‘Keep em Flying’ – Ground Support operations during WWII
Most Aerodrome readers will tend to share the opinion that aeroplanes are quite simply the most exciting and interesting machines created by man – it also follows that man’s conquering of the skies is arguably his most impressive achievement. Since the Wright Brothers made their first monumental flights in 1903, the aeroplane has developed into a monstrous machine that is capable of carrying passengers halfway around the world, to a war machine possessing devastating destructive power. No matter which area of aviation you find most interesting, none of these fascinating machines could even make it off the ground without the assistance of an army of ground based engineering and general logistic support, be this military or civilian. In the latest edition of Aerodrome, we are going to focus on the essential support provided by RAF ground units during WWII and how these highly specialised tradespeople were just as important as the aircrews who took these aircraft into battle.
Ground Crew Training – The Pride of the RAF
Throughout the majority of 2015, Britain has seen a number of high profile events specifically organised to commemorate the significant achievements of the young Fighter Command pilots of the Battle of Britain. These brave airmen put their lives on the line against overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable odds, during the summer of 1940 and although they earned the respect and admiration of a grateful nation, they were not alone. Their ability to stay in the fight and write their glorious chapter in military history, was directly due to an army of dedicated and highly professional ground support trades, who will proudly tell anyone who is interested to listen that they only loaned the Spitfires and Hurricanes to the pilots of the Battle of Britain – the aircraft actually belonged to them!
As the world was plunged into the second global conflict in a generation, the importance of an effective air force could not be more critical to combatant nations. Equally important for defensive and offensive operations, a large and powerful air force would determine a country’s ability to fight and eventually dictated the outcome of the entire conflict. The infrastructure behind an effective air force was as immense as it was costly, but its organisational framework would directly reflect the capability of the force itself.
Without doubt, one of Britain’s most significant attributes at the outset of WWII was the effectiveness of its ground crew training regime. Under the stewardship of Hugh Trenchard, Marshall of the RAF, Britain had an apprenticeship programme that was arguably the most advanced of its kind in the world. It produced large numbers of ground trade professionals, who were extremely capable and highly qualified in all aspects of aviation preparation and maintenance. The ‘Halton Apprenticeship Programme’ took young boys of 15 years old and gave them a rigorous and structured three year training programme, before they were inducted into the ranks of the Royal Air Force. Although still only eighteen years old, these young men were extremely capable technicians, with the energy and determination to make their mark in their chosen field and with the approaching clouds of war, they became the bedrock of the RAF ground crew force. Obviously, impending conflict resulted in many more people being required to train for this important role and although the training programme would have to be modified somewhat, to accommodate this increase in numbers, the effectiveness of this established system would continue to produce well trained ground crews.
Wartime Ground Crew Training for the RAF
RAF fitters working on the Merlin engine of a Boulton Paul Defiant
Before students could embark on the technical training they were keen to get stuck into, they were forced to endure a period of standard initial training, where they would be introduced to life in the forces. This would consist of drill, physical training, firearms training and a host of other disciplines – as Britain was now operating under wartime conditions, this period of training did not always take place in traditional military establishments, with many recruits being billeted with local families. Although better than a basic tin barrack billet, they would still be bound by strict curfews and would be required to assist with general household chores. With training camps in such places as Blackpool in Lancashire, recruits could find themselves running on the beach, being instructed by famous footballers!
Once recruits progressed on to their individual specialist training programme, such as flight mechanic, they began by learning how to use the many hand tools and measuring instruments they would come into contact with during their service career. Once this relatively gentle introduction had been negotiated, it was on to the serious business of practical instruction and technical studies. For propulsion engineers (fitters), this would usually require them to totally strip down an aero engine into its component parts, before it was rebuilt and tested. At the end of the course, which would take several months to complete, there were final written examinations, followed by an oral test – these were designed to be extremely demanding, as the recruits had benefited from some of the finest tuition available anywhere in the world. The most proficient students were awarded the rank of Leading Aircraftman 1st Class (LAC) and they could be rightly proud of their achievement.
Classic image of RAF ground crew working on a Hurricane fighter
Following this main period of training, recruits were usually sent for further training designed to give them a specific understanding of airframe and aircraft operating systems. This would include instruction on aircraft manufacture, hydraulic and electrical systems and general aircraft equipment. A recruit would be given an opportunity to indicate which aircraft type they would prefer to work on (for example a Short Stirling) and if they were lucky, they were assigned to that aircraft, but it is questionable as to how much choice they actually had! They would then be sent on a ‘Makers, or Manufacturers Course’, where the recruit would actually go to one of Britain’s aircraft manufacturers and experience the construction of the aircraft they would be working on, along with the operation of its systems. This was definitely not an easy option, as this was an extremely intense period of instruction and included comprehensive lectures and constant testing. The next step was an operational posting.
RAF ERK’s – Backbone of the Force
Avro Lancaster ‘Just Jane’ and her re-enactor ground crew
When discussing the contribution of RAF aircraftmen during WWII, it is worthwhile looking at some of the terminology used to describe the various trades on British airfields. The term ‘Erk’ is often thought to be something of a derogatory term, but is actually something much more innocent – quite simply, it is an abbreviation of the Cockney pronunciation of Aircraftman (Erkraftman). In general, the term ‘Fitter’ related to technicians who were responsible for engines and a multitude of other mechanical parts, whilst ‘Riggers’ were charged with looking after airframe and related components, including the important task of fuelling the aircraft. ‘Armourers’ were responsible for bringing live weapons to the aircraft, loading bombs and guns and ensuring the smooth operation of all aspects of the aircrafts armament.
Each RAF Squadron required a large number of ground staff to ensure the effective operation of the unit and the role they played cannot be underestimated. The senior administrative officer who held this all together was the Squadron Adjutant, who was often a veteran of the Great War, but in almost all cases, was a highly respected and extremely organised officer, who had a vital role to fulfil. Under his immediate command were the multitude of trades and professions that were essential for the Squadron to operate effectively. These included the Supplies, Intelligence, Catering, Medical, Signals, Armaments and Engineering Officers, plus the men and women under their direct command. Also, members from the Squadrons flight personnel would also act as liaison officers and covered such important positions as Gunnery, Bombing, Navigation and Signals – they would act as the direct links between flight and ground operations.
Work would often have to be carried out on exposed areas of the airfield
As you can see from the list of ground trades above, getting a single operational RAF aircraft into the air during WWII, required the input and expertise of a large number of military personnel, but for the purposes of this latest Aerodrome article, we are going to look specifically at the roles of the Engineering and Armaments Officers and the important work that they and their men did. With the responsibility for the maintenance of all aircraft and aircraft systems in the Squadron to which he was assigned, the Engineering Officer had to ensure that as many of his aircraft were serviceable and available for operations at any given time. When considering that all this had to be achieved under wartime conditions, it is difficult to imagine the constant pressure the Engineering Officer must have been under. Thankfully, he could count on the support of a dedicated group of highly skilled tradesmen, who took the serviceability of the aircraft under their charge as a matter of immense pride. Time and time again, they would work long hours, often in extremely challenging conditions to ensure that their particular airmen were going to war in aircraft that had been prepared to the highest possible standards. I am specifically shying away from making a statement as naive as suggesting some aircraft were more airworthy than others, because there really is only one type of airworthy – they either are, or they are not! Nevertheless, RAF ground crews would strive to ensure that their Squadron was the most efficient in the entire air force.
A Typical RAF Erk’s Day
Many aviation enthusiasts would not usually consider the important work of RAF ground crews during WWII, as it is actually the aircraft and the crews that operated them that are the source of their aviation fascination. For this reason, it is worthwhile trying to get some idea of the important work that ground trades did and how their efforts were paramount in the operational effectiveness of any RAF Squadron. Let’s take a look at a typical RAF Erk’s day.
Crew of a Lancaster conduct a ‘line walk’ with their ground crew
Life as an RAF aircraftman during WWII was one of pressure, long hours and hardship, as the operational effectiveness of the entire Squadron and their ability to fight was squarely on their shoulders. It is true to say that if you were posted to one of the many RAF Maintenance Units around the country, you could expect to work more regular hours, but if you were assigned to an operational Squadron, things could be very different and it is difficult to imagine how they managed to retain morale and general well-being.
For ground crews assigned to bomber Squadrons on night operations, the working day would start early in the morning with the Daily Inspection. The crew that had flown the aircraft on the last operation would come down to the bomber and discuss with the ground crew any issues that they experienced with either the aircraft, equipment, or engines during the mission. Anything highlighted as a problem was noted on a Form 700, which was colloquially referred to as a ‘snag sheet’, but was a significant document on an RAF airfield. As long as Form 700 was in the hands of the ground crew, that particular aircraft belonged to them and it was unavailable for operations – no one on the airfield could order an erk to sign off the aircraft, until he was happy that everything on the snag sheet had been rectified and checked. Once all the work had been completed and the captain of the aircraft was happy, he would be asked to sign the form and responsibility for the aircraft would pass back to him.
The daily aircraft inspections would include a check of all engine controls and the power plants themselves (obviously a Lancaster, Halifax, or Stirling would require four engines to be checked), checks of all hydraulic and pneumatic systems and the multitude of electrical systems on the aircraft. Tyres and brakes would also need to be checked, as would aircraft safety systems and fire extinguishers. If the aircraft had suffered any structural damage during the mission, riggers would be patching up the affected areas, which could require the station metalworkers to produce replacement panels, which would need to be fitted, riveted and painted before the aircraft was available for operations. As this was going on, fitters would be ground running the engines and checking the units for tell tale signs of ‘mag drop’, fuel, or oil leaks and rectifying anything they found. When you consider the complexity of a large aero engine and how all its moving parts would have to be checked, greased and lubricated, it is hard to see how all this work could have been achieved in a single day. Once all this work had been completed, the aircraft was signed off and released for operations, even though in many cases, a test flight would have been needed and further work required once it returned. Even then, the aircraft would have to be prepared for the next mission and there would have been a number of other aircraft that were due for major inspections and more invasive maintenance.
An RAF Halifax suffers some structural damage on operations
Once an aircraft was signed off, it would have to be prepared for the next operation and required an intense period of activity, from a large number of people. The fuel tanks would have to be filled with enough aviation fuel for the particular mission that was being flown and required some rather complex mathematical calculations to be done, with absolutely no margin for error. Each aircraft would have a safe operating weight, which must be strictly adhered to and include the weight of the aircraft itself, the crew, bomb load, ammunition and fuel. Depending on the distance to the latest target to be attacked, the amount of fuel and bombs the aircraft could carry would have to be closely monitored, to ensure the all up weight of the aircraft was not exceeded and the crew had enough fuel to cover almost any eventuality. If fuel loads were calculated incorrectly, the bomber may not have enough range to get back home.
Whilst the fitters were preparing the aircraft for flight, armourers would be collecting their bombs from the nearby bomb dump and assembling them before transporting them to the dispersal pan. The bombs would need to have stabilizer fins attached to them, before the fuses and detonators could be installed and safety wires attached. The prepared bombs would then be transported to the aircraft and expertly winched in to position and made active. Other armourers would be working on the defensive guns of the bomber, including cleaning, oiling and checking for the free operation of all guns. It was also important to check the ammunition tracks for damage, as even the slightest kink, or dent in the track could result in the gun being starved of ammunition and failing to fire – this could prove disastrous for the crew. Ammunition belts would arrive at the aircraft pre-assembled from the supply area, but invariably, the committed and professional armourers would run the belts through a positioning machine one last time, to further reduce the possible risk of jamming.
The final, but no less important jobs included the thorough cleaning of all cockpit and gun position Perspex panels and the pilots windscreen anti-icing fluid reservoirs topped up and pumps checked. All lights were checked and replaced if necessary, by which time the crew were probably taking their positions in the aircraft. Usually, there would be any number of unforeseen, last minute issues that would require immediate attention, before the ground crew chief supervised the engine start-up procedure. The very last job was to remove the wheel chocks and wish the crew good luck!
Armourers ‘bombing up’ a Short Stirling, whilst fitters work on the engines
End of the Working Day
When attached to an operational Squadron, there is no doubting that the days of RAF ground crews were long and arduous – they would say that they worked hard and played hard, although there would be very little time for play. When aircraft needed to be prepared, aircraftmen would be on the airfield for as long as it took to get the job done, grabbing a quick sandwich, or a few minutes rest in the hangar, or on the dispersal pan when they could. Despite the intensity of the work, morale was good amongst the men and the entire network of trades worked like a well oiled machine – they were a credit to the RAF and the nation as a whole.
When all the aircraft had left the airfield and everything had been tidied away, the Erks would head for the NAAFI and a well earned hot meal and some banter with their mates – if they needed a little time on their own, it also offered dedicated reading and writing rooms, which were a little less boisterous. Camp life was rather mundane and the men would have to make their own entertainment for the few hours they had to themselves. Listening to the radio, playing cards, chatting, or writing letters home would usually fill their time, before they turned in for some much needed sleep. Their accommodation could vary dramatically, dependant on their particular posting – many mainland RAF stations would have stone barrack blocks, which were heated and relatively comfortable. Other stations and certainly overseas postings could involve sleeping in rudimentary huts, or even tents, which were heated by burning re-claimed engine oil from the machines they had been working on. No matter what the accommodation, they would not be in it for long, as the aircraft soon returned and their toils began again!
Ground crews could eat and socialise in the NAAFI restaurant
During hectic periods, ground crews could find themselves working every day of the week, with very little time to themselves - if they were fortunate, they may be allowed half a day off duty, which would usually be spent catching up on sleep. All too rarely, they were allowed to leave the camp and experience what it was like to be a civilian once more – these times were precious. An enjoyable evening at the theatre, or just a few drinks in the local pub were usually enough to re-charge the batteries and ensure that the important work that these men were doing continued to be done effectively and to an extremely high standard. Despite what they may have thought of themselves, the ground crews of the Royal Air Force proved to be a decisive factor in the eventual Allied victory.
Unfortunately for ground crews posted overseas, they would have to endure all the rigors of an Erk’s existence, with fewer amenities and even less opportunity for off camp diversions. They were also there at the Kings pleasure, with no indication of when they might expect to go home!
A Dangerous Life
Working on a Wellington engine – a health and safety nightmare!
Not only was the work of RAF ground crews during WWII long and arduous, it was also extremely dangerous and many aircraftmen lost their lives, or suffered serious injury in the execution of their duties. By its nature, an operational airfield is a hazardous environment at the best of times, but during wartime conditions and working under extreme pressure, the possibility of accidents and injuries was greatly increased. Without looking at the hazards of working with highly flammable materials, or dealing with live explosives and ammunition, there was a more deadly peril – tiredness. Weary erks could quite easily walk into the path of a turning propeller, or simply fall off the wing of the Lancaster they were working on! The work of an RAF aircraftman was difficult and required great attention to detail – the lives of a great many airmen depended on their professionalism. The pressures under which they were required to work dictated that fatigue was a constant problem and it really is difficult to imagine how they managed to keep going. Most days brought the latest, highly pressured deadline, with a line of aircraft that needed to be prepared for the next mission and the option of missing the deadline simply not being an option.
Ground crews would work outside, in all weather conditions
It is also significant to note that much of this highly technical work had to be completed on the open dispersals of airfield, as there simply was not the hangar space available for the number of aircraft that needed to be prepared. In all weathers and during every season, aircraftmen would have to complete their work in some extremely challenging conditions, making the best of the situation and erecting rudimentary shelters to allow them to stay dry whilst doing their work. The medical teams would regularly have to deal with cuts and crush injuries, or have to tend to ground crew who had fallen from aircraft, or scaffolding. In extreme cases, they would be forced to deal with people who had inadvertently walked into a turning propeller and had either suffered serious injury, or worse as a result. Even simply walking into an aircraft wing, or static propeller could cause a nasty cut, or concussion and despite the best efforts of the Engineering Officers, fatigue and pressured workloads continued to result in large numbers of injured aircraftmen.
A hectic wintery scene at Banff airfield
To try and illustrate the labours of RAF ground crews during WWII, let’s consider the extremely active airfield at Banff, in Aberdeenshire during the last months of the war. Situated on the exposed northern coast of Aberdeenshire, this airfield was responsible for mounting highly effective coastal strike operations towards the end of WWII. With rather basic airfield amenities available to the many ground crews stationed at Banff, the Mosquito strike aircraft they were working on had to be prepared on open dispersals, in all weathers. As operations proved to be extremely intensive, this was a busy airfield, with fully fuelled and armed Mosquitos seemingly taxiing in every direction. Conditions during the cold winter months were harsh, to say the least, but there was no let up in the number of sorties flown by the Banff based squadrons – the highly specialised work of the ground crews, which required great attention to detail and dexterity in abundance, had to be carried out in often freezing conditions and in poor light. As the pressure began to take its toll on the ‘erks’, so the number of deaths and injuries on the station began to increase. Falling from slippy aircraft, suffering from frostbite, or coming into contact with a turning propeller were all hazards that faced the Banff ground crews on a daily basis. Despite these challenging working conditions, the Banff erks kept their Mosquitos flying and enabled them to make a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. These unsung heroes proved to be an essential component in the overall effectiveness of RAF operations and their contribution was not lost on the aircrews who relied on their professionalism and devotion to duty.
Armourers load rockets onto a shipping strike Mosquito at Banff
In truth, it is perfectly understandable that many aviation enthusiasts don’t look beyond the pilots, personalities and aircraft that fascinate them, but considering how they managed to get their aircraft into the air reveals a much larger team of people, who were determined to allow these airmen to operate their aircraft safely. Not only did RAF ground crews make a significant contribution to the war effort, they also made their own personal sacrifices, with many paying the ultimate price for their dedication to the cause. As we are rightly proud of the famous airmen who fought and flew during the Second World War, we should also acknowledge the skill and determination of the many ground personnel who prepared their aircraft and did their best to make sure they came home safely.
Ground Crew diorama for the Airfix modeller
Diorama sets bring any model display to life
For many plastic modellers and die-cast aviation collectors, displaying their beloved models as part of a well thought out diorama scene really brings the best out of their hobby. Allowing the more creative hobbyists to emulate scenes that must have been familiar on airfields all over the world during the past one hundred years or so, a well constructed diorama certainly adds interest to any model display and is a real subject of conversation for anyone viewing your aircraft collection.
Over the years, Airfix have produced a number of different kits that certainly enhance any model collection and since the appearance of die-cast model collecting, these fantastic diorama kits have also been used to benefit the metal model alternatives. Acting as something of a crossover product, these diorama kits continue to enjoy great popularity within the hobby, with new kits being announced all the time. Designed specifically to allow the modeller to recreate aviation ground crew scenes, the latest Airfix diorama set (A04702) has been released to coincide with the new 1/48th scale Spitfire and Hurricane kit releases and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
A Battle of Britain Hurricane being prepared for action
As these fantastic images confirm, even though these magnificent 1/48th scale aircraft kits are amongst the very best in the hobby, they look even better when displayed with the fitters and armourers of the RAF ground crew set. As if to prove the popularity of this diorama set, A04702 is not currently available on the Airfix website, but if you search for this kit, you can register for a stock alert e-mail when further supplies are received in the warehouse, to make sure that you are one of the first to receive this popular item.
Banff Strike Wing in 1/24th Scale
The magnificent box artwork used on the 1/24th scale Airfix Mosquito
Without doubt, one of the most impressive kits ever to be produced by Airfix is their magnificent 1/24th scale De Havilland Mosquito FB IV - indeed, the detail and accuracy of this model must surely set it as one of the most accomplished model kits in the entire hobby. Used by many modellers and modelling societies as a benchmark construction project to showcase their capabilities, the Airfix Mosquito kit has been designed to faithfully reproduce every aspect of this classic British fighter bomber and to include enough detail to challenge even the most accomplished modeller.
The much loved 1/24th scale Mosquito had not featured in the previous few Airfix catalogues, leaving modellers looking to challenge themselves with this impressive kit having to search long and hard to secure an example. Many modelling forums contained threads calling for Airfix re-release of this Mosquito kit over recent months and thankfully, their requests did not fall on deaf ears. Announced in the 2015 catalogue, Airfix are re-issuing their magnificent Mosquito and supplies are due to arrive at the warehouse just before Christmas, which will surely delight many modellers. A25001A includes decal options to finish the model as one of the famous Banff Strike Wing Mosquitos, which harassed German shipping in the final months of WWII and are surely some of the most aesthetically pleasing RAF aircraft of the war. For the latest information on the release of this much requested model and for detailed pictures of the kit, head for the 1/24th scale section of the Airfix website.
De Havilland Mosquito FB.IV of the famous Banff Strike Wing
Thank you for reading this edition of our Aerodrome blog. Even though we have not directly featured an individual aircraft this week, I hope that you enjoyed this look at the important work of RAF ground crews and how this army of related support trades were critical to the operational effectiveness of the Squadrons they represented. Hopefully, it highlights some of the perils RAF ‘Erks’ faced in the daily execution of their duties and how they performed these duties with a high degree of dedication and professionalism, earning the respect and admiration of the airmen they supported.
As usual, we are always keen for readers to discuss our latest blog either on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum or Corgi Aerodrome Forum. If you have any specific comments, questions or suggestions for future editions of Aerodrome, please feel free to let us know via Airfix Facebook or Corgi Facebook, or on Airfix Twitter or Corgi Twitter using #aerodrome.
Thank you very much for reading our latest blog and I look forward to posting another edition next week.
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