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RAF Recollections

by Barry Smithard

I was posted to, and eventually stationed at RAF West Prawle, where I spent the Christmases of 1953 and 1954 and two summers. This was not a demanding posting. We had to operate the ground element of one of the Gee slave stations, changing transmitters once every 24 hours to meet Air Ministry requirements for navigation systems.

It left us a great deal of free time when we were on duty and even more when we weren’t! To keep anybody from finding the stations a cunning ploy was used. RAF West Prawle was sited at East Prawle and no doubt caused confusion as well as useful security cover. With this lack of an accurate location site name plus the generous time one could devote to personal business, I read everything in the library, starting at Asimov and finishing with Zola – the final line having been read aloud as a marker to signal the end of a useful period of education.

One lucky airman had an MG sports car and a girlfriend in Kingsbridge. He was a frequent traveller between the 2 places which were 12 miles apart. Anybody requiring a lift into Kingsbridge was happily accommodated. The only requirement for satisfaction was an iron nerve. You had to accept the fact that his standing ambition was to beat the time between Kingsbridge and East Prawle – 12 miles in 12 mins. He managed it occasionally, usually at night with little traffic of the road. Not unsurprisingly, the number of volunteers were few and far between. In his flying jacket, sheepskin boots, silk scarf and monogrammed gloves he maintained an image as a sporting young fighter pilot, familiar to all who had seen one of the wartime films of the Battle of Britain.

Anyone faced with the walk from the technical site to the domestic units at night had a character-forming experience waiting for them if they were in any way superstitious. Roughly halfway between the camp and The Pig’s Nose the road followed the track of the old road to East Prawle. At the dead of night, when nothing was stirring the air would go cold and, without noticing, a black coach drawn by black horses, the funeral cortege of who knows, would draw up alongside the unfortunate pedestrian silently and the coachman enquire in a regional, sepulchral voice if the gentleman would like a lift. The last part of the journey to East Prawle was usually the fastest. I never met anybody who chose to accept the favour offered to them.

A man who was the most interesting to pass a spare hour with was the village blacksmith. He operated from an open front forge situated on the same side of the square as the Pig’s Nose. The fascination stemmed from his extraordinary dexterity in his fashioning of buttonhole brooch rosebuds in wrought iron. The smallest tool he used being a 3lb club hammer. He handled it with all the craft and sensitivity necessary for such an unusual product. They were collector’s pieces – a collection being something of a problem as it used to take him about three months of spare time to make one. He mostly refused to sell them.

On one occasion when I had been admiring his roses he volunteered the information that he thought I took much too seriously his endeavours in the arts. He told me I had to calm down somewhat with my prose and simultaneously he plunged a set of horse shoes into a large bucket of cold water. He held them as a great steaming and bubbling took place as the shoes cooled. He waited until the fuss in the bucket had abated and said that I should learn from the event. It wasn’t worth making too much fuss about anything because in a very short space of time it would certainly calm back to nothing.

One of the local farmers kept two dray horses – one Punch and one Shire – which spent time out to pasture on the village green while they were shod. When I asked my artistic friend the smith if there was a difference in the shoeing technique for shires as opposed to ‘normal’ horses he said that if the horse felt dissatisfied with the work being carried out on its behalf it would draw attention to this by gradually transferring its weight from the three hooves it was standing on to the small of your back, by focussing its mass on the hoof you had clasped between your legs for the fitting, filing and cutting. (A shire horse weighs around one ton.) The smith said if this weight transfer took place you would feel your feet spread out in your boots and the horse would shift its position to ensure that your back would remind you of, perhaps, a moment’s inattention in the service you had provided. The blacksmith’s view was that shoeing shire horses was not a job for an amateur.

Living so close to Salcombe meant that the entertainment value of that delightful resort attracted other memorable events. One such was the sinking of the E Prawle to Salcombe ferry. One evening the party of 12 or so airmen visited the hostelries in Salcombe and missed the official ferry as it finished at 9.00pm. Six of the merry men who had set out faced the problem by borrowing a rowing boat and collecting a full cargo of 8 persons for the oar-powered trip back across the harbour pick-up point to the jetty landing point on the Prawle side of the estuary. Unfortunately the other 6 had not managed to find a free for hire boat and were encouraged by their colleagues to load the boat with more than it was designed to carry. It was 25yards out and the freeboard of 2in, combined with the running tide and unskilled oarsmen, combined to make the temporary ferry take in water in a short time in full view of all the tourists looking on. It sank slowly out of site with a member of the crew stood bravely in the bow at salute. All were pulled out by hotel guests and passing strangers – with no loss of life but considerable loss of dignity. This demonstration of gallantry so much impressed the spectators that they convinced the ferryman to take his boat out on an unscheduled trip to get the now soaking party back to E Prawle.

The camp divided into two sections covering Christmas 1954 and New Year 1955 so that everyone could get home on leave for one or other of the two events. I elected to stay for Christmas and one of the entertainments we chose to produce, for one night only, was the East Prawle Empire Xmas Panto: Dick Whittington. This involved a home made script and simple popular songs of the day. About a dozen people were involved; in fancy dress, other surreal costumes or no costumes – anything visually arresting. The local populace of about 50-75 people attended.

I was a one-man orchestra on accordion. Dick Whittington got the part because he was the tallest. Half a dozen local girls were personally selected to play peasant girls. It was in 2 acts of numerous scenes.

The storyline was that Dick is a poor boy who owns only a cat. He hears an island in the Caribbean is overrun with rats and goes to the Bahamas, gets rid of the rats and gets some money as a reward. But the rats follow him back to London on his ship so he gets the Pied Piper of Hamelin to help drive the rats into the river. Then the King makes him Lord Mayor and everybody lives happily ever after.

It was a first night triumph because Dick Wittington drank most of the cider provided by our sponsor: The Pigs Nose Inn. The girls got flowers on stage after the finale. The well which provided escape for the rats was an oil drum which could be used as a passage below the stage, but so many of the cast stood on it that the lid jammed. We resorted to turning off all the house lights for escapes. A light signalling system was also used to prompt me as to when to start the next tune.

Those who were asked made it plain that Dick Whittington exceeded even the excellence of the previous year’s Xmas film festival, which required live dialogue to link the beginning and end reels of a three-reeler which arrived with a different film as reel two!

Opportunities for sport were limited owing to the radar watch-keeping schedule which was an insurmountable handicap for those required to be on duty at the same time as local clubs played their matches. Cricket was hopeless in this respect. Soccer was a possibility given some careful scheduling of matches, however it had limited appeal following an unfortunate experience at a village (no names, no pack drill) where the local side were so incensed when the RAF team went one-up, after a penalty, that the Sgt who was playing on the right wing had a large hatpin stuck in his behind by one of the women of the village as he went to take a corner. Following the resultant altercation between those most immediately incensed by the incident they were even more surprised when their next move was interrupted by a hail of stones. It was judged necessary to evacuate the pitch and leave instantly, without changing, in the truck that had delivered them to the match, clasping their civilian clothes to hand.

Prawle wildlife on the cliffs facing the camp provided hours of interest. Undoubtedly the most unusual thing I saw at that time was in the summer of 1955.  When I saw, on the path leading from the station to a cliff top track, two vipers mating. They positioned themselves apart then squirmed and intertwined and rose up as a single column like the serpents on a medical officer’s collar badge. They did not touch but corkscrewed up and down until they spotted me and having seen me they, no doubt embarrassed at being caught at such an intimate time, went heads down into the bush. I subsequently learned that it was very rare indeed to witness this courting ritual.

A sad nature experience was had by all who witnessed the effects of the myxomatosis programme which decimated the local rabbit population in the mid-1950s.

I left the RAF on 5 Aug 1955 with the rank of Sergeant to go into a period of two years reserved service, during which I could be called back into RAF operations with no notice.

B G Smithard : 20th July 2017

For the full, unedited version of these memories please contact Barry Smithard on pam@smithard.demon.co.uk.

 Ro Ward’s youthful memories  Jan Page’s thoughts Ashley Ford’s WWII memories   Barry Smithard’s recollections