RAF Digby - RCAF Digby : 1963 - 1978
Updated: 10 Jan 12
CHAPTER 5 - THE SIGNALS ERA
b. Dec 1963 - 1978
December 1963 saw a change from civilian to Service command
of No 399 SU. Wing Commander I R Marland took over as Commanding Officer
Another change of status at No 399 Signals Unit was seen in January 1964 when the civilian employees ceased to be employed by the Air Ministry. January 1964 was also the month in which No 399 Signals Unit sent a detachment to Ascension Island which remained there until October 1966, doing sterling duty, under not always easy conditions.
By late 1964, it had been decided to move the Wireless Operators’ School. The school had had many ups and downs since moving to Digby from Wythall. Once or twice, because of falling umbers, consideration had been given to closing down the school. It had, however, remained open and with better recruiting prospects had rallied. In October, it transferred to North Luffenham.
Two months later, the command structure at Digby changed. Up to this time, the Station and No 399 Signals Unit had both been commanded by a wing commander. Now the 2 posts were to be amalgamated and Officer Commanding No 399 Signals Unit would also be Officer Commanding RAF Digby. The first officer to hold the ‘twin’ posts was Wing Commander Wilkinson, who assumed his duties on 22 December 1964.
The AOC’s Inspection of 1965 was carried out by Air Vice Marshal T C Shirley, AOCinC Signals Command, whose wife came from a well-known Navenby family. The inspection had gone well, and so the AOCinC looked for something to complain about. ‘The grass is too long’, he said. ‘Well, Sir’ said Wing Commander Wilkinson, ‘You will have to complain to your brother-in-law. He’s the contractor’!
In November 1967 came an important final change - the last civilian operator left No 399 Signals Unit, and the Unit is now fully Service-manned.
It was Wing Commander Howard who was to be the CO at the time of Digby’s darkest day. In March 1968, Chief Technician Douglas Brittain was arrested on suspicion of espionage. He was later sentenced to 21 years imprisonment for his crimes. Poor Wing Commander Howard never recovered; he left the Service shortly after this episode and died some 6 months later. Chris Boyd recalls returning to the UK in March 1968 following a 4 year tour in the Far East with 54SU. After a spell of leave I was posted to 399SU. He was the Flt Sgt on the same watch as Douglas Brittain and sitting about 20 feet away when two SIB types asked him to 'accompany them'.
In February 1969, No 54 Signals Unit arrived after Service in the Far East. Later in the year the present Gate Guardian arrived; the few details that we have are in Appendix 9.
On 17 September 1971, a combined team from the Daily Express and Anglia
Television did a feature on Aerial Erector training at Digby and at the
360 foot training tower at Stenigot. The documentary was shown on 14
October 1971 as part of the ‘Magpie’ series. Among the School
staff who took part were Flight Sergeant Erie Underhill and Sergeant
Bill Bashford. The TV personnel involved included David Hodgson, director,
Douglas Rae, Magpie presentor, and Eric Brazier, sound assistant. To
mark this achievement, all those civilians who took part were awarded
a certificate which read:
1971 also saw the discharge of Bob Macpherson from RAF Digby and 399 SU, bringing to end a family connection spanning the generations. His uncle Joe Jackson and aunt Sybil Falconer were both stationed at Digby during the war. Joe was aircrew in Blenheims and Sybil was in the WRAF. Bob had joined the RAF in 1959 and spent most of his career stationed in the UK at Digby working at 399SU before emigrating to Melbourne, Australia.
7 January 1972, the venerable L J Ashton, Chaplain in Chief, and the Rev E Mantle, jointly dedicated the present church of St Michael and St Andrew. Much work had been done in 1971 to turn the former churches into the new joint church, offices and church hall. The pews came from St George’s Church at RAF Changi, Singapore. A local man who helped carve the pews while a POW in the infamous Changi Jail, Mr Geoff Nunton, of Willoughby House, Digby, said of the occasion “I remember helping to convert an old mosque into the church and fitting the pews. Now 30 years later and from 8,000 miles away, they are coming to the church just 2 miles from my home”.
When the work was complete, a service for the men who made the pews in the sweltering horror of a Japanese jail was held in the quiet of a Lincolnshire country church. The wrought iron work for the new church was produced locally. In 1972, the Airmen’s Blocks were named in honour of 8 former Station Commanders Pike, Dickens, McNab, D’Albiac, Mallory, Harris, Tedder and Maund. Dickens Block is the one which was apparently used by the navigators during the War. To this day, at the right of the front door is painted a small white navigators brevet on a black background.
During 1971/72 season, the Station both the 90(S) Gp and Strike Command Junior Station Cross Country Championships, and reached the finals of the RAF Inter Station Athletics Championships.
In 1973 the Station Swimming Pool opened in one wing of the Station Gymnasium. I was an excellent Station amenity - particularly for the children - but tragically, its life was to be a short one. In January 1977, the special anti-condensation roof - which had been fitted in May 1974 - collapsed into the pool and,destroyed the liner.
On 15 July 1973 the remainder of the stained glass windows in the present church were dedicated. One of the stained glass windows in the church depicts the RAF badge. The window was installed with the help of donations made by all ranks of No 411 Squadron RCAF.
Also in 1973, the Station saw yet another change in command. HQ 90(S) Gp disbanded on 31 Aug 73; on 1 September 1973 the control was assumed by the newly formed Support Command.
In 1973, LAC Arnold’s example of peacetime heroism was continued. Senior Aircraftman David Russell Harris was on leave in Liverpool when a man armed with a shot-gun entered the club and fired at one of the customers. Harris tackled the man to force the muzzle of the gun upwards so that the second shot hit the ceiling. Other customers then went to his assistance and the gunman was over-powered and subsequently arrested. Harris was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. Later in 1973, Digby renewed its acquaintanceship with the Army. Two Signals Squadrons of No 38 Regt T and AVR now have regular exercise commitments, and came and practice their roles with us during several weekends each year. So far there have been no courts martial of either Army or RAF personnel as a result!
In December 1973 and early 1974, the Station suffered with everyone else from the ‘3 day week’. Centralised cooking was introduced, and saving of 13% in Furnace Fuel Oil and 23% in electricity over previous years were achieved.
By March things were looking even gloomier. On the 26th, shots were fired at the Aerial Erector School’s trained site from a car with Irish number plates. Fortunately, no damage was done.
On 19 April 1974, Lieutenant Colonel J F Kyle CAP (Ret’d) visited Digby to exchange a No 401 Squadron plaque for a Digby one. This plaque now hangs in the large collection in the bar in the Officers’ Mess. The 23 April 1974 was Corporal Len Hammond’s last day in the Service. He decided to clear from the Station in style. He hired a Rolls Royce and chauffeur from Harrods (who else?) for the day at a cost of £100. At every stop, the chauffeur jumped out, opened the door and stood to attention as his soon-to-be-a-civilian passenger emerged.
The 23 and 24 September 1974 saw yet more Canadian visitors to Digby. Lieutenant Colonel J G Foy, Commanding Officer No 411 (County of York) Squadron CAF accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel P J Richardson and Captain S P Holoduka attended a Service of commemoration in the Station Church followed by a wreath laying ceremony in Scopwick cemetery. In the service the Rev A Saunders recalled the links Digby had with the Canadian forces as an RCAF station and said prayers for the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives. A No 411 Squadron badge hangs in the Church hall as a permanent memento of this visit.
On 25 October 1974, the Station Launderette was opened at one end of the Wives’ Club building. This facility has since been expanded and continues to give a valuable service for both the single airmen and for some of the wives. Happily, it also makes a small profit for the Station Institute Fund. The Station’s facilities were further improved at the end of October 1974 when the last of the 114 new build airmen’s married quarters were handed over to join the 2 new officers’ quarters which had been completed in September. For many, the daily coach trip from the married quarter site at Birchwood on the outskirts of Lincoln is now just an unpleasant memory.
Also in the autumn of 1974, the Digby team in the infamous ‘Cyprus Walkabout’ was the first RAF team to complete the walk, coming 10th overall. The Digby team were Flt Lt Peter Jones, FS John Jones an Sergeant Tony Hutton. The walk was from Episkopi to Mount Troodos, using a different route there and back. The first day’s journey of 44 miles over rough countryside took the men 81/2 hours, and the following day’s return leg took the same amount of time. The first leg caused nearly half of the teams, including Commandos, Marines and Paratroops, to drop out.
On 13 May 1975, 2 Digby landmarks disappeared when the staff of the Aerial Erector School allowed the remaining 240’ towers to fall over - on purpose, I hasten to add. Fig 12. shows the end of one of these towers.
In the hot summer of 1976 another Digby airman, Junior Technician Cohn Wilson, showed exceptional bravery. Coincidentally, he too, was on leave at the time. Wilson found a man hanging over the cliffs in Yorkshire. Without thought for himself, he rescued him and undoubtedly saved his life. Wilson was presented with his Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal on the parade for the Annual Formal Inspection on 18 May 1977.
In February 1976, another link with the past was severed; demolition
work on the old Control Tower and its outbuildings was completed. As
it had been disused since 1953, it was dangerous. Nevertheless, the demolition
was an historical shame. As Fig 13 shows, the Tower was one of the last
of a pre-war design which was far from common.
In November 1977 another demolition began, this time of South Hangar
(Fig 14). We do not seem to have a formal record of what went on in this
hangar from the time that it was used for agricultural storage in 1959.
However, it was certainly in use up to the end as car parking area, and
its annexes had - at one time - been in use as the Youth Club.
Alongside it in the cabinet is a Nottinghamshire Fire Services shield presented by a grateful county council for the work done by our airmen during Operation Burberry in November 1977 to January 1978. In all, 13 airmen were detached from Digby to Wales, London, Middlesborough, Boston and Nottingham amongst other places.
To reinforce the Station’s reputation for sporting prowess, the 60th year of its life was even better than usual. The athletics team won the Support Command Indoor Championships, and the Command and RAF Outdoor ones. Their success was due largely to the inspiration they received from Flight Lieutenant Ken Gear, who - at the age of 51 - still managed fine performances in the hurdles and pole vault. The Judo Team won the RAF Novices Trophy for the second year running. Not to be outdone, the Cross Country Team won both the A and B Leagues of the Lincolnshire Services Cross Country League (with the C team coming third), and the Support Command and RAF Junior Championships. Corporal Barry Charnock showed himself to be an outstanding individual sportsman by being selected for the RAF Rugby Team. At the time of writing, injury has prevented him from adding a rugby cap to RAF and Combined Service caps that he already holds.
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