A Royal Air Force Family

I don’t know why, but the word ‘family’ seems such a strong word.

When you think of family you think of mums and dads, brothers, sisters, wives, sons and daughters. Well I do, and that got me thinking that maybe, just once, during the RAF’s 100th year, I should tell the story of my RAF family; and this is it.

On Sunday 20th February 1939, a young 20-year-old Motor Salesman from Manchester made his way to the local recruiting office and joined the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Hand – Flight Mechanic. After Initial Training and completion of his Trade Training, including upgrading to complete his Fitter Course in Aero Engines, he began his career in the Royal Air Force, servicing Bomber aircraft at his base in Lincolnshire. With the air war now turning into a Bomber offensive over Germany, along with its significant losses of both aircraft and crews, the need for replacements was high and so it was that this young airman, like hundreds of others, applied to serve as an Air Engineer in Bomber Command. His name was Charlie Quine.

Charlie Quine

Charlie completed his training and on promotion to Sergeant qualified as an Air Engineer on the 25th April 1942. He was posted to 10 Sqn, which were operating the Halifax Bomber as part of the newly created 4 Group of RAF Bomber Command. After completing a ‘very eventful’ first tour (London Gazette’s words, not mine) Charlie was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and posted to Number 1652 OCU as an instructor. He returned to operational flying the next year on 10 Sqn, now stationed at RAF Melbourne in Yorkshire. On the night of the 20th December 1943, whilst on a raid to Frankfurt, Charlie’s Halifax was engaged by a German night fighter from the stern and shot down at 2110hrs, 15 miles outside Frankfurt, just after they had departed the target. After unsuccessfully attempting to extinguish the fire on board and with the aircraft in a steep dive from 17,500ft, he managed to bail out along with the wireless operator and the rear gunner. All 3 were captured soon after and taken to the same police station.

Charlie (Far left) and crew circa 1943

All three were taken to Stalag IV B, close to Muhlenberg on the river Elbe. During his time there, Charlie made 3 attempts to escape and on one occasion spent almost a week on the run before being captured and returned, via the ‘Cooler’! Then, in early April 1945 the Camp was awoken with the shouts of prisoners announcing that the Germans had gone. Charlie and a friend took this opportunity to escape once more and headed west to the R. Elbe where they were captured once more, but this time by Allied soldiers heading East to Berlin. Repatriated to the UK, Charlie would later say he was home a number of months before those other members of the Camp who had waited for the Allies to arrive.

After the War, Charlie continued flying, moving to Sunderlands in the Far East during the Korean War and Beverleys in Khormaksar in Aden during the conflict there. Then, in February 1956 with a reduction in the Royal Air Force numbers, Charlie found himself retraining as an Air Traffic Controller.

Some 5 months before this, during August 1955 in Germany, another young Airman was living his dream…

My Dad in his ‘Meatbox’ as they were known! RAF Alhorn circa 1955

Fg Off Dennis Belcher was serving on Number 256 Sqn, flying Meteor NF11s out of RAF Alhorn. He had completed his flying training in Rhodesia shortly before his posting to Alhorn. Married to Freda, who had grown up alongside Dennis in their home town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, they lived in a married quarter in the local town of Cloppenburg. It was August 1955 and the Squadron had been detached to RAF Sylt in the North of Germany to conduct Armament Practice Camp. Leaving his heavily pregnant wife behind, as you did in those days, Dennis and the rest of the Squadron departed to the North for some high-speed activities, both in the air and no doubt in the bars below. Meanwhile, back in the quarter at Cloppenburg, Freda had realised the time was coming where a visit to the local RAF Hospital at Rostrup was required! I am not sure how she got there, probably walked knowing her – it was a different time back then – but it wasn’t long before their first child was born, a beautiful bouncing boy of a few pounds, or maybe more? Me! As mentioned earlier, it was a different time then, but it wasn’t long before Dennis had been informed that he had to drag himself away from the bar and get himself back to his wife and child. Clambering into the front seat of his ‘meatbox’ and stuffing a large soft, cuddly toy (a lion), between the canopy and the top of his instrument cowling he ‘roared’ back low level, unable to see anything because of the lion (his words, not mine). He broke into the circuit unannounced in amongst a number of Sabers doing approaches from another airfield, (again his words, not mine) and landed perfectly, as you do! This was my Dad, and so started what I feel was my first day in the Royal Air Force, let alone life!

You may think that’s a strange thing to say, but as the eldest of 4 ‘service brats’ who followed their father around during several tours at different stations in the UK, I felt I was on parade every single day of my childhood. As I have said, it was a different time way back then and my parents had come a long way from their childhoods, working hard, achieving a great deal and they were determined that we would do the same. Looking back, I might have passed some of my CSE exams at the local secondary modern, had I not spent most of my school time being taken to this boarding school or that one to sit an entrance exam that I probably would not have passed if I sat it today… But that was then and thinking back it seems it was fashionable to have children and then ‘pack them orf’ to a boarding school and only see them during the holidays. My brother and sister, obviously, didn’t follow my example of not being clever and were sent packing to schools in Norfolk. So, who was clever, me or them?

Anyway, the time soon arrived when I had to make a decision myself. Do I join the Royal Air Force, or do I sit around Thetford living with my Grandparents, as my Dad was currently on a ground Tour at Fylingdales in Yorkshire, and had moved into quarters in Whitby? I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew what my Dad wanted and by this time I was just beginning to realise that my Dad always seemed to be right in the end. I think that is a normal trait, as Dad myself I like to think my son thinks the same?

Soon the time came for me to leave Thetford and make my way North to Whitby, to be greeted by my Dad at York railway station, in his normal service manner, without any formal greeting or questions about my health or well-being, he asked whether I had made up my mind as to what I was going to do. This was another moment in time that I have not forgotten and replied with the answer I hoped he was wanting to hear. ‘Yep, I am going to join the Royal Air Force’ “Good, I am glad you said that.” I bet he was! So, in little under a month I was back on the train at York heading for Newark North Gate and RAF Swinderby for recruit training before a posting to RAF Bawdsey in Suffolk to conduct Trade Training as an Aero Space Systems Operator or ‘Scopie’ as we have become better known as.

After completing Trade Training at Bawdsey, a beautiful spot on the Suffolk Coast, I was posted to Neatishead, just outside Horning in the middle of the ‘Broads’ in my home county of Norfolk. This was to be the first of three tours at Neatishead and still, to this day, it remains one of my favourite places to visit (especially the museum, which is the building where all three of my tours were conducted). I have so many memories, mainly good ones, of the time I spent there. I remember my Dad phoning the Ops room from Fylingdales one night and having a very excited Corporal running around looking for me, finally telling me that there was some Squadron Leader on the phone wanting to speak to me. “That will be my Dad”, I said with a snigger!

The Ops room at RAF Neatishead, as it was back in the 70s and just as it is today

Probably the night I will never forget though, was the Summer Ball at Coltishall in June 1974. First of all, I should have been on nights that evening, but I was basically ordered not to come in and to go to the Ball. Truly, I was not that bothered, I did not even have a ticket to get in. But rather than face the wrath of the Corporal who had told me to go, I devised a way of getting into the ‘Number One Club’ without being asked for a ticket. This meant entering the Airmen’s mess through the kitchens and sneaking into the adjacent building next door through a ‘secret’ adjoining door, where the ball was being held. Once in, it was straight to the bar and a few light and bitters later it was like I had never been away! Anyway, at some point during the evening, I was approached by an absolutely beautiful girl. We started chatting and dancing, as you do, before I asked her if she would like a drink. “Yes please, I will have a tomato juice”. Well you could have knocked me over with a …… whatever! A tomato juice? No one drinks tomato juice outside of the Officers mess, do they? I’m in here, a beautiful girl who doesn’t drink. Game on!

Having wished her good night and seeing her off with her friend, I returned to my room on my own. Waking up the next morning (probably shortly before lunch) I remember laying there and trying to work out what on earth had happened the night before? A girl, yes, a girl! A beautiful girl even! What was her name though? I racked my fuzzy brain and wished I had tried harder at school at all that remembering stuff. I am sure it had something to do with a car? Morris, Austin, (It was 1974 remember), Triumph? No, obviously. And then it struck me. Genevieve! Yep that was it, Genevieve…and I agreed to meet her in Norwich later.

So, here we are in 1974. The RAF family is still going with myself and my Dad and it is just about to get a whole lot bigger, not to mention scary.

Genevieve and I had been going out with each other for a little while when she said I should come and meet the rest of her family. I had already met her Mum, but meeting the rest of her family was a step up as far as I was concerned, so I thought I should ask her about them, something I should have done earlier, but just never got around to doing!

“So, tell me about the rest of your family, I have met your Mum and she is lovely”….

“Well, I have three brothers, two of which are in the Royal Air Force just like you”

“Oh really, what do they do?”

“They are chefs and are Corporals, one is on his way back from Singapore this weekend which is why I think you should come over to Watton and meet them. Everyone will be there”!

“OK, that’s fine, what about your Dad, what does he do”?

“Oh, he is in the Royal Air Force as well, he will be there, obviously”!

“Really, oh good, but what rank is he and what does he do”, I asked nervously.

“He is a Controller at Easter Radar, but I am not sure what his rank is”.

“Hmm a Controller, he must wear chevrons on his BD jacket surely”?

“Chevrons?” She queried.

“Yeah, like your brothers will have two on their arm as they are Corporals”.

“No”, Genevieve replied, he doesn’t have any of them. “He has a huge Crown shaped badge at the bottom of his left arm though”!

Blooming heck (or words to that effect..) he is a Warrant Officer!!

“Well he might be, he has a chest full of medals and a ‘wing’ thing above them”!

Oh no! What is happening to me? Why can’t life be less complicated?! I strive every day to keep out of Warrant Officer Ops’ way and now I have to go and meet what will turn out to be my future father in law and not only is he a Warrant Officer, he is really a Master Engineer with a War record! All of a sudden, that feeling of being the King of the World, as all 19-year-old Senior Aircraftsman thought they were, was draining pretty fast from my body!

And so it was I met Charlie Quine, a lovely man who had fought in the Second World War as an Air Engineer on Halifaxes, before I went on to marry his daughter to extend our Royal Air Force family. Her two brothers served until the 1990’s. My Dad was just about to leave as we got married, having been made redundant as part of the Labour Party Defence cuts of the 1970’s, having spent a lot of time flying the Victor, both in its low level bomber role out of RAF Honington in the early 1960’s through to the Tanker variant out of RAF Marham, from where I remember really getting that Royal Air Force bug that probably sealed my future.

My Dad in his Victor days. Apparently, he was in Australia, and she was a reporter on a jolly! But knowing my Dad, it could have been anywhere.

This year marks my 25th year at RAF Waddington. I arrived during the summer of 1993 and began Sentry Long Course number 6, graduating as a Surveillance Operator on 13th December 1993. The Station Commander at the time was once a Co-Pilot on one of my Dad’s Crews way back then, showing just how small this Royal Air Force ‘family’ is. After 15 years of flying in the E-3D and 35 years in the Royal Air Force, I left in February 2009 to join Inzpire as an ISR SME at the Air Battlespace Training Centre (ABTC) in 1 hangar at RAF Waddington.

Happy days! On the pan at Aviano, Italy

Sitting up front having a break, somewhere over the Adriatic during the summer of 1996 on Op Decisive Endeavor (previously known as Op Deny Flight amongst others).

Although there is no longer a member of our family serving today, it still feels very much like I am still “in”, especially working at the ABTC. It has that Squadron feel about it and like the whole of the Inzpire family, there are some great people in there who have achieved some really great things. People use the term legend for all the wrong reasons and that is why I shall refer to them as great people and reserve the term legend to my late father in law, MEng Charles Quine DFM.

Just as a footnote, my nephew, who continued to serve after I had left, joined the Royal Air Force during the late 1980’s as an Aircraft Mechanic and served at RAF Marham on Tornadoes before passing his fitters course and moving to Odiham on Chinooks. He left after 22 years and so closed the loop to his Grandfather Charlie Quine, a true legend!

In this, the 100th year of the Royal Air Force that is my story of an Royal Air Force Family, from 1939 until today. I hope I haven’t bored you too much?

Per ardua ad astra