The RAF apprentice and flight cadet training schemes were the backbone of the Royal Air Force in the years leading up to, and during and immediately after, the Second World War, and I’m sure Min Larkin (Halton Apprentices Archivist) will give a good account of the huge contribution Halton’s ex- apprentices made to our service, both on the ground and in the air (the Bomber Barons and all that). Halton was of course the Apprentice Mecca, but it wasn’t the only place at which boys as young as 15 or 16 began training for careers in the RAF. Today, we would call these establishments Residential Sixth Form Colleges, but then they were simply known as Apprentice (or Boy Entrant) Schools. The alumni of these schools served the RAF immensely well.
When I joined as an apprentice in January 1956, there were said to be something like 10,000 to 11,000 apprentices and boy entrants in training at three apprentice schools (Halton, Hereford and Locking) and at least four boy entrant schools (St Athan, Cosford, Compton Bassett and Yatesbury). All apprentice selection took place at Halton, but Administrative Apprentices went to Credenhill (Hereford) for training. As one of those Administrative Apprentices, I want to make a claim for the contribution made by Apprentice Clerks, as they were originally known, particularly in the fledgling RAF in the 1920s and 1930s.
The apprentice clerk scheme was introduced in 1925 alongside the aircraft apprentice scheme, and had, arguably, at least as important an impact on the creation and effectiveness of the new Service as the better known Halton scheme.” We were always smaller in number, and possibly because our school moved several times – twice before the war and four times after – we have never been as well known, though we too like to regard ourselves as ‘Trenchard brats’. More importantly though, much of the RAF’s administrative, accounting, clerical, legal and personnel procedures (known until the 1970s as PI (discipline), P2 (officers) and P3 (airmen)) were created and refined by these former apprentice clerks. Though with hindsight one could say it was an early example of the creation of a modern bureaucracy, it consisted of a series of well-tested interlinking systems that served the RAF extremely well and put it, administratively, streets ahead of the Army, and possibly even the Royal Navy with its long tradition of professional secretarial officers and petty officers and on which many of new Service’s procedures were probably based.
In the early 1920s priority had to be given to the setting up of administrative and organizational systems for the new, separate, air force. To this end, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) selected a brilliant administrator, just transferred to the RAF, Major John Walter Cordingley, an ex-naval warrant officer writer, and a man with an exceptional track record as an administrator at all levels in the Royal Navy and with important experience of manning policy at the Admiralty. Major, soon to be Squadron Leader, Cordingley was instructed to form and command a Record Office for the Royal Air Force at Flowerdown, a former RNAS station in Hampshire. This was soon set up, though it moved to Ruislip within a few years to be nearer the Air Ministry, under whose direct control it had been established. Meanwhile, the CAS was also keen to attract into the new service well-educated young men for training in the highly-skilled aircraft servicing trades so necessary in a service at the cutting edge of global aeronautical development. Thus was born the Aircraft Apprentice scheme, including Apprentice Clerks.
All apprentice clerks were taught touch typing and those training as clerks general duties (post- WWII: clerks secretarial) were also trained to write shorthand. There being no WAAF or WRAF between the wars, ex-apprentice clerks were often employed as personal clerks by very senior officers. Their abilities rapidly became recognised outside the RAF, and they were often ‘poached’ by diplomatic, consular and other government departments.’ From August 1928 onwards one third of each intake of apprentice clerks was trained as clerks accounting, clerks pay accounting or clerks stores accounting. Total numbers varied from intake to intake but the average was around 34. The largest intakes, not surprisingly, were those in the period of expansion immediately before WW 11. Promotion for many ex-apprentice clerks was rapid in the extreme. To advance from leading aircraftman to Senior NCO or Warrant Officer in only two or three years was not unknown. It has to be remembered, of course, that at this time records were manuscript, typewriters and duplicators were manual and the nearest thing to a computer was the Hollerith punch-card machines at the RAF Record Office, which allowed the identification of airmen’s individual skills by the insertion of metal wires, rather like knitting needles, into punched cards so as to be able to select men with the right skills, education, background or, sometimes, languages for a particular post.
The apprentice clerk scheme continued into the early years of WW 11, but was abandoned in 1942 when it became necessary to move the RAF Record Office from Ruislip and away from the Luftwaffe bombing of London. Various proposals were made for this relocation, but in the end the decision was taken to move the Record Office to Innsworth (Gloucester). This had a direct impact on the training of apprentice clerks, as they had been training at Ruislip since 1925, in the classrooms in the mornings and in the Record Office in the afternoons. There was no accommodation for them at Innsworth, and so the scheme had to be closed down. By that time 2,080 apprentice clerks had been trained since 1925 and the number of intakes had reached 61; this entry graduated from Ruislip in 1942. Prior to closure, the scheme had been reduced from three intakes, or entries, a year to two.
From 1925, boys entering under the scheme had been given service numbers in a block running from 590000. When the school closed in 1942, the last number to have been issued was 592080; thus, 2,080 apprentice clerks had been trained in 17 years. Aircraft apprentices had been allocated their own similar six-figure batch of service numbers, in a series immediately before that allocated to the clerks, but by the mid-1950s, at 589999, they had caught up with the clerks’ batch and were obliged to leap-frog it to a new series, having trained a far greater number of boys and continued training throughout the period 1942-47 when the clerks’ scheme was dormant.
By the time I had completed my training and was in so-called ‘man’s service’, these early apprentice clerks were senior people, whether commissioned or as warrant officers and senior NCOs, and were running the RAF’s administrative centres worldwide as staff officers, often at a very senior level, or as chief clerks. At warrant officer level, it was said that a handful of ex-apprentice clerks at the RAF Record Office, the eight ‘home’ commands and the four overseas commands, were in effective control of the RAF’s administration worldwide, occasionally taking a sideways shuffle as they all moved round one. Many other former apprentice clerks were wing commanders and group captains, filling posts at Command HQs as Senior Personnel Staff Officers and the like, and a few reached air rank. Their influence on the smooth-running of things administrative was huge. These men had written most of the RAF’s accounting and administrative procedures, together with the extensive spot checks and inspections that were stricter even than most banks employed.
As a young secretarial officer, most of my bosses in personnel and accounts in my early years after OCTU seemed to be ex-apprentice clerks, which considering how few of them had been trained at Ruislip provides some indication of the extent to which the administration of the RAF was in their hands. My first boss after commissioning was a very senior flight lieutenant ex-apprentice clerk in his late 40s. He knew more about PI than anyone I had met before or did afterwards. His knowledge of everything administrative was also encyclopaedic to the point where at this small operational base, an OCU, he was effectively the Deputy Station Commander. His superiors in rank were all pilots on ground tours, and the Station Commander took no decisions of an administrative nature without first consulting him. At my next station the Senior Administrative Officer, a squadron leader, was another ex-apprentice clerk. He had trained as a pay accountant and in his case knew more about accounts than anyone I had met previously. To watch him adding up a column of figures with nothing more technical than a sharpened pencil was a joy to behold. His deputy was another ex-apprentice clerk, who had been a pilot during the war.
Others also became aircrew. On graduating as a junior technician, and having been recommended for aircrew training, I went to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Homchurch for medical and aptitude assessment. Sadly, my eyesight let me down, but a kindly warrant officer at the Record Office, who knew I was going up for assessment and whom I had come to know through our almost daily telephone talks about the posting of men from Wittering, where I was then briefly based, to Christmas Island for the British nuclear tests, consoled me by suggesting that I should apply for ‘Special Duties Overseas’, something I had never heard of. He needed urgently to fill a vacancy for a personal clerk to a senior officer at Headquarters Far East Air Force, and if my application under the relevant Air Ministry Order, happened to land on his desk within the next 48 hours, he would take it as fortuitous that his need had been met. Days later he told me he had received my application, but I would have to attend for a selection interview at the Record Office. When I arrived I was ushered into an interview room to be confronted by two squadron leaders and a warrant officer seated behind a table. (Bear in mind that I was still only 18 years of age!) As soon as I was seated and had taken my hat off, one of them, reading from my application, said, ‘I see you have a 59 number – you’re an ex-apprentice?’ When I said yes, he waved his hand in front of all three of them and said, ‘So are we’. They then asked a few questions to test my clerical knowledge, reminisced about their time as apprentices, and then said, ‘Well, everything seems to be in order; you’re in’, shook my hand and sent me off to pack my things at Wittering, complete a PV clearance and prepare to be flown by charter flight to Singapore. For years afterwards, I used to joke that it was the nearest thing 1 ever came across in the RAF to a ‘Masonic handshake’: but, they knew my background, knew the training processes I had completed (I came top of my course) and had the confidence to send me off at 18 years of age to be PA to a senior officer and the corporal in charge of the top secret registry at HQ FEAF.
The apprentice clerk training scheme remained dormant from 1942 until 1947 when an Administrative Apprentice Training School (AATS) was formed at St Athan (moving to Hereford in the mid-1950s). The apprentice clerk service numbering system continued from where it had left off in 1942, restarting at 592081. Entry numbers, however, started afresh and so by January 1956 given three intakes a year and nine years later, when I joined, AATS Entry numbers had reached the 27th. This was always something of a bone of contention with Halton apprentices when we met at sporting fixtures, as they regarded us as apprentice newcomers, whereas, as we would quickly point out, we were really the 88th Entry of apprentice clerks and would have been in an even higher numbered entry had our school not closed for five years between 1942 and 1947, whereas Halton had not! It was never quite clear why the decision was taken in 1947 not to continue the entry numbers in sequence as happened with Service Numbers. It may have been because of the inclusion for the first time of suppliers (Equipment Branch apprentices), as well as clerks and accountants.
My apprentice number, issued in January 1956, was just over a thousand on from the 592080 at which numbers had stopped when the scheme was put into mothballs in 1942, and, as I say, I was in the 27th post-war entry of apprentices. Several of my instructors were themselves pre-war apprentice clerks, including one who had trained in the final intake at Ruislip, the 61st, before the school had closed. There was, thus, a strong sense of continuity within this small clerical fellowship. Another of our instructors, a flight sergeant clerk, was an ex-Pathfinder with a DFC; he had been commissioned as aircrew during WW Il but returned to his ground trade as an NCO after the war.
In the post-war era we were trained, of course, like all apprentices, in the ‘advanced’ trades of our respective trade groups,” with the concomitant option of progressing on either the command or the technician promotion routes if we so chose, subject, in the case of technician promotion, to passing an examination and spending a minimum period of time in each rank. By the time I was commissioned, I had passed my senior technician examination and had turned my corporal’s tapes upside down as a corporal technician.
In the privately-published ‘The 2080 – A Record of Service – The Apprentice Clerks 590001 to 592080′ it is recorded that of the 2,080 clerks trained by 1942: 819 were commissioned (four reaching air rank); 1,061 were warrant officers or senior NCOs; 455 served as aircrew; 318 were awarded decorations or distinctions and 276 were killed in action or on active service.
The post-war AATS lasted until 1963 when, what with RAF numbers falling rapidly as stations closed, the withdrawal from east of Suez beginning to bite and national service ending, the school was closed, the last intake being the 46th Entry which began its training at Bircham Newton and graduated from Hereford in August 1963. For a decade after that, boy entrant clerks, renamed apprentices, completed a shorter – even than the boy entrant – one year course in what had formerly been a ‘skilled’ trade, and were issued with Service Numbers from the old apprentice clerk block, in intakes/entries numbered between 301 and 330, before that school too closed. This third phase was, however, in reality a reduced, skilled-trade training course rather than a continuation of the old advanced-trade apprentice course. I can say this with some confidence as, after almost four years as an instructor at the boy entrant school, I helped draft and write the syllabus and training manual for the new reduced and shortened course, before departing for OCTU.
A quick count through a ten year old list of members of the Administrative Apprentice Association – not exhaustive, of course, as many former apprentices have not joined – reveals at least 35 decorations and awards, including an AFC and bar, plus numerous degrees and professional qualifications. The apprentice selection processes obviously worked.
There is a good case, therefore, while some of us are still around, to remember this history to put together a record or presentation of the role apprentice clerks served in creating the administrative processes that served the RAF well from the 1920s to the age of computers half a century later.