The First Day in the Real Air Force

We left Cranwell with joining instructions and a railway warrant to report to No 232 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) RAF Gaydon, Warwickshire, on 10 September 1959. The 10th of September was beginning to become the start date of many things RAF. I wondered what else would come along. In the meantime, I had six weeks leave and spent most of the time in Eastbourne, playing cricket, lying about in the sun and entertaining Pam when she had a few days off and came down to join me. Halcyon days! My first monthly salary was due to be paid into a bank account at the end of August. This meant I needed a bank account! So, overtures were made to the local branch of Lloyds Bank and my first month’s pay arrived and I had neither worked, worn a uniform or reported to anybody. Also, I had made the classic leaving-school target of earning £1000 a year – comfortably -before tax. Life was good; but all good things…….and soon I was planning the move to Gaydon.

Before we left Cranwell I had arranged to meet Bill Smith at the Officers’ Mess at Gaydon on the afternoon of 9
th of September. He was there. We signed in and were allocated rooms in the student accommodation. We agreed to meet in the Mess for dinner. The Mess was very quiet but Dave Lee, who was starting the Valiant course at the same time, turned up and we had a nice dinner, a few games of darts and an early night in anticipation of a busy day tomorrow. We agreed to meet for breakfast and walk to the OCU in the morning. Getting up in a strange place and putting on a uniform with unaccustomed rank braid for the first time was very different. However, we had breakfast and set off at a brisk pace for the OCU buildings when an airman came the other way and threw up a smart salute. He must have laughed all the way to his destination as these three, wet behind the ears, baby officers, were not quite sure what to do. I think we all saluted and somebody said, ‘Good morning’, but it wasn’t our best!

The OCU building was very quiet too, but we only realised why a few minutes later. Immediately inside was an office marked ‘Adjutant’. We could see through a glass panel that there was a person inside working at a desk. We knocked on the door. There was no response. We knocked again and opened the door a fraction. Without looking up, the person said, ’What do you want?’ Opening the door wider, we said that we were wanting to join the OCU. ‘Where are you from?’ the person said. ‘Ermmm! We’re from Cranwell’. ‘Bloody typical’ he said, ‘You’re a day early. Bugger off and come back tomorrow’. Suitably chastened, we regrouped in the corridor and found our way to the deserted coffee bar.

So, with a whole day ahead and nothing to do, we quickly formed a plan to look around the local area. Dave had a small car and Bill his rather special 500cc single cylinder Ariel motorcycle. After a quick change into civvies, jacket and tie but no hat, we set off and wandered down the Fosse Way towards Gloucestershire. In the early afternoon we had circled round and found ourselves in the little town of Alcester. At a rather quaint cinema, we saw that ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ was about to start at the afternoon matinee. Everybody was in love with Kim Novak in those days and we spent a happy afternoon in her company. Afterwards we decided to have a couple of beers in Stratford on Avon and then go back to the Mess for dinner. We crossed the bridge over the river in the centre of Stratford and espied ‘The Swan’s Nest’ on the south bank. It was just opening time. We parked up and made our way into a small, oak panelled, snug bar where a barmaid invited us to order drinks and we all ordered half pints of whatever local best bitter she could recommend. Very nice. After about 10 minutes, the door burst open and a swarthy man wearing RAF uniform, with Flight Lieutenant rank braid and a Navigator’s brevet, swept into the room, lifted the bar hatch, went behind the bar and said to the barmaid, ‘Ok, sweetheart, I’ve got it’ and slapped her on the bottom as she departed. We were more than a little surprised! Then he said,’ Hallo chaps! Ready for the other half? I’m Colin Painting. Sort of have shares in this place. ’ Exactly what that meant we had no idea but there was a bigger surprise to come the next day. Colin was a staff navigator on the Victor Squadron of the OCU. We flew together on one of my two flights at the OCU and were posted to the same Squadron at RAF Cottesmore in the November. He turned out to be the salt of the earth. Hugely experienced bomb aimer, and amateur pig farmer. I doubt if he had even heard of Cranwell!

When we arrived in the mess for dinner there were far more people about and it transpired that both the Victor and the Valiant courses, starting the following day, would have two complete crews on each. Bill and I would be trained as replacement copilots to join a crew when we reached a Squadron. The Bomber Command tradition, that crews were not put together by the organisation, was still in operation; it sent the right number of qualified individuals to the course and the crews sorted themselves out. It seemed to work quite well. We were welcomed to the dart board after dinner and managed to hold our own against some useful opposition. It seemed that some of the individuals were old hands returning to the front line after doing a ground tour or recycling around the system, like experienced copilots getting their own crew. They seemed a good natured bunch and we had a pleasant evening.

Next morning was a repeat of the previous one. We even got a salute right by just the nearest individual doing the honours. As we entered the OCU building there was a notice directing No 21 Victor Course to report to Room No whatever! Thus began our operational training and our first day in Bomber Command!

John Laycock

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