JACK OF ALL TRADES 1957-1980

Air Cdre Norman Jackson CBE RAF(Rtd)
Engineer Officer, Pilot

This piece is slightly out of step with the other contributions simply because I served during a different era, namely the Cold rather than the Hot war. The editor has persuaded me that the Royal Air Force seen from a different angle and era might have some relevance to the project.

Here are are a few reminiscences drawn at random from my 23 years' service, starting in 1957 in Liverpool docks, boarding the ferry to the Isle of Man at 8am after an overnight train journey. The stunningly smart Warrant Officer complete with waxed moustache and pace-stick was the first serving RAF person I met. As I approached the ferry he stepped forward, smiled and said “Second gangway sir”. I asked him how he could possibly know I was one of “his”, bound for officer training at RAF Jurby, out of the hundreds on the quay. His reply was simple “You must be joking sir – you will do well in the Royal Air Force – not RAF, if you don’t mind sir."

The Warrant Officers were the centre of our lives. Father figures, very strict but always fair, plus a well developed sense of humour. I learned to salute correctly when our Warrant Officer pointed out that the two key points to remember were “No stamping" and "No hand quiver at the salute” - “that is only for the Guards, and we all know that they are ignorant, ugly Pongos, with broken noses and we don’t want to be mistaken for them do we gentlemen?"

Regularly, we were urged to remember what the crown on our caps represented. “If Her Majesty was standing over there watching you, what do you think she would feel? Well, I tell you; disappointment, pure disappointment gentlemen. She would wearily turn her back walk away shaking her head and refuse to sign your commissions”.

After all that, how could any of us not show utmost respect for NCOs throughout our service as officers?

After basic training at Jurby and technical training at RAF St Athan, my first posting was to RAF Brampton near Huntingdon, I soon met my future wife and married her there a year later. I was convinced that I was on a safe bet, she being the glamorous daughter of the Wing Commander. Riches beyond avarice since he lived in a huge house and served Dry Fly sherry. How was I to know it was a service quarter? It was my introduction to the fact that throughout my (our) career it was always a case of public splendour and private shortage.

Work at Brampton was in the RAF’s own psychology branch, mainly manned by civilian psychologists – by and large all quite mad – but it was great fun for a young lad. The selection and training of airmen and officers of all trades and branches; how how to make apprentices and boy entrants loyal for life, only to find that “they the boys” were running their training schools, Halton, Cosford etc., not the RAF as their “airships” thought.

My first operational tour was as Engineer Officer of 81 Squadron at Tengah in Singapore. The Squadron flew Canberra photo reconnaissance versions. A splendid aircraft that only left the front line recently after over 50 years of service. Before my time, 81 flew the last operational sortie of the Spitfire.


Fg Off Jackson (left) as 81 Sqn Engineer Officer instructing senior aircrew that there is
'actually' nothing wrong with the aircraft: RAF Tengah 1960


81 Sqn's Canberras being lined up at RAF Tengah for the AOC's Annual Inspection, 1961

My most vivid memory was to launch six aircraft at first photographic light (5am) to photograph rioters in Brunei planning to boot out the Sultan who was under UK protection.

About an hour later, the CO called me in and I found him with his head in his hands. My first thought was, "Oh God, we have lost one". But he was worried about a call he had just had from the High Commissioner who reported that one of our aircraft had hit the main radio aerial mast on the hill above Brunei town, whilst the Sultan was broadcasting to his people. Apparently he had just reached the “We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the streets ... etc." when he was cut off by us hitting the mast. He had called the High Commissioner to demand to know whose side we were on?

Fortunately, the aircraft was still flyable, but only just, having lost 6 feet of wing tip – but that’s the Canberra for you!


Fg Off Jackson 'supervising' naval operations on HMS Victorious in the South China Sea, 1962

Having agreed to sign on for a Permanent Commission, I was offered a choice of two years at Southampton University for a course in advanced aeronautics or instead, pilot training. I chose the latter!

The basic course at that time was called 'All Through Jet', so no propellers and no tail wheels. In fact I never flew with anything other than a nose wheel and a jet engine throughout my service. I did my training at No.3 Flying Training School, RAF Leeming. We were never told that our first flights and first solo after 12 hours were in an aircraft that outperformed the Spitfire. I didn’t realise at the time just how brilliant the RAF training is. It was only much later when I trained for my private licence that I realised just how good it was – but I digress.

I never joined another squadron, so my flying was limited, but it did involve me in a wide range of aircraft types. The most interesting was the Harrier at RAF Wittering in the mid 1970s as Officer Commanding Engineering Wing.

However before that, I enjoyed tours in Strike and Coastal Commands, but certainly did not enjoy my tour in the Ministry of Defence involving four hours a day commuting in streaming railway carriages. The work in Whitehall was so mind-numbing as to make me consider throwing myself out of the train. In the end it fell to my wife to take the strain as I spent all weekends moaning.

The most interesting event during this period was to be honoured to be part of the RAF contingent at Winston Churchill’s Lying in State in Westminster Hall. To be standing there resting on swords reversed in the middle of the night; four of us with just two candles and the coffin for company in the Mother of Parliaments, whilst the massive thousand year old hammer beam roof cracked and groaned to the sound of the chimes of Big Ben is truly unforgettable.


This was taken on the Royal Navy's Watch

Suddenly, I was posted to Wittering, as mentioned above. Back to the front line, real people and fascinating aeroplanes and the best Station Commander I have ever met – Ian Keppie. Ian was a remarkable man. He had been thrust into the job, after several years as the RAF test pilot at Bedford preparing the Harrier for service, when the selected CO lost his life learning to fly the Harrier before taking up his position - tragic.

Despite, having spent years away from the real RAF, test flying, Ian slipped back into the Service fully charged up to take on the enemy. He was a Cranwell graduate which I am sure gave him the sound foundations that enabled him to take command and lead at the drop of a hat. This he did and he formed a team that was prepared to take on the world, not just the Russians. He created a spirit where we were prepared to break any rules or regulations that got in the way of 'winning'.

Under NATO (to which the Harrier force was assigned) each base has to be Tactically Evaluated - have a TACEVAL. The Harriers had not yet been subjected to a TACEVAL, which takes place over several days. The Station was occupied by an army of Staff Officers, who, having announced that war had been declared, stood back and noted our every action over the days, which in our case included the deployment to Norway of our aircraft complete with ground crew and war reserves of ordnance actually flown out in 50 or so heavy transports.

These TACEVALS were no-notice, but under Ian, we worked like maniacs to bribe our friends in NATO to find out the date. We never found out but every time we got a rumour we all went to bed in combat gear, just in case.

My wife could not understand why I lay there in my 'spotties' and boots on top of the bed. However, who was laughing last when the sirens sounded and I was in Operations Control within 5 minutes to meet the NATO testing staff – they were obviously impressed! Suffice to say we got a maximum 'A' grade which was unique for a first TACEVAL. Easily the second best time of my career, indeed my life.

The first best time of my career was to be given command of an RAF Station. I had been posted after Wittering to the College of Air Warfare course, Cranwell, which was 6 months spent working out why air wars were won or lost. It would be interesting to any airman, but half way through the course I was asked whether I was "Catholic or Protestant. Then what about your wife?”

I had no idea what they were on about till my friendly colleagues happened to mention “you are on the boat to Northern Ireland, mate, better you than me”. It proved to be true and I ended up as the Commanding Officer of RAF Sydenham in Belfast.

Sydenham is in the harbour area of Belfast, which at the height of the sectarian “troubles” of 1975 was right in the centre of the strife but I had command of an RAF Station. It must be the pinnacle of any career, regardless of what followed.

Sydenham was one of the most interesting stations in the RAF. It involved all three services, RAF, Army and Navy. It employed 1000 very skilled local civilians to service the Buccaneer, Hunter and several communications types. The base was responsible for maintaining the Field Squadron that repaired the army vehicles blown up in Belfast, acted as a safe helicopter base and housed the Belfast bus fleet every night to save them from being blown up. Add to this the Maidstone prison ship, Queens University Air Squadron, the ATC and possibly the bottom of the pile, all the local politicians who were honorary members of the Mess so they could drink in safety behind the wire.

This was Northern Ireland. I was invited to speak to local bodies because unlike COs on the mainland, a military commander was a big fish for fairly understandable reasons. This led to me being invited to join the Naval Association on a fishing trip. “Just bring whatever you have got”, which in my case was simple fresh water gear. When in the sea, they say, “lines up gents, we are moving”, I was embarrassed by my slow wind up. The chap standing next to me said "Just get yourself proper deep-water gear, it does not cost a fortune. If you know anyone down at the Sydenham air base you can get it for next to nothing, and all made in top quality aeroplane material!!!!". It was Ireland!

On my final tour, I was posted back to RAF Brampton, where it all started. By now it was HQ Support Command and my job was to organise the heavy maintenance of all the RAF aircraft and vehicle fleets in service. However, I had a major 'secondary duty', which was to take command of any nuclear accident in the UK. It was obviously a constant responsibility, but the annual exercises (practice) operations were the really interesting part (fortunately, there were no actual accidental nuclear explosions during my time).

When the first exercise was called, obviously without warning, I was sitting quietly in my office at RAF Brampton, drinking a cup of tea, contemplating the forthcoming match between the All Blacks and England, when my Corporal Secretary dashed in without knocking at the door.

Corporal: Sir, Exercise HIGHWAYMAN has been called with immediate effect.
Me: What is that when it is at home?
Corporal: Sir, you read and signed as having read and understood the exercise when you took over.
Me: Perhaps, but how am I involved?
Corporal: Sir, a helicopter will arrive in 3 minutes to take you to the site of the accident, and you have to be ready in combat uniform and Service Dress hat to take command of the exercise involving over 5,000 staff from all the services, police and boffins from Aldermaston. You are required to report to 10 Downing Street and no one else – no one else is repeated, sir.
Me: What are you talking about; I don’t have any combat gear.
Corporal: Sir it is that cabinet in the corner.
Me: I often wondered what was in there, but God I don’t have the key and they are coming any minute.
Corporal: It is in the second drawer down on the right side of your desk, sir.
Me: How do you know that?
Corporal: It is my job to know sir. Come let me get you kitted up, I hear the helicopter, but don’t forget your hat because no one will know who you are without the gold braid.

When I arrived at the site of the nuclear bomb which had been involved in a railway accident and looked ready to go off, I took one look at the rapidly assembling throng that had suddenly become my family, and decided I needed to attend to Mother Nature. Rudimentary latrines had already been set up by the army (they are good at that sort of thing!). These were simple 'thunder boxes' surrounded by 4 feet high hessian.

My upper body stood about a foot clear of the top edge of the hessian when seated, so with my hat on I was fully exposed to hundreds of smiling salutes from passing soldiers, sailors and airmen, including a few policemen, all of which I had to return.

Those were the days!

 

Links & Notes

RAF Brampton http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafbramptonwytonhenlow/
81 Squadron Association http://81squadron.com/
81 Sqn history http://www.raf.mod.uk/history_old/h81.html
Tribute to the English Electric Canberra http://www.bywat.co.uk/canframes.html
RAF Sydenham Control Tower http://www.controltowers.co.uk/S/Sydenham.htm

page created 3 Aug 2010, last updated 9 Nov 2011: ACA Surrey Branch 2010