During the Second World War, the men and women of Britain’s air forces served all over the world. The operations they flew, the aircraft they operated, and the conditions and environments in which they lived varied so drastically that this book can only be a brief introduction to what they experienced. It will give an insight into some of the common threads that bound together Britain’s airmen and airwomen, and provide a taste of what they endured while playing their vital part in the eventual victory.
Making an airman
Early in the war, most aircrew would receive their trade and flying training in Britain, often being sent to front-line squadrons to complete the final stages before becoming ‘operational’. This system was unsuitable for producing the massive numbers needed in wartime, and sending half-trained crews to operational squadrons was soon halted. It became clear that no-one there had the time or energy to look after these ill-prepared fledglings, and casualty rates among them were unacceptably high.
As the war progressed, training programmes expanded and lengthened as further needs were identified, more complicated aircraft introduced, or specialisations developed. Sometimes it was simply a case that, early on, as many aircrew as possible were needed straight away; only later was the luxury of time available. For example, in 1939 the average pilot had undergone thirty to thirty-six weeks of flying training. By 1944, heavy bomber pilots were receiving courses eighty-one to eighty-five weeks long (with up to 464 hours in the air), and fighter pilots seventy to seventy-two weeks (up to 360 hours in the air). Depending on the types of aircraft and operations that a navigator was training for, by 1944 he could expect to train for between sixty-three and eighty-one weeks as he mastered different equipment.
For ground crews, ever more complicated technology meant that greater degrees of specialisation were needed, with airmen becoming more focused on particular pieces of kit. Interestingly, this worked the other way with airwomen. Initially, members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were trained for very specific tasks (such as changing spark plugs) as it was believed they did not have the technical aptitude for more complicated tasks. Time showed that they did, though, and gradually the WAAF became less specialised, and they received training in broader roles.
It should also be emphasised that, although at times qualified personnel in some trades were in very short supply, the RAF never compromised on its technical training, and the highest standards were expected and maintained throughout the war.
Selection and initial training
Aircrew consistently suffered the highest British casualty rates throughout the Second World War. Bomber crews would on average survive just seven operations, and some other types such as torpedo bomber crews at times had even lower life expectancies than that. Every single member of RAF aircrew was, and had to be, a volunteer. In fact for much of the war the willingness to volunteer overcame other considerations; for example, one of the very few ways for a civilian in a reserved occupation to join the regular armed forces was to volunteer for aircrew.
After registering with the local recruiting office, prospective aircrew would wait to be called to a test centre for evaluation. Early in the war this meant medical assessment and an interview panel, but as the war dragged on a whole series of physical and psychometric tests were devised and perfected to assess individuals. These would separate the candidates into the aircrew categories to which they were most suited, and identify those who would be unlikely to make the grade.
Candidates would then be summoned to an Aircrew Reception Centre, the most famous of which was in Regent’s Park, London. This site not only included Lord’s Cricket Ground and London Zoo, but also Winfield House, which was owned by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth’s heiress and wife of Cary Grant; it is now the residence of the US Ambassador. After signing on, being kitted out, and receiving further medical examinations (and, to the dismay and discomfort of most, multiple inoculations and vaccinations), the new recruits would then be posted to Initial Training Wings (ITW). These were often based in coastal resorts, where the war had left many empty boarding houses and hotels that could be used as billets, empty theatres and music halls for use as lecture theatres, and had open esplanades for use as drill squares, to the amusement of holiday-makers. Here recruits would receive basic training in military life, and their first instruction in the mysteries of their designated trade. Tests at the end of ITW would whittle out those who had obviously not reached the required standards. These personnel would be ‘back-flighted’ to retake the course, or after several failures re-mustered into other trades. Those who passed would proceed to the next level of training, which for pilots meant attending Elementary Flying Training Schools. Here they would reach the standard of ‘going solo’. As with the trade tests, this would ensure that nobody who was unsuitable would be sent overseas and put through further expensive training, thus saving valuable money and resources.
The majority of RAF aircrew trained overseas, where the skies were safer and direct enemy intervention unlikely (although the risks of getting there over U-boat infested waters remained). Convoys of troopships transported thousands of cadets at a time across the Atlantic, or down the coast of Africa. Cramped and highly uncomfortable, with sometimes questionable standards of rations, these ships were a marked contrast to their final destinations. In an age when few people ever travelled overseas, the vast, wide-open spaces of the Canadian and American prairies, or the South African veldt, were an awe-inspiring sight, while standards of living were often considerably higher than those they had left behind. In North America in particular, and especially before the United States entered the war, the availability of food and luxury goods was a cause of celebration. Eventually, the Air Ministry began to put size and frequency limits on the mail their cadets were sending home, because of the number of parcels being sent that were packed with rare or rationed goods (not only did this practice create logistical strains in shipping the parcels, it also raised morale issues at home).
There were several overseas schemes, the main ones being:
British Flying Training Schools (BFTS): Six schools in the US which trained around 7,000 pilots from 1941–5.
Arnold Scheme: Run by the United States Army Air Force, producing nearly 4,400 pilots from 1941–3.
Towers Scheme: Run by the US Navy, and trained 1,800 pilots, 540 navigators and 660 wireless operators from 1941–2.
Pan America Scheme: Navigation training provided by PanAm Airways, which produced 1,200 navigators from 1940–2.
British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme (also known as the Riverdale Agreement, or Dominion Air Training Scheme): This Canadian scheme produced around half of all RAF pilots, about 138,000 British, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand personnel, between 1939 and 1945.
Rhodesian Air Training Group, which ran from 1939–41, alongside the Van-Brookham Agreement from 1940, before being combined into the Joint Air Training Scheme from 1941. These Rhodesian and South African schemes produced some 36,000 British, South African or Australian aircrew.
Many other Dominion aircrew were trained through the expansion of their own air forces; for example, 28,000 men were trained by the Royal Australian Air Force and 6,500 were trained by the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
Most aircrew then finished their training in Britain. Usually, current operational types of aircraft were not sent overseas; nor was the most up-to-date technical equipment, such as radars or electronic warfare sets. The latest kit was often in short supply, and none could be spared to be shipped off for training purposes. Instead, it remained in Britain, where it could be diverted for operational use if necessary. By introducing crews to their final aircraft types in the UK, they would also get used to flying them in the dreary and inhospitable northern European skies that most would have to operate in. Having trained so far in America, Canada or South Africa, heavy clouds or fog would be alien to many of them. Perhaps even more daunting, they would also have to learn to navigate over landscapes that were entirely blacked-out at night.
As well as being introduced to their aircraft, most personnel would also be introduced to the rest of their crews at this stage. ‘Crewing up’ occurred at Operational Training Units (OTUs). Sometimes crews were simply assigned, but more often a suitable number of personnel to form a set number of crews would be brought together, and sometimes in the course of an afternoon but more commonly over a few days or even weeks, left to sort themselves into working crews. Letting each crew pick itself was far more efficient than arbitrarily forcing them together.
A lot of crews would attend further advanced training after OTU, for example in glider towing. Bomber crews in particular went through various conversion units or ‘finishing schools’, as even at OTU level they were usually flying obsolete and battle-worn aircraft. Despite this, as part of the OTU course they would often take part in a handful of operations, dropping leaflets over France, laying mines off Holland, or sometimes, when they were needed to make up numbers, taking part in main force operations over Germany. For the first Thousand Bomber raid, on Cologne in May 1942, of the 1,047 aircraft involved, 365 were from OTUs. Interestingly, the OTUs (many crewed by instructors) suffered the same casualty rate as the main force crews.
Trainee ground crew were sent to a Recruits Centre for three to five days of kit issue, orientation and testing for their prospective trades. From there, they were also sent to ITWs, for courses which by mid-1943 were standardised as eight weeks for men and three weeks for women. Here they learned the basic military arts, procedures and law, as well as undergoing further trade testing and evaluation. At the end of the course, they would be despatched to a trade school. There were over 200 of these, scattered around the country. Some were on formal RAF camps, such as the Wireless Schools at RAF Yatesbury, while others were in requisitioned buildings or even contracted out to civilian schools.
It would be impossible to trace the process for every trade; there were forty-one ground trades in the RAF in 1939, but this grew to over 350 by 1944, and the courses changed continually. In 1942 alone, Technical Training Command promulgated some 700 official changes to their syllabi. Some of these changes were considerable, and could cause significant backlogs. Airmen would be posted to menial jobs on RAF stations, or even sent home, while the system straightened itself out. Sometimes these kinks worked all the way back to Recruits Centres, who would enlist men and women and then send them straight home again.
Courses were intensive and concentrated, but also highly efficient, covering subjects in months that would take years in civilian life. Long hours and regular tests ensured a high standard was achieved. Once basic trade training had been completed, and final tests passed, the ground crews would be posted to active stations and units as fully qualified ‘erks’. But their education would not end there. Advanced training as well as courses on new equipment and operational procedures would follow, and all promotion was based on passing stringent trade tests.
Excerpted from The British Airman of the Second World War by Stuart Hadaway. Copyright © 2013 by Stuart Hadaway. Excerpted by permission of Shire, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.