Working in communications – the General Post Office (1952-1985)

Gordon talks about his background in telecommunications after World War II and working for the GPO mainly in Norfolk. He tells of good and bad colleagues and how he enjoyed his career.

Childhood during WWII

I was born in Beccles on the Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1935. My parents were paupers!

My father was a labourer who worked in a gravel pit and had to shovel the sand and gravel into lorries by hand. He was only 23 when I was born. He was strong and fit Mother had been a skivvy at a posh house somewhere in the county and she found herself pregnant with me. They lived in a two up and two down for some considerable time. I grew up with my younger brother until my sister’s arrival sometime later. So I was nearly five when World War II started and then things got very difficult. Everything was rationed, sometimes in winter there was not enough coal for the fire. Times were hard during the war. Fortunately my mother and father were able to rent a two up two down cottage from my uncle for a very small rent, uncle being a generous man, and we lived like that for the whole of the war.

Father was called up in 1939. He was one of the first to join the army for the war effort and he didn’t come out of the army until February 1946. He was in a volunteer regiment, the Long Range Desert Group. During the few times that he was able to come home in the war he taught me (my younger brother tried to follow but he was probably a bit young for that) a bit of army discipline and how to survive. I was ten years old when the war ended in 1945. We had a fairly big garden which was too heavy for mother to dig but my brother and I used to dig it as best we could as six, seven, eight year olds. The neighbours showed us how to put seeds and potatoes in and fortunately we lived off whatever we could get from the countryside – all the fruits of the forest from the hedgerows plus a few that we scrumped from somebody’s orchard.

These two old ladies used to sell quite large bags of apples for a penny a bag, so that was useful. We were invited to have a look at their orchard which to us was vast and pick up any windfalls. Instead of disturbing the two old sisters we used to go in under the hedge at the back of the premises a hundred yards from the house and fill our shirts up with windfalls and sneak one off the tree if they looked ripe enough. Mother would curse that we shouldn’t be doing that but she was only too pleased to either bottle them, or preserve them – even dried apple rings, and that sustained us through the winter. Mother got seven and sixpence in old money from the War Office because father was at war – thirty-seven and a half pence in today’s terms. Somehow she survived to pay the tiny rent and provide food.

School days

I went to Sir John Leman school in Beccles. Sir John Leman was an ancient French nobleman who came here and set up a school for the sons of gentlemen. I hardly qualified as that, but I did go to that school as the eleven plus came into being around about that time. I’m glad I went there because being a grammar school it meant I was streets ahead of the kids I used to play with. My brother stayed at the Secondary Modern school, which didn’t go as far as the grammar school. They didn’t learn a language or go deeply into mathematics. I don’t think they taught English grammar and they certainly didn’t teach the sort of general science which included physics which stood me in good stead later on.

Starting at the GPO

I was very pleased with my education. I left school in 1952 when I was nearly 18 and the headmaster begged my father for me to stay on and go to sixth form and hopefully to university. My father said, `No. He’s got to get up and earn some money, bring some money in. We can’t afford it.’ In those days of course you had to pay heavily to attend university, with no government grants as far as I know. The youth employment officer of Suffolk found a job for me. I was quite interested in all things electric, and I had the choice of either going into heavy engineering in Ipswich which was a long way away or Post Office telephones for the GPO which was centred in Norwich for that area. I took the Post Office job. You had to have five GCE O’ Levels to qualify as an engineer, and I had six so I qualified okay. I loved the job. It was just hands on, wonderful electromechanical stuff. It wasn’t called an apprenticeship, it was a two-year training course which taught me how to instal telephones in people’s houses, larger systems in office blocks and how to mend and repair the outside lines and cables.

I also learned how to install the equipment inside the telephone exchange which I found really most interesting, apart from the fact that it kept you out in the cold; it was highly technical as you can imagine. There I learned all about how a telephone exchange works, from the batteries in the basement to, in those days, the telephone girls in the upper floor, who when you picked the phone up would say, `Number please.’ And the rest is history. But of course, they disappeared over time in various areas and now if you dial 100 for the operator you get an exchange somewhere in England. Because the telephone system in the 50s, was by today’s standard extremely crude. It was Alexander Bell and that sort of thing. So, it was quite crude. You couldn’t dial out unless you were on certain types of exchange mainly in the cities, and the telephone girls would do it for you. You had to book an overseas call if you wanted to call America or Australia and they would call you back and say, `Your long-distance call is waiting.’ Now you can pick the phone up and dial the number yourself – that’s how quickly in sixty odd years the system has changed, and technology’s taken over.

The Norwich exchanges

There was a main exchange in Exchange Street, in Norwich. It was a large Strowger type exchange which is electromechanical. The parts of the exchange actually moved to find the number and connect you when you wound the dial around or let the dial go. Incidentally the exchange that I first worked in in Norwich had 8,000 lines which was considered enough for the city but quickly got extended to something like 20,000 and then it ran out of space and a new exchange was built on the opposite side of the road, still in Exchange Street. That was a more modern affair able to expand almost without any more work having to be done.

National Service in the Royal Signals Regiment

I was called up into the army, national service, in 1954 for two years. I was very fortunate that I was able to serve in the Royal Signals Regiment which was an extension of telephone work but went even further technically. I was in charge of and had to maintain and repair teleprinters which in those days were the quickest way of sending a message. They used the Murray Code which is five noughts or five ones or a combination of five noughts and ones. It had been designed long before the war and was used in its early days on semaphore masts along the coast in line of sight. Black and white were the noughts and ones and the teleprinter used an electric code which was then translated by the machine into readable English.

In the army I served on a station at Pirbright near Guildford and had control of all the teleprinters for what was called the Southern Command in the British army and it was a wonderful job. It didn’t give me any rank on my shoulder, but it allowed me to play with these beautiful machines. I was in my absolute ideal there and I could always be busy on that when there was some mundane thing, like posh parades I should have gone to [laughs].

Post Office Telephones

I loved the army. It was a good life for a young man of 19-21. I went in for the two years and I was sorely tempted to stay. But I decided to come out and get married. The marriage lasted for 13 years and resulted in one daughter, but it failed. The daughter was lovely, and we are still father and daughter, but life moves on, and I returned to work. Because of my position by this time with Post Office telephones I could more or less decide where I went to work. The major places I worked in were Edinburgh, Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff.

I did have fortunate paid-for trips to see the wonders of the London telephone system including the Telephone Tower, the Post Office Tower with the Rotunda restaurant at the top (which didn’t last very long because the wheels ground to a halt and it became unsafe – so if you wanted a cup of tea or posh meal in there it didn’t go round any more). I also saw the deepest tunnels in London that our Post Office used. Between the Post Office Tower and many other places were underground railways going to various sorting offices and to the Houses of Parliament, so it was all underground. That probably included Number 10 Downing Street – there’s a tunnel from Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament which is also used by the Post Office, but I didn’t go in that one. I did go down under the Post Office Tower 190 feet under London, and I think at some point went under the river. So, I found that extremely interesting. It also allowed me to find out things which under the Official Secrets Act I can’t talk about but believe me there are more wonders under the ground than you would ever believe. It’s all to do with communications, safety and WWII developed this for security reasons. I’ve been in many of these places where my security clearance allowed me to go but only to do the work that I had to do there. I was not allowed to look at anything else and it is quite amazing how many places there are out of sight that we pass every day on our normal daily routine. It’s all to do with security.

I managed to climb the ranks in the Post Office from the basic grade of technician to foreman. To start off with they gave me seven people to look after. I then became super-foreman where I had about 30 people to look after, and that particular stage was called controller, so I controlled the work for these 30 people and I had to take responsibility for that. After some years I became what was then called mid inspector and was responsible for about 100 people of the various grades that I had climbed. I enjoyed that tremendously and ended up back in Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds, even though I was promoted from Norwich. The whole of the East of England was one telephone area; the telephone area borders are different from the geographical borders of, say, Suffolk/Norfolk/Cambridge. They cross over because of the types of exchange and because of where the cables run.

I retired early at 50. In all of that, I got married again and have two children. My son is now grown up and married; two grandchildren. My daughter by my first wife has two children both of whom have children, so I ended up at the tender age of 80-something with four grandchildren and three great grandchildren so far.

Fun times in telephone exchanges!

I enjoyed working with a lot of the people. They were the salt of the earth – they knew their job. One guy, we’ll call him Albert, who was in charge of the party that I worked with at one time installing the equipment of mainly smaller urban exchanges which were called urban auxiliary exchanges. You were doing something really useful to instal the equipment that the general public are going to be able to use for their benefit. (Alright, they also paid for it.) Albert used to build his own television sets in the days when they were great big boxes and had loads of valves in. He had difficulty with his language in that half of his vocabulary was in raw ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and many a time he slipped up saying what for him was normal. He didn’t mean any nastiness to anybody. Albert just spoke that way, with a broad Norfolk accent. He used to love to fool around and be a bit of a comedian. On one occasion we were shifting some heavy equipment and Albert deliberately dropped a huge iron lever that we used to shift the equipment onto the concrete floor which made a loud clanging sound. Albert immediately started to hop on one foot and say, `Oh my ‘…. foot!’ Just as the boss man came in who rushed over and said, `Oh, my dear Albert, my dear Albert, what can I do for you? You must be more careful.’ And course everybody else was hiding up round the back of the equipment giggling with laughter that we could hardly control.

On another occasion when we were out in the street Albert allowed his glove which was loose on his hand to apparently be trapped underneath a heavy piece of equipment that wouldn’t move. He said `Oh my Anglo-Saxon finger!’ just as a dear mature lady, who was extremely well turned out, walked past. We all said, `Morning ma’am, morning ma’am.’ To which Albert replied when she’d gone far enough away, `You rotten so-and-sos. You could have told me!’ [laughs]. So, Albert got himself into his own trouble. But nothing worse you know. The man was a genius really and he led us. I loved working with him, you used to learn so much from him.

Some people just happened to be bosses because they were promoted in wartime when most of the adequate engineers were in the forces doing something else. One guy was scared of his own shadow. He wouldn’t climb a pole and he wouldn’t climb a ladder and he wore spectacles that were war-time issue, looked like two round rings of milk bottles. Whatever you were doing he found fault. But when you asked how can I do it better, he’d got no answer. We’d say, `Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.’ And then carried on doing it our way anyhow. He visited the town hall which was having an extension built at the back and I was doing the phones there. Chalky walked in through the doorway which as yet hadn’t been glazed so there was no glass in it. He didn’t bother to come through the doors but walked through what was a static window of this rather large grand entrance. It had big opening doors but the rest of it was fixed glass. On his way out from this particular job the glaziers had been and put the glass in and polished it all nicely and when Chalky tried to go out the same gap it wasn’t there anymore and he practically knocked himself out. Broke his glasses! We’re not laughing because of any injury that may have been caused it’s the fact that he didn’t use the door, which by this time was open and was obvious.

On another occasion I was working a stately home with a lord of the realm. I got to know this gentleman by approaching down a beautiful white gravel driveway when all of a sudden there was a clearance which was the place where you’d get out of your van and leave it. I slammed the brakes on and turned the wheel and did a large four-wheeled skid in this white gravel leaving great big marks in it. There was a scruffy looking guy stacking logs up under a roof and I jumped out of the van and said, `Hello mate, is there anybody about?’ To which the person said, `Well, I’m Lord whatever. Will I do?’ `I do beg your pardon your Lordship, if you’ll have somebody bring me a rake, I’ll repair your drive.’ To which he replied, `That’s quite alright, I’ll get my gardener to do it. He hasn’t much else to do. We’ve only got 5,000 acres to look after here.’

In the event there was a lot of work in this stately home which I was only too pleased to do. It was a real privilege and I did work in there several days and met the lady of the house. They had every right to be superior to me, but they were not. They were very ordinary and understanding and offered me every help that I could possibly wish for.

One day it was filthy weather outside – absolutely falling down with rain and his Lordship asked the butler (who I just happened to know before I’d gone to that hall) to ask me to join him for lunch. I looked at my somewhat dusty clothes and thought, `No I can’t. I can’t go and have lunch with a Lord.’ The butler said, You must come, you know you don’t refuse.’ Right, so I walked in and excused my dress, ‘ ‘I quite understand. Please be seated.’ So, there am I at this great long dining table which must have been 15 metres long in this huge dining room with beautiful trappings, beautiful furniture, sitting on the right-hand side of the peer of the realm! We had, as he explained, estate-reared pheasant cooked in estate-bottled wine. He later explained they used to buy a hogshead of wine every year from France where he had other business interests and had his own bottling department somewhere in the country. While we were seated and enjoying this lunch which was superbly cooked, the butler came in and said, `Excuse me your Lordship but there is a Mr. Chalky to see Mr. Payne.’ And so, I said, `Excuse me your Lordship.’ He said `That is quite alright. You finish your lunch. Would you tell Mr. Chalky to wait in the orangery and Mr. Payne will join him in due course.’ I finished my lunch somewhat hurriedly which was helped down by a couple of glasses of the estate bottled wine [laughs] which was extremely nice, and I excused myself and went to see Chalky. Chalky said, `I am fed up. Why did you not come when I summoned you? When I told the man here to fetch you?’ So, I said, `Well I was otherwise engaged.’ I didn’t like to say I was having lunch because I knew what Chalky was like. So, the conversation went on further, he said, `I do not like to be kept waiting for you in the cold damp leaky greenhouse (as he called it) while you hobnob with the hoi polloi!’ So, I replied `I understand that ,Mr. Chalky. Would you like to tell his Lordship, or shall I?’ [laughs] To which he gathered up his long coat and scarpered out to climb into his car, `I’ll see you back in the office.’ The Lordship said to me afterwards, `If you have any problems let me know. I know people who will make things alright for you.’ I did get a bit of a telling off when I went back but I think Chalky realised that he was not going to get anywhere with it.

Many a time I was able to get one over on people who were above me who I realised that, in my opinion, had total ignorance about the subject matter. One flim-flam type guy had changed his name by deed poll to a rather posh sounding upper crust family’s name. His original surname from his parents was the name now used for a certain type of creepy crawly! He was showing off to the youngest recruit, a girl just out of school who came from a high school education to do clerical work involving a certain amount of mathematics using calculators and so on. He was showing off in front of this young lady, who was very personable, and speaking in a plum in the mouth sort of silver spoon voice, `Oh yeees, when I was at the university …’ He went on to explain that if she had any problems he was absolutely at the pinnacle of knowledge about these things – just come and see me. I told her the full truth later because she was going to work for me in my little department and I said, `You can ignore him. He may be in charge of the whole show here, but he doesn’t know anything so ignore him.’ The way that I tricked him was to say, `If you need different words when you’re writing a letter you never put the same word in the one sentence twice – you find an alternative, and to do that you use Roget’s [pronounced Rogget’s] Theosauri-arse.’ Which of course is Roget’s Thesaurus. He then in front of me and this young lady said, `Oh, well of course I always refer to Rogget’s Theosaur-iarse,’ showing his total ignorance of even what that book was.

At that man’s retirement do, I told the story about the youngest and newest recruit who’d come out of the army as a young man and joined the Post Office telephones. The first job he was given, he was the base grade labourer grade, was to dig a long trench alongside a busy road and the ground in the grass bank was typical heavy duty Norfolk clay. It had to be three feet deep and one foot wide which is very difficult to dig.

When a person retires someone usually goes round with the hat saying, `Would you like to subscribe to their retirement fund?’ Which most people gladly do. This young man digging the trench was sweating and cursing the hard ground and not very happy with the situation. He was asked, `Would you like to subscribe to Mr. Boss Man’s retirement fund as he’s retiring?’ The guy pulled out his wallet and threw a five-pound note in the collection box. `Oh thank you very much.’ The inspector went back to the office and told this story to his colleagues who were also inspectors and said, `That new guy’s very generous he put five pounds in for Mr. Boss Man’s retirement.’ The others said, `No you can’t accept that off him he’s only just started, you’ll have to return and give him some money back, tell him a pound is most acceptable.’ Most people would put a pound in, and if you have fifty people putting a pound in, there’s fifty pounds. So, the inspector went out to see him he was still only halfway along this huge trench. He said, `I must apologise for allowing you to give as much money for Mr. Boss Man’s retirement. We considered that perhaps you misunderstood the situation and would like to give you change. A pound is more than acceptable especially in your case.’ The labourer said, `Well, I see. What exactly, who is he this boss man?’ `Well, he is the boss at the top of this part of the organisation.’ `Well I tell you what, you keep the four pound and retire four more of the bastards!’ [laughs] and I actually told that at his retirement do. Much to the laughter of the audience but Mr. Boss Man sat there like a stewed prune looking absolutely disgusted that anybody should even take the mickey in that manner. He was a Walter Mitty and thought he’d more qualifications than anyone.

Courses paid for by the Post Office

In comparison, I was more qualified with the City & Guilds which you take after school which are directly orientated on the subject of that job. I learned the management, underground stuff, and I had enough exams about it. I got an intermediate City & Guilds, which was six quite difficult exams which I enjoyed, including maths at A level which I didn’t do at school. I was quite pleased about that as the Post Office paid for your attendance at technical college (Norwich City College) where the courses were available for that subject.

Also, the Post Office paid for the government management courses which are six of the best courses that the government were able to offer. They were general attitude type courses of how to be a manager, not specifically about the subject that you were in charge of, or how you would manage it and people. Some of my colleagues took the attitude that to be a good boss you had to be nasty. I cannot be like that. I was always empathetic with the staff that were under my charge and treated them as equals with the understanding that we all have families and have problems. In return I felt that they gave me great service. After all, the captain of any team is only as good as the team. You cannot do wonders without the backing of the people in your team, and I felt I had that.

Christmas time

Christmas time was a good example. The rules at work were no drinking on duty. You’re not allowed to drink if you were in charge of a Crown vehicle. On Christmas Eve, if that happened to be a working day or the Saturday or Sunday the day before was the last day before Christmas, I suggested that they all take a half a day’s leave within their allowance, and they’d bring the vans back at twelve o’ clock mid-day. We’d take the rotor arm out of the van so they couldn’t be easily stolen, and we would all go off to the pub. The idea was to all be together to help meld the team so everybody knew each other, up to a hundred people. There would be a good gathering and I arranged with the lady who ran the pub, one of my favourites, to allow us to stay and hire the pub for the afternoon as a private party. (Licensing laws then were close at two o’clock.) We’d have our lunch there and a bite to eat buffet style and then it was buy your own beer sort of thing and we all had a merry time. There was a bit of music the lady would put on. Then of course the pub opened again at seven in the evening I think seven till 11 but her doors were open a bit earlier and then we’d all filter away. You know, everybody enjoyed it and appreciated it because nobody else did it.

The pub was in Bury St. Edmunds. I did try that in Norwich but the Norwich people had their own arrangements and I was not able to organise at that level, but I used to meet a few people when I worked in Norwich and the Norwich area. I’d find out where everybody’s working and those closest to that pub would come in for lunch and there.

I found it occasionally leaving off work and going for a drink with work colleagues bearing in that mind that the post office telephones is a multi-facet type of job. We had people who were salespeople. ‘Traffic’ people does not mean four wheels but telephone traffic. You can’t just have loads and loads of people wanting to use the telephone without you provide the necessary number of cables and the cable capacity. It was a bit like water through a pipe. A small pipe and you can pour a certain amount of water through it. If you’ve got hundreds of gallons extra trying to get through that’s not going to go through any quicker than a small number of gallons. It’s the same with telephones – you can get a small number of telephones going through this cable you’ve got a lot more trying to go though, hence you have a traffic division that keeps an eye on cable capacity. Then we had a group of people who were cable engineers who would pull the cables in through the pipes under the ground which sounds simple but believe me it isn’t. The pipes get clogged up with sand and sometimes you got awful stuff soaking through from farmers soakaways into the pipes, but we had ways and means of dealing with it.

Innovation in installing cables in City Hall

So, we had external people dealing with cables, internal people dealing with installations which became more and more technical as time went on and certainly in places like Norwich City Hall which had installed about between 150 and 500 phones. It had a foreign exchange in the basement. Phillips (the Dutch international company) installed the exchange equipment and yours truly with my team installed all the telephones so I can remember even now [laughs] where every cable in that place is. I got the job was because the Norwich fitters who in those days they were senior to me in terms of their length of service and should have had the top jobs wouldn’t touch the City Hall because the steel pipes under the floors which the cables were supposed to go through were clogged with lead covered cables and lead does not slide easily.

I gladly took the job and I made new ways of getting the cables through all the hundreds of rooms in the City Hall. On one occasion because of the immensity of the job we were working overtime seven days a week, and this was one Sunday, and the bells of Peter Mancroft church were going ding dong, ding dong and we were drilling a hole through the mayor’s parlour floor to get a cable between the lower floor and the outer floors with something called a thermic lance. A thermic lance will burn through concrete, metal, anything. It’s a very simple tool but fearsome and we just happened to burn through a water pipe which flooded the mayor’s parlour. It was the only place in the City Hall that had a carpet. It was a large oriental style rug and a posh old desk, fitting for the Lord Mayor of Norwich. We managed to stem the flood with some stuff we used a bit like plasticine, that we used to pack underground pipes and shovelled the water out of the window to the trench below. So on a Sunday morning with the bells going ding dong, ding dong and there were several floods of water going out while we telephoned the emergency crew because nobody knew where the stopcock was for this particular pipe.

So, we got the city engineers to come out with their maps. I had detailed plans of the City Hall which were the architects’ plan from 1934 when it was built, and I was given a key to open any door in the City Hall. The engineers out who managed to find the stopcock and we were only going to have a hole about that big. In order to repair the pipe they had to dig a hole which was about two feet by two feet in concrete that was also two feet thick. Fortunately, the City Hall had thermic lances ,otherwise we’d have been there all day trying to get one hole through the concrete about that thick.

Development of telephone exchanges and some misunderstandings

When I started in 1952 telephone exchanges were quite small and most of them were manually operated. Probably in London they had a dial, but most other ones were manual where you asked the operator to connect you to Mrs. Brown down the street. They got more and more technical as time went on and part of the job that I had from the time of starting was to instal extra equipment in telephone exchanges that were already working and then to alter them in such a way that meant that the telephones in people’s houses and the office had to be changed for ones with a dial. Relatively simple, not highly technical. The exchange part of it was interesting and it gradually got so more and more of this went on the government, bearing in mind that Post Office Telephones was government owned (hence the crown on the side of the vehicles) put the rental of the telephone up from two pounds fifty to five pounds and most people said, `I don’t want a phone.’ And we spent weeks taking phones out of people’s houses. You didn’t have time to deal with these recovered phones quick enough. My van was three quarters full of telephones.

One amusing episode: I was accused of stealing money from someone’s house. In those days telephones had a little drawer at the front you could pull out. The intention was to keep the dialling codes in there for the new exchanges that were dotted about. In this particular case I’d recovered the phone, replaced it with one with a dial on, and I didn’t bother to look in the drawer of this thing but in the drawer were two ten-shilling notes and about three or four half-crowns which were also in there. When the drawer was shut that was quite compact, so they didn’t rattle about. There was no indication there was anything in there and I wouldn’t have bothered to look. So, Chalky accused me of stealing the money. What the customer had said is, `He’s taken the phone and we had some money in it.’ So I looked through all these recovered phones and found the one, yes, because it still had the number in the little section in the middle of the dial or the front part of the telephone. Looked in the drawer and sure enough there it was. So, I gave it to Chalky who threw his hands up in horror and said, ` I went back and explained to the customer, and they apologised and said, `We’re sorry. We didn’t want to get you into trouble. We realise that’s our own problem. The people who come in and borrow the phone have left money in there because I’d either refused or didn’t want them to, you know.’ So, that was OK the people were very nice to me.

I had to attend a job at a vicarage, and I’ve never liked vicars. I’ve only ever met one I felt was truly an honest God-fearing man. This man was a people’s vicar, and he would help people in whatever way he could even if it was just being there with them like in times of sadness, you know. So, I appreciated him. I was great friends with him, and I did a lot of work for him in his chapel. I’d gone to the vicarage to instal an additional bell because he couldn’t hear the phone in this great big rambling sort of vicarage out in the countryside of Norfolk. So Chalky told me that I hadn’t done the job properly because the bell didn’t work that I’d installed. I said, `I beg your pardon. I tested that thoroughly and it worked perfectly and the gentleman there agreed with me that that was just what he needed.’ `Well he says it doesn’t work.’ So, back to the vicarage I went. The vicar let me in. I picked the phone up and made it ring with the special code that we had, and I said, `So, it’s satisfactory then.’ And he, looking quite peeved, pointed to a bell and said, `That doesn’t work.’ I said, `Well, I didn’t instal that one, did I? But I can make it work for you.’ I went to the front door and opened it and pressed the bell push outside on the doorpost and the bell rang. So, I said, `Is that satisfactory?’ He looked totally out of his depth and said, `Well I just thought,’ I said, ‘No you didn’t think. You with your accusation got me wrong with my boss who thinks that I don’t do the job right. The job I did here is perfect. Do you agree with that?’ `Well, yes, I suppose I do.’ `Well then, you ring my boss and tell him that you made the mistake cos he won’t believe me?’

At one time we had staggered starting times so that we also had staggered leaving the depot times, so we didn’t all go out at once. My starting time was a quarter past eight. In those days there was no such thing as to clock in, mechanical clock. You signed a book according to the time of an accurate clock above it. It worked off the telephone system so it’s the equivalent of the speaking clock type of thing its accurate to the second almost. I walked in at ten past eight and Chalky was there with his red pen to draw a line through anybody who was late. At that time, I was a foreman. Chalky looked at me in total disgust and amazement when I signed on a ten past eight. `You have the audacity,’ he said, `to come in here you’re a foreman you should be setting an example to these people who are younger and these young lads coming in here and signing on at ten past eight. What have you got to say to that?’ I said, `Well, I don’t know quite what to say but I’m entitled to sign on at quarter past eight.’ He said, `I don’t want to hear excuses!’ and stormed out of the room. Out of his depth again. I love those stories about it because Chalky was the exception I suppose. Most people had far more savvy than Chalky. Chalky got a new car, a Morris Oxford as I recall (he got paid for mileage) we thought we’d have a laugh when we found an old paint can with a handle on got a piece of bent wire and hooked it underneath on to the exhaust out of sight. So Chalky gets in his car to drive home and course this thing is rattling about under a brand spanking new car [laughs]. Chalky didn’t come and tell any of us any of the engineers he went and found the cleaner man who was about the yard somewhere and made him crawl underneath the car to find out what was wrong [laughs]. His new car.

Retirement – the breakup of BT

I retired at 50. The job had changed from Post Office Telephones to British Telecommunications to BT. It was still BT when I retired but it was then a commercial company. At the time when it was Post Office Telecoms, Post Office Telephones had a total of a quarter of a million employees in the whole of the British Isles. Northern Scotland, Northern Ireland even in the Shetlands and the only place it was different was Hull! Hull Telephone System – it was decried by the government that Post Office Telephones was not a monopoly because there was one city that was a private telephone company. All the telephone kiosks in the British Isles are red except for in Hull where they were painted cream colour.

BT decided we were top heavy. They were looking to slim down the whole organisation. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians as they said, so they were looking to retire people at my level, beginning management. If you were something like 59 you were going to retire next year anyhow but people like me were put on offer. At 50 you are in the pension scheme so even if you retired you would have got a pension. Early voluntary retirement offered you six and two-thirds years – it was six years and eight months extra – on your existing service. I’d already done 33 years so that took me up to 40 years which is the maximum that you can do and get a pension. Anything above that you didn’t get extra pension you just got the salary for that. You were offered redundancy money and for each year of service that was paid got a lump sum retirement amount for the actual service. I did 33 years but the pension was payable as if you had done 40 years which meant half pay. So, say if you were on £20,000 a year you got £10,000 a year on your pension. So, I took the opportunity. Otherwise I and others like me would have to revert to a grade lower and get involved in other work. You would not have supervisory powers. They were cutting out the in-between grades and I was not prepared to do that. They couldn’t reduce your salary, but it would have stood still until that particular lower grade that you were being paid for caught up in terms of salary and only then would it advance.

The effort by British Telecoms or BT to get rid of people I thought was unnecessary. if they had come to your office and asked you had you considered a voluntary retirement you probably would have given it a great deal of thought and thought, `Yes, I can go.’ Instead of that they used scare tactics to say, `You’ll have to work in Peterborough.’ which is a place I certainly didn’t want to go. It was too far away so we’d have to move and to add insult to injury they even suggested you wouldn’t even get paid for moving. So, I decided the writing was on the wall. In the month that I retired there were 37 other people from what was the Cambridge area, the headquarters of even Norwich was in that area – came under Cambridge. Thirty seven people went so I was not alone. The following month they suddenly caught on people realised that you got a handsome payment you got a pension if you were over 50 and you could retire happily and so it caught on and gathered impetus and I think there were about 50 people the next month and it continued like that until it got down to enough.

Working life after the Post Office

I had the opportunity of another job and I also fancied working for myself and I was warned, warned mind you, by the bosses that I was not allowed to use my knowledge of the Post Office in any guise or form to earn a living. Because we were multifunctional, that would have been almost impossible to stick to the letter of the law on that so I chose painting and decorating to work for myself. Although there were some people who did painting, like the red kiosks, I didn’t think that would get round the official secrets act. It just happened that way and I was quite happy.

I also took on installing kitchens mainly for friends and family to start off with but the word spread and I did quite a few kitchens for people who I arranged with to buy kitchen flatpacks; Texas Homecare I think it was called at the time, was a favourite one, and I’d put them together and instal them. I was trained as a plumber to plumb using wet lead paint, lead candles paint but also copper, copper pipes with modern plumbing bits is easy. You know how to use a blowlamp and bit of solder and drill holes in the walls successfully. I could do that no problem. So, I had several jobs like that.

Hospital porter

I also worked as a porter at the geriatric hospital between here and Attleborough. That was quite interesting but very low pay but in fact I did it to help a friend out who was chief porter. I had to sign on, be registered as a worker and one week’s work with overtime I earned less after tax because they immediately put you on emergency tax. We earned less in one week with overtime than I earned in one day when I was working but that was a good feeling.

You were there with people who needed help and many a comical thing happened. There was one poor old boy in a wheelchair who for some reason had lost both legs and he used to wheel himself around the corridors calling out. `Audrey! Where are you, Audrey?’ After many hours of this, another guy would say, `For God’s sake answer him, Audrey!’ [laughs] `He’s driving us up the wall!’ We used to have a few laughs like that. I won’t tell you the other things that I saw in there.  You don’t dream of these things. You cannot believe it until you see it. We were asked to help in the operating room. You were the one who lifted people on and off the table and took them back on the trolley to their bed and put them in when they’re still semi-conscious from the anaesthetic. You were still helping people – but you had to do it. Like being in the army if somebody is killed or injured in action, you have to be almost cruel and not even think about it otherwise you get pulled under and it was the same in the hospital. I even helped people to put them in the freezer, along with another guy. I’d only been talking to the man the day before, checking his oxygen levels and so on and he died overnight from natural causes. They helped him at last. Somehow, I enjoyed it.

Looking back

I do feel looking at my working life that I had a job I really enjoyed, every part of it. Obviously there were some that were better than others and some of the people I met were doing a job way beyond their intelligence. But others were absolutely brilliant, and I learned from them, so glad to meet them.

The Post Office had a scheme, this throughout the government, where if you could come up with a better way of doing things that saved money you got a financial award. One guy in Norwich telephone exchange when I first started offered an advancement in the technology. He also wrote papers for the technical magazine Electrical Engineering, It was a thick glossy magazine and he was a columnist He devised a piece of equipment in the old fashioned exchange which was there for trunk calls, long distance calls. That’s a huge piece of equipment, took two men to lift it in and out of the bracket that held it in place and connected it to the exchange. It would only deal with one call at a time but by altering some of the wiring he found out it could deal with two so in one fell swoop he doubled the capacity of this bank of equipment. He doubled the capacity for trunk calls so you could have 40 at any one time and for that he got paid whatever the going rate was at that time about £100 I think but everybody loved him. He used to make the Christmas lights in the canteen at Norwich exchange work from the telephone exchange itself. He used the little light bulbs on the equipment temporarily for the Christmas lights and he made them all blinking, which in that time in the 50s was very unusual. You had Christmas tree lights and you’d swich them on and they’d stay on. He used the marvellous equipment in the telephone exchange. I met interesting people like that and I’m really thankful that I’ve been allowed to have that job so I will never grumble about having to work for a living.

Gordon and wife Gay 2023Gordon Payne (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive on 31st July 2023 in Hingham.

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Secretary to the UEA Accommodation Office (1960-2005)

Gay talks about her long career as a secretary. She trained at Underwoods Secretarial College, and worked for city architects as well as the Norwich City Hall. She worked in the Accommodation Office at the University of East Anglia for 35 years.

Early Life

I was born in Hethersett in 1944. My father had a business as a well sinker, or a well borer. I didn’t really know an awful lot about him, or his work, because my mother and father divorced when I was eight. My younger brother, Richard, was five. We were raised by my mother, who had to work. She worked at Morse’s; the specialist rose growers in Eaton. She used to bring the roses home sometimes, and that’s where she got her piecework, by trimming whatever they had to. And she would graft the roses into other roses as well. We had a lovely rose garden at home, she loved her roses. It didn’t rub off on me, I’m not a bit interested, but it did for Richard, who lives in Australia. He has a lovely garden of roses.


I went to school at Hethersett Primary, and stayed there until I was nearly 12. In 1956, I went to Costessey Secondary Modern School. School was okay. I liked history, and I liked English, but I wasn’t very good at maths. I was in Grade A, but you had to go up another grade in order to get the opportunity to do GCEs. So, I didn’t get to do mine.

I left school at the age of 15. From there I went to Underwoods Secretarial College, which was down Prince of Wales Road for a year. There I learned shorthand and typing and bookkeeping. To start off with it seemed very hard, but after a while you get used to it. I came out of it with around a hundred words a minute typing which was quite a high speed. I don’t think I can do it now. I’m still friends with people I met at Underwoods. One is exactly the same age as me! And we’re still friends today.

Feilden and Mawsons

When I finished the course, I went to work in an Feilden and Mawsons architect’s office in the Close in Norwich. It was a very interesting job concerning new buildings going up and that sort of thing. They did have one computer, which was a very new machine then, but it was for the senior secretaries there. It looked very complicated to me. Junior secretaries like me used the manual typewriters. We used stencils so we could use Tipp-ex to correct the mistakes. I stayed with Feilden and Mawsons for 18 months. You had to work one Saturday in three.

Provincial Insurance

From Feilden and Mawsons, I went to work at Provincial Insurance on Bank Plain in Norwich. They didn’t have any new technology, just the old Imperial 66 typewriters. I stayed there for about two years.

In those days I was still living with my mother. I used to go out with my friend to the Samson Hercules on a Tuesday and Thursday evening. I didn’t meet anybody special there. I’d dance with different people.

Norwich City Hall

After Provincial Insurance, I moved on to work at Norwich City Hall. I was the Secretary to the Youth Organisers. They ran activities in the city for young people. They ran a youth centre down Duke Street. There was also a hut in Trimingham where the children used to go. Only the teachers and the Youth Organisers would come into the office, though, so I wasn’t involved in working with the youngsters.

We used electric typewriters at the City Hall, no computers. It was mainly women in the office. In my office there were five of us: Marguerite, Billie, Bridget, me, and Christine. In the mornings we used to go down to the canteen and have a coffee, and in the afternoons, if we weren’t busy, we’d go down for a cup of tea. We all got on well at the City Hall.

Another thing that happened is I met my husband Gordon at the City Hall. He worked for the GPO, and was working at the City Hall for a time. [He’s done an interview with you talking about that.] After a year, I bought a little two-bedroom bungalow in Wymondham. He eventually moved in with me there. My mother wasn’t happy about it, she created because I cleared off and started living with somebody.

I stayed at the City Hall for seven and a half years, longer than the other jobs. I really did like it there. Each job move I made was for more money, as I went up a paygrade each time. I enjoyed the work, though, and I made friends in all the offices I worked in.

Accommodation Office at the University of East Anglia

After leaving the City Hall, I went to the University, which I ended up working at for 35 years. I was Secretary to the Accommodation Officer. Back then, the Accommodation Office dealt with accommodation for both students and for families, as some mature students wanted to bring their families with them. I mainly dealt with family accommodation, starting out. We had a block of 14 houses on campus, and then we had another 21 at Bateman Close in Bowthorpe. And eventually we had some in Wilberforce Road when they built the new complex; we had around 12 houses there, now called The Village. They don’t have married or family accommodation anymore.

There was a mixture of students, from overseas and from England, all studying a range of subjects. We had a lot of Chinese students. Students generally appreciated the accommodation set up for them, but occasionally could cause trouble if it didn’t suit them. We had this girl who was put out because she couldn’t have what she wanted and she said, ‘it’s only because I’m black.’ It wasn’t because of that. There wasn’t the accommodation to give her, since there was only so much and there was a waiting list.

When I was there, students did pay tuition fees, and the University relied on overseas students because they paid more money. Families had to pay for their accommodation themselves. Students had grants though. A lot of the students stayed in the country and found work here. Some of them went back, but an awful lot stayed. The subjects being taught were pretty similar to what is being taught today.

A memorable student

Part of my job was visiting the houses, doing inspections and checks. I loved doing it, it was time away from the office. I remember one student who had a family that he wanted to bring with him to the University. He was from Ethiopia I think, a very nice man. Eventually I was able to give him a lovely flat which had just been redecorated. But when I went to inspect it when they were leaving, it was in a disgusting state. Filthy, there were so many flies. The carpets were ruined, a kid had wee-ed and pooed on them. It stank so much. I didn’t mind untidiness, but dirty was a different story.

I said to him, ‘You know, this cost a lot of money to be redecorated and refurbished with carpets. Now look at it. Disgusting state.’ He said, ‘Well, we like our children to run free.’ I said, ‘you should correct them, you should train them to use the toilet.’ He didn’t think that was right.

The switch from mechanical to machine

Another job I had to do was dealing with the students’ bills if they moved. This was quite complicated, because there were different residences that cost different amounts of money. And there were single rooms and double rooms, which would cost different amounts too. I didn’t have a calculator. Gordon gave me a logarithm book, and that was what I used when I had to work it all out. The logarithms were good, made it quite easy. But eventually I did get given a calculator, so I was able to do the students’ bills quite quickly.

We had computers at the University, after a while. It was there I used one for the first time. We did have a tiny bit of training, but when someone comes in for an hour to show you how to use them, you can’t learn much and you forget. I sort of worked it out myself what you had to do. The most difficult thing was having to get used to doing the finance on the computer rather than by hand. But you got used to it and deal with it. If we were stuck, we could ring up Finance for help. And we had a manager who could help too. I never had to deal with the internet whilst I was working, it hadn’t come in yet. We just had our old systems, which were always changing.

Social life whilst working at the University

Occasionally I’d go out with friends, but not very often, since Gordon was there. If there was anything going on I’d go with them. I had a friend, another lady, who’d come and stay over at weekends. She was a lot younger than me. But she didn’t come to stay after she met her husband.

Working when a mother

Gordon and I married when I was 35. I had two children; Sarah first, and then five years later, when I was 40, I had David. I didn’t take any time off, really. Just the statutory maternity leave, and then went straight back to work. My mother had Sarah for a while, but she was getting a bit old to look after a young child. The University had a day care nursery, so Sarah went there after my mother couldn’t have her. David went to nursery quite early, because my mother certainly couldn’t have him. He went to somebody in the village for a time, but she and her husband used to swear, and we didn’t want David picking that up. So, we took him away.

I did work shorter hours when David was born. I worked from 9am till 1.30pm to start with, and then when David started school, I went until 3pm. But I never got away on time, it was so busy. If somebody came to the counter you couldn’t just go. Sometimes I’d have my coat on and someone would say, ‘Gay, there’s someone at the counter for you.’ I’d have to handle it. So poor old Dave, when he was about five, he was the last child in the playground waiting for mum to come pick him up.

We had good holiday leave, so it wasn’t so bad. We’d have long holidays. I didn’t end up going back to full time work, after the children grew up. I wish I had really, because I’d have got a bigger pension.

Difficulties In the office

Once in the early days, I did feel uncomfortable in the office, but that was the only time. The Assistant Accommodation Officer back then was ex-army woman – my boss was an ex-army man as well, but he was lovely. This woman’s secretary always had to be first in using the Gestetner, and everything. I heard my boss once saying, ‘What’s she done this time?’ because he couldn’t stand her. Outside of work she was a nice lady, but at work she was a bit bossy.

Later on, there was a changeover in bosses when my boss retired. We had a new man come in to be the Accommodation Officer, who was okay, and this other woman was made Assistant Accommodation Officer. That went a bit to her head. She used to tell me off about being late. I was maybe five minutes late, and I always more than made the time up. I told the manager, he said, ‘That’s alright, Gay, I know what time you come in. I shouldn’t worry about it.’

I was happy at work, for the most part. There was no nastiness in the office, a nice atmosphere, no toxicity. Even those two ladies were more annoying than anything serious.

Into retirement

Towards the end of my career, I had to do some of the single accommodation as well as the family. I had to look after some of the blocks. Gordon retired quite early. I left him to his own devices and carried on working for quite a few more years. I think it would have been nicer if we were still working, but I think he’d had enough of it. They wanted to send him somewhere to set up something but he declined. I didn’t mind him being at home, but he didn’t do anything. I always did the housework!

It was getting a little bit political with students towards the end. You had to be very careful what you said, and that became a bit of a nightmare. You couldn’t argue with the students, because they could twist it around, and then the higher ups would always take their side. One girl was trying to boss me around, and I told her off. She went to the Vice Chancellor and complained about me. Eventually they realised she was in the wrong. But I’d already been spoken to before they’d dug into it. That was the only time, really, but it meant you were a bit on edge.

So really, what made the decision for me retiring was the change with the students, and Gordon being home. When I retired, my colleagues got in drinks and cakes and things. I got some flowers, and they collected about a hundred pound for me, which was quite a lot then. I also got a stainless-steel tea pot and sugar basin and jug. I came out with a pension on final salary. If I’d gone back to full time, which I could have done, I would have had a very good pension to retire on. But as I said to Gordon, we had good jobs, so even though I only worked part-time I still got a good pension.

Retired life

I was always busy, even after retiring, but it was nice to not have to go to work because I didn’t like the traffic. I used to hate getting as far as Colney, and you’d sit in the traffic, you’d just sit there. I was so pleased to not have to go to work through all that traffic when I retired. And I had another friend who left after I did, and she was the same, she was pleased to leave because of the traffic.

I keep busy. I have a lady who comes in on Tuesdays and Fridays, but she only does the kitchen and the living room. I do the rest, the bedrooms and everything else. I have a lot of friends and we go out to lunch often. I have grandchildren, two dear little girls. I didn’t have time for hobbies really, but I used to like to do a little bit of gardening when we had a garden. I used to have pots all the way around the bungalow, and I liked making them look nice. But when the pandemic came, I didn’t do them anymore, and it became a lot to water. So, I haven’t done any for a while, but I used to like doing the flower pots.


Gordon and I were shut in like everybody else. I missed my friends, not meeting up and going out, but I didn’t ever go far away really. I suppose the pandemic had an effect on everyone. You got used to not going out, and then it took a while before you wanted to go out again.

I don’t know how the Accommodation Centre got on during the pandemic, because I can’t see how it could work from home. I don’t think I could have done the job working from home, because the students needed to see me. They needed to discuss things with me.

Thoughts on changes in education

University education has changed quite a bit, but I don’t know whether it’s for the good or not. I don’t think it’s as good as it was years ago. It used to be only the elite would go, a small minority of people, and now everyone goes. I think they would have gained more from having an apprenticeship for the particular job they wanted to do, rather than just going to university. Because a lot of students, what they studied wasn’t what they got a job in, and I think that probably goes on today.

I think it’s terrible really, how much tuition fees are now. It’s a lot of money. What chance do they have in life for other things if they’re still paying back the debt. David’s still paying his debt back, but he didn’t have as much as some people did. I did know people who took the grant but stayed at home, just put the money in the bank. They had to pay it back, but they could do that, because at the time they were getting interest on the money.

Final thoughts

I never really wanted to go for promotion whilst I was working. I was always quite happy doing what I was doing. I don’t think I’d have done anything differentl. I couldn’t have been a nurse, I’m not that type. I wouldn’t have wanted to work in a factory. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done. I picked the right career.

My daughter followed me into secretarial, but I don’t think it was really suitable for her. She does her job well, but I think she liked doing different things. But she wouldn’t go to university, and she wouldn’t go to the Norwich High School. She had the opportunity, but she wouldn’t go. She didn’t like the green cardigans (but don’t tell her that). If she’d gone, she could have got a job where she earnt a lot more money.

I’ve had a fulfilling life, and achieved a lot. It’s not just a bit of secretarial work, it’s important work. I met a lot of people through my work, some of them quite funny. I enjoyed doing my work at the University, and the students were thankful. If they couldn’t get accommodation through the University, I’d suggest places they could go to find it outside. I helped them quite a lot. They used to come in to see me if they were back in the area for a visit after having gone home. I had a good relationship with my students, and I did enjoy the job very, very much. I think I probably would have stayed longer if Gordon hadn’t been at home, but I thought I really ought to be with him.

Gay Payne (b.1944) talking to WISEArchive in Hingham on 8th August 2023


Gay and Gordon Payne 2023

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Life on the wire (1967-2003)

Keith tells us about his life as an air sea rescue operator. He was the only person to operate as a winchman, winch operator, radar operator and co-pilot.

I was born in Bournemouth in 1945; after school I went straight into the air force as a Boy Entrant. I had wanted to join as an apprentice, but entry for that was full so I ended up as a ground radio mechanic, doing that for eight years before deciding that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing.

I decided that I wanted to become aircrew, I went to Biggin Hill for the selection process but failed. In ‘67 I was posted to Gan in the Maldives, to repair and service electro-mechanical equipment. Gan itself is an island and is right at the bottom of the Maldivian chain in the Addu Atoll (40 miles south of the equator) . It was the staging post for the Royal Air Force crossing the Indian Ocean. Aircraft came from Bahrain or Muharraq to refuel before going on to Singapore. I was there for a year and during that time I became the Diving Officer for the sub aqua diving club, completing over 650 dives.

On my return to the UK, I attended the selection course for aircrew at Biggin Hill and this time I passed to start air quartermaster training; this later became air loadmaster which better defined our role on the aircraft. I did six years on Britannias, the whispering giant, four engine turbo prop aircraft, going all round the world and completing 3,500 hours flying before the Squadron was disbanded at the end of 1975.

During this time, I met my wife Jennie, she was also an Air Loadmaster, initially on Britannias but transferred to VC 10’s. We married in 1973 and Jennie continued to fly for a further year, this means that we saw very little of each other but did meet up in Hong Kong on two occasions.

I then had to wait for a couple of months to start my Helicopter Air Sea Rescue training at SARTU (Search & Rescue Training Unit) at RAF Valley, initially on the Whirlwind Mk10. On completing the course, I was posted to “A” Flight 202 Squadron RAF Boulmer on  the Northumberland coast. We changed aircraft to Sea Kings in ’78 and I ended up coming to Coltishall on Sea Kings in ’81.

Whirlwinds on the Pan at RAF Boulmer

When we came to RAF Coltishall we lived in quarters initially before buying a bungalow in Tunstead, just north of Wroxham.

The origin of search and rescue

This is a bit of a throwback but it might help to understand how search and rescue actually started off.

It happened in the Second World War. Would you believe that 22,000 Spitfires and 14,000 Hurricanes were built? So, we had plenty of aircraft but it took time to train pilots, especially ones with experience. If an aircraft was shot down and this happened out to sea, with the pilot successfully bailing out you wanted the means to get them back.

That was when the motor torpedo boats and motor gun boats were seconded to go quickly out and pick up the downed pilots. Eventually they used Catalinas (Flying Boat) which could actually land on the water. They could land besides the pilots to rescue them.

That was really how air sea rescue started, our primary purpose being to retrieve our aircrew if in the unfortunate circumstances they had to bail out. The next priority was any Air Incident, after which we would respond to an incident that was inaccessible by any other means or time was of the essence, over land or sea.

Sea King helicopters

Sea King far exceeded the Whirlwind or Wessex, even though it had ‘50s technology it was being updated all the time. It was obviously twin engine but we had auto hover which could be switched over to the rear of the aircraft and be flown by the winch operator using a small joy stick.(Having 10% control of the A/C movement) we also had night capability with NVG, night vision goggles.

Before the auto hover could be engaged, we had the Flight Control System FCS, this allowed us to automatically transition from a normal flight at speed and height to a hover normally at 50ft, this is done over the sea. You have to remember that we went to incidents that could occur anywhere. A normal fixed wing aircraft needs a runway, Air Traffic Control, radar surveillance and approach beacons. With a helicopter we’re totally autonomous in so much that we can let ourselves down in a safe area, we had radar so we could look and see around us to make sure that it was all clear. Invariably we would let ourselves down over the sea in bad weather. This is where we really excelled, we could go out in all weathers.

Over land it was slightly different, we would stay visual with the ground. To do this we would fly low level to stay in contact, this was not always possible. If we had to fly above fog or low cloud, then we would go to the coast, the nearest to the incident, let ourselves down over the sea and come in over the coast very low under the cloud base. We still needed to see the ground as we approached any sort of casualty or incident.

On base we had a crew on 24 hours standby and we had two aircraft at each flight. Initially there were nine flights around the country, when we got Sea Kings that went down to six and these six places meant that the whole country and coastline was covered within an hour. We were on a 15 minute standby during the day and an hour at night, invariably we could be airborne within five, ten minutes during the day and at night even though we were in bed we could be airborne well within half an hour.

We had four crews but once the Falklands happened we went to five because invariably one crew would be dispatched down to do a tour of duty in the Falklands for a couple of months. They were four man crews, so you had a pilot, co-pilot and rad op/winch operator and a winchman which was my role. The rad op/winch operator and winchman could swap over if needed.

In a Sea King, once you get overhead a survivor or an incident the pilot can’t see directly below him, he’s totally relying on the winch operator to talk and hold him in position.

It’s a very specialised speech that is used, you can’t use anything other than key words, for example if you said, ‘Forward, forward one, forward two’ that was a unit – a unit was a metre to two metres which is basically the length of a survivor lying down. If we said, ‘Forward one’ the pilot would move forwards six feet the other key words left, right, back, up or down.

The crew were medically trained in emergency care, we trained at RAF Halton.

We had over five hours endurance on a Sea King so potentially you could have a casualty on board for over two hours. It was important to be able to monitor them, also intubate and cannulate a casualty, to maintain the airway and fluids. I was one of the first to do this and eventually we managed to get all the rear crew on a short course just to do cannulation and intubation.

A helicopter is inherently a very hostile environment with the vibration and noise so it is most important to be able to actually maintain and monitor a casualty and their vital signs. This was always a bit of a problem.

If there was a doctor available at the station and they weren’t busy and we knew that we were going out to a nasty one then we could take them on board and winch them down with the winchman to a deck or a mountain side.

When I was up in Northumberland we covered the Lake District. The next down from us at Coltishall is Manston in Kent and the next one above is Leconfield, just outside Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

We were controlled by the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre [ARCC} all emergency calls requesting assistance would be passed through them.

Initially we had one centre in Plymouth, and another one in Edinburgh but with the introduction of the Sea King that all went to Kinloss in Scotland; anything instantly happening in the whole of the UK would be directed to the appropriate agency.

It all comes under the Department of Transport and still is. Then in 2016 the RAF Search & Rescue Helicopters was disbanded, and it went to Bristow Helicopters, I won’t go too much into it but the reason we lost it was cost. I think it was about 100 million a year to maintain all the flights, the crew and aircraft.

When we went on a shift we didn’t sit around waiting for the bell to go. During the shift we would do three hours training for both rear and front crew. We would do many dry situation winching off cliffs, mountains and mountain flying. We would go out to sea, put a survivor in the water and practise picking them up. We would practise going onto ships of all sizes, we could call up any ship on channel 16 and they would be only too happy for us to go on board and practise winching on them in any weather.

Those three hours every shift would help maintain our expertise in flying and operating in all weather’s night and day.

SAR didn’t go to civilian contractors for so long because no civilian company could guarantee that they would maintain that high level of expertise. Other search & rescue agencies would come from all around the world to see how the RAF did search and rescue, we were without a shadow of a doubt leaders in this field.

Once it was taken out of our hands and went civilian we all backed away, we were disbanded. A lot of the aircrew who were still operational at that time were asked if they wanted to go to Bristow’s and I think about 95% said no!

Air sea rescue at work

One of the first jobs I had at RAF Coltishall was a call from a mine sweeper saying that a seaman had a bulkhead door slam shut on his fingers and amputated a couple of them. And so, the pilots went out to start the aircraft and I waited to get some ice from the Mess in a flask. While I was waiting for the ice, I called to see if there was a doctor available in case we needed a bit more expert bandaging, when another shout came in that an aircraft had ditched.

It was a Wessex, being flown by Bristows, coming back from the oil rigs to Norfolk and this obviously took precedence from the seaman.

An aircraft has a transponder on board that shows up on the radar, the IFF, Identification Friend or Foe. It’s a four digit code, dialled up and it comes up on the radar screen. Coltishall could tell us exactly where the aircraft was and so we went and virtually in fifteen minutes we were overhead at the ditch site.

The winch op and myself were in the doorway, on the right hand side, starboard side, because that’s where the winch is. We looked down and I counted nine people in the water.

I was kitted up for going in the water so we winched out and moved straight in. One thing that I was wondering was, ‘Why is no one waving?’ No one was waving at all. We fly into the wind and hover at 50 feet over the water. I got to the first guy, put the strop on him and was winched in, I still hadn’t figured it out, just thought that he must be unconscious, he was in his dry suit as they all fly in dry suits in case they ditch.

I could see that it was ripped all-round the neck, and now you won’t want to hear this really. Why can I see the sea through his ear?’ Half the head was missing.

I got him onto the aircraft, into the wet area that we had on the Sea King and was winched back out to get the next one. One particular guy was still strapped in his seat, I secured him and undid the seat harness and the weight of the seat took the other guy down, sunk out of sight there was no way I could catch him. In the end I managed to pick up eight people.

Most of them were partially or virtually headless. When we landed and shut down the ambulance crews were waiting for us, we had the door shut but every orifice of the aircraft was spurting red. It looked horrendous.

The press were all there waiting. I didn’t think the general public would really want to see this. So, I got the ambulances to form a corridor and blocked us from been seen unloading the casualties off the aircraft.

What I think happened was, the Wessex pilot is seated up high, and the cabin is another level down. It looked like a double engine failure. The conditions were that it was very hazy and the sea was dead calm, just smooth and so you had no horizon. At that point the Wessex didn’t have a radar altimeter, these normally cut in at 200 feet but they didn’t have this so when they went into auto-rotation, the pilot would have to judge when he reached approximately 50 feet when you’d pull up on the collective and use up the kinetic energy stored in the rotating rotor blades to just land gently on the water. Do this to late or early and you are descending to quickly and hit the land/water too hard.

What happened then was the whole rotor head came down through the cabin and chopped the aircraft up. The divers did actually recover the rest of the people and the engines. What normally happens is that everything goes to the aircraft accident people to determine what went wrong.

Another one which was quite interesting was out of Lowestoft. Colne Fishing Company were operating converted fishing trawlers as rig safety boats. They would go out for three or four weeks and patrol the rigs. There were four crew members, skipper, cook, engineer and deck hand.

I don’t know if you know but off the Norfolk coast you’ve got sand bars all over the place and they’re shifting. We got a call telling us that they had run aground on a sandbank and were taking in water. So, we got airborne and found them, it had a big H on the rear deck but it would have to be a very small helicopter, not a helicopter landing area big enough for a Sea King.

I winched down to the deck and was hanging on to the aircraft as I hadn’t come off the wire. I thought that obviously they would want to come off, as the swell was lifting the boat up off the sandbank and thumping it back down. Each time it hit the whole boat shuddered and whole load of soot came out of the funnel, it was really hitting hard on the sandbar. I thought, ‘How long can the boat take this punishment?’

Then this face appeared in this porthole at the back of the bridge, looked out, then disappeared again. Then finally two guys came up on deck, I asked them if they wanted lifting off. They said yes and we winched them into the aircraft. I went back down on to the trawler. I came off the wire and went to the bridge and said to the guy there, ‘Right, okay, you want to get lifted off?’ and he said, ‘No’ and I said, ‘Why not? ‘I’m not going up there’ he says. This is the skipper and I could smell, ah, okay, they had been on the booze, they really had been on the booze.

So anyway, I asked him again why not and who else was on board; the skipper told me that the cook was but that he didn’t know where he was. He asked if the engineer had been taken up to the aircraft, to which I told him yes, he had. Apparently, the generator was going and the trawler was really taking on water. So, I thought, okay, I had my RAF torch with which was absolutely bloody useless but I went down below to check all the cabins and engine room. I found the skipper, he was in the heads and grabbed a big powerful lamp, great, so we took that down.

As we went down to the engine room, the boat rolled from side to side, the water was just sloshing from side to side and I thought to myself, ‘For God’s sake don’t fall down there’. I checked all the cabins and they were all clear and then there was a shout and the lights went out. The skipper had fallen in the engine room, I grabbed him and pulled him out and I had one soggy skipper, all I really wanted was the light but he had dropped that.

Anyway, I got him up to the gangway at which stage two bulkhead doors opened and this apparition appeared and it was the cook. He’d been flat out in a bunk, I grabbed him and he asked what was happening? By this time, I’d convinced the skipper to get winched into the Sea King. Eventually the cook comes up to the gangway to the bridge, and I had thought that I was ready to lift them up until he said, ‘I’m not going up there’ – at which point the skipper says, ‘Oh well I’ll stay with the cook’.

By this time, we’d been on the scene for well over an hour, so we had burnt 1,000lb of fuel and we were running short. We’d been in hover for a while and I knew that the lifeboat was coming as they, the crew, had called to say that they were on their way, so the Skipper and cook said that they would wait for the lifeboat. But we had stopped bouncing, meaning we were off the sandbar, and now the boat was going down. I told them that I wasn’t staying there so they could make the choice to come up on the aircraft or stay on board and wait for the lifeboat. The last thing you want to do is leave people in that situation but the lifeboat had reassured us that they would be there shortly, which they were. We cleared away and had to get back to Coltishall to refuel.

The only sort of saving grace was that when they transferred to the lifeboat, the cook broke his arm and I thought, that’s justice for you. And by the way, the skipper lost his ticket.

Do we meet the people who we have saved?

Invariably we don’t especially if they have put themselves in the situation through their own stupidity. We have sometimes had letters saying thank you. It’s a funny situation really, what used to happen quite often, was that people used to think that the helicopter was expensive and that they didn’t want to call us out.

It was expensive, an hour’s crew flying for an hour was about £3,500. But it made no odds to us because we had to do three hours training so if we went to a civilian event then we didn’t do those hours of training. We counted that as training, so it made no odds.

One of the things that used to be horrific was inflatables, kids on rubber rings, lilos or little dinghies. If you got an offshore wind and an outgoing tide they can be out to sea in seconds flat.

What has happened in the past is that you’d get the call and you’d go out, find the inflatable but not the child. They would have tried to paddle back, realise that they couldn’t, abandon the inflatable and try to swim back. And that’s when they would drown.

If they had stayed with the inflatable then we could have saved them, but that’s what happens.

It’s happened several times. Of course, us winchmen aren’t going to pick up whatever inflatable it is, we’ve got a knife on us, which we just put through, to sink it.

I know of one incident from a winchman, he got called out, went out, found the child, dropped the child back on the beach. The parents said, ‘Ooh thank you very much, where’s the inflatable?’ Winchman said, ‘Put a knife through it’ and parent said, ‘Oh, I’m going to charge you for that’. ‘Fine sir, charge us for it but if you charge us for the dinghy we’ll charge you for an hour’s flying which is £3,500’ and they’d normally shut up then.

People don’t understand tides, rip currents, coming up from Cornwall where everything was flagged, all bays were flagged, for all the swimmers to stay in. You had the RNLI too.

It’s not too bad round here as you’ve only got two metres tops whereas around Bristol you’ve got 10 metres and Cornwall you’re looking at 10, 15 feet. But really off the Norfolk coast it’s only two, three feet so not too bad. But that doesn’t mean to say that you’ve not got a current, you’ve still got a current going backwards and forwards.

It’s difficult to say what percentage of call outs resulted in us saving someone. Sometimes we’re called too late, sometimes the situation deteriorated and when we arrived on the scene we can’t recover it. Of course, the worst accidents that you can go to is an aircraft accident because invariably an aircraft has come to an abrupt halt, very quickly. If they’re still on board the chances of surviving are virtually nil.

When I came to Coltishall I was replacing David Bullock, he got the George Medal for a rescue. Winchman Dave was called out to an incident involving an American A10 aircraft and the airman had ejected into the sea. They saw him in the sea, still connected to the parachute and Dave was winched down to and connected himself to the pilot ready for lift; it was a windy, gusty old day and the parachute was on the surface, with the downwash it was just enough to lift the edge of the parachute and it came up out of water and inflated.

Of course, the helicopter is facing into the wind, and it inflated behind the aircraft and took off. We can only fly a maximum of 20 knots backwards because if you went too fast you’d fly the tail back into the sea.

So, they flew as fast as they could, we have 245 feet of cable and it can go out 200 feet a minute, but that was not fast enough given the wind speed, the cable went too taut and it snapped. The A10 pilot and winchman were still connected to the chute and were dragged through the water and the dinghies were thrown out of the aircraft, to try to drop them on the parachute to deflate it. They missed and, in the end, they estimated they were dragged through the water for about four miles and both drowned. I was his replacement here so that was a bit sad really.

Throughout the UK we have got four RAF mountain rescue teams, all the civilian teams operate through charitable funds, nothing’s paid for by government. Now that Bristows have taken it over there are 10 stations, they’re flying Augusta Westland 189 and Sikorsky 92s, ten of each.

Mountains can be quite dangerous, obviously not in Norfolk, but I have operated in Scotland and the Lake District. Been on Ben Nevis in the winter, Scafell, Snowdon, all the big mountains.

You would not believe what people will go up a mountain with, flip flops, high heels, you would not believe it.

As soon as the Lake District had the M6 it made it accessible for so many people. They’d get out of the car and ‘Oh yes a nice little stroll’ and go up the mountain, totally unprepared, no compass, no map, no cold weather clothing. It’s unbelievable what some people will do.


I was operational for 12 years and then I went into training at RAF Halton, to do the emergency care training and later on I became a fully qualified paramedic.

I taught at RAF Halton for two and a bit years, teaching our rear crew for search and rescue and our mountain rescue crew. A two week course in the classroom and then I’d pass them on to Oxford ambulance where they would go on the ambulances, not to get hands on, but to get the visual of what the guys were doing by the Oxford ambulance personnel. That’s when I was asked by Oxford Ambulance Training staff if I would like to do the paramedic course. I was given no special favours, if I failed I was off, and that was a month in the classroom and a month in John Radcliffe hospital.

Another friend of mine died – filling a dead man’s shoes again. Jock Menmuir was an instructor at RAF Valley. When they do the final handling test for students they position an instructor to act as a casualty. Jock had been positioned out on a winching area on Anglesey. On there return with the students on board to do the final exercise, they saw Jock face down in the water. They thought that he was playing at being drowned but then they realised that he wasn’t coming up for air. They went in, he was recovered and taken to Bangor hospital, but he subsequently died, of secondary drowning. With sea water, if it gets in the lungs, the body will try to dilute the salt water and flush it out, so you’ll actually get too much fluid in the lungs and that’s what causes secondary drowning.

I was a Combat Service Rescue Officer, so I did our Squadron aircrew emergency escape training, from the aircraft in dry and wet conditions. For the Ditching we would all go to Yeovilton and go in a dunker, and you’d do the dunker very year.

The dunker is an aircraft fuselage, hung over quite a deep swimming pool. It then crashes and turns over and you escape from that underwater, and you’d do that every year. They have different modules of aircraft, Sea Kings of course but also Merlin as that’s the latest helicopter that the Navy is using.

As I was an ex-diver, from Gan, and I was at SARTU, Search and Rescue Training Unit at Valley I was in on the trials for a breathing tube. I don’t know if you remember Thunderball with Sean Connery, 007, with his little sort of breathing tube?

Well we actually ended up with something very similar to that, a lot bigger, the cylinder was about the size of a hair spray canister and had a mouth piece on the top. It would sit in your life jacket, so if you couldn’t get out of the aircraft you could take this is out and breathe from that and swim through the aircraft to find a clear exit.

I was scared on occasion but your training kicked in. The worst was really the North Sea because it’s quite shallow compared to say with the Atlantic. You go out to the Atlantic and you’re looking at several thousands of feet, North Sea the deepest part is 500, 600 feet total and so the swell is short and sharp. On a really bad day you could have 40 foot waves.

If you’re going down onto a small fishing boat and it’s at night, the wind’s howling and it’s absolutely throwing it down with rain, that’s when you think that once you’re over the side, you’re out for number one. But you’re relying totally on the other crew above. The captain who’s flying it, skipper in the right hand seat. Co-pilot basically a systems controller, doing the radio, navigation, bits and pieces. The winch operator, rad op, he’s looking after me on the end of the wire and trying to keep me safe.

On occasion I look back – of course nowadays they have got counselling and all the rest of it, we didn’t have any of that.

If you did a bad rescue or it went pear shaped, nothing you could do, quite horrific, you’d come back and the second crew would take over. You would stand down and then we had our pubs that we’d go to, and so you’d went straight round to the pub and basically, not get totally drunk but you would get it out of your system. If anybody was sort of listening to you they would think, ‘How horrific’ ‘because we’d be making fun of it, that’s the only way you sort of survive and mentally adjust to the situations you’d been in. But sort of making light of it was getting it out of your system, nothing else you could do really.

For the final nine years of my search and rescue career I was flight test crew down at RAF St Mawgan. I would go out with the pilot and I would be in the left hand seat, checked out by the Flying instructors, the QFIs, go in the simulator and practice the subsequent actions for any emergency. Then the two of us would take a Sea King to a flight, drop that one off, pick up the next one for servicing and bring it back to St Mawgan. After it had been serviced It would come out for its air test, we’d test for about a week. I have been very lucky, not only have I been a winchman I have been a winch operator, radar operator and a co-pilot so I’ve operated all throughout the whole Sea King.

Last flight before retirement

When it was my last flight down to St Mawgan they gave me an aircraft and said, ‘Right that’s all yours, but you do have to do a flight test on your way back’.

So, I flew all the way round Cornwall, all round the coast, sort of waving to everybody.

Jennie was working at Lanhydrock so I flew up the avenue at Lanhydrock and flew it all round the house waving to Jen from my last flight. Landed back at St Mawgan, walked away. End of story. Happy, that was it.


I had joined in 1961 and I retired in 2003, after 42 years.

I am a volunteer at the Museum of the Broads where I am an engineer and helm on the steamboat. I’ve got my own boat here as well.

The museum basically gives a sort of idea, concept of the Broads, how it was formed, the windmills, how the Broads were worked, who worked on it, who sailed on it. Of course, yourselves WISEArchive with the wherry men in your book, that really brought it full to life.

Of course, we see silly things going on the water on The Broads. The thing is, it’s so open, to so many people, that they can come here, hire a boat, have no formal training, never been on a boat some of them.

They go out with the boat yard personnel, and if they are deemed reasonably competent after about 15, 20 minutes of tuition, away they go. So yeah, you will see some silly things.

When I was in Cornwall I was part of the National Coastwatch and station manager at Charlestown. When I came here I joined Caister National Coastwatch, I thought that I could use my expertise. I have got my radio licence and I have been on boats all of my life.

We were with Caister lifeboat in their heritage building but the Covid happened and of course that was all shut down and they never let us back in.

We got the National Coastwatch portable cabin, it’s like a little sort of burger bar on wheels basically, but with windows. And we got that at Caister and we applied to Caister Council for a permanent site, we surveyed the coast along Caister beach, right from the lifeboat station right up to nearly California. Identified good sites that we could have a permanent site, put it to Caister Council and they turned us down flat.

And gave no reason really whatsoever. And I thought here we were, we’re giving a free service to the tourist industry for safety, keeping an eye on all your holiday makers along the beach and you’re giving us no help whatsoever. So, I resigned from National Coastwatch. If they’re not interested in us I certainly wasn’t going to be interested in them.

Keith Mursell (b. 1945) talking to  WISEArchive on 15th June 2023 at Hemsby.

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Fifty shades of Blue. RAF Technician and Neatishead Museum Volunteer (1963-2023)

Brian joined the RAF in 1963, starting as an apprentice radar fitter. He was posted to Neatishead from 1975-1978, and there he was the Secondary Radar Specialist who ran the electronic workshop. In 2005, a while after leaving the military, he joined the Neatishead museum as a volunteer.

Early life and joining the RAF

I was born in a little town called Melbourne in Derbyshire on St. Patrick’s Day 1947.  My mother was Irish, and my father was from Derbyshire. He was very keen on the outdoor life and when my grandfather in Ireland decided that his farming days were over, he asked my father to go to Northern Ireland and that happened around 1952.  My mother would have preferred to have stayed in England, but I finished my education at Belfast High School.

When I was in the fifth form, a friend of mine had decided to join the RAF. I’d had enough of school, so I decided to join as well. We went off to Cardington in Bedfordshire to be assessed.

RAF career from 1963-1972

I was selected as an apprentice radar fitter, and commenced my training at RAF Locking in September 1963. This was a three-year apprenticeship, at the end of which I came out with the rank of Junior Technician. I did reasonably well as I got a year’s accelerated promotion.

I have always had a keen interest in music and became a member of an apprentice group which we called ‘The Pack’. That’s me below on the left, believe it or not!!



Brian on exercise in Exmoor

At the end of my three-year apprenticeship, I passed out with a year’s accelerated promotion, and was posted to RAF Topcliffe. This meant that I was promoted to Corporal in two years’ time instead of three. On my promotion, I was made responsible for the serviceability of all of the station’s ground radar systems.

From RAF Topcliffe I was posted to RAF Penang and detached to the Royal Australian Air Force Station Butterworth in Malaysia. We had sold the Australians an AR1 Radar, which was made by Plessey, and they hadn’t been trained to maintain it. Training always seems to be the last thing!! Anyway, I was sent out there for a year to hold their hands. It was an interesting posting. I joined a group there called ‘The Night People’, and we played in various venues in Penang.

When I was posted back to the UK in 1969, I went to RAF Bishops Court in Northern Ireland. Although only 23 miles from my home in Belfast, I was awarded a medal!!

The IFF system (Identification Friend or Foe) was made obsolete shortly after my arrival and replaced by the SSR 750 (Secondary Surveillance Radar). I was trained on this and made responsible for it in 1971.

In August 1972 I was promoted to Sergeant. I looked after the Electronic Workshop, ensured test equipment was serviceable and up to date, and was responsible for trade training for the radar fitters and mechanics. In December 1972 I passed promotion exam number three. This was a requirement for promotion to Chief Technician if selected.

Stories from RAF Bishops Court

At Bishops Court we had a Station Warrant Officer, Jack Murray, who was quite a character. You’d hear him saying, ‘four o’clock,’ and that meant come back with a haircut at four. The RAF band used to come occasionally, and they had a string section. They were playing in the Sergeant’s mess on one Saturday night, and I remember Jack going up there and talking to them. We thought he was asking them for a request, but he was telling them all to get a haircut and that he’d see them on Monday morning.

Jack also had a sister called Ruby, yes, the famous Ruby Murray. From time to time, she would sing for us in the Sergeants’ Mess.

There was, of course, trouble in Northern Ireland at the time, so we had a detachment of the RAF regiment. There was an RAF Regiment sergeant who’d go out in a Land Rover and used to machine gun rabbits on the airfield that he’d take to the mess. Usually, the mess manager would tell him that there was more lead than rabbit.

Once there was an explosion in the nurses’ home in Downpatrick. It was thought it was a bomb, but when the RAF Regiment got down there, they found that one of the nurses had been making beer and it exploded. Subsequently a three-ton truck went to Downpatrick on a Saturday night to bring the nurses up for the dance in the Sergeants’ mess.

We played golf now and then in Ardglass, and when we finished, we’d go to a pub called The Anglers Rest. We’d stay there for much longer than we should have, and one evening when it came to about 1am the Landlord banged his glass on the bar and said, ‘ladies and gentlemen, the constabulary is on its way. Would you please get under the tables until he’s gone.’ So, we all went under the table, the policeman came in, had a pint, and left. After this, we carried on until the early hours.

RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus

In April 1974 I was posted to RAF Akrotiri just in time for the Turks to invade. That was the only place I’ve ever been shot at.

RAF Neatishead

In May 1975, I was posted to RAF Neatishead, which was responsible for the air defence of England. Apart from my year at Akrotiri, this was my first exposure to a large radar station, so much of it was new to me and it took some time to figure out how everything worked. Fortunately, one of my jobs was responsibility for the SSR 750 which I had looked after at Bishops Court so this gave me some time to get up to speed on the remainder of the hardware.

We had the Type 84 Radar, which is the radar scanner that is still there today. You can see it on the skyline for miles. We also had the Type 85 Radar, which was even bigger, and it used to sit on top of a building called the R12. It was the most powerful radar in the world, of which there were only three. The other two were at Staxton Wold and Boulmer. Later, the Russians refused to sign the SALT treaty until all the Type 85’s were destroyed.

About 400 people worked at RAF Neatishead. Most of them were on shift, of which there were four. I was one of the day workers. We came in every day and supervised the various maintenance tasks which needed to be done by the equipment specialists.

I was the Secondary Radar Specialist and the RPERDS Specialist. RPERDS (Radar Plot Extraction and Remote Display System) was a system of digitising analogue signals (both primaries from the Type 84 and Type 85 and their secondaries) and sending them to RAF West Drayton and RAF Watton, which was then Eastern Radar.

I ran the electronic workshop in the R12. There, we had specialist fitters for each of the equipments. On shift, the fitters on duty would change a unit if it was faulty. The next day, it would come into my workshop where the relevant specialist would fix whatever problems had come up the night before. If they couldn’t fix them, they would go back to the third line, which was at RAF North Luffenham. If North Luffenham couldn’t fix it, it went back to the manufacturers, which was a very rare occurrence.

We had regular periods of maintenance where the individual radars would be stopped for maintenance. We would change all the thermionic valves every three months. It would take about six weeks for the new valves to settle into their new homes, so during this time we’d be adjusting levels continuously. After they’d settled, we’d have about six weeks before we’d need to replace them all over again.

At certain periods of time, generally between six months and a year, the turntables for the radar scanners would be lifted by a crane and the bearings would be changed. On the Type 85, these bearings were about a foot in diameter. When brand new they went into the turntable perfectly globular, and when they needed to be changed, they were egg shaped as a result of running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Civilians from the local area could get jobs on site too. There were two civilian engineers who worked in my workshop, specifically for maintenance of the Type 85 radar.

Station hierarchy

The Commanding Officer of Neatishead was a Group Captain Fighter Controller, and then there was a Wing Commander in charge of each of the wings. There was a Wing Commander Engineer, a Wing Commander Fighter Controller, a Wing Commander Admin. Each of these had their own individual squadrons. Everyone had their individual responsibilities, too.

My boss was a Flight Lieutenant, and there was a Flying Officer nominally in charge of each shift although it was really run by a Chief Technician. These young officers were normally straight out of training. A friend of mine trained some of these young officers, and on one occasion one of them asked him what they would be expected of them at a real radar station. Jim told them they would sign leave passes and travel claims, and that if anyone asked them anything, they should yell ‘Chief!!’. One of them on a later course confirmed with him that this was the case!!

There was a Warrant Officer Engineer who would stand in when one of the Flying Officers was on leave, but generally he’d be a day worker and would offer advice to them.

Domestic life at Neatishead

I was fortunate enough to meet my lovely wife while I was at RAF Neatishead. We got married at North Walsham and lived in Sprowston in accommodation provided by the RAF until I got posted to West Drayton in 1978. There were different forms of accommodation. The single men lived at RAF Coltishall and depending on their rank, they’d live in Airmen’s barracks, the Sergeants’ mess, or the Officer’s mess. The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) people working on site lived the same way in separate accommodation. Married staff were allocated quarters at Horsham St Faith, or hirings in Norwich.

You could get transport to work from an RAF bus that did shift changes and day-to-day changes. Most of us used our own cars though, as it was much more convenient. You’d get your little pass, stick it on the car window, and then you were in.

There was a mess on site run by the RAF. There was a section for the airmen/airwomen, another for the Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCOs), yet another for the Officers. It wasn’t free, you had to pay for your food.

There was a very active social community. There was always something going on in the Sergeants’ Mess. We also had a number of formal occasions, such as the Summer Ball and the Battle of Britain Cocktail Party. Jaguar aircraft have mobile hangars resembling huge marquees, and we’d have one of those at the rear of the Sergeants Mess with a chef doing steaks all night. One summer ball I remember having my last dance at quarter past seven on a Sunday morning and being back in the mess at lunchtime for the cricket. I was fit then!!

We had one Warrant Officer who was the president of the Norfolk Vintners Association, and he used to bring his own cocktails to the Battle of Britain Cocktail Party. Few survived a couple of those!! From time to time a couple of Senior NCOs would go down to the Theatre Royal in Norwich and pick up whoever was the star of the show that night and bring them back to the mess for the evening.

Individual shifts would often go out to their favourite pubs together when they finished. We had fun with the RAF Coltishall guys, as well. One of their favourite tricks is what they used to call ‘dead ants.’ They’d go up to The Dog in Ludham where all the holiday makers were, and someone would shout ‘dead ants.’ They’d all roll over on to their backs in the middle of all these people and stick their hands up. Another trick was for someone to order a pint and seven halves of bitter. When the beer appeared, the buyer would call out ‘Hi-Ho!!’ and in would march seven chaps on their knees – very silly!!

We had some real characters as well. One man to whom I won’t put a name was renowned as having the dirtiest mac in the RAF, so everybody knew him as Columbo.

Impact of the Cold War

Because the Cold War was going on, we had Tactical Evaluation (TACEVAL) to establish our readiness for war.  Basically, these people would turn up and say, ‘right, we’re at war. This, this, and this is happening. Get on with it!’ And we’d have to pretend it was real. They’d put people in to be enemies, to sabotage and that sort of thing. And we cheated a little bit, because the pub in Coltishall would tell us if men in suits turned up with a briefcase a few nights in a row. So, we’d know they were coming.

Technical people were required to be military as well, no one was exempt. The TACEVAL team would bring in the RAF regiment, and I remember seeing one lot sneaking down the road. I knew which way the wind was blowing, so I sneaked up behind them and tapped them on the shoulder and said, ‘gotcha.’ They reckoned I was cheating because I wasn’t supposed to go out the station gates. It was great fun really, except when you were running across the field in hot weather with a Bren gun in each hand. We had to wear these NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) suits and you got fried in them.

You never really knew how often these exercises would happen, but it usually depended on how well you did in the first one. If you did badly, there’d be another one shortly, and you’d be told. If it was very bad, you’d know because the Commanding Officer would be replaced. This never happened at Neatishead to my knowledge. I’ve heard of it happening elsewhere, though. There was no mucking about.

Stories from Neatishead

One day we had a fire alarm go off in the HF3, which was one of the height finding radars. The fire section had a brand-new man who immediately rushed in with his axe and chopped the door down. Of course, the door was unlocked.

Another fire, this time a real one. The Tannoy said, ‘if you’ve got a car in car park number three, please get it out as soon as possible.’ I went outside and there were flames leaping up from the hedge of about 20-30 feet. We managed to get all the cars out and the heat died down. What had happened was between two sets of fences, one of which was barbed wire, there was grass which couldn’t be trimmed. The Station Warrant Officer and the RAF Regiment Warrant Officer had decided to sprinkle non-leaded petrol over the grass and set fire to it. Of course, we had lots of cables for lighting and communications running through these fences. After that the two of them had a very short interview with the Commanding Officer and we didn’t see them again.

RAF Weybourne

Every Senior NCO was supposed to have a secondary duty, something else to do to keep you occupied alongside your main job. For my assignment I had to go and see the Engineering Warrant Officer shortly after I arrived at Neatishead, and I was assigned responsibility for the LORAN (Long Range Navigation system) beacon at Weybourne. This was similar to GEE as used in the 2nd World War, but vastly improved, and was paid for by NATO.

On a Thursday morning my Corporal would meet me with the RAF minivan, and we’d drive up to Weybourne. We had a civilian there who used to do the general stuff, and he’d put the kettle on. We’d read the papers, have a cup of tea, and then we’d go down to The Crown in Sheringham. There people would buy us drinks and tell us what they’d done during the war. Then we’d drive back through North Walsham, pick up my future wife from school, drop her off at home, and then go back to Neatishead.

After Neatishead

In May 1978 I was selected for Programming Wing at RAF West Drayton. Shortly after that, in August 1978, I did a real time programming course at RAF Locking, in which I got an A1 pass. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy programming.

In September 1979 I received the long service and good conduct medal, which was known in those days as ’15 years of undetected crime.’ In 1980 I did the Senior NCOs’ management course, and in October 1980 I was promoted to Chief Technician. While I was stationed at RAF West Drayton, I completed the Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Computer Studies and joined the British Computer Society.

Chief Technician Brian Crane


Chief Technician Brian Crane in formal pose


While at RAF West Drayton, I was selected to work with Plessey Defence Systems at Titchfield, near Fareham, writing software for the networking aspects of the IUKADGE (Improved United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment). This turned out to be the most enjoyable job I have done, and from which I learned a great deal. It was formed from three companies – Plessey for the network, Marconi for the displays, and Hughes Aircraft in California for the radar database. Most of the networking software was written in RTL/2, a language used by ICI for its real time applications.

That’s me below in my Chief Technician’s outfit!

When the software was written, we moved back up to the Test Facility at RAF West Drayton, where, in 1987, I left the RAF.

ITL and Reuters

I left the RAF to join Information Technology Limited (ITL) in Hemel Hempstead as a software development team leader. It was difficult to transition from the RAF to a civilian life. In the RAF if I asked someone to do something I knew it was going to get done because they knew what would happen if it didn’t. In civilian life that’s not the case, and I had a hard time learning how to persuade people to do what I wanted them to do. It wasn’t much fun initially, but I got to grips with it after a while, and we learned to understand each other. We established a small military enclave in civilian life.

I had various jobs in ITL, and then I joined Reuters on contract. I eventually joined Reuters as Technical Support Group Manager living in Norwich and commuting to London. I retired in 2003 as Head of Project Management at Radianz. Radianz was Reuters networking arm, since acquired by BT. I retired in 2003.

The Neatishead Museum

In 2005 I started volunteering at the museum in RAF Neatishead. Doug Robb, who used to be the Warrant Officer Ops, was the Museum Manager, and started the museum way back in the nineties. A lovely man, but if he asked you to do something, you did it and didn’t ask why.

Back then the museum was not as it is now, it was a very small place. Very few people knew about it. The good thing about it was that the Ministry of Defence was paying all our bills because they hadn’t figured out a way of separating us from everything else. In those days we only opened on Tuesdays, and then later we started opening Thursdays too. That was how it was for a while.

The museum has expanded a lot over the years. There have been various things added on to it, like the Crumbs café that used to be very small but is quite big now. We have a proper reception now too, and a card reader so people can pay with cards. It’s been modernised a lot. Some things haven’t been touched. The History Room hasn’t been changed much, and the Cold War Ops Room is much as it was when the RAF left.

As a volunteer, what I do is on the IT side of things. I have used my computer programming skills to some effect. I still look after the network there and the History Room, which contains many of the things I used to work on in the RAF, which is quite frightening.

I hope to carry on volunteering there for some time to come!!

Brian Crane (b. 1947)  talking to WISEArchive on May 24th 2023 in Sheringham.

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From Air Defence Operator to Warrant Officer (1972-2004). Despair, delight, tragedy.

Dai speaks about his life in the RAF, which he joined as an Air Defence Operator in 1972. He had three tours at Neatishead, with his third and final posting there as the Warrant Officer Operations (WO Ops) and Bunker Manager.


Photo: Chris Taylor Photography. Cley Mill.

Early life

I was born in 1951 in the Rookery, a maternity home in Ebbw Vale. I was born David, but once I got to school David became Dai. So, I’m a David and a Dai, and I answer to both. I lived with my mother Barbara, my father David, and my younger brother, Philip, who was named after his great uncle who fought and died in the Second Battle of Ypres. His body was never found, but his name is on the Menin Gate and the Abertillery War Memorial. Philip has a really good name.

We were working class people, and in the years after the war, money was tight.. Most kids went out and got a job when they were old enough, so I did as well. I had a paper round. A wallpaper round. In the Valleys, when you’re taking six rolls of paper up to the top of the mountain and you forget the border, you really start to make sure you’ve got your ducks all in a row before you set out.

A friend got me a better paid job in Woollies on a Saturday. I went to a grammar school, where they played rugby in the winter, cricket in the summer, and if you were unfit for sport, you could play soccer. I was in form five, and on 9th April 1967, due to take my GCEs, when my father suddenly died, aged 46. My mother was left to raise two boys with no income.

Working at the steelworks

I left school a few weeks later after my GCEs. My cousin Keith helped me get a job at RTBs, a steelworks in Ebbw Vale. My mother remarried after about a year and that was a difficult for me personally. Near enough to be despair. I left RTBs because it was abundantly clear that it had a short lifespan left. Some years later it closed and an estimated 20,000 jobs disappeared

Before that happened I moved across the Valley to a place called Brynmawr to work with RCA, an American company making computer discs. It was the week before Christmas 1971, just 18 months since I’d begun working there, when they closed the factory one morning with no notice. Christmas 1971 started my real despair. No redundancy, not many decent jobs and no money coming in, in a flat I couldn’t afford.. Not to mention a £5 overdraft with the Midland Bank.

Christmas 1971 I had to go back home which was something I didn’t want to do. Washed up with no future I had no idea what I wanted, but the Valleys back at home didn’t offer me anything. Despair just didn’t cut it.

Joining the RAF

My dad was an RAF Wireless Op/Gunner in the Second World War, and he survived in Bomber Command. So I went down to the Careers Information Office (CIO) in Cardiff to see what jobs the RAF had to offer. A short chat and the sergeant t suggested I look at ‘Air Defence Operator’ and I liked the idea. You could join up for three, six or nine years, with the difference being the pay. I thought, ‘If I’m going to go in, I’m going to go in for the best money possible. So, I signed up for nine years.

I took the oath of allegiance on 18th April 1972, and I went off with two other fellows from Cardiff to a place called RAF Swinderby for boot camp. Six weeks later I have a uniform, know how look after it, I can march, salute, bull shoes and boots and recognise ranks. Best of all a lot of sport and fitness.

The cost for accommodation and your food was taken out of the pay before you got your hands on the money. I didn’t have any other responsibilities to use that money for, and there was no time or place to spend it. The RAF kept you very busy in the first few months. The £5 overdraft with the bank disappeared in a fortnight.

So that first six weeks was a big test, successfully managed and on to the next step.. No despair either. Socially, financially and career wise it was all looking like a delight.

RAF Bawdsey

Next step was training as an Air Defence Operator, or scopie. Training was at RAF Bawdsey near Felixstowe, the most beautiful RAF unit. It was a historic site, with links back to the Watson-Watt developing radar and designing an integrated air defence system that all Air Forces throughout the world now use. The research and development made victory in the Battle of Britain possible.

The School of Fighter Control (SofFC) was based there. The various courses, trained thousand of air defenders, learning the basics. All of a sudden, all this classified stuff was being put in front of us. Learning the jobs, about long range/early warning radar. We had the Photographic Display Unit (PDU). These are the things you see in the movies with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) and their big pointed sticks. We learnt all the technological improvements since the Second World and we all worked in secret bunkers and learnt to write backwards. We were immersed in the concept of operations of the air defence of the UK (and NATO Area 12). was now a tangible fact. Hearing fast jet pilots doing their thing for real. Definitely no despair.

We had the Type 80 radar. It was the first new type of radar since the Second World War. The aircraft we worked with and used for defence were Lightings from Coltishall, Wattisham and Binbrook (all bases that no longer exist). There were ancient AEW Shackletons and the RAF Marham refuelling tankers. We had a class of 20 fledgling operators We all passed out and everybody went to different places, mainly Buchan and Boulmer. I was the only one to be posted into Bawdsey and very happy.

Sport, teamwork, and fitness is at the core of what they want out of the service personnel while you build a career through hard work. For that a good sense of humour is essential.

RAF 11 Group Cup Final April 1973 (West Raynham)

The other reason Bawdsey is very close to my heart is that I met my wife there. She worked in communications. And because the chances of us being on the same unit again after Bawdsey was non-existent, and they wouldn’t co-locate you at the time, she had to leave the service. Which she did, when we got married in August 1973. Fifty years married this year. I’m bottom left in the photo, sitting down looking happy – one year in and a sport medal.

To Neatishead

After the wedding I got sent off to a place called Patrington. And then, in April 1974, I was posted at Neatishead.

The original base had a R3 bunker, had been burnt down because of arson in February 1966, and three Norfolk firemen had died. It was a terrible tragedy, but a lot was learnt about how to handle fires underground, so they didn’t die in vain. Mistakes had been made on both sides, the Air Force and the Fire Brigade. The flooring was wood using paraffin based polish, so when it caught fire, it was fierce. The curtains and furniture weren’t inflammable. Changes were made nationally. The man who committed the arson went to jail for seven years.

The unit was being reopened. The R30, which later became the Cold War Museum, was the new operations rooms, but above ground. Unlike Bawdsey and Patrington, which were master radar stations, Neatishead was a CRC/SOC. The CRC was Control and Reporting Centre. The Control side was the use of mainly air assets and land based missiles. The reporting element was maintaining a recognised air picture. A recognised air picture is the core of what we do. Any aircraft that’s entering, leaving or crossing our area of responsibility, would need to be recognised. This was Cold War era and if Soviet or communist world aircraft entered our area we would intercept them with our defence fighters and other assets. Spy planes tested our defences. And if there was something that needed investigating, we could scramble off the fighters, the Lightnings from Coltishall, Wattisham, or Binbrook. They could have a Shackleton get launched to extend our radar coverage, and maybe a tanker for support for the fighters. This was the Quick Reaction Alert Force. It still operates today Different airplanes, different people. Same job.

The SOC part was Sector Operation Centre. The UK had its sovereign air space, which is one area, and then there was NATO Area 12, which was a bigger area stretching way above the Faroes. It was about a million square miles and from sea level to infinity. The areas were broken down into two sectors. South of 56 degrees north of Newcastle was Neatishead area and north of 56 was Buchan area.

New technology, new training

At the time I joined Neatishead, we were going from analogue driven radars to digital and computers, which meant the training was all brand new. It was like stepping off a spaceship and landing in a different place altogether. There was computer generated symbology on a radar, this is 1974, we’d never seen anything like it. It was in its infancy, and had a long way to go, but it was phenomenal to see this change.

Mind you, when tracking an aircraft, the symbology would only go in a straight line, so you would have to have an operator intervention to make sure it got around the corner. You had to be trained on this and you needed to be able to do something like eight to ten tracks per 15 seconds. The area we worked was very busy airspace, you could be updating 22 tracks in 15 seconds. That meant you had to be pretty quick and pay attention.

Quarter issues

While the training to take on operations again went fine, the domestic side did not. Hundreds of us were descending on the unit from the closure of Bawdsey and Patrington. There were no quarters available for the families, so the married chaps had to be accommodated at Coltishall in the barracks. The few quarters for Neatishead were in Old Catton in Norwich. RAF Coltishall had plenty of spare housing, which was not shared with Neatishead married personnel. In essence your family would not be able to join you for several years.

Well, when you’re telling your wife that there’s no chance of getting a quarter for the next number of years, people get quite upset. It got really bad very quick.. There were people going AWOL, having to be brought back by the military police. Fuel got thrown onto the flames when an Officer who came in to warn us off causing a stink didn’t know what Excess Rent Allowance (ERA) was. An essential element to rent a home on the commercial market would need a swift change as it was pitifully inadequate. RAF pay was low in the mid 70s in comparison to civilian job. A lot of the junior ranks were in receipt of social benefits.

The issue seeped into the national press. My wife, who had chosen to go back to Scotland to wait until we had quarters, was as active as any other wife. I was asked to go see an Officer in Station HQ. His first question to me was, ‘who wears the trousers in your house?’ My answer was, ‘I don’t have a house.’ And I said nothing more throughout the ‘chat’.

Eventually there was a quick resolution. It only took one Senior Officer in London to turn around and say that Coltishall, and Neatishead will share quarters. Problem solved overnight. Furthermore they built more housing in Norwich.

Domestic life in Neatishead

When my wife came down from Scotland, we shared our first anniversary in August by renting a car to go and explore the Norfolk coast. So we went to Blakeney. We mistook a sand bar for a beach and got up to our knees in mud, and ended up spending more time cleaning ourselves off when we got back to the rental car. It was a lovely day nonetheless..

I played rugby for the combined Coltishall and Neatishead team. It was a way of getting to know the local teams and people, who were absolutely marvellous. My wife got a job in Health and Safety in Norwich. One day she opened a parcel and there was a thumb in it. Good old farmers in Norfolk!

‘Irish’ pay rise

Young married airmen with children needed a second wage to make ends meet. Many were on social benefits. What happened was, if you lived in quarters or barracks for the single people, you paid rent. If you ate in the mess, you paid for your food. When a pay rise came along, they were called ‘Irish’ pay rises because those bills rose more than the pay rise! It was alleged that London bus drivers were earning more than a V-Bomber pilot. Morale was low for years. We had no political voice. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces were badly treated by the country.


I had a Qualified Driver B-class (QDB). Only Motor Transport Drivers (MTDs) would get the A-class licenses, but sometimes there were duties that required a driver to collect or drop off something, somewhere. That’s where QDBs came in. We had a vehicle or two available. I did a lot of driving around the Neatishead/Coltishall/Norwich area. It was smashing to get out and about during the shift.

The Q(DB) qualification is registered with the posting and promotions agency to assess personnel to be suitably qualified for a new posting if drivers were need. When it came to postings, the drafter would look at what the posting required, look at the people on the top of the list, and then work down the list until he got the person with the right qualifications. I was posted to RAF Brüggen in Germany, onto a flag carrying 25 Sqn, a Bloodhound squadron. They required personnel holding a QDB. That was me.

25 Sqn Bloodhound, RAF Brüggen. RAF Germany. Dai Harrhy rear rank, second from left.

Back to Neatishead as a Corporal

I’d been posted at Bawdsey, Patrington, Neatishead, and overseas to Brüggen. By now I was considered a Senior Aircraftsmen (SAC) with experience. So, after a successful three-year tour in Germany, I was promoted to Corporal after seven years of service.

I was posted to West Drayton in London at the ADDC and joined the escape committee which got me posted back to Neatishead. Chapman Pincher the journalist later exposed the problems with the ADDC and it was closed down after a few years.

I knew my way around Neatishead so I was soon working days as a Manning Corporal. There were 23 different Ops jobs to allocate to the junior ranks. A busy job and new Cpls always had to do their stint at manning. You learnt to supervise, delegate tasks, some not nice and allow or deny leave. Manning Corporal was a make or break job, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Sport in the RAF

Another duty of a Manning Corporal is when the JR (junior ranks) wanted to book leave, holidays. If they requested absence due to sport (and there were many) again it was through the Manning Corporal. HM Armed Forces are just the place you wanted to be if you were good at sport.

There was one Senior Aircraftswoman (SACW) who bought a horse for show jumping in 1980ish.for about £8,000, a huge amount back then. She appeared at my desk one day and asked for a week off to go show jumping in London. She’d been selected to represent the RAF against the Navy and the Army in Great Windsor Park in front of the HM Queen. A very senior officer would pick up the horse and rider and take her to the event.

Representative sport at that level was a given. HM the Queen was a big clue! Once you achieved representing the RAF or higher levels it was automatic absence. When she got back, I asked her how she got on with the show jumping, she replied, ‘Not very well. I fell at the third, and the horse ran off into the VIP tent, where Margaret Thatcher and the rest of the VIPs were located. So, I curtsied to the Queen and then ran off after my horse.’ This is an opportunity she would never have had without being part of the RAF. To perform in front of the Queen, our boss, even if you fall off.

There was also a fellow Corporal who was a three handicap golfer. He held the bat as a left-hander even though he was right-handed. He’d been selected for the RAF championship and asked me if he could go. Again, if you’re playing at that level, the answer is yes. At the end of the week, he phoned me up to say he’d been selected to represent the RAF against RAF Germany at RAF Brüggen in Germany. I can’t say no. He asked for five days off to play golf, and it ended up being a fortnight. Such is the importance of fitness and teamwork.

Other duties at Neatishead on second tour

At Neatishead as a Corporal one of the other jobs I had was as the deputy to the Warrant Officer Ops Assistant. This meant I would go and cover for him. The Warrant Officer is a man who says ‘jump’ and you say ‘how high’. He was a smashing chap when you worked for him in his office. If you weren’t in his office, stay well clear.

I was also moved from the manning section into the training section. I was the Corporal in charge of operational training of all new arrivals for fire and safety, no matter what rank they were. I also had to set phase tests and mock exams in preparation for the annual round of the promotion exams, updating and writing local training briefs. All of this was classified, of course. Total job satisfaction reinforced when ten out of ten operators passed their promotion exam.

Assessment for 22-year service

Once you get promoted to Corporal, you’re automatically offered a 22 years’ service pension. A main objective achieved.. I had to go down to the medics to be assessed to be fit for further service. Both the doctor and I played rugby for Coltishall. Having checked vitals the doc made me a coffee and had a chat, when he remarked my fitness on the rugby field was enough evidence as fit for a pension.

Air Officer Commanding NI. Dai on the right receiving his LSCGC Medal for 15 years of service.


TACEVAL deployment to Hopton in the 1980s. Dai on front row on the left. Next to him Dick Ivers one of two controllers deployed.

Weybourne detachment

I would take new arrivals to Weybourne and show them the site and the work we did up there. We used the radar for low level coverage, which was a good asset to have. We used an ex-army radar. They had to self-cater for meals. The catering section would send them food that they’d have to prepare and cook on a properly fitted commercial sized kitchen. They’d have to peel the spuds, cut them up into chips. Cooking the chips in water was not a good idea. The Engineering Chief in charge of the site was not happy.

Technology advancement

In my second tour at Neatishead, F4 Phantoms replaced the Lightnings Tornadoes would eventually replace the F4. The difference between a Lightning and the Phantoms and Tornados was huge. Longer sorties, bigger and varied weapon loads and better radar and avionics.

The Phantoms and Tornados could easily stay on cap for two hours, where the Lightning usually lasted no more than 15 mins. Fantastic pieces of equipment. You stayed on the sortie as long as it was there. If it refuelled you could be there for four hours. So, the improvement in the aircrafts was not necessarily welcomed by all.

Cold war Operations Room, Air Defence Museum RAF Neatishead, RCHME 1998.

 Technology too had come so much farther forward that now we could see all the radars that we wanted to, even the continental radars. We could look at radars at the top of Norway, and they could look at us. And we could watch Soviet aircraft coming out from their bases in Murmansk, and if they crossed a trip wire, we’d know that the Russian spy planes would come south. The Norwegians would intercept them there, and they’d come further south, where the Americans would launch from Iceland and intercept them. The Norwegians would be with them all the way down until they got to our area, which was north of the Faroes. There we’d have fighters, tankers, and AEW aircraft sitting ready and waiting for them. That was the task during the Cold War.

Notable events at Neatishead on second tour

A couple of things happened at Neatishead during my tour which were quite interesting. One was that a Soviet Fleet came up the channel over Christmas time. Our Quick Reaction Alert Force was swamped, as was the CRC, because this fleet took three/four days to go from the Bay of Biscay up through the English Channel and up into the North Sea. The first time the Soviets deviated from going the long way round Ireland. It was Christmas, so the bulk of the Air Force was on leave. It was a difficult time with loads of unpaid overtime and the airframes used needing service with limited resources. The operational task of shadowing the fleet was achieved. It was real and it was serious, because they were spying on us. The Soviets also sent Bear C spy lanes to escort the fleet. The spy plane came down about 15 miles off Great Yarmouth, outside territorial waters, just.

Another incident concerned an exercise incident overnight; we’d sometimes have (military) intruders, testing the guards.. About 3am on one particular night we arrested a man in one of the favourite spots to breach the fence. We walked him across the site at Neatishead to the R12 building where the police had their post. The path to that post was across the site which was essentially a square trench for cables with concrete lid over the top, placed every so many lids there’d be a metal handle you could lift to get to the cable. The prisoner tripped over one of these handles, broke his nose, blood everywhere, and when we march him into the RAF police, the first thing we get is, ‘Who did it?’ When you say he tripped it doesn’t sound like you’re telling the truth, even if it is the truth. We got a real ticking off that night.

Coltishall had an air sea rescue helicopter and they were always looking for volunteers to be dunked in the North Sea for them to rescue. One of our radar operators was a small chap who looked 14, and he volunteered. The helicopter took off from Coltishall with him in the back after he completed all the tests and training, and it was transiting out over Cromer when a real call came in. You can’t take spare passengers on a real call. So, they dropped him off on the cliffs at Cromer and flew away with strict instructions for him not to go anywhere, that they’d come back and get him. Some concerned civilians came across what they thought was a little boy, in a too big safety helmet and oversized flying suit, sitting at the top of a cliff. When the couple asked the young lad if he was he ok, the RAF chap replied he was waiting for the helicopter. The couple called an ambulance and police. He eventually convinced the emergency workers he was genuine.

The best news from that tour is that towards the end of it, my wife fell pregnant.

Back to Neatishead as Warrant Officer Operations

It’s July 1997 now. I’ve been overseas at the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) in Malaysia. We were part of an international team, helping to train the five nations in cooperation in a conflict. It was the best posting in my 34 years. I also worked part time for the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. An additional task and not part of my main duties.

The Defence Attaché’s office requested I arrange the hotels, cars etc for visiting RAF aircraft transiting SE Asia, through Butterworth airfield. I was stationed there. Logical of course. Tremendous fun in the sun or usually torrential rain on a Sunday evening waiting for a big bird.

My wife was a parent governor at the international school Uplands and our son attending as a day pupil. David qualified to be a diver at age 12. But at the end of my 30-month tour, I was posted back to Neatishead on promotion to Warrant Officer. I couldn’t believe my luck. There’s a big difference in rank, it’s a deference.

My third time at Neatishead, needless to say I knew the area; I knew the unit. It didn’t take me long to settle in it all. The only thing was, I had seven years left of my RAF life to do, so it would be a case of looking for a house for life after the Air Force.

The main operational difference this time was the R3 bunker was now the base of operations with another upgrade in technology. Same job, different kit and different people.

I was the Bunker Manager and Warrant Officer Operations. There were an awful lot of other jobs that went with that, as well. Basically, what I inherited was 185 operations staff, ranging from 16½ years old to 55 years old. There were 50 Officers on operations, most of them were Flight Lieutenants or below, and under Queen’s regulations appendix 25 it was my duty as a Warrant Officer to counsel them in the ways of being an Officer. Which I did, so did every other Warrant Officer in the RAF. As long as you called them sir or ma’am you were alright.

I delegated all the personnel out when they arrived to the most needy area on OpsWg. I’d have a chat with them, with our expectations and opportunities. The job description ran to four A4 pages and I’m not going through it all.

The Russians were our friends now, and the Russian military collapsed under corruption and God knows what, so there was a big question mark over air defence at the time. The two SOC/CRCs became one, and Neatishead was it. We were responsible for about one million square miles from sea level to infinity, air defence wise. Space was a job on other units. This included the national region, and also NATO area 12, which had taken in the Faeroes, which was Danish.

I was also the H & S rep, I was on the Ops Executives Committee, where the heads of sheds would discuss operational problems and things that were happening. Y2k was an issue as our upgraded system which used computers. Luckily despite robust contingency plans if the computers failed, we like the rest of the planet eased a sigh of relief when all was ok.

I was the Chairman of the Messing Committee, CMC, which meant I was in charge of the Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs’ mess. Our main Mess was at Coltishall. However, we did hold formal lunches at Neatishead to acknowledging those leaving the Service or being posted out or well anything that looked like a good excuse. Self-funded of course, but it’s good for morale. And it’s a chance for all the Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs to get together. Of course, you always invited a Senior Officer to give a talk. They had to sing for their supper.

RMAF Base Butterworth. Formal dining night.
(Not RAF pattern uniform but RAAF. It was so much cooler than the issue of the RAF kit.)

There were plenty of times where you’d have to speak to an Officer about their conduct. One Officer was responsible for looking after a visit to the bunker by the Wives’ Club. He turned up in civilian clothing and a beard, which was against regulations at the time. The Station Commander was wandering around the bunker downstairs. I advised the officer to shave before going downstairs. It was not a request. Another Officer would take the ladies on tour. The Officer without a beard now returned after having giving himself a shave in his car with an old Bic razor. He went downstairs, and an hour later he returned to my office to thank me, as the first person he ran into was the Station Commander.

All equipment in the bunker was on my inventory and a good assistant regularly did checks on everything. Every desk, every chair, every filing cabinet, even the fire-retardant curtains, everything.

Because I was the Bunker Manager, I had to review and revise orders and regulations, consulting other stake holders, such as the MOD Firefighters, the Police and other Subject Matter Experts (SME), the Crypto Custodian, and most importantly the Barrack Warden, all played their part in keeping the R3 operational. The deaths in 1966 of three firemen meant new ways were brought in to fight fires underground and the importance of fire retardant materials.

JNCO crew room in the R30 at RAF Neatishead, now part of the museum. Now the entrance/reception area of the Museum. Dai Harrhy, Cpl Bernie? Cpl Taff Jones. (Crown copyright)

Dai Harrhy and JAC Mick Davies, Training Office. (Crown copyright).

Manpower shortage

There was always a manpower shortage, as often I’d have a lot less than the 185 personnel on the books. We were the biggest bucket of manpower for radar operators in the UK, so often we’d had to deploy staff to fight fires, kill sheep, guard aircraft overseas, go aboard ships for Exercises/JMC in northern water in the winter to use ASMA, an RAF computer system, and many other ad hoc duties.

The Falkland Islands had to be manned and we had more than our fair share of staff in the South Atlantic. Indeed the Station Commander returned to the unit after the rededication of HMS Southampton after a refit, a ship twinned with Neatishead. The navy invited to send a few of our staff to go aboard for a trip to the Falkland Islands. A jolly? We managed to spare one operator. First stop Gibraltar, across to the West Indies, stopping in a couple of South American ports and disembarked at Stanley for a couple of days and flew home. Not all deployments were a hardship. A couple of operators spent a couple of weeks near Las Vegas, another two for a few weeks in Australia. One naval detachment wanted two RAF operators to join them for a world cruise. I split the trip for two bods outbound to Singapore and changed them over for another two for the return leg. Spread the happiness and the Navy were paying. Finally the young lady detached for the Festival of Remembrance. She did everything to get out of it. On return she begged to go again. Only after return did she realise what an honour it had been. Some of the life experiences were at times exceptional. They were an opportunity to see how others’d work and play.


I was sitting in my office, and a civilian registry clerk came to my office. He said, ‘A plane has flown into the twin towers in New York.’ I went and watched the tv news and saw the second plane crash. Obviously no accident. I got the Station Commander across to the bunker. We secured the bunker, closed the doors and the unit. Bear in mind, that we were the sole ground radar unit responsible for the air defence of the UK (in a little field in Norfolk).

Everybody pulled their weight. The professionalism was superb. Everyone wanted to be on a console. We were making big decisions in moving assets that those decisions were endorsed after the fact by Headquarters 11 Group. They were in the dark as much as everybody else. We used air and sea assets assigned to other tasks to extend our coverage. Thankfully none of the returning civil aircraft were a problem.

Honours and Awards

A new OC Ops Wing had a robust plan for recognising exceptional service, actions charity work and such things outside of normal work expectations. There were nine enlisted personnel awarded RAF Honours (helps greatly in promotion prospects) and one Officer. While this effort took several weeks and a great deal of secrecy, so no one would suspect they were being considered for a nomination, it worked so well that I never realised the boss wrote me up for an MBE. My wife, son and Uncle came along too. We enjoyed a marvellous day at the Palace and for me seeing my son in dress tartan and HM The Queen pinning a gong on my uniform was one of those unforgettable special moments.


5th November 2002. Dai receiving his MBE with son David and Uncle Owen.

Leaving the Service

The Air Force that I joined in 1972 had a strength of about 130,000. Now, today, as I am speaking in April 2023, it’s about 33,000. Much of the real estate has gone, as well.

Neatishead ceased operations in 2004. It remained the longest serving radar station in the world. Indeed the move of the radar from Trimingham to Neatishead ensured that record continues. English Heritage visited us as buildings and personnel were reduced. They made Neatishead an exemplar site. There were 12 buildings that were listed by them. The R12 building because it held the largest air con they had ever seen.

My last day of service I was wheeled out of Trimingham, which is now sadly closed. It has been a wonderful and successful journey, a delight indeed. It wasn’t all roses.

It was worth it just in meeting so many wonderful people from around the world. Who would have thought that an unemployed working class 19 year old lad would be given a gong by HM the Queen, the boss. My wife earned that gong as much as I did. Military wives are a very special class of lady.

We bought a house, I became a Registrar in North Norfolk and took part in close to 600 weddings in some beautiful locations around Norfolk. My wife helped to recruit large numbers of teachers for Norfolk and Suffolk. Our son went to University and accepted to become an IT teacher at Aylsham High School.

It was all because of my family. I would never have had so much fun and laughter without the support of my wife and son. David once said to me, ‘Can you get a proper job dad, like a taxi driver?’ Sadly, a few months after leaving the service my son David died, and my wife and I suffered and continue to suffer the worst tragedy imaginable.

Dai with son David. Photo by RAF photographer Bob Thompson

David (Dai) Harrhy (b. 1951) talking to WISEArchive on 27th April 2023 in North Walsham.

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Coming home (1946-2023)

Michael has previously spoken with WISEArchive in 2019. He joins us again to tell us about finding family connections to Norfolk and his fascinating working life as the planning and historic buildings adviser with Norfolk County Council.

Finding family connections to Norfolk

Its jolly nice to be here and thank you for asking me to speak to you again. It’s very interesting for me as my father used to say, ‘Well of course the Knights, we all come from Norfolk’ and growing up in Reading I had no idea where Norfolk was and it was only occasionally mentioned.

When I came to Norfolk in 1990 this gave me the opportunity to see if there was any truth to the rumour, and luckily there was. An old auntie in Derbyshire put me in touch with a couple of people and it seemed that as a family we had been living in Crimplesham (near Downham Market) for several generations.  I was actually able to find the house (which had been three cottages then) and…. an old boy in the village who actually remembered my ancestors coming back in a Charabanc in the early 1920s. They had moved away before the First World War, but came back for a party to renew their acquaintance with the village. Finding the house was really interesting and to know that I really did have family connections to Norfolk and I felt very welcome to coming home.

I’ve lived in the county for 33 years and have really settled into the way of life in Norfolk, you know, there’s a certain relaxed slowness about it.

I have subsequently done some family research and discovered we in fact come from Suffolk and of course as people know, there is a bit of rivalry between Suffolk and Norfolk. The family had moved through various villages from the 17th century across the county and ended up at Crimplesham.

My great grandfather was lucky, it was a big family and there wasn’t always a lot of money but he had been working with windmills as a journeyman stone cutter. He was the man who went round and sharpened and recut the stones, something which the millers needed to be done regularly. For some reason he ended up as far away as St Ives and St Neots on the Ouse and there met a girl whose family had a coach works business and they married.

He then got a job at Houghton Mill, a National Trust mill and was there for 30 years until he had enough money for his first farm. My grandfather was born on that farm, in Bedfordshire, before moving to Buckinghamshire where my father was born on the Church Farm in North Crawley. This is where I thought that we were all from, but that of course was only a relatively recent thing. The interesting thing is that when one relative set himself up on a farm and would need help, he’d contact his relatives and if they had little work they’d all come over to help work the farm.

So although some of Knights family moved out of Norfolk to help my Great Grandfather there is still a definite connection to Norfolk.

My mother on the other hand was born in Elsingor in Denmark but moved to London in 1937 when she turned 21 and took up a position as a gentlewoman’s companion to some famous film stars including Googie Withers. I think that she had a glamorous time in the late 30s in London, going to all these functions and obviously accompanying film stars and celebrities and then somewhere or another she met my father. I think that this was at a dance and lo and behold they got married in the 1940. The interesting thing is that Norwich was originally a Danish town for nearly 300 years before the Normans conquered England. The Tombland was where they held their Danish market and they were settled in the areas we know as Colegate and Fishergate (gate meaning street in Danish). and all those areas around St Clements Church and Magdalen Street.

So here I am, on my father’s side with farming connection to this county and the adjoining county and through my mother with the Danish connection to Norwich and the NorthFolk. So I do feel truly at home, and I don’t intend to move anywhere else.

I am also very happy with the work that I have been able to accomplish whilst here, thanks in large parts to the County Council, with churches, large barns and windmills and so on and so forth.

When I came we had quite reasonable budgets to enable us to help people with grants for thatching and repairing timber-framed buildings. Of course there were also the three charitable trusts – Norfolk Churches Trust (NCT), The Norfolk Windmills Trust (NWT) and the third, The Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust (NHBT).

The Norfolk Churches Trust still exits and I believe may still receive some funding from the council, I’m not sure, but obviously it’s a very well organised, well known organisation.

The Norfolk Windmills Trust which was there to look after the handful of windmills that the County Council had been given in the 1950s. As the mills fell into disrepair there was the tendency to give them to the County Council who were then saddled with the responsibility of deciding what to do with them. Most of them were in pretty poor condition.

Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust had a revolving fund principle so that it could take on buildings that perhaps the private sector wouldn’t touch because it didn’t make any commercial sense, but were important buildings in their own right.

They were able to  access grants which weren’t available to private developers. A good instance of this policy was Kings Head Cottage in Banham, which I remember very well. It was really ancient, we reckon from about 1380, one of the oldest houses I’ve ever worked on, it was on its last legs and about to fall down. We were able to buy it, the tenants were rehoused, they had run out of money and were not doing things to help the property, they were accelerating its decline.

King’s Head Cottage, Banham

We worked in conjunction with the local District Council and with grants and loans we were able to pull together a team to bring the property back into good order. It could then be sold on a long lease. I was very pleased to be involved in quite a number of properties like that, which we saved.

In order to carry out this work I relied on a team of people and a department that was supportive, with political backing too. The team I inherited consisted of two people. An architectural historian who was very knowledgeable particularly about church architecture and looking after churches, and a young lady who has in fact become an author in recent years. She had a history degree but also pursued further training in building conservation.

I also had a surveyor on the team, who had a background with historic buildings and conservation. Another member of staff had completed a conservation degree and was very knowledgeable on drainage mills and windmills in general, and is still working in that field. So it’s quite a good mixture of skills and we could take a   multidisciplinary approach to jobs. It’s no good having four or five people with all the same skills, because you don’t get anywhere, you do need that multi-disciplinary approach .Mind you its not always easy because different indivduals often see things from a differently, so we had some healthy debates but I was very lucky to lead that team.

We stuck together for 20 years, which I think was pretty remarkable, obviously one or two left to further their careers but nevertheless it was a very interesting and good time.

Waxham Barn

The Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust looks after this now but originally it was the County Council who became concerned about the poor state of repair of this Grade 1 listed building. It’s one of the biggest barns in East Anglia, if not the biggest, bigger than Paston by a few feet and bigger than Hales Barn.  It was used as cattle sheds for dairy cattle and the farmer was more interested in his dairy cows than the building, this is quite a common trait with farmers.

But this building was so special that we actually went through the compulsory purchase process, this happened just before I arrived. In fact as part of my interview for the job I was asked to present a report on how I saw the future of the building.

I hadn’t been to Norfolk let alone Waxham and there was no internet then but from a bit of research and photograph or two I was able to put a report together. The night before my interview I drove over to see the barn and oh my goodness it was worse than I thought! I made a few hasty amendments to my report, and the next morning presented it to the interviewers.

The barn is very significant because first of all its size. It’s a three-bay threshing barn with a thatched roof and if I remember correctly its 190 feet long. It contains quite a bit of mediaeval masonry in the flint walls. The buttresses that support the building comprise medieval stonework taken form demolished monasteries and it has battered walls, (thicker at the base than at the top). The weight of grain is considerable and it would tend to exert pressure on the bottom of the wall and could actually cause it to collapse. So those walls at the base are probably over two foot thick. It also had an alternate hammer-beam roof which is very unusual.

Waxham Great Barn 1982

 We used the term Waxham Great Barn to underline its importance as a special listed building and had to make a strong case to the Sec of State who confirmed the CPO after a public enquiry. The Paston family had a similar barn further up the coast but the Woodhouse family who owned this Barn also had to fortify this area because at the time of the Spanish Armada, everyone was worried that the Spanish were going to land soldiers on the beaches at Waxham. So that takes you back to Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada and Waxham Barn dates from that period so it’s a rather special place.

Unfortunately a change of politics at the County Council in ’93 meant an immediate switch over and it was considered to be a white elephant, shouldn’t have done it but it was too late as the County Council had already embarked on the repairs and money had been built up to pay to pay for this over years.

But there were no facilities, no café, no toilets, no staff and so what we did was we organised special open days called Natural Building days. We would invite people to come and talk about lime, flint, traditional construction, thatching, lime plastering and so on. These were very popular, thousands of people came and we had some very busy weekends. One year we managed to recruit a couple of students from City College who were studying tourism and they were able to put together a questionnaire to ask people what they thought. There was the argument; “was it money well spent or a complete waste of public money”.

The lion’s share of the public said that it was a wonderful building and it wasn’t a waste of money. Don’t forget we’d drawn down some significant grants which were specifically aimed at this type of listed building.

The barn itself was repaired and rethatched with 15000 bundles of water reed but for many years I had the unenviable task of keeping an eye on it, and it wasn’t generating any income and there were these four derelict wings which had been shelter sheds that were damaged in storms over the course of several years of relative inactivity.

Then the Lottery came along and we discovered that by putting it in the hands of the NHBT they were able to access larger grants than the County Council.

One of my members of staff put together this building conservation training project and we were successful in drawing down considerable funding for the complete repair of the wings and also we were able to incorporate a cafe into one of them, so that at last the site could be opened to the general public on a regular basis.

We also had funding to set up a very modern interpretation of the barn and the locality with amazing pods with information about the Woodhouse family, threshing and how the barns were used, another about Sea Palling and the ship wreckers. Of course ship wrecking was controversial but it was true, it did happen all along the coast.

It is now leased to the NHBT who I believe have wedding receptions there although Covid badly affected things. But there is very little interpretation now, which is a great shame as the people visiting today know very little of the story of how and why it was brought into public ownership by a county council who cared so much for Norfolk’s rich legacy of historic buildings.

Waxham Barn was really with me for all those twenty years that I was with the County Council and I am really proud of what we achieved in at least saving it from collapse.

Back at the office there was always something moving, changing, something needed doing. With so many historic buildings in the county it was a never ending task and the list of “buildings at Risk” continued to grow. One very important case that comes to mind is Nelson’s Monument in Yarmouth.

Nelson’s monument, Great Yarmouth

There had been quite a dispute between Great Yarmouth Council and the county council as to who was responsible for repair and maintenance of this monument which was erected in 1820 after the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The great and good of the county had decided that because he was born in Norfolk and had the freedom of Great Yarmouth town his death and his exploits should be commemorated with a tall monument originally called the Norfolk Pillar .Several different locations were discussed but after much debate it was decided that it should be built in Great Yarmouth on what was at the time a sort of mini racecourse used y the military who had fortifications here and the cavalry in their spare time raced their horses around it. People also came to visit the monument and there was an old sailor there who had been in the battle on HMS Victory and recaled them with tales of adventure on board.

Although some repairs had been carried out by the county council in the past, the current administration decided they were not responsible anymore and it was GY District Council who were.

So In the end the NHBT stepped in to say they were in a position to apply for grants and if both councils helped in one way or another they would carry out the repairs. Everyone was very happy with that, especially as the bi-centenary of Trafalgar in 2005 was approaching.

The organisation of ownership etc as well as the repair and restoration took about seven years. In 2004 we finally got the specialist contractors we needed and an architect from Purcell Miller and Tritton and work began.

It was a tough job to manage as the site is next to the North Sea and work had to carry on throughout the winter and it is very exposed to the elements. My role was to ensure that the conservation work was carried out properly and that the whole thing was finished by October 2005 and that there was no overspend. Happy to say we hit the deadline and kept to budget.

There was a massive celebration at the end of work with bands and we had all the dignitaries that we could find. Ben Burgess was very supportive, as he was very much a Nelson man. There was a sub-committee linked to the museum service which helped celebrate this event.

I’m not sure who looks after it now, the Nelson Museum used to but that doesn’t exist so I’m not sure. I dare say it’s the local council.

Nelson Monument, Great Yarmouth

For me it was fantastic project to be involved with and I’ve been right to the top of the monument and looked out over what is a pretty rough mixture of factories and old sites. It’s not exactly the most glamorous place to have a monument like that. Maybe one day someone will have a vision to see that you could actually do a really nice development at that end of town.

But it was very interesting, I got to know quite a bit about Yarmouth, which has a fantastic history, it was a very wealthy place before the war. Although, subsequently it’s had its problems, but there’s a lot of pride in the town.

The Norfolk problem of Ruined Churches

There are well over a hundred ruins in the county, some in woods, most overgrown and in a state of dereliction. We had more churches than anywhere else in England so we now have more ruins than anywhere else.

The question was, what do we do about them? Do we say that we’ll just let them all fall down? Some of these were really significant buildings, nearly all of which are listed, some of them quite highly graded.

So the report was produced, and taken through the county with all the representatives of the Diocesan authorities, Parochial Church Councils and District Councils. It was a big study and it was agreed by everybody assembled that we should try to put some money aside each year to tackle the problem consolidate the ruins, clear vegetation and perhaps open them up again. We wanted to do some new interpretation, explain why the church was abandoned and what had happened to bring them to that state of disrepair.

The first ruin tackled was in Saxlingham Nethergate where we learned valuable lessons and over the next few years (until budgets were cut) nearly a dozen ruined Churches were tackled. Unfortunately the whole programme was largely abandoned by the mid 1990’s for lack of political will and funding. Such a shame because we built up considerable expertise in the team and there are still dozens of ruins that will collapse and disappear from the county.

Romanesque wall paintings

One of those churches was up near North Pickenham, Houghton on the Hill. Its roof was still intact although there were plenty of tiles missing, but unusually we were able to put the roof back to protect the building, without a roof they deteriorate very quickly.

In that particular church we discovered these really important wall paintings from the Romanesque period (i.e. the early 11thC) and the Courtauld Institute helped in their conservation. A lot of money has been spent conserving those wall paintings. Thank goodness we were able to put the roof back because they’re now safe and secure. But what is worrying is there may well be other treasure in other ruined churches without roofs, we don’t know but it’s very likely.

St Martin’s Church, Shotesham

Locally, here (Shotesham St Mary), we have the ruined church of St Martin. I was aware of the ones that we had tackled including the one at Saxlingham Thorpe I mentioned before, which is in the adjoining village of Saxlingham, so I talked to the local Parochial Church Council in Shotesham (who look after 4 medieval Churches) and did a presentation to show that with a bit of care and attention you could repair a ruin, not restore it to its former glory but slow down the decay and stop it collapsing.

In the case of St Martin’s ruin we were able to do some work back in early 2008, 2009 where, with community action, a lot of the undergrowth of ivy and small saplings were cleared away so we could consolidate the flint walls and part of the tower, where extensive ivy growth over 50 years had led to the collapse of a chunk of facing flints.

I am a member of the Norfolk branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings [SPAB] and at the beginning of 2020 just before Covid struck we met and decided that we would like to tackle the next stage. This was to protect the wall tops with soft wall cappings, in other words using grass turves to stop the water pouring into the walls and washing out the fill in the flint walls.

SPAB doing repairs at the ruined church of St Martin, Shotesham, 2022

It was a very interesting concept as it has only been trialled on a handful of other ruins throughout the UK. Unfortunately we had to stop because of Covid. But last year we actually had two weekends with people coming up and helping to produce lime mortar from locally sourced chalk so the flint walls could receive some remedial attention. More than 70 delegates attended. Some of them were sent off to dig turf for the wall tops and put the grass turf on the walls together with little plugs of sedum so when the turf dies off in summer the sedums will hopefully flower and survive in those conditions. The rest of the year the very thick mat of turf will absorb rain and snow.

I’m really proud that we were able to do that work and there’s also better interpretation now. There’s a connection to a film that I made when I first arrived in the county having heard about ruined churches. An old friend of mine who was a film man, came over and we were able to go round and film some of these churches, that would be 1991 or 92, not knowing that I was ever going to come and live here. There is a little bit of film of me crashing through the undergrowth, you can’t even see the ruin. This film is on the Shotesham website now. You can find out quite a bit about St Martin’s and St Mary’s and why there are two churches so close together. It’s been a really fantastic project to work on.

St Martin’s and St Mary’s churches, Shotesham. Blue linseed crop in full colour.

Although I have talked about the trusts set up to look after specific buildings such as windmills, barns or monuments there are certain other buildings which the County Council owns because people kept giving them historic structures to safe guard, assuming that as a large county wide authority they had the level of resources needed to maintain them. Well they don’t now.

The Queen gave the county council a Tithe barn at Dersingham in the west near Sandringham and there were a couple of 18thC monuments at Bawburgh these are just a couple of examples.

There were also many listed buildings in private ownership which had little monetary value as they can’t be used for residential purposes but nevertheless are important historic structures. Buildings such as dovecotes, traditional agricultural buildings, stables, industrial buildings, schools etc which need to be kept in good repair. Back then in the early 1990’s we had a decent level of grants which we could offer owners to encourage them to do the right thing and get their historic buildings properly repaired using good conservation practice. Sadly that is now no longer the case.

EU programmes and wood tar research

There were certain things which the authority weren’t too keen on, Europe being one of them and one that is still a divisive issue today. But we were lucky that I was able to make connections with various EU programmes which were established to make connections between Southern and Northern European countries.

One of the first was to do with windmills (EUROMOL) where several countries were invited by the mayor of Rhodes, where they have a lot of windmills, for a three week project. People also came from other places which had a lot of windmills, the Swedish isle of Gotland, Bornholm which is a Danish island and Mallorca. All are very interesting places in their own right with their windmills, particularly Mallorca which I think has something like 2000 little windmills near the airport, which you see when you see when you come in to land. They are designed to pull up water from underground aquifers to irrigate farmland, so they pump rather than drain like the Broads’ ones do.

They are all windmills in that sense but Swedish carpenters take a very different approach to Greek builders, I won’t say much more but I did take a lot of film and one day I would like to put together a little film, showing how it all worked as it was absolutely fascinating. As a result of making these contacts, particularly with Sweden we were invited to participate in another project called (TRADIMA).

This was all about the study of traditional building materials so we were looking at lime, traditional carpentry technique, all these crafts that we desperately need more people to do.

That project took place in Gotland and we also looked at making wood tar and linseed oil paints. In Mallorca we looked at their approach to traditional construction, dry-stone walling, which was a very interesting way of protecting the land which is liable to wash away. If you have a very hilly landscape and you don’t have walls to stop erosion, the soil will erode. Everybody involved with these projects has gone back into their communities and taken that knowledge and hopefully put it to good use.

So those were very interesting projects and out of that I was able to get the local authority to second me to do a six month research project into Norfolk wood tar, which is made from pine roots.

There are huge pine forests near Thetford and at that time when the trees were being felled they had to lift the roots to stop them from being infected with some fungus. I came up with this idea that if we worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Commission we could get the roots and extract the wood tar from them, as a preservative. It’s a preservative with thousands of years of history to it, you’ve probably never heard of it but it’s very common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. It was well known to the Romans who used it a lot, it’s a lubricant, medicinal, and a protector of wood. It’s used for ropes, fishing tackle and all the fishermen would have used it. All the wooden ships would use wood tar it was very well known, but not now as it’s been replaced with coal tar.

So I had six months looking at that, and also looking at linseed oil paint another traditional material before plastic paint came in. I have also been able to tutor and in fact am still helping to explain to people what it’s all about, and how to apply it and so forth. The research continues.

Round towers and a Scandinavian and Norfolk connection

So all this came out of those two projects. We were interested in the origin of these round towers attached to many Churches in the county.  One of my staff had this theory that the round tower from Northern Germany and Southern Denmark had a connection to the round towers of Norfolk. The programme was was called the North Sea Viking Legacy and part of the project was to try to show how round towers were built using various different shuttering techniques including coppiced hurdles.

We actually reconstructed a full scale round tower at EcoTech at Swaffham. It wasn’t full height but it was how we thought a round tower church would have been constructed using chalk, lime and flint. It gives you a lesson about sustainable construction because you’re not burning stuff other than lime, you’re not importing gas or coal to fire brick, you’re not making concrete which is an awful thing, and steel. All those things consume a lot of energy, a lot of carbon. We have to now find a way of looking and this is why my work is so interesting.

Looking back to see what lessons we can learn

It is the ability to look back at buildings from the past and see what lessons we can learn to help us in the future, it’s very very important.

Again, looking back at St Martins ruin by simply getting some chalk out of the ground we built a little kiln and produced enough lime in a day to produce all the lime we needed, the flints were just lying around. You can build a house out of flints and lime and chalk today and it will stand for a long time, as they all did, thousands of years and longer than modern spec housing will do.

At the moment I have been talking to our local MP about this, he’s particularly interested in and quite keen to see more custom built properties and more people being able to build their own properties on land specifically for this purpose. In other words somewhere that is not another estate but somewhere people can buy a plot and build a property using these techniques. We’re looking at clay lump and a friend of mine is developing earth blocks which can be pre-cast, arrive on site and be built up like large Lego blocks!

A mixture of lime and cork can be used as an insulating material to provide a breathable healthy house.

These things are going on in little pockets of the country but not enough and I am trying to do what I can to bring this to the attention of politicians and local authorities so that’s an ongoing project.

All this relates back to the 20 years that I have spent working in this county with this wonderful array of buildings, the barns, the windmills, the churches and everything else.

It isn’t all about, oh we’re looking after old buildings, it’s about learning the lessons, encouraging the craft skills and we must keep these craft skills alive. That’s what SPAB are doing as well, enabling people to have the chance to learn a little bit more.

We want to do something locally again on earth building, it might happen this year. We might have a weekend where we can actually show people not only how it was done traditionally in the past but how it can be used and adapted for the future.

Earth buildings

Earth building didn’t start much before 1820 some people say that some have been found dating from 1790, so say 1800 up until 1920. In South Norfolk the local authority built council houses out of clay lump. Most of the old part of Attleborough is all clay lump but you wouldn’t know by looking at them because they’re faced with brickwork or flints. Mud houses were still looked down upon, it was considered that only very poor people lived in them and people would be embarrassed and so they put these rather lovely brick or flint dressing on them.

It’s an interesting product and here in South Norfolk particularly you’ve got this lovely mixture of chalk, clay and silt. All the ingredients you need, it doesn’t want to be all clay, it doesn’t want to be all chalk and it doesn’t want to be all sand. But if you get the combination right you’ve got a very very useful material to build with.

The organisation behind all this is called EARTHA which stands for East Anglian Regional Telluric Housing Association. It was formed in the early 90s and it’s had periods of growth and periods of decline but hopefully it’s going to have another period of growth coming up.

The Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC)

I thought I should say at this point that there is a professional body that represents those of us working with building conservation and has a prominent role in lobbying government on the issues we face. I became a full member in 1997 and for 6 years I was the regional Chairman of IHBC East Anglia and for 10 years I was the national treasurer.

It started life as a small organisation called the Association of Conservation Officers (ACO) and I was involved with it back in the late 1970’s when I worked for East Staffs District Council in Burton upon Trent. To watch it grow from a small group of 60 bodies, to one that now has over 2000 members has been a fantastic achievement.

The North Sea Commission is a body set up by the EU to represent those countries with coastal connections to the North Sea and to find ways of cooperating together to promote cultural tourism and I was lucky to be the county councils representative for several years.

There are an awful lot of similarities in cultural traditions in say the west coast of Denmark, west coast of Sweden and the east coast of England, Holland and northern Germany. The fishermen were constantly in touch out there at sea, and there were not only stories but traditions too, just like the round tower churches. You can use heritage culture to attract people to areas where perhaps they wouldn’t normally go. Because particularly coastal areas tend to be okay if they have a good beach because people will go to the beach. But if you’ve got a lot of culture as well it’ll attract a much bigger audience. So that was a very useful and interesting time.

I don’t know whether that’s still going on I don’t know, I’ve certainly not been involved in a long time now.

I retired in 2010, 13 years ago and as far as I know the role we had is not going on now. Budget cuts were hitting before I retired, it was getting tougher and tougher each year. Trying to maintain a budget, keep the staff, keep the team together it became more and more difficult.

I think that one member of my staff, my little team, she still works two days, looking at the windmill aspect of things. I think that there is still some local authority involvement with the Windmill Trust. One other staff member is working with the records office. But no, all the other proactive stuff has stopped.

It’s a shame because you build up a level of expertise, and as I say this was a multi disciplinary team, all learning from each other, all picking up new things. We built up contacts with contractors who have the right skills and once that’s gone it’s very very hard if not impossible to reproduce it, so in a sense it’s very sad.

But, you know, through organisations like SPAB and the IHBC there will hopefully be ways of achieving things, but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the long term. I don’t know what’s going to happen to all these ruined churches that are stuck in the middle of nowhere. There are still another 90 odd out there and some may well contain treasures as important as those Romanesque wall paintings I was mentioning. We don’t know and there isn’t anybody going out to find out. It has to be run by an organisation like the local authority, but it’s just not being done.

Reflecting and looking forward

Looking to the future, well the public seem to be very supportive of the work. Whenever we have asked about the work done, they seem very supportive. When it comes to churches it’s always a bit more difficult, we know that living churches are struggling with very small congregations.

So why are you spending money on old ruins? You know this is the sort of question asked, but you have to say that the reason is, its separate money, specifically arisen because of what you propose to do with it. Norfolk has got more mediaeval churches than anywhere else in Europe, as I keep telling people. Over 900 at one point, and in Norwich 52 at one point, there are about 33, 35 left now.

It’s a big thing, it’s very much of what makes Norfolk the County we know  So if you turn your back on it well it just becomes another place like anywhere else. And I think that’s probably what will happen, but who knows?. There are so many uncertainties about where things are going at the moment.

I think that the knowledge of traditional construction methods is important. I do think that it’s going to help inform our building industry for the future and I think that’s a really good thing. But individual things, I don’t know, there’ll never be another Waxham Barn I doubt, and there’ll probably never be another Nelson’s Monument, but we’ll see.

When you ask if there is anything that I was particularly proud of, I am very very proud of what we did with Nelson’s Monument. It really was a political football, kicked backward and forwards, backwards and forwards, year after year as no one was prepared to take it on. It was a tricky job, it was quite a boring job, a lot of re-pointing which is a tricky job, in a very difficult area, windy. And with the wind and rain in January, February it’s very difficult I can tell you.

But, we did the job, we did it on time and we did it on budget which is lovely to say. I’m quite clear on that. We brought it home, got it done and everything was fine and that was really really important.

I also like things like the little cottage that I told you about, the house from 1380 for goodness sake, survived all that time and the joints were breaking, the roof was sagging and about to collapse, I mean it really was on its last legs. And I am so pleased that we had the Trust. It’s all repaired with sticks and mud as it would have been originally, obviously it had blackened timbers from when it had an open hearth, but it was a phenomenal job and I really enjoyed that. It’s not far from Banham Zoo and I’ve been to see it only a few months ago and it’s sitting there quite happily.

Of course one of the other things that I enjoyed was that connection with my cousins across the sea, you know working with Sweden, and the team in Ystad who had done so much good work in developing and promoting linseed paint and window craft.

It’s something that we really really need and we need to look carefully at that. If we just go on with plastic paints, they don’t work, they won’t protect your windows, we’ll end up putting in more plastic UPVC windows and we’ll lose the skills like joinery, glazing all that sort of thing. So these contacts were very good ones to make.

I’m still practising and telling people about these things and showing them. Later this summer the windows at the windmill in Wicklewood need painting and I have been commissioned to demonstrate the practical application of linseed oil the volunteers. I have also been approached by an archaeological unit in Oxford who want to carry on more research into Tars. So my work continues.

Michael Knights (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 10th March 2023 at Shotesham St Mary.

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Life under the radar (1956-2023)

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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A career in the RAF and the Neatishead Radar Museum (1975-2023)

Tony spent 31 years in the RAF, doing four tours at RAF Neatishead. He talks about his experiences, and the changes seen throughout this time and his role as a volunteer at the Radar Museum in Neatishead. He says ”my main aim here is to ensure that the museum gets the story across correctly and it’s not too embellished…”

 I was born in Germany. My father was in the British Army and was stationed there, a lot of my childhood was spent in either Germany or out in the Far East. We did come back and forth to the UK and when my father’s last tour of duty in Hong Kong ended we came back to the UK for good. This was around 1971.

Because of the service background I went to, I think, about ten different schools. Two boarding schools, one in Germany and one in Singapore, but that was just the normal bog standard education system at the time.

When I left school I went straight into the Royal Air Force, I joined on 4th December 1973.  I went straight to the recruiting station which at that time was at Swinderby. I did six weeks of training, what we call square bashing there and then on 30th January 1974 I arrived at the School of Fighter Control. I went to Bawdsey for my basic aerospace systems operator training.

Arriving at Neatishead

After basic aerospace system operator training I was posted to my first operational posting arriving at Neatishead on 24th April 1974.

I was a newly trained aerospace systems operator when I arrived so didn’t have any experience of working in a live operational environment, so I had to start my training here. Bawdsey hadn’t prepared me for operations in the Neatishead Ops Room, which was very advanced for the time. My basic first role was just tracking, watching the radar, watching for anything popping up and putting it into what we called the recognised air picture.

We were responsible for tracking all aircraft coming into the airspace that Neatishead was responsible for, that airspace goes out as far as the UK Dutch flight information region so that’s basically the whole of the southern part of the UK.

As an operator you did numerous tasks, so in the operations room you could have been involved with CrossTell of tracking information from airborne early warning aircraft, the movement liaison section which deals with the flight plans. You could have gone behind the totes, it all depended on the training you had and over the course of the year you were trained to do numerous jobs.

But, I was an aerospace systems operator which was part of the air defence system looking after the airspace, policing the airspace for any intruders coming into the airspace.

Neatishead was manned 24/7. There would always be a minimum shift of what we called a QRA shift, Quick Reaction Alert shift. This consisted of three or four officers, a couple of senior NCOs, three or four junior NCOs and about ten airmen. That was the minimum manning 24 hours a day.

So, on Christmas Day that would be your minimum manning, purely doing surveillance of the airspace. If need be, if there was an unidentified intruder in the airspace then they were there to scramble a couple of aircraft, man up the consoles and control the aircraft to intercept anything that is not compliant to the rules and regulations.

A QRA shift consisted of two days and two nights followed by four days off. They were 12 hour shifts. You could also be out on what we called squadron shifts. This meant that you worked Monday to Friday, from eight till the end of night flying. I would say that most people spent at least 75% of their time doing QRA shift duties.

Anything coming into the airspace has to be compliant with quite a few rules and regulations, for example, they had to fly in accordance with the known flight plan. They would have flight plan information on 99.9% of all aircraft coming into the airspace.

Aircraft also had to Squawk a particular Squawk again in compliance with the air traffic control procedures. When I say Squawking this is to do with the identification of friend or foe. It’s an electronic piece of kit on the aircraft and by using the flight plan information and the friend or foe identification you can identify an aircraft.

Once an aircraft comes into the system the computer generates a track over the aircraft and that information goes to a wider system so other units outside of Neatishead can also see the information. You’re building up what we called a recognised air picture using the computer and tracking labels on top of radar plots.

I spent the first five years of my career here at Neatishead, so until 1979. I came back again in 1985 to ‘86 and then again in 1990 until 1994 and again in 1999 to 2004. So I did four separate tours here, and was a junior rank, a leading LAC, a senior aircraftsmen, a corporal, a sergeant and a flight sergeant.

I saw the transition from the SLEWC (Standby Local Early Warning and Control) system to the next system, the integrated command and control system. We have the SLEWC system in the operations room here at the museum.

Noticing changes between tours

Procedures were changing all the time. The computer that we used for the SLEWC system when I got here in 1974 was continuously being upgraded and enhanced over the next 20 years. It got quicker, had more memory, more functionality on the keyboard, so vast changes.

The biggest change was probably in the Ops Room, training for a Cold War scenario. We were expecting a massive air assault from the East, from the Soviet Air Force and we would have had to repel that raid. When the Berlin Wall came down and the two Germanys reunited and when the Soviet Union fell in 1991 we suddenly had no enemy as such.

We had been working for 20 years for a Cold War scenario and suddenly that threat had gone. So, we had to start rethinking and retraining for out of area operations, and what happened further down the line, both Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Iraq so there was a massive change in how we trained around 1991/1992.

Sometimes boredom did surface. I remember working Christmas Eve in 1974/75 being on the front console, looking after the tracking picture and there were probably only one or two tracks on there so it was fairly boring on occasions. When the airspace is benign it was quite boring.

But, you know, it goes to the other extreme. On an exercise you could have a massive raid coming in, you’re talking to units over radio, maybe maritime units, maybe AEW aircraft.

I was also what they called a SAM voice controller, and during an exercise you’d be very busy being assigned targets and simulate engaging targets with the Bloodhound missile system.

It involved teamwork, very much so. You were part of a big team, in fact when I was a flight sergeant, in the bunker I was a Track Fusion Manager.  I was responsible for a big team which consisted of the data lines management team, the tracking team, the JAAWSC team. This team did the CrossTell to the maritime units. I was responsible for all that and if one member didn’t do their job right then the whole thing could fall apart, so you’re relying heavily on your junior members of the team to do their job right or else things could go a bit pear shaped.

It was not always plain sailing, I mean I thoroughly enjoyed my operational role but as you climb up the rank ladder you take on more responsibilities. You have to do a lot more admin, I didn’t like doing admin, I didn’t like doing peoples’ appraisals, I didn’t like doing NVQs. Put me in an operations room on the coal face, quite happy, Doing the admin stuff wasn’t really my cup of tea.


Arriving in 1974 as a single man I was billeted at Coltishall. Generally you do not live on a radar site because of the radiation hazard, so single man were allocated accommodation at RAF Coltishall. Married people lived in married quarters either at Coltishall or Horsham St Faith.

When my wife and I came back from Cyprus in 1985 we were put into married quarters at Horsham St Faith which to be absolutely blunt, were absolutely awful. It forced us to go out and buy our own house, and that’s when we really set roots in Norfolk. No sooner had we bought our house I was posted to the Falklands after the war and then to North Yorkshire and Cyprus. My wife decided that she wasn’t going to follow me around the country any longer so she would get a job and settle in the UK while I went and did my thing living out of a suitcase coming back to the UK whenever I could. That’s what generally happened for the second half of my career.

The bunker

The bunker was built in the early 50s and became operational in 1953. In 1966 there was a fire down there so for a period of about 20 years it was out of commission. It wasn’t until 1993 when it was being refurbished that they moved back into the bunker until 2004 with an upgraded radar system.

The life of this radar station started in 1942 and went up to 2004 and during that time the air defence system was upgrading, changing, evolving so there have been numerous systems. The radar life of this station started in the R30 Ops Room which is part of the museum now.

It never felt claustrophobic, I don’t think that there is anywhere where you were really closed in. The only time we felt closed in was when you had to go into a nuclear, biological, chemical warfare situation. We’d be in NBC suits, respirator on and down in the nuclear bunkers, it was bit uncomfortable because you’d got your gas masks on for many, many, many, many hours and you were very close together in the nuclear shelters.

Good bunch of mates and social life

I had a good bunch of mates in the barrack blocks. I remember when I got posted to Coltishall, a group of us, all young, I was only 17 at the time. We got to Coltishall and got shown our temporary accommodation. We dumped our bags and somebody, I don’t know who, suggested that we go and have a walk around the station to find our bearings, We wandered off down this road and suddenly there’s a massive big hangar in front of us, doors slightly opened and we poked our heads in. Inside this hangar, it was full of Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster and we all went, ‘Wow look at this!’ Suddenly from the other side of this hangar this chap shouted, ‘What the, are you doing in here?’ And this warrant officer came walking over to us shouting his head off, gave us an absolute rollicking for being in the hangar and then after five minutes he said, ‘Would you like to look around the hangar?’ He showed us all the Spitfires and Hurricanes, and took us onboard the Lancaster and then gave us another dressing down and told us to be on our way.

I always remember that as being quite funny ‘because I always say to people when they see the Lancaster flying in the Battle of Britain memorial flight saying, ‘Oh I’ve been on that’ and not telling them that actually it was after being told off by a warrant officer.

We used to go into Norwich quite a lot to the discos and to the disco in the RAF Coltishall No. 1 Club every Thursday and Sunday nights. You had to be wary that you were always in duty, what you didn’t want to do, what a lot of people, and I was one of them, was go out get absolutely hammered and then having to do a day’s work the next day with a hangover. It was quite expensive being out at Coltishall with taxis but yeah I had a very good social life.

I played a lot of sport, I enjoyed my sport, played football for most stations I went to. I got my sports colours for athletics, swimming and water polo.

Out of the 31 years that I did in the Air Force I spent 15 here on four separate tours. I got out, left the Air Force in 2004.

Life after the Air Force  – volunteering at Neatishead Museum

I did a lot of volunteer work with my local wildlife conservation group. I also did go and work for the Hamper People at Strumpshaw but I have been a volunteer here at the museum for the past 13 years.

When I joined in what must have been about 2010 the museum was only open every Tuesday, Thursday and every second Saturday of the month, so not as often as it is now.

When I started as a volunteer, because of my background I was put into the Cold War Ops Room doing presentations and I have continued in that role ever since.

I come in and do a presentation on what happened in the Ops Room during the Cold War and do a bit of a preamble on the Cold War and what’s happened since. I also get involved with trying to do other exhibitions around the museum as well.

I think that the museum opened in, off the top of my head, in 1998 and again off the top of my head I think that there are about 70 volunteers.

When you commit to a museum like this you have to commit a bit of time and effort, you can’t come in every so often, you really have to commit which I think I have done. I have committed to one day a week to the museum, all year round. The museum is open to the public from April to November and during the winter we do the maintenance programme, on a Tuesday, and I generally make myself available to help with that as well.

My main aim is to ensure that what we tell the visitor is as accurate as possible, warts and all. You know that it wasn’t always perfect so my aim is to get the story across truthfully, what we did particularly during the Cold War, how tense it was. I like telling the story to the general public and seeing their reaction. But also what I do really like is meeting old colleagues that come along, you’re always bumping into old colleagues and having a bit of a chat. I’d say at least once or twice a month you’ll bump into somebody that you know. There are even people who are just on holiday from further afield who want to come to Neatishead to remember how it used to be. They always walk into the Ops Room and say, ‘Gosh, it’s just as I remember’.

Fortunately we have a few more ex colleagues now volunteering in the Cold War Ops Room. Over the last three or four years numbers have increased, but we could still do with more.

Like I say, my main aim here being a volunteer is to ensure that the museum gets the story across correctly and it’s not too embellished in any way, so I’m enjoying doing this.

Tony McKie (b. 1950) talking to  WISEArchive on March 7th 2023 at Neatishead.

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The Norfolk Beat Officer (1980s-2023) ‘Every day as a police officer is different!’

Paul is a beat manager with the Norfolk Constabulary patrolling the Norfolk Broads. Whilst working in store security for a number of firms in Norwich, including Jarrolds, Paul served as a special constable before becoming a full-time police officer in 1994. Before his current job in the marine unit on the Broads, Paul undertook a variety of police roles including working in royal protection at Sandringham. Part of his work is to liaise with other public bodies including the Broads Authority.

Early life, and school in Taverham

I was born in Norwich and grew up in Norwich. I lived my early part of childhood over in Old Costessey. I’ve got a younger brother, Kevin. Dad was director of crop care chemicals and worked across Norfolk seeing all the farmers and advising them how to grow their crops, arable farming. My mum worked in the old Norfolk and Norwich hospital, in A&E.

I went to all the Taverham schools. Started off at Nightingale First School, then went to Taverham Junior School. When the new Taverham High School was built we moved there. Even though we were in Costessey, they were the schools of choice, my parents chose, and then we eventually moved to Taverham. Because of my age, I was only 15 when I finished high school, I did an extra year at Hellesdon Sixth Form, just to do some extra exams.

A really nice paper round – with free vegetables!

I was a paper boy for a time in Costessey, thoroughly enjoyed that. I didn’t fancy getting up very early, so I did the evening paper round, for that very reason! Six nights a week. I could do it in half an hour, but I had 52 houses to deliver, and my paper bag was actually heavier coming back, because I used to speak to all the residents on that street. I was, like, their point of contact for the day for some of the elderly residents that expected it. A lot of them grew their vegetables on their allotments and gardens. They used to give me a cauliflower and potatoes and carrots to take home for my parents. It was a really nice round, loved it.

First job with Hughes – Cassio, VHS and Betamax

My first job was Hughes TV and Audio. All the games were starting to come out, and Cassio was the ‘in thing’. I was demonstrating computer games in their shop on White Lion Street, which has moved on now. Then I moved upstairs to the old VHS and Betamax for video recordings, all the films that people used to hire out. That was a Saturday job that progressed to be part time then moved on to full time with them.

I loved it, because upstairs in the White Lion Street branch they used to demonstrate all the music for the hi-fi systems and stereos. It was just a fantastic atmosphere to be working there, dealing with films, meeting with the members of the public and listening to the music all day long. I was with Hughes about three years, I think. Really good company to work for.

Joining the Norfolk Special Constabulary

I always knew I wanted to join the police, but I was just trying to get some experience. When I reached 18 I made some enquiries about joining, and they advised at the time that they obviously wanted people that had life skills, were a bit more mature. They were asking you to go out, see the world and do as much as you could. So, I joined the Norfolk Special Constabulary at the time, in Norwich. I was based at Bethel Street initially, then branched out to Bowthorpe, Mile Cross, Ketts Hill, so I did a lot of football matches, public order etc.

Specials are volunteers. You get paid boot allowance and expenses, travelling expenses, meal allowance, so, you know, you’re not out of pocket. You do have to give up four hours a week of your time. Actually, I used to combine it and do one shift of eight hours and that would see me over. I knew it was a job that I wanted to do. I was trying to work with as many police officers and as many different teams ‑ like dog handlers, CID etc ‑ as I could, just to get an idea, a flavour of what I might want to move into.

Working for Marks and Spencer, and on summer camps in America

Meanwhile, I’d moved on from Hughes TV and Audio. And I went to work for Marks and Spencer. Had a really good career with them as well. Worked for them for about seven years, but I was on and off cos I wanted to do travelling as well, I had itchy feet, so I went and worked in America every summer, on the American summer camps. Really good, that’s opened so many doors for me just talking about that experience. That enabled me to work on the summer camps for eight weeks and then move on to do travelling. I’ve done most of the United States now, on a shoestring budget, but a fantastic experience, buying cars and travelling around.

As I was still with the Specials at that time. I took a sabbatical, as it were, when I went to work in America in the summer holidays, then came back and re-joined.

Working in store security – more insight into what police work might be like….

In the meantime, with Marks and Spencer. I was on the men’s suits department for a while. We weren’t in uniform as such, we wore suits, and I suddenly got the taste for catching shoplifters. We had so many people stealing things, from whatever department. I had a pager; as soon as security found someone of interest I’d get called up. We’d do many chases around the city catching people. Some were pretty violent. That gave me a really good taste of what was to come with the police.

I got headhunted from Marks and Spencer to go and work at Jarrolds. I did the store detective work in Jarrolds, and then I got headhunted from them to work for Boots the chemist. I did that as well. Again, very interesting. We had a lot of people who’ve got drug issues that queue up outside Boots, the various stores, to go to the pharmacy, pick up their methadone in the morning. I’d have the cameras set up on them, what their descriptions were, what they were wearing that day. In the afternoon, those people would come off their medication and go shoplifting, so that was easy pickings. I really enjoyed that. That’s when I put the application form in to the police, and was accepted.

The plan worked!

I always had a plan. I would join the police at 25, get married at 27, kids at 30. And that’s pretty much how it mapped out!

I joined the police in March 1994, had a really good interview. That Camp America experience really helped, plus what I’d been doing at Marks and Spencer, Jarrolds, Boots and Hughes, and I’d got really good life skills, and because of what I’d been doing in the Special Constabulary. I knew a lot of the people and, you know, I’d got used to wearing the uniform, they’d got used to seeing me. It was just perfect, it was a really good entry.

Initial training at Shotley, and first posting at Gorleston: ‘a really good set-up’

I did my initial training at Shotley, the old HMS Ganges, down at Shotley Gate in Suffolk. There was a big recruitment freeze on at the time, so we were one class, Class Three of ’94. We were all Norfolk officers, so we all bonded really well, and, it was a really good experience.

15 weeks of training, came back, was posted to Gorleston. I’d never really been to Gorleston before. My grandparents had a beach hut at Lowestoft, so we’d always go to Lowestoft beach instead of Gorleston beach. Really lovely station, fantastic beach area, and we had a really good set-up there. Lovely team, in those days we had good numbers of police officers. You had your people in plain clothes, your CID, your response, people out on bicycles – a large team.

‘The good old days when you had time….’

Every morning, the cleaner, Brenda, would always come in with a loaf of bread, make everyone tea and toast, while we sorted out the jobs and intelligence, who needed to be interviewed, who were in the cells. A lot of the time we were just out targeting different people. That was the good old days when you had time to go out and deal with people and you can get it all done in one shift.

Commuting from Norwich, and the eight-hour shift system

I’d never wanted to commit to buying a house until I knew I’d got into the police full time, so I commuted.

At the time, I was living in Norwich, so that was a long commute. The southern by-pass had been built, so that helped speed things up. I had to allow for any diversions on the Acle Straight, depending on weather conditions and accidents, so, yeah, it was an hour commute.

We were doing the old eight-hour system then, earlies, lates and nights. An early would start at seven in the morning, finish at three in the afternoon, a late shift would be three in the afternoon until 11 at night, and a night shift would be 11 at night until seven in the morning. The nights weren’t so bad, but the late shifts I always had to allow for Breydon Bridge lifting, traffic accidents, school runs, all that kind of stuff.

I commuted during my two-year probation period. Once you’d done your fifteen weeks training you then get given a tutor constable who would take you under their wing and teach you everything they could. Once you’d been ‘rubber-stamped’ by the superintendent after two years then you knew you had been accepted.

Renting in Yarmouth, and briefings from the cleaning staff!

We had another cleaner, Grace, at Great Yarmouth police station, she used to rent out some of her bedrooms to new probationers like me. Once I found out about that I ended up moving into Great Yarmouth for a short time and lived with Grace the cleaner. Really cheap rent, and she did a massive pack-up lunch for me every day, which was very nice. The cleaners would know all the ins and outs about all the secrets so I was getting my own briefing by the cleaner!

A beat manager in Gorleston: ‘little snippets of information’

I started doing day-to-day policing, so, foot beat, basically, that you progressed. You had to do a driving course before you got on to the old-style Pandas, response cars. Within a year, if you were competent, you would move up quite quickly. So, I was driving police cars within a year, but I actually liked foot beat and going round on the old bicycle. People could hear you, speak to you, flag you down, give you that little snippet of information, bit of intelligence that we’d follow up.

I then became a beat manager, first on the Gorleston High Street, all the shopkeepers, the public, and the pubs. Then I was given what they call ‘the Baywatch Patrol’ which was Gorleston Beach. The holiday season was always busy with missing children, various parking issues and drunk people all the time, but very, very good.

Magdalen Estate, Gorleston: the early days of partnership

In the late ’90s I moved onto the Magdalen Estate in Gorleston which I wasn’t looking forward to initially. I think at the time it was Europe’s largest housing estate. When we got told that, I thought, ‘Bloomin’ ’eck!’ but actually, really good, thoroughly enjoyed that.

The Magdalen Estate is away from the seafront, more inland, very urban. Basically, all council houses at the time, though now a lot of them have been privately bought out. Really nice people, though.

It was just a short walk up from the police station. I was on my patch, I had a big school, got to know all the parents. I used to know who my disqualified drivers were, who my druggies were, who my domestic offenders were etc. I had my little boxes with different people. That’s the early days of partnership working with the councils and the schools and so on, we could share information, get things nipped in the bud quite quickly. I really enjoyed that.

A whole range of experiences within the police force, including royal protection duties at Sandringham

You could apply for different specialist roles within the police. Within two years, once I’d been accepted, I also did a proactive attachment over at Yarmouth in CID. I did that for a couple of years, just to expand the knowledge and meet different officers and know how they work. Took up some quite complex cases with CID. A lot of fraud enquiries, and murders. I’d also joined the search team, so I was getting called away to other jobs and murders anywhere in the county, searching through suspects’ addresses, or vehicle searches etc.

I was also in the Police Support Unit, which is riot gear, riot shields. You could be deployed anywhere in the country for that, on mutual aid, but mainly for raves, travellers’ sites, you know. There was quite a lot of issues, people with mental health problems barricading themselves in their rooms, for example, so we’d have to force entry.

Then after three years I could apply for firearms, so I got that under my belt. I’m an authorised firearms officer as well, and have been now for the past 28 years. Again, that opens more doors, a lot of mutual aid to different parts of the country, but also Sandringham. Big commitment up there, throughout the year, but mainly at Christmas, when we all get drafted up to Sandringham to do royalty protection. Thoroughly enjoyed that, still do.

‘Traffic not quite my thing’

It was quite varied, but the firearms was taking me further down a line when the armed response vehicles were being introduced. The ARVs, as they’re known, one group were being based at Acle, which was on my doorstep. Knew the area well, but I had to do a traffic attachment first. You couldn’t just go onto the armed response vehicle without being a traffic officer. Traffic was not my thing, but I had to go and do an attachment.

I had a couple of tutor constables just teach me the basic road police craft skills clicked a lot of fatal accidents, I think I had five during my attachment. We didn’t have what we have, a team now called S.K.I.T. who, once you go to the initial scene, you hand all the investigation over to this team, who do all the statement-taking etc.

At the time, when I was based at Acle, this would have been in the year 2000, I was just inundated with fatal inquiries, so I wasn’t getting out there doing all the other bits and pieces that I needed to do. The days I did go out it was mainly speeding, felt like we were going to the same place, and I didn’t enjoy certain aspects of it. I remember this college girl, she was doing, I dunno, ten miles over the speed limit through Filby, which, yes, too fast, but, in her case, a verbal warning. She’d only recently passed her test, and, you know, she did a long commute to Norwich every day. At the time, when you’re on probation as such doing the traffic attachment, there is no discretion. You have to issue a ticket!

No, I thought, I don’t enjoy this, this isn’t me, making young girls cry. That might have been their first impression of a police officer, and that’ll be their lasting impression. We’ll all get tarred with the same brush with that experience, so, yeah, I didn’t enjoy that.

Then we started doing a lot of construction use, where people are towing trailers, agricultural vehicles, with the orange flashing lights, tachographs on lorries. That’s something I just couldn’t get excited about, waking up in the morning thinking, ‘Right, what shall I do today? Go and stop a lorry and check their driving hours!’ I mean, I know it was an important thing to do, but there are officers who relish that, and other traffic offences, that wasn’t for me.

So, at the time I couldn’t go on the armed response vehicle because traffic was 99% of your work, 1% of your time was firearms callouts. Now it seems to be the other way round, but in the year 2000 that wasn’t for me.

A move to the rural crime team

Instead of being upstairs in traffic I went downstairs to the rural crime team, based at Acle. I had a huge area to cover, but loved it. It was all country villages, predominantly Broadland, Broadland District Council. I had the River Bure on one side, River Yare on the other side, so I spent a lot of time at all the boat yards, the marinas, going round in a car. We used to park up and walk out around the villages.

Acle was on our doorstep, I’d always walk around Acle, drive to Upton. Brundall was a big area, big riverside estate so just parked my car nearby and get out and walk about and meet people. A lot of it was crime inquiries. There’s usually a reason to go to somewhere as well, so you combine the two. Really enjoyed that.

I got to know the opposites who were on the Broads Beat team at Acle (that’s where they were based initially). That was only a seasonal role then, just a summer season when there were people there for tourism. In the wintertime, before I went up to do my few weeks up at Sandringham, we would then pick up a lot of the marine crime that would come in on those areas. Really got the taste of that, got to know people, so that was a really nice opportunity.

Getting on the boats: ‘Right time, right place’

One of the guys on the Broads Beat marine team, when it came to the end of the season he had some other family commitments, so he needed to change his role. He moved off to Yarmouth, so they had to do interviews. They wanted one seasonal and one normal, full-time officer. The seasonal at the time would dip in every now and then, they would do their normal role, but they would cover sickness or holidays.

I thought, well, with all my other commitments, with firearms, and Search, the PSU, that side of things, that I would probably best just go for the old seasonal role, and leave someone who had more time to do the full-time, although I really wanted to do the full-time.

I hummed and ha’d about it, saw the Inspector on the closing date. The application had to be in at five o’clock, the applications. I spoke to him that morning and just said, ‘Cor, I bet you’ve been inundated, Sir, with all the applications for this job!’

He said, ‘I can’t believe,’ he said, ‘I’ve just got off the phone from human resources: there’s only three people put their names in.’

‘Three people, for this dream job?’

‘I know. Can’t understand it.’

‘Well, even with all my roles,’ I said, ‘should I put my hat in the ring?’

He said, ‘You’ve got nothing to lose!’

He didn’t tell me I couldn’t, so I thought, well, that’s a good sign, so I quickly filled out a form. My sergeant was day off, I quickly drove to his home address, got him to read, sign and authorise it, drove to headquarters, quickly got it in before the five o’clock deadline.

Got a phone call the next day, congratulations, you’ve got an interview, can you be up at the police station next week? I was actually on holiday that week, but I came in especially, suited and booted, and had a really good interview.

When that finished, I spoke to the sergeant, and the inspector phoned me up and said, ‘Can we just clarify, were you going for the full-time or the seasonal role?’

‘Oh, definitely the full-time.’

‘Oh. Congratulations!’

So, I got the full-time role!

RYA training starts right away

Within weeks I had been given a 4×4 driver trailer-towing course. You have to do RYA Level 1 and 2, Royal Yachting Association, just to drive a powerboat. I got put on an RYA course, we had a ripping time. Courses were coming on leaps and bounds.

A huge area to cover, in unique circumstances

I got moved straight away, seconded to Broads Beat at the beginning of the season to work for an old colleague, and that was how it was. It was only two police officers and one reserve. Myself and my old colleague were the two on Broads Beat, and we were covering a huge area. Huge. I still am. It’s evolved now, but we were really stretched, you know, we had such a big area.

They wanted the police boat out, having that visible presence all the time. You know, it’s quite a quirky thing to see a police boat on the waterways. You see ’em around the waterways, but we are the only police unit on inland waters. You’d think, like, the Lake District would have a police unit. They haven’t, they’ve gone.

The Environment Agency and the police officers’ beat managers, they will jump on a boat and go to an incident and come off, but they haven’t got their own boats or anything. We are quite unique!

Links with the Broads Authority: ‘a lovely partnership’

Literally I’m on the phone to the Broads Authority control room probably more than our own police control room. We’re really good, lovely partnership working. We work with a lot of different partners. Broads Authority, their rangers are in uniform, in patrol launches, their boats stay in the water all the year round, whereas ours we keep on a trailer and we tow it to different slipways to launch it. They deal with all the by-law offences, we’ll deal with all the crime offences, but sometimes the two overlap and we end up doing joint interviews etc.

We’ve got access to all the Broads Authority launches. We have keys for them so, if need be, we can take them out. Doesn’t really happen. If we do, we normally call them out, and one of them will come and join us anyway. They’re more familiar with their boats, there’s a big locking-up process and where they all are, where they’re all securely fitted, that just helps to have one of their rangers with us.

The daily routine: shifts, but flexible

We do predominantly ten-hour shifts, which is good because we can get more done in those ten hours. We basically do either an early or a late shift. A lot of the time, we work here with what the Broads Authority rangers do, and also what the hire industry do.

The hire boats don’t have any navigation lights fitted, so they can be out, on the water, navigating around the Broads between sunrise and sunset. Come sunset, they have to be moored up somewhere, whether that’s a wild mooring on a broad somewhere, on a 24-hours Broads Authority mooring or outside a pub, or outside another marina. That’s when our role needs to be seen, to be going out.

Obviously, there’s boats moving around at night, so if you’re a private boat owner you’ve got navigation lights fitted. We’ve also got boats coming in at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft port to come onto the Broads, so there’s people coming and going all the time. Long as they’ve got lights fitted they can move around during the hours of darkness.

Depending what particular crimes are going on, we went onto our shifts, we’re pretty flexible. If we’ve got a load of outboard engines being nicked that’s happening at night, we will move our shift to do night shifts and cover that particular part of the river.

Norwich City Police Launch N999 with diving squad

Links with the old dive unit, and looking after equipment

We’ve got three boats now. We’ve got an RIB [Rigid Inflatable Boat] that used to be what we had in the old diving unit.

Going back a bit, Norfolk Police used to have a dive unit, that’s all now disbanded, it has been now nearly 20 years. We inherited all their equipment, their life jackets, the RIB itself, the trailer, and the Land Rover. Land Rover changed to a Land Rover Discovery. The Discovery then changed to a Ranger, and we’ve just changed again to another Ford Ranger. They’re all fit-for-purpose trucks that can carry the weight and drive around and go to all the different slipways.

So, we had the RIB that we’d inherited. Because that hadn’t really been very well looked after by the diving unit, we had to change that quite quickly, and the engine as well. I think it’s because the team used to come on every Thursday and train. Had there been say, like, an armed robbery in Kings Lynn and a weapon had been chucked into the river up there, they’d move their training day up to Kings Lynn, go searching as a dive unit to find the weapon and deal with it that way.

I think by the time they’d finished they were all cold, wet, hung up their dry suits, we had to get rid of all them, they’d all perished, all the rubber. Also, the engine, that needs flushing out if the salt water got in it, and I don’t think that kind of maintenance got done as well as it should have been, so things had deteriorated a little bit.

We really had to revamp how the marine section worked. Looking after your equipment, it’s not just the police car, you know. We do daily checks to make sure all the lights are working, ’cos we can hardly go out and stop cars with no lights if our own lights aren’t working. Similar to a boat, but there’s a little bit more to it, ’cos you are putting it on a trailer and driving it around over loads of potholes, and some of these marinas aren’t in the best condition!

The marine unit continues to expand….

We were a summer unit, and we put a business case forward to be full time some years back. At the time that didn’t get through, ’cos of commitments at Sandringham and various other things. They didn’t see that there was a need to have a marine unit during the winter months.

But one year we got hit by an organised crime group that’d come over, and we got absolutely spanked with outboard engine thefts. There were so many, both on the coast and in the Broads, that, once all those totals had been added up, what all that was costing, that went over the million-pound mark.

The Chief Constable at the time, that lands on his desk to say what we’re doing about the problem. There was a lot of people writing in to him saying, you know, ‘We need, you know, an officer to look after all this and take ownership, and solve it, you know.’

We put another business case forward, and this time that got accepted ’cos of the numbers involved. Again, we were lucky. Just before I joined, that used to be a two-year secondment. Officers used to come on, and that was mainly made up from the old dive unit. To keep it fair, those officers rotated. They used to do two years on Broads Beat and then they’d have to reapply for their job again.

When I came on, because of cost and for the training implications, all the stuff that we have to do (and we’ve developed it even more so now), that’s just not cost-effective to keep having a rotation every two years.

So, getting very lucky, I came in at the right time and here I am now, still here. The training that it involves is costly, and you have to keep doing development days to keep on top, keep doing refreshers. Lots of stuff involved with the boat, you have to know your boats, and all the skills, you know, you just don’t pick up like that.

‘Technology is forever changing’: use of sonar

We’ve just recently had a new Raymarine chartplotter put in, which for us is like the old Satnav in a car. People use them as fish-finders, the anglers in particular, looking to see where the fish are at the bottom of the river-beds. We use it for sonar, for body recovery and people that are missing or anything like that. We do a lot of searches up and down the rivers using the sonar scanner. We find all the safes, we’ve had abandoned cars that have been driven off the road, been hidden amongst all the mud and everything at the bottom. We’ve recovered loads of stuff over the years. We had an eel fisherman that lost his nets, that had been dragged by a hire boat, he couldn’t find them. We came along and saw them on the sonar so he was very pleased. Yeah, it’s been used for all sorts of things!

The history of policing in the Broads: issues with breweries

Going right back to the 18th Century, speaking to our police historians, and they’ve got a lot of old photographs of the old boats that are there, there was an outcry. The tourist business was really booming, the peats (the Broads basically are peat diggings that flooded) and rising sea levels, there was a policing need.

At the time there was a lot of old breweries along the water, especially in Norwich and at Great Yarmouth. There isn’t like what you see nowadays with proper walkways and barriers and everything, and the pubs and the restaurants, the shops along there. It was all old breweries. A lot of people, from what I’m told, used to come with their little brown bottles, drink them all, and they’d be drunk, and they’d slide on the muddy banks. Cold-water shock would kill you in the water and they’d drown. So, their main role was body recovery at the time.

Police launch early days

The first police boats bring problems of their own

This is something like the 1820s, going all the way through. When you look at the boats, they were all old wooden ones. The police officers, there’s quite a lot of them, all in their heavy, woollen, thick tunics, no life jackets in sight.

They started off with rowing boats, but they then developed the engines, little old engines, and they looked very big and cumbersome. I don’t think anyone really looked after the boats. They were made of wood. They were kept in the water, and they only had two at the time. One was where Zak’s restaurant is now, near Cow Tower, that was the old mortuary. That’s where the police boat was kept, one of them. Then there was another one that sort of flitted between Great Yarmouth Borough and at Horning, there was another place there where they used to keep them.

The first Norfolk police launch A2 launching ceremony

Seven years with no policing on the Broads

Again, with a succession of different chief constables, who all had to work out where their money was best spent, the boats would get rotten, not maintained properly. Cost the job a lot of money, so the marine unit was kind of disbanded as we knew it then. I think there was a period of seven years where there was no policing of the Broads or the waterways at all.

The growth of tourism leads to demands for a police presence; but who’s to pay?

Because the tourist industry, Hoseasons, Blakes Holidays, were bringing people in from far and wide, the trains on the coastal routes were bringing people in, there was this massive influx of people. All the pubs along the Broads, all the restaurants, all the, not campsites then but hotels as such, were bringing all these people in, and with it, statistics. You still have your sudden deaths, you still have your thefts and crimes as you normally would, but just on a bigger volume.

There was an outcry to say, we need our policing presence on the Broads. The Chief Constable at the time said, ‘Well, we can’t do it alone, we can’t afford it.’

These people then said, ‘Well, how can we help you?’

The Chief Constable spoke to some of the big operators on the Broads. Your big players like Richardsons, Barnes Brinkcraft, Norfolk Broads Direct, Herbert Woods, they were your main, big companies that were bringing tourists in.

Just like you see a police car, everyone slows down at roundabout, checks their speed, their seatbelt, drops their mobile phone, that’s exactly what happens on the Broads, you know. You see the boats, they see a police boat, they slow down, they start behaving, they get down from climbing on the roof and swaying around and all behave themselves. That does have, definitely, an impact.

The UK’s longest-running police and public sponsorship scheme

So, the Chief Constable at the time negotiated with these different companies, and insurance companies, people who make boats and look after the engines, and that’s when our sponsorship was formed. Apparently, according to Natural England, we are the UK’s longest-running police and public sponsorship scheme, which we didn’t know about until Natural England got in touch with us. Well, there must be others around the country, but not police-wise, as we get other police forces phone us to ask how we do it.

Policing the coastline around the country

There is a police presence around the coast, you know, but only in certain areas of the country. All your southern coasts are pretty much covered. You’ve obviously got the Met police that covers central London. Essex police do the Thames estuary and all around the Thames coastline. Kent police, Dorset, Hampshire’s got a very large one with the Isle of Wight as well, and the ports of Southampton. They’ve got Portsmouth, the naval base. You’ve now got MoD police that patrol on boats as well, all the way round up to Scotland, so all our coastline is covered.

We all work closely with Border Force who patrol the waterways, coastguard, lifeboats, the RNLI, you’ve got the IFCA, Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities. There is a lot of people out there on boats that are all helping each other, all talking to each other. Lots of activity.

The extent of Norfolk Police’s responsibilities

We have 125 miles of navigational waterways, just on inland waters, then another 92 miles of coastline around the Norfolk coast. Because Suffolk police don’t have a marine unit, between us and Essex police we monitor and patrol Suffolk as well. We take the upper half, between Lowestoft and Southwold. Essex will do the bottom part, Woodbridge, Ipswich area as well, but we liaise with Suffolk officers who cover those areas, and they do a lot of stuff on the land for us.

‘The public are our eyes and ears’

When we come in in the mornings, we always look to see what’s happened overnight. People from other departments will email us about certain things. We have a rough idea. We plan for yearly. We’ve got a calendar, we know what events are coming on, what regattas are happening, if there’s boat shows etc going on. We’ll always try and attend them. That’s where the biggest public concentration is, and that’s being seen again, and building, developing that partnership with different companies and agencies, as well as members of the public.

It’s our members of the public that are the eyes and ears for us really, that’s who we want to encourage. If they’ve got a gut feeling, or something doesn’t look right, they think it’s suspicious, we want them to call in and report it, as that could be the missing part of the jigsaw.

A hard-working team

Our make-up, at the moment, is myself and another PC. We’re the two full-time beat managers for the whole of the Norfolk and North Suffolk Broads. We tend to work alternate shifts. When I’m days off, my colleague is in, so people know that they can contact us pretty much round the clock. The days that we overlap, we try to do interviews, we try and arrest people on those days so there’s always two of us.

It’s a huge area to cover, and the chief wants that police boat out pretty much on a daily basis being seen. There is a lot of paperwork and a lot of stuff we have to do on the computers now. We have to have some time in the office to play catch-up and get all the paperwork submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service to get the people to court. We just can’t get out on the boat every day.

So, in recent years we’ve managed to get other beat managers in both North Norfolk and Broadland trained up as reserve officers. We’ve now got a pool of police officers that are all trained to our level. They come out perhaps once or twice a month to either crew with my colleague or with myself, or with each other, depending on what their skill set is.

We’ve got a team of special constables. We’ve also got a team of what we call police support volunteers. Those volunteers are people that are mainly from a boating background, either got their own boats or have got the knowledge. They’ve been in the navy, merchant navy, and a lot of them are retired police officers. It’s such a lovely job within the job that they don’t want to let that go. You still want to keep your connections with the police family when you retire, so we’ve got a lot of retired officers, and ex-PCSOs, the police community support officers.

When the Chief Constable at the time said, ‘We’re not having PCSOs any more’, we had quite a few of them working with us on the team. We didn’t want to relinquish them. The constabulary have spent a lot of money in getting them trained up to a certain skill. They enjoyed what they were doing, coming out as a break from the routine of their daily life, so we’ve just kept that going. So, we’ve actually got a nice pool of people to get that boat out pretty much still on a daily basis. Certainly, the weather we had all last summer, the heatwave, we were out every day patrolling different parts of the waterways.

Out in all weathers

Every day is a good day. I look forward to coming to work, the people you meet, the people you work with, the scenery, the sights, just that in itself is good.

We go out in all weathers, daylight and night. We obviously take a look at weather conditions.

When we had the ‘Beast from the East’ a few years ago, you know, the Broads were pretty much iced up. The main rivers were free, but we were thinking, ‘Do we really need to be going out, is there anyone out there, who’s going to be seeing us?’

So, we did a lot of land patrols in the 4×4 truck, and spent most of the time pulling cars out of ditches.

A tragic incident that underlined the need for the marine unit

There was a catalyst going for us to become a full-time unit.

We had an incident on a boat where…. there was a boat that just looked odd. It was a hire boat. It was moored up on the main River Bure, just up from the police station here at Hoveton. We passed it on quite regular occasions. The Broads Rangers also flagged it up to us, they said, ‘It’s an odd one there. It’s just how it’s moored, it’s not a normal mooring.’

It was quite a wild mooring with loads of overgrown shrubbery and reeds and everything all nearby. No path, no shops, nowhere to go. One rope was tied in one tree, one was tied in another branch of a tree, so no mooring posts or anything. It had a mud weight down at the bow and a mud weight down at the stern, so it wasn’t going anywhere. All the curtains were all shut.

All we thought at the time was that they’re night fishermen on it, because that was a good little fishing spot where they were moored up, and it was just odd. It was between Salhouse Broad and Wroxham Broad, on a bit of a bend, so that wasn’t disturbing any other navigation. Boats could go past, a lot of day boats and private boats, the wherries, they’re going past, everyone was seeing it. It was in a prominent, busy stretch. We call that part of the River Bure between Ranworth and Wroxham the M25 of the Norfolk Broads, it’s that busy.

Anyway, this boat was there, and we all just logged it, didn’t see anyone on it at all, but we thought, ‘Well, that’s just….’

Suspicions are raised

We were actually at the Yarmouth Maritime Festival, that was in September. We’d got a call from the boatyard on changeover day saying, ‘We’re missing this boat. It was due back at nine o’clock this morning. We’re meant to be cleaning it. We’ve got the new people arriving, they’re here now. We’re having to give them another boat to go out on. Have you seen it? Do you know where it is?’

Straight away we said, ‘Yeah, we know, we’ve seen it all week, that’s not moved. This is where it is.’

I called up the Broads Authority ranger to say, ‘Can you go and knock on the doors, just to see what’s going on. Have they just abandoned it, decided it’s not for them and left the boat in situ and they’ve got a lift back to the land?’

The ranger went down, and he said, ‘Actually, there’s a young girl sitting on the back, waving a book at me. She’s not talking, she’s just got a book. She’s given me this book.’

I said, ‘Right, that sounds a bit bad. Can you get her on your boat? Go on the boat, have a walk through just to make sure we haven’t got anyone deceased or anyone injured.’

He walked through the boat, and he said, ‘Very odd, hardly anything on it.’

I think there were 62 loaves of bread. Lots of cables, but televisions were all missing. Loads of weights, as people bring free weights, you know, for building your muscles up, which was odd, people don’t do that normally. Lots of sex toys, lots of underwear and things like that. And you think, ‘Oh dear.’

I said, ‘Right, can you grab that girl, with that book, and go to the Hotel Wroxham. I’ll get a police car to come and meet you there.’

We’re doing all this on the phone from Great Yarmouth.

A pre-meditated crime

Later on, the police met up, took the girl away to a police station where she got privacy. They started flicking through this journal, and it became, like, a diary. Sellotaped to the back was a passport, and an American driving licence of this guy, and that was him who had written all this stuff out.

Basically, the first night he’d arrived with his girlfriend and her daughter for their boating holiday. It had obviously been pre-planned, pre-meditated. When the daughter had gone to bed, he’d got rid of his girlfriend, by whatever means. I’m just trying to remember what happened at the inquest now, but she was murdered.

He kept going every day until it got right to the end of their week when the holiday was up. He decided to kill himself, let the young girl stay alive and present this journal. At the back it said, ‘Flag down anyone in uniform, tell ’em what’s happened.’

We then had another body to look for. When you look at the boat, it had a lot of tarpaulin from the roof down to the side. Later on, he’d weighted his wrists and his legs down, had a cocktail of drink and drugs, sat on the roof and just slid down in the middle of the night, and that was what happened.

A tragic outcome, the national press, and a huge impact on the river

Once we’d towed the boat, seized the boat, we went for a walk-through and found all the other bits and pieces we needed, but we had to close the river because we had two bodies, basically, we had to look for. This was in the middle of September. It was coming to the end of the high season, but that was an Indian summer we had that year. Really warm, lot of day boats out every day. We couldn’t just make that decision lightly, but this was a crime scene.

It made the national press. We had helicopters flying over. We had journalists trying to take hire boats out to get a picture of the scene, get any information for a story.

We took over Wroxham Broads Yacht Club, closed that down. That was the secure compound. We had all the emergency services there: coastguard, lowland search and rescue, fire. Fire had all their dive team at the time, coming out looking for the bodies.

There was quite clear water, but that was quite shallow. It was the mud, all the silt at the bottom they had to go through, but both bodies were found quite close. I was on the night shift patrolling that river to make sure no one came in or the bodies didn’t float to the surface, you know, and get found by somebody else.

There was the logistics of turning all these boats round. All the day boats and all the hire boats had to go to Coltishall in one direction and Horning out towards Ranworth in the other direction. We used Wroxham Broad and Salhouse Broad as the turning point, but all the holiday-makers that did changeover days, we had to get minibuses organised to get the holidaymakers and their suitcases off of one boat, take them up to their boatyards and vice versa, it was a huge operation!

The importance of the marine unit, and the growth of sponsorship

Because we knew the key people in every organisation that just went to plan. Had there not been a marine unit that could coordinate all this…. we’re not bigging ourselves up, but that really worked well. Everyone came together and we got a lot of praise and thanks for how that all well went. Tragic outcome, tragic circumstances, but because it made the national papers that really propelled us up. More people in the boating industry noticed our boat had logos, and our police truck had logos on, and they said, ‘How can we get involved? How can we get our logos on your truck?’

Sponsorship and Supporters: vital for success

We’ve got a brilliant sponsorship team now, we call them Sponsorship and Supporters. Whereas most slipways we put our boat in there’s a charge for launching and recovering, we now don’t pay any of that. That’s a big saving on the constabulary from all the different slipways we use.

Then you’ve got your boatyards, like us today. I’ve just taken our boat to a company at South Walsham, Marine Tech, who’ve been a long-running sponsor, always maintain our outboard engines. I mean, people know in the boating industry that costs a lot of money to look after outboard engines. So, we do that with them. Broom Boats over at Brundall do all our maintenance on our boats, We’re forever banging and crashing into sides and quay headings, it’s in the nature of our work. We have to go quickly to some events and, you know, in all weathers, and accidents happen. We get things broken, just like police cars, you know, that’s the nature of the job. So, they do all our repair work for us, and that’s just come back from them, for a couple of weeks to get all those jobs sorted out.

We’ve got other companies that will provide cash donations, other companies that will service all our life jackets, other companies that will give us discount on some of the wet weather clothing we have to wear, and the boots. RYA and various training courses that we do are all either free or else heavily subsidised.

So, we’re self-sufficient, we don’t have to draw on Norfolk Constabulary. That’s how we’ve been successful, really. Going out there, the generosity, you know, we go and see the different sponsors. I think we’ve got 14 at the moment, who are all key in different ways to us. That is how we survive, and we’ve got this brilliant partnership with them.

The impact of Covid

Covid was an interesting time, you know, that was a whole other story. We were out patrolling because we still had a lot of people travelling around the country, coming to check on their boats. They’re not all local people who own boats on the Broads. When they started relaxing some of the guidelines and restrictions, but you couldn’t go abroad, we had people from all over the country suddenly discover the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, and they’ve re-booked and come back again. Last year was really busy as well.

The population of the Broads

The Broads have increased their population. I don’t know who stands there with a ticker counting everyone in and out but, just knowing about how many beds are filled in the camping and the leisure places, and the footfall and everything, it’s always mentioned between 8 and 10 million people that visit the Broads, so, when you look at our little unit, we do pretty well, you know!

Not saying everyone’s troublemakers, but accidents happen. People slip, trip and fall, there’s a lot of crushing injuries and things like that, but, yeah, definitely the population’s increased. That’s why we’ve had to increase our team, that’s the reason we’re full time, we are busy, busy, busy.

Norwich City Police launch Y455

Policing the population of the Broads

Summer is heavily focused on the tourist industry and everything that comes with it. Winter time, we’re just as busy. We’ve got things that we’ve left on the back burner, lots of intelligence coming through to us, and we work on that intel. We have got registered sex offenders. We don’t really promote that, we want to keep it a family-friendly place, but fact of life is we’ve got a lot of registered sex offenders here either living on boats or coming here on holiday all year round. We have to monitor them.

All our boats now tend to have wi-fi in. They can go to a pub and moor outside with a wi-fi, and a lot of their bail conditions are not to have access to gadgets, not to upload, download certain things. We have to do a lot of spot-checks on these people to check they are compliant with their bail conditions on behalf of other force areas that know they’re coming here.

We have theft of boats, we have theft of trailers, we have theft of fuel at the moment going on, diesel, some of the boats get syphoned. Live-aboards, huge increase of people living on boats nowadays, and they’re two different scales. We always say 99 per cent of the people living on boats are fine, one per cent are under the radar for various reasons.

That one per cent, I think we’re monitoring 62 live-aboards at the moment that have come to our attention through our patrols, who are drug or drink dependent or got mental health problems. A lot of boats have got domestics. They’re kicked out of the house, mainly the dads. Mums keep the house with the kids, dad has to find an old wreck, a cheap and cheerful ex-hire boat or a fishing boat or a rowing boat, a bit of tarpaulin and that is home.

And these people are destitute. They don’t have life jackets, that’s not a priority for them. The weather in winter, slips, trips and falls, we had a cold snap before Christmas, you know, we’re checking on these people to make sure they’re alive. The heating costs, the gas bottles they use, the hoses that they use are all perished. They beg, borrow and steal all sorts of stuff. The wood burners, we’ve had to take a cheapy thing off one of these boats, up at Womack Staithe, ’cos he’d kill himself, you know. That’s carbon monoxide, the silent killer. He’d be keeping warm and cook on this gas but they have leaks. Once you fall asleep in a drunken stupor you’re not going to wake up from it.

A life lived amongst nature

I’m also a wildlife crime officer. We get a lot of wildlife crime reported to us, or things of interest. It could be something like a salt surge we have, or the deaths of all the thousands of fish. There’s a lot up at Potter Heigham with the salt barrier, pros and cons.

We have the seals that come in, stuff happening on the coastline. We have an issue with jet skis that come up on the coast and plough through all the new baby seal pups etc.

I mean, when you look at the windmills, when you look at the pubs we’ve got, some of the settings…. When we’re out early in the morning, the mist and the sunrises, the sunsets…. We often do over our ten hours because we might be out on Breydon Water. No-one else is around, we’ve got all this wildlife with that massive estuary, and all the iconic buildings and the skyline, and the sun is setting, and, you know, thinking, ‘Crikey, we’re getting paid to do this!’ It’s lovely.

So, there’s all sorts of roles we have now. Every day is different!

Paul Bassham (b. 1968) talking to WISEArchive on 11th January 2023 in Little Plumstead.

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Teacher, examiner, historian and more (1960-1994)

John describes his career in education in Norfolk as both teacher and examiner. He also talks about his fascinating research into passengers on the Titanic, his passion for Gilbert and Sullivan and his life-long support for the Canaries.

 School days

I was born in Norwich in December 1935. I attended Bignold Primary School. When I first went there, it was called Crooks Place, but they decided that was not a very suitable name, so it was changed to Bignold. It was wartime and I can remember the shelter at Bignold; it was a hole dug into the playground with a wooden top which has now been preserved with a glass top as a memento. I remember going down, hearing the sirens, and the Anderson shelter in our garden, and coming up to watch the planes. I was four when the war started and six and seven when Norwich was bombed, and I remember it vividly.

Then I went to City of Norwich School (CNS). I used to cycle there, they didn’t really like it because they did not have much cycle accommodation, so you had to live so far from the school, and we were just on the right side. CNS had about 800 pupils then and was one of the top grammar schools in the country in terms of Oxbridge entries. They took pupils from a very wide area, from almost as far away as Yarmouth and up to the north of Norwich, which was why in 1956, Thorpe Grammar school was built to serve the fringe of Norwich. In my day, it was only the City of Norwich School for boys and the Blyth School for girls. Thorpe Grammar took all the people from Porlingland, Hellesdon and the fringe of Norwich leaving Norwich as the catchment area for the City of Norwich.

In the Army – National Service

After I finished my A and S Levels, I went and did my national service in the Army. When I was in the sixth form, I went down to Holgate for medicals and to talk about things. I was going to go into the RAF because my elder brother was in the RAF and the person who interviewed me said  ‘No, come into the Army, you’re going to teach so we will put you in the education corps. ‘ So, when my call-up papers came, it was the army, the Royal Signals which is all about physics and I have given up science when I was about 12!

I began at Catterick, went on to Salisbury Plain and then was sent to Germany, near the Dutch border. We were called an air formation signals regiment, and I ran the squadron office. I was only 18.

We were in a very interesting place called Goch which is not far from Nijmegen. It was not that long after the war and when we got there, the people were very hostile, but gradually, they realised that the camp offered them a lot of employment and so things became much easier.

Then, when I was due to be demobbed in 1956, the Suez crisis occurred and a lot of people who had been demobbed were called back as our regiment maintained all the telecommunications for air force bases throughout Germany, so it was quite important. I was told that I couldn’t leave, that I had to stay and go with the regiment to Cyprus. I had a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and I had to get the college to write to the Army to say if he doesn’t come now, he will miss the year, so they agreed to let me out fortunately.

But let me just say, the regiment and all the trucks and everything, all went down to Cyprus and as soon as they got there, everything just stopped. As you know, the Suez crisis was a fiasco. So, I was able to come back and in 1956, I started reading English at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

University and teacher training

My interest in English stemmed from some great teachers at CNS. We had one particularly inspiring English teacher who didn’t just cover the syllabus but taught all sorts of other things. However, history was my main interest, so I did Part 1 English and then switched and did Part 2 History. I was very fortunate, one of my lecturers was CS Lewis who was wonderful. I had three great years there.

Then I did the post graduate certificate of education which was totally amateurish as there was no organisation about it, but it did give me plenty of time at the university library. I did my teaching practice at Thorpe, at the grammar school in the spring term of 1960. I was the first student they had. There was a strong City of Norwich influence there, the Headteacher, Philip Ball, had taught me at CNS before he became the first head of Thorpe Grammar School in 1956. And because they hadn’t got a sixth form at that time, on Fridays I used to go to teach sixth formers at CNS, so I got a bit of experience. I then went back to Cambridge for one term, did the exams and that was that.

My teaching career – Great Yarmouth High School for Girls

My first teaching job was at Great Yarmouth High School for Girls in Gorleston. I had planned to get to married when I finished my education. However, my wife’s mother died six months before we were due to marry, so, as it turned out perhaps not wisely, we decided as she was the only one, to stay with her father who lived in Avenue Road [Norwich]. Up to that happening, I had got one or two offers of jobs elsewhere, but I had some difficulty finding an English job in a grammar school in Norfolk – I mean how many grammar schools were there in 1960? I wanted to do sixth form and so on. So, I started in Gorleston at Great Yarmouth High School for Girls, which was a wonderful school, travelling every day from Avenue Road to Gorleston.

Well, I was lucky. First of all, I put an advert in the paper, I don’t think you would be allowed to do it nowadays, asking for a lift and I got a reply from a chap who taught at Yarmouth Technical College, and he gave me a lift. Then I passed my driving test and so I drove myself backwards and forwards from Avenue Road along the Acle Straight which in those days had cows wandering all over – it was a hazard then. But it was taking me almost as long to get from Avenue Road to Thorpe Station as the rest of the journey, so we decided to compromise and moved to Thorpe in 1962. My father-in-law decided to stay, he worked at Mackintosh’s, so he moved into the Elms, the little cottages off Unthank Road.

It was quite an experience teaching in a girls’ school; there were a few men on the staff who were, until I got there, rather disorganised, I kind of licked them into shape. I was there from 1960 to 65 as second in the English department. It was quite funny really, one Friday afternoon in the winter, I walked into a room, the lights were off, and a girl put her arms round me and kissed me while somebody took a photograph – for years afterwards, I wondered if this photograph would ever come to light.

Another funny thing happened: in around 1963 when I think there were probably about eight men on the staff, we were all summoned to the Headmistress’s office in morning break. We thought, oh dear, somebody’s in for it. When we got in there, she said,  ‘The National Association of Schoolmasters have declared that they are about to strike, and I have to warn you that you will be docked pay and there will be other implications if you go on strike ‘. So, we walked out, looked at each other, not one of us belonged to the NAS, I was in the Assistant Masters Association and so on, so a sledgehammer to crack a nut!

Move to Thorpe Grammar

Then the chance came to move to Thorpe Grammar School and again I was second in the English department. But of course, I lost all the travelling, I could walk there across the Recreation Ground. And I was there until I finished.

I was heavily involved in the politics of the school. In 1970, I think, the government started to have staff representatives on governing bodies – staff governors. I was elected as staff governor speaking on behalf of the staff. That hadn’t happened before, it was a big change. I was quite resented by some of the other governors, but it was a very interesting experience. So, I was there as staff governor, when in 1976, Norfolk County Council bowed to pressure from the Labour Government and introduced comprehensive schools. Norfolk was a true-blue Conservative authority, they buckled under, others didn’t. My grandson and granddaughter in Kent, one is about to start university, both went to grammar schools. Kent kept grammar schools so did Lincoln and Devon. So, we had the worst of all worlds, we had an authority who didn’t want to do it – Norwich, of course, did, CNS had become a comprehensive school in 1972 but Norfolk were slower.

From Grammar School to Comprehensive

In 1956, there was this large area in Thorpe, and they built the grammar school on one side, the playing fields in the middle and the secondary modern on the other side. While I was there, the two schools had virtually nothing to do with each other, except for people like me. Because I sang; I helped with their choir as I was friendly with their Head of Music.

So, what happened in 1976? First, we spent a year planning a scheme whereby there would be two comprehensive schools of 800 in the two buildings, one serving Thorpe and the other the villages around Norwich with a joint sixth form. At the eleventh hour, the County Council finance people suddenly decided you could save a lot of money by calling it one school with one Head. The parents were against it, the staff were against it and of course, I was in the middle of it all as staff governor trying to fight the case, but we got nowhere.

The person who came and reorganised it all was Gillian Watts, who became Baroness Shephard, and I spent years blaming her for what happened. However, I had lunch with her in Burnham Market about a year ago and I was talking to her about it, and she said, ‘No, you are completely wrong, I was part of the original scheme, but they then moved me, and my successor was the person who introduced the new scheme ‘, so I apologise for maligning her.

We had a dreadful time of it, we had 1,900 pupils, three uniforms, two sets of staff often at each other’s throats because everyone had to apply for jobs, so you had one head of English, one head of History and so on and it was grim to be honest. It took a long while to settle down. Both my children went there because the catchment area principle was strong then, you couldn’t send children where you wanted as you can now, so they both had to go there, living in Thorpe. And my son, in particular, found it very difficult. I have tried to tell him since how difficult it was for the staff; we had some really terrible times. And, of course, you’ve got the problem of going backwards and forwards between the two schools. So, I then became staff governor of the new school, I did eight years and then I became Head of English until I retired in 1994.

Not just Head of English – teaching law

In 1990, I think, there was a call for sixth formers to do more things outside their core subjects and so I ran a course, Minorities, we called it, when members of staff did different things for one lesson a week. My interest had always been in murder trials so I did a thing called crime and punishment and then some sixth formers came to see and asked if I would be prepared to run an O level Law course. Well, I said,  ‘I had never taken O Level Law, but I would do it ‘. They were very keen, they did it as an extra and they got on well and this became an established subject.

After I retired in 1994 from Thorpe, I continued law lessons for adult education for some years, GCSE it was by then – it was a very good course. But then, adult education fell apart for various reasons so I stopped but I did that for about 10 years I should think.

Running Christian Union Groups

While I was at Cambridge, I belonged to the Christian Union and all the while I was teaching, I was fortunate to be able to run Christian Union groups in my schools. I actually worked for the inter-school Christian Fellowship where we drew together groups from all Norfolk schools and we had a travelling secretary who would come down and take meetings for us. I was involved a lot with that as well.

Debating Societies

I also loved debating. Back at CNS, we had a society called the Sir Thomas Brown Society which met after school every Friday. We used to have a reading from the works of Sir Thomas and then a debate. Debating at Thorpe was rather funny really, we heard that there was about to be an inspection, so the Head encouraged us to sort of branch out a bit. Because of that, I set up the Debating Society and then there was a junior one, too.

Another career as an examiner

There used to be an exam called the Use of English which people took if they were doing S level, so I became a Use of English examiner for the Cambridge Board. I didn’t have much training, it was totally amateurish, I just went along with a group of elderly men one morning in Cambridge and was told what to do.

I then moved on to be an examiner for English Literature Overseas, for which we had quite rigorous training. It was a wonderful experience because we had these schools in India where time didn’t matter – a two-hour paper would produce about a hundred sheets of writing [laughs]. And also, there were people who should never have been entered at all. I’ll always remember I had a wonderful note – people often used to write notes on the bottom of exam papers complaining about their teachers – this one was from a school in Africa –  they were all terrible and this lad had written –we should not have been entered but our Headmaster had illusions of grandeur, wonderful! I almost felt like passing him. The best thing concerned another African school when the lady examiner had her bag stolen at Liverpool Street Station so the Examining Board said,  ‘What can we do, we can’t make them do it all again,’ so they gave them all a pass.

Then the Exam Boards amalgamated so I moved on to the Midland group which took over from Cambridge, where I was a team leader examiner for English. I was also doing course work moderating with the London Board and I was a team leader for that. Then I met the examiner for O Level Law, and he asked, ‘would you become an examiner’. So, I became a law examiner and, by the time I finished, I was examining A Level Law as well.

Then in 1994, when I retired from Thorpe, I also took on the International Baccalaureate. That was very different, I had been going to examiners’ meetings in London or Guildford and I had great hopes of attending meetings in Geneva, but everything was on-line. The English course was very much thesis based so I had schools from all over the world, sending me the work of students who took on a particular author or a particular book. This approach gives a lot of depth, but it also lacks a certain rigour. And, of course, the trouble with something like that, you are never quite certain how much is second hand, that was the problem.

But examining was interesting. My wife went into a dementia care home in 2013, in Blofield, and she had five years there which it cost me entirely what I had saved from examining. When I did the examining, I said we would put it aside for a rainy day and pretty well that was it and how it worked out.

A very busy retirement – the Titanic and Gilbert and Sullivan

I’m not sure where my interest in the Titanic came from. I had read a lot about it, and I had seen the 1956 great film, A Night to Remember and I just enjoyed it . Then my wife, who was in the Mothers’ Union at our church, said, ‘Our speaker has fallen through, and you will have to talk about the Titanic ‘. It was in the late 80s, so I put together a talk. Then, one of the members there said, ‘Oh, I have a friend in the Hethersett Mothers’ Union’, so it went on.

So, I did that kind of thing and then I had a letter in the mid 90s from an American author who was writing about the Straus family – Ida and Isidor Straus, you may know, were millionaires on the Titanic, owners of Macy’s department store in New York and theirs is a great romantic love story. Isidor trying to put Ida into the lifeboat, and her saying, ‘we have been married for forty years and I am not going to leave you now’. They died together which Cameron foolishly neglected in the film. This writer said that he had discovered that their maid, Ellen Bird, Mrs Straus’s maid came from Old Buckenham so could I dig out some information for his book.

I did that and it sparked my interest. I found another four Norfolk people; May Howard from North Walsham going out to join her relatives, a Norwich honeymoon couple, the Beans and a steward from Downham Market. I got my information from passenger lists and there are some wonderful sites, for example the Encyclopaedia Titanica and Wikipedia. I also got a lot from their relatives, I had a lot of help from May’s niece who was living in North Walsham and the Beans, both sides of the family had relatives still living in Norwich. I had an exhibition in 2002 for the ninetieth anniversary at the Forum and they all came along. I also met a lady from Old Buckenham who was very interested in the story of Ellen Bird, and she gave me more information.

May Howard (John Balls, Encyclopaedia Titanica)

May was going over to America to join her brother so I have been out to Albion in New York State where she lived. She is buried close to Niagara Falls and I have been there. And by coincidence, the Beans lived not far away in Rochester because he worked for Eastman, the Kodak founder, and I visited their great granddaughter who was a teacher in a primary school, so I talked to the school about them. I have spoken now in Belfast, in Italy, in Canada and in America. It is amazing when something like that takes over.

I published my book on the Norfolk passengers locally but then one of the members of the Norfolk Titanic Association, which I run, put me in touch with her publisher in Scotland. She lives in Kings Lynn and her great uncle was Jock Hulme, violinist on the Titanic. She has written two books, one about him and one of recipes from the Titanic. My book was reprinted, but they changed the format without telling me which was a pity really because I like my picture better which is Norfolk with all main towns as stars but the other thing about it is that it is no good for a book shop or library because of the back.

Then in 2012, the publisher said it would be good if you write another Titanic book, so I wrote my second which is called Lucky for Some. It’s about the survivors in lifeboats – those who survived in lifeboat 13, it’s their life stories. Unfortunately, everyone else decided to write books in centenary year so it has been a bit of struggle.

So, I had a series of talks – The Sinking of the Titanic; The Survivors; The Aftermath since the wreak was found in 1985; Music on the Titanic – there was a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan played and I have also tried hard to prove that Nearer My God to Thee which was played by the orchestra used Sullivan’s tune. So, I combined two interests there.

Then in 2015, I was asked to speak at an international convention in Belfast. A couple of years earlier, my daughter-in-law’s father, who lived in Worcestershire, had sent me a cutting from a local newspaper; a lady had died who had spent her life trying to prove that a shopkeeper from Worcester called Henry Morley was her father. He was eloping with one of his young shop assistants, her mother, and she claimed that she was actually conceived on the Titanic, so she was the youngest survivor. She spent her entire life trying to prove this unsuccessfully . I dug a bit further and I found over thirty passengers with assumed names; professional gamblers who obviously changed their names to make money, lots of people like Henry Morley running away with somebody else, political prisoners or activists from Sweden and so on. So, the talk I gave in Belfast was Imposters on the Titanic and I am doing one tomorrow actually to a Probus Club.

Gilbert and Sullivan

My interest in Gilbert and Sullivan goes back to my school days. I was fortunate at CNS in 1951, my first year in the sixth form, we had a member of staff, a modern languages teacher, called Alex Court who was a really keen G & S person. He persuaded Maurice Doe, the head of music, to do Gilbert and Sullivan for all the boys. So, I was in the Mikado in 1951 and I was totally hooked from that time on. I did Mikado, Yeoman and Gondoliers at the CNS where all the major parts were hogged by members of staff, so we didn’t get much of a look in.

That interest snowballed and at Thorpe Grammar I did productions of about six of the operas and then in 1978 I set up the Norwich Gilbert and Sullivan Society which is still going. We don’t do productions, at that time there were a number of local performing societies – Sheringham, Yarmouth, East Norfolk and we support them. We do concerts, and so on. East Norfolk ,who I have sung with before, are just about to do Pirates of Penzance at the Maddermarket in May. We are part of the national Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

There is also a Sullivan Society and a Gilbert Society, and I am the national chairman of the Gilbert Society. Gilbert did the words and he wrote lots of plays and songs. Sullivan did the music and he did a tremendous amount. I, with a friend from church, found 90 of Sullivan’s hymns which we put together. Funnily enough, on Saturday, I am going to Birmingham University where Mike Leigh, the film producer is going to open a new hall to be called the Sir Arthur Sullivan Hall.

My favourite is probably Ruddigore because I enjoyed doing that greatly when I produced it at Thorpe. It is a big interest really and will continue. It was nice that teaching enabled me to further that interest.

The most rewarding of my working or retirement activities

I really enjoyed, on one level, the Christian Union work and singing and drama, meeting people. I mean there’s so much and I carried on a bit after I retired. I worked with the YMCA for a time, and I was also on the Diocesan Board of Education working on Church schools. I did visits to all the Church schools at one time to find out what their needs were. So, yes, I have been able to keep things like that going. I think it’s just meeting people.

I have stayed in Norfolk all my life, unlike my brother who is rather scathing about it. I went to Cambridge and he went to Oxford, then he went on to Geneva, then Portland, Oregon and then California. He then came back as one of the original Biology lecturers at UEA and then to Nottingham where he was Professor of Biochemistry and then he finished in Italy running a unit near Lake Maggiore which validated all new drugs coming into the European Union. He has this vast international experience and I stayed here. I do point out, my father died when I was 13, Mike was 10 and my older brother had already left home, I do point out to him that I stayed in Norwich with Mother who was on her own whereas he was able to disappear – I mean that’s how life goes.

My family think I am doing far too much but there we are, while I can continue to do it. I am having problems now with eyesight and driving which is going to limit things eventually but at the moment …

A Canary fan

I am a big Canary fan, a Canary fan from 1945 onwards, a season ticket holder although not now. Both my children are mad keen fans as well. I was lucky, I had a season ticket with my son until he was about 14 and then by that time, my daughter was really keen.

My son wrote about Norwich City for the Eastern Daily Press (EDP). He is another writer by the way, he came back, a bit like my brother really, he did his training as a journalist and then went to Ireland and worked in Dublin, kind of looking down on us as country cousins. Then he met my daughter-in-law who had just come back from editing the TV Times in Hong Kong and was working in Dublin. She said she didn’t want to go back to Worcester, where her family lived, she wanted to live in Norwich so he had to come back and get a job here. He was originally Public Affairs Correspondent for the EDP and then he did a page called ‘Fans Eye View’ about Norwich City which was really hard-hitting, and he upset Delia [Smith] on a number of occasions. It was funny because my daughter in law once bought him one of Delia’s books for Christmas and she signed it – Delia didn’t know who she was, of course and she wrote something like ‘To Richard – Keep up the good work!’

And, of course, there are Mike’s children who are fanatics. It’s amazing, in 2002 when we played in the play-off final in Cardiff, Andrew was working in America, and he flew over just for the day for the football.

So, it’s surprising really, what’s happened now. Ed [Balls] was chairman of the club for a time and his brother, Andrew, has put a lot of money into the club. They have four tickets at their disposal as it were, and my brother and I went quite regularly with two of the tickets and sometimes we would have a meal in the Directors’ Box. We went once and we were complaining bitterly about the Norwich City performance and Ed said he was never going to let us go together again!

They then moved our seats to the top of the Jarrold Stand with a great view but there are no rails to help you up the steps. We found it quite dangerous, there is nothing to hold on to at all. So, I haven’t been for a long while, though I could go as much as I want. On Saturday, for instance, Ed is coming, because he comes pretty regularly, he is going with my son, I could have had the ticket but …

Final thoughts about education today

Well, education in England has always been a shambles. It has grown up piecemeal. I was lucky, I think, to be teaching when there was a reasonable amount of stability in the 1960s. Then comprehensive education obviously changed things which is a great idea. I am quite supportive but not if you do it badly. Then government interference became so intolerable, you never knew where you were with SATS, national curriculum and all that business, it is one reason I gave up early.

I think, now, it is a total muddle – because you’ve got some state, you’ve got county schools, academies, free schools. I think they have great individual schools and fine teachers and so on still, but I think that with the overall concept, I wouldn’t know where I was if I was teaching now.

You know some of these schools spring up just like that, Academies – when I left Thorpe and I worked for the Diocesan Board of Education, I used to go in every Friday, one day a week working at Easton. We had about 120 schools and we had a Director of Education, a full-time chief officer and we had a part-time typist and then there were people like me who helped. They now have, I think, over 30 members of staff, mainly because of the academy system.

The other thing that has happened in schools is that they became increasingly bureaucratic, which, to me, is the problem with the NHS as well where you begin to get too many chiefs and not enough Indians with lots of highly paid officials. I mean when I was at CNS, if someone was appointed deputy head, they carried on doing a full-time timetable, they got paid more and that was that. The time I finished, our Head did no teaching, our Deputies did about a tenth of a timetable, Heads of Years did about a quarter of a timetable and those of us who were actually teaching found ourselves with increasing amounts of paperwork generated by people, who in their own eyes, were working very hard but they had forgotten what it was like to teach a full day.

And so, I think, I mean I am not involved enough to be able to be over critical, but I am sure that this combination of a piecemeal system, no other country could have a system like this where you don’t know where you are, combined with this sort of bureaucratic belief. I don’t think it’s good, it’s a pity.

John Balls (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 2nd March 2022.

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