RAF Watton – Where’s that? Peter Clarke (SAC 4248168) Remembers his time in Air Trafic at Watton 

That was the question asked by myself and 3 or 4 other ‘erks’ after passing our trade training at RAF Shawbury. We were all destined for Air Traffic Control at RAF Watton.

The answer we got was ‘Oh, I don’t know – I think it is somewhere near Leighton Buzzard’. Road maps were consulted which yielded nothing. Then we turned to the various publications produced by our masters, the RAF. Ah! Ah! It is in Norfolk.

The year was 1959, the month being around May. For my part I had spent the obligatory six or so weeks of square bashing at Bridgnorth – in the middle of winter (and thereby hangs another story!). From there to the trade training at Shawbury.

So, I set off on my Lambretta scooter to Watton via my home to let my parents have some idea of where their cherished son was to ‘live’ for the next three years.

From home to Watton was about 130 miles which was quite a pleasant ride on the Lambretta – not so much traffic about in those days! I arrived at RAF Watton around mid-afternoon; having noticed as I passed along the main street “The Crown” a place which was to feature in my life many times in the ensuing years.

Obviously, the main guard room was first port of call and for the first night a rather non-descript building which passed for a barrack block.

The following day the usual formalities were soon out of the way and a billett was allocated. It was in a block on the opposite side of the Norwich road from the main camp. The room accomodated eight and overlooked the fields toward Carbrooke.

Then, of course we had to be ‘introduced’ to our new Lord and Master – SATCO; Squadron Leader Reginald Clarke. Nice chap really, I suppose. He gave us the usual chat and sent us in the company of a sergeant (? Flt Sgt Smith) to meet the rest of the officers in the Control Tower. Flt Lt Josey, Flt Lt Weeds, Flt Lt (?Maskell or McKaskill?) I seem to remember – there were other officers, but their names escape me. The rest of the airmen included J S J “Mike” Walton who lived in Yorkshire; Cpl ‘Paddy’ McCallion whose wife came from the Stoke area; John “Speedy” Payton from the Birmingham area; Tom Bainbridge from Manchester; “Chippy”(? Woodbridge) from Suffolk; Sgt Crawford (“Chopper”); Frank Smith; Robin Watson from Leicester; WO Robinson who spent most of his time on duty manning the caravan at the end of the runway. These are some of those I remember.

During the first few weeks I was there the Tower was under some form of re-construction. If I recall it was having the ‘gold fish bowl’ and one other story added above the original building on some form of inverted ‘U’ support straddling the original building. This meant that ATC was operating from wooden sheds at ground level. That made watching the aircraft moving around somewhat difficult; although I think movements were kept to a minimum whilst this work went on.

The airmen’s mess (sorry ‘Restaurant’ – it was never referred to as the ‘mess’) was on the same side of the road as the barrack block (i.e. opposite side of the road to the main camp) and was, after Bridgnorth and Shawbury a joy to behold. Stainless steel servery with a partly self-service system in operation. I seem to think that some of the staff were civilians with RAF personnel overseeing the job. The food was extremely good.

As Air Traffic Control had to have a vehicle to be able to get round the airfield at any time, we all had to pass a ‘driving test’. That was fun!!!! If you could start the vehicle, find a gear and steer it round part of the airfield you passed. Each morning as we went on duty we called at the MT section to receive whatever vehicle was allocated to us for the day. It could be a Land Rover, Standard Vanguard pick-up or a Morris Commercial mini-bus. The Standard had a column mounted gear change. It was so loose that the technique was to keep de-clutching whilst moving the gear lever round from the 12 o’clock position to 6.30 position; if you found a gear go for it!!! It should always have been a Land Rover so that ATC folks could go anywhere on the field. SATCO was never too happy if we turned up in a mini-bus!! But we had to take what was given – we were in no position to argue!

Watton was, in those days, part of Signals Command; there was only one other station in that command. I cannot remember what it was called (?Benson or ?Tangmere). I seem to think the aircraft at Watton were in 51 (? or was it 57) Squadron and the the CO was a Wing Commander Rake. They consisted of two or three Comets, a few Lincolns, a Varsity or two, a Hastings, a few Canberras and a Meteor. The work done was of a secret nature; to the extent that when we arrived the SATCO told us to forget some of the things we had been taught at Shawbury regarding the rules of filing flight plans and so on. When an aircraft was due to fly, all that ATC were told the so-and-so would be taking off at a given time and would be away for a given number of hours. No flight plans were filed with ATC. Obviously as time went on we gradually formed our suspicions as to what they were up to – but we rarely mentioned it to anyone (official Secrets Act (we thought)). These suspicions were confirmed to a degree when we sometimes received a call from the Air Defence people at Bodo (north Norway) – “Are any of your aircraft in the air?”. We were not allowed to answer; always referred the call to the Wing Commander or the Station Commander. It did get somewhat boring when a Lincoln took off early in the evening and, although that was the only aircraft in the air, we had to remain on duty until it returned – which could have been in the early hours of the following morning – or even almost breakfast time!.

Our suspicions as to what they did were reinforced to some extent when the U2 was at Watton for a short period with Gary Powers. What an incredible aircraft that was! It had a tandem undercarriage and when it came to rest after landing it tipped onto one of its wings which had special ‘skid’ pieces on for the purpose. Each time it took off it did so with minimal warning to the Control Tower and returned with similar lack of warning. If no other aircraft were in the air we just had to wait!! Where it went to or came from we never knew – only guessed.

Another interesting situation I remember was a call from London Air Traffic – “Any of your b****** aircraft in the air?” ‘Sorry we shall have to refer you to the CO.’ They thought that extremely strange and got, shall we say, quite rude. Sometime later we found out that one of the planes had been dropping ‘window’ out over the North Sea; the wind changed and blew it all toward London and blocked out London Approach Radar. Window was, of course, used for jamming radar!!!!

One night there was all sorts of commotion when one of the hangers caught fire. We found out the next morning that the thing had burned out completely with one of the Comets inside it. Those Comets were full of all sorts of electronic wizardry (at least by the standards of those days!).

There was a time when an exercise was mounted to test the security of the airfield. So far as ATC was concerned we had to mount a guard to prevent ‘the enemy’ attacking us. The exercise went on all day and into the night. During the night the weather turned very foggy. Whilst we were on duty in the Tower, we heard a noise outside. Two or three of us went out to investigate. It was so foggy we could hardly see beyond the immediate surrounds. We couldn’t see anything so went back inside. A few minutes later the guy who had been on guard outside came in complaining bitterly that he had been whistling like hell for help and nobody went to him; by which time the Tower had been seized!!!!.

Back to transport. From time to time we had to practice putting ‘glim’ lamps out around the taxi-ways and goose neck flares along the runway. These were emergency lights which would have been used in the event of a power failure if aircraft were in the air. That was where a Land Rover came into it’s own. There were dozens of these things to be handled in a short period of time.

Another task we had was to brush the runway occasionally. We used a ‘gang brush’ (similar to a gang lawnmower). It had about six brushes each about eight feet wide arranged in a two/four configuration. Imagine the drag this produced when towed by a Land Rover!! Bottom gear in the low-range gearbox. We had to go up and down the runway two or three times to cover the entire width. The exhaust system was nearly melting when we finished

The shift pattern I worked was such that every other weekend I finished at lunchtime Friday until lunch time Monday – unless the Tower had to be open at all during the weekend – even if only for an hour. The alternate weekend we finished on Friday Evening until Monday morning.

I was at Watton during the period of the “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” episode in the courts. Just inside the gates on the opposite side of the road from the main gates there was a small newsagent stall run by a guy from the village. He came every day and sold papers, magazines, books and so on. Well, we read in the press all the to-do about Lady Chatterley and noted the relevant page numbers quoted in the papers which were ‘interesting’. The poor guy on the bookstall was besieged when the courts finally released the book – he couldn’t get enough copies!!!!

Two or three years ago I visited RAF Cosford (near Wolverhampton) and the aircraft museum there. Imagine my surprise when I came upon one of Lincolns which was at Watton during my time there. It is reputed to be one of only two left in the world – the other is said to be in Argentina.

There was “The Crown” in the main street of the village. That was where many evenings were spent!! – beer about two bob (10p) a pint! The “Flying Fish” at the other end of the village i.e. the Norwich side of the RAF station. The “Wayland Country Club”. The army ranges on Thetford Chase and the part they played in ATC. The AOC’s inspection for which they used the apron in front of one of the hangers. There was a tale! I only did one and it was the only time I had to do parade after Bridgnorth!

The RAF driving licence would not cover me on the civilian roads, so I took a driving test in Kings Lynn on a Friday afternoon – cyclists everywhere!! To do this I had a few lessons with the driving school in Watton (?Mr. Thompson?). Afterwards I did some work for him accompanying learners; wouldn’t be allowed today!! Having got a ‘proper’ licence, I changed the Lambretta for a car (a Morris 1000). Then I started taking fellows to London Road Station in Leicester on Friday afternoons whenever my weekend off co-incided with theirs. I picked them up again at mid-night on the following Sunday and drove back to Watton.

These are just a few of the memories I have of my stay at RAF Watton which ended in December 1961. Like most service folks at the time, I couldn’t wait for ‘demob’. But, looking back, I wouldn’t have missed those three years for the world.

Oh! And one more thing. I spent almost three years in the RAF and never set foot inside an aircraft except for the wreck on the corner of the airfield which was used for practice work with the station fire service. They ‘rescued’ me from that a number of times!!

If any of those mentioned (or any others) remember me please do get in touch.

Peter Clarke (SAC 4248168)

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