The Biggs' Boys

By Ken Stofer

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved


   The choices were many for the Biggs' boys who were leaving Canada for the first time in their lives to volunteer for a life in the R.A.F. This was to be their great adventure. There were many methods of entry into the Royal Air Force in the pre-war years, with varying conditions according to the age of the candidate and the particular branch of the service he wished to join.

    According to their age and qualifications, the lads could join the regular Air Force for whole time duties, entering direct, either as officers or into the ranks, or they could join one of the non-regular branches of the Service in which, as in the Territorial Army, training was carried out principally in the volunteer's spare time.

    In the regular Air Force, appointments for both officers and men were of two kinds, "permanent" and "limited service." "Permanent" appointments were for a long period followed by retirement on a life pension, while "limited service" appointments, some of which carried with them a gratuity on conclusion, were for a shorter period.

    For officers, the principal methods of obtaining a permanent commission were by entry through the R.A.F. Cadet College at Cranwell (between the ages of 17 1/2 and 19 1/2) or through the medium of a university (between ages of 20 and 25). Officers who entered by either of these methods were permanent members of the R.A.F., and became eligible for retirement on pension after a minimum of twenty years' service.

    The majority of R.A.F. officers, however, held "limited service" appointments known as "short service commissions." Requirement age for these candidates was between 17 1/2 and 28 years of age and they served for a period of 4 to 6 years on the active list. A limited number were subsequently invited to extend their period of service, but the majority, at the end of their active list service, returned to civil life with a cash gratuity of from 300 to 500 pounds.

    Most officers, whether holding permanent or short-service commissions, were attached to the General Duties, or flying branch of the R.A.F., though to a much lesser extent, commissions could be obtained in such special branches as the Equipment, Accountant, Medical, Dental, Chaplains' and Legal branches. Rates of pay for officers, including allowances, ranged from 333 pounds (approx. $1,700) a year for an Acting Pilot Officer, the lowest commissioned rank, to 2,835 pounds (approx. $14,000) for an Air Chief Marshall.

    In the ranks, the longest possible period of service for which recruits were accepted was twelve years from the age of 18, and this is was confined to those who entered as Apprentices between the ages of 15 and 17 1/2.

   A limited proportion of such entrants could, however, reasonably anticipate re-engagement for a further period of twelve years, after which they were eligible for retirement on a life pension. Those not re-engaged returned to civil life at the end of their first twelve years' service with a cash gratuity.

    Apprenticeships in the R.A.F. were of two kinds, those for Aircraft Apprentices and for Apprentice Clerks. Aircraft Apprentices were taught a skilled trade, and on completion of their three years' training were posted to R.A.F. units with the rank of Aircraftman. Thereafter they were eligible for promotion, according to ability and the requirements of the Service, to non-commissioned rank, and could apply for training as airman-pilots, and were given opportunities for qualifying for commissioned rank.

    Rates of pay ranged from 3s. 6d. (approx. 90 cents) a day for a Second-Class Aircraftman in Group 1, to 13s. 6d. (approx. $3.40) a day for a Sergeant Pilot with four years seniority.

    Apprentice clerks were given approximately eighteen months' training and thereafter had opportunities for advancement similar to those open to Aircraft Apprentices.

    Another method of entry into the ranks was by the Boy Entrant scheme, under which entrants were trained either as armourers, photographers, or wireless operators.

    The age limits were the same as for Aircraft Apprentices, but Boy Entrants served for only nine years from the age of 18. On completion of their training, which lasted from twelve to eighteen months, Boy Entrants were promoted to Aircraftman's rank and began their regular R.A.F. careers.

    In addition to the above methods of entry, direct entry into the ranks of the R.A.F. without preliminary apprenticeship was open to both skilled and non-skilled men between the ages of 18 and 26. Air Observers were also enlisted direct from civil life and on completion of training which occupied five months, were given the rank of sergeant-observer with a pay rate of 12s. 6d. (approx. $3.10) a day, plus quarters, uniform and mess. They enrolled for a minimum of four years' regular service, and their duties included navigation, general reconnaissance, bomb-aiming, air photography, gunnery and wireless telegraphy. Candidates had to be between the ages of 17 1/2 and 25.

    For those who didn't wish, or were unable to join the regular Air Force, but who were anxious to devote part of their leisure to the Service, the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve and the Auxiliary Air Force both offered attractive facilities for free training as a pilot and for regular flying practice. Candidates for the Volunteer Reserve (Pilot's Section) had to be between 18 and 25 years of age, were enlisted as sergeants and could carry out their flying training either in one continuous period or during week-ends. Similarly, in the Auxiliary Air Force, officers and men were able to fulfil all necessary duties in their spare time and during the annual holiday season without interference with their civil occupations.

    For those who, before embarking on a civil career, could spare time to spend a whole year in the Air Force, the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve offered exceptional opportunity for combining a course of the finest flying training available in the world with the performance of a patriotic duty. Entrants under this scheme must have had a public or secondary school education.

     They were taught to fly at a civil flying school and received pay at the rate of 12s. 6d. (approx. $3.10) a day, free rations and accommodation, and an annual retaining fee of 25 pounds (approx. $125). At the end of their training they reverted to civil life as fully qualified pilots, their only obligation being the completion of a short annual "refresher" course of about 15 days' duration.

    Many of the Biggs' boys, because of their British ancestry, felt attuned to the mother country across the sea; however, the environment and lifestyle in Great Britain was still an eye-opener for them.

    Immediately on the outbreak of the war, all cinemas and places of entertainment were closed and except for church services in daylight only, people were not permitted to mass together in large numbers.

    Everyone was compelled to carry gas masks to work every day, and some business firms would not allow their employees to stop at work without them, and, when moving from one office to another, employees had to take their gas masks with them.

    Most men and women carried their masks in the cardboard containers supplied by the Government. The problem of the well-dressed woman was how to carry it and still look nice. The Queen carried hers in a business-like khaki knapsack, slung over one shoulder. Several people, including Mrs. Kennedy, wife of the American Ambassador, and Lady Astor, had theirs in black velvet cases, with straps and piping of green or red. On top of the case was a pocket with sections for a purse, lipstick, compact and ordinary handbag. One store seeing the commercial potential supplied neat cylindrical cases of cardboard which could be covered with material of one's choice to match or contrast with coat or suit.

    Barrage balloons floated over London day and night; huge affairs tethered to the ground by a long steel cable, to discourage low-flying enemy aircraft. The idea was originated during the Great War by Major-General E.B. Ashmore.

    London's air defences were under the command of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh C. Dowding, known as "Stuffy" to his men because of his somewhat phlegmatic manner. King George V made him a Grand Commander of the Victorian Order as a reward for his organization of the Royal Air Force display in 1933.

    Of course there was a great need to camouflage key defence posts, aerodromes and armament factories.

   Performing this vital job all over Great Britain, were dozens of skilled creators of illusion, the scenic artists of the British theatre, who in peace time would have been busy making the fairy-scenes of pantomime for Christmas only months away.

    Many of London's stores were closed. However, others carried on, thinking hopefully that even women in uniform would sometimes wish to wear pretty clothes for their men when they came home on leave.

    Each store had an air raid refuge. One store in Bond Street had an "entertainment squad" in its shelter who were in charge of games, books, gramophone records and other items for amusing "guests." Gas and electric stoves were installed and there was a cupboard well-stocked with cocoa, butter, coffee, biscuits and nerve-soothing tea. A nursing squad was in charge of the first-aid equipment, and workers and customers in all departments could be simultaneously instructed by radio telephone to go to the shelter.

    One of the first things one wanted to do in the event of an air raid was to seek safe shelter. Typical of thousands of shelters constructed by householders all over Great Britain as a protection against air raids was an electrically-lit dugout, (built down under the ground), sixteen feet by eight feet, (although many were much smaller), and divided into compartments. The roof was corrugated steel, topped with earth and supported with six-inch beams.

     Equipment might consist of a cupboard for food, a primus stove, radio, bench seats or chairs. Felt was placed over the front of the inside door in case of gas bombs. Gas masks were hung on the wall.

When the blackout of England commenced, white lines were painted on the roads, curbs and pavements of England to give motorists some guidance in the dark of night. White bands were painted around trees and other obstructions. These white bands required renewing every few days as the paint soon wore off. It was estimated that villages in the county of Middlesex alone used 4,500 gallons of white paint for one covering. The City of London, 12,000 gallons.

Many devices were used by people to make sure they were seen in the dark; luminous buttons and glowlights on hats, or sleeves. Many folk found a white handkerchief tied around the arm economical and effective.

A journalist for a London paper suggested a revival of the ancient Dursley lanterns, explaining that in Dursley, Gloucestershire, when ladies and gentlemen used to go out to dinner together on dark nights, the gentlemen pulled out the tail of their shirts and walked in front of their ladies to show the way. These were called Dursley lanterns.

One of the biggest of London's blackout problems was the Palace of Westminster, which had more than 2,000 windows.

   Instead of trying to cover the great expanses of stained glass, a system of floor lighting was installed, so that in hours of darkness, Members of Parliament could find their way by the light of lamps at their feet. A candle was placed by each lamp in case of a power failure. To cheer the Britisher a chap named Tommy Connor composed a dance known as the Blackout Stroll as follows: You take four steps forward and four steps back - then two shuffles to the left and two to the right, then swing your girl out at arms length and haul her in again - then you both revolve and the lights go out. In the dark you search for a new partner and start again. I don't think it caught on.

    In London, arrangements were made for taking care of fires in the event of the regular water supply being put out of business. From the River Thames in all directions, steel pipes were laid along the streets, the crossings being protected with built up woodwork and other material. In the doorways and along the curbs were extra lengths of the same size pipe ready for replacing any section damaged by bombs. Along these lines of pipe, three to a block, were coupling connections where firemen could attach their hoses in a hurry.

    Placed in every square, and available setting were great steel tanks filled with water which could be utilized while damaged pipes were undergoing repairs. Thousands of portable pumps were continually on the move during outbreaks of fire. In London alone, by one estimate there were fully two million of these portable pumps.

   In addition to facilities for fighting fire in the city proper, all ships in London docks had "adapters" for connecting the shore hose from dock to ships' pumps which enabled water aboard ships to be utilized for dock and warehouse protection. These were coupled up as soon as a vessel docked and were available for use instantly by shifts of men constantly on the docks for fire-fighting duties. Many hundreds of children were evacuated from London to escape the expected air raids. As they marched to lorries and railway stations they could often be heard singing. A favorite marching song was "Hi Ho, Hi Ho," the dwarfs' song from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." This song and many others, such as "Roll out the barrel" - "Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye" and "White cliffs of Dover" were also popular with men and women of His Majesty's Service. Their voices could be heard drifting across the beautiful British countryside as they marched sometimes unseen, hidden by hedges lining the country roads.

    Older folks partaking of liquid refreshment in London's clubs and bars sang many songs of the Great War, such as "Roses of Piccardy"- "Tipperary" and "Pack up your troubles." The composer of the popular "Lambeth Walk", Noel Gary, wrote a marching song (actually pre-war) that became quite a hit, called "The Girl who loves a soldier." The refrain went like this:

For the girl who loves a soldier

Is a girl who adores a parade;

And she loves to see her soldier

Play his part in the grand cavalcade.

For the girl who loves a soldier

Is in love with the right kind of man

When he says, "Fall in my darling,"

Well, she falls in his arms while she can.

    For many months prior to the war the problem of feeding London during hostilities had been under careful consideration by the Food Defence Plans Department of the Board of Trade. Reserves of food were stored, and awaiting issue were 80,000,000 ration books. The first foods rationed were meat, bacon and ham, butter and margarine, cooking fats and sugar.

     It was estimated that several weeks would elapse between the outbreak of war and the start of the rationing system, because of men joining the forces and the large movements of people being evacuated.

    In order to get ration cards each household was required to fill out an application form available from the post office. The names of all persons in the house, adults and children, had to be entered and the forms returned to the local food control committee. There were about 1,500 food control committees set up throughout the country, roughly one to each rationing area.

   The job of stocking London's larder was in the hands of superintendents in four divisions; two north of the Thames and two in the south, and the food control committees appointed by the various authorities. The superintendents and committees saw that the food suppliers did their work efficiently and that the prices and quantities were kept to the standards laid down by the Government. They worked in close cooperation with leading figures in the food trades, as it was part of the Government scheme that these trades should continue to feed London. There was a distribution officer and a rationing officer in each section.

    Animals became a tremendous problem in wartime Britain, especially during an air raid. In the general London area there were 40,000 horses working daily in the streets. There were 400,000 dogs, and approximately one and a half million cats. A National Animals' A.R.P. Committee was formed by the Air Raid Precautions Department of the Home Office. All animal welfare societies were represented and collaborated in all the services the Government recommended. A Colonel F.J. Stordy, a distinguished veterinary surgeon, was the chief administrator.

    A special kennel was designed by the National Canine Defence League which they claimed would protect small animals against gas, splinters and blast. It was a cylinder made of steel and closed at one end. It had legs to stand horizontally on the floor. A gas-proof cover, with a glass window, was provided to fix at the other end. The kennel was large enough for a big dog or three small ones.

    Parents of Biggs' boys anxiously awaited letters from their sons, and when received the envelopes usually had a 3/4" wide black-on-white band affixed, bearing the words OPENED BY EXAMINER, followed by several numbers to identify the examiner. If the lad had written anything that threatened the security of the nation, it would be cut out with scissors by the examiner. Unfortunately all writing on the other side of the page would also be lost.

    At some military bases censoring was done by an officer qualified to determine if a breach of security had occurred. The offender could be quickly dealt with and warned to take care in future. Censorship was of course vital to the war effort.

    The Ministry of Information, housed in the Senate House of the new University of London building in Bloomsbury, was set up to disseminate news and to censor all material for publication in Great Britain. The Minister of Information was a witty 66-year-old Scot, Lord MacMillan, who during the World War had been Assistant Director of Intelligence at the Ministry of Information.

    England was determined to keep safe all her treasures. The Crown Jewels were taken in three khaki-painted lorries to Windsor Castle to be stored in deep underground cellars until all danger was past. Priceless documents and historic treasures were taken from Westminster Abbey to places of safety in the country. Many historic objects, including pictures, prints and plate, were taken away from the Houses of Parliament. The British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and Wallace Collection were closed while their treasures were either removed or safeguarded. Most of these were stored in country houses or, in the basements of provincial museums.

   It was found impossible to move the 5,000,000 volumes of the British Museum Library, so they were sandbagged and left to their fate.

    The Corporation of the City of London spent $17,500 on preparing the basement of the Central Criminal Court for the reception of its most precious documents, but a small portion of the most valuable records were transferred to various approved places in the west of England. Less important city documents were photographed on 35 mm film, as many as 10,000 exposures being recorded on one roll twelve inches in diameter. The rolls were stored in metal boxes requiring a minimum of space. The cost of the photographic duplication was estimated to be $40,000.

    A secret control room was set up in London. It was gas-proof, splinterproof and air-conditioned and contained eighteen telephone booths, where girls worked in shifts covering 24 hours. During air raids they took messages from A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) group centres and relayed them to the London Regional Control Centre, where an administrative staff dealt with the whole of the civilian defence activities within the Metropolitan Police area.

   For civil defence purposes, the local authorities in London were divided into nine groups, each with a group centre communicating with the local A.R.P. headquarters in their district. From these group centres reports were telephoned to the girls in the secret telephone room who in turn passed on the messages. An officer in charge reported by teleprinter to the Home Office any events considered of more than regional importance. He also had the job of receiving important visitors and explaining to them the exact situation at any given moment. He did this by means of two huge floodlit maps of the Metropolis, which covered the whole wall of the control room. Eight men sat in front of these maps to mark them with pins to keep records of the situation. They were able to show at once what districts were affected by high explosive, gas or fire, and which roads and bridges were obstructed.

    Trains were jam-packed with servicemen from all the forces. The stations were darkened and very tomb-like. In hours of darkness, a light from a blue globe lit the train carriage; a blueish glow, so dim it was difficult to read the posted list of instructions of what to do in the event of an air raid.

    The instructions told you to pull down the blinds - DON'T pull the communication cord - DON'T get out of the train if it has stopped at the platform - if possible lie down on the floor of the carriage.

    Arriving in London at night, the Biggs' boy found it in blackness, without a spark of light anywhere, unless from a cigarette or pipe. Once his eyes became accustomed to the light he noticed many government buildings and others considered to be worthy of protection had a facade of sandbags, with just an opening left for the door.

    Once in London, the lads made for the Air Ministry at Kingsway, presented their letters of introduction from Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs R.N.(retired), and began their great adventure.

----- Ken H. Stofer




The Scene

Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs

Robert Frank Hawes, MD

Dale Stephens, DFC

More to Come

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved


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