Wireless Mechanics course - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Wireless Mechanics course

The ‘super-Mare’ part of the town’s name, literally meaning ‘above the sea’ was added to distinguish this town from several other Westons in the West Country. However, in and around Locking, this town was usually referred to simply as Weston and that is how I will refer to it. Furthermore the small airfield in the picture above was, for many years RAF Weston-super-Mare. If you are interested in RAF Weston-super-Mare and the civilian airfield on the same site, you will have to search on your favourite search engine where there is plenty of historical material. RAF Locking had no airfield. About halfway to Weston-super-Mare the road passed close by Weston Airport on the left; aircraft landing or taking off flew only six feet or so over the road (see image below - and note my friend crouching down underneath the approaching aircraft. His photo never came out, apparently.)

A little further on there was a humped-back bridge over the railway from Bristol; there was a single wooden platform known as Weston Halt and I was told that occasionally troop trains used to pause there - although I never actually saw one. Perhaps that was how new intakes of apprentices arrived? Immediately after the railway bridge there was the Borough Arms hotel at the T-junction with the A370 Bristol to Weston main road. That hotel was still there when I last checked.

Above: Fella's was the only all-the-year-round, late-night opening coffee shop in Weston in the early 1950s and was, therefore much frequented by airmen from RAF Locking - and the local girls.
Since the summer season was long past when I arrived, there were very few holiday-makers around and the town centre roads and the promenade were dead soon after dark. One or two small cafés stayed open late and offered small discounts for RAF personnel who were in uniform. I thought that this might have been a winter concession but in fact it lasted all the year round. Presumably the owners believed that having RAF personnel in uniform eating in their establishment was a good advertisement and would encourage holiday-makers to come in and that is undoubtedly why the proprietors always sat us at a table near the window where we could be seen from the outside. .

At the end of my week in Pool Flight, 40 mostly enthusiastic airmen congregated in a large classroom. I write 'mostly enthusiastic' because for the first time the regulars amongst us met National Servicemen. It was not simply a matter of the difference in pay either. The minimum pay for regular airmen was seven shillings (35p) a day, but for National Servicemen it was only four shillings (20p) a day. We soon found that most National Servicemen resented being in the RAF at all, although some seemed reconciled to their two-year fate. I also discovered that some were already qualified to various standards in wireless, mathematics, and radar theory. Some had put their university courses on hold until after National Service while others had already earned their degrees.

There were too many of us for one Ground Wireless Mechanics' course, so we were split into two. I was put into GWM159A, which comprised those of us who had no prior knowledge at all of wireless or radar. The remainder, who were supposed to have some knowledge of wireless, formed GWM159B. I imagine it was pure good luck that the numbers divided more or less equally.

After only a few weeks, I joined the 3 Wing Voluntary Band and started to learn to play the standard RAF valveless trumpet. Apart from my long-standing interest in music there were certain advantages to being in the band: we had our own barrack block which was rarely inspected; we were not normally inspected on colour-hoisting and other parades; and we were excused some PT and drill periods so that we could go along to the band room and practise. Playing the trumpet was quite a come down from my earlier aspirations to be a professional violinist but I really enjoyed it and I soon became very proficient.

Money was a problem for all of us - regulars as well as the National Service men. Before leaving Bridgnorth we regulars had been encouraged to make a weekly allotment to our parents to "help repay them for all the years they've looked after you." That was a very British thing to do in the 1950s and it was typical of the RAF to encourage it. I was very conscious of the fact that my parents had scrimped and scraped for many years to provide my professional music lessons, so I set up an allotment of 10 shillings (50p) per week which was deducted from my pay at source and sent directly to them. Many of the other regulars had made similar arrangements. With our board and lodging paid for by the RAF, I considered that I should be able to manage on the remaining £2 a week. Manage I did, but it was not easy. How the National Servicemen coped I couldn't imagine - perhaps their parents sent them money?

I couldn't afford to go home very often. There were no subsidised coaches such as we'd had at Bridgnorth except on Bank Holiday long weekends. Fortunately in the 1950s motorists were mostly very willing to give lifts to hitch-hiking servicemen in uniform. One late autumn weekend I described my first trip home in detail in my diary:

"I caught the 5.15pm bus from outside the Locking Guardroom and got off at the Borough Arms on the main road to Bristol. I then set off walking in the dark along the A370 which was little more than a country road, but quite soon I got a lift to Bristol city centre. I then had to walk miles on the A38 up the seemingly endless hill towards Filton airfield. Soon after Filton an RAF corporal picked me up but his car broke down about five miles short of Gloucester. He told me to go on without him. I got a ride on the pillion of a motor bike to near Tewkesbury where a lorry driver picked me up and took me all the way to Deansgate in Manchester city centre which was well out of my way but still heading north. There I soon got a lift across the Pennines to Huddersfield. I then had to walk all the way to Dewsbury, about six miles, where I got a lift to Wakefield. I walked into home at 6am exactly and woke everyone up."

At the end of that weekend I decided to take my bicycle back to Locking with me. A single railway ticket from Leeds to Bristol cost £1 1s 6d and I had to pay 11s 5d to put the bike in the Guard's van. Once again I travelled on the Devonian express, leaving Leeds at 9.54am. I had intended cycling from Bristol to Locking but it was raining heavily so I stayed on the train at Temple Meads and had to pay 2s 1d excess fare for me and my cycle. I arrived at Weston-super-Mare only 6 hours after setting out and 20 minutes later I was at RAF Locking, very cold, very wet - and broke.

Just before the Christmas break there was some course reorganisations. 11 of our course had failed the intermediate examinations and several others had passed by the skin of their teeth. The five who had done best, which included me, were transferred to 159B, which had started out with those who were supposed to have some knowledge of wireless and radar, while several of 159B who were not doing so well were transferred to 159A.

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