From 1968 until being posted to Warsaw in 1970, I was PA to two Air Officers Engineering at HQ Strike Command High Wycombe. I would like to tell you a little about the first of these, Air Vice-Marshal William Daniel Disbrey. My approach to dealing with senior officers was definitely honed as a result of working with this particular AVM. Recently I gave some thought to just how many of us who had the privilege to be chosen to work closely with an Air Ranking senior officer actually knew very much about their bosses earlier RAF career and their path to the achievment of high rank.
When I worked for him, I must confess I knew very little about him other than he was the AOEng, that he was a stickler for detail and did not suffer fools gladly. In fact until recently that remained the case so I decided to do a bit of research on the internet. I discovered that AVM Disbrey’s RAF career was to put it mildly, impressive. I remember him as someone who was close to retirement and could be somewhat grumpy at times. He also dictated close to 100 wpm reading from his pre-prepared longhand drafts. My shorthand although pretty good, technical papers were often complex. When he had finished dictating, to my constant chagrin he would invariably tear up the draft, leaving me occasionally having to delve into his wastepaper basket to retrieve the odd words or phrases I had either misheard or had not taken down correctly!
My approach to dealing with senior officers was definitely honed as a result of working with this particular AVM. Like most PAs I felt it necessary to put my foot down now and again, particularly when I felt I was being criticised unfairly eg the coffee was not hot enough or I was not immediately available when he required my services. I would always respond by saying ‘with all due respect sir but could I just say…’ to avoid any hint of insubordination (and with my annual assessment very much in mind)! That usually worked although even when he conceded to my protest this would usually be a rather dismissive grunt of reluctant acceptance of my protestestations of innocence. Air Vice Marshals would not often want to be seen to admit they had been perhaps, a little hard on a mere Sergeant!
Air Vice-Marshal William Daniel Disbrey, C.B., C.B.E., A.F.C., C. Eng., F.I.Mech.E., F.R.Ae.S joined the RAF in 1928 as an apprentice, later winning a cadetship at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1931. At Cranwell, he attained the rank of Flight Cadet Sergeant. As a pilot he survived several flying accidents two of which were while flying the Bristol Bulldog. In my opinion, his most notable flying achievements were in 1934 when he flew with No.823 Squadron Fleet Air Arm, carrying out 270 deck landings, 33 at night, mainly on HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious (the latter was later sunk in 1940 by German destroyers alongside her escorts). 14 of those night deck landings were operational flights carried out out during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1936. His work flying with the Fleet Air Arm greatly added to the development of deck landings.
During WWII he served as an Engineering Officer at 13 Fighter Group and Headquarters Fighter Commend and later undertook Engineer Planning Duties for Invasion of Europe. He reached the rank of AVM in 1965 and was AOEng at HQ Strike Command when I joined his staff 1968. After leaving the service in 1970 he joined Airwork Services as a technical manager in Saudi Arabia. He died in 2001.
I am sure I was not unique in sometimes having become a little exasperated with our bosses but at the time I was working for AVM Disbrey, I had no real knowledge of his long and distinguished career as an accomplished pilot and engineer. Looking back now, I wish I had taken the time to find out more about him. If I had I would not have raised an eyebrow and said ‘but with all due respect sir are you serious’, when he first asked me to put in a 1771 travel claim for sixpence, (a return ferry trip) after returning from a weekend at his private residence in Norfolk. ‘Yes Sergeant I am’ he retorted ‘and here is the receipt’.