This is My Life as an Aircraftman

The War Illustrated, Volume 5, No. 111, Page 260, November 10, 1941.

Much have we read and listened to concerning the splendid achievements of the flying crews of the R.A.F. Here for a change is an article describing the life of one of the ground staff. It is written by a Volunteer Reserve Aircraftman, and his experiences may be taken as typical of thousands of those men on whom the efficiency of the R.A.F. so largely depends.

It was in November 1939 that I joined the R.A.F. In civil life Iíd been a journalist, and, having a hankering after a little excitement and variety, I volunteered at my local recruiting depot as a pilot. But they didn't want pilots just then, they were swamped out with applications and they'd a six months waiting list. So I volunteered and was accepted as wireless operator, aircrew. But it didn't materialize, for at the last minute the recruiting people persuaded me to enlist as a teleprinter operator.

After that I signed one or two official documents passed my medical exam, quite satisfactorily, and a few days later I was off to one of the big R.A.F. receiving depots where recruits are clothed and kitted and sorted out generally. A week later, inoculated, completely uniformed, and plus a hefty kitbag containing an amazing assortment of necessary items, I found myself, with hundreds of others, at a recruits training depot. Here we went through an intensive course of foot and rifle drill which straightened our backs and taught us something of the discipline demanded in the services.

New Year saw me at my trade training centre, a vast encampment miles from anywhere, which, with 12,000 airmen to cater for, is absolutely self-contained. There's an excellent camp cinema, two or three very lively N.A.A.F.L canteens, and extensive playing fields. We worked hard and played hard; and by now, hardened to the vigorous R.A.F. life, I really began to feel the benefit of that intensive preliminary training. Quite honestly, I don', think I'd ever felt fitter in my life; and after those early rigorous days I was beginning to appreciate small comforts that hitherto I had never even noticed. It was exactly like going to school all over again. Between classes held in centrally heated wooden huts we marched in groups from one hut to another to the accompaniment of military marches relayed through loudspeakers. We lived first in huts and later in stone barrack blocks. The huts were remarkably snug, with a coal stove at each end of the room; but personally I preferred the old stone barrack blocks, which held as many as 60 men in each and which were centrally heated. By this time I had learnt how to utilize my five blankets and two sheets to the best advantage, and I became so used to sleeping on one of those iron bedsteads which we call "McDonalds" that I found an ordinary bed difficult to sleep on when I went home on leave.

Having completed our course satisfactorily, we were posted to stations in all parts of the country, and I was marked down for the headquarters of one of the Bomber Command groups. Here the whole concern is a hive of activity and the signals section, of which teleprinting is an important part, works at high pressure 24 hours a day. The signals section of the R.A.F. is undoubtedly one of the most interesting-not to say one of the most important in the service. Messages arrive from and are dispatched to the most remote parts of the country by wireless, telephone, and teleprinter. The teleprinter system, which is maintained by the G.P.O., affords the R.A.F. that essential secrecy which is called for by a continuous stream of vital communications which must be passed from centre to centre accurately and rapidly.

The average layman can have no idea of the innumerable varied trades that constitute the extensive R.A.F. ground organization. Just as Britain is often referred to as a nation of shopkeepers, so the R.A.F. might well be described as a service of tradesmen. Every non-flying airman adopts a particular trade on enlistment and he receives, as I did, a full training in his special branch at one of the instructional centres. He becomes, therefore, a specialist, and he is graded and paid according to his trade classification. Among the best-paid trades in the R.A.F., for which the highest quality of workmanship is demanded, are those of instrument maker and wireless operator mechanic. Particularly skilled fitters are also highly-paid tradesmen, as are metal workers and riggers. An aircraftman second class (Group J) is paid 3s. 9d a day, an aircraftman first class 4s 6d, a leading aircraftman 5s 6d a day, a corporal 7s 6d a day, and so on. In addition, of course, every serviceman now gets an allowance of 6d a day for cigarettes.

Another special group comprises such assorted trades as cook and butcher, coppersmith and motor-boat crew, and another group includes clerks, for a variety of duties, and equipment assistants. Yet another category consists of no fewer than nineteen different trades ranging from acetylene welder to photographer. A trade in this group which undoubtedly has an important place in bomber squadrons is that of armourer; armourers fit the bombs to our heavy aircraft. Wireless operators, who also come under this group, are the only air crew who are graded as tradesmen. There are, of course many ground operators as well. In the same class as motor transport drivers, which covers both car and motorcycle dispatch riders, are aircraft hands who are engaged on a variety of general duties which range from ground defence to telephone operating. A separate category includes the various specialist assistants engaged in medical duties.

At the End of a Day's Work

With almost every trade represented in its ranks, not only is the whole of the R.A.F. practically self-supporting, but at the same time it keeps its personnel au fait with what are chiefly civil life occupations.

Naturally camp life is on the whole a plain kind of existence, but there's more life and variety under the surface than might be imagined. Most of us sleep in stone barracks specially constructed as living quarters. Each room is fitted with a wireless, so that in the evenings, when our day's work is over groups of airmen are always to be found taking their ease, listening to the wireless, reading, writing, playing cards, or just talking in what are both their living and sleeping quarters. Then there is always the N.A.A.F.I. restaurant, where there are special reading and writing rooms, in addition to the forever busy canteen, where hot meals are in demand in the evening.

But although it can be very pleasant to spend one's evenings leisurely in camp, we all look forward to, and appreciate, a few precious hours away from the scene of our daily labours. It is refreshing indeed to renew contact with civil life to see a film, visit a theatre, forgather at the local pub, or merely to stroll anywhere, drinking in the sight of civil life still in full swing.

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