On 22 May 1956, I left RAF Hemswell for the last time, in a staff car this time not a three-ton truck, for Gainsborough railway station where I boarded a local train that stopped at largely deserted country stations every few miles. I got off at the terminus, King's Lynn, and took a bus from the station forecourt to Dereham, a journey of about 30 miles along country roads, calling in at villages en route. At Dereham I met three RAF chaps in civilian clothes, including one who introduced himself as a flight sergeant returning from leave; they had been about to order a taxi for the three-mile journey to RAF Swanton Morley. I happened to mention that I was reporting on posting (once again, my uniform was a bit of a giveaway) whereupon the flight sergeant assured me that I was entitled to official transport; he telephoned the station on my behalf and in due course we were all picked up. It turned out later that the flight sergeant, a World War 2 air gunner, would be a student on my course.
On the very first day of AS39 Course at No 1 Air Signallers School, we were told that the courses were beginning to run down because of a decreasing requirement for air signallers as a result of the RAF decision that all V Force aircrew in future would be commissioned officers. SNCO pilots, navigators and air signallers currently in the V Force were being replaced by officers. Those changes were necessary, we were informed, because the V Force was equipped with US nuclear weapons and the Americans refused to allow non-commissioned aircrew to have tactical knowledge of them. In the meantime, young newly-commissioned officers were already arriving at Swanton Morley for the first Air Electronics Officer (AEO) Courses, but they were kept well away from us. So much for what I had been told barely a month earlier about the prospects for sergeant air signallers.
At that time virtually all communications between ground stations and aircraft away from the immediate vicinity of airfields, took place using Morse Code on the high frequency bands (defined as 3 to 30 megahertz - equivalent to 100 to 10 metres short wave). In addition, Transport, Coastal and Bomber Commands operated their own discrete world-wide HF networks. It was essential, therefore, that signallers were proficient at sending and receiving Morse code: a signaller who was not proficient at Morse code was of use neither to man nor beast. Incidentally, the word Morse in this context is a Proper Noun, named after its inventor Samuel Morse, and so always requires a capital letter. The words megaHertz and kiloHertz used to be written with a capital H in the middle in recognition of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves. It was clearly too complicated to remember that nicety in the digital age, so Hertz is no longer honoured in that way although Chambers Dictionary currently states: "hertz noun (plural hertz) (abbreviation Hz) in the SI system: the unit of frequency, equal to one cycle per second."
We on AS39 were the first students to learn Morse by a new method. Up until then, the combinations of dots and dashes that make up the code had to be learned by various old-fashioned but well-tried methods. Instructors the world over swore by their own favourite method and so there were many different ways of trying to simplify the learning process. For example, some advocated learning the opposites first. A was dot-dash and N was dash-dot. W was dot-dash-dash and G was dash-dash-dot. Z was dash-dash-dot-dot but its opposite, dot-dot-dash-dash was the less useful ü (u umlaut) - less useful for post-WW2 RAF air signallers anyway. Other instructors recommended first learning the letters made up only of either dots or dashes. One dot was E, two dots were I, three dots were S, one dash was T, two dashes were M, three dashes were O.
There were supposed to be very short transmission gaps between letters, and between words, to avoid confusion about where one letter or word ended and the next one started. A Morse dash was supposed to be equal in length to three Morse dots and the gap between words was meant to be equal in length to seven Morse dots. Did Mr Morse really dream that up? Nobody I know ever tried to count those intervals. In practice, confusion arose only when the transmission speed was very slow; then it was well-nigh impossible to differentiate between, for example, three consecutive dashes: did they represent TTT, TM or O?
Using the new system, individual Morse characters were played to us by a punched tape machine at the equivalent of 20 five-letter words per minute from the very outset, but there was a seven second gap between each letter. We students soon came to hate that machine. In Lesson 1, when many of us didn't even know a single Morse symbol, we listened on headphones to the code being generated a single letter at a time. We watched the instructor write the corresponding letter on the blackboard and then we wrote the letter down in our note books. We didn't need to know that dot-dash-dash-dot represented the letter P: all we needed to know was the particular sound that represented the letter P. Initially there was a seven second gap between each character and we learned the code by the association between sound, sight, and writing and, although we hated it, it worked. The instructor uttered not a single word during the entire lesson and the system was, therefore, suitable for use with any language.
Each of the 49 lesson tapes lasted for a mind-boggling 40 minutes - why 49 rather than 50 we never asked or discovered. New characters were introduced with each new tape until we knew them all by about Lesson 10; after that the punched tapes sent complete words rather than a continuous stream of letters. Gradually, the gap between characters reduced until we were reading Morse code at a true 20 words per minute. To see how fast that is try writing this sentence legibly when read to you at twenty words per minute. (There are 20 words in that sentence.) It’s not easy, is it?