For king and country
Memories from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, where WB spent the Second World War
When war broke out in 1939, having failed to get Army enrolment because the young officer interviewing me talked so much about his supercharged 1750 Alfa Romeo in the courtyard that he forgot to take my address, and tiring of ARP work, I was about to apply to join the Civil Air Guard, which was training applicants to become pilots. Then C G Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, whom I greatly respected, advised against it – “no rank, no uniform, no pay”, or words to that effect. (Later he wrote that anyone not in the Services or a reserved occupation should apply at once to join. It was too late; they were fully subscribed.)
I then saw an advertisement asking for technical writers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. As editor of Motor Sport I saw a chance, took a Green Line coach for an interview and had the first of many shocks the great research establishment was to bestow on me. Three interviewers took my proffered articles in papers such as Popular Flying and began to whisper.
“How did any editor publish such drivel?” I was asked. They had read my description of a Gnome rotary engine, which, as writers do, I had abridged from the pre-war book Burl’s All The World’s Aero-Engines. It was nonsense, I was informed. “Engines are bolted to the airframes, they don’t rotate!” However, I was duly enrolled.
We worked in the Old Post Office, at the other end of Farnborough from the main RAE buildings and airfield, the latter unfenced at the outbreak of the war. When an air raid siren sounded the entire RAE was protected only by an ancient biplane (was it a Swordfish?).
The Air Publications (APs) we compiled were loose-leafed, and their object was to contain essential information sent to us by the manufacturers, as those responsible for squadron aircraft were supposed to keep their APs up to date. I had been writing these corrections for some time, devoted to Spitfires. While a pilot was running-up the Merlin, ‘erks’ were sent to hold the tailplane down. When the more powerful Merlins were installed the men were replaced by picketing. Even in wartime these APs had picture covers. When mine used a drawing of a Spitfire with air mechanics spread over the tail it was time for a new drawing. I went to see the head of publications. Once I had explained, he said he couldn’t see the dangerous slipstream! I thought he was joking, then realised that he just didn’t know what a slipstream was!
In this dull job there were a few bright moments. Our copy was in long-hand, and when completed, you rang the typing pool and asked for a typist. It was exciting to see which girl would appear… One amusing item was when an elderly writer went to lunch and his work blew onto the floor. To save paper, pages from old APs were used. His were retrieved upside-down and he continued his previous description of rigging a Tiger Moth with how to service a veteran Handley-Page.
I had, and still have, the greatest admiration for anyone who has a Private Pilot’s Licence. Hearing that a girl was joining us who had held such a licence I had to make her acquaintance. It cost me several expensive dinners, when we went out in my £35 Lancia Lambda while petrol coupons lasted, because she could always spot a top hotel while I was seeking a café. To digress, after the war she formed the Community Flying Club, based at Woodley aerodrome. For this she bought a well-used Aeronca. I took her to fetch it from what is now Gatwick Airport, with a young man. I asked if he had flown an Aeronca before. “No,” he said, “but last night I read the Pilot’s Notes…” I never expected the Aeronca to get over the Box Hill area but it did; alas the aircraft had no Certificate of Airworthiness and one was not granted for it.
At the RAE we were told we were far too important(!) to be allowed to go up, and we could not leave as we were in a reserved occupation. Only one chap, determined to get into the RAF, managed it and he was killed on the first bombing raid on which he flew. But the girl, very determined, was at last given grudging permission to go up when the instruments she wrote about were tested. This involved wearing a parachute, so she asked to borrow a pair of my trousers. When my landlady brought in tea the girl was in a skirt; when the tea was being removed she was wearing trousers. When she left she had a skirt on again. I received very bleak looks from then on, although she had changed in the loo.
On a hot day the same girl decided to vacate the Post Office and work from some old sheds beside the adjacent railway line. The wind blew the ‘Top Secret’ papers out of a window onto the line and they were never seen again. When I went on away-jobs, at mealtimes I used to sit on my apparently secret documents in case my hotel room was broken into.
The next shock was to be sent to a distant aerodrome to discover how a particular aeroplane was started up. It was already obsolete, but it was nice to get petrol for the Lancia. Explaining my object on arrival I was regarded as mad, but the RAE had some clout. So the oldest retired pilot, of high rank, was asked to come from his favourite pub and help me. We climbed ladders and peered into the dusty cabin. “Let’s see, did we warm-up at 1000 or 2000rpm? Better say 1500,” said my mentor. “Now, oil pressure. Was it 40 or 60lbs? Better say 50.” And so on. I wish I could recall what aeroplane it was. It had a Ki-gass primer, if that’s a clue? Luckily it would never fly again.
Before I left on this wasted mission I had been told to enquire how useful the Adjutant found our APs. “Look out the window,” he said. “Do you see a wheelbarrow?” “Yes, sir.” “Tell your boss that is what we take those APs down to the bonfire in.” Was he joking? Asked by my boss what I had been told, I replied that the APs were apparently useful. What else could one say?
It was all so casual. We were posted to Harrogate, then to London, until the flying bombs arrived. A volunteer was wanted as Duty Officer over a Christmas break. Both my parents were dead, my father killed in the other war, so I obliged. The ’phone rang. It was an Engineer Officer of a Yorkshire RAF Squadron needing Lancaster drawings urgently after raid damage; could we send them at once if he gave the numbers? I said I had no authority but would pass this on. I did this as soon as the holiday was over. “Don’t worry about it, Boddy,” I was told. “We get loads of such calls, just stick it on the peg with the others.”
It was on the day of Dunkirk that I was told my work was not in question but that as I was now a temporary Civil Servant I should wear a suit, not sports attire, and run a ‘proper’ car. In wartime, cloth was scarce, but a tailor who could make me a suit was found. I thought it was office blue but I was somewhat colour-blind and later discovered it was purple. When I returned to re-run Motor Sport, which I had kept going all through the war, I was informed that I would have attained higher rank but for my ‘dreadful car’ (RAF boys liked it) and had not taken the mickey with that equally horrible suit…
I had done my best not to impede the war effort, hoping I had quoted the correct loading of the Arnhem gliders and how to dismantle and rebuild a Merlin engine, although I could only just about decoke an Austin 7. At the R-R Derby works, if you were in a suit – especially a purple one – and entered the workshops, empty milk bottles were apt to be aimed at your ankles. Another hazard was the oily smoke from flares lit all round the R-R factory if an air raid was imminent. One evening these coincided with a pea-soup fog and it was impossible to see the kerbs.
Working at the RAE and its outstations was not all dull. Many of those not in the Services or in reserved occupations joined us, including several notable vintage-car enthusiasts, many of whom I knew. I had long been an avid reader of The Aeroplane and I amused myself asking in its pages for recalls of forced landings (not crashes) in the London area. The response was fascinating; perhaps the least fortunate were two RAF pilots whose engines stopped. One was over London’s dockland, with only one small piece of ground suitable for a dead-stick landing. With, no doubt, great skill he was just about down when a cricket team emerged ahead of him. He had to swerve, causing a wing to be damaged. In the case of the other pilot it was a nursemaid wheeling a pram across his path, unaware of his now-silent Hart. This occurred on Streatham Common, where small notices warned people to keep off it if flares were lit. As this was a sloping common with that path across it I couldn’t understand why nearby Tooting Bec Common wasn’t used and said so in Flight, earning me a much-needed guinea.
The Farnborough writing staff came from all walks of life but I was pleased to recognise dear old W O Manning, who had designed those successful 3½hp 398cc ABC-engined 420lb £350 Wren motor-gliders for the 1923 Lympne light aeroplane competitions. CGG, who disliked them, called them “pop bottles”. Manning seemed pleased that I recognised him; he organised staff bicycle rides.
One would sometimes see the famous RAE engineer Miss Shilling going home on the pillion of a very rorty Manx Norton ridden by its owner, whom she later married.
Mystery of a reverse ratio
Writing recently about whether or not the Napier-Railton had originally a reverse gear, I recalled how in 1924 (not 1920 as printed) Ernest Eldridge had been deprived of the Land Speed Record in the big 21.7-litre Fiat (above) after René Thomas had protested that it had no reverse gear, so that his own 143.31mph in the 10½-litre Delage must be officially accepted.
It remains a mystery how Eldridge responded. It was said that first he crossed the Fiat’s driving chains, but that was not acceptable because it did not constitute a gear. So Eldridge went to nearby Paris and had a reverse gear and housing made, which was presumably bolted on to the top of the Fiat’s gearbox. Eldridge then went back to the narrow Arpajon road and set a two-way LSR of 146.01mph.
Not being an engineer, I do not see how this functioned as a reverse gear when all the original gears were for forward speeds, but I expect this can be explained. I think that this odd stipulation was adopted at the birth of motor racing to make the fast racing cars appear to be more in conformity with those the pioneers were purchasing, and that after WWI a reverse was for a time required on racing cars as a means for the driver who had spun on the course to reverse out of the way.
Respect due to bike aces
I have the greatest respect for motorcycle racing, with today’s riders on Superbikes or in MotoGP attaining speeds of some 170 to 200mph, dependent on two tyres which change condition and grip as on F1 cars.
These modern racing bikes with sophisticated engines and transmissions, traction control and powerful brakes, enter corners at considerable speeds and the intrepid riders incur quite frequent falls, somersaulting over and over pursued by their bikes, and though protected to some extent by their padded and carbonfibre-reinforced overalls they can incur nasty injuries. Indeed there have been recent fatalities in a circuit race and in the TT.
The bunched riding and awesomely close cornering is almost unbelievable. I hope the top exponents are paid to F1 car standards?
Large attendances at these bike races and watching on TV are probably encouraged by knowing that production machines of the makes seen racing can be bought and used on public roads; Honda, Ducati, Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki all have agencies here. You may be an avid follower of F1 car racing, but you cannot buy a Williams, a Red Bull, a Super Aguri or a Toro Rosso, and a McLaren road car will cost about a million pounds, and a Spyker about £200,000.
Praise for the Track’s centenary celebration
In connection with the Brooklands centenary celebrations, the Brooklands Museum and Mercedes-Benz World issued an excellent comprehensive and well-illustrated 39-page programme, and there was a race card listing all the cars and motorcycles which formed the two-day celebratory display, numbering a fantastic total of 426.
Praise is due to how all these vehicles were parked, not to think of all the visitors’ cars. It was a most memorable event despite some bad weather. Some of the more impressive Track cars were run on the Byfleet banking and up the Test Hill. A wonderful occasion, though it is my personal view that to include the film Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang car was rather an insult to the memory of Count Zborowski.
A rather obvious gaffe in the official programme had a ‘p’ inserted in Thomson & Taylor (when I once did this Jenks nearly went berserk). Otherwise I have no complaints.
Indeed, there was even a bicycle race, and it was splendid that the flying displays listed nine aeroplanes including an SE5A replica.
Sad, though, that attendance was somewhat down on the figures expected.