Thursday, 17 December 2009

My RAF diary

I started my National Service in January 1952. I chose to go into the RAF and to volunteer for flying duties, on the simple grounds that my father had been an RFC (Royal Flying Corps) pilot and my elder brother was an RAFVR (RAF Volunteer Reserve) one. I passed the tests for suitability for pilot training at RAF Hornchurch and then passed the 12 hours of "grading" (basic flying assessment) at RAF Cranwell on Tiger Moths, the venerable de Havilland biplane on which almost all wartime pilots had done their basic training.

As a cadet pilot I was now posted to Initial Training School at RAF Digby for square bashing and ground school instruction. We were informed that, after completing ITS and our basic flying course, our rank would change from AC2 (Aircraftsman Second Class) to Acting Pilot Officer and that, on successfully completing our advanced flying course, we would be commissioned as substantive Pilot Officers. We were all required to keep a diary which would be read by our flight commander and used in his ongoing assessment of our OQs (Officer Qualities). On Wednesday, March 5, this is how my diary begins.

I have only just received this note-nook, so I must endeavour to recall all the events of interest and importance that have occurred since my arrival at Digby, over a fortnight ago.

First arrivals at a station are always apt to be mortifying, especially as they always seem to coincide with a domestic night. …

I find it extraordinary reading through the diary today how very few of the incidents detailed in it I can now recall. In general terms I remember what a "domestic night" was: it was when you got boots and buttons especially shiny and when you laid out your clothes in your locker in a specified manner, shirts and underwear folded over cardboard templates to produce a symmetrical fa├žade, ready for a barrack and kit inspection the following morning. My diary says nothing about the techniques of getting your boot caps mirror-bright and putting knife-edge creases in your uniform trousers. It's curious that these are the things I do remember, and one day I will write a post about these arts of which most people are (mercifully perhaps) unaware.

Of course it's very clear that these note-books do not constitute a diary in the generally-accepted sense, because you know that what you write is shortly to be read by somebody else, someone with considerable influence over your future. Any critical comments you do make must be of the mildest, written in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, such as the entry on Friday, March 14.

[…] I looked at the Minutes of the S.M.C. [Station Messing Committee] and noticed that a proposal had been passed for serving 'curry'. To-day at lunch the proposal bore fruit.

I recollect that the Catering Officer, among other duties, is responsible for the training of cooks. He should inform them, therefore, that curry is not made by adding a token amount of powder to a sultana-and-meat hash. The result of this process may be palatable, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be called curry.

We were instructed that our diaries should demonstrate an awareness of what was happening in the world. As a keen young cadet I did so a lot, as on Sunday, March 30.

[…] the South African situation. It is indeed confusing, what with the racial differences, the antithesis [sic: presumably 'antipathy' intended] of the two Malans, the legal casuistry of the Premier's lawyers in attempting to justify their clearly unconstitutional action of removing the Cape Coloureds from the electoral rolls without obtaining a two-thirds majority of both Houses in joint session, and the obvious inability of Strauss, the Opposition leader, to fill successfully Smuts' place. The 'Apartheid' policy, if carried out, threatens not only native rights but also the equality of the English as perpetuated by the South Africa Act.

I am glad to see you have taken an interest in Current Affairs last week. G Cutler FG. OFF. 31-3-52

This is by no means the only reference to the South African situation in the diary. I am particularly interested in re-reading this now, in light of the reading I have done this term about Apartheid (a word which I enclosed in quotes in 1952, emphasising its newness) and about the two men who above all were responsible for its demolition.

My entire entry on Wednesday, 28 May, is devoted to the problems of writing this particular kind of diary.

The diary-writers on this camp have none of the advantages of their fellow diarists elsewhere. In the first place, the latter can be presumed to doing something each day of sufficient interest and importance that can be recorded for their own amusement. But to write with a lively pen about a monotonous daily routine is difficult at the best of times, and often is well nigh impossible. Then again, Messrs. Pepys & Evelyn wrote down shrewd and often biting comments on their acquaintances, and recorded their deepest and most intense emotions, secure in the knowledge that only they would read those lines during their lifetime. We are encouraged to write just these things, but I regard my innermost thoughts as sacred, and for them to be scanned by anyone else, sacriligious [sic]. As for recording impressions of people, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to write in a private diary a character sketch of my superiors. But a favourable description of my Flight Commander might be regarded by him as fulsome, and an unfavourable one might cause him to take offence, the very last thing anyone wants to do.

So it can be understood why I write of nothing today. And very successfully too!

I am happy to record that my writing had the desired effect of getting a tick in the appropriate box on my OQ assessment form.

A very good diary – fully up to the standard required, and enjoyable reading.
4 Jun. 52 E MH Browne, Flt. Lt.

I am less happy to record that the diary I kept for most of my advanced flying training course at RAF Dalcross from September 1952 to April 1953 went missing at the time, and it resumes only fitfully from that Easter. It would have been interesting for me to read now what I wrote then about two incidents during a Scottish winter that I remember vividly, about which I will write on another occasion.

At the moment the aspect of the diary that immediately interests me is what it tells me about my father's flying career, rather than my own. When I was home on leave he talked a little about what he did in the RFC, almost all of which I had forgotten. This is briefly recorded in the pages of the diary, which will enable me to write the preamble to the story of How My Father Shot Himself Down.

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