Flying High  by Gordon Higgins (NS15)


I graduated as an Air Signaller, trained in radar, radio, morse, anti-submarine sonics and gunnery, in 1953, after seven months’ training at RAF Swanton Morley, in Norfolk. With around 200 aircrew cadets under training, plus instructors and a large support team, and with Ansons, Proctors and Prentices buzzing overhead almost incessantly, Swanton was as busy as a disturbed anthill. Our initial impression that discipline at Swanton was comparatively relaxed was abruptly shattered by Flight Sergeant Joe Coley, who was in charge of that aspect of station life and had a reputation for being similar in personality to a certain Army RSM of Aldershot fame. Only three days after our arrival, my course, National Service Aircrew 15, were marching sloppily away from the armoury where we had just drawn rifles when Flt Sgt Coley’s piercing scream: “Halt that squad!” petrified us in our tracks and we felt his wrath for the first time. He berated our course leader, Peter Hunter, and then turned on us, saying: “You’re marching like a lot of schoolgirls with their knickers hanging down.” The longest five minutes of our young lives followed, while he emphasised he would be watching NS15 very closely from then on. Our frightened, but much smarter, course then marched off.


Neville (“Taff”) Evans from Port Talbot was 20, his National Service having been deferred for two years for his civilian apprenticeship. He was an accomplished Welsh amateur racing cyclist and he encouraged Cliff Smith and myself to bring our bikes to Swanton so we could more easily get into nearby Dereham to chase the girls and attend dances. In those days, public transport was very infrequent. My Raleigh sports bike was new, so I used, wrongly, to store it under the stairway in our billet. One evening, Taff and I decided to cycle into Dereham but found my bike was missing. In panic, I asked a corporal drill instructor, who denied any knowledge of my bike but suggested I see Mr Coley early the next morning.


I duly went to see him. “3135494 Cadet Higgins. I’ve come to report my bicycle is missing.” “When and where did you last see it?" he asked. When I told him, Joe leapt to his feet and asked why I had flagrantly disobeyed regulations by not parking my bike in the outside racks provided. “Well, sir, my parents had sent it down specially from Yorkshire and it was new...” “I don’t care if it was studded in ******* diamonds" stormed Coley. “You aircrew think you are the cream of the RAF but, in your case, you are going curdled. You will now obey orders and if I ever have any grief from you again, laddie, I’ll have you off the aircrew course the next day. Now get out of my sight and take your bleedin’ bike with you.” He often used that threat to take cadets off their course for incurring his displeasure but we were too naive and inexperienced to know that he had no such authority. Nevertheless, the threat was most effective.


My next encounter with Joe Coley, who later became Station Warrant Officer, could have been serious. Taff Evans and I decided that after one flying exercise and debriefing we could save time and meet our Dereham girlfriends earlier by creeping back to our block without first changing out of our flying kit. At dusk, as we entered our block we saw a notice pinned on one ground floor room saying: “Frying tonight”, accompanied by the most appetizing smell. Intrigued, we opened the door and saw about a dozen cadets in pyjamas and flying boots crowded round a large primus stove. They had purloined slices of bread and cubes of butter from the mess at teatime and were busy making toast and frying large quantities of mushrooms they had picked from the airfield. Taff and I were immediately told to close the door and go away (but not in those words). Unfortunately, Joe Coley had spotted us creeping home in flying gear, had followed us and was standing right behind us as we closed the door. He opened it to see what was going on - only to receive the same greeting which was abruptly stifled when they saw his face.


We were all ordered to report to the guardroom next morning to complete our own charge forms. Curiously, however, that order was rescinded, we assumed because higher authority had decided it would cause too much disruption to flying and class work. To our relief we heard no more about that incident. Some pilots complained that when coming in to land at night they were having to dodge personnel wandering about picking mushrooms on Swanton Morley’s huge grass airfield. An Order was issued that this highly dangerous practice must cease but it didn’t - and numerous cadets continued to take away supplies of mushrooms when they went home on leave.


There were also many memorable occurrences which took place during flying. On one of my Proctor flights, I looked out of the window and to my horror the aircraft was spiralling steeply down on to a farmhouse from which a woman was waving a towel. Next thing, the Polish pilot opened his window and flung out a large bundle. His wife was then seen retrieving his weekly laundry before we levelled out and went on our way. The pilot flashed me a wide smile and I was promptly airsick - the only time in my two years’ service. This same pilot used to fly low to read road signs when he became lost in murky weather.


When our proudest day came in January 1953, the snow was so deep that our “Wings” were presented to us in one of the hangars by a visiting Air Commodore and the whole Station was on parade. As the 15 of us (seven National Servicemen and eight regulars) were marched towards the hangar, the officer halted us on the wrong foot and poor Syd Heaven fell heavily on his back on the icy tarmac. Immediately, Joe Coley helped Syd to his feet and, while brushing him down, whispered: “That wasn’t your fault. Now brace yourself, son, this is the proudest day of your life. Your uniform’s fine now, so smarten up again and enjoy yourself.” None of us ever forgot Joe’s kindness and support on that important occasion.


Some 15 years later, while working in the City of London, I was going via Liverpool Street Station when l spotted in the crowd a white “cheesecutter” and a heavily-ribboned uniform with a gold Station Warrant Officer’s crown on the sleeve. It was Mr Coley. He was in the Corps of Commissionaires and was Head Messenger for a large company based only 200 yards from my bank head office. We had been working near one another for about five years! I greeted him by saying: “Station WarrantOfficer Joe Coley, RAF Swanton Morley,” and immediately found myself wondering why I was, quite unintentionally, standing to attention in front of him, with my briefcase and folded umbrella, at the age of 34! “I don’t remember your name, laddie, but you were on National Service Course 15, weren’t you?” he said. “Well, Mr Coley, when I was a cadet I thought you were an absolute swine to us but l’ve thanked you many times since for knocking me into shape.” “You aircrew were a high-spirited and undisciplined lot,” he said, “but I had seen it all before and we knew it was essential to keep you in order.” We shook hands and I watched him walk away, looking only slightly older but still immaculate, erect and proud as ever.


I have so many memories of RAF Swanton Morley. The bad ones dimmed by time, the good ones remembered with warm nostalgia. At 18, our very steep learning curve; growing up as a person and an aviator at the same time; homesickness when things got rough; so many different characters from varied backgrounds binding together with one aim - to learn to fly; the keen competition for the eligible pretty girls at the Saturday night East Dereham Memorial Hall dances (never in the field of human ardour were so many chasing so few!). But above all, I remember the special comradeship and camaraderie. We all underwent the fears and anxieties of our very comprehensive, pressurised and often difficult training and of having to conform to Service discipline. But I count myself privileged and immeasurably the richer for having been through those experiences.