My tour of duty at RAF Khormaksar having come to a premature end in November 1967, I heard I was to be posted to RAF Northolt, again as a mover.
I reported for duty to Sqn Ldr CBRW (‘Mick’) Spaul, and got briefed on my duties - mainly VIP pax handling at Northolt as a Duty Air Movements Officer (DAMO), but also handling VIP and Royal Flights at Heathrow and Gatwick.
Northolt was home at that time to the Metropolitan Communications Squadron (later to become 32 Sqn) equipped with an Andover, a Valetta, Pembrokes, and Sycamore helicopters; and frequently visited by aircraft of every description and many countries, mainly military, but also some civilian, sometimes but not exclusively flying VIPs.
We were also the base for the USAF Convair VT29B which was the personal transport of the then Commander USAF 3rd Air Force, Major General Clyde Box, based just down the road at South Ruislip.
This picture is taken from the front cover of an excellent and comprehensive photo record of Northolt entitled 'The Good old Days, RAF Northolt 1964 - 1972' by Steve Hill, downloadable at iBlurb. The picture shows me meeting an Italian Air Force C119.
RAF Northolt Movements
My fellow movers were Joy Lenny, later to be my wife, Ian Stacey (now of Chicago), whom I replaced, John Larbey and Dave Tweedie.
We were all either Pilot Officers or Flying Officers, and had a small shift of around 5 guys. Our working day was around 0700 until the last movement, although that could be midnight or later.
The Squadron was based in some old prefabricated buildings on the South Side of the airfield, next to the entrance off the A40, and by the Spitfire gate guardian (in the picture at right you can see the original gate guardian, and the Movements building behind and to the left).
Despite this unpromising material, we had a well-appointed VIP lounge, and an office looking out on to the pan, and across the airfield to the Officers' Mess. For the first half of my tour, the Station Commander was Group Captain Peter Hill, a bachelor with a penchant for tennis and golf, and who enjoyed a good party. As the most recent, and most junior arrival on base, I was privileged to become Officer i/c the Mess clock (not on the mantelpiece - up a tower) which required winding weekly; failure to do so attracting lots of extra Orderly Officer duties. I also got the job of Press Liaison Officer, a secondary duty which was to be interesting later.
A typical shift might see a few Pembrokes in and out, either from Northolt or from 60 Sqn based at RAF Wildenrath; an Andover from Benson, perhaps an Italian or Belgian Air Force C119, a USAF T39, maybe even a Wessex from Odiham - from time to time piloted by an old friend from Khormaksar days. A Devon or an RN Heron from Lee-on-Solent might come in. Even an occasional Anson! Again typically, we might be moving a very senior service officer, the Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey, or the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, George Brown, about both of whom more later. We were either very busy or very quiet. During the entire time I was at Northolt, Harold Wilson's Labour Government was in power.
Among the many military VIPs of all three services, there are some who stand out as being particularly memorable. Senior RAF Officers who will not be forgotten include:
Some of these gentlemen had very big personalities to go with their rank. Some had a real human touch. Of all of these Sir 'Gus' Walker (left) made the biggest impression. On arrival in his Pembroke (which he often flew himself) he never forgot to address the DAMO by name, and to converse briefly. Many years later I was seated next to him on a BA flight from Leeds Bradford to Heathrow, and he addressed me by name. Sir Gus had had a remarkable career, and he's worth Googling.
It was always also a pleasure to see Sir Andrew Humphrey, who had been my AOC in Aden and was Air Member for Personnel, then subsequently CinC Strike Command. VIP moves at Heathrow and Gatwick were infrequent, but high pressure, as they were on largely unfamiliar territory.
I certainly remember being involved in Royal and Prime Ministerial visits from both airports, but mostly, BA and the FCO made our efforts rather redundant.
'Mick' Spaul retired shortly after I arrived and was replaced by the very pleasant, but not very well, Flt Lt George McElroy. When George later retired with ill-health, I became acting SAMO, until Peter Hilton was posted in just before I left. Ian Stacey had retired, John Larbey too, I think, and I seem to recall Dave Tweedie just disappeared. The delightful, and fun Jean Dungate was posted in. Political VIPs were interesting - George Brown never refused a visit to the Lounge where large G&Ts were dispensed. On more than one occasion he thanked me for flying him!
Denis Healey was Secretary of State for Defence, and was generally held in high regard for having sorted out Service pay, and seeming to have a real grip on Defence matters generally. He was also generally affable. He often attended Guest Nights at RAF Manby, and one night, very late, he arrived and was met by his driver and official car. Mr Healey got in, but the car wouldn't start. I ushered him to the VIP Lounge while we got MT fired up to drive him.
After about 30 minutes, the RAF Staff car arrived, Mr Healey got in, and against very long odds, it too refused to start. Denis Healey got out and addressing the world in general said 'Typical bloody Labour Government - nothing works!'
Dr David Owen who was Under Secretary of State for the Navy visited fairly often. I was the DAMO when a Royal Navy Gannet arrived to take him for a deck landing on HMS Hermes.
Imagine my surprise and chagrin when, saluting him off, there was a frighteningly huge bang, and large cloud of smoke from the engine - I had no idea the Double Mamba required a cartridge start.
As fate would dictate, I was later responsible for provisioning the spares for this engine.
Many visitors, some VIPs
The Small Faces came through: I didn't know who they were, but certainly their hair was far too long.
Bill Reid VC came through - if you don't know his story, look him up and read the astonishing VC citation. We also had a visit from Sqn Ldr 'Ginger' Lacey DFM and Bar, a genuinely modest hero.
A day to day job was keeping our 2 not so tame Customs Officers happy - Reg Duffield and the legendary 'Bing' Crosby were very helpful, but one never overstepped the mark.
MRAF Lord Elworthy
ACM Sir Thomas Prickett
ACM Sir Kenneth Cross
ACM Sir Lewis Hodges
ACM Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris
ACM Sir Frederick Rosier
MRAF Sir John Grandy
ACM Sir Augustus Walker
ACM Sir Andrew Humphrey
More visiting aircraft included many Nord Noratlases from France and Germany, Nord 262 Frégates of the French Air Force - little did I know that I would fly in both these types when I served as Jaguar Priority Supply Liaison Officer (JPSLO) at Base Aérienne 106, Bordeaux-Mérignac 10 years later. See photos below. The French Air Attaché kept a twin seat Fouga Magister at Northolt for escape when life among us 'rosbifs' became too oppressive.
The Indians came too, in their Super Constellations (see below). The Super Connies were usually parked for about a month at a time, until the crew had assembled the major load of white goods they seemed to have come for.
Nord 262 Frégates
On balance, I was glad I was not responsible for certifying the trim of any of these many visiting aeroplanes. (Please forgive that entirely unintentional, but rather appropriate pun - ‘on balance’, geddit?). CinC AFNORTH visited in the very last RAF Dakota in service.
Still getting those hours in...
I was still trying to get some flying hours in, and in different types if possible. Apart from routine flights in Pembrokes, Bassets and Devons, I persuaded our ace Sycamore pilot Flt Lt John Perry to give me a flight. What he could do with a pretty early type of military helicopter, the first British-made helicopter in RAF Service was amazing, and very scary. I've never forgotten it.
Later I had a flight with Flt Lt Joe Kmiecek in the Squadron Valetta. Joe had been a fighter pilot in WW2, and had flown a Lancaster in the Dambusters film. Watching him pick his way through the cloud formation was a unique distillation of his thousands of hours flying experience.
Joe told me a great story about an AOC's inspection at Bovingdon, where the majority of the aircrew were Polish Master Aircrew, all with many, many hours flying. The AOC was late; the aircrew had been standing by their aircraft for what seemed an age, and were disgruntled. The AOC arrived and started his inspection. Addressing Master Pilot Majciak, the AVM said 'And how long have you been here?' 'All f***ing day, sir!' retorted the intrepid aviator.
Social life at Northolt
RAF Northolt Officers' Mess was a lively place. Apart from fairly raucous 'Happy Hours' on Friday evenings, there was a group of 'livers-in' who kept the place busy during the week too. Having been introduced to croquet at Lyneham, I persuaded the Mess Committee to invest in the equipment which was installed on the lawn right outside the front of the Mess, where it could be illuminated by car headlights after dark.
During one Summer Ball, I shall never forget a very mellow CO demanding that the bar window be opened, then striking a croquet ball with a mallet with extraordinary force and accuracy, right through an 18 inch gap, narrowly missing an astonished lady guest! These Balls were super events, and the custom among the younger element was to head for Heathrow for breakfast (Mess kit and long dresses being de rigueur). In June 1968 we were having post-Ball breakfast there when James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King's assassin) was arrested.
There were some heroic drinkers at Northolt at that time, and I think I will not name them. One story to illustrate the point. A married officer of my acquaintance - I had known him in Aden too, had his dinner delivered by his irate wife to the Officers' Mess bar at about 2300 hours on Friday after a prolonged happy hour. The same guy, while trying to get from South side to North side in the fog in his Ford Anglia, struck a small tree, and burned his clutch out trying to force his way past this unwelcome obstruction, while believing he was just mired in the grass.
Spoof Tannoy messages were great favourites, especially if an unwitting staff member could be persuaded to put out a call for 'Mandy Lifeboats' or more daringly 'Norma Snockers!'
The battle about what was appropriate dress in the Mess was engaged - although Angus Ogilvy was officially photographed in a polo-necked sweater, it was ruled as not suitable. Our new Station Commander was Group Captain Tony Steff- Langston - charming man, lovely wife: but she did not tolerate Officers' wives wearing jeans around the Officers’ Married Quarters!
Guest Nights at Northolt were a real challenge for the Vice-President (the junior officer, known as Mr Vice, whose duty it was to propose the toast to the guests), and since we usually had many foreign guests, Mr Vice might start with eg 'The President of the United States of America, The President of the Republic of France' and so on - sometimes 5 or 6 or even more nations, especially if they were Popular or Democratic or, unimaginably, both. You may realise the possibilities for error, especially if Mr Vice had, as normal, been plied with many drinks before dinner. More Orderly Officer duties would surely come his way.
In 1969, Northolt became the base for Harrier XV741 piloted by Flt Lt Tom Lecky-Thompson in the Trans-Atlantic Air Race - the actual take-off point was RAF St Pancras - a Harrier-sized RAF station established briefly for the race, somewhere I've got some first day covers signed by him...
As Press Liaison Officer, I imagined a great civilian career for myself when the CO told me some scenes for the Battle of Britain film were to be shot at Northolt. Sadly there was no flying, but I did get to meet Trevor Howard. My civilian career, when it came, was to be much more prosaic!
In 1969, the Metropolitan Communications Squadron became 32 Squadron, and we were joined by the Bassets and crews of 207 Squadron, when Bovingdon closed.
The original spec. for the Basset was alleged to be 'to convey a V-bomber crew of 5, plus associated gear on a 800nm leg'.
The reality was further alleged to be that the Basset had difficulty taking off at sea level with a crew of 2 and no payload if the temperature was greater than 30C!
There were some surreal moments. Maj Gen Clyde Box, Commander USAF 3rd Air Force, disembarked his Convair on one occasion and all his crew also descended wearing Clyde Box masks. Never found out the reason for that. Handling USAF aircraft was an art in itself. Pax seemed to need individual briefing if comprehension was to occur. This was time-consuming, and not always successful.
I acquired another secondary duty. A bunch of people from the Airmen's Mess wanted to build a disco on the theme of 'Thunderbirds.' I was nominated as sort of Officer i/c and project manager. The whole thing was a great success, and the Spectrum Disco was eventually launched to great acclaim. I made some good friends among the airmen and airwomen involved too.
My social life was getting busy too. I had met up with Dave Welch again (see my piece on RAF Khormaksar) who was now working for 3m, and I had become great friends with Dave & Rhona Roberts (Dave was a 32 Sqn Pembroke pilot). I was also planning to get married & Joy & I found a flat in Ealing. The wedding at St Giles Church, Ickenham, was a major bash - pretty well all my old mover pals from Khormaksar came, plus Northolt chums.
Dave Roberts & I had also met what I can only describe as the ideal pub landlord. He ran a very good pub nearby on the Ickenham Road, had been an RAF Lancaster pilot, won the DFC, and really liked the fact we'd discovered him, through his son or daughter as I recall.
It was meant to be. He went by the unlikely, but mellifluous name of Maxie (Maxwell) Chivers, a true Officer and Gentleman!
I had persuaded the RAF to grant me a General List commission (rather than Supplementary List on which I originally started). During my time at Northolt, I had been promoted to Flying Officer - that first but still important step on the great promotion ladder. I wonder how many of you remember the rather cynical Supplementary List tie? It depicted a long, 10-rung ladder, with all but the bottom two rungs broken! However, it was deemed, and true, that I had spent too much time on Movements and it was time to start stacking blankets and grocering for real. Imagine my surprise and delight when I was posted to RAF Gütersloh as OCSCAF - the sheer heaven of it! To be an acting Flt Lt too. All those vouchers to sign. KAM machines.
Look out for the next gripping episode of my career - has he really finished being a Mover? Can he resist the call of the Condec? Toss away the trim sheet? Enough of these questions!