MEMORIES OF LIFE AS A TRENCHARD BRAT
With nearly three hundred others I joined the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice at RAF Halton on 17th September 1956 as a member of the 84th Entry. We were some of the many thousands of Trenchard’s Brats that passed through the hallowed RAF Aircraft Apprentice training grounds of Halton.
Lord Trenchard, father of the Royal Air Force founded the RAF Apprenticeship scheme which was launched in October 1919. Selection examinations were held around the country and in January 1920, the 1st Apprentice Entry comprising 235 recruits began their three year apprenticeship at RAF Cranwell, whilst permanent accommodation was being completed at RAF Halton.
The RAF Apprenticeship scheme came to an end with the graduation of the 155th Entry in 1993. During the 71 years of Apprentice Training at RAF Halton over 40,000 Aircraft Apprentices successfully graduated. Among them is a holder of the Victoria Cross, four recipients of the George Cross, 220 were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 249 won the Distinguished Flying Medal. Approximately, twenty per cent of Apprentices were commissioned during their service careers, and a considerable number achieved Air rank. Whatever their former rank, ex-members of the scheme are very proud indeed to be known as "Trenchard's Brats".
Humour was, and doubtless still is, an essential part of Royal Air Force life. I spent 33 years in the RAF. Throughout my service career I cannot remember the bad times, only good ones. Humour offset memories of bad times. The phrase: “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined” was constantly voiced in unpleasant and trying circumstances. Humour was important for morale. It certainly acted as a bonding force amongst the apprentices as we adapted to and accommodated the realities of discipline and service life in our formative years. With gentle humour in mind the following captures some of my memories of life as a Brat.
How It All Started
When I was born my father was aged 57. I entered Grammar School at 10 and at 15 gained a sufficient number of GEC ‘O’ levels, including Mathematics, English and a science subject to study for ‘A’ levels. However, at the time my father was 72 years old and could not afford to keep me in sixth form. My uncle had served for 26 years in the RAF, starting as an Aircraft Apprentice at Halton so we had family experience of the life. The title page of brochure advertising life as a RAF apprentice is shown below. I had a great interest in aircraft and opted to join the RAF as a Trenchard Brat.
Arriving At RAF Halton
I was brought up in a small village in North Wales. To join the Brats I travelled by train to London arriving in Euston. From there I transferred to Baker Street to catch the train to Wendover.
At Wendover we were met by RAF staff and transported to RAF Halton by bus, similar to the one shown below.
A tale exists within Brat circles of would be Brats being met at Wendover by apprentices from the senior entry who escorted them to Halton, first having collected fares for the bus journey. It didn’t happen on my journey but it probably had at sometime in the past!
My first major memory is that of the medical. We were measured, weighed, tested and prodded. Injections were the order of the day with the occasional future Brat turning green and then temporarily departing this world when faced with the sight of a needle.
It Took All Kinds
Brats joined the RAF between the ages of 15 and 17½. They came from all over the UK and parts of the Commonwealth. At Halton there were apprentices from Burma, Ceylon, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Venezuela together with RAF apprentices from many Commonwealth countries. Some cap badges and shoulder flashes are shown below.
Young men between the ages of 15 and 17½ joined as Brats for a 3 year course; they had a commitment to serve for 12 years after reaching the age of 18. We faced our future in different ways. Many were apprehensive, some quietly confident, others smug. A few were cynical, occasionally aloof, at first quite a lot worried bordering at times on being frightened of the future. It took all kinds to be one of Trenchard’s Brats.
The next event that made a major impact was ‘Kitting Out’. In the clothing stores, an area that reeked of mothballs, we were issued with every article of clothing ‘for the use of’ deemed necessary to sustain and support us through our life at Halton. The Station tailor made precision measurements of various parts of us that ultimately led to issue of a uniform that was a precision fit!
If The Cap Fits
Berets came in all shapes and sizes when we were first kitted out. It took some time to get them moulded to our heads.
Wings and Squadrons
There were three apprentice wings at Halton, each with three squadrons. Each squadron was housed in two six-roomed, three-storey barrack blocks. Two blocks were allocated per squadron to accommodate occupants of numbers 1 and 2 flights.
Members of Number 1 Wing wore a red disk behind the cap badge. Number 2 Wing’s disc was blue and Number 3 Wing’s yellow/orange. SD Caps sported red, blue or yellow/orange hat bands.
A coloured disk behind the Apprentice Wheel Badge, worn on the left sleeve, indicated the Squadron: red was number 1, green number 2 and blue number 3.
The apprentices had a NCO rank structure. Basically the Leading Apprentice, known as a Snag, was in charge of a room, a Corporal in charge of a landing, a Sergeant in charge of a block and the Flight Sergeant in charge of the Wing. We also had a Warrant Officer Apprentice in charge of the entry.
Our first three weeks in the RAF were spent in the ‘Rook Block’ where the initial efforts were made to transform us into some form of elementary Aircraft Apprentices. A lot of the work involved being taught basic drill movements. This involved the Drill Sergeant armed with a Pace Stick and ‘talking’ to us in a very loud voice. One instance of being ‘asked’ to be quiet while on parade was deafening.
One important element of drill involved the act of saluting an officer; that is recognition of the Queen’s Commission. This involved bringing the right arm up smartly with a circular motion to the head, followed by moving the right hand down smartly to the side by the shortest route.
On one occasion within a few days of joining the RAF I witnessed one fellow new Brat facing the presence of two oncoming officers, one to his left and one to his right. You could almost see the ‘thinks bubbles’ - “What do I do?” Without hesitation both hands simultaneously gave immaculate salutes, due respect and recognition was given to both officers, albeit this particular approach did not fully accord with the RAF’s drill manual.
The standard haircut was short back and sides. This was in the time that the Tony Curtis and DA hairstyles were coming into fashion. The modern world looked to longish hair on men; the RAF maintained the short back and sides as a fashion statement.
We had one shilling a month (5p in modern currency) extracted from our pay for haircuts. The drill sergeant made sure that we got value for money. As we became bolder we used to bribe the hairdresser with one shilling so as not to have short back and sides. Life was unfair as the drill sergeant continued to make sure that we got value for our money!
Marching to the Mess
During the first few weeks as apprentices we had to carry our mug together with knife, fork and spoon (known as Irons) clutched firmly in the right hand behind the back.
I witnessed the same action many years later when, as an officer I had to visit a Young Offenders’ prison (at one time known as Borstal) where one of my airmen was a guest of the HM Prison Service. I arrived at lunchtime to see a flight of young offenders marching with mug, with knife, fork and spoon (collectively known in my apprentice time as Irons) clutched firmly in the right hand behind the back! To think that I had volunteered to be a Brat with a requirement to carry my mug and irons in such a manner; these young people were certainly not volunteers. At times life has some unusual twists.
Rooms and Pit Space
We lived 20 to a room, with 10 on each side. Our domain in that room was limited to our bed space; we called our bed the pit so we only had pit space to call our own. A locker held some articles of clothing; the draw in it held our personal effects. We used our locker top as a table top for writing while we sat on the edge of the bed. We had a wardrobe in which to hang our uniforms. Bed packs were made every morning with folded sheets forming layers between folded blankets.
The Leading Apprentice in charge of the room prepared and issued a list of room jobs against each occupant. They included cleaning the ablutions, toilets, stairs and landings, the barrack block surroundings and the shower to name a few. The junior members of the room had the most unpleasant jobs. The work was carried out each morning before we left for Workshops or Schools.
Bull Night and Inspection
Friday night was bull night in preparation for inspection on Saturday morning. Windows were cleaned by hanging out of the room concerned; such an action would doubtless not be tolerated in the current HSE climate. Boots were bulled. Dollops of orange coloured floor polish were spread on the floor, rubbed in and then bumpered to produce a mirror-like finish on the brown lino. These activities are just a handful of the overall work undertaken. Come Saturday morning all that we felt like doing was falling asleep which would not have gone down well during the inspection.
Every week we were subjected to the delights of Physical Training (PT). Dressed in RAF shorts, coloured a very dark blue, we faced the elements in all weathers under the direction of Physical Training Instructors (PTIs).
On one winter’s day when snow was thick on the ground the PTIs assembled members of the Wing on the square; we were dressed in overalls and boots. They took us for a cross country run, ending up on the playing fields where we held a massive snowball fight. Gradually two teams developed, one of about 800 apprentices versus the other of about 8 PTIs!
Wednesday afternoon was allocated to sports. Opportunities for sport were plentiful; soccer and rugby in the winter, cricket and athletics in the summer. Swimming, boxing, judo, fencing. cross-country running - opportunities seemed endless. Of course if nothing took our fancy and if we could get away with it, a very rare opportunity on a Wednesday afternoon, we could always resort to Egyptian PT.
Halton Apprentices were offered training as fitters in the trade of Airframe, Armament, Engine, Electrical (Air), Electrical (Ground), Instrument (General) and Instrument (Navigation).
Three days of the week were devoted to Workshops where we had lectures followed by practical sessions. Each class held about 20 apprentices. The desks were long wooden structures as shown below. The practical session shown below portray removal of a jet engine turbine. The lecture session shown covers one of a Hunter aircraft’s systems.
For one and a half days each week we attended school in what is now Kermode Hall. We were taught Mathematics, Engineering Science, Mechanics, Engineering Drawing and General Studies. Some apprentices gained and Ordinary National Certificate, some studied for City and Guilds while others attained the RAF Educational Certificate qualification.
We faced lots of theory and then attempted to put it into practice in laboratory work where we had to unravel the mysteries of sophisticated equipment and machinery. Also we faced mastering the intricacies of the Slide Rule.
Marching to and from Workshops and School
Members of each Wing marched to and from workshops and the School every day; down in the morning, back at lunchtime, down after lunch and back in the evening.
Warrant Officer Bollard
One man who doubtless stands out in the minds of many apprentices of my era must be Warrant Officer Joe Bollard, the Station Warrant Officer (SWO). He was the discipline king pin at Halton. He could spot the need of a haircut, pick out an apprentice not swinging his arms and recognise an un-pressed uniform from great distances. Each selected erring apprentice had to report to him during lunchtime. This gave the apprentice concerned time to march to lunch, suffer indigestion eating it in the few minutes available before hurrying to keep the SWO’s invitation. Always immaculately turned out, Mr Bollard made a life-long impression on apprentices under his charge.
Pay parades took place weekly. Number 1 Wing split the parade into two sections. Those with surname initials A to K were paid on the top floor of the NAAFI. Surnames L to Z were paid in the gymnasium. The procedure was that a name was called, the person concerned stepped forward stating “Sir” adding the last three digits of his service number. He saluted and received his pay.
My surname meant that I was paid at the end of A to K batch; in fact I was the very last to be paid. I always feared that by the time payment got to me the paying officer would have run out of money.
Charges and Jankers
Punishment was administered if an apprentice committed a minor breach of discipline. The process started with someone being placed on a charge. The alleged offence was entered on a Charge Report (RAF Form No. 252).
An officer heard the charge. The accused was marched into the hearing without wearing a hat; this could be used as a weapon. He was accompanied by an escort, who wore a hat. Witnesses were summoned one by one to give evidence. Also present was the Orderly Room SNCO. Before the officer considered if there was a case to answer the accused was given an opportunity to make a statement.
If the accused was found guilty the punishment handed out might be a few days of restrictions, that is ‘Jankers’, a term for an official punishment. The unfortunate on ‘Jankers’ had to wear full webbing kit and report to the guardroom at various times during the day for inspection by the Orderly Officer. Restrictions also included a couple of hours of fatigues, normally cleaning duties, every evening.
Lewis the Goat
The history behind having goats as mascots at RAF Halton dates back to World War Two when the Royal Welch Fusiliers left their goat Lewis with the RAF Apprentices when they were sent to the front. The RAF Apprentices adopted the goat and the history continued until 1993 when the last RAF Apprentice entry graduated.
During the long periods of standing still while on parade my mind wandered to many things. One thought was what if Lewis the Goat broke loose, what would happen?
We had a break mid morning and mid afternoon where the NAAFI wagon offered refreshments, including the famous (in Brat circles) Nelson. It was a square of very solid bread and butter pudding topped with a layer of pink icing. It was the nearest thing in the 1950s to a black hole – it was so dense. Inevitably there was always a rush to get to the wagon.
In the days when Television sets were few and far between on camp the Astra cinema, located in a white 1930s building, offered film entertainment and an escape from the daily Brat routine. Always evident was the roar and shouts of “Good Old Fred” as Fred Quimby’s name came up on the credits for ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons.
Another recurring incident was the response to a notice being flashed on the screen during a film show. Inevitably it asked the Orderly Corporal to report to the Booking Office. This was always met with a loud response; “He’s Gone to the Pictures!”
The Court School of Dancing
Quite a few apprentices in our era were ‘graduates’ of the Courts School of Dancing in Aylesbury just opposite the Queen’s Head pub. The motive was straight forward. Being healthy young men we had a natural interest in meeting young ladies. One sure way of doing so was to learn to dance. So we enrolled at the dancing school albeit initial efforts were clouded by having parade ground feet which left many a girl’s toes bruised. However, with patience on the part of the dance instructors we eventually became passable dancing partners.
At the dancing school romances bloomed and often faded. However, some flourished. One of our entry members married a girl he met at the Court School of Dancing. He retired as a Wing Commander and lives with his wife in southern Germany.
And So to Sleep
Apprentices lived 20 to a room in large three-storey, six-roomed barrack blocks built on the edge of the parade square. It was a daunting experience living in such surrounds. The room housed members of each entry; nine entries were resident at Halton. The senior entry members slept at the end of the room, the junior entry members near the door. As entries graduated members moved up the room to make way for incoming juniors. Lights out were at 10.30 pm at which time it didn’t take long before sleep embraced a room’s occupants, unless Slim Turner exposed us to a ghost story on the camp radio.
Slim Turner was a SIB Corporal in the RAF Police. He lived on base. After duty he operated the camp radio system that was piped through to a speaker in very barrack room. About once a term after lights out he would read a ghost story. Imagine the scene. Each barrack room is shrouded in darkness. Twenty apprentices in each room could not fail to hear the story. Inevitably it related to some ghostly occurrence purported to have occurred somewhere on camp. One I remember involved a ghostly occurrence in a barrack block’s ‘drying room’ where under certain conditions blood could be seen seeping up through the floor while accompanied by the noise of chains being dragged along the floor. After the story even the most macho apprentice in a room would not take an after lights out trot to the bog which was near to the drying room.
Quite a few apprentices became accomplished musicians. Each Wing had a pipe band and a core of trumpeters. The Apprentices also fielded a military band.
Daily we marched from the Wings to workshops or schools and back again; in the morning, back for lunch and out again led by pipe bands and drums to return in the evening. On parade days we also marched to the military band.
In July 1958 we spent two weeks at RAF Woodvale, on Summer Camp. We marched to the railway station at Tring from where we transported to Woodvale halt by train. From there we marched to RAF Woodvale, a coastal airfield in sand dune country, about 6 miles South of Southport, on the Lancashire coast. Living in 6-man tents for 2 weeks, we spent the days engaged in various pursuits such as route marches, map reading, sport, firing rifles and bren guns, military exercises by day and night and flying around the local area in Ansons. Off duty we chased the girls in Southport. Liverpool was also nearby but incidents of polio there placed it off limits. Throughout the day we wore overalls, after duty uniform.
In the 1950s relatively few people travelled by air. Flying offered a very new experience to most of us. My first opportunity came during our Summer Camp at RAF Woodvale when I, and many others, took to the air for the very first time in a Royal Air Force Avro Anson, registration VP 509. The Anson is shown struggling to get into the air and then chugging its way through the sky.
There were also opportunities to fly at Halton, either by gliding or with flights in DH Chipmunks based at the airfield.
The final part of our three year training course covered the ‘Airfields’ phase. The airfields were located near Halton village.
The verb “To Trog” probably originated at Halton. It describes the act of marching without swinging arms, really more of a slouch. On reaching this final phase of our training we were issued with the coveted ‘Trog Mac’, a coat made out of some black plastic type material that had its own very distinctive smell. It was a memorable day when we were issued with them. We were the senior entry and the ‘Trog Mac’ was worn with pride to impress junior entries. The fashion was to have one far too long so that it almost reached the ground. We marched to and from the airfield without swinging our arms, that is we trogged in our ‘Trog Macs’.
In the airfield phase we applied what we had learnt to real live aircraft. The machines faced removal of propellers and engines; they were inspected, armed, repaired, towed and pondered over. We moved aircraft, we marshalled them. At long last we were within the realms of the real live world of aircraft.
Aircraft on the airfield included Mosquitoes, Meteors, Swifts, a Valetta, a Brigand and a Lincoln. In the hangars there were Canberras, Hunters and a Javelin.
The riggers had the opportunity to try their hand at jacking aircraft. For the engine fitters, the Sooties, there was a cockpit classroom. This was a Beaufighter aircraft nose fitted to a shed that offered hands on engine testing opportunities on Bristol Hercules engines. For each run a ‘volunteer’ had to prime the engine by pumping a ‘Kigas’ fuel pump located in the port undercarriage bay beneath the engine. The ‘volunteer’ was encompassed in engine smoke as the engine burst into life and he was then exposed to the powerful airstream. When the engine was running he had to gently withdraw himself from under the aircraft with a propeller spinning within a short distance of his head.
During the airfield phase we had a chance to hone our skills. Armourers removed and fitted ‘bang seats’, loaded weapons and tested guns. Electricians chased wiggly amps. Instrument bashers fitted and tested a multitude of sensors and indicators. Riggers patched holes, fixed flying controls and sorted out hydraulic systems. Sooties changed plugs, removed engines, replenished oil systems and generally got dirty. The phase showed us that some tasks were dirty, some mentally challenging, some physically demanding and that some could lead to frightening situations. In certain cases we made mistakes, and hopefully learnt from them. A SNCO was always on hand to ensure our safety.
During our airfield phase DH Comet G-ALYT was delivered to Halton as a training aircraft for RAF apprentices. Flown in by the famous WW2 ex-RAF night fighter pilot Group Captain Cunningham it was doubtless a hazardous operation to land the Comet on a short, grass airfield.
The Future We Faced
In July 1959 we completed our apprentice training and departed Halton to work in the big wide RAF world. In those days there were RAF bases all over the World including Aden, Borneo, Cyprus, Gan, Germany, Gibraltar, Libya, Malaya, Malta and Singapore. Aircraft were many and varied: Argosies, Beverleys, Britannias, Canberras, Hunters, Meteors, Swifts, Shackletons, Vampires, Varsities, Valiants, Victors and Vulcans, to name a handful. As time progressed other aircraft came on the scene such as Buccaneers, C130s, Jaguars, Phantoms, Tornadoes and VC10s and helicopters such as the Sea King and Puma.
Some aircraft types worked on by members of our entry through their service careers are shown below.
84th Entry Badge
Each entry designed its own entry badge. Our entry’s badge is shown below.
84th Entry Window
In 1997 Rev Richard Lee, the RAF C of E Padre at St Georges Church, Halton at the time, suggested that the RAF Halton Aircraft Apprentices Association (RAF HAAA) encouraged its members to install stained glass windows in the church to commemorate their time as Brats. The RAF HAAA bought into the idea and soon windows, depicting entry numbers, wing colours, entry badges, famous (and infamous!), entry activities and a host of other events were appearing in glorious coloured glass: each telling something of an entry’s time at Halton. Our entry’s window is shown below.
The stained glass window in St George’s church is shown below. Any attempt to paint the window would not do it justice; a cartoon would lower its dignity. Consequently it’s shown as is. It really is a magnificent tribute to Trenchard’s Brats.
Website http://www.oldhaltonians.co.uk/pages/rememb/windows/windows.htm carries a picture of each of the windows installed in St George’s church with many accompanied by an associated description.
Since our days as Brats many of us have attended a number of RAF Halton Aircraft Apprentice Association reunions. Group Captain Christine Elliot was appointed Station Commander at Royal Air Force Halton only a few days before the triennial reunion held on 25 September 2010. She was the first woman to be appointed Officer Commanding at RAF Halton.
Facing hundreds of aged juveniles in the form of ‘Trenchard’s Brats’ must have been a daunting experience. However, the event was met with extreme grace, a friendly smile and good humour.
I decided to capture the reunion march past in cartoon form. I sent the original to Group Captain Elliot as a memento. It portrays, with gentle humour, a lengthy march past with some ex-Brats out of step but still giving their best in respect of the Station Commander, as a tribute to Halton and to honour those no longer on parade.
The Last Man Left in the Air Force
Someone recently sent me the following, written by ex RAF Master Signaller P. I. Fisher (also an ex Brat) under the nom de plume “Peter Wyton”. I find it extremely amusing.