This piece was written on 17 September 2015
Today is my 80th birthday. My birthday has always been inextricably linked with the Battle of Britain – well, since 1940 anyway. I was born exactly five years before the B of B so obviously I remember nothing of the battle and, living in Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, I imagine it had little impact on my parents and neighbours other than the daily wartime restrictions that everyone lived with.
The RAF used to participate in the annual B of B events by programming a Church Parade in the Station Church on what became known as Battle of Britain Sunday. There was also a full station parade on the previous Saturday. My first B of B in the RAF was in 1953 but, because we had only just started our recruit training, we could not take part in the station parade at RAF Bridgnorth. Instead, we had to go onto the parade gound, standing to one side, so that we could watch. The only concession to non-Church of England personnel, and there were very few in the 1950s, was the order: “Fall out Roman Catholics and Jews”. When they had smartly moved off to one side of the Parade Ground, the Station Padre conducted prayers on the parade ground. Those personnel then had to stand with their backs to the proceedings until the order “Fall in Roman Catholics and Jews” was given. Apparently RCs and Jews were not allowed by their faith to listen to a C of E Padre – that’s what we were told anyway! I can remember a church parade at RAF Locking in 1954 when the Parade Commander forgot to fall the RCs and Jews back in again before the final March Past started and chaos resulted as order countermanded order.
Digression! On all our individual wardrobes in barrack blocks there was a space for a small card which indicated the airman's number, rank, name and religion. Partway through my course at No 1 Radio School RAF Locking in 1954, when we had just gained a new corporal Drill Iinstructor, we invented a new 'religion' which we called Cathode Follower to confuse him – a cathode follower was a particular radio valve circuit but only those trained in wireless will understand! He was not amused when he realised he had been taken in but it was too late to do anything about it.
Many RAF stations used to take part in civilian B of B celebrations when there was a town or city close by. In 1964 I led the contingent from RAF Gaydon that marched past the War Memorial on the High Street in Leamington Spa where the Lord Lieutenant for the County, the Town Mayor and other dignitaries had gathered. The High Street was lined with hundreds of townspeople. (See image below.)
The largest flying stations usually organised flying displays for the public on Battle of Britain weekend. I remember in particular the ones at Gaydon and Finningley in the 1960s – in fact I was the Public Relations Officer for the very first Finningley B of B Open Day – in addition to my normal duties of course. Gradually, as the years passed, the prefix “Battle of Britain” was dropped and they became just Open Days or Families’ Days and even those had disappeared almost completely by the time I retired in 2001 – apparently for insurance and security reasons as well as the cost and effort required.
Long before I retired from the RAF, however, formal church parades on parade grounds were a thing of the past because insufficient personnel were capable of doing the necessary drill either smartly or correctly and in any case you couldn’t have highly qualified personnel being taken away from their primary duties to mount a ceremonial parade. One by one many stations converted their parade grounds into car parks, to the dismay of the old-time Station Warrant Officers.