A page for members to post their memoirs for all to enjoy. Please contribute; it doesn't have to be your full life story, any reminiscences will be welcome, so if you've a tale to tell let's all be able to read all about it. Send your memories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Squadron Leader Colin Hall RNZAF [Rtd]
A definitive work of this nature will, I suspect, reach a wider audience than might be imagined, because it will tell the tales of a group of largely unsung people compared with their counterparts. Sadly, the intervening years have taken their toll, and a number of the ‘characters’ of the RAF Fire Service are no longer with us, and many, many more moved on to other Royal Air Forces.
I was born and grew up in a small Durham coastal town, and was an avid reader at school and of course, given that I left school in 1955, only fifteen years after the war, a lot of reading was of the heroes of that time, from all the armed services. I was actually a Sea Cadet at age 15, and was aiming to join the Royal Navy as soon as I was old enough. Fate, however, plays some strange tricks, and the day I went to join the Navy, at the nearest recruiting office which was in Newcastle-
I was sworn in at RAF Innsworth, and issued with more kit and caboodle than I had ever seen in my life; I had never owned three of anything, and now I did! RAF Innsworth was the induction centre at that time. We were only there three days however, before being transported by train to a School of Recruit Training, in my case, RAF Wilmslow, in Cheshire. There, one’s attitude to life in the Real Air Force was shaped and formed until what seemed like no time at all, we were considerably fitter and smarter that when we arrived. I had led a pretty free and easy life before the RAF beckoned, and virtually unsupervised as my mother had died on my 7th birthday. I had survived the ‘school of hard knocks’ with little trouble, and as a consequence loved the ‘square-
Of course, none of us had any trade-
I arrived at Sutton on the 15th January 1958; on Course Number 336 as I recall. Here we learned everything there was to know about getting very wet and enjoying the process. We did lectures on every aspect of fire-
Training complete, the day came when the first posting to an operational RAF Station was to be advised. So the whole course, all eight of us, trooped down to the Orderly Room, to hear that six of us were going to RAF Eastleigh, near Nairobi in Kenya.
This meant a return to RAF Innsworth to be issued with even more kit, this time tropical uniforms although, despite RAF Eastleigh being smack on the equator, we had to take all of our existing kit with us, including greatcoats! A strange organisation the RAF, at times. I left Stanstead Airport on the 11th April 1958 on a civilian charter flight run by Skyways of London, in an Argonaut aircraft, bound for Malta, Benina in Libya, Khartoum in the Sudan, then Eastleigh itself. Eastleigh, at that time, was also Nairobi International Airport. While Khartoum and Libya were fascinating enough, with the smell of the desert, the heat, and the calls to prayers from minarets, I can clearly recall the final approach to Eastleigh and seeing animals only previously seen in a zoo, running around from the path of the aircraft. I was just eighteen years old!
RAF Eastleigh was, on reflection, an excellent first posting for a new fireman. It had just two resident flying squadrons; 208 flying the Venom FB4, [later to be replaced by the Hunter FGA9], and 21 flying the Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer, but was a stopping off point for just about every other type of aircraft in the RAF at that time, especially the Canberra. Later, with troubles arising in various African states, a squadron each of Beverly and Hastings aircraft became based there. I scrounged flights in all of them; loved flying especially when it was free. The Fire Section was heavily involved in all airfield operations, mainly because there were no permanent airfield landing aids or lighting of any description. The runway lights consisted of ‘gooseneck’ flares, a shaped can full of kerosene with a wick. These had to be serviced, checked, laid out, and lit before any aircraft could take –off or land at night. The flares had a finite life of course, limited to the amount of kerosene, so they couldn’t be lit until you knew how far away, in time, the landing aircraft was. They then had to be lit quickly, and we achieved that by driving down the runway with a lit flare in one hand and the other hanging onto the Landrover from which the door had been removed. Extinguishing the flares was rather easier, because we discovered the exhaust from the Dual Purpose was precisely the same height as the gooseneck flare, so a drifted approach to the flare and a quick blip of the throttle usually did the job. The flares could then be collected by the lads following behind with a tractor towing a bomb trolley! All of these activities were contrary to Standing Orders of course, but the job had to be done. After night-
Now, back to that fire-
In October 1960 I arrived back in the UK after two and a half years away, and it would be fair to say I was a very different person to the one who had left. I not only had a nice tan, but I was by now a very experienced crash fireman, yet still a mere twenty-
My two years at Cottesmore were almost up however, and with it, my five years in the RAF, so I had to make a decision; sign on for the full 24 years, or leave! I loved the life, and was good at my job [never assessed as less than “excellent”!], but I really needed a change in direction. Coincidentally, I noticed an advertisement in a national daily newspaper for the Royal New Zealand Air Force [RNZAF] which was recruiting in the UK and specifically wanted Crash Firemen. With all the confidence of a, by now, fireproof 22-
I left the RAF in November 1962, and in December of that year was given travel details to London where I signed on the dotted line with the RNZAF as a fireman with some seniority recognized. It turned out on arrival in New Zealand, that this seniority wasn’t quite what I had been led to believe [those recruiting officers again!], so some poor Kiwi was removed from a Senior Fireman Course and I was put on it. The Trade of Senior Fireman was a step higher than anything in the RAF, which had no real equivalent. So I ended up on my first posting in the RNZAF as a Senior Fireman, albeit still an airman, on the strength of an RNZAF Canberra squadron. Eventually, in 1966, I was posted to join that squadron, which at the time was based at RAF Tengah, in Singapore. I was one of two Senior Firemen, the other being a Cpl, attached to the squadron, but for duty reasons we were actually placed on crew rosters with the RAF Fire Service to make up the numbers. At this point I was a Senior Fireman in the RNZAF, attached to the RAF, with nine years service in two different air forces, in various countries, and was still only 26! A big plus was that Tengah at that time, during the Indonesian Confrontation, was a crash fireman’s heaven, with so many aircraft around that there were inevitably plenty of incidents and accidents to keep us on our toes. I loved it! I was warm, well-
Unbeknown to me, things were about to change! I was sent a relief on the crash-
Meanwhile, the squadron, of which I was a member, was withdrawn back to New Zealand, and I was posted back to my home base, and normal Fire Section duties. In a brief period, I attended a number of fatal accidents, both vehicular and aircraft, and which I was directly involved in the recovery of dead bodies. Then, in late 1967, word finally came out of the ‘head-
The end result was that I completed the course and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1968. I eventually passed all necessary promotion exams and progressed through the ranks of Flying Officer and Flight Lieutenant, at which point I was posted, in 1974, to a two-
After two superb years, with my family in tow, [I married in 1970], I returned to New Zealand, and attended the RNZAF Command and Staff College, to qualify for promotion to Squadron Leader, which rank I gained in 1978. I was then Chief Fire Officer for the RNZAF with overall responsibility for the running of the RNZAF Fire Service, and replacement of all its vehicles and equipment. In the case of Crash Vehicles, I instituted a replacement programme of a number of vehicles which proved excellent in service which, at the time of writing had exceeded 20 years!
I didn’t stay long after that, because at the grand old age of 41, and despite being offered a Permanent Commission, I decided I didn’t want any more disruption to my family life, and voluntarily retired in 1982.
Had anyone suggested, however obscurely, while I was at Sutton-
What I didn't mention in my career brief, is that the act of becoming a commissioned officer changed my life from being a fireman to being a Fire Officer, but also changing from a Tradesman, to a Branch [Administrative and Supply: Special Duties], of the Commissioned Service which meant that, in the eyes of the air force, I was an officer first and a specialist second! Junior officers get lumbered with every job imaginable, from Ball Committees, Mess Committees, Officer i/c this and that, Formal Investigations, Committees of Adjustment, Orderly Officer, and later, Defence Duty Officer, Report Writer, you name it, I did it. The learning curve from Airman, bearing in mind that I went from LAC Senior Fireman [no SAC's in the RNZAF] to Pilot Officer in one leap, is almost vertical; and very hard work.
Yes, the powers that be saw something in me that thought I was capable, but I had to learn ways of doing things that I had never had to do previously, and learning how as I went! When I eventually became a Senior Officer, that is a Squadron Leader, I was a very, very different person to that when I was commissioned. Hugely experienced in areas beyond my airman's scope. I had developed skills in management that I had no idea I had! For example, in order to get a replacement major crash vehicle into service as I did, I had to convince Air Staff, in writing, of the need, then write the full and detailed specification for the vehicle, write the submission to Treasury, then manage the subsequent Tender Process! That's a huge leap from seeing who could fart loudest in the cab of a Mk6 on a cold night at Cottesmore!
The fact that I followed my air force service with a very successful private sector career for 15 years was all down to the RAF Fire Service. It’s as simple as that! We were trained, and then given responsibility beyond our years.
My second career post air force? In 1982 I joined a very well known and respected educational college, one of the oldest schools in New Zealand [secondary school] as Bursar, with responsibility for all non-
The other and hugely significant event in my life was that, at the time I was commissioned, I was 28-
My first contact with the RAF was in 1957. It was the time when they could not make up their minds about National Service. I made my own mind up and decided to go and enlist for three years. I became a Wireless Operator and went to El Adam in Libya and Malta. These were the days when the Hastings was still flying, the V bombers were painted white and the Britannia’s were just coming into service. It was an interesting job but not one that I really enjoyed, so when my three years were up I took Demob and returned home to Wales.
What to do now? I had always fancied the Fire Service, perhaps because my Father was one during the war, (NFS) but there were no full-
There were rumours that some full time firemen were going to be appointed but if so it would be from the people who were already retained and I lived too far away from the fire station to be one. Full time firemen were eventually employed but as Control Operators and as retained during their off duty time.
I contacted a few Fire Brigades, there was more about in those days, and was lucky enough to be appointed to Liverpool City Fire Service. This suited me because I had an aunty living there so accommodation would not be a problem. The training was run on a day basis nine to five but the day started with a parade and inspection so you either went in early or took your kit home to clean. It was run on a military style with the Navy being the main basis as most brigades were. Most men in the service were ex-
We used an Open Pumping Appliance fitted with a 50 foot wheeled Escape ladder. Most of the equipment: branches, stand pipes etc were made of brass and the fire hose was mostly unlined canvas hose with brass couplings.
Uniforms had no resemblance to the modern uniforms. It had not changed for years, I am sure you have seen many photos of the tunics (Lancer style) with eight chrome buttons, leather belt complete with axe and pouch, leather fire boots, old style helmets made of fibre glass and/or cork and all coloured black, which seems very strange these days.
On completion of my twelve week training I was posted to Hatton Garden which was the Fire Brigade HQ and main control as well as an operational station and in the middle of the city, just behind the old Mersey tunnel, off Dale Street.
As you can imagine it was a busy station being in the city centre and also covering the docks with all its shipping and warehouses we also acted as backup to other stations within the city. Street alarm points were still in existence which were excellent but also a temptation to children. I was lucky my first “shout” was in the first minute of my first shift.
A small fire in a warehouse which had activated the sprinkler system. This was the first of very many calls which ranged from chimneys, houses, ships, warehouses and just about anything else you can think of. Fire Prevention then was not like it is today and Liverpool was full of very old and often derelict properties. A “job” of four or five pumps plus maybe a turntable Ladder (TL) and/or Emergency Tender (ET) was quite a usual occurrence and many of these escalated to ten plus and maybe two TL’s and/or a Hydraulic Platform HP) which were coming into service at that time.
Using Breathing Apparatus was not as easy as it is today because the sets were Oxygen, 1 hour Proto, carried on an ET and ½ hour Salvus carried on each pumping appliance. Once used it was quite a long and complicated procedure to service them. We had a modern fleet of appliances mostly Dennis F24A fitted with Rolls Royce engines pumping 1,000 gallons per minute (gpm) and either carried a 50 foot wheeled escape ladder or a 30 foot wooden Ajax ladder. No blue lights and two tone horns, just a couple of orange flashers on the front and a bell. Some had a manual horn operated by Officer in charge (OIC), but experiments were going on with different coloured lights and where to position them on the vehicles.
A couple of open top appliances were also available to go on the run if required, what an experience that was!
One of the most difficult times was the winter of 1962-
Petrol, rags and straw were carried with us to thaw out the hydrants and we also had small Butane cylinders with a blow torch type attachment. Get any water on yourself and it very often froze.
At this time the Civil Defence was in full swing because of the cold war. The Brigade was heavily involved in this on the fire fighting side, having an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) unit and their Green Goddesses plus pipe layers attached to the city. I became a Motor cycle Dispatch Rider and went on several weekend exercises.
After about two years I was posted to a station called Westminster Road in the Walton area. What a contrast, from a large HQ station to a small old station which had a pump, PE and TL which just, and I mean just, fitted in. No station yard or drill tower, a watch room, small office and one multi-
It was a good time to live in the city socially but unfortunately as a Fireman in those days you could not afford to take advantage of this. The Fire Service was going through a bad patch, with poor wages and long hours, a 56 hour week, nine hour day and fifteen hour night on a shift pattern that never gave you a full weekend off. It was also difficult to get a shift off because of the manpower shortage.
We had a couple of Demo marches through the city and in those days we wore our caps and jackets and marched properly with dignity, not like some of our present Demos. Many people were leaving the service for jobs with better pay and hours. Coventry City Fire Service broke the rules and paid well over the national agreed rates of pay because they were so desperate to keep and recruit men. A 48 hour week had been agreed but recruitment was not sufficient to implement this, plus the local authorities were reluctant to come up with the extra money that this would cost. Many men, especially the married ones with children had part-
Prompted by these circumstances, seeing adverts, and my previous service. I decided to rejoin the RAF as a Fireman. It was not an easy decision because I enjoyed the job and I had made many friends in and out of the job and I had always found the Liverpool people friendly and helpful.
I was offered, as a re-
I do not remember exactly how it was done, but again I did not have to do the full course, probably the same as Swinderby. I do remember having difficulty doing some of the Drills e.g. ladders, because of course; it was all new to the other lads. Anyway I got through it alright and passed the final exam with 95% I got one question wrong, got my hydrant and SV signs mixed up I think. I found it an enjoyable course except for some of the Regiment B*****s, and had some good nights out in Darlington. I got picked up by the police one night hitching on the motorway, but after a bollocking they gave me a lift to within about a mile from camp.
After the course I was posted to RAF Marham, Norfolk which I got to via RAF Waddington, Lincs. Someone in the Admin office had made a mistake, very rare that!!! This was early 1966 and by March 1967 I would be from there and in Aden. Marham is an old RAF Station dating from 1916 and at this time was only being used for the Victor air refuelling aircraft of 55 and 57 squadrons which were officially at RAF Honington Suffolk which was having some work done on its runway. The Fire section was at the main camp area and the Crash Bays in the middle of the airfield so we were transported there by the well known Bedford three tonners. The bays were not the best I have seen. We had the usual RAF Fire engines/Trucks/Tenders (which ever term you wish to use) Land Rover Tender (Dry Powder), Thorneycroft 5A. Alvis Mk 6 (Foam Producers) and Thorneycroft Dual Purpose Water tenders. Obviously I had to get to know a different style of working in a completely different Fire Fighting kit and with different appliances to which I had been used to, training is never the same as the real thing, I can’t remember any incidents of note, plenty of washing away spilt fuel, practise crashes and map reading. In fact I don’t remember a lot about Marham, because I went on a driving course to RAF St Athan, South Wales and RAF Catterick, plus leave and the time we spent at RAF Honington when the Victors went back and the runway at Marham was being re-
One escapade I do remember was a trip to MOD Fazakerly, Liverpool with an Mk5A Fire truck which was due for refurbishment. I was due to go on leave and was going to spend it in Wales, but because of my connection with the city, the Warrant Officer (Ben Skie?) decided I should go via Liverpool and take the vehicle with me. It was completely empty, no water or equipment, and he assured me that if I stuck to his route I would have enough fuel. I didn’t. I ran out near Stafford so had to ring Marham from a local house and they arranged for a local MOD Establishment to come out and fill me with fuel from cans. I was lucky I was on a quiet “A” road and near habitation. When I got back to Marham it was of course, my own fault!
So I left for Aden, South Yemen and although I was a bit apprehensive about that I was not really sorry to leave Marham/Honington which I had found a bit disorganised and boring.
Aden RAF Khormaksar was a lot different from Marham. Other than the heat and the Emergency situation, it was a busy airfield with civilian and military aircraft so it was much more interesting. We had the usual selection of fire vehicles including the new Mk7 Foam truck. The shifts were Morning/Evening and afternoon Night –Off, so they kept us occupied and off-
When on duty at the airfield. There were other places e.g. the ammunition store near crater and the jetty where fuel was off-
It was the night of Thursday 12th October 1967. When Britannia aircraft XL638 landed. I was doing my two hour stint on guard duty at the gate of the Fire Section compound, After seeing and hearing many a Britannia land, I was waiting to hear the sound of the reverse pitch of the engines come in. I didn’t! I then heard the crash alarm going and ran to the vehicle I was manning that shift. We made our way to the scene of the crash at the causeway end of the runway. On arrival we found the barbed wire fence was intact and luckily the tide was out. Using ladders, we scaled the fence and made our way to the aircraft. It was difficult to run/walk through the clinging mud. The crews had evacuated the aircraft. On entering we were astonished to see the nose wheel had come through the floor. Obviously our first concern was to see if anyone was still on board. We then looked for the correct switches to stop the propeller, which was still turning very slowly. I can remember our joy at being able to successful. We were then ordered to leave the aircraft.”
The last few months in Aden were a bit hectic and sometimes chaotic with people moving out which meant many more flights, equipment including fire vehicles were going as well. Some locals were also trained!!! To provide some sort of cover when we left. We even sent our Budgies, to Masirah or Sharja, which we had previously kept in an aviary outside the fire section accommodation. So after a long flight home via Bahrein and Cyprus on a RAF Britannia and the usual leave I was posted to St Athan near Barry in South Wales.
The station is one of the biggest in land area of all RAF bases in the world consisting of two camps, East and West, with the airfield in between. East was a training camp for various trades including the RAF Driving School and the famous gymnasium and had the usual accommodation blocks NAAFI etc. West was the operational side which dealt mainly with aircraft maintenance and the main aircraft in those days was the Vulcan. The only squadron based there was the University of Wales which used Chipmunks. Prince Charles started his flying there in his all red Chipmunk. Again we had the usual collection of RAF fire fighting vehicles. We had a collection of aircraft in and out for various reasons including the Red Arrows who called quite regularly either going to or coming from a display. It was a day flying station but occasionally we had some evening or weekend flights so the shift we did were for domestic cover.
The size of the station including the married quarters made it quite a high risk but thankfully in my time there were no major incidents. Very often we only had Fire Piquet’s to help us which was not a situation I liked but had to get on with. The Fire section was heavily involved then in Radiation decontamination and half of our hangar was fenced off as a training area and we had to go on several exercises to various parts of the country. Off duty it was a nice place to be as there was plenty of places to visit locally and within an hours drive to Cardiff, who had good football and rugby teams. The section was a happy one we had plenty of social “doos” and involved ourselves in sporting activities, including football of course against other sections. I had a married quarter on west camp. I was involved in an unfortunate incident while there when I was put on a Mk6 driving course. We were coming to the end of the course and were returning to camp from the Barry direction and were involved in a collision with a civilian Bedford TK lorry. It was on a piece of road with nasty bends on a hill approaching Aberthawe power Station. The TK came around the bend over the white line, and hit the Mk6. This was worse than hitting a brick wall, the TK’s front just crumpled. I was not the driver so got out, I managed to open the TK door and the driver was obviously in a bad way and there was little I could do for him. I left our instructor and the driver and ran to a nearby garage to phone for help and inform camp. Unfortunately the driver died. I am sure you can imagine the paperwork after that.
Towards the end of my time at St Athan and in the RAF, because we had decided it was not for us, I was sent on Exercise Bersatu Padu in Singapore and Malaya for two months, May-
On arrival there was the usual “cock-
Some slept inside, and some outside, of a building besides a railway track. The coach was repaired by the afternoon of the following day and we arrived in Dungan at about midnight, and met up with the advance party. There we spent about a week preparing and testing vehicles etc, going to the beach, having a few beers and going to places called Panarek and Mochen? For stores and water. Who was the brave fireman who slept fully clothed trousers tucked into socks, long sleeved shirt and all tent flaps fully closed? Was it the same one who came running out of the bushes because he was disturbed while paying a call of nature by a Monitor lizard?
We eventually left for Prank which was not too far away, further up the coast to the exercise site which was a clearing with a short earth/sand runway. A tented camp was set up complete with air traffic control and the Hercules started to arrive, carrying men and equipment, mostly army. These poor bods had come directly from the UK very white but soon changed to red and of course there were lots of cases of sunburn and sunstroke. As a fire section we had a reasonable easy time compared to a lot of other personnel, but we had to do our share of guard duties and crew up when alerts were on day or night. One of the perks was taking a Dual-
The journey back to Singapore was quite an experience especially for yours truly. After a night stop at Kuantan we set out once again for Seleter, a convoy of Fire Vehicles passing through Malaya was not an every day sight. Unfortunately a Dual Purpose 2 left the road and went down a small embankment. The driver was not seriously hurt but badly shaken. The powers that be decided that he should be taken to Station Sick Quarters (SSQ) at Seleter as soon as possible, and I was detailed to go as relief driver with the Ambulance, After a couple of hours driving , me as passenger, we stopped for a break. The old RAF type ambulances had very high and heavy back doors and unfortunately one hit my co-
We spent about another week in Singapore servicing the vehicles, and returning some to Changi, visiting the swimming pool, NAAFI, and of course Singapore by day and night. One of the evenings was spent at the cinema watching The Virgin Soldiers
Which was an appropriate coincidence.
The flight home was a long and boring trek in a Britannia via Gan, Bahrain and Cyprus arriving at Brize Norton sometime in the morning. The customs were not very kind to us, going through everything including our weapons, which we then handed in to the station armoury. One consolation was that we had individual transport waiting to take us back to our respective RAF Stations. This was all part of the exercise and we were still dressed in Khaki Drill or jungle greens. I found out at a later date, that the object of the exercise was to see how quickly a force could be got out to the Far East pending the British withdrawal from that area. This of course is only a brief outline of the six weeks exercise.
After my return from the exercise I was demobbed (again) in the December and after the Christmas holidays, I started with Cardiff City Fire Service.
Cardiff was a smaller version of Liverpool, same sort of risks, docks, warehouses etc and after a few weeks training I was back into the swing of things. I was at the Central station/HQ which was situated opposite the old Arms Park rugby ground which is now the millennium stadium and the fire station is a multi storey car park. It was a period of change for the brigade and the fire service, we had an old fleet of mainly Merryweather appliances some with side mounted pumps and the uniforms were still as in Liverpool, but slowly the fleet was replaced with ERF’s with Perkins engines and modern aluminium ladders etc. Leather boots were replaced by rubber; tunics changed to Nomex therefore no belts and axes, yellow helmets and over trousers. Still a far cry from the modern uniforms and equipment but a welcome improvement. BA was also on the change, Oxygen being replaced by Air. The working week was 48 hours but we worked 56 the extra at a sort of overtime rate and there was still unrest in the service over the hours, rates of pay and working conditions i.e. too much cleaning etc. In March 1973 we moved to a new purpose built station, Adam Street, which was great, after the old place, with new appliances including a HP (85ft) and a proper training facility. Cardiff was a busy brigade because there were only four stations to cover it so we were helped out a lot by neighbouring brigades, Glamorgan and Monmouth. Late in 1973 I was posted to Whitchurch station which was in the north of the city. I did not mind because it was a nice place with all the facilities and busy enough to keep us out of trouble. We had a Pump/Ladder, HP(65ft) and a Land Rover with pump and hose reel, the later was replaced by a Rescue tender because the M4 motorway was just opening and it was on our patch.
In 1974 came a big change when we became part of the new county of Glamorgan which was objected to by many organisations. I was a union rep at the time and things were difficult because County and City brigades are run differently for many reasons and people were worried about where they might get posted or have to do detached duties and who their new senior officers might be. Anyway after a few teething problems things settled down and we got on with things as most fire brigades do. Then came the drought of 1976 which obviously gave a lot of problems mainly of course the shortage of water. Many water mains had to be shut off or be on low pressure and open water supplies were drying up. In the city emergency water tanks were set up in places like schools, hospitals, local council yards and fire stations. We kept these filled by working on our days off using Green Goddess appliances to empty swimming pools, park lakes and anywhere else it was available. Many fires escalated from what they would normally have been because of the lack of water or poor pressure.
The next year 1977 was an historic one for the service because we had our first ever Strike. There had been many demos, and work to rule situations but not an all out withdrawal of labour. It started in the November and lasted until January 1978 (nine weeks) and was a very difficult time. Our watch was on duty on the morning and had to make the awful decision to walk out of the station and leave it unmanned and not knowing what was happening in other parts of the city or the country, the off going shift stayed with us for support, I think that everybody expected to be back in work within a few hours and of course would have responded if a call had come, but as we now know this was not to be and nine weeks was not even contemplated at the time. It was a difficult time not least on the financial side; we had to “sign on” to get some financial support, go to our banks and explain the situation and contact the gas and electric etc. And hope that they would understand. I managed to get some work doing odd jobs and with the help of family and friends got through without too much debt, but it took months to fully recover if you ever do. We had a shift pattern to do our piquet duties day and night, and they were not easy given the time of year. The return to work caused some difficulties because some people did not strike and that caused a lot of friction for months and in some cases years. Was it worth it? In the short term no because we went back for what we were offered in the first place, but in the long term yes, we had a pay formulae put into place that eventually paid off and stood us in good stead for many years. Would we have had the pay formulae without the strike? I don’t think so.
Later that year (1978) I was unfortunate to break a leg at a “shout”. We had a fire in the roof of a bungalow caused by a painters blow lamp, when sheeting the roof I slipped on the short extension ladder, I felt myself falling backwards but managed to turn and land on my feet which did not do my leg any good but that was better than landing on my back. That was three months on the sick, but the only serious injury I sustained during my time in the service.
Then came 1979 and I was on the move again, this time back home to Powys, now Mid and West Wales Fire Service. The opportunity arose and after much deliberation I decided to go but knowing that I would be at the Newtown Station helped a great deal because that is where I was born and obviously had family and friends there and knew some of the Full time and Retained Firemen and had a good idea how the brigade worked. It was also another learning curve because I had not a lot of experience in rural fire fighting, i.e. barn and grass fires, long distances compared to a city and very often poor water supplies and of course mainly working with retained fire crews. Powys was split into two divisions, North and South and the distance between the most southerly and the most Northerly. Llanfyllin and its opposite in the south, Ystradgynlais was about a hundred miles, with the HQ, Builth Wells, being about mid-
The BA sets were also updated and increased in numbers, the ones in use were old and I think second hand. It was air of course and from negative to positive pressure which was new to me, and took a long time to set them up, do the training and fit them onto the appliances.
We worked a day shift with one or two evenings a week going to Retained stations the nearest being nine miles away and the furthest twenty eight to do training and when off duty turning out as the retained firemen did. The Union (FBU) were not really happy with this but it was a necessary situation at the time. In fact we did many things that the Union would not like and would amaze city based firemen but it was necessary and common sense, so our main tasks were training, servicing unmanned stations and Hydrant inspections etc. In fact anything that helped keep the Brigade as efficient as possible. We had a good relationship with the general public who looked upon the station in their town as their own and not as Powys Fire Service. In 1983 I was chosen to represent Powys at the Remembrance Day Parade at the Cenotaph. It was a very good experience not just because of the parade and what it meant but spending the weekend with Firemen from all over the country.
I had now taken up Bowls (Flat Green) which took up a lot of time in the summer; the garden at home suffered, and in the winter was involved with the local football team which now plays in the Welsh Premier. We have an excellent ground and facilities but not done so well on the pitch although we have played in Europe twice. I also became the station Sports and Social Rep. Which led to me becoming the Brigade S & S Secretary which being such a large Brigade was not an easy task but with the help of the Chief and others managed to get a few things organised which got stations together. The main problem being the distances involved and maintaining fire cover. We also managed to get teams in the National Sportsman of the Year and National Fire Service Cup, not with a lot of success but it gave us contact with the “outside world” which had not been done before.
On the fire fighting side of things I suppose it’s a quiet Brigade but we did, and they still do get a lot of Road Traffic Accidents (RTA’s). As those who have visited this part of Wales will know we have some good and relatively quiet roads which lend themselves to a bit of speed but also we have some nasty bends which means that many of the RTA’s were high speed as compared with urban areas. It was very often not the case of a collision but through hedges and into ditches etc.
We are now in 1985 and the end of my story because it was when I finished with the Fire Service. I developed a heart problem which even after months on the sick could not be sorted out and obviously on doctor’s advice I had to finish on medical grounds. I was “gutted” but it could have been a lot worse and I would be able to do other jobs, which of course I did, but that as they say, is another story.
In 1946 at the age of 18 I was called up for National Service with the RAF. Like all new recruits I had been given a choice of Army, Navy or Air Force and I was fortunate to enlist with the RAF. On receiving my joining instructions I was told to report to the RAF Recruitment Centre at Padgate, near Warrington in Lancashire almost three hundred miles from my home in Devon. I had never travelled far before, but was provided with a travel warrant, along with a postal order for four shillings in respect of advance pay. On my enlistment notice I was instructed to take a number of items that included a razor, a gas mask and my ration books.
My initial training was spent at Padgate and RAF Yatesbury where along with the other recruits I learned about military life with discipline, lectures, plenty of square bashing and cleaning of uniform and equipment. At the conclusion of this training I was posted to RAF Netheravon on Salisbury Plain where I was attached to the Fire Section. On arrival at Netheravon I was amazed at the vastness of the aerodrome. On reporting to the guardroom I was directed to the fire section at the top of the camp. RAF Netheravon was the second oldest RAF station in the country and wooden gliders, like those used in the D-
After having been there a few weeks I was sent with two other recruits to RAF Manston in Kent where we undertook a Fire Fighters training course, two of us passed out as AC1’s. Returning to Netheravon I was given a driving test for fire vehicles and designated to drive the Bedford Water Bowser.
The Fire Section was split in to two sections, crash and domestic. The crash section was located near to the control tower and consisted of one crash tender and two water bowsers. These would remain on standby whilst the aircrews were flying, training with parachute drops and glider towing. The domestic section was on call for conventional fires on the camp and maintenance of fire safety equipment.
Sometimes on stand by duties little happened and things would get very boring, on other occasions it would become very busy and it was literally all hands to the pump. At times when it was quiet we would ask permission from Flying Control to drive around the aerodrome perimeter, not only did this keep the engines ticking over but it helped allay the boredom. Naturally, as soon as we were out of site of the control tower it turned into a race. We had done this several times before but on one occasion things went wrong. When we were out of sight of the tower I took a short cut across the cinder track. Turning a corner, the Bedford Water Bowser I was driving tipped over. Crashing the bowser cost me my driving licence and I was put back doing normal fireman’s duties.
Two months later after a night duty I went to bed, only to be woken up a short time later and told that Station orders had been delivered and I was instructed to report immediately to HQ. On arrival I was met by a Military Policeman and paraded before the Commanding Officer, Group Captain Day. He had been a prisoner of war in the famous Stalag Luft 111 on which the film, “The Great Escape” was set. He read out the charge of driving an RAF vehicle in a dangerous manner on 28th November 1947 and causing damage to the value of £65. He then asked how I pleaded and if I would prefer to be tried by him or by a Court Marshal. I said that I would accept his sentence. After hearing the evidence I was stood to attention with two burly Policemen as Group Captain Day delivered his punishment. He then said, “You are sentenced to one hundred and sixty…”, with that someone coughed and I didn’t hear the rest of what he said before I was marched out again. Once outside, the Police Sergeant said, “You got off lightly lad.” Lightly I thought, one hundred sixty days is almost half a year. The Sergeant then explained that it wasn’t one hundred and sixty days but one hundred and sixty hours, or one week. From the C O’s office I was marched straight to the guardroom to begin my sentence.
My week in the guardroom wasn’t as bad as expected. I was to share with a guy who had been arrested for being AWOL. He was one of those people who knew exactly what he was entitled to and how far he could bend the rules. He would go missing long enough to be classed as AWOL but would return before being classed as a deserter. He seemed to know the rule book inside out and told me that he could get us out on Sunday for a trip in to the village. On the Saturday morning when the Duty Officer was doing his rounds my cell mate asked if we could go to church on the Sunday, knowing there was no chance of that happening on the camp.
The officer explained that there was no church parade on the camp and so it couldn’t happen. My mate then pointed out that there was a church in the village that we could attend and knew it would be difficult for this request to be refused. After some hurried discussions with a senior officer, the Duty Officer agreed we could attend the church if we surrendered our headgear and promised not to escape. The following morning we had our day out, courtesy of a church service in the village. The rest of the week I spent most of my time helping in the cook house after which I was moved back to the Fire Section. I had to retake my driving test and was then allocated a new CO2 gas vehicle to drive.
My National Service ran for two and a half years from 1946 to 1949, National Service during this time was part of the war time conscription period and sometimes referred to as war service. Things got busier for a year from the summer of 1948 due to the Berlin airlift. RAF Netheravon was one of the many airfields used in support of the air supply of Berlin. On one occasion an Avro Lancaster operated by the Flight Refuelling Company was returning to England from Germany when it crashed into the woods near Thruxton. We were called to the crash scene along with other fire crews from neighbouring aerodromes but the scene was one of total devastation. Seven of the eight civilian air crew were killed and all we could do was douse down the flames in the surrounding trees.
After two and a half years, my demob number came up and I returned to civvy street to continue my apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. Along with others whose number had come up we attended the demob centre where we handed in our uniform and other equipment. We were issued with our demob suits which included a shirt, coat and hat together with a travel warrant to return home. Interestingly my report from the Commanding Officer said I was a, “very good driver,” he was however a new CO on the base.
– never forgotten halcyon days....
The overnight sleeper pulled into a very cold Aberdeen Station in early April 1976, and a somewhat weary 19 year old SAC Nick Broom made his way on an even colder bus to Dyce Airport. The flight to Sumburgh was uneventful in the aging Viscount, and the Logan Air Islander was ready and waiting for me. So here I was in Shetland – it seemed a million miles away from the comfort of RAF Benson, my first tour of duty after passing-
I was the only passenger on the Logan Air flight to Unst (the most northerly inhabited island in the UK), so I had the front seat beside the pilot (they only had one pilot and no room for a stewardess!). On reaching Unst we had to ‘buzz’ the very short rough airstrip to chase off the sheep; a tight turn then saw us safely on the ground. The Fire Section were of course expecting me and the HCB Angus Firefly with crew of two (yes 2) was there to collect me and take me to the camp. And so begun that wonderful two year tour at Saxa Vord.
When people ask me what it was about Saxa that made it such a special tour I find it hard to give any kind of meaningful answer. The local people up there were as friendly and generous as you could ever wish to meet; the scenery is stunning and the weather is very atmospheric. The Fire Section and other RAF personnel (even the Scopies!) were just a great mix, with all the right characters. The bottom line is that to really understand the ‘magic’ of a tour at Saxa you need to have been there! If you have, you will hopefully know what I mean...
The highest recorded wind speeds in the UK have been recorded on Unst (I think), and the winters could be long, dark and cold. In was on such a winters morning that I had cause to take the DP 1 from the Fire Section, which was up on Saxa Vord hill beside the radar complex, down to the domestic site. This route involved in places a steep descent on a narrow road that was only designed for Land Rover and alike – not a fully laden DP 1. Well that’s my excuse anyway... I was only a few yards down the hill and was in low ratio 1st gear, but the ice was severe and the DP started to slew. Unst is covered in a thick layer of peat and as soon as the wheels left the metalled surface she started to sink – rapidly. We now had a completely stuck fire vehicle, no fire cover and some very unhappy Execs! OC Eng was there, along with half the camp it seemed, (the photo is courtesy of him), and after much digging, swearing, and embarrassment on my part (and with the help of a crane) we eventually got her out! But being a persistent chap I managed to do the same thing again the following winter, this time with a DP2, in almost exactly the same spot! Once was unlucky, but as I was reminded many times after this, twice was just plain careless! O well, at least I didn’t manage a third.
The Fire Section provided fire cover for the whole island in support of the Highland & Islands Fire Brigade, so we did get a few shouts; but mainly I remember taking the trailer pump and Firefly down to a small river at Burrafirth, doing a quick pump test then spending an hour or so fishing! The summers were long and sometimes quite warm, so there were plenty of opportunities to defeat the trout. When not sweeping chimneys in the Married Quarters at SHE (Setters Hill Estate), or taking Santa and delivering sweets at Christmas, the other main pastime (during on-
My first tour at Saxa went quickly and I was soon off again to Troodos. But Unst had captured a bit of my soul and I have been back a few times since. My last tour of duty was back at Saxa Vord in 97, albeit only for just over a year, and I went back there again for the very sad closing down ceremony (and associated drinking!) in 2005. RAF Saxa Vord may now be gone but those halcyon days will never be forgotten, at least not by me, and I suspect not by many others too. I now run my own Safety Consultancy business and live just north of Aberdeen, so the ferry is always on hand for those future visits back to Shetland – and I will go back. O happy days.
Mem No: 356
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