I was at RAF Watton Central Signals 90 Group, arriving about October 1950, having completed technical training at RAF St Athan. The conscription period had been increased from eighteen months to two years and this created a problem due to the sheer volume of numbers on the base because bods were not being demobbed until their two years National Service had been completed.
The outcome of this was that we were put into temporary accommodation at Watton Green, in huts that had previously been condemned by the American Air Force as unfit for human habitation. Sited in the middle of farmland the place was a quagmire and living with the chickens was not to be envied although they were free range.
Concessions granted to us were that one airman per hut was allowed to leave work early in order to light a fire in the stove to warm up the hut. This was OK, but of course the condensation increased to the point that water just ran down the walls. To get a bath meant negotiating the path to the bathhouse through a sea of mud and the return journey meant you were just as dirty as you were before you went. No environmental considerations in those days.
The other concession was that we were issued with bicycles having 28inch wheels and complete with RAF roundels on the mudguards. This kind thought allowed us to cycle to and from work (provided you could reach the pedals) but the RAF police enjoyed stopping us on the way back to our huts just to check our lights were functioning correctly and if not, delighted in putting you on a charge. Woe betide any airman arriving for work with dirty boots also, mud was no excuse. Enough of the moans, we were eventually transferred to the luxury of the H blocks in the main camp and soon forgot living with the chickens. The bicycles were returned to the bike store, a unit on the main camp whose duty it was to maintain all bicycles in good order. We of course kept our tyres inflated by the use of aircraft oxygen bottles, with the occasional loud bang within the hangar as the tyre burst when one became a little too careless with the oxygen bottle valve.
I was assigned to Number 4 Hangar Rectification Section (Flight Sergeant Smith NCO in charge) as AC2 Flight Mechanic Engines. I must have done something right as I was soon made up to LAC, about £3.10 a week as I recall. We carried out minor services, 100 hours intermediate services and 600 hours major services on the following aircraft: Ansons, Hasting, Lancasters, Lincolns, Mosquitos and Oxfords.
Work was also carried out on the Meteor, but they were thin on the ground in those days. I well remember the first Meteor NF11 arriving for the fitting of special equipment by the Radar bods, this aircraft warranted a full time guard whilst at Watton.
Other aircraft types appeared from time to time to have special radio/radar equipment fitted, but were not serviced by us in 4 Hangar.
Lancasters were replaced by Lincolns whilst I was there. The Hastings named ‘Iris’ was the only one at Watton and did regular six week tours abroad on radio frequency calibration work. A perk offered to us, was that all names were put into a hat and one name was drawn, the lucky named bod being allowed to join the crew of ‘Iris’ for a tour acting as steward to the crew. No, I was never lucky.
Ansons and Oxfords were used daily in the GCA (Ground Control Approach) project which I believe was the forerunner to Automatic Landing Systems. They were buzzing around all day long, flying away cross country and then returning to base guided by the radio beacons of the time. There was a unit at the far side of the airfield protected by guard dogs which we called the boffins unit and out of bounds to us. This may well have been something to do with the GCA project but this is only an assumption.
Courses in radio and radar were run for other Service Personnel. We had Army chaps from the Royal Signals and Navy chaps from the Fleet Air Arm. The Fleet Air Arm chaps caused some amusement by always having to board their lorry transport outside the guard room in order to cross the road to get from the main camp to the cookhouse.
At the cookhouse they disembarked, having travelled a distance of one hundred yards or so. Navy tradition decreed the road to be the sea, therefore Navy personnel had to cross the water by the liberty boat (lorry in this case). There was quite a lot of leg pulling as I recall.
I think you will agree Watton was a very busy place at that time. The CO was an Air Commodore, I can’t remember his name but I believe he was responsible for about three thousand souls based there.
Just before I was demobbed in February 1952 we had Flying Fortresses performing circuits and bumps on a regular basis, obviously crew training. Apparently there had been an agreement signed between Britain and America called ‘The Washington Agreement’ whereby these aircraft would be based at Watton, the aircraft would also be renamed ‘Washingtons’. Some of our bods were selected for training on servicing these aircraft but being on National Service and near to demob I was ineligible. The training I believe was at Lakenheath or Marham.
All in all, I recall Watton as a happy time, I have no regrets and can honestly state that I enjoyed my National Service.