Richard White - 82nd Entry- Armament Fitter
RAF APPRENTICES - RAF HALTON No 1S of TT - Jan 1956 - July 1959
I have written this, after stumbling across the Halton Apprentice website: I had no idea that there were active ‘old boy’s’ associations’ out there: I have just booked to go to the annual (2017) reunion.
I was only fifteen and a half, when I joined the RAF. Was it actually legal for us children to sign our lives away at that age? We wouldn’t have been able to, legally, have sex (despite trying very hard), or enter into a hire-purchase agreement. Lads of our generation were all mesmerized by the glamour of the RAF. The prospect of shooting down Messerschmitts in that Spitfire, with my name painted on the fuselage, was a wonderful prospect. So what was I doing in a bitterly cold January, filing away at a block of cast iron, in itchy trousers?
I used to work on a pig farm during the school holidays. When I joined up, at Halton, the attesting officer asked me what my ambition for the future was. “I’d like to be a pig farmer, sir.” I said. “Wasting your time here, then, son” he replied: a prophetic statement.
We all had nicknames. Looking at this site, there are chaps called ‘Curly’ or ‘Ginger’, now with shiny or grey heads. For reasons I no longer remember, I was nicknamed ‘Santa’, perhaps because my name is White, and there were associations of White Christmas and Santa Claus. I later became ‘Chalky’.
I had failed my Eleven-Plus. At Bash Street, Bog Standard, Secondary Modern School. I told the head master I wanted to join the RAF as a Boy-Entrant. He persuaded me to take the apprenticeship exam: to my amazement I passed.
So there I was, an apprentice armourer, at Halton in the 82nd Entry, filing away at the cast iron, learning about ejection seats, guns, bombs etc. etc. Nothing much happened until, the second year exams. Together with a friend, who was in the 83rd, we were going to leave Halton, go to the USA, and open a garage, specializing in Lambrettas and Vespas. We were going to ‘Work-Our-Tickets’, so to that end I deliberately failed my exams. My friend bottled out, and I found myself back-coursed to the 84th, with whom I graduated in July 1959.
Memories of Halton were pretty negative – Bullnights, Jankers, cleaning things that weren’t dirty, being made to take part in loathsome athletics and ball games. That little, fascist, ginger, Snag B*st*rd, who made me buy a razor, and start shaving, when the only thing to slice off were the tops of pustules. I hated marching and parades. When I marched, all those behind me fell about laughing; I still don’t understand why. There was no way that I was ever going to be out front leading anyone, so I never got beyond being a humble AA. There was a benefit, our drill sergeant ‘Jock’ Scullion despaired of me and put me, and another hopeless case, onto cleaning up the Sergeants Mess after their thrashes, rather than put us on parade. There was unlimited alcohol for the taking.
There were a few good things. Angling was considered a ‘Sport’, so off we went, sometimes excused the hated church parade, to the upper Thames. Ludicrously, we had to wear our working uniforms to fish, but didn’t have to wear a hat. I went with my mate Charlie Taplin, who I note from this website, is no longer with us. On the way back, the bus used to stop at pubs, for us to get the forbidden fruit - a pint.
In 1959, with my new JT upside-down stripe, I found myself at RAF Binbrook. I think I heard the last Canberra take off as I arrived. As I went around with my blue card getting signatures, every one else was going in the opposite direction. All the clerks said - “Don’t know what you are doing here mate, they have all gone”! I spent the next six months in a tobacco-smoke filled, concrete, bunker, in the bomb dump, playing cards, we ventured out occasionally, to check the snares in the perimeter fence, to see if we had caught any pheasants (we never had).
Then, in 1961, after a few months at Bassingbourne, the Canberra OCU, I went to RAF Newton, Nottinghamshire, to start the Bloodhound Course. I had successfully applied for guided missile training, really wanting to be on the Thor ICBM programme (you got to go to America!) Bloodhound, though, was a good second. Newton was close to Nottingham, which had a reputation for being the one place in the UK, where women outnumbered men, allegedly by some incredible ratio. The course was fifteen months, periods at Newton, punctuated by going to manufacturers, around England. I was quite proud of the fact that, as a JT, I was the youngest, and only person in my rank and trade in the whole RAF. You came off the course a rank up, so I became a Corporal Technician. I had, in doing so, remustered to the Radio/Radar trade group. Populated, as it was, by the, perceived, less masculine mortals, us red-blooded armourers used to call ‘Queenies’: now I was one.
The Bloodhound system was a strange experience: “Not the real Air Force”, as I was constantly reminded. There were two lines of sites in Eastern England, stretching from North Yorkshire, down to Suffolk: they were supposed to protect the V-Bomber airfields from the Red Menace, neglecting the fact that Ivan could fly under, over, or round them (remember Singapore, 1941?). That was if Comrade Kruschev decided to use manned aircraft to attack Britain, rather than his own, vast, array of ICBM’s. The system was only fully operational for thirteen months. Ferranti, the major contractor, was made to pay back a lot of money, for ripping off the British taxpayer. Probably the greatest waste of public cash on a defence project, until the Nimrod AWACS.
Feeling in need of yet another course and a change, I had successfully applied for aircrew training. They were not recruiting NCO pilots or navigators, so due to my lamentable educational attainments at School and Halton, I was only eligible to be Air Signaler. So, April 1964, twelve months at RAF Topcliffe. More Queenie stuff, radio theory, ‘synthetic’ classroom signals exercises, Morse code etc. After six months we had a weekly exercise, flying in a string of six Varsities, two trainees per aircraft, six-hour missions, to Shetland – Dah-Di-Dah Dit, Dah-Dah-Di-Dah. Sluggish, limping, piston-engined, things, they were not dubbed ‘Flying Pigs’ for nothing. Despite it being 1964 and the age of the Ballistic Missile, we could have been off to bomb Berlin.
I never did get that little ‘S’ wing pinned on me. I was ‘chopped’ in the final week of the course. Come on! I wasn’t that bad! Following the best exercise I ever had, the next week, a special, strange, instructor turned up to do the chopping assessment. I can never prove it, but I believe my big mistake had been to marry someone who had been active in CND, when at Teacher Training College. Incredibly, they didn’t do Positive Vetting until the end of the Air Electronics course. I had also nominated as referee, someone who had just been to Moscow, as part of a Trade Union Delegation. It was the Cold War, after all.
Then, like some dreadful dream, where you try to run away, but can’t, I found myself back as a Corporal Armourer, this time at Cranwell. The Powers-That-Be clearly wanted to humiliate me, as I saluted the putative, commissioned, pilots, my battledress having hanging threads, and dark patches where my three stripes used to be, and little holes, where the eagle aircrew badges had been removed.
Depression, Humiliation, Frustration, Summer 1965, after nine years. Nothing for it then, but to borrow £250 off my father-in-law, and ‘buy myself out’: discharge by purchase. If the ‘Chopping’ wasn’t enough, there was a dreadful new phenomenon afoot in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force. The evil Indonesian Regime was threatening the plucky little Sultanate of Brunei. (Nothing to do with their oil, of course.) Our nation wanted boots on the ground, in some tropical hell-hole. So, airmen were being shipped out for six month unaccompanied postings. It didn’t matter what your rank or trade was, you were going to end up doing something, anything, out there, who knows what. That was the clincher, for me.
In 1965 it was very easy for anyone with technical training in HM Forces to get a job in the new and rapidly expanding computer industry. The next nine years were spent travelling round Britain and Europe installing and fixing computers, in such industries as computerized type setting.
I then had a notion that I would like to work with people, and seriously considered that I might get into Medical or Dental School. There were actually courses that welcomed applications from mature people. But money was a factor, I had one small child, and another on the way so, after going to a career counseling organization, I took the only option I could see: train as a Probation Officer. The Home Office paid you a reasonable salary, once you had got a place on an approved course. The only downside for me was that I have a great aversion, and dislike, for criminals: as a Probation Officer you had rather a lot to do with them. I managed to find an acceptable alternative. At that time the Probation Service still did Domestic Court work – adoption, custody, access and guardianship applications – not many criminals. A strange phenomenon happened to me whilst training. One had to visit a lot of prisons and Borstals. At Halton I was told that the establishment was a cross between a public school and a Borstal. That was exactly what Borstals smelt like – Halton! That awful mix of sweat, tobacco, bleach, unscented soap, half washed socks – what I would call a ‘dirty clean smell’.
In 1982 I was lucky enough to get the plum job open to Probation Officers. There was a small charity, only three people, across the whole UK, that helped nurses who had got into trouble with the Law and/or their Disciplinary Committee: The Nurse’s Welfare Service. Forget black stockings and suspenders. Most of the ‘Clients’ were big ugly men with hair growing out of their ears and noses. They had done unspeakable things to patients. I used to travel round Britain on trains, visiting ‘naughty nurses’ and decided that, rather than continue spending a fortune on books and magazines, I would start an Open University degree.
Sadly, the Charity ran out of money. In1986. I was made redundant, and went back to the Probation Service. I finished my Psychology Degree, and decided to go for broke. I funded myself through a one year Child Psychology Master’s Degree at Nottingham University, in 1991/2, paying my own fees and living off savings. Here I met the absolutely gorgeous Linda, an Educational Psychologist, who became my second wife in 2000.
I was then able to study for the other elements that enabled me to gain the Diploma of The British Psychological Society, in 1996. I became, I think, the oldest person ever, at 56, to qualify as a Clinical Psychologist. I subsequently converted my Diploma into a Doctorate in 2004.
There we are then. Thanks for reading this far: I hope you are still awake. I’ve gone on a bit, but I would plead that my experiences are more varied than most Halton Brats, who have contributed to this Website. From youngest Bloodhound Man, to oldest Clinical Psychologist, in two life times.
Halton? What do I think of it so far? I should have just passed my 11+ in the first place, it would have made life easier. Given, my working class origins and limited education, Halton did give me a leg up. The downside? Working, as I have done, in the ‘Caring Professions’, and the current revelations of Child Abuse, it is possible to construe Halton as a very abusive environment for 15 year-old boys. Sure, there was no sexual abuse, that I knew of. But our treatment bordered on the physically abusive (bed tipping?). It was certainly psychologically and emotionally abusive. We never had the suicide and self-harm rate of Young Offender Institutions, but deaths were not unknown.
Ours was the first entry under the new system of dispersing kids all over the camp, as I understand it, in an attempt to stop the outright wars between entries, and bullying. However, in the process it delivered us up, to sleep in the same rooms, as the bullies who would be our masters: back to the public school comparison. We weren’t called ‘fags’, ‘Bull Boys’ was it? Tom Brown had it easy.
I ended up in a high status, poncy middle class profession. Psychologist colleagues who have worked with the Military tell me that they were awarded the honorary rank of Squadron Leader or Wing Commander, in the Medical branch. I retired aged 67, ten years ago, with a reasonable pension from the NHS.
We have four children and eight grandchildren, between us. I go salmon and trout fishing, deer stalking, clay pigeon shooting, decoy real pigeons. I shoot vintage black powder rifles, and target pistols: we keep bees. I count aquatic insects, as part of an environmental health of rivers project. I do voluntary work for the McMillan Cancer Charity. When I tie my own flies, cast my own bullets to load my own ammunition, file out widgets for my various vintage rifles, build my own beehives etc etc, I can thank the block of cast iron, for giving me those practical skills. I would like to believe that Halton also gave me more abstract, intellectual, problem solving abilities. That old maxim, of not providing answers, but enabling one to ask better questions.
Halton also gave me a love of pipe music (and a loathing of military bands – remember the ‘Goon Band’). I amaze my wife by being able to tell her that, in that old piece of film of the Battle of the Somme, 1916, the Jocks are going over the top to ‘Cock o’ the North’. If I ever get on Desert Island Discs, one of my records will be the Halton Pipe Band playing ‘The Black Bear”.
In a strange kind of integration of RAF and Clinical Psychology, Linda calls me “Doctor Chalky”. My son reminds me that I am not a ‘real’ Doctor, and can’t look up people’s bottoms: no problem I have never wanted to do that anyway.