Memories of RAF Church Fenton 1956 to 1958
When I was first called-up to do National Service in May 1956 I was posted to RAF Nuneham Park, then RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Stanmore Park. I never thought I’d receive a posting so close to my parents home in Sheffield so it came as quite a surprise when I was posted to RAF Church Fenton less than 30 miles away.
Number 19 Fighter Squadron consisted of about ten Hawker Hunter fighter jets, half-a-dozen aging Gloucester Meteors and one two-seater de Havilland Vampire twin-boom jet for training. Powered by the Rolls-Royce Avon engine the Hawker Hunter reaching speeds of 700 mph had entered service only two years earlier in July 1954 as the RAF’s standard single-seater fighter. My job as a servicing recorder was to maintain minute -to-minute information on the status of each aircraft using Hollerith cards – a sort of early computer. Shortly before my arrival in autumn 1956, 263 Squadron with their Gloster Meteors had been merged with 19 Squadron. The twin-engined Meteors (affectionately nick-named ‘meat-boxes’ by both air- and ground-crew) were inherited from 72 Squadron which had been combined with 19 Squadron. The Meteors on 19 Squadron were 2-seater variants with with long, black, glass-fibre nose-cone extensions housing radar used by the navigator for night flying.
When I arrived Church Fenton was in the process of recruiting musicians for a station band asking for volunteers who could play an instrument. What they omitted to mention was that they meant to establish a brass band. ‘And what do you play?’ asked the corporal. ‘A bass’, I replied. ‘We don’t have a bass but you can play the euphonium instead.’ I didn’t mention I played a string bass in a jazz group. But no matter! One of the ‘perks’ of being in the band was that we were given time-off to join other musicians at numerous other RAF stations to take part in Battle of Britain Day parades. During the 1950s Church Fenton had its own cable-radio station. The signature tune, “Sauter Finnegan’s Midnight Sleigh Ride” (an arrangement of the Troika movement from Prokofiev’s suite “Lieutenant Kije”), introduced a evening of record requests.
Returning to camp on a 48-hour pass from Sheffield Midland Railway Station I would be joined by a motley band of airmen and forty-five minutes later we would be pulling into the station to the familiar call, ‘Chu…ur…ch Fenton, Chu…ur…ch Fenton Station’. The winter of 1957-58 was particularly cold. One night on my return to camp it was snowing hard and the way back to camp was blocked by deep snowdrifts. One of our party was a chap built like a rugby prop – 6 foot 6 inches tall and weighing 15 or 16 stone. (He was so big he carried a special chit from the MO so that he could get double helpings in the canteen to cope with his equally enormous appetite.) Hanging on to his RAF great-coat tails, five or six fellow travellers were literally pulled through the blizzard and deepening snow through the village until we reached the camp gates.
In the 1950s the United States Air Force purchased large numbers of Hawker Hunters using offshore procurement funds for the use of NATO forces. Number 19 Squadron was unique in the RAF; it was the only squadron where the squadron leader was a major – Major R. G. Newell. He was posted to Church Fenton to become familiar with the new aircraft. After his posting 19 Squadron earned the sobriquet of the ‘19th Swept Persoot!’ After Major Newell joined the squadron we had regular outings – both air- and ground-crew – using a station bus and famous squadron taxi for darts matches at to the local hostelry.
[Editor’s note Oct 2020 – Derek Coates, ex-43 Sqn has pointed out that 19 Sqn wasn’t unique in having a US Commanding Officer; 43 Sqn, at the time based at RAF Leuchars, has Major Ray O Roberts USAF as Commanding Officer in the mid-1950s. Thank you to Derek for the clarification.]
The squadron was sent on short-duration postings to other RAF bases in the United Kingdom. One of those postings was to RAF Aldergrove, Antrim, Northern Ireland. In the light of what we now know as ‘the troubles’ with IRA terrorists, shootings and bombings, memories of the first detachment to Northern Ireland are vivid. The ground crew including myself travelled to Belfast by sea from Liverpool. When we reached RAF Aldergrove, our billet was an old corrugated iron Nissen hut with a huge pot-bellied stove in the centre. The stove was kept well alight but the air was so damp that steam rose from our bedding in coils of condensation. We were never briefed on the history of the IRA or Irish terrorism and when I think about the nights of guard duty defending the squadron’s Hawker Hunter jet fighters armed with a Sten gun and two clips of ammunition, it sends shivers down my spine! This trip was also my first experience of flying – in an a twin-engined RAF Douglas transport taking us back home to RAF Church Fenton.
Another NATO tour-of-duty was a week at RAF Horsham-St-Faith, Norfolk during Easter 1958. A small group of ground-crew including myself left Church Fenton early one morning in April to travel 175 miles by coach to RAF Horsham-St-Faith. Six Hunters took-off from Church Fenton but only five landed at Horsham. Our USAF Major was missing! In his own words, “Flying over Norfolk I saw literally hundreds of airfields. I just said eenie, meenie, minie, mo! and landed here.” “Here” was a deserted airfield some miles away from Norwich one of hundreds of deserted ex-W.W.II airfields located in East Anglia.
On the runway at Horsham a pair of Hawker Hunters armed with air-to-air missiles and live cannon rounds waited round-the-clock with pilots on-board, the ground staff ready to operate the ‘accs’ to start-up the engines. Most of the time it was boring, sitting waiting on the grass enjoying the spring sunshine. Then on Good Friday morning the siren sounded, ‘Scramble!’ and all hell was let loose. A single aircraft had been detected on the radar making an unscheduled crossing of the North Sea. The two Hawker Hunters immediately took off to intercept it. Was this Armageddon? A Russian ‘Bear’ carrying its load of H-bombs? Was this the start of World War III? No, it was just an American pilot from Germany who had made an unscheduled flight to spend Easter with his girl friend in England.
 ‘Accs’: (RAF slang) mobile battery accumulators.
Terence Wilson Feb 2002