Family Life and the RAF

How do we define ourselves?

As an RAF child, I moved around a lot during my childhood, my parents came from different ends of the country, and met in Hounslow, as a result of this I do not have any ‘roots’. For sixteen of my first seventeen years, which is basically my childhood, Dad was in the RAF.

When asked ‘ Where are you from?’, my answer is, ‘My father was in the RAF and we moved around a lot’!

Perhaps this is the reason for my interest in social and family history. Having joined a social site for RAF children, this appears to be quite common. We generally moved house every couple of years, sometimes more often, leaving behind friends and memories. One of the positives, is that because of all the moving about, RAF children, often have a good sense of geography.

Both of my parents were from working class backgrounds. Dad had come from Sheffield, but had been ‘down south’ since he was seventeen, and had done his best to lose his northern accent. Mum probably had a slight West London accent.

Dad joined the RAF as a lower ranking officer, and so we were entitled to a slightly larger house and garden than average. Personally, I never detected any class distinction, which by that time, had all but disappeared, but perhaps my parents were aware of it from time to time.

Whatever their background, in those days, due to the nature of RAF stations, RAF children, had acres of green space to play in. There were large areas of communal grass, planted with trees, often horse chestnut or cherry. All this grass was kept regularly mown, and so the smell of newly cut grass is a childhood memory, and I loved to see the daisies and blue speedwell in the grass too .

RAF stations were built in the countryside, so there was the surrounding areas to roam in too. There were no mobile phones, and very few home phones. In those days, children were allowed to wander more freely from an early age. Obviously getting up to mischief aswell.

For example, in 1971 at Colerne, oil central heating was being installed into houses and other buildings. We decided to help the builders behind the Chapel, by building the rest of the retaining oil tank wall without cement. I believe there was a letter sent round to parents to keep their children under control after this.

Calendar of my father’s postings 1965-1981

19 Oct 1965 Joined Officer Cadet Training Unit, RAF Feltwell, Norfolk. Basic training took place on the Stanta Training area. It is a closed military site in Norfolk and has been since 1942. It is less than five miles from where I now live and we often hear gun fire and bombing as the military practise their manoeuvres. It is also famous as the site where ‘Dad’s Army‘ was filmed. Several years ago, I was able to take part in a private visit, which proved very interesting on several levels – as the place Dad did his basic training; site of the filming of Dad’s Army; unspoilt area of flora and fauna; general historical history of the site; current use; and mirror to Imber a village on Salisbury Plain, also shut for the same purpose during WW2, which is where my Harvey ancestors lived during 1600’s.

I had been born the previous February, whilst we lived in Manchester, so knew little about these early military manoeuvres!

19 Jan 1966 Passed out as Flying Officer, Engineering Branch

Feb 1966. Posted to RAF Cranwell for engineering orientation course (32 TOG see photo below). Completed Dec 1966.

We moved to Grantham, and brother Paul was born here the week before Christmas. Then we flew out to Malta, Paul, 6 weeks and me just under two years.

My baby brother!

27 Jan 1967. Posted to RAF Luqa Malta, as Engineering Wing Adjutant

First we lived in a flat in Sliema, for 3 months, then moved into an RAF married quarter flat at RAF Luqa.

I expect virtually every member of military personnel and their families (even the Queen, I believe, who was living in Malta with Prince Philip, before she became Queen), considers Malta to be one of the best postings. There was great weather, beaches, history and places of interest to visit. During the ’60’s, when travel was more difficult, there was also great community spirit, as everyone was in the same situation, far from their family network, and so supported each other.

Recently the Maltese weather has been having a delayed effect on Dad’s skin. In those days, sun cream was not widely used, and Dad has fair skin. In 1969, my Grandparents visited, and I recall Grandma applying suncream, this must have been a novelty, for me to remember it. Although Dad was as careful as he could be, and didn’t sunbathe as such, he must have been lightly burnt much of the time. He is now undergoing painful treatment for sun damaged skin on his face.

Kalafrana was a ‘beach’ for the military personnel, although it was little more than a concrete pad. There were formed concrete pools for younger children, and out in the bay were rafts. Proably a refreshment hut, and facilities for older children, but I wasn’t aware of those. There were wire nets further out to sea, which I discovered were to keep the sharks out.

On the other hand there was the golden sand and warm blue sea of Ghajn Tuffheia. This was reached with haste, by what seemed like hundreds of steps down, however getting back up at the end of the day, was a different matter. I can remember sitting on the bottom step, having the sand ‘brushed’ off my feet, rather reluctant to getting back up.

On the beach with Grandma, steps in the background.

I was petrified to drive along the top of (Dinghi Cliff’s)? In case the car toppled over the edge. But looking down at the seaweed in the clear blue water was amazing.

In 1967, there was great excitement when the Queen came to visit, Dad took cine film of the event.

Dad went on trips to Cyprus and Persia (Iran), where I believe they had their passports taken away from them, which was worrying, but they managed to return safely, bringing back some interesting souvenirs.

Christmas 1969, was probably rather sad for my parents, knowing that their tour of Malta was almost at an end. Paul and I knew nothing of our imminent move, apart from the disappearance of various personal items, as they were packed ready for shipping back to the UK.

One of Dad’s hobbies was photography, and he took lots of photos whilst we were in Malta, developing them in his own ‘dark room’ (a small store room off the veranda). He also bought a cine camera, and we are lucky to have a lot of film of us as we were growing up.

(In 1977, whilst in Northern Ireland, he converted the downstairs wc into a dark room, and developed some of the pictures taken in the interim which had been left on the reel).

Before we left Malta, we were given a series of injections, so we could return to Britain. This included smallpox, a highly contagious and deadly disease of the past. As far as I know, this vaccination was not routinely administered to other children of my age. It ceased being given to children altogether in 1971, unless they were involved in foreign travel. As we are at present in the midst of a pandemic disease, we see how easy the worldwide spread of disease can be. In my youth, the average young population of Britain were not exposed to such diseases which had become things of the past. However military children did occasionally face such threats.

As with many of my contemporaries, I succumbed to measles and mumps whilst in Malta, which were common childhood diseases, then. Catching chicken pox later. The measles however, led on to Bronchitis, and I was sent to a local hospital. I have no idea how long I was there perhaps a fortnight, but my memory gives me the impression it was months!

We departed Malta, late January 1970 and as we left in the transport plane, the last thing I noticed was the pale blue sky, and white flecky clouds. When we arrived back in the UK, it was dark and cold, we were taken to a transit hotel where we waited in line, and each family was handed bed linen. I remember being entranced by the fibreglass model of a girl in calipers, by the entrance, which was a donation box.

The next day, we travelled in a London taxi on the way to the railway station. In my favourite book, ‘Katie and the Boo Boos‘, she had also been in a London taxi, on a visit to London. It was cold, drab, and drizzling, quite a contrast from the Maltese weather we had recently left behind. Dad had gone on ahead to Colerne, but we were going to stay with Nana for a while in Ancaster near Grantham, as our RAF quarter at Colerne was not ready. We found a carriage on the train, and as we left London, we were surrounded by the lines of train tracks going off in all directions, and then the suburbs, before travelling through the green fields, hedges, and trees of England, with cows and sheep dotted about. Such contrasting countryside, to what I was used to.

We arrived at Ancaster in the afternoon, it was a small country station in a Lincolnshire village, which I have always presumed to be little known, however;

I have just seen a TV programme, in which it explained the different brick types made from clay from around the country. Apparently clay was dug at Ancaster, to make ‘the Ancaster Brick’ and so I presume that is why there is a station there. Even though it is such a small village, it has an excellent direct route to London.

Auntie Maribel (was married to Mum’s brother, Uncle Gordon, an RAF lecturer at Cranwell), picked us up in her green Renault 5. I was quite intrigued by the gear stick, which I think was on the stalk, not between the front seats. She took us to Nana’s bungalow, where we stayed for about six weeks.

Nana’s bungalow in Ancaster

In 1968, ‘Father Christmas‘ had bought me a dolls house, modelled on Nana’s bungalow, although I didn’t know this at the time.

Father Christmas has been 1968

Feb 1970. Back to UK and RAF Colerne, Wiltshire, (near Bath) as OC 3rd base servicing of Hercules.

Once we had moved into our ‘Quarter’, personal effects and furniture began turning up. Some of it had a familiar feel to it, although I couldn’t remember it as such. Other furniture had been lodged with Grandparents, but I didn’t realise this until we reclaimed it over the next ten years. There was great excitement when Dad collected the old television from storage, as we hadn’t had one whilst in Malta. Eventually he got it to work, but by that time it was outdated, and a more modern one was required.

Great excitement – a Television!

We had our own garden, which we hadn’t had before, each back garden was surrounded by a privet hedge. Can’t say I am very fond of the smell of privet. But it attracted the butterflies, which we caught in fishing nets and put in a box.

I was amazed though when Dad pointed out the rhubarb and mint, that could actually be eaten! Also the lavender with a strong smell. There were self seeded antirrhinum (rabbits ears), from a previous occupant, and outside the front door a lovely deep red peony. Perhaps this was start of my interest in gardening.

That style of house had a garage, with two small sheds behind. One for tools and one for coal. I don’t remember having to use the coal shed, and all the quarters were just about to be converted to oil. In the tool shed, were a basic set of tools, which looked as though they had been there since the 1940’s, including a two wheeled push along mower.

At the front, everything was open plan, with no dividing hedges or walls. Old photos make RAF camps look rather stark.

1970, was a busy year for us, having recently returned from three years in Malta, we took the opportunity of visiting, and catching up with family and friends around the country.

Little did we know at this time, of the family ties with Wiltshire. Perhaps our Wiltshire neolithic ancestors had a hand in constructing this structure!

We also took the opportunity for visiting local places of interest. I recall we were able to visit Stonehenge at this time, when visitors were still permitted to climb over the stones. Sadly no photos were taken, so this is an internet photo.

In April 1970, I started school at Colerne Primary school. Although we arrived in March, I was not permitted to start, until after the Easter holidays. On my first day, I got on the wrong bus to go home, no health and safety in those days. As the bus sailed past my stop, I stood up to get off, and the driver just stopped the bus and put me off. As we hadn’t lived there very long, I had no idea where I was. Eventually a lady found me in tears, and took me home. Mum was in a state when I didn’t get off the right bus, and had cycled up to the school to find me. I was always very careful about which bus I got on, after that.

RAF children, get moved about frequently having to change schools. The hope that when we are actually resident at a particular school things are more stable, doesn’t necessarily follow. During my time at Colerne (four school terms), I spent my time in three different classrooms, on two separate sites. I had my first experience of Christmas Nativity productions, as an angel, both at school and at the village church.

I mentioned earlier about spread of disease in the military population. In 1970, a young RAF child at school, had contracted TB, another virtually eradicated disease at that time in Britain. As a result, a field vaccination centre was set up at RAF Colerne, and everyone who may have been in contact with him was vaccinated. I recall that the boy spent months in hospital, and Mum telling me eventually that he was home, but required daily injections, not sure of what. (It was a case of, ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’)!

The TB vaccine worked for me though. When I was 13 and requiring my BCG jab, I was found to be immune. However three years later at another school, I was given it anyway, and suffered a permanent weeping scab for months, where the injection had been given.

I received my first bike for my 6th birthday, and learnt to ride it on the incline opposite the house. One morning in winter 1970/71, I woke to an unusual thick light grey sky, on looking out of the window, saw everything covered in deep snow. It was the first snow I had experience of. We had fun learning how to build snow men on the edge of the airfield. Dad made us a sledge, and just managed to complete it before the snow melted. Unfortunately we didn’t get another chance to use it until 1979.

One of our days out, was to Old Mother Shiptons Cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire with our Grandparents.

Old Mother Shipton, lived as a reclusive ‘witch’ in a cave in the 1400’s, and was supposed to be a seer. It is an attraction, also famous for it’s petrifying water and wishing well in her cave. I was instructed to make a wish, but couldn’t decide on whether I should wish for a pet rabbit, or baby sister. In the end I plumped for a sister. Soon after this, my wish came true, when sister Elizabeth was born in June 1971. I wasn’t sure I had made the right choice, having seen the contents of a newborns nappy. Elizabeth has gained the reputation as a ‘Witches Daughter’, and as can be seen below, we weren’t wrong!

A bewitching sister.

Although Elizabeth had the least experience as an RAF child, she can claim to have place of birth as ‘RAF Hospital at Wroughton’ on her birth certificate.

We visited Sherwood forest and Robin Hood’s tree, in recent years further research believes that Robin Hood was from Loxley, the area that the Sanderson ancestors are from.

Our parents purchased their first motor caravan in 1970, which gave us added impetus for days out and holidays.

Red Commer on holiday in Wales

One evening, we had just been put to bed. It was late June, so still very light and Elizabeth was a couple of weeks old. Suddenly, Dad told us we had to get up quickly, and get in the car. I’m not sure what had happened, possibly a fire on camp, and we had to evacuate to a safe distance, incase there were dangerous fumes. We drove out into the countryside, and waited until it was safe to return. Several hours I believe, it was still light when we got back.

A month after Elizabeth’s birth, Dad received his next posting, it was the summer holidays, and Paul and I were sent to Nana’s in Ancaster, for several weeks, whilst our parents went house hunting, taking Elizabeth with them.

Oct 1971 Selected for Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive in St. Giles Court London (new aircraft ground support).

My parents bought their first house, in Barton Le Clay, near Luton. It was one of twelve houses on a cul de sac, newly built. We had fun, playing on the building site, in the piles of sand and brick stacks. One of the builders, an Irish man name ‘Paddy’ would amuse us by pretending to cough up sand.

Dad began on his ‘DIY’ career, making improvements to the house and setting out the garden, which had previously supported pigs in a field of mainly clay. In recent years, I contacted the current owner on Facebook, who I discovered had been in my class at school (Ramsey Middle School), she sent me some updated pictures.

Although this was probably Dad’s least favourite posting, requiring hours of commuting into London, and a desk job, it was one of my favourites. I had made a good circle of friends, liked the house and school, and was a member of the local brownie troupe. At this stage, I hadn’t realised that we would be moving on, and was devastated when I found out.

Apr 1974. Posted to RAF Tern Hill (Rotary Wing Flying School) as OC Whirlwind helicopters Servicing Flight.

It was back to RAF accommodation, where we lived in the same style house as at Colerne, except opposite way round. There was great excitement, as there was a telephone in the house, with phone number Ternhill 369. Not that it was used very often.

Paul and I went to school at Market Drayton. From here, Paul was able to make use of RAF hospitality at Cosford RAF hospital, when he had grommets fitted in his ears.

Whirlwind spy in the sky watching over the RAF’s new toys. Gazelles at Ternhill in summer 1974

Mum enjoyed amateur dramatics, and appeared in a number of performances at Ternhill. I also took part with her in the RAF Ternhill pantomime 1974, ‘The Queen of Hearts’, which was great fun.

Cast of ‘Queen of Hearts’ 1974.

We were never allowed a pet dog, the most we ever had was a hamster or goldfish. My parents argued that moving around so much wasn’t suitable or fair for dog ownership, especially, if we were to get posted abroad as a dog would have to go into kennels. I don’t actually think my parents wanted the hassle of puppy training, and the ties a dog would involve. With hindsight, I think they made the right decision, taking a dog on caravanning holidays, days out and visits to relations, would not have been easy.

However, the lady next door had no such qualms, she owned a Redsetter, and converted one of the sheds behind her garage into a puppy nursery, when the dog had pups.

I was delighted, and spent every opportunity visiting her shed, playing with the pups, wheeling them around in my dolls pram, and nagging my parents for one of them, until gradually, (as with many of those born on an RAF station), the pups moved on, for new homes.

(Although RAF children lose touch with friends and neighbours, occasionally they do bump into them again later). We followed this family to Northern Ireland, where we lived in their recently vacated house. I believe I also noticed their oldest son at my first secondary school in Wem, (in 1976 or 78), which also took boarders.

Mid 1976. Attached to RAF Shawbury to begin preparation engineering facilities for the move of helicopters RAF Ternhill prior to its closure on 31 Dec 1976.

Dad was aware of the impending closure of RAF Ternhill, and his likely relocation to Shawbury. To preempt this, our parents purchased their second home, with minor plans of becoming self sufficient. Again a new build, with a much bigger garden, and another larger and more fun building site to play on! It was the long hot summer of ’76, and a great year for tomatoes, which were used in almost every recipe. (tomato soup, 🍅 tomato jam, stewed tomatoes, mock crab, tomato salad).

We were not a family who listened particularly to music, but one thing we did listen to, whilst Sunday lunch was being prepared, was ‘Two Way Family Favourites’. A request program particularly for servicemen and their families.

I spent my last year at primary school at St. Mary’s school in Shawbury and Elizabeth started school here. The only time we were all three at the same school. I then moved on to the Comprehensive secondary school, Adams School in Wem. Within three months of this, we were on the move again, but as Dad hoped he might get posted back to Shawbury, decided to rent out the house.

Then we got the alarming news that Dad was being posted to Northern Ireland. This was the height of the troubles. The only thing we knew about the region, was from the news stories of shootings and bombs.

Oct 1976. Posted to RAF Aldergrove Belfast as OC Engineering.

We sailed from Liverpool to Belfast on the overnight ferry at the end of October. Expecting to be under fire, and dodging bullets, as soon as we arrived, but apart from increased military presence, we arrived at the camp without incident. Dad was taking over from our old neighbour from Ternhill, and we were also taking over his Quarter. We were back in RAF accommodation.

Northern Ireland was still using the grammar school system, and the school I was going to, was willing to take my teachers reports to accept me, rather than me having to take the 11+ exam. Wallace High School in Lisburn. Again, even though I only spent two years at this school, I managed to arrive three months before the whole school was due to relocate to a completely new building, so again, I had to learn my way around another new school.

On the whole, life in Northern Ireland was pretty much like living anywhere else. Dad had various stipulations placed upon him. He was allowed (to his horror) to grow his hair, wasn’t allowed off camp alone, and restricted as to where he could go.

I had an eventful evening though, about a month after we arrived. It was a long journey home from school, using two service buses. The second bus was prevented using its usual route, due to a suspected car bomb, so had to drop us off where we were. (six teenage RAF children). As I was new to the area, I had no idea where we were, luckily, the army were in attendance, and phoned through to the camp, eventually a minibus was organised to pick us up. It was November and very cold, but we got home unscathed.

After this event, Dad organised a minibus to pick us up from the local village, where we had previously had to catch the second service bus. This saved such a long trip home each evening.

Mum took the opportunity to get back into amateur dramatics, with a Christmas performance. The RAF Wives became ‘Smurfs’ and ‘Legs and Co’ for the evening. I joined the ballet and tap class, but it wasn’t really my forte!

We used the opportunity for sight seeing, visiting the places of interest such as the Giants Causeway, The Ulster Folk Museum, Carrickfergus, Bangor and Country parks. When Grandparents visited for Christmas we got out and about too.

At school the system was more like the English system of my parents generation, and I had two years of Latin. I also learnt a lot about English history, which I hadn’t in England, but geography tended to include more about Ireland, RE was much more Bible focused, than it was in English schools.

A visit back to see family in 1977, was from Larne to Stranraer, stopping off en route in Scotland and Northern England.

In Summer 1978, we returned back to Shawbury for Dads last posting, and to our house, with the expectation that we would be staying. The school term started, and both myself and Paul, returned to Wem, and Elizabeth to St. Mary’s. Often the last posting in an RAF career, takes into consideration the candidates wishes, and Dad had requested Shawbury. This was not to be, and Dad was posted almost as far east as possible. To Swanton Morley in Norfolk.

Oct 1978. Back to the mainland Development Establishment (CSDE), RAF Swanton Morley Norfolk, working on new projects engineering support, including VC 10 refuelling tanker and Tornado.

Again, this required my parents leaving us with Nana, who came to stay with us, and they headed off to East Anglia with a list of requirements for a ‘forever home’.

I understand at that time, there wasn’t a lot of property about, and the area of search got larger and larger. Eventually they found the perfect place, that ticked all the boxes, it even had a river at the bottom of the garden for Paul who was a keen fisherman, and which had been requested ‘tongue in cheek’.

(Whilst Nana was with us, she had not been feeling too well, and returned home and to the doctor. Although it was never mentioned at the time, she had stomach cancer, and very soon, underwent major surgery. She made an amazing recovery, although was never as robust as she had been before. In 1977 Nana had moved to Southport, to be closer to Uncle Gordon, who had also moved – to Chorley, as a lecturer at a local college when he retired from the RAF. So Mum, was also having to travel right across the country from Norfolk, to Southport to help care for Nana, when she first came out of hospital).

Unfortunately our new house in Wymondham was a 30 minute drive cross country from Swanton Morley, but apart from that, it was – in walking distance of the shops, walking distance of schools, old and interesting, potential for DIY, large garden, in the countryside, with river, and had a marvellous view of Wymondham Abbey.

My parents began a major renovation of the house and third of an acre garden, which had been a weavers factory and butchers shop in its time. Read about this here –

58 Damgate Street Wymondham

( Amazing coincidence – when my parents had decided on 58 Damgate Street in Wymondham, Mum went to the library in Shawbury to find out more about the area. She got chatting to the librarian, who said her aunt and uncle used to live in Wymondham, and she had occasionally visited them. On further discussion, it turned out, that they had lived in the same house that my parents were buying).

Dad tolerated the daily drive to work on Norfolk country roads, knowing it wouldn’t be for too much longer. As we lived so far away, we never went to Swanton Morley, or were further involved with RAF life, but every now and then, Dad had to stay overnight ‘on duty’.

Wymondham was a historic market town, with visitors from around the world. It was in the Middle School system, Elizabeth went to Browick Road first School, and Paul to Robert Kett Middle School (named after local hero Robert Kett), both in the town. At this point they became civilian children. I got a place at Wymondham College, one of the largest state boarding schools in the country, but as a day pupil. As it was also a boarding school, there were lots of other military children, so I blended in. It had been a USAF hospital during the war, and the site was enormous, with Nissan huts acting as classrooms. Again, I had to get to know my way around another new school, which in the circumstances took alot of doing.

One of the tasks of an RAF wife, particularly an officers wife, was to get involved in activities. Mum had helped in thrift shops, and joined wives clubs, she was also keen on amateur dramatics. This sense of community spirit stayed with her, and later she became one if the founding members of Wymondham Heritage Museum. This was obviously in the genes, as I am Secretary to the Carbrooke Heritage Group in my village, which I helped set up.

Winter 1978/9, was harsh, and we had alot of snow, eventually getting the opportunity to use the sledge dad had made at Colerne, and which had followed us around on our ‘moves’ since

19 Oct 1981 Retired from the RAF.

As retirement approached, the RAF provided advice, as to how to cope with the change in lifestyle. Dad was keen to leave though, and to become ‘his own boss’. In January 1982 my parents decided on something completely different and a new career in shop keeping, specifically, a toy shop. The Match Box

Read about this change in career, which became a family business A Family of Shopkeepers

Around 2017, Dad visited the Museum of Aviation in Weston super Mare. He spotted this helicopter and recognised it’s serial number. He had worked on it and flown in it on air tests at RAF Ternhill.

I married in 1985, and settled in a small village, less than a mile from RAF Watton. Prior to this, from Wymondham, we had travelled past RAF Watton on the way to visit Grandparents in Sheffield. At this point it was still operating, although in the process of closing down. We would drive past the RAF accommodation, open areas of grass, hangars, radar tower, military buildings, guard room and strategically placed plane. The Officers Mess had already become a carpet warehouse.

Gradually over the years, like so many others, the site has changed use. In Watton, virtually all of the military buildings have gone (except the radar tower), with others taken over by local business. The quarters have been sold off, and open land built on. There are now hundreds of new houses, a mini market and takeaway. And plenty of new street furniture and signage. Even the runway was broken up, and used to help complete the dualling of the A11. With the land there returned to farmland.

My husbands business bought a piece of land on the site, and has been operating there for 30 years, so I still have a view of ex military buildings from the office window. The photo below shows the Officers Mess at RAF Watton, c1971, the field behind the ‘pond’ is now the site of my husband’s family Marquee Manufacturing business, and son’s outside catering business Florentina Events.

Having grown up with the sound of aircraft flying overhead, or warming their engines on the runway, I like to hear the sound from the military training area, at Stanta. Especially helicopters which often fly over our house, and I will dart outside to have a look.

Brother and sister, Paul and Elizabeth, also settled in Norfolk, and now runs the family shop business. My parents have continued to move house at regular intervals, and are now living in their seventh house since retirement from the RAF. They have returned to Norfolk, after a time in a retirement village near Rugby, which perhaps mirrored life on an RAF station.

Angela Weatherill 2021