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Memory 1 - AW Gilliland 1957-58


A.W. Gilliland BA


At the completion of my training at the now defunct RAF Yatesbury (Wiltshire) in early 1957, I read my posting order and asked, ‘Marham; where’s that?’ The travel warrant wasn’t much use – ‘London, Liverpool Street to King’s Lynn, Norfolk.’ A part of the country I knew nothing about. An RAF ‘bus was waiting for us at Lynn and carried us into the depths of the countryside. My first sight of my new home was the main gate and a silver Valiant roaring in a tight turn overhead, with vapour streaming from its wingtips. A knowledgeable soul outside the Guardroom explained, ‘Vickers’ delivery pilots.’ Then we were directed to our billets.

Memories of Marham

I am sure this particular three star accommodation will have been bulldozed years ago! It was carefully explained to us that squadron ground crews would have the best billets; we would have to put up with the huts. If the two Airmen’s Mess Halls are still the same, our little group of six Seco huts was just round the corner to the left as you face the Mess. The view of the night sky as I lay on my bed was interesting. As the Autumn and Winter of 1957 drew near and the temperature began to drop, ways had to be found to provide more warmth than the powers that be deemed necessary, that is the two cast-iron stoves for which little in the way of fuel (coke) was provided. We were freezing even with blankets and greatcoats piled on us. During this Winter, work began to refurbish the Mess Halls, which were in a pretty disgusting state; about on a par with the food, really. Some kind civilian workmen provide us with a ready supply of heating fuel in the form of a wooden hut which they erected on the other side of our access road. Their hut lasted us about a month, I seem to recall. When the refurbishment of the Mess was complete the standard of the food rose enormously, I recall; certainly far better than most schools I have since taught in and as good as many hotels.

Memories of Marham

The Electronics Centre Wireless Bay where I was to work was a far cry from the training workshops at Yatesbury and the equipment I was to work on was the Marconi Radio Compass – no doubt cutting edge then but in retrospect, rather Heath Robinsonish in the grinding and chattering sounds it emitted as it struggled to reconcile its square waves in operation. I’m not quite sure why I was chosen to work as a Fitter in the Wireless Bay rather than a first-line servicing Mechanic, but the tool kit I was issued with was impressive; much better than the little canvas bag Mechanics got. And the working environment was certainly a lot warmer. I worked with a Corporal for a while, until he was posted to El Adam in Lybia. After that I seemed to have sole responsibility for servicing and upgrading the Radio Compasses. The Marconi Technical Rep. came to see me every other Thursday with Modification sheets to add to my collection of work folders. The major problem we had with the Compass was screening it from intrusive radio signals, a problem which, it was decided, could be resolved by building a large wooden cage completely covered in wire mesh which was firmly earthed to the plumbing. It took a long time to eliminate external signals but we managed in the long run. I don’t know if the visits by Nato Brasshats happen now as frequently as they did forty plus years ago but we seemed to be plagued with them. I felt rather like an inhabitant of a zoo when I was stared at and questioned through the wire of my cage, by a variety of ‘brass’ in a variety of accents. . I’m still not sure if most of them had any idea as to what was going on in this strange corner of the bay. Marham used to put on displays for these visitors and we got ring-side views of the latest Vulcan being put into vertical, roaring climbs after a fast, low run across the field, or a BAC Lightning moving so fast it was barely visible We also had visitors from other NATO countries in their Meteors or Venoms.

Shortly after I arrived at Marham, noticing some types grovelling around on the ground with knives, I asked what they were doing. ‘Station Warrant Officer’s fatigues.’ Was the answer. ‘We all do it.’ My brain said, ‘Sorry, no.’ And I joined the Station drum and trumpet Band as a trumpeter. As time passed and men were posted away. I became the leader. Each Saturday morning we had Station Commander’s Parade – a full turnout. I loitered at the back of the parade by the corner of a hangar, keeping an eye out for the C.O.’s car. When I spotted it, I blew the call, then continued through the General Salute and others I have forgotten. We had, I seem to remember, about twenty at full strength. And of course, Band Practice on Wednesday afternoon instead of S.W.O’s fatigues! Occasionally, I was given a car and detailed to depart for some other East Anglian base where they had need of a trumpeter for a Military funeral.

Memories 1b

In the Winter of ‘57/’58 I was sent on detatchment to RAF Gedney Drove End. This is near Sutton Bridge and was a run down bombing range which was being restored. Again, I don’t know if this range is still in operation; I would guess not. It would make the perfect setting for an RAF comedy. A variety of N.C.O.s and O.R.s made up its complement, most of whom seemed to have no purpose in life. The senior N.C.O. was a corporal everyone called ‘Tojo’, for the simple reason that he had an uncanny resemblance to our late enemy. The poor chap had no civilian clothes and seemed to have no relatives or life outside the Service. There were also three Sergeants with no duties and who refused to accept any responsibilities. Nice chaps, but why there? There was another wireless bod, and together we were sent orders from Marham – where we went every Thusday morning for Pay Parade – to fit UHF antennae on top of the control tower and wire them into some American equipment the RAF seemed to be experimenting with. There were two other ‘Quadrant Towers’ built on the sea wall, which were used to plot bomb drops in The Wash. We only ever saw USAF planes or bombs, which was our only bit of exitement. The telephone rang, an American voice asked if the towers could be manned and shortly after an aircraft whistled over, made a couple of runs and disappeared with a wave of the pilot’s hand. Half an hour or so later, a Jeep appeared with a couple of USAF flying types who had a chat, a cup of coffee and removed themselves with the bomb plots. The Officer Commanding this strange establishment was a Flight Lieutenant, an ex-Hunter pilot who had flown in the Suez fiasco. He appeared only infrequently as he lived with his wife in a house some ten miles away.

This Winter was the time of the great snow and Gedney Drove End was completely cut off. All the telephone and power lines were down and we rapidly ran out of fuel for the solid fuel cooker. Fortunately, there was a petrol generator, a Ford V8 monster which took us several hours to get working. Also we had two trucks there with full petrol tanks and we drained those. We were also lucky to have a fantastic cook, fully qualified and we didn’t mind one bit taking it in turns to get up at five o’clock to stoke the cooker. With the passing of this happy interlude, I returned to Marham and my billet with the see-through roof.

Memories of Marham

In Spring ’58 living conditions were relaxed. We no longer had to be in camp by 23.59, and were free as long as we were at work the following morning. We no longer had to make up our bed packs, but could simply tidy the beds. And the weekly Saturday morning C.O.’s Parade was abolished; it was just monthly from now on. The ‘bull’ – which we thought was appropriate for the station’ badge – had been a contentious issue. Trained men were taken from their work by sergeants who seemed much more interested in the polish on the floor. I remember the A.O.C. turning up one day and questioning the ‘cleaners’ busy on the sergeant’s favourite pastime. When he discovered they were all technical types, he blew his top and gave orders that he wasn’t to find this waste of training again.

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