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Memory 3 - John Ockenden 1959-1963

MEMORIES OF RAF MARHAM 1959-63

JOHN OCKENDEN

snagglepuss@useoz.com

At the age of 18 and an apprentice (not a happy one) I finally decided to join the R.A.F. Dad wasn't happy (you get yourself in and you can get yourself out was his response) and I don't think mum was too pleased either. Off I went to Ilford Recruiting to take tests and decide my future for the next few years.

I was duly called up and went to Cardington for kit, and then on to Wilmslow for "square bashing", after which I had to report to Yatesbury for trade training. The Wiltshire winter in 1958 was cold but it was good preparation for next phase of my service life. Posted to RAF Marham they said. Where's that I asked. Norfolk came the reply. Being a London boy I thought that was pretty good, so I collected my rail warrant to somewhere called Downham Market. When I got off the train I realised that some big mistake had been made, but surprise surprise, there was a bus waiting for us. After finally traveling through the wilds of Norfolk we came to an airfield and was met for the first time by the big blue bull. After wandering around in a daze and getting lost everywhere I was ready to start. My home was one of the old SECO huts, and my work place was the Electronics Centre. Chalk and cheese. One so new it still had that new look, and the other so old they really had to be joking. They weren't.

My first shock came that night when we all went to bed. It was still the days of National Service, but being a "regular" I hadn't met any yet. A "jock" was the first. He seemed to have some objection to being in the "English" Air Force as the last thing he did at night was to sit up in bed, yell "HATE" at the top of his voice, lay down and go to sleep. This shock was matched in the morning by the same process in reverse. Its not too bad when you are awake but if you still happen to be asleep its not too good, but as I found out, you get used to it as this continued until he was demobbed.

The next morning it was off to the Electronics Centre where I was to work. I was working on the Navigation and Bombing System (NBS) which was the search and bombing radar fitted to the front end of all "V" bombers. I found that working in the Electronics Centre was a rather insulated existence as the real world seemed to pass you by. All except for the monthly parade on Saturday mornings. There was plenty of people trying to get away from them, but it was easier to just get on with it and suffer in silence.

After nearly a year I was given the chance of an attachment to RAF Butterworth in Malaya. The brief was to get the new Electronics Centre serviceable so that the "V" bombers could presumably stay away longer than a couple of days away from home, and 3 month attachments was the way it was done. The choice was between two of us on this occasion and we had to make our own decision as to who went. The W.O. tossed a coin the following day and I won. Peter ( a nasho) never did get there.

I flew out of RAF Lyneham on a Comet with the C in C FEAF (The Earl of Bandon), though I don't think he knew I was there. I had a great time. 3 months turned into 5 and I flew back to RAF Finningley in a Britannia with 101 squadron ground crew, who were the first squadron to utilise the facility. From there it was hitch a ride back to Marham in the aircraft from station flight.

My return was, I gather, not expected. Nobody new where my kit, lockers and all of my worldly goods were. When I found them a couple of hours later they had been put into another block as the SECO huts were no longer used for permanent staff. I also had to move work as I was posted to 207 squadron. 207 squadron had one of the H blocks on the edge of the square, closest to the NAAFI and backing on to the garage outside the gates. The block housed about 40 people upstairs and we shared about 8 sinks, 2 showers and 1 bath if I remember correctly. The view from my bed was 10 people in beds opposite and 9 others on my side of the room. If I opened the window all I could see was people filling their cars with petrol.

The airmen's mess was always a popular place, probably because it was the only place you could eat for free. The food was OK but sometimes it got a bit suspect. Like the time we were getting chicken at every meal. It was a bit "suspect" because there was an outbreak of "fowl pest" at the time and nobody was quite sure.

There was also the daily excursion by the Orderly Officer and the Orderly Sergeant who toured the mess looking for dissatisfied personnel. On one memorable Saturday the O.O. was touring the tables followed by the O.S. stopping at the end of each table with the usual question "any complaints". When he arrived at our table he got the response from one airman "yes sir, these chips are cold". Quick as a flash the reply came "well don't complain to me, complain to the cook". It was the one and only time in five years that I heard anyone complain. The one thing that I really liked were the dog biscuits. The old (I assume) K ration biscuits and cheese were a favorite and I can still taste them now.

The dispersal used by 207 was out past the main runway threshold and next to the control tower. It was here that the insulated existence stopped rather suddenly. The NBS people were rather cruelly referred to as "NBS fairies". This was a shock to the system as even the other radio trades called us that too. But squadron life was mostly great, and I met my first Vickers Valiant. They were the first of the "V" bombers and probably the least spectacular, but I came to love them, and on a cold winters day four Rolls Royce Avon engines would keep you nice and warm no matter what aircraft they were attached to.

The NBS crew room was one of a row of garages. Heating for this in the winter was by means of a kerosene (paraffin) heater. The fuel was in abundant supply as all you did was to trudge off to the nearest aircraft and got the fuel from the aircraft wing tip vents, which had containers attached. This was an inexhaustible supply as the aircraft generally vented fuel with temperature changes.

Weekend work was something done on a rotational basis on the squadron and happened about every 4 weeks. The most memorable for me was the Kuwait crisis. We were getting ready to finish work about 4 pm one Saturday afternoon when we were all called to the office. Off to a meal and back to the squadron dispersal to start preparing aircraft. All aircraft had to be ready to fly at the earliest possible time. Pre-flight checks were done first to get the easy aircraft ready for whatever happened next. Then came aircraft with a servicing due. When you had nothing to do you were re-assigned to another job. Being an "NBS Fairy" we were some of the first finished and then we started the mundane jobs. "Gopher" is the term used today. We finished work around midnight and were told to report back after lunch on Sunday.

By the time we got back to the squadron people were being called back from weekend leave. Having got all the aircraft ready on the dispersal we had one final job. One Valiant was due for an engine change and so by midnight on the Sunday I was wearing all of my "cold/wet" weather clothing and squatting on top of the wing winding up engines. After a few days it all seemed to go quiet and we all returned to the normal routine.

Winter was a trying time on the airfield. Once it started to snow it seemed to be a time of constant aircraft de-icing and snow clearing. At least this was improved somewhat with the advent of the "snow flo". This was an apparatus that originally consisted of a Goblin engine (I think) mounted sideways on a bomb trolley with a fishtail type exhaust dragged by an aircraft tug. It was excellent at keeping the runway clear of snow and ice.

Lone ranger exercises were always interesting. These were exercises for aircrew and crew chiefs in self sufficiency. Two 1000lb panniers were loaded into the bomb bay and filled with all sorts of equipment and spares, and the crew would go away for several days maintaining the aircraft themselves. They would fly all over the world, the "western ranger" went to Newfoundland and points west, and others went down as far as Kenya.

One of the Kenyan ones that remains fondly in my memory started the same as all the others, but when it returned on a Friday afternoon it changed. When the aircrew disembarked they stayed around to see the panniers unloaded. The simple reason was that they had somehow got all of the equipment from one of the panniers into the other and what wouldn't go in that was stored in other parts of the aircraft. The reason was soon became clear when the pannier was winched down. Inside it was full of pineapples. Picked in Nairobi and delivered to Marham in the shortest possible time. All for sale at the cost of one shilling each.

The customs service would have had a fit if they knew half of what went on. When an aircraft came back from overseas there was always a customs officer to meet it. They must have been a very frustrated bunch as they never managed to get into the aircraft first. The cabin was always out of bounds until the armourer had made the ejection seats safe, and this has been known to take some time. The other problem that they had was the classified equipment on board and the areas that they never knew existed. There was the organ loft (above the nose wheel bay), behind the equipment console, in the rear fuselage between the fuel tanks, the radome at the front where the NBS aerial was, the bomb aimers position etc. etc. After the poor customs guy had gone the crew would return to the aircraft and start the real unloading. A borrowed screwdriver would soon remove a hollow headrest and a nice new camera would appear.

The cold war in Europe got worse and the nuclear threat got worse and somebody somewhere decided that we needed an answer to this nuclear threat. Aircraft bombed up ready to fly was the answer and 207 squadron was the first squadron to provide a trial aircraft ready to fly at a moments notice, with a nice green nuclear weapon in its belly. QRA (quick reaction alert) had been born. The trial of this must have been successful as Marham finished with four aircraft from the bomber squadrons placed in a wire compound, with aircrew and ground crews on standby ready to get them into the air.

The main problem that we had was that we were using American bombs and with each bomb went a "guardian". This was an American officer backed up by several Air Police that refused to let any of the ground crew near the aircraft until the "guardian" turned up. Frustrating at times but funny at others. Like the time we had just serviced the aircraft and the electrician shut the ground power unit off by just dropping the throttle. No problem until the unit backfired with a loud bang. This caused a very short specimen of the American Air Police to withdraw a very large automatic pistol and start waving it around looking for the enemy. Unlike the RAF police the Americans had live rounds in the pistol and it was probably the fastest that the ground crew ever moved, diving for cover in all directions. For the rest of his time at Marham he was referred to as "Wyatt Earp" for obvious reasons.

It was explained to us at lectures that the QRA aircraft were necessary to counter the threat from Russia. It was also explained that only one in four aircraft would get anywhere near a target, and only one in twenty stood any chance of returning home. Somebody had to ask the inevitable question "what do we do once the aircraft are gone?". "Anything you like", came the reply, "go for a walk, sun bathe, dig a hole. It wont matter because the airfield wont exist for too long".

Nobody seemed to be too worried by this response and life just carried on, we had a job to do and worrying about a fiery future wasn't included in the training. One of the by products of this was the advent of the "campaign for nuclear disarmament" (CND) and this caused quite a degree of discomfort for most of us. They would target a unit for the weekend and using civil disobedience cause as much havoc as possible. All weekend leave was stopped and it became a closed base. We were formed into groups and as the "ban the bombers" came over the fence we had to ensure that they could not get near the aircraft and dispersal areas. The theory was that you would approach them and put a hand on their shoulder and they would sit down and wait for the civilian police to come and arrest them. They were then put in a furniture van and shipped to a court set up in Fincham, fined and released to make their way back to Marham to try again.

I say theory because there were a lot of people that had dates for the evening and didn't really have any interest in being kept at work for the weekend. More than one person was seen to fly back over the fence with some help from a couple of disgruntled airmen.

Times like this were tempered by the "airmen's dances" held in the NAAFI. The valentine day dance in 1963 was typical I suppose. Ladies were brought in from the surrounding areas and a good time was had by all. "Ginger" Youds and myself had nothing better to do so we went to the NAAFI for a few drinks and to check out the "birds". We both fancied the same one, but I got to take her home. Thirty seven years later we are still married and living in Australia.

Sgt. "Hoss" Kime, Sgt Al Torrey, Cpl "Jiggs" George, Brian "Pogmore" Elvin, Peter "Chalky" Chalkley, "Ginger" Youds, "Curly" Smith 914, wee "Jock" Berry, "Snecky" Davidson, Fred Clack, Ted Williams, and all the rest often raise their heads in quiet moments. Where they are I have no idea, so if anyone reads this drop me a line.

During the time I spent at Marham it was often referred to as "Aden with grass", but if I was asked about changing anything in that happened in that 5 years the answer would have to be no, I had no regrets about my time there.

As I write this there is the sound of RAF Tornado's flying overhead. They are operating from RAAF Base Edinburgh in a training area about 100km north of Adelaide, South Australia. Maybe they come from Marham.

3526653 SAC Ockenden

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