When I was eventually allowed to leave Apprentice School in 1960 and let loose on the RAF proper I was posted to HQ 11 Group at RAF Martlesham Heath. I do not imagine for one moment that my introduction to Man Service was in anyway different to any other members of the Association, except possibly for one event that I was involved in in a very minor way. At that stage of our careers we were constantly being exposed to new experiences.
This is being written in late September and we have just marked the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and a long standing friend of mine (an ex-Halton Brat from the 84th Entry) sent me an e-mail recalling the heroism and courage of The Few. As he put it, “At age four months I had not the slightest idea of the import of what was happening above my head down there in deepest Kent”. The Battle of Britain created heroes that became household names and have lived with our generation for ever. Their deeds of courage and sacrifice were the stuff of legend that inspired more than a few to join the RAF as teenagers. Even today those achievements and the aerial battles that they fought and won against all the odds still resonate with us and are embedded forever in the in the annals of RAF History. I am sure that many of you in your school days and later, will have read and poured over the same books that I did and which have left an indelible memory.
The year 1960 was of course the 20th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and as you might expect that was an occasion to be marked, especially at HQ 11 Group. Not that I was even aware at that time that a 20th Anniversary Battle of Britain Dining-In Night was being organised in the Officers Mess at Martlesham Heath. I was in total ignorance of this event until one afternoon the Chief Clerk at HQ 11 Group (one WO Bert Harvery ex-54th Ruislip) gathered us together in the Group Registry. We were informed that staff were required in the Officers Mess to assist with waiting duties at the forthcoming Dining-In Night in the Officers Mess. Dress would be “Best Blue” trousers, white shirts and our normal black ties, we would receive a full briefing from the Officers Mess Manager and were we to make ourselves available for this “privileged voluntary” duty we would earn ourselves the princely sum of 10/- As a rail ticket home at the weekend cost 23/- return it really was a no brainer. And at that time, to me, the Officers Mess was simply a building and what went on inside that building held all the secrets of a Masonic Lodge.
Thus about ten of us duly assembled on the due date for a briefing from the Officers Mess Manager in the bowels of the mess, away from the guests. One National Service LAC turned up wearing his RAF issue braces, which brought forth a form of guttural seizure from the Mess Manager, which he only recovered from when the LAC had been sent unceremoniously on his way. We were not to be allowed anywhere near the top two thirds of the dining room where the professionals from TG19 would be in exclusive attendance together with similar trained staff from RAF Wattisham and RAF Bawdsey. We were supervised, very closely by a Sergeant Steward and for most of the time acted as an intermediate conveyer belt, we were only allowed near the tables to remove used plates and cutlery. But for ten bob who cared.
But believe it or not there was an upside to the task, well certainly for me as an 18 year old airman in desperate need of liufe experience and who would most definitely benefit from a lesson in gravitas. I had never seen RAF Officers in their Mess Kit before and it was a very smart and awe inspiring show. There was gold braid, aigaulettes and miniatures in abundance and yes, I was impressed.
After the dinner some of us were offered a further 5/- to help restore the dining room, move furniture and then wash and dry glasses for the bar and one of the items that had to be moved was the seating plan for the dinner, a task that I was given. I then discovered, to my amazement, that in that room had been just about every hero and role model I had read about as a boy. Among many others present and in no particular pecking order was, Group Captain Denis Crowley-Milling, Wing Commander Robert Stanford Tuck, Flight Lieutenant Ginger Lacey, Group Captain Al Deere, Group Captain Johnny Johnson, Group Captain Douglas Bader, Group Captain Stan Turner and so it went on. There were many others too, Poles and Czechs, some in civilian black tie who patently I had not heard of but who were very obviously part of that distinguished clan.
It was an unforgettable experience and today it remains as clear in my mind as it did then. It didn’t matter a jot that I had been there in the capacity of “skivvy”, to me it felt, as it does now, that I had witnessed just a very small part of RAF history in the making.
The story of the Wing Commmander found slumbering on a“spare bed” in one of the rooms in an airmen block the following morning, resplendent in mess kit, will keep for another time!