AIRCREW TRAINING: RAF YATESBURY & RAF CRANWELL
From Form 543A, Record of Service for R A Bembridge
9.12.43 - 26.9.44. 2RS (Radio School, RAF Yatesbury)
27.9.44 - 23.2.45. 1RS (Radio School, RAF Cranwell)
Following this first leave, I had to report to RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire. This was situated on the A4 road not far from Avebury, where there is an ancient stone circle. Also near was Beckhampton Corner where there were some famous racing stables. Our P.E. instructors used to take us out on 'roadwork' as far as the stables, and then, while we relaxed on the grass verge, they tried to pick up a few tips from the jockeys and stable boys who were exercising the horses. These lads used to come to our camp cinema. I can 'see' them now waiting in the queue.
At Yatesbury there were hundreds of huts arranged in orderly rows, some for quarters, some for teaching, some for administration, etc. The camp was a small town, although it was away from any large civilian town. I reached it by rail either via London, or via Bristol. I had to alight at Chippenham on the main Paddington to Bristol line. Here I caught a small local train that shuttled backwards and forwards to a small town called Calne. From Calne it was camp transport or bus to RAF Yatesbury.
I was to continue my training at No.2 Radio School and now we started flying! The first aircraft I flew in was a biplane (with piston engines) called a De Havilland Dominie. There was a qualified pilot, an instructor and several trainees like myself. We each in turn carried out an exercise in contact with the ground base, using a transmitter/receiver (Rll54 and ll55). Airsickness was a problem and each Dominie carried an enamelled bucket at the tail end!
This reminds me that we later flew in Percival Proctors alone with just a pilot. We had to sit side by side with the wireless operator trainee facing the rear of the small aircraft. On one occasion my pilot spent much of the flight flying around a farmhouse, where I assumed he had a girlfriend. I had to carry out my exercise sitting at about 45° to the horizontal, and I'm afraid my stomach didn't enjoy this. Suffice it to say that, on landing, the aircraft was grounded whilst I had the job of cleaning out the interior!
Other memories of flying from Yatesbury include the day when, having completed our exercises in a Dominie, we were told by the instructor that we were going to fly to an RAF station near Liverpool to take our 'extra' passenger on leave. From the Liverpool airfield we flew to RAF Bridgnorth where we picked up our Commanding Officer's daughter, (in WAAF uniform), and brought her home on leave. It was a wonderful trip and my first experience of air travel.
To transmit in the Long Wave Band we needed a long aerial, longer than the aircraft. This was kept reeled up on the aircraft near the transmitter. When we were sufficiently airborne, the operator had to reel out this 'trailing aerial'. It had weights on the end to help with this job and sometimes these would pull it out of the aircraft so rapidly that it would break off when reaching the fully unreeled length due to its momentum. This was a crime, of course, which we trainees had to avoid committing by remembering to control the rate of unreeling. We weren't always successful and the aerial was lost over the Wiltshire countryside.
The reservoir that supplied the camp's water was situated on the hills that overlooked the camp. It was important that no enemy agent could get to this water and contaminate it in some way, so it had to be guarded night and day. During my time at Yatesbury I had to do this guard duty and I can remember parading outside the guardroom near the camp gates complete with kit and rifle. We trainees had had little experience of rifle drill and when we had to come 'to attention' I remember I dropped my rifle! This was another 'deadly sin' in the RAF and I was 'torn off a strip' by the corporal in charge.
On the hills not far from the reservoir was a 'white horse' or other such 'animal' made by cutting away the turf and exposing the underlying chalk. As this would prove a suitable landmark for enemy aircraft, it was camouflaged during the war. Yatesbury camp made use of lots of large pieces of natural chalk to mark out areas of the ground surrounding buildings that were car parks, gardens, etc.
There were many leisure-time activities going on at the camp, particularly in the evenings. One of these was a discussion group to which we invited some U.S. Army Air Force personnel on one occasion. There was also a Music Club where we listened to classical records. This was in the days of 78 rpm records and I can still 'see' the organiser trying to turn a record over with the minimum of interruption when we had heard one side but the next part of the symphony or concerto was on the other side! Even auto changing players had still to come, let alone L.P. records!
While at Yatesbury I played a small part in a play that was staged at the camp theatre for a whole week. The play was called 'Rope' (by Patrick Hamilton or Terence Rattigan, I think) and I played the servant. The ladies in the play were WAAF officers, and my 'boss', a Squadron Leader, was also in the play. I was still an AC2 (Aircraftman Second Class) then. We used to rehearse in a recreation hut, which had a sign over the doorway as you entered. This sign said ''Abandon rank, all ye who enter here!" and a good job too for me having to mix with all those commissioned officer! I can remember the Squadron Leader getting me off a class of my course, so that he and I could rehearse my part. What a situation for me, a trainee! Suffice it to say that the play had a successful run and, after the last performance, we had a little party in a room in the WAAF NAAFI (another recreational club), I can remember they tried to get me to drink some whisky, but I was brought up almost a teetotaller and I thought the whisky tasted awful! Somehow or other I managed to slip away from the party before I became drunk!
Another memory of the WAAF NAAFI at Yatesbury comes back to me as I write. From time to time we trainees had to do 'fatigues', i.e. menial tasks which needed doing but which were nothing to do with wireless-operating and on one occasion I had to help get a large room ready for a children's party at the aforementioned NAAFI. This party was being organised by the Commanding Officer's wife. I can remember having to unpack and wash out some new chamber pots that were to be used by the little children at 'potty time'. They had the RAF crest on them and were adult size. It made me wonder where they were really intended for hospitals, perhaps? We had certainly finished using such things at home by then!
At the camp theatre at Yatesbury, while I was there, the programme included a production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, 'Ruddigore'. Queen Mary, the widow of George V, had a house at Marlborough not too far from the camp, and, being a G&S lover, she accepted an invitation to come to an afternoon matinee performance. Everyone at the camp was informed of this impending visit and we received our instructions as to where and when we should help line her route and give her a cheer as she passed. This particular day that she was to visit was part of the week when I had to march my flight of trainees from place to place. We took it in turns and when we did this we marched at the rear of the flight and gave our commands from that position. On the afternoon of Queen Mary's visit we had marched to a Morse class and afterwards were to march back to a route-lining position. Imagine the situation then with perhaps thirty trainees marching in between rows of classroom huts towards the main camp road of which we could only see a small section, with me in charge at the rear. As the front of the flight approached the main road I became aware that a civilian instructor was frantically waving his arms and shouting to us to stop. This we eventually did, and a good job too, because who should go by on the main road the next moment but Queen Mary in her car outflanked by despatch riders on motorbikes. If that instructor had not been where he was, my flight would have marched out into the path of this royal party.
I was at RAF Yatesbury when I first started writing to my future wife but I did not meet her until I came home on a week's leave prior to reporting to RAF Cranwell (but not the College!) to start the Wireless Operator Mechanic (Air) course. The course at No.l Radio School was far more technical than at Yatesbury but there was no flying involved. I don't remember much about it but I must have coped OK. During the time I was there I was promoted automatically to Flight Sergeant (one year after being made Sergeant) and was a member of the trainee Senior NCOs mess. After 'passing out' as a Wireless Operator Mechanic (Air) at Cranwell I expected to finish up flying, as part of a crew, in aircraft that were out on longer trips than night bombers, such as Coastal Command Sunderland Flying Boats, so I now had to do my air-gunnery training.
Robert with Signaler Badge
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R.A.F. Yatesbury No.2 Air Crew Wing 'B' Squadron, Mar/Apr 1944
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