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BBC WW2 Peoples' War archive

 

‘Pilot training in the wartime Royal Air Force - Part I’

by Flying Officer F. A. R. Bennion RAFVR (191712)

 

From BBC WW2 Peoples' War archive - Article Id:A8974786

Doc. No. 2006.009

 

[From my unpublished autobiography.]

FB in his Bejant's gown at St. Andrews' University

 

Part I: England and Scotland

 

A skinny raw recruit aged seventeen years and eight months, I was instructed to report one September day in 1940 at RAF Uxbridge for what was called induction. In the midst of a war, I had told these people that rather than waiting to be called up I wished to serve my country as a volunteer fighter pilot. This would be both spectacular and individual, I felt. I doubt whether at that age I comprehended other necessary requirements of wartime service in this capacity, such as manliness, tight discipline, technical skill, endurance, and unremitting courage. My motivation was youthfully simple: only the best suffices.

 

It is better to be a volunteer than a conscript, so I volunteered. It is admirable to try the untried, and mistrustingly trust the insubstantial air, so I chose for my service His Majesty’s Royal Air Force. Pilots take command over other aircrew, and it is best to be a commander, so I enrolled as a pilot. It is preferable to be in sole charge of one’s destiny rather than dependent on others, so I elected to face the enemy alone in a petrol driven fighter plane. My intellect was stronger perhaps than my imagination. While waiting to be summoned I studied the subject, using a little book called Teach Yourself to Fly by Nigel Tangye. I composed aeronautical crosswords. A magazine called The Aeroplane Spotter, which was full of information about wartime aircraft recognition, published these efforts and paid me a guinea a time.

 

The RAF took me at my word, but had to make sure I would meet their requirements. One memory of that day at Uxbridge concerns the ritual I later learnt was known as FFI, standing for ‘free from infection’ (but it was best not to stand). It was supposed by the authorities of the RAF that the eager youths under their superintendence were prone to rush out at the slightest opportunity and enjoy illicit sexual commerce with low women, thereby incurring the expensive risk of venereal disease. This supposition was based on a general perception of how young men are wont to behave. At that time I knew no young man who behaved like that. Certainly the young man that I was did not. Nor did any of my friends, that I knew of.

 

The counter to this officially perceived risk of disease was an FFI inspection. A row of officers sat at deal tables. Before them paraded the young men, in single file and a state of nudity. When one of the young men reached the inspecting officer he halted, and smartly turned right. The officer then stared fiercely at the youth’s precious possession. When at last the officer gestured, it was expected that the youth would with his hand lift the fleshy apparatus to reveal the medical state of what lay beneath. Were there any signs of venereal disease? In my experience invariably not. I must have undergone this necessary ordeal a hundred times in my RAF career, but not once did an officer find what he was supposed to be looking for — either in me or anyone else present. I never felt any resentment about that, for I dimly realised that not all youths are pure and I accepted that it was therefore a necessary if regrettable precaution.

 

At Uxbridge that day, I was required to undergo a medical examination to ensure I was physically fit for the ordeals that lay ahead. Arrived at the medical examination room I was brusquely instructed to strip. When, out of caution even more than shyness, I left on my underpants the order swiftly came to remove them. The RAF medical authorities thought it right to conduct their entire scrutiny, lasting nearly an hour, with their slender young victim nude and defenceless. This was my first experience of such conditions.

 

There were a succession of medical tests, which I found a severe trial. My tendency to cringe, rather than stand upright in manly fashion, met a faintly sneering response. The bowed shoulders, hands in front of crotch, were probably registered as despicable indications of weakness and immaturity. Not what was required of potential fighting men in the midst of deadly war. Nevertheless I was undeniably healthy. I was just over the lower age limit for volunteer recruits. I had to be passed fit, and was. But was I mentally and emotionally fit? There were no tests for that. The inspecting officers didn’t seem to perceive that I was still young and tender, far below my calendar age in physical and psychological development. They passed me.

 

As I moved homewards to Rayners Lane on the Piccadilly line of the London underground railway, I reflected tensely on these Uxbridge experiences. Clearly my idealistic bravado was about to be tested by reality.

 

* * *

I may have been young and tender, but I was no fool even then. I read in the newspapers that the Government had set up a scheme whereby incoming aircrew cadets of officer potential could start their training with a six-month university course. I applied naming Oxford University, since I knew it was the best there was. An answer came back offering me a place at the University of St Andrews, which after hasty research I gathered was an obscure dump in Fifeshire. I made further enquiries, and concluded this grim Scottish outpost might not be so bad after all for an English lad. It was the oldest university in Scotland, just as my preferred Oxford was the oldest university in England. I consulted my oracle Andrew Lang and discovered that he had been to both universities. Of the Scottish one he wrote-

 

St Andrews by the Northern Sea,
That is a haunted town to me!

 

It seemed promising: I rather fancied a haunted town. There was really no choice, so I accepted the offer. St Andrews thereafter became a haunted town to me also. Lang, as I later discovered, was equally enthusiastic about Balliol. He wrote a poem beginning ‘God be with you, Balliol men!’ Still later, having experienced at first hand the twentieth century actuality of godless Balliol (and always a cricket lover), I came to prefer Andrew Lang in a different vein as shown in his poem Brahma-

 

If the wild bowler thinks he bowls,
Or if the batsman thinks he’s bowled,
They know not, poor misguided souls,
They too shall perish unconsoled.

 

I am the batsman and the bat,
I am the bowler and the ball,
The umpire, the pavilion cat,
The roller, pitch, and stumps, and all.

 

I reported again to Uxbridge, and was given my RAF number. It was 1334088, and never to be forgotten. (Also never to be forgotten was my later RAF officer’s number 191712.) I was given a paybook, and an advance of pay. This took the form of a five-pound note, a large piece of white tissue paper bearing Bank of England promises printed in extravagant black script. I had heard of such things, but never before seen one. I swallowed in awe, and tucked it carefully into an inner pocket. I was pleased to be in possession, for the very first time in my young life, of immeasurable riches.

 

At Uxbridge I was also given my rough blue uniform and white canvas kitbag. The latter was designed to hold all my possessions, and to accompany me wherever I went. At the top it was held together by a brass padlock inserted in the brass-rimmed eyeholes designed for that purpose. Cleverly, the padlock was wide enough to form a handle by which the kitbag could be carried.

 

A lorry took us from Uxbridge to Euston, where we boarded a train to Scotland. It was of course a steam train, of imposing proportions. Never before had I undergone such a long journey. It made a deep impression on me. I remember awaking to see the dawn breaking over Newcastle as our train crossed the high-level bridge. A noble sight, I felt it was. It thrilled me in the way only the very young can be thrilled, as they set out on their life’s journey.

 

At St Andrews there was a University Air Squadron, based near the village of Leuchars in Fifeshire. The commandant was Flight Lieutenant Ritchie, a strong thirtyish man with a blue chin and abrupt manner. Later I realised he had a difficult task, and performed it well.

 

On arrival I was shown to my room in a modern block. I opened a drawer and found within it two brown albums. Each contained five large graphite gramophone records, amounting to a single symphony. One was Dvorak’s New World. The other was Beethoven’s Fifth. They meant nothing to me, except for that name Beethoven. I remembered those interminable boring sonatas Mother used to play from a red book on the piano at home. That was what Beethoven meant to me at that time: boredom. How strange it now seems! I am reminded of Browning’s Memorabilia-

 

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!

 

The royal burgh of St Andrews at once captured my fancy. A dramatic knee-length scarlet gown, collared in mulberry velvet, became mine. Informed that this was the academic dress of a student such as I now was, namely a Bejant or freshman, I at once grasped its capacity for dramatic contrast with the surrounding grey stones. All the buildings, ruins, quays and rocks of this ancient seaport were of a uniform sombre hue. I saw it as my function, under the authority of a long-standing rule and tradition now embracing me, to brighten these drab environs. On the jetties and walks I postured in the vivid scarlet gown, but only briefly. Almost at once I was cut down by elders who indicated that the obvious is not necessarily the accepted way. I absorbed the lesson, and quickly passed on.

 

This first intake under the new RAF scheme consisted of fifty-five aircrew cadets, of whom only thirty were to survive the war. Most were boys from famous English or Scottish public schools; and I prepared myself to be overwhelmed. Yet surprisingly, there were some even of these who seemed to look to me for a lead.

 

The lectures in what was called natural philosophy attracted my interest, mainly because of the personality of the lecturer. He had the resounding name of Professor Sir D’Arcy Thompson FRS, and possessed a persona to match. Meat was scarce in those wartime days, and Sir D’Arcy was a man of lively appetite and perceptions. When a whale was washed ashore near the town quay he decided to do his duty by the famished undergraduates of St Salvator’s Hall. He seized a cleaver from the college kitchen, marched down the hill in his full academicals, and hacked from the carcass a hefty steak. This was served up for dinner in Hall that night. While disliking both the flavour and the texture, I admired the brio that had brought this unknown dish before us. I strove manfully to enjoy it. Later the whole British population had this rubbery marine meat inflicted on them. It even became part of the official meat ration. No one ever liked it, but we were instructed that the nation had to keep up its strength.

 

I have three other memories of my time as a youth in St Andrews by the Northern Sea.

 

The first has to do with leadership. Flight Lieutenant Ritchie impressed upon us the need for this quality. In response I felt I had to take the lead in something, and decided to organize a snooker championship. This now seems to me inexplicable: I was not even very good at snooker. Naturally, to show a lead, I myself took part as a contestant in this championship - expecting to be soon eliminated. However at every round I won, to my growing embarrassment. I arrived in the semi-finals. In anxious discussion with my friends I found them supportive. They did not seem to see anything wrong in the organiser of the tournament threatening to win the trophy. Thankfully that did not happen, and I duly lost the penultimate match.

 

Then I was faced with a problem. As the organiser of the snooker championship, I had to buy the trophy which was to be presented by Flight Lieutenant Ritchie to the winner. I walked down to the town jeweller and was faced with a difficult choice. With the small amount of money at my disposal should I buy for the prizewinner a large ostentatious cup of plated silver or a very small unpretending cup of pure sterling silver? After agonizing, I settled for the former. Ever since I have felt I was wrong - but the winner seemed happy with his large trophy. Flight Lieutenant Ritchie presented it to him, with a neat little speech. In it he acknowledged my qualities of leadership, so it seemed I had done something right.

 

The second memory is very important to me. I was sitting in the students’ common room listening to the radio churning out popular music when I felt a sudden powerful tug within. It was an unexpected desire to listen instead to what is called classical or serious music. Never before had I felt the slightest wish to hear that sort of music, so why did the message come at this moment? I can only conclude that it was an incident of maturing, a part of growing up. Over half a century later, around the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day, I wrote the following to a radio request programme of which the presenter was Brian Kay-

 

‘My request is for Brahms’s Academic Festival overture. This is in connection with your World War II theme. I was an RAF pilot in World War II. In 1941 the Air Ministry started a programme of six-month university courses as initial training for RAF aircrew cadets. I was on the first of these to be held at St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university. There were 55 cadets on my course in 1941, 25 of whom did not survive the war. I was 17, and remember that it was while listening to the radio in the student common room at St Andrews University that I suddenly woke up to the fact that classical music was essential to me. I bought a portable gramophone in St Andrews town which I took around with me during my wartime service in Britain, Canada (flying training), and the Mediterranean (antisubmarine patrols with 221 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command). The Academic Festival overture was the first classical music record I bought.’

 

This request was duly played on 26 June 2005. When back in 1940 I went home on leave to my mother, father, sister and grandfather I found that none of them accepted my sudden liking for serious music. They thought I was pretending, posing, putting on airs. Even my piano-playing, Beethoven sonatas, cap-and-gown mother thought I was insincere in this proclaimed liking. Even my soprano sister, who had become a pupil at the Guildhall School of Music in London, thought I was putting on an act. It has been the same with others in later years. I find that strange, and rather sad. I was hurt in my youthful feelings, because my love of serious music was genuine. Yet throughout my life ever since I have been surrounded by people who did not share or accept it. That was their loss, for they missed out on what I am privileged to know is one of the greatest wonders of our western culture.

 

My final memory of those days at St Andrews concerns gambling. I had learnt from the example of my father the ruinous effect of an addiction to this vice (in his case concerned with racehorses). At St Andrews the students became very fond of the card game known as pontoon (vingt-et-un). We played it every night, for small stakes. Then one day some members of what was known as ‘the school’ came to me and said they thought one of our number was cheating. The fair-haired X (as I shall call him) was a popular, likeable youth — but still they said he was cheating. What was to be done? Why were they looking to me? Could it be because I had taken the lead in organising a snooker tournament? It seemed unlikely, but it was happening.

 

These youths, my friends, said there was only one thing to be done. X had to be confronted. Who is to do that? I asked the question, knowing what answer they would give. I was to do it. On the next occasion when we gathered to play cards fair-haired X was there, with his usual confident look. All eyes were on me. I was expected to speak out, and rid them of this blight. I felt, not for the last time, that I had to do what was expected of me. So I spoke to X, very quietly. "Some of the lads think you cheat, and don’t want to play with you any more", I said. X flushed to the roots of his hair. I gazed steadily at him, saying no more. Slowly he rose from his seat. Then he ran out of the room. I heard a muffled sob. No more did we play pontoon. The zest had gone out of it.