RAF Related Legends

" 'Tis strange but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction."
Don Juan by Lord Byron

The origin of a legend may be subject to conjecture, and often there are several versions.

The following may be just the stories that I accept.


When the RAF was formed in 1918 a colour for the uniform had to be chosen. The Army had khaki associated with the land, and the Navy had dark blue associated with the sea, which left azure associated with the sky.
Obviously light sky blue was not a serviceable colour from the point of view of appearing to be clean and smart, so a shade a little nearer to grey was chosen, but still remaining blue.

Shortly after its introduction, the rumour spread that the material had come from an undelivered order to the Czarist Russian Army, since the Russian revolution had taken place in 1917.
The story was still being repeated in the 1950's, but a historian I heard speaking on the radio later, said that there was no truth in the statement, and it was just a rumour.


There is occasional controversy over whether the badge that RAF other ranks wear on each shoulder is an EAGLE or an ALBATROSS. Some decades ago I heard the explanation given on the radio from someone who knew the facts, due to being involved at the time.

The design requirement was for an EAGLE with wings spread, but it was not cost-effective for the artist to observe actual eagles soaring, so he had to resort to stuffed birds in a museum. Now taxidermists have their own stereotyped ideas, and the mountain bird will usually be stuffed as though perched on its eyrie, while the ocean bird will be mounted as though soaring over the sea. Thus the artist used an albatross for the general pose, and an eagle for the details.

This is practical artistic convenience, and no different to a stand-in wearing the Queen's dress for an artist to complete a portrait of Her Majesty.

The final illustration was that of an EAGLE.


In days of yore, a fighting formation would be raised by a landowner recruiting and equipping his tenants and workers.
Their titles and badges usually related to their home locality.

Later, units formed to employ special tactics with a particular weapon might reflect this in their titles and badges, as with Lancers and Grenadiers.

The Royal Flying Corps followed this custom of relating to their new aeronautical weapon, and incorporated propellers and bird wings into their badges. Photos show Staff/Flight Sergeants wearing a four-bladed propeller above their three stripes in place of the traditional crown. Since a brass propeller is a bit spiky, it was surrounded by a circular frame, and thus it was commonly referred to as a "wheel".


When the Royal Air Force was formed, the badge of rank reverted to three stripes and crown, the wheels being returned to stores.

I surmise that when some identification was required to mark boy trainees, the wheels came to light and were recycled.

Thus, at the present time, the wheel is regarded as the distinguishing mark of Boy Entrants and Apprentices.


Airmen in signals-related trades wear an arm badge in the form of a fist clenching zig-zags representing electric sparks. Originally it was worn high on the right arm, but around 1951 it was relocated lower down to below any badge of rank.

As I heard it, the badge was initially introduced to excuse signalers from having to salute every time they took a message into the receiving officer.

In the early days, repair and operating could be carried out by the same tradesman (Wireless Operator Mechanic), therefore mechanics qualified for the badge in case they should do some operating. Some mechanics wore the badge even though they never did any operating, and it became associated with all signal trades.
With the advent of radar under the guise of "RDF" it was necessary that radar mechanics, called Radio Mechanics, wore the badge to maintain the pretence that they were communications equipment craftsmen and women.

The tradition continues.


When being called to join in providing manual labour for some purpose, especially in handling aircraft,
the cry of "Come on two - six!" is often used.
The true origin of the numbers seems to be unknown.

One version goes that back in Nelson's time the members of the gun crews were numbered, and that it was 2 and 6 who had to heave the cannon forward for firing.

Another says that in early RFC or RAF regulations, clause 2.6 stated "All airmen, regardless of trade or rank, shall assist in handling aircraft ."

The note on the origins of "Two Six" attracted my attention. I first came across it when, back in the 1950's, I began to hear the Chiefies bellowing for "volunteers" to push aircraft or to put a "willing" shoulder to the hangar doors e.g. "On the doors ... two six!" Naturally, I was intrigued by the phrase and began asking around about its origins, and was told by a number of souls that it came from the French "Tout suite"...,which, loosely translated, means "Everyone get yer finger out!"
Jim Newman 4M5/68th

Thank you for your comment Jim. I hadn't heard the suggestion in this context before.
I looked up the phrase to find that it is "tout de suite" literally "all of continuation" translated as "all at once".
Usually it is misquoted as "toot sweet".

The RFC explanation sounds very plausible, but the RN claim a much earlier use, although their explanation seems a bit too modern & technical to me. I feel the old sailors would have used nautical words rather than numbers.

However you set me thinking, and "two" sounds like "tout" so could "six" sound like another French word? The best I can find is "sis" meaning "situated", so "tout sis" would literally be "all situated" meaning "everyone in position" for teamwork. This could possibly take it back to the time of Agincourt.
I shall have to find a French speaker to check.


In the 1930's British [Chain Home] radar was developed under the reference of "RDF". Fifty years later much memory searching and discussion has failed to definitely ascertain from where the term came or what the "R" stood for. At that time the word "wireless" was used in referring to communications equipment.

By 1941 there were both Wireless Mechanics and Radio Mechanics in the RAF, so the implication seems to be that the "R" stood for "Radio". However, trainee radio mechanics were told that RDF stood for
Re-radiation Direction Finding, Range and Direction Finding, or Repetitive-pulse Direction Finding,
but it seems that these were inventions by instructors to deal with student questions.

By 1943 the terms used had become "Wireless" [communication], and "Radar" [search & navigation], with "Radio" embracing both Wireless and Radar, but with radar tradesmen hiding behind the label "Radio".
In 1945, Radar Mechanics became known as such.

Early in 2000, a comment was made that the "R" was simply a letter chosen blindly at random, but it seems rather odd that if that was the case, "R" for Radio wasn't rejected as being too near the truth.

My own analysis is that no formal decision was made. Those associated with wireless direction finding that is taking a bearing on a transmitter referred to it just as DF. Possibly some erks back expanded it to "dee-effing."
A radar boffin, unconnected with established DF, probably referred to the new system as "Radio Direction Finding" abbreviated to "RDF". Since the two terms were very similar, but distinguishable, things just drifted on. Those in the know would understand the distinction, while others assumed that the two descriptions were alternatives.

The present ignorance shows just how secure the RDF title was.


In 1939, I was approaching my tenth birthday, when our mother took my sister and I on holiday to Faversham in Kent. We went with a neighbour and her two children to stay with her old mother. Now granny had a lodger, a middle-aged chap with a limp, who occupied himself growing vegetables on an allotment. I remember him telling us all, how a lorry driver he met in the pub, had related the following event.

It seems that his lorry engine had stopped near one of the sites enclosing recently erected radio towers (a Chain Home radar station). No amount of effort could get the engine started again. Then a serviceman had appeared at the gate saying "What's up mate?" On being told that the engine wouldn't work, he said "Wait a minute!" and went into a hut. Upon returning, he said "Try it again," whereupon the engine started at once.

I solemnly assure you that I personally heard that from the man, who had actually got it direct from the lorry driver involved. Years later I assumed it was just one of many disinformation yarns invented to confuse and obscure the function of the new secret RDF (radar), and maybe the man-in-the-pub was a British agent posing as a lorry driver.

Now the strange thing is that there was some truth in the story. Dr.R.V.Jones in his book, MOST SECRET WAR, tells how an identical rumour had circulated around a radio installation in the Harz mountains of Germany. He enquired to find some facts, and it seemed that when field strength measurements were being made, traffic would be halted to stop interference from ignition systems. The authorities would post sentries to stop vehicles from passing through the critical area at given times, and then at the end of each short measurement period, the guards would tell the drivers that they could start and continue on their way.

The facts became garbled in the retelling, giving the impression that the radio beams had stopped the car engine. Dr.Jones decided to plant the same rumour in Britain, to see if it would puzzle the Germans in return. From numerous reports he got later, it certainly spread throughout the UK, and I can confirm that I heard it as related above.

Hi! I was reading your web pages with great interest.
I was a ground radar mechanic (LMECHAD) at Hopton in the mid/late 90's and witnessed our radar causing a modern tractor to go ballistic. Apparently when our beam passed the tractor ( a large Deutz ) it upset the computer-controlled plough.
Ed Beer


Originally an aeroplane was a physical machine that could be observed with some degree of understanding. Admittedly ignition and lighting were electrical, but familiarity with cars and domestic lighting meant that this could be accepted. Any airborne wireless equipment was also very basic, and hardly more complex than a domestic wireless receiver.

In the late 1930's, new VHF radios contained more thermionic valves, which increased the chance of a defect, and often had motor-driven tuning which could jam. Radar equipment probably had several times more valves, plus a cathode ray tube, which further increased the chance of failure.

Since the working of electronic equipment cannot be seen directly, radar and fault diagnosis was regarded as a mysterious black art, and the technicians were seen as clever masters of it. Valves had yet to be ruggedised so they were quite prone to failure through mechanical or thermionic shock. When failure occurred at an inopportune time, due to an unidentified cause, mischievous imps known as "gremlins" were blamed.

Who coined the word isn't known, but it became universally used throughout the RAF. These spiritual beings were possibly the last to join a long line of elves, pixies, goblins, brownies, trolls, leprechauns, etc. conjured up to explain changes for good and ill in the domestic and natural world.


During the 1920's and '30's wireless could be taught with sketches of waves, without needing to mention that mathematically they were SINUSOIDAL. With the advent of RDF (radar) it was helpful to explain that PULSE and SAWTOOTH waveforms could be analysed into SINUSOIDAL components.


Explanation was assisted by first synthesising a SQUARE waveform, and at one training school the instructor left the diagram on the blackboard. The trainees quickly adapted it into a face peering over a wall or fence.


Legend has it that the face was first nicknamed "Domie" or "Doomie" and it started to appear everywhere that there was graffiti, especially on the walls of lavatories.

Legend also has it that this happened at RAF Yatesbury (Wiltshire) where the Wing Warrant Officer, a Mr. Chadwick, threatened to remove the lavatory doors if the scrawling of graffitti didn't cease. It didn't, but the face was now accompanied by the question "Wot no doors?" Soon the face became known simply as "Chad" after Mr.Chadwick, always commenting with a question in the form "WOT NO whatever?"

The character continued to appear on many walls along with other graffiti, and got into the newspapers, which spread the image far and wide. Sixty years later, he still appears from time to time. There is some artistic variation due to copyists not knowing or understanding the origin.


A few night fighter pilots appeared to be very successful at engaging attacking bombers. There were embarrassing enquiries from newspaper reporters, especially about John Cunningham, one of the first pilots to use Airborne Interception radar. It was therefore decided that it should be explained by saying that he had extra sensitive night vision, and he was nicknamed 'Cats-Eyes Cunningham'.

I can also remember seeing a picture in the newspaper showing a night fighter pilot resting in daylight with dark glasses, white stick, and guide dog. The blurb below stated that he was also on a carrot-rich diet to improve his vision to shoot down enemy bombers in darkness. Even as a child I was puzzled by this one. However, it was another ploy to cover the successful use of Airborne Interception radar.


H2S was to be an airborne radar giving a map of the ground below an aircraft. At an early technical meeting it was referred to as "TF" which someone quickly divined as meaning something like "Town Finder." The Chairman immediately "blew his top" at such a lax title from the point of view of secrecy, and shouted "It stinks! It stinks! I want a new title by the end of the meeting."

Well, no one thought much about it over lunch, then in the afternoon the Chairman demanded the new title silence the Chairman became irate again. Someone remembered his cry of "It stinks!" and quickly thought of the well-known stink, hydrogen sulphide (the smell of bad eggs), and said "What about H2S, Sir?"
"Where does that come from?"
Another quick think, and "Home Sweet Home, Sir! two H's and an S."
The Chairman was mollified and accepted the suggestion.

Now H2S used the new cavity magnetron generating a wavelength of 10 cm which happened to be in a radio waveband labelled "S". Later the Americans scaled down the magnetron to generate 3 cm wavelength which was in the "X" band and built a new version of the equipment. Assuming incorrectly that the "S" in H2S indicated the operating band, they called it "H2X".


Dr. F.C.Williams was a young wartime radar boffin. He was well known for his straggly breadboard circuits which often left the board, trailed across the bench, and over the edge. He was also known to comment on circuits with "Oh! Very sanitary!" or "Phantastic!"

In those days, time bases and the delay of pulses tended to depend on an exponential rundown due to the simple RC arrangements used. He worked on linearising the rundown to improve stability, by using "Miller" feedback. His pulse-stretching circuit using 2 pentodes + 2 diodes was named the very sanitary Sanatron and the single pentode version became the phantastic Phantastron.


























































































































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