“The bints round ‘ere look as if they don’t know whot it’s for!”

This course comment, sanitised here for your eyes, was made by one of my fellow new recruits into the Royal Air Force, on the service coach that met us at Bedford railway station. It marked my transition from being a rather naïve schoolboy to being a rather naïve member of His Majesty's Armed Forces.

The bus was taking us to RAF Cardington, home of the bygone military dalliance with airships; huge hangars are a memorial to those days. In 1951, the station had the lessor role of being the attestation centre for new RAF recruits. Here we were to swear allegiance to His Majesty King George VI and put our mark that meant we were ‘signed up’ and subject to military law – there was no turning back now. I was relieved to see that the competition that made the rude remark was herded into a different group to me



Percy de Rippe Berry – there is a story attached to the de Rippe – was born in 1870 of farming stock, which is not a distinguishing feature of those years – the vast majority of Englishmen of that time worked on the land. He was to exchange the tyranny of an agricultural life for the no less restrictive one of the Army. He joined the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 18 and was promptly posted to India – for eight years! Yes, eight unbroken years! This completed his engagement and he returned home and was demobilized. He must have found life very strange and it is perhaps natural that he should fall back on his upbringing and take up gardening work…



…The poet Philip Larkin wrote:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

I can endorse this! As my small child’s lack of inhibitions were being shed, the full awkwardness and shyness of impending adolescence were taking over. This is nothing unusual for a child but I was also being ‘fucked up’ by my father who, perhaps unwittingly, did everything to undermine my confidence…



…The attainment of 14 years of age saw me in the 4th Form and entry into an organisation that was to determine my adult life. For all these secondary school years to date I had been longing to be old enough to join the Air Training Corps. We had a School Flight and the CO was Mr. King, a chemistry teacher. It was amazing that there was appeal. We wore horrible high-necked hairy blue uniforms. It meant staying on after school, not normally a voluntary activity. A large amount of our programme was drill where we were in the charge of older boys, elevated to the rank of corporal, sergeant and flight sergeant who had seen too many military movies and pictured themselves as Sergeant Hardcase or whatever. Take a bunch of adolescent lads and many of them, almost literally, cannot tell their left feet from their right – so drill always developed into something of a farce with the NCO i/c only marginally retaining control…



…St. Thomas’s was ‘High’ Church of England and was not short of ceremony and colour, which stood out in the bleak environment of the district of Keyham, Portsmouth. Ceremony meant that there were a number of ‘server’ roles with a hierarchy. The lowest starting point was the small boy who held the ‘boat’ containing the incense. Promotion and physical growth meant moving on to become an acolyte and carrying a candle – then the cross-bearing crucifer. But the job everyone wanted was thurifer. He operated the cencer; within this holed silver pot on chains was burnt the incense on glowing charcoal. There were so many appealing things about all of this: firstly there was the pyromania aspect. The compressed charcoal tablets had to be heated to glowing red on an electric grill. To keep it in this state in the thurifer, and to distribute the smoke of the incense, required draught. This led to a second appeal – theatrical. A line was drawn to actually swinging the thurifer over and around ones head but almost anything else was within limits – also attempts to expand those boundaries could be explored in front of an audience…



…Plymouth had only a small grass airfield, on the edge of the Moors, that was just used for club flying. It was here I was to be taught to fly. Things were pretty primitive, although they were normal for those years. The aircraft used was a yellow Tiger Moth, a two-seats-in-tandem training aircraft where, rather oddly, the instructor sat in the front. It was a biplane with open cockpits – real white silk scarf in the slipstream stuff; but at the age of 17 I was not sufficiently self-possessed to match that image.

Communication between instructor and pupil was a rather odd affair. In films involving old ships you will see the orders from the bridge to the engine room being conveyed by voice pipe – simply a tube with a mouthpiece cum earpiece at each end. The ‘transmitter’ shouts his order down the mouthpiece to be received at the other end by the earpiece being placed to the – well – ear. The Tiger Moth was a little more sophisticated in that there were two mouthpieces – one in each cockpit. These were connected by tubes which led into ear pieces in the flying helmets of each occupant. Imagine this system in use with the background noise of the engine and the slipstream. One might get an approximate idea of what was being said…



…At home, my future career had obviously been a topic of discussion. I have mentioned that Father’s determination was that I should enter the Civil Service. I was equally as determined, as much as I could be in my cowed state induced by those years of paternal oppression, that I should join the Royal Air Force. As I had demonstrated with my ATC activities, and in particular the flying, that I might have some potential as one of the ‘Boys in Blue’, it was reluctantly agreed that I should have a go at being accepted at Royal Air Force College, Cranwell.

Father had obviously done some research and had found out that this was the place for the Crème de la Crème and that from it graduated future Air Marshals – so he allowed this fruit of his child rearing to be subjected to the selection process for this élitist establishment. It perhaps would have helped if some effort had been made, over the foregoing years, to build up that offspring’s confidence and worldly wiseness…



…I have done some foolish things in my life; high on the list is low flying in the Vale of Evesham. It was our low flying area and we were sent there, solo, to low fly – but not as low as I went. On one occasion, with the adrenaline still pumping, it was time to return to base. From my last low level pass, I turned in the direction of Moreton-in-Marsh. Now the name, ‘The Vale of Evesham’, indicates that when you leave, there are some hills to climb. Up I went. About two thirds the way, I realised that the rate at which the ground was rising was exceeding the rate at which I was climbing – the throttle was hard forward. In an effort to increase the rate of climb, the cheeks of my ass were squeezed hard together. With this contribution, the Harvard did make it over the top – just! A very subdued student landed back at RAF Morton-in-Marsh…



…Flying an aircraft fitted with an ejector seat meant being introduced to a curious training device which would have looked more at home in a fairground. The ejector seat trainer was towed from one establishment to another to give pilots periodic training. On arrival, the horizontal gantry would be raised to the near vertical and at its base would be the ejector seat. Into this Bloggs would be strapped, body braced, with a handle at the back of the top of his head, he would pull a blind over his face; for an ejection for real this would do something to preserve, from the slipstream, his handsome fighter pilot features for the subsequent impression of the females in his life.

The blind was linked to the cartridge firing mechanism and Bloggs would be fired up the rails of the gantry. If he wasn't sitting correctly he might not end up with essential equipment functioning, to accompany his good looks. There was also the agonising thought that you hoped, when it was your turn, that an over-strength cartridge had not been loaded. Space flight was still a number of years away…



…Once a year we attended an Armament Practice Camp – a month devoted to firing located in Northumberland, where there were bigger range facilities. Happily the ‘camp’ was a name only, and we were safely tucked away at nights in the comfort of the officer’s mess at RAF Aklington. There would be the odd foray to sample the Northumberland social scene. It seemed a good idea one Saturday evening, to visit a local dance. There were several stories to be told later. One of my compatriots reported the remark of his dancing partner, “Cor, I ‘aint ‘alf sweatin’!”

The ‘camp’ enabled us to try our hands at firing at higher altitudes – the firings ‘at home’ were limited to 2000 feet by the size of the ranges off the East Coast. There was an element of competition at these Armament Practice Camps as an annual trophy was awarded to the squadron producing the highest scores.

Our boss decided that we should prepare ourselves for operating at these higher altitudes and, for some weeks beforehand, a banner was towed to the great height and we did simulated attacks on it – squeezing the trigger merely operating the gun sight camera. The results would be analysed and advice given.

Towing the banner for live firing exercises was somewhat of a thankless task, but perhaps the thought of all those bullets flying behind you made the time pass quickly. But the really tiresome job was towing for those high level sorties. One of my compatriots was so engaged. As he droned along over East Anglia, he saw ahead an enormous cumulonimbus cloud developing. He thought that it would LOOK good on his gun sight film – so he squeezed the trigger. Go back some lines to remind yourself that, with a tug aircraft, the trigger releases the banner! This is quite a substantial piece of kit to be hurtling earthwards and it can be assumed that there wasn't an East Anglian located at the impact point as we heard nothing of the incident…


…On the wedding day, Mother, Father, brother John (my Best Man) and myself awaited the wedding car to take John and I to the church. Father was ‘champing at the bit’ – he was now a driver with his own car, an Austin A30, which was quite a natty little car in its day. He was set to drive Mum and himself to the church when the Groom and Best Man were on our way. The minutes ticked by; Father’s agitation increased. “It’s no good, something’s gone wrong - get in the back.”

Jumping forward to post-ceremony, the first few moments alone with my new bride, in the wedding car driving to the reception, were occupied with the driver giving me a “bollocking” for being impatient and not waiting to be picked up.

“I was there in good time – and you’d gone!”…



…One day there was a call to the Flight from Air Traffic Control. My presence was required in the tower – Sinjackly was on a solo flight and had become lost. ATC were having difficulty getting him to obey instructions that would get him back to base. These were the days of air driven gyro flight instruments. Amongst these was the ‘direction indicator’ and the pilot had to set it to agree with the magnetic compass for the information it was giving to be meaningful. Also, gyro instruments topple when doing aerobatics. Sinjackly had done his aeros, no doubt with more brute force than finesse, and now set course for base, without resetting his direction indicator (DI).

Nothing fitted his map and panic set in. Air Traffic assistance was requested but their guidance was meaningless when applied to an incorrectly set DI. When I arrived at ATC, Sinjackly was saying that all he could see was water. Bearings told us that he must be somewhere over the Bristol Channel…or out in the Atlantic, south of Ireland!

“Hullavington, this eese tree zuro – I see land!”

Sinjackly made for it and Allah was smiling on him; there was an airfield close to the coast. He landed at Rhoose, near Barry Island, South Wales. As he turned off the runway the engine stopped – he had run out of fuel!…



...The Guard of Honour had been formed up, with Flight Lieutenant W in front, to pay respects to the Air Officer Commanding. He arrived by air, the aircraft stopping in the precise place, right on time. The Air Marshal descended the steps. The Guard Commander started putting his men through the usual routine, “Guard of Honour, Slope Arms.”

“Guard of Honour, Present Arms.”

His sword went to the salute. Then he made a fateful mistake!

“Guard of Honour, Order Arms.”

For those of less mature years, denied the joy of arms drill with the .303 Enfield rifle, some explanation is required. A guard started with their rifles at the ‘Order’, that is with the butt resting on the ground and held against their right legs. The next command was ‘Slope Arms’ when the rifle was moved to the left shoulder. The final part of the ceremony was the ‘Present Arms’ when, with much banging and a little foot juggle, the men ‘presented’ their rifles before them, a symbolic ‘giving’. Having held this position for a few seconds , the process was reversed… ‘Slope Arms’… ‘Order Arms”. Those were the positions and that was the essential order!

Return now to our doomed Flight Lieutenant. He, in a position of some disadvantage; i.e. facing forward, his back to the men, had given the command ‘Order Arms’ when the Guard was at the ‘Present’! The ‘rules’ as outlined above, do not allow for this! Consider the plight of his men.

Some remembered a basic tenet from their training days: if you are given a wrong order then you ‘stand fast’. Therefore these, possessed of good memory, stayed at the ‘Present’. Others, perhaps of a more pragmatic nature, thought, ‘Well, what he really means is Slope Arms’, and duly went to that position. The remainder, possibly with lesser imagination, thought that as ‘Order Arms’ had been given, they would go to that position, which they did in a variety of ways!

Picture the scene now as the Guard Commander, oblivious of the chaos he has created, marches smartly forward, gives his sword salute and proudly shouts the traditional invitation, “No. 2 Flying Training School Guard of Honour ready for your inspection, SIR!”

The response from the AOC was a little less conventional, “When you get that bloody lot sorted out, I’ll inspect them!”

This caused the Flight Lieutenant to ‘lose his cool’, as with sword in hand , he looks back over his shoulder and mutters, “Christ!”

But he has been told to sort it out, and returns to face his men. After a pause, during which the contortions on his face revealed the torture in his mind, he issued this unique order, “When I say Go, those at the Slope stand fast, those at the Present and at the Order go to the Slope.”


A rather nervous successor was appointed the next day…



…Air Staff Officer – sounds rather grand, but it was in the smallest Group HQ one could imagine, and there was no doubt that I was the most junior member of it. Hullavington and Syerston were in 23 Group, the one accountable for all pilot training. No. 25 Group was responsible for all the other aircrew training; navigator, flight engineer, signaller. The headquarters was entirely staffed by older, more senior persons than myself. I shared a room with two Squadron Leaders ‘who had seen life’. Stan Greenhow had been a Sunderland Flying Boat captain; Eddie Lawson, my immediate boss, was a very experienced transport aircraft man.

The two of them were examples of ‘men of promise’, on the career ladder and therefore having to endure this ‘good for you – and somebody has to do the job’ period of their lives. Eddie, in particular, was like a bird with clipped wings. His heart was in the air. Transport Command was just being equipped with the four turbo-prop Britannia and it almost amounted to mental cruelty that Eddie could not be there…



…One morning, amongst all the other files and pieces of paper arriving on my desk, I found a ‘Posting Notice’. It is strange, on reflection, that I wasn’t summoned to the presence of someone in the hierarchy to be told the news – perhaps they felt a bit sick about it! Translated, the message was that I was posted to RAF Lyneham to fly, initially as a co-pilot, the Britannia, the role of which was worldwide transport operations. Eat your heart out Eddie Lawson!
I was completely gob-smacked by this – it had no real meaning. But it did for many of my contemporaries.

“Cor! You lucky bugger!”

What was it all to mean? We were left in no doubt by some who had been aquainted with the transport world.

“He’ll be living out of a suitcase most of the time Val, you’ll only see him now and again.”

But it was our lot and we moved towards it…



…I now settled into the real routine – Libya, Nicosia, Malta, Bahrain, Gan Island, Singapore – page after page in my log book lists the associated airfields. It did seem that no sooner was I back from one trip than it was time to start another- those words from Manby rang in my ears, “He’ll be living out of a suitcase.” It meant lovely ‘honeymoons’ albeit that some of them were quite short!

If all had operated according to plan, then the time away from home would have been reasonable; but the bugbear was unservicabilities. One aircraft with a problem on the Changi Slip, say, and there was a knock-on effect for all of the slip crews. Spending longer than anticipated at a staging post was a frustration – now I would (and could) pay a lot of money for a week in the Maldives!…



...Australia did not normally feature in the lives of us lesser mortals, but there was an exercise involving the Army, so lots of slipping and night flying were involved – not the métier of ‘The Country Club’ It was quite an arduous ten days – and that is all that it took to get from Lyneham to Adelaide via Perth and back to base. From Gan to Perth took ten hours and was very marginal on fuel, given our full load of passengers. In fact the Perth airfield was a military base to the north and my abiding memory of it was the pitch blackness of the night with just the ‘side of the runway’ lights (no fancy lead-in illumination for the Royal Australian Air Force) and not a glimmer from the surrounding countryside.

We visited Perth and were impressed; some of the local people pointed out that they were almost not a part of the rest of Australia, a fact we were able to appreciate when it took us over three hours to fly to Adelaide, with nothingness in between. As pleasant as Perth was, Adelaide was dull; the layout of the streets was a grid à la USA. My only other memory of the city was our navigator, in a shop, turning over skin upon skin of kangaroo looking for one without a bullet hole in it!…



…There was still some uncertainty about the ‘Oil Lift’ starting. Some international anxiety about the whole thing could be sensed by an instruction for us to fly in civilian clothes; that nervousness could be confirmed by the order being rescinded after a short while. We waited in comfort; the newly emerging African nations were establishing their image by building status symbols. One of Tanzania's was the Hotel Kilimanjaro; we were the first customers of this five star! It was good practice for the inexperienced, locally recruited staff.

The transporting of the oil started just before Christmas day. It did seem that a pattern was established right from the start which endured for the whole ten months of the lift. Six aircraft would be loaded for an early start. These would fly the three hours or so to Lusaka or Ndola, off load their oil drums in rapid time (20 minutes or less!) and return with ‘empties’. The aircraft would be reloaded for an afternoon departure with a fresh crew.

The only change to that original pattern was that the East African launch point became Nairobi – another sign of political tension? The change came towards the end of our stint – we flew back home on 12th January – not a Christmas tree in sight!…



…A couple of months later there was a nasty shock for the Berry household. A feature of Service life in those years was the ‘unaccompanied tour’. Many overseas bases were not equipped for accommodating families – or perhaps it was undesirable, for military reasons, for them to be present. The island of Gan had been mentioned a couple of times. It was manned by the unaccompanied for logistic reasons. Labuan, an island off the northwest coast of Borneo, was ‘men only’ for strategic reasons – it was ‘Confrontation’ time in the Far East. Out of the blue, with barely two years captain time completed, I was posted to the latter for the standard period of one year.

As much as the ‘unaccompanied tour’ was a feature, so was the squirming out of it. Wives suddenly had nervous breakdowns, children developed serious disabilities; much ingenuity was used. We had witnessed the result of this – the poor sucker, last in line, had little time to dream up an excuse and also was short of opportunity to sort out his affairs. Val and I had resolved that if the finger should point at us we would take it like a man – and a woman. Now was our chance to prove this. With the weeks remaining there were priorities. One of the major ones was to protect our ‘investment’. If I was to be away for a year then the outside of the house needed paint…



...Ahead the illuminated wands of the ground marshaller beckon. The taxy lamp switch goes to off. The marshaller crosses his wands over his head. The brakes go fully on and the parking brake lever clicks on its ratchet.

Switches now move more rapidly; there is a clunk as the superfine switch moves; the four high pressure cock switches go to off; the engine noise immediately dies. As the rpm falls away more switches move to close the low pressure fuel and the oil cocks. Brakes to the propellers go on and as they come to a standstill, the underside flashing red light extinguishes, indicating to the ground crew that it is safe to approach the aircraft. The noise outside is the ground power unit starting up. A green light on the electrical panel indicates that it is ready to supply current to the aircraft.

The Movements staff, who will be attending to the load, push a set of steps to the rear door of the aircraft. Tradition dictates that they do not mount these yet. They wait for the Air Quartermaster to open the door, from inside the aircraft, and descend the steps to hand over the necessary paperwork and brief the Movements Officer on the requirements.

With the engines stopped, aircraft exterior lights extinguished, the steps in position, the scene is calmer now - though the grinding of the ground power unit does not allow complete peace.

The Movers wait for the door to open .. it stays shut. They wait patiently. Minutes tick by .. something is clearly wrong. The officer leads the way up the steps, and the door is opened from the outside. The Movements team step into the aircraft .. no Air Quartermaster .. the passenger/freight cabin is deserted.

"He must be on the flight deck," volunteers the officer.

He moves up the cabin, past the lashed down freight and opens the flight deck door. No one .. all five crew seats are empty. There is a double click to his right .. he looks down .. it is the electrical panel and he sees two switches rotating, unaided, from the 'Flight' position to 'Ground'.

It is the 'Marie Celeste' revisited - the aircraft has flown to Akrotiri so many times that, on this occasion, it has got there all by itself!

The Movements officer rushes down the cabin and the steps and grabs the radio telephone in his Land Rover. He struggles to control his voice as he calls his superior, the Senior Air Movements Officer.

"6543 - just landed - taxied in - but there's no-one on board!!!

"Well, there wouldn't be - the crew are up here in the Transit Lounge bar having their wind-down beers..."



…Whether it was in the mind or was a fact, it did appear that the performance of the Britannia was deteriorating as the years rolled by. Alongside dull evidence of increased ‘times to height’ and cruising speeds below the targets proclaimed by the performance manuals, would be set vivid tales, from ‘tired and emotional’ crews, of ‘hairy’ take-offs. Whether you were influenced by one or the other (or both) there was a general discomfort.

Then, one hot, sultry day at the airport of Mombassa, on the coast of Kenya, a Britannia started its take-off run down a fairly critical runway, length wise, given the take-off factors of temperature, wind, height and weight. All these had routinely been considered before departure as part of the pre-flight planning and all, in theory, was well for the necessary weight at take off. Full power was set, with the added amount given by ‘water injection’ – demineralised water was sprayed into the engines during take-off and initial climb-out.

The engines looked good, brakes off and the aircraft started its trundle down the runway. Trundle is an apt word, for the Britannia was always particularly slow to accelerate in these tropical conditions. It was not unusual, therefore, for the level of anxiety on the flight deck to rise as the runway length was gradually being eaten up. It was unusual, indeed unheard of, for events to progress as they did.

The captain began to express doubts about the aircraft being able to get airborne in the amount of runway remaining. The pitch of his voice rose as his doubt increased and that uncertainty reached a point for him to decide to abandon the take-off. What had happened was a first because never before had a Britannia captain had sufficient doubt of his calculated take-off performance to take this dramatic step…



…Your Majesty, I would very much appreciate being able to rejoin your Royal Air Force. I have missed the way of life enormously and would love to be back.

Your humble servant…



...I find myself a little short of amusing incidents during this Hercules tour; perhaps this is a psychological block An occasion that I do recall was when the squadron was due to be presented with a trophy. The ‘big boys’ had done well with their parachuting accuracy and the like and the Air Officer Commanding was going to present the trophy. A parade rehearsal was called for and this would be led by the CO, Wing Commander NH. He was a likeable man, perhaps a little older than his ‘whiz kid’ fellow Wing Commanders; this showed with his demeanour being, shall I say ‘straight laced’.

For the rehearsal, it was decided that Yours Truly would play the part of the Air Vice Marshal – it was the looks and silver hair! The pattern for the actual day was to be played out to the full, so, as my squadron assembled themselves in the hangar, which was to be the parade ground, I reported to the Station Commander's office. I was surprised that the ‘play acting’ extended to me being offered a cup of tea!

With that consumed, accompanied by social chat, we boarded the CO’s car and proceeded to the hangar. The Station Commander ushered me to the small rostrum and the parade gave the ‘General Salute’. Wing Commander NH marched towards me, halted and smartly saluted;

“No. 70 Squadron ready for your inspection, Sir.”

I return the salute and replied, “Thank you Norman.”

My Squadron Commander's face is a picture illustrating inward torment. Should he stop the charade and give this Flight Lieutenant a ‘bollocking’ for addressing his Wing Commander by his first name … in front of the Station Commander … or would it be best to carry on. He decided on the latter course!

Nice chap, Norman…



HUPRA stands for Hung Up Parachutist Rescue Assembly. It was seen that it might be possible for a parachutist to exit the aircraft and when the point was reached for the ripcord to be pulled by the taut static line, it would not pull out and he would be dangling on the end of the line – ‘hung up’! The HUPRA would be brought into action. This was another parachute with fittings that would allow it to be looped through the shackles on the aircraft end of the static lines which ran along a substantial fore and aft cable.
With all secure, an enormous pair of cable cropping shears (they too should be on the aircraft for parachuting sorties) came into play. With them the cable would be cut and the dangling parachutist would be set free, to descend on the HUPRA parachute. I remember times, at Lyneham , when this drill was briefed or discussed and cable cutting would be described in the terms above:

“When all is set, take the shears and cut the cable.”

On the trials, with a ‘no panic’ anticipated situation, it took a superhuman, pumped up effort, by a very fit Test Team member, to sever the cable. I can picture that parachutist being trailed through the air for a very long time whilst some, less than muscular, Air Loadmaster nibbled away at the half inch thick cable…



...Such were the advances in ‘Man Management’ that my posting was discussed with me.

There was a vacancy – the pilot instructor – in the Hercules Ground School at Lyneham. Would I care to fill that post? I was only too pleased! Back to a seven mile drive to work – it had been 40 miles each way to Boscombe. But that was the least factor. I thought I would find the job most satisfying. I was, after all, a fully trained teacher who had never exercised that skill in anger…