The RAF at Saul Junction

Spring 1943

By E A Blackman

Letter to: Tom Hewlett, Frampton on Severn: 12 December 2003

(Tom was our first Treasurer and had written to Mr Blackman asking for a contribution to the archive - well before we had managed to get funding)

From E A Blackman, Weymouth

Dear Mr Hewlett

Thank you for your letter of 1st December.  I am afraid I was not at Saul for the Festival you mention but would very much like to have been.  I visited Saul about 8 years ago and was surprised to find no trace of the RAF and its boats.

Your letter triggered many memories and I thought some idea of the unknown branch of the Service might be of interest to those who are taking so much trouble over local history.  I am afraid these are the ramblings of an old man unedited and unread.  Some of the memoirs will have become muddled with time but give an overview as to what life was like in those happy days at Saul.

My wife and I may make another journey down memory lane to Saul and Gloucester.  It is a strange thing that as a 20 year old I patronized a canteen in Gloucester where my wife to be worked as a volunteer.  However, we did not meet until 1947 in Cornwall.

My lifelong friend Owen died sadly, last summer.  He is to be seen at the Wheel of our Marine Tender as Saul Junction in 1943.

Yours sincerely

(E A Blackman)

R A F Station, Saul, Gloucestershire

Recollections of ex Flight Sergeant Eric Blackman, aged 81 years.
Dated 9th December 2003.   Weymouth, Dorset

The beginnings of the RAF Marine Section

I will explain how an RAF Unit came to be operating at Saul Junction on the Gloucester Sharpness ship canal in 1943.

In 1918 when the RFC emerged as the RAF, there were a number of flying-boat bases already active and flying squadrons.  Flying boats float on a single hull formed from the fuselage of the aircraft.  They are distinguished from seaplanes, which have two floats in place of the normal aircraft's wheels.  The flying boats were already among the largest aircraft extant and Air Ministry was inclined to view that these were the way forward.  Land plane weight was restricted by the weakness of their bolt-on undercarriages.

Flying-boats, whether passenger or cargo carrying or as a military weapon, need the same maintenance facilities delivered by water as a land plane requires while on the ground.  To cope with the marine environment the RAF Marine Craft Section was formed in 1918.  Those who have served in the Section are proud to have been part of one of the oldest branches of the Service.  Close co-operation with the Royal Naval Air Service at the outset resulted in disused Naval premises at Calshot Spit on Southampton Water and the nearby hutted camp known as Eaglehurst Camp, forming the RAF Marine School and a Flying-boat maintenance Unit.

Flying-boat hulls have always been paper-thin.  And even the later giant Sunderlands were not very robust.  The vulnerability of these craft when afloat lead to a restrictive regime for boat handlers and crews of all ranks.  Enforcement was backed by all the powers military discipline could devise.  The Marine Section structure evolved with seamanship as priority number one.  While construction a chain of command those involved in setting up the new Section recommended suitable designs for vessels best suited for the duties projected.

The Marine School was established with a Squadron Leader as CO who also happened to be an Ex-Master Mariner.  Early squadrons were based at Plymouth, Pembroke Dock and Oban.  Coastal Command expanded on either submarine or convoy patrol.

The Marine Section provided a continual ferry service to and from the 'trots' (aircraft mooring), priority passage was given to the aircrews.  Armourers, electricians, radar mechanics, engine fitters, airframe fitters and cleaners all needed boats to transport them and their tools, spares and ammunition.  Aviation fuel, bulk lubricating oil, food, fresh water, bombs and depth charges were also handled often using specialised craft.  Finally when aircraft needed major overhaul they needed to be serviced on shore.  Marine Section crews were trained to carry out the tricky procedures concerned with slipping these unwieldy planes.

Broadly speaking the boats described below formed the bulk of vessels to be seen daily at any Marine Base.  Designs varied reflecting the individuality of the builders.

The 18 foot open petrol driven planning dinghy was designed as a fast taxi, carrying two or three passengers with their tools and equipment.  The Marine Tender was a maid of all work.  24 feet long, clinker built shallow displacement hull half-decked.  A 90 HP Diesel engine occupied a central position under a hatch.  There were cockpits fore and aft the after one fitted with stout towing bitts at the fore end.  They were exceptionally wet as the powerful engine could bring the hull to planning speed if it were empty.  The power was needed as two of these craft were usually employed in slipping aircraft.  The only shelter from the weather was under canvas dodgers.  Both the planning dinghy and marine tender were small enough to fit beneath the wings of the aircraft.  Where the trots were some distance from the HQ buildings people were often ferried to and from a moored barge close at hand and a service of Seaplane tenders were used to deal with the longer distances.  Seaplane Tenders were 41 feet 6 inches long planning hulls.  Twin 130 HP Diesels.  They had a wheelhouse and cabin, with heads, and galley serving hot drinks.  They managed 28 knots on a good day.  In addition to general ferrying duties the Seaplane Tender was normally engaged in SBF standby flying duties.  When a 'kite' was due to take off or land a ST would be in attendance.  The Flying Officer of the day would be on board, controlling the aircraft over the radio and firing off Verey light red or green according to the need.

Upon take off the ST would steer a parallel course with the aircraft, the crew watching for any sign of a malfunction on board the plane.  A similar drill was observed at landings, except once the plane was safely down, the ST would lead it to the correct mooring buoy and usually hand the mooring pennants from the buoy to the aircrew airman waiting to secure the plane.

The most coveted vessels in the RAF Marine Section fleet was the 60 foot General Duties Pinnace.  Sixty feet long with the forward 40 feet of the planning hull flared and decked with varnished teak coach roof and wheelhouse, they were not far removed from the gentlemen's motor yacht their builders had constructed pre war.  The after part of the hull consisted of a hold with wooden hatch boards battens and wedges securing tarpaulin covers.  Accommodation from forward comprised crews' quarters with bunks for four, heads and galley.  A hatchway for serving food gave access to the wardroom splendidly fitted with blue leather Pullman seats, teak table and blue fitted carpet.  Two or three steps up reached the wheelhouse.  Down again through a sliding door one entered the engine room filled by three 130 HP Diesels and a 20 HP Diesel auxiliary generator.  The powerful generator was important, as the Pinnace was the preferred boat for use in night time flarepaths.  A searchlight topping the wheelhouse was used to throw its beam in the direction from which the wind was blowing helping Flying boats to land safely into the wind at night.  Pinnaces were originally designed as Torpedo Recovery Vessels.  Numerous torpedo ranges around the coast were used to train aircrews.  The dummy torpedoes were lifted from the water by the powerful derrick mounted just aft of the engine room on a massive Sampson post fitted with hydraulic winch and six-fold wire purchase.  Six eighteen-inch torpedoes could be accommodated in the hold in special chocks.  Once in service these pinnaces were found to be very for other duties.  In the Western Isles many isolated AA gunners, Observer Corps stations, Coastguard and wireless listening posts were located.  Pinnaces from bases such as Oban kept these units supplied with rations, fuel and personnel.  Ammunition and generators and other heavy equipment were frequently handled.

Squadrons on patrol consumed vast quantities of aviation spirit and lubricating oil.  As soon as the planes were moored up and the crews ferried ashore dinghies (Marine Tenders) appeared carrying fitters and other technicians and their tools to start the process of servicing ready for the next patrol.  Fuel was brought by 45 foot steel craft fitted with twin Ford Model T 20 HP marinised petrol engines.  Known as Refuellers these craft carried 1500 gallons of petrol and 100 gallons of lubricating oil.  About four of these craft would be working during a normal turn round period.  The drill for fuelling was standard.  Someone aboard the 'kite' would slacken the buoy moorings allowing the plane to drop back some 50 feet.  The Refueller would gently nose alongside the nose of the aircraft.  It must be borne in mind that the outboard wing floats had to be avoided as the aircraft seldom lay quietly; wind rode but sheered about some worse than others.  Heaving lines would be thrown to the fitters waiting usually in driving rain on the wings.  They would haul the hoses up to the tank fillers.  Meanwhile the coxswain of the Refueller would be struggling to hand start the 8 HP 2stroke petrol engine, which worked the pump.  Fuel oil was pumped by hand by the deck hands of the Refueller.

While this was going on a Bomb Scow would have appeared and moored itself four square under the wing.  Two or three armourers would load depth charges into fittings beneath the wing using portable winches.  The Bomb Scow was a flat low half decked steel vessel with long open cockpit for most of its length.  Twin petrol engines and steering well were located right aft.  Length 35 feet.

Nothing so far has been said about the crews.  Apart from the rank of Aircraft Hand General Duties (AHGD) all specialised branches were divided into trades, eg Wireless Operator, Fitter Marine, Clerk Special Duties etc, etc.  Crews belonging to the deck department of the marine Section were known as Motor Boat Crew or MBCs.  The trade was sub divided into MBC/UT (unqualified but training).  Deck Hands, AC2, AC1 or LAC.  Corporal 2nd Class Coxswain.  First Class Coxswain either Sergeant Flight Sergeant or Warrant Officer.  There were no marine sea going officers until war broke out.  Sea Going Air/Sea Rescue launches (HSLs) were now in service and secret codes were the charge of commissioned officers so a new category of Skipper was devised.  Nearly all 'old' men in their 30s who had served at sea in some capacity for some years.  Regular Senior NCOs were frequently promoted to Commissioned Skippers.

The first instructors at the Marine School were mostly civilians, ex-Royal Navy or Merchant Service.  Regular coxswains who were volunteers and considered suitable took on the work.  The textbook was the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship Recruits for training as MBCs came from every source.  Failed and grounded aircrew gravitated to the Trade.  Raw volunteers answered radio calls for yachtsmen, fishermen and Thames Watermen to join the RAF as Motor Boat Crew.

All the new intake whether re-mustered from other trades or new recruits reported to RAF Calshot and were ranked Aircraftman 2nd class Under Training and while at school were U/T NBCs.  The course for deckhands lasted 9 six day weeks.  Seamanship, deck work, morse by lamp, Rule of the Road and Collision Regulations, buoyage, simple chartwork and tide tables.  Boat handling in planning dinghies and marine tenders, helm orders and watch keeping.  Towing and mooring.  From the above list it will be seen that there was little time for recreation if candidates hoped to pass the final exam.  Everyone kept a Gen book, some very elaborate works of art.  Evening sessions sitting on beds answering and asking questions known as Gen Sessions were the norm.

Eaglehurst Camp was reserved for permanent staff.  Marine School pupils were accommodated in the nearby Eaglehurst Castle.  This was a large single storey castellated building with numerous rooms all connected with each other.  They were filled with a dozen or so RAF beds in each.  No ritual passing out parades were held.  Results and positing destinations called over during parade.  It seemed as if all those living in the South went north and vice versa.  Once enrolled on the strength of an operational Unit MBCs progressed upwards by means of a series of Trade Test Boards.  These were held about every three months the examiners were senior coxswains.  So one would progress from U/T MBC to AC2 MBC, AC1 MBC and LAC MBC.  Following four or five months 'keeping yer nose clean' an LAC would be sent back to the Marine School on a Second Class Coxswain's Course.  This lasted six months and resulted in many old friendships being renewed at the 'Castle'.  Handling Seaplane Tenders Refuellers etc comprised the boat handling sessions.  More advanced chart work and passage making.  Torpedo recovery and Refuelling.  RAF forms and procedure.  Successful candidates returned to their Units promoted to Corporal Second Class Cox'n.

After four or five months comparatively blameless service a 2nd class Coxswain would return once again to Calshot for a further six weeks First Class Coxswain's Course.  Handling Pinnaces and HSLs of the Air Sea Rescue Units, which were only introduced 20 years after Marine Section was formed.  First Class Coxswains were promoted Sergeant on passing out and returning to the Units.

Twenty-one week training may seem a long time to some but The Collision Regulations, buoyage and International Code flags had to be learned by heart.  No fumbling for memory aids.  The answers were expected as once.  Not only were the flag letters required but their meaning and a number of two flag hoist meanings were required as well.  Semaphore and Morse lamp proficiency was required for all ranks.  There were also very strict rules caused by the fragility of the aircraft which had to be observed exactly.

Calshot was also the home of the Fitter Marine School and Ferry Pool, which was a group of crews specialising in delivering boats usually from the builders to the docks or their Units.  Rapid expansion of Coastal Command Bases lead to demands for new boats and personnel.  Flying Boats, which can operate from areas unsuitable for landing fields, could be used extensively for submarine patrols and convoy defence.  Once the boat builders got into their stride and deliveries improved a problem arose in finding storage accommodation for craft awaiting allocation to their Units.

Posting to Dumbarton

The writer was serving as an MBC at the flying boat base Loch Ryan, Stranraer.  The Section Warrant Officer announced that there was a posting for two MBCs to Dumbarton.  As Stranraer was considered to be at the end of the Earth a posting to Dumbarton near Glasgow seemed like a good bet.  I volunteered.  The other MBC, named Owen, had been in my class at Calshot.  Upon arrival at Dumbarton station we had great difficulty in discovering where the RAF was located.  Only three weeks ago 62 MU RAF Dumbarton was using premises leased from McAllister's yacht yard on the River Leven.  The Unit consisted of a flight Lieutenant, CO, Flight Sergeant and Corporal, coxswains, two or three MBCs, a couple of fitters and a carpenter/boat builder.  Two orderly room clerks and a few ACH GDs made up the Station.  Our task was to unload lorries loaded with Marine Tenders, Refuellers and Seaplane Tenders.  All these craft had their own cradles.  Using jacks we unloaded, grouped them in rows and sheeted them over with tarpaulins.  The Refuellers were unloaded at Denays Shipyard close by and moored in the river.

After about three months Owen and I were called before the CO and told we were to set up a new storage Unit at Rosneath on the Gare Loch about fifty mile away by road but only 20 miles down the Clyde from Dumbarton by water.  On arriving at Roseneath we found our HQ was to be one of the sheds belonging to the famous yacht yard of James Silver and Co.  We were billeted in a small guesthouse run by the village baker.  The shed already contained about 14 RAF 'dumb' dinghies (rowing boats).  We had a planning dinghy, two additional MBCs and two fitters.  Our task was to man the office telephone 24 hour a day a keep a War Diary of daily events.  It was hard going to find something to write and even harder going reading it.  Within three weeks a local mooring laying firm arrived and lay RAF munro mooring buoys for about a mile along the shoreline of the loch.  Soon afterwards crews from Dumbarton started delivering the Refuellers that had been moored in the river.  Two other famous yacht yards on the Clyde, Morris and Lorrimore and Robertsons of Sandbanks were busy building RAF Pinnaces.  By this time I had been back to Calshot and returned a full-blown corporal coxswain.  Although pinnaces were designated First Class Coxswain's boats nevertheless I took a crew and picked up several pinnaces from the yards and took them to our moorings on the Gare Loch.  Soon Ferry Crews from Calshot were bringing pinnaces from builders from further afield.  They were also taking boats from us to the docks for shipment overseas.  Refuellers sailed on their own bottoms to Bases in the Hebrides.

Saul Junction

Both Owen and I had now been to Calshot twice and were now Sergeants.  Having got Rosneath up and running and considerably expanded we were both posted to Tewkesbury on the Severn.  This was 62 MU HQ, having left Dumbarton and set itself up in a large boathouse on the Severn.  Our old Dumbarton Flight Sergeant was in charge.  No sooner had we arrived than we were given a new Marine Tender and collected two MBCs, two fitters and two ACH GDs.  We were told to find our way via Gloucester Docks to Saul Junction on the Sharpness Ship Canal.  Our kit was loaded on a lorry, which was to meet us there.  We were to report to the bridge keeper.  We made the voyage without mishap, found the bridge and keeper.  He was attended by PC Blick the local bobby.  The constable told Owen and me that he would be taking us to our billets and he strongly advised us (as the sergeants) to choose Mrs Honey at Springfield for ourselves.  We took his advice and were taken to the little cottage and were welcomed by a rosy-faced countrywoman of about 60.  The dining room had a table laid ready with Severn salmon salad, apple pie and cheese.  Afterwards in out bedroom Owen said 'This can't last'.  But it did, the whole time I was there until I was posted to Calshot and Ferry Pool.

College Boat House

Our first task at Saul was to take over the little college boathouse situated at the Junction.  Tools, workbenches and heavy equipment fitted into the boathouse while the upstairs rooms turned into an office and crew-room.  Our parent unit was at Stoke Orchard and they sent all our requests for equipment to RAF Quedgely.  We had never experienced such prompt attention to our stores requisition forms before.  We were told to reclaim a short reach of the Stroudwater canal and make it ready to receive a number of HSLs for storage afloat.  There was a swing bridge which had been let down in its cill and not opened for years.

Sledgehammers, axes, mattocks, crowbars, pickaxes and wheelbarrows arrived in quantity from Quedgely.  Soon the canal looked quite navigable.  The time was spring 1943.  The Air Sea Rescue Service was now firmly established in many new bases around our coasts.  There was a shortage of HSL's especially as many were being sent overseas.  To augment the fleet, builders of GP Pinnaces were given a modified plan which changed the layout.  Instead of the after hold and derrick the coamings were raised and formed into a roomy sick bay.  A gun turret was added to it and a further turret was fitted in the engine room coach roof.  These boats went to Bases which could manage with slower craft than the HSL's releasing HSL's for more important and busier bases.  HSL's and Pinnaces (ASR) soon started to arrive.  Driving mooring posts into the gravel towpath of the canal was a problem soon solved by using screw pickets instead.  The Stroudwater proved an ideal, secure, hideaway for the craft.  Very convenient for replacements to the busy SB coast Bases which were sometimes shot up or mined.  And convenient for the West Coast ports.

We were soon over-whelmed with work and we called urgently for reinforcements.  HQ responded by sending us seven U/T Marine Fitters to help out.  HSLs and ASR Pinnaces were arriving every day and none were being sent away and we were getting full with boats.  HQ also decided to send some Seaplane Tenders to Gloucester docks by road and then floated and towed to Saul by our Marine Tender.  Two days later there was a phone call to say a ST was already at the docks.  Owen and I took the MT, three UT fitters and a bike to the docks.  We arrived just in time to join an argument between the lorry driver and the crane drive.  The point was how to unload a 41 foot 6 Seaplane Tender weighing 7 tons by a steam crane with a SWL of 5 tons.  Owen intervened saying, 'It'll be alright', a statement he always made when a risky problem presented itself.  The crane, little more than a tin shed on railway lines shunted itself amid clouds of steam and smoke on the rails between the lorry and trailer on which the ST cradle rested, and the basin.  Rusty iron callipers and chains were secured to the rails from the crane bogie.  With shouts and gestures from Owen, the crane steeved its jib up to the maximum elevation and just managed to lift the boat high enough for the lorry to drive clear.  With my heart in my mouth I watched the little steaming beast gradually slew its unwieldy load to the water's edge.  The callipers visibly lifting the rails with the strain.  With the boat safely in the water the crane driver said, 'Don't want no more o' them'.  Little did he know there were about 12 lifts in and out in the pipeline.  The following tow went well with one member of the crew cycling ahead to open the bridges for us.

Soon we were likely to run out of mooring space on the canal and eyes were turned to the pound above the grounded swing bridge.  Taking advantage of the mechanical bent of some of our U/T Fitters Marine we set them to work freeing the bridge and getting it into the swing again.  The bridge opened easily to cheering onlookers and the consternation of the local bread van driver who suddenly appeared round a nearby bend in the lane.  Hitherto much of our labours were viewed with indulgent amusement by the locals, especially all those who worked on the cut.  The swing bridge episode marked a change of view and all concerned appeared more co-operative.

We had already enjoyed a good deal of hospitality from the scattered residents of Saul.  Invitations to tea, supper and drinks from far flung outposts like Frampton, Framilode and Arlingham.  Jolly summer tennis parties with the family of the Vicar of a nearby parish, I remember with pleasure.

Wings for Victory Week

To help pay for the war, villages and towns all over Britain held what they called 'Wings for Victory Week'.  Saul, of course, had to be in the swim especially as they had their very own RAF Unit.  We were asked to spearhead that year's effort to raise funds.

Mrs Honey did not approve of the methods by which money was raised.  The system was that well-heeled people in the district (and there were a few) were canvassed to give more or less valuable small personal items to be auctioned for the fund.  Successful bidders were required to buy National Savings Bonds to the value of the item 'bought'.  Mrs Honey complained that this resulted in many valuables being 'sold' for a fraction of their true worth and nameless people taking an unfair advantage.  Mrs Honey knew that I had just celebrated my 21st birthday.  She also knew that my relatives had taken advantage of wartime shortages and sent me cheques instead of goods, as presents.  In other words she knew I was in funds.  She suggested that I should go to the auction for Wings for Victory especially to run the prices up.  She went along as well to do the same thing while I underwrote her if she overstepped the mark.  On the night everything went according to plan.  It took some time before the competitors realised that a mere RAF Sergeant was a genuine bidder.  One 'mistake' I made was being landed with a gigantic and beautiful soup tureen with lid and ladle by Spode with about a gallon capacity.  I presented it to Mrs Honey who served us with many a rabbit stew or tripe and onions supper.

The war around our coasts

While all this was going on in deep Gloucestershire the was was being waged around our coasts.  The concept of Air Sea Rescue had changed from the original idea that fast launches would be called from harbour to rescue ditched airmen at sea.  A better idea was to send the boat to sea ready for any casualties that may have been in trouble.  East Coast Bases sent their boats out at 5 am to rendezvous positions, every 20 (minutes).  Recall was usually some time before midnight.  A more comfortable boat for these duties was devised by the British Power Boat Co. Southampton.  They were not quite as fast as the original HSL's but life on board all day, especially in rough weather was more tolerable.  The new boats were known as Hant and Dorsets after the double deck based as they had a high deck-house giving them a double deck appearance.  ASR Pinnaces and Hants and Dorsets made the bulk of the craft moored in out cut.  Enemy action had lead to the abandonment of bright yellow decks which was supposed to signify the non-combatant and one gun turret was being replaced by an Oerlikon cannon on the stern to ward off hostile aircraft.

One evening Mrs Honey's telephone rang with a message for me.  HQ Tewkesbury informed me that a dispatch rider was bringing orders to our office at the Junction and I was to meet him to receive them.  I jumped on my bike and duly received a brown paper envelope marked 'MOST Secret'.  RAF Saul had grown in size.  Armourers, electricians, wireless mechanics and other specialist trades had been added to our ranks.  Newly arrived vessels could be put into operational mode by our own staff.

Opening the orders I was appalled by their content.  We were required to 'make operational and ready for service' no less than four Hants and Dorset HSLs, with rations for four crews for two days, full ammunition and fuel.  Ready for the crews to arrive the following night and ready to sail within 48 hours.  Two of the boat numbers listed were above the swing bridge.  I began to feel  that Owen's oft repeated remark, 'It'll be alright', had got through to HQ somehow.  Fuel and water we could probably manage but - food.  On my way back to Springfield that lovely summer's evening I stopped off at the village shop and knocked up the two old girls who ran it.  Rations for two days for 36 men?  Without payment?  Without coupons?  'That will be alright, if you say so, Sergeant".  Bless them.  They chose the items included tomato sauce, salt and pepper and made up eight cartons, two for each boat, which were picked up by a truck from RAF Stoke Orchard.  Meanwhile we towed the boats down to the chocolate factory where there was a quay and fresh water.  The stores were loaded on board there, including ammunition, also from Stoke.  The launches all had to be towed by our one Marine Tender.  These triple screw 1500 hp boats did not handle well in confined waters.  Drag on the gearboxes produced a speed of six knots in neutral when new.

Some of our airmen were living out with their wives and there were plenty of girl friends too.  We asked for volunteers to man the galleys of the boats and cook a meal ready for the crews arriving after a long rail journey.  This scheme proved a great success and a good time was had by all.

Next morning road fuel tankers arrived to fill the launches.  Frightful snag - they had no pumps being used to supply by gravity to underground tanks.  Someone had the brilliant idea of mooring each launch beneath Frampton Bridge and driving the tanker to the middle of the bridge so giving the height required for the transfer.  The four boats sailed for Sharpness on time.

Shortly after this episode I was posted to Calshot at my own request and found myself coxswain of Ferry Crew No 8.  I did two or three trips to Saul and Dunbarton now completely unrecognizable as 230 MU.  My exploits following this account are to be found in my book (out of print), called Airman at the Helm, published by Peter Mason.

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