Dev. Sqdn B flight – Groundcrew for Lincoln B2’s Joe Hemmings

3134186 AC2 Hemmings – Joe to his mates of the time, and nicknamed ‘Josh’ 

Hi guys – I’ll do my best to remember this all accurately but I’m now 73 (Winter 2006) and memory is not so good any more. But discovering this wonderful R.A.F. Watton website has jogged a lot of it back – so as it comes . . .

My memory does not seem to tally with that of others but there was a great variety of aircraft on this station. The following are only those which I remember: Lincoln B2 as above, Canberra PR’s, Shackleton, Meteor 8, NF11, NF16, Vampire (including twin side-by-side seaters), Venom, Tiger Moth, Oxford, Anson, Varsity (Valletta), B29 (Washington). Also at the station was a RN sqdn flying Grumman Avengers from the far side of the field at Griston, (now HMP Wayland). I distinctly remember a sqdn of radial engined American fighters too – Grumman Avenger comes to mind. We had one fatality: an Anson carrying trainee radar-operator sgts side-slipped on takeoff, I don’t remember if there were survivors.) At the time of writing this, after a visit to the Wayland Show earlier this year, very few of the buildings are left – just the old airmen’s mess and airmen’s H-blocks, the other side of the main road – now converted to offices and trading premises. Married quarters have been sold off and still exist as civilian houses. The camp pub, “The Flying Fish” continues to trade. The station is on the main road to Norwich (20 miles away via Hingham) and Watton town centre is virtually intact except for expansion. On the road to Thetford from Watton one passes by the site of the wartime Polish/Czech base at Wretham and Hockham. The railway line is now closed and gone, this ran N to S, connecting with various Norfolk towns and coastal resorts. The whole network is now gradually being reinstated privately. The army now operates from one end of the old site, past and behind the Flying Fish, in conjunction with the use of the Stanford Battle Area, situated in an area bordered by Watton, Swaffham and Brandon. This area contains whole villages which were evacuated during the 39-45 war preparations and have never been returned.

Now over to when I was there as an erk………….. 1952 – 1954.

My name is Joseph Hemmings (Joe to my mates of the time, and nicknamed ‘Josh’) but after my birthday on May 28th 1951 that changed to 3134186 AC2 Hemmings, (Starting with a 3 tells you that I was ex ATC.  Starting with a 2 was National Service and starting with a 4 was a signed-on Regular.)

I went from my home in Norbiton, Kingston-on-Thames to go to Padgate to get kitted out and thence to Melksham for 8 weeks square-bashing. A week of leave after that and then got my first choice of trade training and went back to Melksham for the training course on Instruments Navigational due to having been an optical manufacturer before being called up. I Left Melksham as AC1 and was posted to Watton. Pouring with rain when I arrived and had to go to draw some kit. An old boy shouted out “Come you on in outa the rain Bor!” – my first taste of the Norfolk dialect. It was not long before I decided that National Service pay (4 shillings a day) was making life very curtailed – so I soon ‘re-engaged’ by going to Cardington and ‘took the oath’ alongside the latest intake of regulars. It put my pay up to £3.10 shillings. (£3.50p) by turning my 2 years Nat. Service into a short term engagement of 3 years.

Dev. Sqdn B2 in 1954 or maybe '53.. Joe Hemmings  to the left of the prop on the far right.

Dev. Sqdn B2 in 1954 or maybe ’53.. Joe Hemmings to the left of the prop on the far right.

I was allocated to Development Sqdn A flight (no 3 hanger) after a spell on tech wing and remained at Watton with them until demob. (My memory tells me that I was in ‘B flight but when I searched for my old ‘bed-card’ it denotes ‘A’.) Yes, I remember Sgt Harris, he was on our Sqdn at that time. He’s on the front row of the photo, which is of a Dev. Sqdn B2 in 1954 or maybe ’53.. I’m to the left of the prop on the far right.

Joe Hemmings' Bed Card

Joe Hemmings’ Bed Card

We had a station band then and I was a member (trumpet) having been in the ATC band for 328 Sqdn at Kingston. Band members were excused the usual station duties, especially the trumpeters, because they regularly had to play the flag up and down on the parade square in full ceremonial dress, do funeral duties, etc. I was quartered in the H-block to the right of the airmens’ mess to start with but later moved to one of the blocks immediately behind the flagpole on the parade square to keep all the Dev sqdn bods together in one place. (This block was a dirty, damaged mess which we had to get spotless. We were told that it had contained WAAFS before and they never seemed to have bothered with an ashtray – we were ordered to scrape the burn-marks off with razor blades and bull it up!)

I was a member of Surrey Athletic Club before call-up and did a lot of boxing too, breaking the Surrey record for the junior 2-mile steeplechase and taking the 1 mile junior club record down to 4 mins 17 secs. I got to the finals of the ATC boxing championships and lost to S.Orr from Lisburn, Ireland at the Albert Hall, presided over by (as he was then) Prince Philip. I distinctly remember dribbling blood over his hand as he shook mine after giving me the runner-up medal. (I came across him again a couple of years later in Malta but I’ll get to that in sequence.)

So – I got into sport as well at Watton. I used to go out on long training runs with a chap named Don Aldred from no 1 hanger (Maintenance – Tech Wing was in 1 and 2 Hanger.) I think Don was an airframes specialist skilled in refabricating Tiger Moths and the like. He was a marathon runner and I’d accompany him to Hingham and then turn back – but he’d carry on to Kimberley before doing so. Later we represented Watton in the RAF cross-country championships held at R.A.F. Benson one year in a couple of feet of snow. Somebody famous won the race – was it Roger Bannister? Chris Chataway? I came 6th in that race. The station team included a matelot from Griston – (their outfit was known as HMS something, the name escapes me, and I’m sure they flew Grumman Avengers or something similar looking.) In 1953 (or was it 54?) we had the R.A.F Watton station athletics championships. I did the 2-mile steeplechase. I streaked out front straight away and by the last lap I had almost lapped the field – then fell heavily on the last time over the waterjump. I limped on, I knew I could still win because I was so far out in front, but the MO dragged me off the track. I sure was mad over that!

Yep, I remember all the motorbikes – mostly AJS and Matchless. There was a notorious humpback bridge in one of the villages, was it Saham Toney? Anyway, several riders got killed there taking it too fast – all on a Matchless. My only venture in that direction was a ride on a 1927 BSA 250 sidevalver with 2-speed gate change on the tank. Chap wanted £25 quid for it but it broke down coming up Hingham Hill on a pre-purchase test-run so I dumped it at the garage at the top. By that time I was pals with Bernie Eyre whose home was in Norwich and I was courting a girl from Sprowston, Norwich. Bernie, who lived in Hellesdon, used to take me back and foward on his Todd conversion BSA Bantam with high compression head until he bought a Vincent Comet and we did it a lot quicker than usual. That was in the heydays of the Samson and Hercules dance hall. There used to be a ‘garry’ take the lads to Norwich and back for a tanner on dance nights, Thursdays and Weekends. One Sunday I missed the home run. I was with a chap called Ken Foley and we walked all the way back to camp that night, just getting back in time for parade. Ken was best man at the wedding when I married the girl I was courting and he eventually emigrated to New Zealand and we lost touch.

Does anyone remember Maurice Greenberg? There was a ‘gang of four’ of us got together when we lived in the H-block. Myself, Maurice (from Greenford), Gordon (from New Packington/Coleorton near Ahby-de-la-Zouch) and Bill from London. We had our own notepaper with a 4-leaved clover on it and each leaf had our signature in it as “Mo”, Jo”, “Bill” and “Go”. We used to get together in the drying room with harmonica etc and have a jam session. At that time there was a large caravan site down towards Watton at the back of the gymnasium. A lot of converted double-decker buses were parked there – converted into great mobile homes, even with a bathroom in the upper section up behind the stairs. Gordon’s brother was also stationed at Watton and lived in one with his wife. The four of us used to go out every Thursday (payday) and have a drink and game of darts in every one of the pubs in Watton and then finish off with a big nosh in a cafe near the town clock. One night we all overdid it and all four of us were honking up into a ditch outside the gymnasium! Happy days?!

I remember the move to Methwold. I was a keen cyclist then and used to cycle from there to Bury St. Edmunds and back. The grass (or crops?) was so high at Methwold that we couldn’t see the Lincolns parked in the dispersal bays. It was pretty primitive, meals cooked in a field kitchen while we were there. We were glad when the work to the runway was completed and we got back on base again. I don’t live far from either Watton or Methwold now, for I never could return to dirty, crowded old London and ended up finally here at village called Watlington, on the A10 halfway between King’s Lynn and Downham Market.

I also have vivid memories of when we went on detachment to Luqa, Malta. That was where I bumped into Prince Philip again. I was out with a sqdn pal, Greg, ‘slumming’ in Straight Street – commonly known as “The Gut”. It ran parallel to the main road through Luqa (Kingsway?) that went down to the docks. The Fleet was in harbour. I distinctly remember the aircraft carriers Indomitable, Indubitable, Indefatigable and another of similar sound which escapes my memory. Prince Philip came in with some other matelots getting well tanked up. We were in a place known as “The New Life”. A Maltese ‘hostess’ took one of their peaked caps and ran off down the long room with it. As they all charged down the room to retrieve it – she peed in it!

I noticed in one report on the R.A.F. Watton website that when we were flying over the med we were NOT jamming. How come I remember flying over the fleet chucking boxes full of rolls of silver foil (window) out of the back door?! While we were in Malta I got to know an elderly Maltese couple who lived in Tarxien. She used to insist I was too skinny and was always laying on real feasts in their lovely home that I could never do justice too. When we flew back, we had to go through customs at R.A.F. Marham. As we taxied round the peri, erks were throwing stuff out the back door to waiting hands. Customs was not allowed inside the aircraft “Top Secret equipment old boy – sorry and all that.” Those of us with “anything to declare” had to open our baggage. It was a real laugh when they went through mine – it was full of home-made cakes and all sorts of eatable goodies from Mrs Camillieri from Tarxien! But the aircrew got away with a big haul of valuables – all hanging up on wires inside the wing fuel tanks. I vaguely remember some of the sqdn going out to El Adem and Rhodesia at some period, about the time of the Mau-Mau uprising – but it was all very hush-hush. One now hazy, but tragic, memory is of a Lincoln that flopped into the sea taking off from Gib. As far as I know it still lays there on the bottom of the Med with the aircrew still aboard.

There was a Warrant Officer I/C the station workshops. Can’t remember his name but he was a lovely bloke and ran a dance band that had a residency at the Co-op Hall in Bury St. Edmunds. The station military band had organised a night out to Bury St Eds for a booze-up and that’s when I discovered the W/O leading his band in the coop hall. It was quite a night out – we took our bagpipe players with us – and their bagpipes!

One day in my last year I was at the rifle range – RAF Regiment were ’training’ us on the use of 303s and ‘defence’. I informed the Sgt i/c that I was duty trumpeter and had to blow the flag down at 3 pm and had to get back to the billet and get into ceremonial dress in time for it. He left it too late for me to do so and I stopped running and stood to attention while they blew the flag down with a whistle. I reported to the duty officer and explained what had happened but he put me on a charge – ‘dereliction of duty’ none-the-less. I was on jankers for the two weeks my family was on holiday in the area and I never got the chance to join them. Soon after that I was ‘collecting signatures’ preparatory to demob and was most indignant when the Sqdn CO asked me if I’d considered re-engaging: “What! After you gave me jankers instead of the real culprit?!” So what did he do? At the next working parade he said my working blue was too tatty and ordered me to get a new one. Bang went all the credits I’d saved up.

But that’s the only moans I had throughout three years of my time at R.A.F. Watton. All in all it’s remembered as the best three years of my life. I never went back to London – settled down in Norwich. First at Sprowston, then West Earlham and finally in Lakenham. After that I moved around Norfolk a lot following the available employment and grew to love the county before ending up in King’s Lynn just at retirement time and then a final move to here on ‘The Edge of the Fens’.

Tragically, I was looking forward to exploring the old camp whilst exhibiting in a bike display at the Wayland Show. I was devastated to find that it had been razed to the ground all that was left was a control tower and the four big hangers. It’s going to be a vast housing estate I’m told. Now even that control tower is gone – it should have been preserved, it was the last one of its kind still existing. [Edit by Julian 1st January 2007 – Control Tower now gone – Army responsible – Hangars now going, development responsible]

Other odd memories: dances in the NAAFI – girls imported on buses from various local villages. The little open-air swimming pool just at the edge of town. The cycle rides to and from Bury with a tea-stop at the guardroom on the way back at R.A.F. Barnham Broom; the mock attack on the camp by the air crews with the ground crews defending – flour bombs were dropped on SHQ and made a real mess. The home-made ram jet engines we made from motorbike silencers using razor blades as the gas transference valves. (One exploded in the billet which put a stop to it.) The Irish berk who got drunk every Sat and went round tipping everyone out of bed when he got back. The little stall just inside the main gate on the cookhouse side of the main road – with a sign over the top advertising Hank Janson, a popular fiction detective of the time. The sign read; “Come and have a w*nk with Hank.” He sold newspapers, ciggies, sweets and sundries and “… A packet of three for the weekend Corporal?” Speaking of Corporals – surely everyone of those years will remember the infamous Corporal Walker at the guardroom?!) And I’ll never forget the sight of a Lincoln doing a flypast on two engines just because a B29 had just done it on three. (An air show celebrating something or other in which Mildenhall/Lakenheath joined in.) And the tiny camp cinema where I saw “The Thing from another world” and many other great movies – TV had not arrived in Norfolk yet, though they had it at home in London from 1948 – I remember watching the Olympics from Wembley that year on it. In those days we all did guard duty, both at the main gate and the Griston gate, that was a real pain but I don’t think I ever did it because I was doing band duties in lieu of all the usual ones.

When demob time came one had an interview with the M.O. and I was asked if I had any complaints about my medical care whilst in the service. I said there was – that I’d come in weighing only 7 stone 5 lbs and hadn’t put on an ounce after three years, though I was sure I had grown an inch taller. The MO gave me an enormous jar of cod liver oil and malt the size of the jars in sweet shops, about half a gallon or more. “Eat that and see what it does for you!” I took it back to the billet and everyone gathered round with spoons until we’d cleaned it dry. Delicious! Wish it was available now on the Nat Health!!

I only ever had one fright. There was a problem with the air pressure driving the gyros on a Mk 8 autopilot. They had a habit of disintegrating so I had to remove it from the inboard engine of the Linc B2 with the fault. I climbed out on to the wing and an engine mech ran the engine up – pre-instructed by me as to hand signals I’d use about revving it up and down again. It got up to the speed I wanted it and I was able to confirm a dud compressor. The sliding blades had totally self-destructed to a powder and it needed to come out and be replaced or serviced. I waved my hand to get the engine stopped but the engine mech was miles away, might even have dozed off – and the engine was slowly increasing revs so that I had to hang on for dear life and wait until he woke up and noticed me clinging on – it’s a bloody long drop off the back of a Lincoln main plane!

And at that point my memory dries up so I’ll close off with a plea for contact – is there anyone out there from the same time who remembers the years 52 to 54? Do get in touch if there is.

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