My Arrival At RAF Watton By Frank Harbord 

Frank was posted to Watton as one of the crews to replace the eleven lost on the 17th May 1940 on a raid to Gembloux in Belgium. His time in the RAF is recalled in a wonderfully evocative, privately published book titled “Familiar Voices”.

Signals arrived at the Royal Air Force station at west Raynham, Norfolk, late in the afternoon of May 18th, 1940, ordering 12 Blenheim crews to report to 82 Squadron at Watton, Norfolk, immediately. The Blenheim aeroplane then in service with the Royal Air Force required a crew of 3 men: Pilot, Air Observer and Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.

At that time I was serving in the RAF as an Air Observer and was stationed at West Raynham. My name appeared with 35 others on the list to join 82 Squadron at Watton. The German army had launched its onslaught into the Low Countries and France on May 10th. Since then we had enjoyed a week of warm dry spring weather, unusually warm for May with clear blue skies all day. Although statistical evidence may say otherwise, to human memory there never was such a spring before and there has never been a spring like it since.

With regard to rank, the 36 airmen who travelled from West Raynham to Watton that day would comprise about 6 Pilot Officers, about 18 sergeants, and a dozen other ranks. We were transported on 2 standard Bedford covered lorries, the men standing in the back and holding onto the tubular steel framework that supported the canvas canopy. It was the springtime of the year, a time when all nature was flooding into new life. The 20 year old airmen were in the springtime of their lives, full of hope, faith and expectation of unspecified wonders to come.

In the first stanza of his poem “Young and Old” Charles Kingsley seems to express the feelings of that evening:
“When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green,
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have the course,lad,
And every dog his day.”

The day for most of those young men was to be short indeed. The lorries that conveyed them from the operations room in Station Headquarters to the squadron aircraft during the next few days became known as “tumbrils”. The similarities to the journeys of the aristocrats during the French Revolution needs no explanation. We were convinced we had the best of training, the best of traditions carried on from the Royal Flying Corps, the best of equipment and the ability to deal with any situation that may arise. We had the bonhomie, the esprit de corps and were convinced that England was right.

It was a few weeks later that we began to realise there was another Watton, 2 or 3 miles west of our aerodrome. In this other Watton were handsome old buildings, an ancient church, permanent places where men lived and worked, where children played and went to school. On the eastern edge of the old town was the railway station and a level crossing where the tracks crossed the B1108. This station was built when men expected the steam railways to last forever. Airmen posted to or from the RAF station, or when going or coming back from leave were familiar with this station. In the old High Street a clock tower built in the late 17th century cast a stern gaze over the passers by, any wrongdoers in olden days could find themselves locked up in it’s base. Also in the High Street hotels built in the Georgian style, old pubs, houses and shops gave an atmosphere of permanence and serenity.

The airmen climbing down from those lorries outside station H.Q. on the aerodrome that evening had no idea of the momentous events that would unfold in the next few weeks. To today’s youngsters they are history learned at school, to us then they were unthinkable: the evacuation of Dunkirk, the fall of France, the Battle of Britain.

“Old men forget,” Shakespeare tells us, “but you’ll remember…” As usual he got it right. To any survivor of that magical evening of May 18th 1940 the very word “Watton” will have a spiritual meaning that no one else can ever begin to understand.

Frank Harbord

RAF retd, ex 82 Squadron RAF, Watton, 1940.

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