Back in August 1970 I completed my 14 year enlistment and departed RAF Church Fenton as a half-decent Clerk Secretarial setting out for S. Martin’s College in Lancaster hoping to become a half-decent secondary schoolmaster. At the time I probably thought my involvement with the Royal Air Force had irrevocably come to an end. It was not to be.
After 4 years at College and 4 years as a General Subjects teacher in Garstang, Lancashire I moved on promotion to become Head of Department at an all-girls’ school in West Yorkshire (Big Mistake!) Once the teething troubles of my department had been sorted out and my exam courses were flourishing, I rashly responded to a newspaper advert in the Daily Telegraph seeking adult staff for the Air Training Corps. I could claim this was motivated by a desire to ‘give something back’ (as celebrities are prone to saying) but that would unfairly flatter me, while my own brief experience as a cadet with No. 219 (Sutton & Cheam) Squadron was but a distant memory.
Suffice it to say I was shortly taken on as CI (Civilian Instructor) with No. 185 (Batley) Squadron, leading on to commissioning in 1985 and just over 12 years’ further service as a junior officer, Squadron CO, and WSO (Wing Staff Officer). My day job (chalk and talk) provided me with generous holidays which in turn provided me with copious opportunities to attend Easter and Summer Camps (24 such Camps in the UK – we had an Air Force in those days – and a further 4 Camps Overseas).
Before wandering down Memory Lane I should perhaps declare my overall considered opinion regarding the relationship between the RAF and the ATC.The Air Force (as I knew it then) had a difficult job to do and can perhaps be forgiven for harbouring some irritation at being designated host to a horde of young boys and girls often under the supervision of people unused to the ways of the Service. The season of Easter and Summer Cadetr Camps impacted on most sections of the Stations selected and brought with them numerous difficulties. In spite of this imposition most – not all – Stations were welcoming and worked hard to give cadets an interesting and valuable week’s experience.
On the other hand, I have always felt that the ATC was a first-class youth organisation offering excellent opportunities to young people, whether contemplating a Service career or not. But I am not a dewy-eyed sentimentalist. These youngsters were representatives of their age and society. They were not all shining examples of immaculate behaviour nor were they beyond reproach. Most were however, and I was always surprised and pleased (not to say proud) at how many of them graduated to maturity during their time with the Corps.
OK, its Memory Lane time. For almost all cadets Annuial Camp was the highlight of the year which offered a variety of activities for them, including:
Flying Shooting Night Exercise Work Experience (?) Camp BBQ (?) Skylarking (optional extra)
My first experience of Camp was at RAF Wittering, quickly followed with Camps at both RAF Turnhouse and RAF Coltishall. Operational Stations were preferred by cadets (understandably) but I quickly learned that the major factor in a successful Camp was the part played by the ACLO (Air Cadet Liaison Officer). The holder of this secondary duty could make or break a Camp. Many were ex-Cadets themselved and became enthusuastically involved with the staff and cadets to the enrichment of the week’s experience for thos attending. I and the cadets of the West Riding Wing owe a great deal to so many of them (sadly, not all, as I hope to show later).
Fying was always a great attraction. The redoubtable Chipmunk provided most cadets’ experience but – especially on operational Stations – it was possible for a lucky few to live the dream in a variety of aircraft. While at RAF Kinloss some of my cadets enjoyed flights in the Nimrod and Shackleton (all 15,000 rivets!). At RAF Church Fenton 3 cadets took part in an early morning flight in a Jet Provost while at RAF Boulmer some flew in the Sea King. The only blot on our escutcheon was the Squadron CO (no names, no pack drill) who bagged a passenger flight in a high-speed jet when the unspoken protocol within the Corps was of the opinion that such a prize should have gone to a cadet!
Shooting was also popular with cadets and – where possible – we provided our own qualified staff to supervise this activity. Having done the course I played my part from time to time and am pleased to put on record that ‘no personnel were harmed during this activity’.
Night Exercises. As Camp Commandant I came to view the ever-popular Nightex with a jaundiced eye. Too often they became an accident looking for a place to happen. At RAF Coltishall one year the two opposing teams of cadets (escapees and defenders) never actually made contact that night, even though the exercise was especially extended! On another occasion cadets returned to their accommodation for their hot soup at midnight, only for the staff to realize that one was missing. The ACLO immediately alerted Station personnel who combed the exercise area and found a very young cadet fast asleep in the middle of a ploughed field!
Work experience may well have been a chore for the Regulars but I found it invaluable for some cadets. To be fair to our parent Service, many sections co-operated willingly and even – on occasion – requested cadets return later in the week. On arrival at one Station one of my young lads expressed the desire toj join the RAF Police and begged me to secure work experience. The Police Flight played their part and he spent much of the week with them in the Guardroom. The effect was to extinguish all such career aspirations and I often wonder what eventually became of him.
The Junior Ranks Messes at most Stations were usually happy to lay on a Friday night BBQ which always went down well. The closest I came to witnessing outright mutiny was when one Camp Commandant (a confirmed bachelor) claimed that cadets didn’t like them and he had no intention of requesting one. Fortinately wiser heads prevailed and a good time was had by one and all.
That last anecdote prompts me to mention how important choosing the right adult staff for Camp can be. Where a Wing has a monopoly on Camp places they can at least exercise sole control over who accompanies cadets. Where staff are necessarily drawn from other Wings (with differing standards and expectations) there is always the prospect of friction. I was lucky and usually knew my staff well and could count on their support. I did however hear of one CI (Civilian Instructor) – not from our Wing – who pulled the “You can’t tell me what to do, I’m a civilian” line in the Sergeants’ Mess. The SWO handed him a railway warrant and he was off the Station that same afternoon.
While at RAF Kinloss one year an elderly CI of our Wing was taken ill, moved to Elgin Hospital but sadly died that week. The Station personnel were first-class at this time of sadness and did all they could for cadets and his family members.
For a select few cadets there was always the possibility of an Overseas Camp. I accompanied them to RAF Wildenrath, RAF Gibraltar, and RAF Gatow (twice). My first visit to Berlin included a ride on the British Military Train from Hanover to the capital, complete with lunch and wine. Cadets on that Camp visited the 1936 Olympic Stadium; Checkpoint Charlie; and had a free lunch in the Reichstag building. Berlin was full of ghosts – a point underlined when a SNCO cadet of Polish origic asked to be excused from going on a planned tour of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. And who can blame him?
And now, briefly, the flip side of ATC/RAF relationships. In 1994 I attended Camp at a non-operational Station in the UK, arriving with the Camp Commandant (from another Wing) to find the ACLO had gone home; cadets could not gain access to their accommodation until a duplicate set of keys were discovered at 7 pm; there was no designated Camp Office nor any means of communication; and the weekly programme was virtually non-existent. I spent much of my time cobbling together a programme on a day-to-day basis. At the end of a frustrating week as Adjutant I wrote my first adverse ACF15 (Camp Report) detailing our disappointment.
The proverbial hit the fan of course and – as I should have predicted – the Station responded by circulating all sections (including the NAAFI) requesting their own adverse reports about us. These were then sent up the chain to the Regional Commandant and I was asked to respond. I wrote a 2-page account pointing out that – in spite of the alleged catalogue of criticism – not one of the sections had made any such complaints during the entire week we were there! I heard nothing more but the episode left a bad taste.
And then – a year later – came RAF Stafford – featuring West Riding Wing and another Wing, with yours truly in charge. I will not go into explicit detail but it was not a happy marriage. A couple of days into the week my staff advised me that cadets from the other Wing had participated – under the supervision of their officer – in an initiation ceremony which they had videoed. The video camera subsequently came into my possession and I passed it – unseen – to the Station Duty Officer (a pipe-smoking long-serving Warrant Officer, thank heavens). I also kept Wing and HQ Air Cadets informed of course but received little in the way of assistance from them. The civilian Police became involved and we got a nice photo and write-up in the ‘Sun’ newspaper (origin unknown). On this occasion the proverbial hit the fan even harder, leaving both me and my staff from West Riding feeling isolated and unloved.
A year later I reluctantly resigned from the Corps, having enjoyed 12 and a half years’ service and 26 or my 28 Camps. I nevertheless left retaining a great deal of respect and admiration for both the RAF and the ATC.