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In 2001 Wg Cdr A.E. Ross DFC, RAF (Retd) edited an anthology of personal accounts of RAF activities from 1918 to 2001 in aid of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation. Each contributor described events in which he or she actually took part and the account was written specially for the book.  The book was fully supported by the RAF.  Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham GCB CBE DFC AFC wrote the Foreword; Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire GCB DFC AFC, then CAS, wrote the Introduction and launched the book at the RAF Club.  Further details about this book and how to obtain a copy will be found on the MISC > MEMOIRS > BOOKS page of this Website.   (Click here) 

Tony Ross has been asked to "keep the book up to date" and fill in any gaps.   It covers all aspects of RAF activities, but the only account it contains from an ex-Apprentices is by an Engineering Office, who was at Halton in 1932.  See below.  This obviously does not fully reflect the important part played by Apprentices.   To remedy this Tony has asked if any of our members would be prepared to write of their personal experiences as an Apprentice in more recent times.

For any further information please contact Rocky Thompson (e-mail: adsec(AT) through whom all inputs should be submitted.

There follows just two examples of contributions to this book.

A Halton Apprentice  - 1932

by Flight Lieutenant WG Rogers MBE RAF (Retd)

Aircraft servicing in the early days of powered flying revolved around stitching, sticking, doping and general patching of fabric surfaces, together with garage type servicing of simple engines.

Rotary engines posed particular problems. In these the crankshaft was fixed and the rest of the engine, with the propeller attached, rotated round it. The caster oil it used was flung into the cylinder heads and choked them up. The Gnome rotary engine developing 100 bhp was regarded as being so unreliable that after less than every 20 flying hours it had to be removed and completely overhauled, including renewal of fatigued components. Re-assembly and refitting to the airframe was followed by ground testing before it was certified serviceable for air testing. The complete procedure would be carried out by one man. Even in the early days it was appreciated that to allocate one engine fitter permanently to each aircraft was advantageous whenever practicable, and so it proved to be for many years.

Starting procedures were revised, ousting the hand swinging which in the past had proved effective but fraught with danger. With a requirement for mass starting of 7 or 8 aircraft the single Hucks starter - a device mounted on a model T Ford chassis made take off a prolonged affair. Air bottle starting on the Bulldog proved immensely successful. An engine fitter on each aircraft would, on a signal from the watch tower, start up the engine - endeavouring to be first on the line to have power on. Ironically most aircraft deployed in tropical climates retained a hand winding inertia starting system which often left ground crews exhausted.

The practice of teaming a specific pilot and engine fitter to each aircraft was an admirable arrangement. As often as not the fitter flew with his aircraft on the assumption that a forced landing would require his attention, and so it often proved. It may be noted that it was considered an indignity to have one's aircraft grounded, be it due to damage, failure or lack of spares. It was a sad occasion when a crewman was posted to other duties or another unit, such was the comradeship developed.

Trenchard's inspiration was to institute a highly efficient technical engineering element to support envisaged air supremacy. The establishment of a School of Technical Training enabled the expansion of the RAF throughout the 1930's to proceed unabated. He must have been justifiably proud of the results.   The scheme evolved around the acceptance of Grammar School educated boys from the age of 15 1/2 years to enlist as aircraft apprentices at No.1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton. Unfortunately Halton was not prepared for the magnitude of the task, so RAF Cranwell was selected to accommodate the surplus in selected trades. Examinations throughout the country were held to contest approximately 1000 vacancies annually.   With courses lasting 3 years this obviously resulted in a strength of approximately 3000 boys at anyone time. There was an embarrassing introduction - the Service medical examination -whereby a long line of recruits revealed their all. With an occasional probe from the MO's walking stick, Boy Service in the Royal Air Force began.    From a list of available trades, predominantly Metal Rigger and Aero Engine Fitters, we selected a trade which appealed to our inclination. Initial Workshop practice involved the use of general purpose hand tools followed by a course in Mechanical Transport, Metallurgy, Blacksmith procedures, Machine Shop, and a period on aerodrome duties. Engineering educational subjects accounted for 2 or 3 half days a week, with the remainder of the time devoted to Sport, Parades or General Duties.

Food was not good by any standards, and punishment was often unreasonable. Petty Offences (rightly) received infliction of petty restrictions, and no doubt instilled an appreciation of discipline. The punishment for more serious misdemeanours such as stealing has rarely been publicised and the public nowadays would be appalled.    If the authorities found a boy guilty of a serious offence they would write to his parents requesting permission to deal with the matter as they saw fit. No particular punishment was specified and the parents invariably agreed.

Saturday morning was a drill occasion, the parade would be suspended whilst a trestle table was erected in front of the assembled apprentices. The unfortunate culprit would then be marched on, stripped to the waist, and held across the table for a stipulated number of lashings, administered by a service policeman. The boy would then be put into a waiting ambulance to be taken to hospital. This happened perhaps 6 or 7 times in the period 1931 - 1933. Despite such treatment, one of Trenchard's aims, the fostering of a spirit of comradeship, was achieved quite overwhelmingly.

As the 3 year course progressed, more advanced training was given by staff, many of them civilian instructors. Such test jobs in the fitters shop included the making, from castings, of a bench vice; the manufacture of white metal bearings; and many metal interchanging test pieces calling for precise limit fitting. The stripping down of complete engines and their ancillary components prepared the apprentice for his future role, and it must be said that he reacted well to his responsibilities. Practical experience on aircraft was perhaps the highlight of the apprenticeship. To most a short flight in a Fairey IIIF or Siskin was an added bonus.

The meagre pay of three shillings (15 pence!) per week did little to supplement the dining room fixed diet, especially as it was also expected to finance the purchase of toothpaste, soap, stamps, shoe polish and other sundries. A parcel or postal order from home was greatly appreciated!

With satisfaction, some relief, and much enthusiastic anticipation of the future our training period terminated with the chance to express a preference of posting. Since most favoured certain prestigious squadrons, few of us were granted our choice.   The “Passing Out Parade” completed the three year term of apprenticeship, producing the requisite skilled force so desperately needed in the 20’s and 30’s. Later entries into No. 1 School of Technical Training were to find continually improving conditions and revised syllabuses commensurate with development of new equipment.

One of the hazardous duties of the newly qualified airman was attending to one of several paraffin flares marking a runway for night landing. An aircraft side slipping or slightly off course when landing caused anxious moments as the airman disappeared at high speed into the darkness!

Some satisfaction was now expressed by the critics, as it became apparent that the Engineering Branch of the RAF had attained a creditable standing and should be able to meet any eventuality.


National Service

           by Air Vice Marshal George Chesworth CB OBE DFC

On 28th July 1948, in response to the contents of a brown envelope marked OHMS, I left my home in Surrey to report to No. 3 Recruit Centre, Royal Air Force Padgate. Here I met up with several hundred other conscripts or National Servicemen as we were known.   The vast majority had never been away from home and the induction process left many in a state of shock. The food, a most important matter to 18-year olds, left much to be desired. I recall that every day we had porridge for breakfast, corned beef with POM (reconstituted potato) and piccalilli (mustard pickle) for lunch and evening meal, all washed down with tea containing a heavy dose of bromide.

As an ex-Air Training Corps cadet I, and about fifty others, had been provisionally selected for aircrew training, and after a few days at Padgate attended the Aircrew Selection Centre at North Weald. None of our party were given the results of the selection at North Weald but were returned to Padgate where we started recruit training. As ex-cadets we were all proficient at drill and therefore escaped the worst ministrations of the drill instructors on the parade ground. But the acting corporal DI’s were in complete control of our lives. They saw us as about to escape their clutches and sought to make our lives a misery with extra duties, additional ‘bull’ nights and other restrictions. They were best described as little Hitlers.

After what seemed an eternity, but I expect was only a matter of days, the successful candidates at ACSC were posted to the Aircrew Transit Centre at Kirton-in-Lindsay. We were not sorry to leave Padgate, for it was a truly awful place and undoubtedly coloured the view of many RAF National Servicemen. At Kirton we were split into groups of 24, allocated to pilot or navigator courses, and sent on our way to Initial Training at either Wittering or, for the lucky ones, to Southern Rhodesia. Now in the training machine proper we became Cadet Pilots or Navigators, and indistinguishable from direct-entry cadets who had their introduction to the Service at Cardington.

I remained a National Serviceman during my flying training until I was commissioned in May 1950.

At that time I believe only former ATC Cadets undertook aircrew training during National Service but later this was extended to ‘ordinary’ conscripts. Certainly when I was instructing at 2FTS in the mid-50’s there were mixed courses of direct entrants and National Servicemen who were not ex-cadets.

I enjoyed National Service; but I was lucky to be flying. Many did not for a variety of reasons. Some resented the disruption to their lives, especially the students. However, hindsight being what it is, the majority will now admit they do not regret the time spent in the Royal Air Force.

(Webmaster  December 2006)















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