Saturday, March 23, 2019

Flying in the Vulcan

Snapshot File - Flying in the Vulcan

Flying as a rear crew member in a Vulcan was both frightening and uncomfortable.  The discomfort started when you got dressed.  There were several options as to what to wear, depending on the time of year and the task you were undertaking.  For flying in the airfield circuit you might get away with wearing your underpants, a green tee shirt (everything was green), aircrew socks, boots and a flying suit.  The flying suit was light and comfortable and composed mainly of pockets and zips. If you were, for instance, flying low level over the United States, then you would wear over your tee shirt and under your flying suit, a white cotton air ventilated suit.  This was a mass of little tubes and was connected to the aircraft cooling system.  The most uncomfortable option was also the most common.  If it was winter or if you were flying over the sea, you wore an immersion suit.  Under the immersion suit you wore a green (of course) bunny suit.  This was a one piece suit with a nice warm fluffy inside.  The immersion suit was of rubber and covered you from neck to toe and out to your wrists.  At the neck and wrists were thin tubes of rubber that the Flying Clothing people cut the fit very tightly to stop the water getting in.  It also made it hard to breathe and to get blood through to your hands!

Next came the external gear.  First was your Mae West, or inflatable jacket.  Your parachute harness came next, and had to fit tightly, especially through your crutch.  Failure to get this right meant finding your balls behind your ears if you had to bail out.  On your back was your parachute, and hanging down behind your bum was a dinghy.  When you sat in your bare metal seat, these two items formed bone hard padding to lean back on and to sit on.  Then came your seat harness and you plugged yourself into the intercomm, oxygen and air conditioning.  And finally finally, there was line that armed your parachute as you left the aircraft.  The overall affect of this was that not only were you trussed like a chicken, but you had a curved spine.  After six years of flying in the Vulcan I had more or less permanent backache.  It took six months of not flying in the Vulcan for the backache to depart!  

The Vulcan cabin was pressurised to 10,000 feet.  You can live at this altitude without an oxygen supply, there is enough in the atmosphere.  For safety reasons, one pilot and one rear crew member were always on oxygen, which meant wearing a mask.  Down the back we were supposed to take turns, but I always volunteered to have mine on.  This was because the microphone was in the mask and the AEO had a lot of talking to do.  In addition, for my first three years the Nav Plotter, sitting next to me, was a guy with a stomach defect, which meant he was always airsick at low level.  Not many people know that air sickness is catching.

The rear crew sat down the back, in the dark, facing aft.  The pilots were several feet higher and in daylight.  They also had ejector seats.  For reasons of aircraft design and money, the rear crew didn’t have ejector seats.  Our seats did swivel though, to give us a slight chance of making the exit which was set into the floor just forward of our seats.  

In the event of having to bail out, the Nav Radar would open the door in the floor and would be first out, followed by the Nav Plotter.  Last of all would be the AEO - me.  There wouldn’t be time to disconnect the various tubes and cables you were hooked up to, so they were designed with “break” points.  The parachute line would arm the chute, stopping it opening till you were below 10,000 feet.  So, if you bailed out at 30,000 feet, you were supposed to free fall till 10,000, when your chute would open.  A possible problem was if the undercarriage was down (hydraulic failure?).  The nose wheel was aft of the hatch, so as you slid down the hatch with all your connections safely disconnecting, the first thing you saw was the nosewheel.  You leapt aft, grabbed the nose wheel strut and swung round it.  Likely story!  A final point about the “break” points.  I was taking a Canadian air force major through the various safety drills once.  He slid down the door and the breaks didn’t break.  He hung upside down and then the leg of his nice Canadian flying suit tore off.  Luckily there was only about 4 feet to the ground.  He wasn’t very happy though.  I really must remember not to fall over when I am laughing.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Memories of Majunga

Snapshot File - Memories of Majunga.

Majunga is a town on the north western side of Madagascar, near the northern end of the island.  Madagascar was either the first island God made and he learnt from his mistakes - or the last one and he used all the bits left over.  Majunga was a ramshackle town sat on a river estuary.  It had many buildings that looked French provincial - not surprising considering it had been a French colony.  The French killed 70,000 people in 1947 and they were not very popular with the locals.  The locals spoke French, which was a problem because we didn’t - being English.  

Majunga had an airfield.  It wasn’t very big, although an Air France Boeing 707 came in once a week, which must have been a heart-stopping experience for its pilots.  The Shackleton was OK, as long as it wasn’t too hot.  With a full fuel load, its usual state, it took every inch of the runway to get airborne.  There were usually 2 Shackletons and 3 crews based at Majunga, and their task was to log all the tankers in the Mozambique Straits.  We would fly down the straits to the frigate stationed off Beira, drop their mail to them, and fly back, logging all tankers heading south west.  We did this because the UK government wanted to stop oil reaching Rhodesia, which was in a state of rebellion against the Crown.  We couldn’t stop tankers unloading at Beira because it was Portuguese.  But if they were identified, pressure could be brought to bear on the companies that owned them.  It was all futile, because oil entered Rhodesia via South Africa.

We did 3 or 4 sorties per crew each week.  The Shackleton heaved itself into the sky at about 8 am.  We couldn’t go earlier because the locals were in bed instead of in the tower.  One morning we actually took off without local air traffic control or the fire service (Huggis!) . We flew down to Beira and dropped things to the frigate, then flew back.  It was a good idea to land before it got dark, as the locals packed up early.  To drop things to the frigate we used a gear called Lindholme.  This consisted of canisters that floated. One Christmas we announced we had their Christmas mail including a cake.  We dropped the canister and it sank.  We had filled it with stones!  After they had recovered, we dropped the real mail canister.  

On another occasion, the Navy were lowering their whaler to recover the Lindholme when it stuck.  So they launched a rib, and it’s engine failed.  So they threw the ship’s diver over the side and he swam to the Lindholme.  Happy that all was well we departed, only to get a call.  They had lost sight of their rib, could we find it?  We did and departed on our way.  

Life in Majunga was pretty basic.  The officers lived down in the town centre, but the SNCOs and the airmen lived out on the edge of town.  The airmen were in an ex-French army encampment - called the Camp Britannique.   The SNCOs lived nearby in a big house owned by the Mayor.  Which was pretty basic.  We had beds but our lockers and things were made out of orange boxes etc.  The food was also grotty.  We often feasted on  food which had been in storage in Aden for many years.  The cook did his best, but he was  on a hiding to nothing.  

The Maison de Maire depended on a well in the grounds for its water.  The pump was broke, so the fire brigade came up occasionally and filled the tanks in the roof.  The chief night spots were Madame’s, a brothel, and a night club that was in a converted garage.  The toilets in the night club were appalling, so you just walked over the road and pee’d over a small cliff.  I was doing that one night, when the guy next to me tried to light his cigarette off a distant lighthouse.  He fell over the cliff down onto the beach.  It was only about 20 feet and as he was drunk he landed like a baby.

I did four months in Majunga.  Two months from Singapore and two from the UK.  None of it was enjoyable.  The place itself was a miserable shambles created by the French.  There were quite a lot of Frenchmen around and they were uniformly unpleasant.  No wonder the Malagache hated them. We on the other hand, were cheered as we drove out to the airfield for another 12 hour flight.

On my second visit one of the other signallers had a project as part of his university degree course.  He got a detailed map of Majunga and we spent many happy hours wandering round identifying the usage of lots of tin shacks.  

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Holiday in Italy

  1. Snapshot File - Holiday in Italy.

The UK joined the Common Market in 1972.  Six years earlier, we holidayed in Italy.  We went with Ann and Bryan Mercer.  This was quite a big step for all of us.  We and our friends didn’t usually go abroad to holiday; in fact, Mary and I didn’t holiday!  Brian and Ann usually went to her parents in Cornwall for their summer holidays.  We parked our young children (2 each) with our parents and went to Italy.

We went in Brian’s 6-month old Ford Cortina.  He was rather careful with this car, but he allowed Mary and I to share the driving.  The trip started out in Harwich, where Brian’s precious car was swung high into the air and down into the hold.  No drive on/off on this route.

Brian and I were both sergeants in the RAF; so we didn’t have much money.  There were no credit cards then, so we took cash.  Probably mainly Italian Lira plus some German Marks and Swiss Francs.  We also had BFG (British Forces Germany) tokens for fuel in Germany and Italian tourist tokens for fuel in Italy.  We crossed international borders ten times.  Each time, we drove up clutching our British passports; they waved us through.  The only time they inspected them was in the middle of the night crossing from Italy back into Switzerland.  The lonely Swiss soldier guarding his country, burst out laughing at the ladies’ passport photographs!

We first drove non-stop to Lake Garda in northern Italy.  This took about 18 hours and saved us a night in a hotel. We then drove into Venice.  We had a guide book, but chose the first hotel in the tourist bureau list - Academia.  A really good choice, right in the centre of Venice.  We stayed in Venice for 4 nights.  Ann, Mary and Bryan spent a day on the Lido beach, while I took in more of the sights, including the Doge’s palace.  Highlight of that was seeing a tryptich by H. Bosch.  Only 3 of them survive and I saw another one in Vienna many years later. 

We left Venice for a day on the beach at Rimini.  We had just rented loungers and sunshade on a beach, when the heavens opened up and we left.

We then drove down to Rome and did the sights there for several days.  Once again the other three spent a day on the beach; I went round the ruins of Ostia, the port for Rome.  We left Rome and drove overnight to Basle.  Stayed in a gasthof in the centre.  There we had our first encounter with a duvet; we didn’t have them in England.

And finally, overnight to the Hook of Holland and home.

The holiday was planned to cover long distances overnight.  Which meant we didn’t have to pay for hotels.  So, quite a lot of sleeping was done in the car, especially by Ann, who didn’t drive.  The holiday was planned by Ann and I, with little input by the other two.  They agreed to the holiday because they didn’t think we would go ahead.  But we did.  Interesting really, as Ann and I ended up married to each other

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Training as an Air Signaller

In August 1954 I became an Aircrew Cadet at RAF Swanton Morley.  Basically, I was an AC2, the lowest form of RAF life, but I wore brass Albatross badges on my arms.  Commonly known as shite hawks.  The camp at Swanton Morely was built to a design used in the run up to WW2.  The living accommodation was made up of 3 H-blocks, each containing dormitories and toilet facilities.  We lived about 20 to a room, each with our own “bed space”, which we were required to keep clean and tidy.  Immaculate in fact. 

The No 1 Air Signaller’s School was organised into 3 wings, each containing entries.  A new entry, containing about 30 cadets, started every 3 weeks.  My entry was DE119, the 119th Direct Entry flight.  After DE122 they changed the designation to AS; don’t ask me why, but there is an enormous department in the Air Ministry dedicated to changing things.  Or so they say.

The Basic section of the year-long course consisted of ground school.  There was lots of marching and slinging rifles around of course - but the chief thing was morse.  The morse code was the main method of wireless communication in aviation, especially military aviation.  We spent a couple of hours every day sending and reading the morse code.  The aim was to be proficient at 25 words a minute by the end of the year.  The instructors were elderly gents, ex-RAF usually, who did nothing but send morse to rooms full of struggling students.  The trick, as with typing, was to stop thinking about what you were doing - stop reading it.  We also learnt how to use the radios carried in the aircraft used by Swanton Morley. 

The radios were the R1155 (receiver) and the T1154 (transmitter).  These radios were developed during WW2 and were very widely used.  With them, we worked to a plan given to us on take off.  Radio stations had to be contacted and messages sent.  Some of the ground stations were “real”, others were sited at Swanton Morley and solely for the use of the Air Signaller cadets.

Avro Anson

The first flight was in an Avro Anson.  This meant that a staff signaller could supervise you and check that you were safe on your own.  After that, all the flights except the last one were in the Percival Prentice.  This small aircraft had a pilot and a cadet.  The cadet sat in the back and couldn’t see ahead, or see the pilot.  The pilot could only be contacted by the intercom which was OK most of the time.  There were 18 airborne exercises that had to be completed.  The first and the last was in an Anson.  The bulk of the exercises were in the Prentice and lasted two hours.  We flew a triangular track over eastern and central England at about 2000 feet. 

In theory, as you completed each item of the exercise, you wrote up your wireless log, on which you were assessed.  However, with up to 30 cadets in the air it was dog-eat-dog, and your logging tended to get behind.  Often you would be landed and taxing in and still be busy writing.  The instructors would leap onto the wing of the aircraft and snatch your log off you.  They were also very hot on people who sent their take-off message before they got airborne!

Generally there were two flights each day, one before lunch and one afterwards.  30 small aircraft would take off in waves.  The cadets didn’t do much sight-seeing; they were too busy trying to establish contact with the ground stations.  On one occasion there was a very strong wind, and the pilots flew into it and remained more or less stationary over Swanton Morley. 

I was excused the last flight, the check flight in the Anson, because I was still recovering from an operation to remove my appendix.  My marks were good enough for this – so I got my wings and was promoted to sergeant. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

In the early 1980s, I was on holiday in Italy.  We were enjoying a leisurely lunch in a back street in Sienna.  At the next table was an Italian chap, a bit younger than me.  Would we mind if he practised his English on us?  After a bit of practice, he asked us if English ladies always wore "hets"?  From this we got to Mrs Thatcher.  She always wore a "het" he remarked.  Yes I said, but did he know that she was actually a man in women's clothes?  His brown Italian eyes grew round and new English words were exchanged.  Behind us there was an explosion.  Another Italian, eavesdropping, collapsed into his soup.  He didn't know Mrs Thatcher was a bloke either…….

I nearly met her once.  One Saturday afternoon, I was scheduled to give her an intelligence briefing on cruise missiles.  Unlike most politicians, in my experience, she was not happy to talk about something she knew nothing about.  I was warned to speak normally, answer all questions and be prepared for a lot of them.  All prepped up and wearing my best suit I arrived at the Cabinet Office just after lunchtime on Saturday.  Only to be told that her flight to Washington had been brought forward and the briefing cancelled.  

What's this all about you ask?  Well, everyone else is writing about her and most of them never met her, let alone nearly gave her a talk on cruise missiles!  Going back to the first paragraph, I met lots of foreigners, Americans, Canadians, Frogs and various other sorts of Europeans.  All of them admired her AND us for electing her.  Would we like to swop they asked; her for half a dozen of their leaders.  

In my opinion, her greatest achievement was to change the national mood.  In 1979 we were depressed and depressing.  She changed all that.  Far too many people have forgotten what it was like pre-Margaret, and many of those with an opinion are rather too young to hold it.  Before she came along we had a long line of depressing male plonkers ruling over us.  Since she fell, we have had more of them.

God bless Mrs Thatcher and please, God, send us another one!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Writing to your MP


I would like to encourage all OPCs who are UK residents, not just those living in Cornwall, to write to their MPs.   You can find their email addresses on Theyworkforyou.  Obviously, you will have to edit my email, not just forward it.  Nor does it matter if an MP hears from several constituents.

Dear Ms Newton

I am a constituent of yours, living in Mitchell, and I would like to enlist your help.

My hobby is family history, in particular, Cornish family history.  I am a founder member of the Cornish Online Parish Clerk project (  This is basically an "adopt-a-parish" scheme with over a hundred volunteers world wide.  OPCs are committed to helping Cornish FH researchers free of charge.  The project has an online, searchable, free-to-view database ( with over 2.3 million records online.  Our main target is the parish registers, but we always looking for other sources of useful data.  

For the last six months I have been exchanging emails with the Registration Office in Truro, trying to persuade them to let me photograph and transcribe the indices of the 19th century registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths.  Not the registers, the indexes.  Yesterday, they said no, quoting an email they had had from the Policy Dept of the General Registration Office.  This said:

“This query is linked to a wider issue relating to access to records by family history societies, Ancestry, Find my past etc.   We are still seeking a resolution to this query and while I am unable to provide a definitive answer at present, I will advise you as soon as I am aware of the outcome.

In the interim, you may wish to advise the parish clerks that the public may only have access to the indices in the manner provided for by statue, i.e. in accordance with s.64 of the Marriage Act 1949, where you will note that there is no provision to transcribe or photograph the indexes, see link below.

It is interesting that they mention commercial operators such as Ancestry.  They, of course, would charge for access to the data, we don't.  Also, they say that the relevant act has no provision to allow the photographing or transcription of the indices.  But does it say that they can't be?  

As they have a policy dept, I would like to know what the policy actually is and how they intend to alter it.

I would like to re-iterate that it is the indices I want to transcribe, not the registers.

Hoping you can help.



Some background.  There are about 30 such projects in operation.  According to the administrator of UKBMD, he has been at usergroup meetings with the GRO and no objection to such projects was raised by them.

The Truro RO allowed CFHS to copy and transcribe the indices some years ago, but the results were not used for reasons not explained to me.  Personally, I think it was because rather belatedly they realised that CFHS charged for access.  I also think that within County Hall there is an IT department that would like a council web site to host the data, but they have neither the expertise or money to do it. We on the other hand have both the expertise and the web site!

Finally, despite not admitting any knowledge of UKBMD, in 2009 the Truro RO asked UKBMD for advice on setting up such a project.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Local BMD registers


A couple of years ago, Myra asked me to subscribe to the mailing list of the Open Genealogical Alliance.  This is a bunch of people interested in public access to public data.  They are operating a bit above our pay grade but they are interested in the same data as we are.  This is a quote from the mailing list.

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) - is a collection of books populated with tables, where each row is a reference to a certificate for a corresponding life event. Every time someone is born, dies or gets married, the local council register issues a full page certificate, then it makes an entry of the event in the local index, and they also make a copy of the local index to be sent to a central location: the General Registry Office (GRO), part of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). This institution has the collection of all these copied index books dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Older life event records were maintained by the church instead of the government, and are kept separately This index is meant to be digitised and made available online for free, but the delivery of this service has been delayed for many years due to problems with commercial subcontracting. In the meantime, other forms of access to the index - such as CDs - have been restricted or suppressed, ostensibly due to the imminent availability of the online version. This long impasse has created a situation where a number of commercial companies - such as --are stepping in and providing paid for access to this public information that the government has committed to deliver for free. The Crown claims copyright on the design of the index, expiring 50 years after creation as they are not published works, but the actual content is factual information not encumbered by intellectual property restrictions. Thus anyone is free to copy the index data. Our partner organisation has been providing free online access to a partial copy of the index transcribed by volunteers, as until recently the registers were handwritten, and thus requiring manual typing into a computer. The official advice form for citizens requiring free access to the index is to go via FreeBMD. This volunteer group has offered to help providing to the full index in collaboration with GRO, and we have been trying to help communicate and advance this great idea. Unfortunately, these requests have been batted away, without even being allowed to meet to discuss the options. Emails have gone without reply for months. We have been told for 18 months now that a new plan is imminent and we should just wait. We have responded that under the coalition agreement and the compact for the voluntary sector, we should be consulted at an early stage in order to help shape the plans, not informed afterwards. This is particularly applicable when we are proposing a solution that could save taxpayers money. Unfortunately this has been ignored. We have also been told that the online index is entangled with a major ICT project that is suffering delays. However, new government policy is to break down large contracts, and this would seem an ideal candidate for outing this new policy into practice, given the costly delays already incurred and the apparent inability of moving this forward within a reasonable timeframe. We would like to request an urgent intervention from the Transparency Team to help us reach to the GRO and discuss a way to promptly ensure that the full BMD index is available online for free as open data.

Barriers in accessing this data: 

The index for the civil register of life events - births, deaths and marriages (BMD) is meant to be freely available online, but this has been delayed for many years. Volunteer groups have offered to provide this as open data for free, but this has been dismissed without due consideration.

Benefits overview:

The BMD index is very valuable, being the first point of call for anyone in need of tracing their ancestors, or obtaining a copy of the certificates. This could be for practical reasons, such as an inheritance, but in most cases it's people wanting to explore their family history. There is fundamental transparency principle in making the civil register freely available, and also an economic imperative. Family history is a very popular hobby and drives a lot of cash online, with people paying up to £150 per year for subscriptions to commercial sites. For the UK it could also become a major economic activity thanks to ancestral tourism marketed to the descendants of British people. There is a huge market for US travellers, and several county councils have already started local programmes to tap into that market. The development of this kind of services based on secondary reuse of data, where the business model is tourism instead of data paywalls -- is hampered by the lack of proper Open Data in the family history domain. County council tourism boards cannot reach local US prospective travellers and commercial ancestry websites do not provide those data services.

I have a personal interest in this because 9 months ago I started an exchange of emails with the Registration Officer in Truro.  I asked for permission to photograph the indices to the local BMD registers.  Why bother to do this, given that FreeBMD has transcribed the GRO indexes.  However, it is well documented that there are differences between these indexes and those of the local BMD registers.

In January they said NO, although I pointed out to them that there are 30 such projects in England under the umbrella group UKBMD.  These are usually joint projects between family history societies and local Registration Offices.  But not always, they also involve groups such as ours.  Their refusal was based on advice from the GRO, which I think was incorrect.  I therefore wrote to my MP and asked her to ask the GRO just what the official policy was.  I am still waiting for an answer.  If anyone who is a UK resident would like to ask their MP what the policy is – I’ll provide a copy of my email.  The more people who ask, the better it might be.