group Captain Operations (Gp Capt Ops) – a fantastic Scottish gentleman (who eventually achieved AVM rank himself). He said I needed to get dressed and accompany him to the office. On arrival, he asked if I knew the whereabouts of either the AOC (my boss) or SASO and, if I did, I needed to speak to the Personal Staff Officer (PSO) to the AOCinC. I affirmed that I “sort of” knew the whereabouts of my boss. I then telephoned the PSO to the AOCinC, announced who I was, and was horrified to be told to hang on whilst I was put through to the AOCinC himself. What? Wow! Crikey! Out of shock and awe, I also found myself standing to attention. Something about the tone of the air chief marshal’s voice led me to believe that he was not a happy bunny. He told me an incident had occurred within the Group involving a Station Commander, and that his PSO and ADC had been trying to get hold of either the AOC or SASO all morning. “It is apparent that your Group is floating about without anybody being in charge”, he raged. “Do you know where your master is and can you get him to telephone me. URGENTLY!”. I replied that I “sort of” knew where he was and, yes, I would endeavor to get him to ring. Following this rather brief and one-sided conversation with God-in-Chief, I asked the operator in PBX to get me a telephone number for St Katharine’s Dock. Within a few minutes, she had found a number and said she would put me through. The manager of the dock answered and in sheer desperation I said: “This is a bit of a longshot but has a yacht named Sailfin entered the dock yet?” “You are in luck”, he replied, “it came in a few minutes ago and is now tying up”. “Yes, there is a God” I muttered under my breath, and then heard myself asking if it would be possible to speak to the male crew member. It was a matter of extreme urgency. I next heard the manager shouting from an outside location. “He’s on his way” he told me seconds later. A few minutes later I was relieved to hear the nonchalant tone of my boss’s voice. “Hello, who is it?” “It’s me boss”, I replied. “Hello my boy, how the hell did you track me down here?”
As an aside, I mentioned earlier that there was good and there was bad. This one was good, the sort of guy I really would follow off the edge of a cliff, and in all the years I worked for him he never called me “Sarge”, it was always “my boy.” In turn, I never addressed him as “Sir”, it was always “Boss”. Years later his widow asked if I could be flown from Germany to attend her husband’s memorial service in St Clement Danes. At the following reception she told me that her husband had often remarked that I was like an adopted son. One of the most flattering moments of my life.
However, to return to the plot. I told the boss that I did not have time for explanations, that would have to wait until later, and outlined the scene at HQ Strike Command, and the demand that the boss speak to the AOC-in-C. “Well, I am not going to call him from here” said the boss, you will have to get me back to the office.” I thought that if I said: “You must be bleedin joking” it could be interpreted as a tad insubordinate. Similarly, the phrase “I’ll just wave my magic wand then” wouldn’t work. Instead, an idea came to me like a bolt out of the blue. I had never had such a bolt before or since. “I will try and get you airlifted out” I exclaimed. There was a Wessex helicopter flight on the station, and it had suddenly occurred to me, through that bolt from the blue, that – miracles permitting – they might be persuaded to assist with this unfolding dilemma. “Excellent, my boy. If this comes off, you will have earned yourself a coconut.” I next rang the flight commander and, amazing for a Friday afternoon, he was in his office. Without disclosing the true nature of the drama, I simply said the boss had to get back to his office at the utmost urgency , told him where the boss was, and I suggested there might be two options: the boss could get a taxi to the heliport at Battersea and they could collect him from there, or (we are now in the realms of James Bond here) “Could you winch him off and fly him back?” After a few moments I was told the latter would be the best solution. “We will put it down as a training exercise and we will set off as soon as we can.” I had asked the boss to stand by the telephone and when I called him back he was delighted with the news.
Sometime later, I had arranged for 4 of the senior officers of the Group to assemble in the boss’s office as there was a feeling in my water there would be a need for a meeting. One of the group captains (Senior Officer Administration or SOA) had just arrived at his home in Devon and had to turn around and retrace his 3-hour journey. When the boss eventually arrived back in the office he was very dishevelled, a trifle pale, and was wearing his jaunty sailing outfit. He immediately called for coffee and scotch. He was, however, lacking his usual jovial self. Funny how you remember details, but I also noticed that his plimsoles were in a disgusting state.
We all trooped out of the office to allow the boss to telephone the AOC-in-C , or “my destiny with God” as he put it. He called us back in very shortly afterwards and informed us there had been no discussion, no enquiry, certainly no pleasantries, but the AOC-in-C had ordered him to be at his desk at High Wycombe at 10.00 on the Monday morning. “Oh! And I must be wearing my No 1 uniform”, he added. As we gathered round in a circle of armchairs, everybody with a cup of coffee and a glass of whisky, the boss asked where SASO was. Gp Capt Ops explained that SASO was in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Coltishall. “What time did he set off for there?” asked the boss. “About 10 o’clock this morning” replied Gp Capt Ops. “He flew up in his own Tiger Moth.” I am quite a discernible person, and I could tell from the boss’s demeanour that he did not equate 10 o’clock in the morning with leaving a little early. It was also beginning to dawn on the boss that this was a very serious situation. Me leaning across and whispering to him that the AOC-in-C thought the Group had been floating about with nobody in command probably did not assuage his anxiety. “Get him back!” barked the boss, and Gp Capt Ops slid from the room. It later transpired that it had taken some time to locate SASO, He could not be found in the Mess but was eventually tracked down to the village where he was preparing his boat. Whilst not party to the discussion, it also took some time for him to be persuaded that the boss was indeed serious and was adamant he had to immediately return to Group HQ. By the time SASO had returned to RAF Coltishall , and made the necessary arrangements to fly back, it was beginning to get dark. The aircraft aficionados amongst you will also know the Tiger Moth is open-top. So our gallant SASO had to therefore fly the 160 miles back to face the storm, with few instruments, without any lights, and in the open air. Biggles would have been proud.
Amazingly, the return of SASO coincided with the return of the SOA. They were as white as alabaster and did not look like a happy couple. SASO was visibly shaking from his ordeal in the night sky whilst the SOA explained that halfway back from Devon an object had flown into his windscreen and shattered it. He had no option other than to punch a large hole in the windscreen so he could see, and then drive on. It was a cold evening, and he was frozen through to the bone.
A feeling of coldness permeated the room. This was not the time for light talk or witty banter. However, as the evening progressed and more and more whisky was consumed, the atmosphere lightened somewhat, and the funny side of the situation began to emerge. Gradually, some sense of normality began to becalm the office, and everybody became more relaxed. I began to hear the odd snigger. People roared with laughter when I revealed I had stood up to attention when I spoke on the telephone to the AOC-in-C. It descended quite chaotically when SASO asked the boss how he had managed to return from London. When informed that he had been winched aboard a helicopter near the Tower of London, SASO collapsed in tears. The Group HQ was fortunate in its location as it formed a wing of the Officers’ Mess. We were therefore able to ring down for resupplies of whisky and ice from time to time. The gist of that evening was that nothing at all was achieved. I hadn’t even taken any notes. It was agreed that the meeting would resume at the boss’s residence near Henley-on-Thames at 10.00 the next morning. Gp Capt Ops said he would collect me in his staff car about 09.30. I stumbled off in a drunken haze back to my married quarter. It was a little after midnight and I did not have a key. Eventually, I was able to rouse my all-suffering wife and she let her drunken husband in. She did not seem interested in my explanation as to where I had been in the 14 hours since leaving the house. Perhaps the implausibility of my story, my slurred speech, and whisky fumes did not help. When my wife slammed our bedroom door it awoke my daughter in the next room and probably the neighbours next door – if they had not already been awoken by my attempts to rouse my wife.
There was little conversation as Gp Capt Ops and I travelled over to the residence on the Saturday morning. This was probably because we were both nursing headaches. The boss was in a similar condition when we arrived. Others were already there, and the meeting recommenced. To be honest the contributions from those gathered was a mess of improbable excuses and downright lies. Every time some bright spark produced what they thought was a brilliant idea, the boss simply shot them down in flames. After an hour of listening to this the boss called it all to a halt. He told us he was going to stand before the great man, basically tell him the truth, and accept the consequences. All in his No 1 uniform. His intention, at the merest mention of a formal investigation or, God forbid, a General Court Martial, would be to resign his commission. This was getting ever more serious.
The boss arrived back in the office about lunchtime on the Monday having made his trip up and back from High Wycombe. He was back to his jovial self and had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. When I took a cup of coffee into him, he took from his pocket a small Dictaphone. He used this when travelling to record notes and even dictate things to me. He told me to press the start button. The first thing I heard was somebody (who I perceived to be the PSO) announcing the boss’s presence to the AOC-in-C. I could then hear the boss walking up to the great man’s desk. He was not invited to sit. The great man asked the boss for an explanation about the preceding Friday. The boss said he had planned to move his boat from Oxfordshire to the south coast that day and was profoundly sorry that he had not sought permission from the AOC-in-C. No mention was made of the helicopter airlift, the absence of SASO at Group HQ, SASO’s night adventures, or anything else. I then heard the AOC-in-C say: “Very well P. I am not at all happy with what occurred. Just make sure it never happens again. And now you can go.” Two thoughts immediately occurred to my non-commissioned brain. The first was sympathy for the boss. Those of us who have stood before Wally Prior in similar bollocking circumstances – before being told to “get out” – will commiserate. The second thought was the audacity of recording this senior level reprimand. I couldn’t help myself. I just burst out laughing. As I left the boss’s office, I turned to look at him. “You look very smart in your No 1 uniform boss – but can I suggest you bin the plimsoles you were wearing on Friday”. He gave a thumbs up, then a wink, and said “Thank you my boy.”