Working Lives

Life under the radar (1956-2023)

Location: Norfolk, Neatishead

David was in the RAF for nearly 30 years and was posted all over the UK, including a few years at RAF Neatishead, and to parts of Europe. RAF Neatishead is now the site of the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum and, having come full circle, David now volunteers at the museum.

My childhood and early working life

I was born in Chislehurst in Kent in 1941. A good year to be born – D Day was three years later. My father was in the army. He spent most of his time with little knowledge of me and I certainly had no knowledge of him. I didn’t meet my father consciously until 1946, because he was a prisoner of war for four years.

I went to lots of schools. My father was in the army until 1958 so between the years of 1945/46 and 1958 we moved everywhere. I guess I’ve been to about 14 schools including abroad in Germany and Kenya.

I left school at 16. My parents didn’t actually encourage me to stay on. I wasn’t particularly fussed one way or the other. I’d got my GCEs and I was happy to go and get a job and in 1956 jobs were easy to come by. Everyone could have a job.

My first job was as a clerk in a shipping office. It was a company called Hogg Robinson and Capel Cure, who were the government shipping agents. They shipped government cargo around the world. And I happened to pitch up on the military desk shipping goods across to Germany and to France and to bits and pieces around Europe. I did that for 18 months – two years. And as I looked around the office and I saw people of middle age doing the same thing as I was doing, just copying ledgers and calculating freight rates and all pretty routine stuff, I really couldn’t see myself doing that forever. Fortuitously the company was reorganising. They had an insurance arm and they had the shipping arm and they were rationalising staffing levels and sacking people – getting rid of the ones that were surplus – and I was offered an opportunity to move from the shipping department to the accounts department, which horrified me actually because just writing figures in a book gets you down after a while.

My older brother Michael had been called up for National Service. He joined the Air Force and he said ‘Well it’s a pretty good life, you know.’ I was in the Territorial Army (TA); I’d done about a year. I told a fib about my age so I was a year older than I really was when I joined. Nobody checked anything. We went and played  soldiers and I quite enjoyed that and there were a lot of benefits to it as well. So, I thought, ‘perhaps I’ll go along and see what the Air Force is like.’ I went to Hornchurch in Essex, which was then the Aircrew Selection Centre.

My early RAF career

I was just coming up to 19. I was not sure what I wanted to do really, but I’d go along to the selection centre and see and, not surprisingly, I didn’t put on a super show at all because it was just an experience to see what was possible. In fact, I wouldn’t have put myself in charge of a bus because, at that time, I didn’t think I was very responsible at all. Unsurprisingly, I was not selected, but they said ‘Come back in two years’ time if you want to, but you can always just join up.’

I finished up going to the local RAF recruiting office, being praised for my five GCEs. A very intelligent young man apparently. They said ‘What you really want to be getting into, young sir, is a good technical trade. That’s where you’re going to do best. Why don’t you try something like radar?’ Well, that’s like saying would you like to be a brain surgeon? You have nothing to base it on. But the Warrant Office was adamant that’s where the opportunities were. So, then I did an aptitude test to see how clever I was at radar. Well, you can imagine, if you don’t know anything about radar you’re not very clever about it so: ‘You don’t have that skill set we want to make you a fitter straight away so you’ll have to be a mechanic first.’ I joined up and went to Cardington where everyone went for induction. There’s a huge hangar there. I spent three days there getting tested, getting signed up and kit organised and then off to RAF Bridgenorth for square bashing for about 16 weeks.

I enjoyed it because I’d been doing it anyway in the TA –  for fun  – but it wasn’t so much fun at Bridgenorth because you were there with people who were still National Servicemen. They were the tail end of everyone who had managed to get deferred and deferred. because they did their degree and then their Masters and Doctorate and then something else. But they couldn’t defer their National Service forever and until they actually abolished National Service, the deferrals kept coming through. Now these were guys of 23 or 24 who were very bright. They were very bright obviously because they’d had more education than your average teddy bear! They didn’t like it. For them it was a complete waste of their two years.

My first posting was at RAF Locking where I did the mechanic’s course. That was a three-month course on airfield based radar and navigation beacons. My brother was an instrument fitter at RAF Upwood. That’s between Peterborough and Huntingdon and you could claim relatives then to serve on the same station. It helped with integration and it helped settle you. I said ‘Well, claim me and I’ll end up at Upwood.’  I went to Upwood as a ground radio mechanic. I arrived about October or November time. This would be ‘59 and the Warrant Officer was jolly pleased to see me because he’d not had an ACR7 (Airfield Control Radar} radar mechanic ever.  ‘Off you go. Tomorrow at 7 o’clock you’re opening the airfield.’ Well, all we’d ever done at the training was play around with little bits of it. No one was going to get killed because we didn’t do the job properly. So you were thrown in at the deep end. I don’t think it could happen nowadays actually. But then, ‘You’re on tomorrow. You’re running ACR7 on A Watch.’

We had to set the radar up. We had to calibrate it, we had to get it operational so the air trafficker could now land and take off aeroplanes. We had two shifts: mornings and afternoons. If there was night flying the morning shift did the night flying bit and the following day the switch-over came. There were two fitters with one mechanic and two wireless fitters with one mechanic. They were responsible for doing the lot – getting air traffic radar and radios up and running as a going concern, to meet the flying programme.

Upwood wasn’t a particularly big base. Probably about three or four hundred personnel. They’d have probably got on well without me. It was surprising that so many people were expected to do things that they hadn’t actually been formally trained for, but nonetheless, we were able to pick it up.

I was at Upwood for about a year and a half when I got selected to go back to Locking for a fitter’s course. I was then an SAC (Senior Aircraftsman). I arrived at Upwood as an AC1 (Aircraftsman 1). That’s a trained airman. An AC2 would be a recruit – an untrained, unwashed, unmoulded anything. And then you took a trade test of sorts to get a promotion and as long as your NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) thought you were doing a good job you’d get promoted to the next rank. There were periods you had to serve before you could get there, but just because you served the period didn’t mean you’d get promoted.

The training involved doing more in-depth work on the gear. You see, doing day to day servicing (1st Line), which is what we were doing every day was fine, but once a month you had to do a monthly (2nd Line). Like car maintenance, you can check the lights are working and there’s fuel in the tank, but no one would let you lift up the bonnet and start playing around with tappets or whatever. So, the skill level as you moved through the ranks increased, the breadth of your experience on different types of things was wider and, well, if you put your mind to it there was nothing to stop you; the sky’s the limit.

While I was doing the training there were new radars coming along all the time. Not always in the same field, but the technology was changing so you’d gone from working on radio sets with thermionic valves – you know, little things that light up in the old radio sets – and now transistors were coming along and it kept changing.

The fitter’s course was a year and having qualified as a Junior Technician (J/T) I went back to Upwood, which was no longer a flying airfield. I went back to what was the Ground Radio Servicing Squadron and that was responsible for third line …. You get first line which is just doing setting up the kit for the day’s work; second line which is doing a little bit more in depth work like the weeklies, the monthlies. Third line is like sending stuff back to the factory, only you didn’t send it to the factory, you got a team from whatever stations were allocated to these Ground Radio Servicing Squadrons for support and go on to do more in depth stuff. You’d have more kit to be able to check on it and you’d have more experience and you’d have, well, more exposure to things going wrong. Say, you’d turn up at RAF X or Y or Z and they’d have a problem they couldn’t fathom and you could say ‘Oh yes, we had that when we were at Leuchars’ and sort it out. It didn’t make you cleverer; it just made you more experienced.

It was quite a tense time politically. Part of what we were doing at Upwood was supporting the Air Defence Radar Station and that was important because the Russians were testing our Air Defences. They still do. So, if the radar went down it was all hands to the pumps.

With my training I had a less important job because my skill set required me to look after the third line beacons and there were only four stations that were our responsible area. I had eight jobs a year that were mine to do. Two six monthlies every year on four stations. Three were in the UK and one was in the south of France in Orange. It was lovely. We went to France twice a year. And at the end of that I was posted to Germany.

My first overseas posting

In 1962 I went to RAF Wildenrath which was on the border with Holland so it was well away from the Russian zone and the wire and the Wall and everything else and it was a jolly good place to go.

My role there was working on the airfield radar. I was a Junior Technician still when I got there. I was promoted halfway through to Corporal. But Wildenrath was a 24 hour station. We were working round the clock. We had Canberras, that were bombers armed with nuclear weapons, and they were on what we called QRA – Quick Reaction Alert – so every time there was an eruption of something up they would go. They had to be airborne in three or four minutes. And protected as well.

I was single still so I was there for a two and a half year tour. If I had been married, it would’ve been three years. I did my two and a half years. Enjoyed it actually, great station, big – probably 2500 people. It was the transit station into Germany for the majority of people posting in and out so air traffic was always on the go. Civilian airliners coming in too. There was always something happening, always something happening. So it was great.

Return to the UK

I was posted back to RAF Valley in Anglesey. It was a flying training station. It was so much in contrast to what Wildenrath had been and how it had been at Upwood. It was not entirely populated by Irishmen, but there was an awful lot of them. I was doing the same job – ground radio, ground radar, opening the airfield, closing it. The similarity between that and Wildenrath was that it was a 24 hour Master Diversion  station. It was interesting at times because quite often when the airfields in other parts of the UK, such as East Anglia, were clouded in, usually Valley was clear. Right on the coast. A nice southerly wind would clear pretty much of it and you could come in in the morning and you’d see V Bombers from somewhere and all sorts who would all be diverted because when they couldn’t get back to their base they’d come to Valley. At Valley, working nights was sometimes quite exciting, but the trouble was I’d got married by then and the nearest Marks and Spencer was in Chester and that was a marital ‘no, no.’ Shouldn’t get posted where there’s no Marks and Sparks. And more importantly, married accommodation was hard to find.

Valley was flying training for fast jet pilots and the whole ethos of the station was ‘must get the training sorted’ and everything was geared to getting every plane into the air flying, to get the hours in, to get the pilots through the training, to get the qualifications and then onto operational squadrons. You can see the sense of it, but the morale on the station was not very good. Everything was driven by the flying programme. And it’s not as if there were a lot of fun things to do in the tail end of Holyhead or Anglesey.

So, after I’d been there about 18 months constantly moving house, I was getting sick of it really. There wasn’t much to do. There was no sport, no inter-station stuff, nothing very much apart from your shifts. So, I volunteered to move. They were looking for engineering officers – this was mid ‘60s, ‘66, ‘67 – and they were looking for qualified people from the engineering industry to just come straight into the Air Force at Flight Lieutenant rank. They couldn’t get enough of them because they got paid more outside than they would in. So, they were looking for anyone that had a skill set that might be developable into a capability that they could use. I’d been doing my ordinary national certificate (ONC) course in Bangor which was the qualification needed to apply, so I applied to become an Engineer Officer. Went to HQ 24 Group at Linton on Ouse, which you’ve read about in the paper recently; that’s where they want to put refugees. The AOC (Air Officer Commanding) there thought I was a splendid chap, jolly good sort and all that kind of thing and said ‘Alright, off you go to OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) and see what they think.’ I ended up going to OCTU in the February of ‘68 and got a commission. Passed out in June with 210 Green Squadron, had about a fortnight’s holiday and then I got posted to RAF Gaydon as a supernumerary Flying Officer to assist in organising their Battle of Britain display. I never got to see the results of my efforts for the display on Battle of Britain Day because my course at RAF Cranwell was scheduled to start at the beginning of September. Poor planning on somebody’s part.

RAF Cranwell

I was posted to RAF College Cranwell in September ‘68 for a year Engineering Officer’s course. Again no married accommodation. I got to get a married quarters at Cranwell eventually. You only wanted someone to come back from Hong Kong or from Gan (in the Maldives) on an unaccompanied tour and they’d be bringing in 30 married quarters points and your points were just going up by one a year so it was difficult. At Cranwell we were initially living in digs, but we got a quarter at Cranwell because my wife got a job in station headquarters working for the Families Officer and, to put it mildly, she fiddled a quarter for us or arranged that we could get one, so for six months at the tail end of the course we had a quarter.

I graduated from RAF College and was posted to RAF Coltishall as O/C Ground Radio Flight in August 1969.

RAF Coltishall

Now I’m a Flight Commander. I’m a fully-fledged Engineering Officer – Flying Officer – with four years seniority. I was overseeing ground radio flight, which was running the airfield radar, running the air traffic engineering stuff, running the telephone exchange, running the teleprinter operators in the Communication Centre (ComCen).

At Coltishall we got a quarter because they had more quarters than they had people that needed them

I had probably about three people reporting directly to me. The rest just worked. It was quite difficult really because Coltishall had civilians working in RAF posts and the civilians were all in a trade union, which is anathema to me. I’m all for trade unions, but not when they just become disruptive. And these guys, oh, they knew their rights. ‘And you can’t make me work more than three weekends’ and ‘you can’t this and can’t that.’ That actually was a good HR experience, but it was hard work. Total people working for me – 30, 35. That’s including the telephone operators and the teleprinter operators.

At Coltishall we weren’t on shifts, but they did night fly so if they were going to be night flying we needed to plan ahead so we’d get staff stood down for the day and then come in. But there wasn’t a lot of that. Coltishall was an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for Lightning pilots then so had people coming from Valley, having done their Gnat course. If they’d been sufficiently well categorised as ‘going places’ they’d come to Coltishall from there. And they’d spend three, four, five months doing their OCU.

It was a very busy station. We were on the go. Well, the weekends were off so Monday through Friday. And again, like Valley, you needed to get the sorties, you had to get the aircraft in the air, get the pilots to get their hours, to get their qualifications to go to the squadrons. The sorties for the Lightning were very short –about 45 minutes to an hour so when they were flying regularly they’d be up and down all the time.

There were a few incidents. The Commanding Officer (CO) when I got there was a certain self-promoting Group Captain. He was always looking for the opportunity to be in The Airforce News or something. I mean in some ways he was very good at getting Coltishall in the spotlight, but he was mostly for himself rather than for us, but it was a good station to be on and he was always having ideas. He came up with idea of, what he called, The Diamond Sixteen. That’s 16 Lightnings flying like the Red Arrows do in a diamond formation, just to do it. I mean it wasn’t anything the Air Force said you had to have. He invented it. To get 16 aircraft up took probably 18 or 19 in the air in case something went wrong, and you needed a spare aircraft to make up that Diamond..

His successor sort of picked up on that as a thing to do and when the AOC was coming to see us one day he said he’d have the Diamond Sixteen up and, you know, ‘The AOC will be very impressed, won’t he?’ We had the Air Historic Flight – The Battle of Britain Flight they call it now – and previously the Group Captain took the Spitfire up to AOC’s plane on a previous inspection and escorted him in. That’s the sort of thing he did.

So, the next guy was trying to capitalise on some of this and we had this Diamond Sixteen going and the AOC was in air traffic and the wind direction changed. Here it’s northeast southwest. All the runways are like that. You go to Horsham St Faiths and draw a line up and you’ll go straight up to the runway at Coltishall. When the wind changes you’ve got to land in the opposite direction. To do that you’ve got to change the nav aids. The instrument landing system now has to face the other way. It’s not a trivial exercise to get a runway changed. Southwest to northeast, reverse it. It’s not all that straightforward. And of course, they have crash barriers at the end into which they’re landing. So, they’ve got these sixteen aircraft up and the runway change and the weather’s deteriorating. I’m not quite sure how many got diverted, but as I said, they only had about 45 minutes in the air and if you’re up it takes time to get formed up, fly around a bit and now, my goodness, you’ve got to get sixteen aircraft down on the wrong runway, with the wrong bits still in the wrong place as it were. I think probably three aircraft got in. One ended up in the crash barrier, one landed over the top of it which is a ‘no, no’ and the AOC was not at all impressed. And now the other airfields around, who are all probably in the same position of having to change runways, are now being asked to take a Lightning that’s only got four minutes more fuel. So, they were down at Stradishall, Wattisham, West Raynham. All over the place. Not a good start for the new CO. He never made Air Rank.

I arrived at Coltishall just before Battle of Britain Day in 1969 and I left just before Battle of Britain 1971 to come here – Neatishead. I was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in June 1970.

RAF Neatishead

I did a bit of everything here. I came here originally as O/C Comms Elect Flight working on transmitters and the electronics. This wasn’t an operational station in the sense of the other radar stations. They were installing Linesman equipment here, which was the next generation after the rotor radars. They had the radars here. This building (the R30) was being put up to make an ops centre – a Happydrome as it was called – so the sector could control their aircraft from their various fighter airfields from here.

When I got here we only had two operational cabins over in the R12 building and they were only occasionally used for what you might call ‘war role’ stuff. Nonetheless the radar picture from here was vital to the whole of the Linesman chain so our radar output was fed down to West Drayton down in London. All the data was collected there and they would produce the recognised air picture for the whole of the UK and that would be given out to the people who needed the bits. So, Bentley Priory – that was the 11 Group headquarters Standby Air Defence Operations Centre – they got it, High Wycombe which was then probably still Bomber Command – they were interested. So, this was part of the big picture from a radar point of view; from an operational point of view, not so much, although we did do a little bit of fighter controlling, but the fighter controlling bit was minimal.

I was responsible for keeping the radars going; keeping the teleprinters going; keeping the radios going. There was a lot of equipment there and it was non-stop. There were always things going wrong. I mean that’s in the nature of things. Off tune or not getting enough power or whatever. I don’t think we were ever offline, but the radar was very sophisticated – for its time it was very sophisticated – and there were lots of things which wouldn’t stop you producing the picture, but wouldn’t give you all of the facilities you might want. And then put on top of that the fact that it was a bit of a test bed for Marconi who were producing the radar in cohorts with the MOD (Ministry of Defence) and the ops sponsors in MOD. They’d pitch up here and say ‘Oh, we want to put something here, do a trial.’ There was always something.

I thought the working environment was very good actually. We were parented by RAF Coltishall, but from the airmen’s point of view I’m not so sure as most of them were shift workers here. The day workers were the non-technical people – admin people, stores, fire, whatever. But the technical guys would’ve been mostly shift workers apart from the equipment SNCO who was a day worker. But everyone else was working mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights.

From a social point of view, Neatishead wasn’t that great. The wives at Horsham had a circle that worked quite well. The guys probably didn’t. Our mess was at Coltishall, although we had a catering facility here where you could get meals. Obviously, the guys working shifts needed to be fed. So, we had our own little club here. From my point of view I didn’t notice much difference to being at Coltishall. I knew everyone at Coltishall because I’d been there for a year and a half so when I came here they probably didn’t know that I wasn’t at Coltishall still. For Neatishead only people, dining in the mess would be them and us and there didn’t seem to be a great deal of effort to integrate with the people at Coltishall.

At Coltishall I was living in a Coltishall quarter. The officers from Neatishead lived at Horsham St Faith just north of Norwich airport. When I was posted here I was told I would have to leave my quarter at Coltishall and go into a quarter at Horsham St Faith, which is twice as far as Coltishall is from here. So I said ‘But that’s stupid, because you’ve got Coltishall people living at Horsham St Faith now because they haven’t got enough people down there and you want me to move down there and it doesn’t make sense.’ So, I bought a house in North Walsham, which was very fortuitous – £4950 three bedroom bungalow. You just think about that. It was two times my salary.

So, I was now commuting from North Walsham. That was a very smart move actually because the CO here, Hopperton, was a Wing Commander Engineer and he lived there. The MOD factory inspector, quality assurance, also lived in North Walsham not far from where Hoppy lived. So, I said I was moving up ‘Oh, you can join our car pool.’ That was very handy as, you see, in the back of the car listening in you learnt an awful lot that you shouldn’t probably have found out about. I found out a lot about Hoppy. He was a Commissioned Warrant Officer, branch officer, which meant that his future was sort of, probably, limited and in fact getting to Wing Commander was quite an achievement for someone who was commissioned later in their service career. And he used the fact that I was a commissioned ranker. Whenever he needed a junior officer for a particular job, he gave it to me. Guard of Honour Commander, Battle of Britain Usher at Westminster Abbey, Promotion Boards at Personnel Management Centre, Board of Enquiry – I got the job.

In my time at Neatishead I had two jobs. I came to oversee the 2nd Line radar and Comms and ComCen/PABX.

They were then developing the R30, this building, the operational block and installing a whole range of new kit. It was called SLEWC (Standby Local Early Warning and Control) and, for whatever reason, Hoppy, the Wing Commander, having a little chat with me in the car said ‘How do you think you’d like to do this job because it needs doing?’ so I said ‘Fine, sir. I’d be very happy to do that.’ So, I get the job. I move across and another guy takes over from me in the R12 and I’ve now got five senior NCOs and ten airmen on SLEWC to take over this building and the control and all the processing equipment from Marconi’s when they hand it over for operational use.

AOC awarding the RAF Neatishead Commcentre staff a COMSTAR. (1972)

RAF Neatishead Guard of Honour at Freedom of Norwich Parade (10th September 1972)

Marconi’s would provide some support. You could always get industrial support, but it was going to be run by us. In fact, before they got anywhere near handing over they asked if we would help them keep it going because they didn’t have enough people of their own. I was delighted because my blokes were saying ‘We need to be doing this’ and ‘We need to be doing that’. So, we almost took it over before we took it over.

I was here for a year working on that. And just before handover, which would have been jolly nice for me to see, I got posted to RAF Medmenham Signals Command Headquarters on a unit called Radio Introduction Unit (RIU). Medmenham is near Marlow in Buckinghamshire, which is a lovely place.

I now have two young children, one boy, one girl.

Posted away from Norfolk

This brought more disruption for the family. We couldn’t afford to buy a house in Marlow. It was like saying, if you’re living in Hackney, can you move up to Highgate, but you didn’t get any choice about it. It really wasn’t an option. You just went where you were told, but that’s what you signed up for. And actually, it turned out to be a good job to have. So I rented my house in Norfolk and moved into quarters again.

I was working with a company called Standard Telephone and Cables in Cockfosters, who were introducing – or rather, bidding for a contract to install – a Comcen system. Signal messages were all processed manually. A manpower intensive activity. It’s a thing that a computer can do most efficiently. We were trying to get away from manual operations and put in what was called message switching. Standard Telephones were competing with Plessey for a three centre automated arrangement in the UK. And their proposals had to be analysed and validated and checked with inputs from us and suggestions from them. So when they signed the contract it would actually work like we wanted it to, which isn’t always the case. That’s when my luck ran out because from thereon in any project I worked on got so far and then it was scrapped. Or they put it in abeyance.

The reasons for this were that the whole of the military was downsizing and the UK CCSF project was tagging along behind. A message switch in Hong Kong, a message switch in Gan, a message switch in Cyprus, a message switch in Germany. Hong Kong was going. ‘Oh, well there’s no point in putting one there now.’ They were cutting back in Hong Kong. ‘Well, do we really want one in Gan. Does that make much sense?’ ‘Well, let’s move that to Cyprus’. ‘And that one can go back to Germany.’ Nobody knew really quite what was wanted where and when. So CCSF just went on the back burner. I guess by the time it would’ve been sensible to buy it the technology had moved on. And that’s what happens all the time.

So, I continued working on projects as I liked doing that sort of thing and was quite good at it. There was forward ambition as far as the military was concerned, but there was no forward ambition as far as the politics were concerned about committing to something in five years’ time. So, we’d spend a lot of money and then get nowhere. Oh, and then some more technology. And the bureaucracy involved with getting projects through the machinations of the MOD, the ministerial rubber stamp, the money committed; it’s just ridiculous.

Working in Brussels

I left the RIU in ‘76. I went to Brussels to work with the NATO Integrated Communications Management Agency (NICSMA) who were designing a communications system for the whole of NATO. Now you can imagine, I’m talking about problems with just MOD in the UK. You try to get 14 NATO nations to agree on anything. I was there for two and a half years, which was absolutely wonderful. Brussels is a lovely place. I had an overseas allowance, which was very nice. Working in an international environment you meet lots of nice different people, different experiences.

It was a secondment and I was styled a UK national expert. Well, nobody knew I wasn’t so that was fine. And I worked for a German Lieutenant Colonel – Manfred – and we had a whale of a time. We got the whole thing done. We got the stage two requirements approved by NATO and I got posted back to the UK.

Back to the UK

I came back to Staxton Wold, which was, like Neatishead, up the coast near Scarborough. When I got there I discovered I’d got there because the Squadron Leader that I replaced had had a big fall out with the Wing Commander – the Station Commander – and had resigned his commission. So I got rushed back actually. I should have been in Brussels another three months, but the NICSMA position was ‘Well, in three months we won’t be doing very much anyway, you see. And you can go.’

By now I was a Squadron Leader and looking after the radars and things. The stations hadn’t changed much since I first started the role. The three stations – Boulmer, here (Neatishead)  and Staxton Wold  were identical. If you went inside one, unless you knew the people, you wouldn’t know which one you were in.

Talking of people, I was lucky to have been to a number of different places with different technologies and different systems, but I counted up the other day how many people I have been on a station with twice. What would you think in 28 years? Ten. Funnily enough, the last guy that I was ever with again was here. We were both on the same fitter’s course and then he pitches up here as a sergeant and I’m his Flight Lieutenant.

You have to have a lot of flexibility to be in the forces with all the moves, but, if you don’t you shouldn’t have joined in the first place. There was no doubt that movement was guaranteed. Every two and a half, three years you would be going somewhere else and you may well be working on something new and you may get a course on how it works or you may have to pick it up on the job. It just really depended, but everyone knew that so you weren’t surprised when ‘Hey, you’ve got a posting.’ It didn’t mean you had to be happy with it (or did your family).

Working for the MOD

After Staxton Wold I was posted to MOD. I was in Operational Requirement Branch, a department of state as my Wing Commander used to tell me ‘Just remember, David, you’re a member of a Department of State.’ This was in Whitehall, the main building. And you had an awful lot of clout, but you also had an awful lot of being buggered around. Can I use a word like that?

Moving from Staxton Wold, my daughter was coming up for about ten and a bit so I stayed in quarters at Staxton Wold for six or seven months so she could finish primary school and then we got a quarter in Stanmore and that was fine. You could get into town on the tube, take your briefcase. It was quite strange, I mean you could see on the station at Bushey that all the people who worked at the MOD all looked the same, especially the Army officers.

I was running projects at the MOD. I was the sponsor for UK Air CCIS Command and Control Information Systems and the Wing Commander said ‘That’s your project, David. You’ve got to love it because nobody else is going to,’ and it was ‘Make sure this project gets moved forward’ and it was strange because there were lots of people sniping the whole time. In the MOD there’s a bucket of money; it’s huge, but once you get down to the nitty gritty there’s never enough and there’s always someone trying to pinch the bit you want. So, you’ve got to have your long term costings right. You’ve got to be defending them the whole time. And you’ve got to be persuading people out on the field that what they’re doing now is going to change when your project comes along. ‘Don’t want that. Don’t want change, do we?’ That’s a bit difficult – change.

I was there in total for four years and at that point, I looked around and thought ‘I don’t know, I think I’ve had enough now.’ I’d been going through Open University – all this by the way on Her Majesty’s government funding, because you could do it. I’d like to say I was doing PPE, but probably it was just general interest. I did a bit of everything. I did my five years or whatever it was. By then The Falklands had come around and I don’t know if I’d been posted to The Falklands I could have gone. Up until then I’d just been doing what I was supposed to do because that’s what we’re supposed to do. You don’t have to think about whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad. That’s what we’re doing so let’s do it. And now I suddenly started getting a conscience about things and started asking questions that I never bothered to ask before because I was far too busy getting the job done. And I guess I just lost faith a bit. And I thought ‘I’ll leave. I’ll get a job outside.’

So, I PVRed. I applied for Premature Voluntary Retirement. I was 42. I could’ve stayed in until I was 55. I applied to PVR and, unlike lots of employers, the RAF don’t like letting people go. Well, there’s probably lots of employers who don’t either. Had to go down to the Air Secretary Branch in Gloucester and be interviewed by a Group Captain. ‘Why do you want to go? What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ And the problem was that I was working for good guys and then not so good guys and my ability to work with the not so good guys didn’t please them. I would always ask difficult questions. You know, there’s always someone in the class who puts their hand up and says ‘What about this then?’ And I think I’d become characterised as‘There goes David again.’

Life after the RAF

They allowed me to go. My last tour was down at RAF Rudloe Manor near Corsham in Wiltshire. I sold my house in Norfolk and I bought a house in Bushey and got a job. I worked for the Press Association. Wrong! Dreadful! I lasted six months. Six whole months. It was a nightmare. The people who worked there were impossible. They were all unionised; there were four unions, I think. They were getting a computer desktop publishing system installed and I was taken on to mastermind or to manage this system with some national journalists, with some typesetters and copy takers and this and that. I just couldn’t get my mind round their mindset. I left on amicable terms.

After that, I knew I could get a job. I had supreme confidence in my ability to get lots of jobs because once I got out I realised that I had something to sell which the people outside didn’t have, which was knowledge about how the military worked, how the MOD worked. And big contracts come out of the Ministry of Defence – big contracts – and they never have enough people that know how the system works.

Thoughts on my RAF career

Being in the military was wonderful. There was an opportunity to do anything that you cared to put your mind to and if you were prepared to chase it you could get it. The opportunities for sports, for travel, for all kinds of things. If you were there and you were prepared to work that little bit extra then the system responded. Everyone couldn’t go to tech college, but if you were working at it and could be seen to be putting your share into the venture…

And now I’m back at Neatishead as a volunteer. 28 years is a long time and the RAF is in my blood. I’ve met a couple of guys now that I did know before. In fact one of them came into the World War Two room – why I got the World War Two room I don’t know – and he said ‘I heard you were dead.’  That was his opening comment, ‘I heard you were dead.’ That’s news to me!

David Guilfoyle (b. 1941) talking to WISEArchive on 23rd March 2023 at Neatishead.

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