It has become commonplace to note that in the Battle of Britain "the Few"were supported by "the Many." As a rule of thumb, it took nine men on the ground to support one man in the air and this was not just true in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, it was true throughout the war in Bomber Command as well. That figure includes cooks, stewards and batmen, medical personnel, the clerks looking after supplies and records, the intelligence and control room staff, armorers and communications specialists and more. All personnel on an RAF station contributed in some way to victory by doing their jobs. Yet, just behind the pilots in importance were -- in my opinion -- the ground crews that maintained the aircraft under extremely difficult circumstances. The "erks" in RAF jargon.
It was no accident that the RAF was able to rely upon superb ground support throughout the Second World War. From its inception as a separate service, the RAF had broken with the army and navy and consciously set out to establish an entirely new institution with an ethos all its own. The founder of the RAF talked of creating and encouraging an "air spirit." [Quoted in Patrick Bishop. Fighter Boys. HarperCollins, 2003, 28] Yet while that might have been interpreted as a focus on flying alone, Trenchard recognized from first hand experience the need for qualified ground crew. At the same time that he established the Royal Air Force College a Cranwell to train officers and research centers for aircraft development, he established an apprentice program to attract technically minded young men to serve on the ground in his fledgling service.
Apprentices received their education, room and board free, but committed to twelve years of service. They were sent to a training institute at Halton Park in Hertfordshire where they lived under RAF discipline. From the day the training program opened it was popular. The applicants came from the lower middle and upper working classes and it was seen as a huge opportunity to enter the glamorous world of aviation. Getting in was not easy. Not only were there thousands of applicants for the limited number of spaces (five thousand for the 300 spaces in 1921), but applicants also had to pass an entry exam including English, mathematics and science. Although youths as young as 15 were accepted into the program, few youth who had left school at 14 could pass the exam and it was generally the children of families affluent enough to keep their boys in school to 16 who filled the ranks.
Training lasted three years and in some ways the graduates of Halton were as well educated as the graduates of Cranwell. This inevitably led to a blurring of the distinctions between the ranks, reducing the sense of divide between officers and other ranks, something Trenchard appears to have consciously sought. Bishop writes: "Trenchard was as proud of Halton as he was of Cranwell. He was aware that by engineering a new class of educated other ranks, the first in British military history, he was doing something radical, almost revolutionary." [Bishop, 34]
Furthermore, the RAF actively encouraged ambition by offering cadet scholarships to Cranwell for the three best apprentices each year. Another training scheme allowed flying training for outstanding ground crew, who thereby gained sergeant's stripes regardless of what trade they fulfilled on the ground and when the war started, roughly one quarter of the RAF's pilots were regular sergeant pilots trained through this scheme. In 1944, Trenchard told parliament that the apprentice program had contributed significantly to social mobility and meritocracy within the RAF.
Under the circumstances and given the fact that many pilots came up from the ranks themselves, it is hardly surprising that the relations between pilots and ground crews were on the whole excellent. Furthermore, in the Battle of Britain, and indeed throughout the war, individual crews looked after individual aircraft and so specific pilots. The ground crews identified strongly with their unit – and ‘their’ pilots.
In the Battle of Britain, the bombing of the airfields started in mid-August, the ground crews were themselves under attack, suffering casualties and working under deplorable conditions – often without hot food, dry beds, adequate sleep and no leave. The ground crews never failed their squadrons. Aircraft were turned around – rearmed, re-fuelled, and thoroughly checked – in just minutes.
Indeed, throughout the war, RAF ground crews served "their" aircraft and aircrews with dedication. They worked long hours, often through the night or in rain or snow, to ensure aircraft were not only serviceable but as safe to fly as possible.
A Rose in November: A WWII Love Story for the Not-so-Young features a ground crew chief.
Not all lovers are young. Rhys Jenkins is “Chiefy” of a Spitfire squadron in late 1940, a full-time job in itself, but he is also a widower with two teenage children in need of his attention. Hattie FitzSimmons has devoted her life to the Salvation Army ever since WWI ended her hopes for a husband and family of her own. They are no longer young when they find each other, but they both feel things are ‘right’ — until Rhys discovers that Hattie has been hiding something from him.
A Rose in November is one of three tales bundled in Grounded Eagles. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles