Ed Weeks' Story

Halfpenny Green

No 2 Air Signalers School was opened at Halfpenny Green in 1952 to train mainly National Service Air Signalers needed mainly to crew the Shackletons and Neptunes being introduced into Coastal Command. The course was designed to last 12 months by which time the students were expected to have achieved 24 words a minute in the Morse Code, have a knowledge of the radio equipment T1154/R1155, and a basic knowledge of Radar. As National Service lasted only 2 years the Air Ministry had decided that students should not spend their first 2 months doing the normal basic training (square bashing) so our time in the first two months at Halfpenny Green was spent doing Drill/PT, Morse and radio theory. The emphasis was on the Morse and radio theory much to the dismay of the drill instructors (a sergeant and a corporal). We were not issued with webbing, nor did we carry out any bayonet drill . After 8 weeks we were expected to have achieved 8 words a minute in morse, after 12 we should have reached 12 words and after 16 weeks the goal was 16 words. Unfortunately some of the initial 24 of us were not able to keep up this rate of progress and as we were the last course of NS signalers there was no possibility of being recoursed. The 12 words a minute proved to be a significant barrier as it was at this stage that we had to start taking morse automatically without thinking. The training staff did their utmost to help us pass even agreeing to one of our members sending the Morse as his sending was far superior to any RAF staff member. He had been a Merchant Navy Wireless Operator before being called up for National service and was capable of receiving Morse on a typewriter at 32 words a minute! Life at Halfpenny Green was a holiday camp compared to the other RAF training camps which we heard about. One of our members had already experienced life at the basic training camp at Hednesford. I think that he was the only one of us who possessed a pair of properly bulled boots ! This holiday period was destined to come to an abrupt end in July 1953 when the whole camp was being run for the benefit of NS25 as all the other courses had either completed their training or had been transferred to the No 1 Air Signallers School at Swanton Morley in Norfolk.

Swanton Morley

So it was in late July that NS 25 arrived at Swanton Morley to complete the final 8 weeks training before we qualified for our Signalers brevets and sergeants stripes. SM was an entirely different camp - no more wooden huts with 2 to a room we were now in brick built two storey barrack blocks with highly polished floors. There was one saving grace, the Flt Sgt Admin from Halfpenny Green had also been posted to SM and he saved the Course from many scrapes with authority. Throughout or stay at HG we had been controlled by an elected Course leader who marched us from classroom to classroom. However within a few days at SM he had had to answer for so many complaints about our marching and general sloppyness that he resigned, at least from the marching leader role and it was the last person from the room who marched us off.

We somehow survived the 8 weeks and then the truth dawned on the organizers of the passout parade that they had a squad of NS cadets who were to pass out with a Direct Entry (regular) squad who had never used rifles with fixed bayonets! This was apparently a must for the parade. There followed a crash course in bayonet drill which was a disaster as 2 of our clan were injured, one stabbed himself in the shoulder, while the other cut his hand. However the RAF were not deterred and decided that we could go on parade with our bayonets fixed before we went on parade. This worked up to a point but I shudder to think the different angles we achieved with our rifles! We were now Sergeant aircrew and had all be assigned to Coastal Command and were posted to St Mawgan for a maritime conversion course.

St Mawgan

Suitably rested after a fortnight`s leave we arrived under our own steam at St Mawgan, only to find that one of our number was absent. We later found that during his leave he had been posted to Flying Training Command to fly as a signaler on Varsity navigation trainer aircraft. Our course was shortened to 6 weeks so that we could spend as much time as possible on a Squadron. During this time we did no flying but learned about the equipment used on Coastal Command including the then secret Sonobuoys. St Mawgan was at this time using Lancaster reconnaissance aircraft. We spent some enjoyable evenings in Newquay and weekends at Watergate Bay. On completion of the course four of us were posted to St Eval , a stones
throw from St Mawgan, while the rest west to Ballykelly in Northern Ireland.

St Eval

The four of us posted to St Eval had volunteered being from the West Country or South Wales, however within a day of our arrival on 42 Squadron the Squadron Signals Officer decided that he could not accommodate any more half trained signallers as the previous course of NS signalers(NS24) had been posted in 4 weeks previously. We were thereupon called into the Adjutant and told that 3 of us were to be sent to Ballykelly and the other to Aldergrove. We were allowed to draw lots to decide who was to go to Aldergrove. We were told to report to our new stations in a weeks time and that we could leave as soon as we had gone through the official procedure. It had taken us about 3 days to but surprise surprise we managed to leave within a day.


Unlike Ballykelly, Aldergrove hosted only one Shackleton Squadron: No 120, the first Squadron to have received the Shackleton two years previously. However there was another Coastal Command Squadron on the airfield: No 202, equipped with Hastings Met aircraft. The Hastings was also a Transport aircraft which came in very useful in giving me a “lift” to RAF Lyneham on two occasions.

When I arrived on the Squadron there were only two other National Service Signallers (ex NS18) and a couple of Radar/Gunners who were soon to be demobbed . However in March three NS Signallers (ex NS23) arrived following the closure of the Navigation School at Bishops Court. 

Flying usually involved eight-hour Navigational Exercises (trying to find Rockall without radar assistance), bombing practice (not good for air sickness) and NATO exercises in which I once did an 18 hour trip.  One unusual trip was to fly at 12000 feet over the UK sampling the air for atomic fallout which proved to be a very cold experience as the Engineer was unable to activate the so called heaters fitted to the Shackleton.

Social life on the station was varied, none of the Sergeants had cars so we were only able to go by bus to Belfast or walk to Crumlin. The camp cinema was available and there were two cafes other than the NAAFI.  There was also the Sergeants Mess where we all used to drink Guinness and play cards. I played a couple of games of rugby, but the camaraderie which I experienced at Halfpenny Green was missing and the weather was awful most of the time.

There was always a feeling of tension in Northern Ireland even in 1954 and in June it was decided that the airfield might be under threat, so a contingent of RAF Police was posted in to man the previously unguarded entrances. This also involved closing the B-road which bisected the airfield. Additionally as there was no perimeter fence it was decided that at night easy access could be gained to the various bomb and ammunition bunkers situated around the airfield.  The solution was to introduce a mobile patrol to visit these sites hourly.  In charge of these patrols were the numerous aircrew sergeants including yours truly.  The NCOs were allocated four airmen and a driver of a Land Rover with 6 pickaxe handles! Naturally we made sure that we let any intruders aware of our presence and approached the bunkers with headlights full on. Luckily I was only called upon to carry out two such patrols.

120 Squadron had been the elite squadron of Coastal Command but following a change of CO it became a bit of a shambles.  In September 1954 squadrons were asked to standardise on either the Mk 1 or 2 Shackleton.  120 was given first choice and opted for the Mk1 – a very strange decision as 4 of our Mk 1s were the ones used in the original squadron introduction and had flown more hours than most and were showing distinct signs of wear. Rumour has it that the CO chose the Mk1 because he found landing the Mk2 much more difficult, his technique for landing the MK 1 being to look down through the Perspex nose and judge his landing from that. As a result we had to give up our three Mk 2s, including two virtually new ones, and receive some elderly Mk 1`s from Gibraltar. Luckily I was demobbed a month later.

Although we were flying under operational conditions I did not have a great deal of confidence in our performance. On one NATO exercise our navigator was unsure of his position in the North Sea and whether the ships below us were “friend or foe” – the solution was to ignite an enormous flare which lit up the area for miles around! During the same exercise we obtained a sonar contact on a submarine so were instructed to drop a barrier of non directional sonobuoys. This we did but unfortunately the senior signaller forgot to note the sequence of the drop so when we had a contact we had no idea from which buoy it might have come.

I hope that I have not given the impression that I was unhappy at Aldergrove, far from it; I had a good time. This was not the end of my RAF career as I did two weeks Reserve training at Thorney Island, which really was a waste of time. However I did meet an NS Signaller who had missed joining NS 25 by a few days and had been trained at Swanton Morley with the next Direct Entry (Regular) Course.Accommodation for NCOs was in “condemned” wooden huts on “Hastings” site. Luckily there was enough room for each NCO to have a room to himself each with its own coal fired stove. As coal had to be imported from Scotland it must have cost the RAF a fortune to heat accommodation at Aldergrove.  It was also fortuitous that the huts had been built on low stilts as the winter and summer of 1954 was very wet and most of the time we had to wade through deep puddles to gain access. A further advantage of this site was that the powers that be never inspected the “condemned” accommodation so we did not have to make up beds etc.