A Wattisham Story for Jan (Lucky13) Pt 1

Discussion in 'Personal Gallery' started by Vic Balshaw, Jun 6, 2010.

  1. Vic Balshaw

    Vic Balshaw Well-Known Member

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    With one of Jan's numerous entries into the 6th GB being a Lightning of 111 Squadron based at RAF Wattisham, I though a few little snippets of the life and my experiences at Wattisham at that time would help give a bit of appropriate background information.

    It was in December 1960 that the first Lightning F-1As arrived at Wattisham to equip and replace the Hunters of 56 Squadron and in early 1961 that 111 Squadron also received its first Lightning F-1As.

    I was posted to the station in February of 61 and on making my way to my new section in the early morning fog accompanied by a fellow workers, I got my first sighting of a Lightning. Though in the distance and through the haze of the fog, the view was from the arse end looking straight up the jet pipe which had a couple of very thin looking bits protruding from either side. Being a young naive teenager that had not long turned 17, my reaction of this sight and exclamation of 'how the f**k does it fly' was received with great amusement and a little snigger by the guy walking with me. It also set the foundation for me to receive a great deal of ribbing over the next few days. Yes, I was a sprog fresh out of brat training, still in his highly bulled, mirror shiny boots (the real McCoy, not patient leather), razor sharp creases and a shiny brass (not anodised) cap badge.

    As a unit in the early 1960s, Wattisham was to anyone who lived there, out in the wilds which was the case with many of the RAF bases at the time. Remember, it was long before the spread of urban expansion we see today It was about 5 miles from the nearest town of Needham Market to the east, which was only a one street town with maybe just the one pub and a bus stop. But to the north west, about 6 or so miles was the larger town of Stowmarket which was for us more attractive with a few more pubs, some real shops and lots of girls. The County capital of Ipswich was about 10 miles away but it was a bit of a bus ride adventure to get there.

    To put this in prospective to modern times, we are talking about the days when very few of us humble airman could afford a car so any means of escaping the base had to be by foot or bus. The base was not to badly services by buses, they were infrequent but seemed to go to the right places at the right time. For example for Stowmarket, departure was at 5 and 7pm daily, returning to base from Stow at 10:45pm after the pubs had closed. Oh, sh*t I can hear Jan say, no bl**dy boozer.

    Well fear not my friend for we did have a NAAFI and a YMCA Club. The latter needless to say was alcohol free but they provided the morning and afternoon tea break 'Y' van that ran around the base on working days and you could guarantee a good morning cuppa and a hotdog. 'Ah bellissimo' I can still taste the hotdogs, big fat juicy frankfurter, soft fresh buttered roles and lashings of 'Branston' pickle. Oh yes, and if you wanted a bacon and egg butty in the evening, not a good replacement for a pint, I know but the 'Y' was the place to get it. As for the NAAFI, it was a dreary place for a beer, it was still decked out in the wartime canteen furniture high uncurtained windows and wall painted in green gloss to shoulder height with a putrid lighter green emulsion above this and if I remember correctly, initially it only had bottled beer, nothing on tap. The place made you want to puke in your beer.

    All was not lost though, for about a good miles walk up the road was an old isolated farmhouse which was in fact a pub (of sorts). I can't remember what it was called though the name 'Lion' springs to mind and this place had real ale on tap, and I mean literally on tap. It came in an oak barrel which sat in a rack on its side and one would 'tap' the barrel with a stick before opening the tap to pour the beer. The bar, for want of a better word was the former front room of the house and always had this huge open fire which in the winter of 1962/3 was a blessing in itself. There was no bar counter and the beer was served direct from the barrel or the bottle which were in a small room to one side of the bar room. The pub sold 'Green King Ales' (Harvest was a favourite of mine) and like all good pubs in England it had the usual locals, mostly farmers or farm hands who sat supping pints while clicking the dominos or slapping the crib board. They were a friendly bunch who would gladly empty their glass so as you could fill em-up. They also played a mean game of dominos or crib, which could be quite costly in pints.

    The 'Lion' was a bit of an unusual pub, to say the least, for besides having no serving counter it also lacked a public loo (privy). Taking a pee was a case of either trudging through the house to the outback or nipping outside the front door and hiding behind the shrubbery which was alright for most of the year but in the cold, well I leave that to your imagination. In the winter snow drifts of 1962/3, trudging to the pub was quite a feat and worthy of the pint that awaited you, but getting back to barracks was not so easy, many a slip and it wasn't the drink would find one spread eagled in the ditch. In better weather, it was also a common thing to hitch a ride with a few others on the back of an Ariel Arrow, I think 5 was the maximum safe number. Another quirk of the pub was no electricity, light was provided by hurricane lamps hanging from the low ceiling which for a tally like me was a bit of a pain. The pub also had one other attraction besides the good beer and warm welcome, this was the landlords daughters, all three of them and for us young hot blooded airmen, they were three of the most desirable damsels walking this earth.

    Daily life on the base was typical of RAF Stations of the time. Wattisham was an operational base and it was well known that in the infancy of the 'Cold War' years, many a Bear was intercepted trying to infiltrate our air space. Consequently we were often being placed on alert be it real and an exercises, though they never told us which. These could be sprung on us at anytime, early morning, late evening and on a number of occasions just after 5pm on a Friday. Yes I confess on a couple of occasion to slinking off base as the alarm went, particularly at the weekends.

    So we are on exercise yet again, assumedly chasing Bears real or imagined from our airspace and for us non-essential, non-technical trades it meant being the dogs bodies of the base. We would be detailed to fetch and carry, particularly urns of tea for the pilots and flight-line crew or were place on guard duty over a fuel installations or buildings considered to be of importance. Here we were always armed to the teeth with each of us equipped with one pick axe handle (for defensive purposed) and yes, we had to sign for it in triplicate. For some unknown reason, most of these alerts were never shorter than 48 hours or more and we were still expected to carry out our normal duties and, to rub insult into injury, the authorities would even stop the 'Y' van from coming onto base. The 'Y' canteen was over by the domestic accommodation and technically off the base.

    Back in the real world, the station had 3 squadrons to maintain, the third being 41 Squadron flying Javelins. These compared to the Lightning were somewhat cumbersome and on one occasion we had a Javelins have a fire in it's breaks on landing, I was over on the far side of the airfield at the time in the GCA building so had a grandstand view. The fire team were quickly on the scene and soon had the fire under control and assumedly put out, but as the ground crew manoeuvred in to tow the Jav off the runway, the fire started again, but this time with a vengeance and despite the fire crews attempts to control it they had to abandon efforts as it was an armed aircraft and the cannon shells were popping off all over the place. The Jav was left to burn out before any further attempt was made to shove it's remains off the runway.

    I was lucky enough to be at Wattisham when the 'Firebirds' were selected as the seasons flying display team. It was a wild time for us base inhabitants, keeping a whole squadron in the air presented its problems. On one occasion we were somewhat short of actuators and it had been arranged for a supply of refurbished units to come direct from the manufactures rather than via the 'Early Bird' system. Luck would have it that I was the duty basher the evening when they arrived and after off loading the goods, I took the driver into the office while I sorted out his paperwork. It was high summer so still daylight outside and while in the office, the 'Firebirds' took to the air, nine Lightning's taking flight crocodile fashion and standing on tails in a reheat vertical climb as soon as the wheels were up. The building would shake, windows would rattle, the floor would quiver and the delivery driver disappeared under a desk thinking the world was coming to an end. Poor bugger thought he was in the blitz again. The people of Stow must have cussed us as the town always copped the roar of the Avon's on full reheat.

    Part II to follow
     
  2. Vic Balshaw

    Vic Balshaw Well-Known Member

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    Part II

    One of the other little extra duties we would be given was a week of guard duty. You would be withdrawn from your normal work for the week and be put to other tasks at the discretion of the Station Warrant Office (SWO) during the day while guarding all the sleeping soles at night. If it was coming up to AOCs inspection, you could guarantee being saddled with a pot of paint, usually white, a paint brush and a row of dirty white rocks to paint or you could find oneself just doing general clean-up duties. It was the night times when we came into our own, once again we would have to sign out the pick axe handle and patrol the base in pairs on shifts of 2 on and 4 off. Okay in the summer, but a bugger in the winter. It was also the duty of the dawn shift to take the 'early call' book and wake guys up. We were all housed in barracks of 20 or more to a room and to find the one individual who often gave the wrong location, mixing left from right and the TOB (towel on bed) had often fallen to the floor. So many a time the wrong guy would be woken. Needless to say we never mistook the early morning duty cook, he'd always be good for a big fresh breakfast at the end of the shift.

    It was during one of these stints that the SWO had the brainwave of letting us loose on the old NAAFI, after all we were very cheap labour. The idea was to strip out the NAAFI and refurbish the canteen and bar, there were no shortage of volunteers for the latter, evenings and weekends were even given up to for this job. The result was a very seductive up market canteen and an even slicker separate bar room that was opened with a grand dance, the one and only time we ever had a dance in the two years of my tour there. The occasion even brought the Americans from across the base to join in.

    Yes all you American cousins, you were also at Wattisham in the 60s. Wattisham was also an American base during WWII and in the 60s boasted a small American containment area on the other side of the airfield that was I believe something to do with controlling the East Anglican airspace. It was only a little place, but once our NAAFI was refurbished the guys from across the field would often pop in for a pint and a chat. In fact it is our cousins from across the Atlantic (now Pacific) that I blame for my introduction and now liking for a glass or two of 'Tiger'. Canned 'Tiger' was always readily available from our friends and now when in Singapore, I take the opportunity to feast on it. On one occasion with the generosity of the Americans, I with a couple of mates over indulged somewhat and had to be ferried back in time for work, none of us were in a fit state for work but you know how it is guys, duty calls and somehow I made it to the loading ramp where upon my corporal spewed out a load of superlatives totally unprintable even for this forum before scuttling me back to the barrack to sleep it off. I had turned up to work sporting an American headdress and obviously in no fit sate to work. Why I was never slapped on a charge, I'll never know.

    From time to time we would have a couple of WWII flyers on the base a Hurricane and a Spitfire would pay us a visit and watching them do a mock dog fight would always set the heart a pounding. The sound of those engines smoothly buzzing overhead and being able to watch them in what seemed like slow motion in comparison to the Lightning was a delight. The station also had an old and literally clapped out Bf 109 splayed out in the corner of a hanger, the legs had collapsed over time and it was stored over by the older part of the airfield (ex WWII area) which was used for visiting aircraft. I believe as the story goes, the pilot landed at Wattisham during the war, wether by mistake or design was never known. Perhaps someone out there may be able to throw some light on the subject.

    111 Sqn also had a pilot who was a dab hand at flying his Lightning. He could throw that machine around the sky, turning it in a figure of eight within the boundaries of the airfield and watching the way that tail would slide around the sky at seemingly hanger top level was unbelievable, he was only a titch of a guy. I know, all Lightning pilots were quite short, but this fellow was short compared to them. It was rumoured that on one occasion his manoeuvring of the aircraft was such that on arriving back at the pan they had to lift him from the cockpit and the airframe was the subjected of a Cat 3 inspection. He was also instrumental in cracking a bit of glass in the control tower when doing a demo flight for some high powered dignitary by flying in very low and fast and turning by the tower onto his tail forn a full reheat vertical climb.

    As mentioned earlier, the winter of 1962/3 was a stinker, a bit like the one you have just had and the only airfield open in the whole of UK for a period of about 3 days was RAF Valley in Anglesea. The onslaught of snow with 6 foot drifts did not however thwart the authorities who believed the airfield should be kept open at any cost. Snowploughs were out spewing snow off the runway and taxying tracks day and night. Irks like me and my mates were also a prime source of extra labour and kitted ourselves in everything we could get on to keep warm, were issued with shovels and brooms and detailed to shift piles of snow. The crash barrier was a particular target if interest for I was involved in no less than five attempts over three days trying to dig it out and raise it. We were be hauled out to the end of the runway in an Alvis Salamander Mk 6 Crash Tender, the only vehicle that could be guaranteed to make it and were summarily put to work digging out the net. The driving blizzards and freezing conditions were unbelievable and as quick as we shovelled the snow out, so the wind blew it back in again. We were unable to clear the barrier until the last late evening trip, it was in the impending dearly dusk when after a number of attempts up it came the barrier and amidst a cheer of jubilation was this yelling coming from one end. One of the barrier arms rising out of the snow had hooked into the clothing of a guy standing to overly close to it and taken him up with it. Luckily no harm done and when we got back to the Fire Section, we all had a good laugh over it while standing round the pop-bellied stove supping an a tot of true Navy Rum which had been broken out of the emergency store.

    Being a store basher, one of my many jobs over the two years there was doing the deliveries. I didn't at that time have a driving licence and the guy I worked with was one of the dwindling numbers of National Servicemen still serving. We had as a delivery van an old Austin soft top van that was a bit of a boneshaker and on one occasion, I was not with him, thank god, he decided to race a Lightning. The aircraft had come off the runway and was heading back to dispersal, my mate was coming onto the taxi-track and decided that he had plenty of time to nip in front of the aircraft thinking he could beat it to the dispersal. It was a bit like a billy cart racing a Ferrari, simply no contest. The fuss he caused was nothing compared to the sh*t he found himself in. The same guy was also the person who showed me the rudiments of driving and I was often at the wheel on the other side of the field when no one was looking and on one occasion, going too fast, almost rolled it.

    As for entertainment at weekends, Wattisham was on the other side of the country to my home. In those days it was a day's travel to get down and across London and on into the West Country so all weekends were spent on base or either in Stowmarket or Ipswich. In my first year there, every other Saturday was spent in Ipswich, it was a sort of ritual to head into town, go to the football (soccer) feast on fish and chips and take in a movie. 'Ipswich Town' soccer club were league champions in 1961-62 under the management of Alf Ramsey who went on to lead England to the World Cup in 1966, so watching an Ipswich home match was a must. Outside of that, I'm afraid our entertainment was restricted to the room TV or mucking into a game or two of cards, particularly on pay days when there was plenty of cash about. The TV was a hire job paid by a tanner in the slot of a machine mounted on the side, we didn’t have a TV in the NAAFI at that time and if anybody came blustering into the room and interrupted during an episode of 'Coronation Street' your life was not worth living. TW3 I recall was also a favourite.

    So there you have it Jan, life as it was.

    :p :p :p
     
  3. Lucky13

    Lucky13 Forum Mascot

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    Magic Vic, thank you! :notworthy:
     
  4. Migrant

    Migrant Member

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    Excellent read Vic.
     
  5. vikingBerserker

    vikingBerserker Well-Known Member

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  6. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
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    Excellent read, thanks for sharing that.
     
  7. rochie

    rochie Well-Known Member

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    great post Vic, any more ?
     
  8. Clave

    Clave Well-Known Member

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    I was there!

    My dad told about the burning Javelin!

    And the one that lost it's wings during a live firing exercise in Holland (someone had left the gun alignment plugs in place, and all the 30mm cannon shells exploded in the wings)

    I must have been 7 years old in the winter of 63 - in fact the earliest ever memory I have of my life is the huge snow drifts round the married quarters and people making massive snowmen... :lol:

    My sister who was 3 or 4 years old was very independent and used to walk a lot - trouble was she never took account of what was in the way and one day she walked straight out of the back garden, under the fence, then went under the airfield fence, and was walking straight across the peri track towards the runway before she got intercepted and returned home by jeep...

    I'm pretty sure my old man has a huge fund of Wattisham stories, I will ask... :D
     
  9. Aaron Brooks Wolters

    Aaron Brooks Wolters Well-Known Member

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    Very interesting Vic! Thank you for sharing that.:thumbright:
     
  10. Vic Balshaw

    Vic Balshaw Well-Known Member

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    Thanks Guys, glad you enjoyed, maybe I'll drum up a shorter yarn from someplace else, sometime.

    Clave, maybe you Dad will let you relay some of his yarns.

    :hotsun: :hotsun:
     
  11. Wildcat

    Wildcat Well-Known Member

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    Fantastic read Vic! I can relate to your guard duty stories, for I too have valiantly defended a military establishment with the mighty pick axe handle! :lol: :lol:
     
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