207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
MEMORIES OF RAF MARHAM AND 207 SQUADRON
4241253 SAC JOHN FOSTER (FLOSSIE): Instruments 4/59-5/63
After reading the memories of John Ockenden in the 207 Newsletter I looked up his story on the website for Marham and remember a NBS (Navigational Bombing Systems) type who moved into the same room in the barracks with me (and about 12 others). His name was John though I cant remember his surname. He was a tall dark haired lad who had just come back from the Far East. He slept in a bed about four up from mine in the far corner of the room and as the heating pipes ran around the walls he would make up his bed by wrapping his bedding around these pipes in winter for extra warmth. Other than that I cant remember too much about him except he was friendly but spent most of his free time off camp in Kings Lynn and he was due for demob about four weeks after me.
John is right about the barrack block being near the NAAFI and overlooking the garage newly built on the road outside the camp. He was wrong saying that it was an H block, in fact it is a T shape with 2 floors divided up as four main rooms at the front and two ablutions at the back. Between us and the road were a few wooden huts that housed the Snowdrops (RAF Police) and the start of Married Quarters. There was a large grass field which like all RAF camps was OUT OF BOUNDS, which is why we always came into camp that way if we could (it saved about 5 minutes walk past the guardroom).
As I am writing of my memories, let's start - these are not in chronological order by the way:
Having a girlfriend in London (who later became my wife) I spent a fair bit of spare time writing to or phoning her (now Im in trouble!). All of the lads in the room were about the same age and had girls to write to but we sometimes found it hard to fill all the pages girls wanted so we would get together around a table and help each other to write the letters or to make small love tokens like brooches from cap badges or buttons, coloured cards with hearts and flowers. It passed the time we had some fun and the girls never knew that maybe three or four girls got the same letter.
Fixing the drains
As stated earlier the ablutions were at the back of the block. Each floor had two showers, one bath, 8-10 hand basins, two urinals and three thrones. One time the drains blocked and water flowed back into one of the lower floors shower room. Maintenance where called in and found a broken drain which was dug up and fixed by putting in a U-shaped pipe and left until the correct pipe could be got. Which also meant the hole was left open - and as this was next to the back door of the block a few merry men fell into it after sinking a few lemonades at the local pub.
This was OK for a while but after a week it was no longer funny and rats were found outside the block, around the dustbins and one was seen in the lower washroom. When reported we were told that rats would not come around the block as it was too noisy for them. Several of us didnt like this answer so set out to prove it wrong and started to feed the rats in the drain. After about 24 hours we baited a couple of fish hooks on strong lines and left them in the pipes attached to the upper floor window. This was a bull night when the block was to be inspected the next day by the CO.
Next morning we had two rats on two lines which we pulled up about 2 foot and left hanging. Everyone was scared to stay and do Barrack duty and face the CO, with rats hanging outside the block. But as was my luck I was voted into it (I remember most of the lads were bigger then me and you cant beat 3 or 4 when you have to sleep sometime). Anyway it all went well. I lived through his first yells and raves and managed to tell our story. I was ordered to stay in the block and to report to him when the maintenance crew arrived, as he wanted to speak to them. As this crew where civilians I wondered how and what he would say.
I didnt have to wait long - about 15 minutes after he left they arrived. Five minutes after I reported he came back. This was very good seeing he got back to the barrack block before me (the squadron office was about half to three-quarters of a mile from the block and I had to walk). I never did find out what was said, but the drains were repaired and filled in before lunch that day.
Wednesday afternoon was sports day and if you were not on duty you had to do a sport. The SWO used to patrol the barracks to catch any one not taking part in any sport. Most airmen would use it as a half day holiday and just get off camp somehow. I had my own dodge which lasted for over three years and I never got caught.
When I first arrived at Marham I found they had a good Archery club which I joined, but over time members were posted, demobbed or just left and I was the only one left. So Wednesday afternoon I would lie on my bed, the SWO would come round and ask why I wasnt doing sports, to which I replied that my sport started in half an hour's time. Off he would go. I then went to the guard room, booked out the key to the Archery shed and went off to the NAAFI or YMCA, had a cuppa then took the key back and went to bed. When the SWO returned (if he did) I could say Id been but no one had turned up and as SSOs (Station Standing Orders) stated nobody was to partake in any form of unsupervised sport, I could not do it on my own. As I had my own bow and arrows stored in my locker and had booked out the key to prove I had tried, he could not do anything but let me stay there.
Ultrasonic washing machine
One time I think it was the Radio and NBS NCOs got together and with the aid of a large oil drum, about a 10 gallon size, and a ultrasonic noise generator they made a washing machine out on the squadron dispersal. When tried out it worked great, so was moved into the lower block wash room, filled with very hot water and soap powder switched on. It only required you to dip your washing in and bring it straight out and it was done.
Everyone used it and we all had very clean washing, but we didnt remember that the drum was not made for ultrasonic use. After about 10 minutes it burst and sent very hot water over the floor, even out to the passage to the front doors of the block. Luckily no one was burnt or hurt though the stains were still there when I left in 1963.
Out on the dispersal several other Instrument Bashers and I started up a Tea-bar with Dry Goods taken from the night shift store. Every night the squadron was issued with Dry Goods of tea, coffee, dried milk and sugar. Every few weeks these were thrown out as they were out of date, so we used them to start up our own small naafi. We charged something like a penny per cup of tea and a penny halfpenny for a coffee. After a few days we made enough to buy biscuits from the NAAFI shop and sell them. Then it grew and grew until at one stage I was taking money from the fund to phone my wife every night. Others used to go to the camp flea-pit and have a beer afterwards. Trouble was that the fund grew too large and we had so much money in the kitty we didnt know what to do and so blew the lot on a squadron party. Soon after that I went on leave (I think I got married) and when I got back the NBS boys were running the Tea-bar.
The ladies from the factory
About 1130 to1200 every day RAF transport used to leave Marham and run through the top end of Downham Market and on to other RAF sites in the area. If you were lucky you could get a lift to the top of town at Downham and walk down the hill to the station, about a mile, to catch the 1330 train to London. This day 12-15 lads from the station caught this transport and were walking to the station. Now the London-bound trains were on our side of the tracks, those for Kings Lynn were on the other side.
On the Kings Lynn side was a factory, I think it had some thing to do with bread, but it employed a lot of women. Our RAF lads are walking to the station and are a merry bunch. A bus carrying the workers for the factory comes by. All the normal banter goes on - then one lad gets to near the bus and is pulled on to it. The rest of us laugh and make jokes about the lucky sod then notice male clothes being thrown out of the bus. We carry on, picking up the gear as we go. As we get to the station we see a head behind some boxes and a voice calling out to "give back his clothes". As we hear the train coming we get onto the platform and board the train as near to the front as we can, open the far door, and call for the chap to make a run for it, dragging him into the compartment as the train pulls out. As we have all his clothes we already know he is naked but we did not know he was covered with lipstick stains and bruises. It took him the whole of the rest of the way to London to get cleaned up and dressed .Two older ladies in the next compartment talked about it all the way and blamed us but they had a glint in the eye when we saw them in London.
Another way to get to London was again by train, but very early in the morning. If you could get to Kings Lynn before 0300 sometimes you could catch the milk train and if you found the guard and he allowed you to cook his and your breakfast in his van, you got bacon, eggs, bread, butter, tea and a ride into London for free. Otherwise you had to catch the 0630 and pay 12 shillings and 6 pence for a forces' weekend return. This ticket ran from any train Friday to the last on Sunday night.
207 was the first squadron to try out QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) or at least the first at Marham. It consisted of an aircraft being ready to take off at any time, day or night, within 4 minutes of the alarm. To allow for this the ground crew had to stay within 100 yards of the aircraft, eating and sleeping or what ever they wanted. This first time it was my luck to be on the team. We were given a hut on the far side of the field, near the compass swing area, no one for miles. The aircrew stayed in the Officers Mess about 4 miles away (how they could get airborne in 4 minutes I dont know).
Anyway the hut and ground crew are the point. We consisted of a crew chief and three other ranks in a hut with two bedrooms and one large room with all the comforts of home - RAF style, including a very smelly thunder box in a shed outside. Our meals were brought by a Land Rover by Snowdrops when passing, so were always cold and dried up. Still it was only for 24 hrs on and 24 off for a week and the weekend shift took over Friday night. So if worked it right you had from Friday morning to Monday night, giving a long weekend.
After our first night's meal the lads made up a game with the alphabet in a circle, a glass upside down every one touching it then asking questions, the answers of which were spelt out by the glass. Not liking this sort of thing I dropped out and went to the bedroom to write letters and read. Thats when the fun started for the others. I kept on hearing wailing noises and the lights fading. When I asked them, they had heard nothing. It got worse through the night before I cottoned on but was I glad when that shift finished. The noises where made by spinning a long flexible tube and the fading lights by a long thin string onto the mains box.
Later I heard of a story about that old hut that still scares me, but by that time QRA was a full station thing and every squadron took part in another part of the camp.
Just after the war a snowdrop and his dog were patrolling around the hut above at night when he saw a light from the window. Looking in he saw four men playing cards but as he could not get their attention, he left his dog by the window and using a pass key let himself into the hut. Entering the room he found no one. Leaving and relocking the door he called for his dog. Unable to find his dog he had to report it. Fellow police were sent to replace him with another dog. Finding the first dog they took that and the replacement crew back to our hut. As they drew near the first dog went mad and fought to get away and ran off. That dog would never go near the hut again and had to be posted from Marham.
How true this is I dont know but I personally believe that I saw two ghosts whilst at the camp. The first was when a group of us were returning to camp after a weekend in London. We were driving past the pig farm when we saw someone in flying gear walking towards Marham village. We stopped asked if he was alright and wanted a lift. He replied he was ok but could we give him a light. When our match was struck he vanished, we werent far behind him with that trick.
My second was whilst working inside a fuel tank changing a fuel capacitor. As per SSOs I was dressed in full protective clothing , i.e. a fuel proof rubber type suit with a full head hood and breathing air pumped in via a outside pump sited about 20 yards away. I was on top of a work trolley about 15 inches below the underside of the wing. No one could stand along side me nor could I see more than my legs through the hole, when I heard some one ask how long I would be. Being hot, tired, very uncomfortable and in a tight place I swore and was less than polite. I was next told to stand when speaking to an officer. In trying to get from the hole I saw a pair of standing flying boots alongside me where nobody could stand. I was out of that hole in a flash, crawled from under the wing, but no one was in sight.
Back to QRA, the site had been moved and all squadrons on the camp now took part but the Yanks supplied the security as they owned the bombs on board our aircraft. They had armed guards and one was known as 2 Guns Pete, as he walked around with two cowboy type guns in holsters strapped to his side, just like John Wayne, and we all laughed at him. One day the electric generator backfired and Pete drew his guns and started firing into the field surrounding the aircraft. Everyone hit the dirt and tried to dig to Australia. When his guns were empty other Yanks grabbed him and that was the last we ever saw of Pete. (Pete was the same bloke as John Ockenden's Wyatt Earp, just different days. The Yanks owned all the bombs we used and I remember one refusing to allow us to move the aircraft unless he travelled with his bomb so he was thrown into the bomb bay as the plane taxied around the pan for the exercise. When he was let out he vanished like a rat up a drain pipe.)
One for the pot
As stated earlier I was interested in archery and had my own gear which I sometimes took out to the QRA site. I started shooting behind and alongside our sleeping hut when I saw some rabbits in the adjacent farmers field - to good to miss and next I knew I had two in the bag from five shots - not bad. Reclaiming my arrows and prey I was returning to the living room to show off my catch when an officer caught me. Now Im for it, I thought, but no, he wanted to buy them from me, which paid for my phone call to my girl that night.
Back on the dispersal the police and their dogs always came into the huts for a warm and cuppa when cold or wet. No one minded as long as the dogs stayed clear of us and allowed free entry and exit of the building. Alongside the aircraft pans we had large electric transformers to supply the aircraft's batteries whilst on the ground. One of these was faulty and difficult to switch on but so far had not shocked anyone. It had been a damp cold day but had dried up at night when we heard a cry from the pans - the police dog had used the transformer for a post and got 110 volts plus any number of amps where it hurt most and was as near to meeting his maker as he could be. Sparks were flying from him to the transformer and the damp ground. He was pulled off somehow, and ran around to the dispersal huts, went inside and ate all our biscuits and then went on his way as if nothing had happened.
In the village there used to be three public houses. Come out of camp via the main gate turn right to the T junction, turn left and you saw the first called The Fox. For some reason this was mostly used by the locals and not many airmen. One night a couple of us went in to have a few sherbets as was our wont. We got talking to the people. After a few minutes one old boy asked where I came from and on being told London he would not believe me, stating I was a local lad. I disagreed with him as I had lived around the Elephant and Castle for as long as I could remember. I then told him that I was evacuated to Ely with my mother during the war. And my first school was there. That was it for him; I was one of them, no bloody outsider come to rule it over the local lads. From that night on The Fox was my local pub and when the old boy was in I never had to buy a pint. Trouble was he died about four months later.
Carry on past The Fox and half way through the village on the left was the second pub - I think this was The George but I cant truly remember. This pub was very well used by the station. Alongside was a foot path over the fields. If you stood at the back wall of The George and drew a line 90 degrees from it, it passed over 207's barrack block, also right through Married Quarters and the back of most of the village. It was the quickest way back to camp but also OUT OF BOUNDS because you could see into the bedrooms of the local girls and those of Married Quarters. Striptease was not shown as much then as it is now but Im sure some of the young girls knew of the short cut and hopeful peeping toms, which made the trip more fun.
The last pub was The Bell and was at the other end of the village near to the local church and the other end of the road that went past the main gate to the camp. I only used this pub about twice all the time I was at Marham. The first time I was very drunk and spent most of the night fighting off squadron mates trying to get me to leave the publican's dog behind after I gave it the full contents of my stomach over its head and back, or so I recall them telling me.
Making Chiefy's bike go
Shortly after arriving on 207 I had my first run in with a crew chief. He was a very small chap in both height and build and used a 98cc motor bike to travel to the squadron. He was complaining that it would not run right. As I had had the same type of bike before joining up I gave it a decoke and spring clean. He was not a happy bunny as now it had no power at all so I remembered what my civilian friends had done to mine, only I went a little too far. I mixed about two pints of ether with his petrol (my friends had only used a cup full). Chiefy seemed to like the new power his bike had, until he had gone about 4 miles; he was just leaving camp when it blew up leaving the engine in a million pieces. Most of the squadron thought it funny, both he and I didnt agree and I had a visit to the CO and two weeks loss of pay.
Most days passed without anything happening but one day we were all in the crew room talking. Someone mentioned our habit of dipping a cloth into the fuel bins at the wing tips to use when cleaning the equipment and rear desk in the cockpit. What would we do if it caught fire? Nearly everyone said "drop it and run". That day a NCO dipped his rag and cleaned up, but something sparked and he had a flaming rag in his hand. He then became the bravest man I have ever met. He very quietly climbed from the aircraft and walked away about 40 yards before throwing the rag away, stamping on it to kill the flame. Then he went to sick quarters for help. I cant remember seeing him again or what happened to him but I wish him well.
Instrument Bashers had to refill the aircraft oxygen tanks and this was done using an oxygen trolley. These carried four bottles which were about 6 feet long and 10 inches in diameter and weighed about one and a half hundredweight each. Having about six of these trolleys on the squadron meant the bottles were changed about twice a week and we had a good easy way of doing it with a ramp. When a new boy was posted to us we would show him how to change the bottles without the ramp - it took two to lift the bottles from the ground - then bet him that anyone he chose could do it on their own. As he had seen what it took he normally accepted the bet .... this meant he bought teas all-round for the Section if he lost.
We had a new lad from The Isle of Man who was a farmer. Easy teas so we thought. I loaded the trolley using the ramp in half the time it took before. The new lad shook his head and said "you should do it like this". He then bent down, slid one bottle under each arm picked them both up and loaded the trolley in half my time. I didnt buy teas that day - it was beers all-round on me!
Speaking of oxygen trolleys, when charging the aircraft you had to use three different tools - a spanner, screwdriver and bottle key. To me that was too much to carry and could get lost or caught up somewhere. So I made up a tool that combined all three and submitted it to the Engineering Officer who liked the idea. We changed it to suit the other trades that used compressed gases on aircraft.
The idea was sent to station workshops to make up some more for other squadrons to try. It was also sent off to the Air Ministry. I never heard any more about it until about six months after I was demobbed when I received a letter saying that I had won an award which was to be presented to me during a parade. Knowing how I hated parades and I still knew some of the ground crew, I turned it down and asked if any money could go to squadron funds. I never heard any more.
A nice racket
John Ockenden to whom you reading this owe your mis-spent time states in his memories that the aircrew sometimes brought back pineapples from Africa. What he didnt say was that several of the officers would tell members of the aircraft ground crew to buy up all the fresh milk they could (cost about 3p a pint) which was loaded into the aircraft panniers flown out to Africa, sold at 6p a pint, pineapples bought and brought back to be sold by those who put in for what ever they could get which was about 2s 6d each. A nice profit.
Thank you Snowdrops
Most of you will think I didnt like the RAF Police because of the name Snowdrop. That was just a nickname because of their white hats. I never had much to do with them except for when I was knocked over by a 3-tonner carrying a load of them off-duty. It was very early on a Friday morning and I got hit by the lorry, breaking my left foot. After treatment I was allowed out of Sick Quarters with crutches and sent to the squadron office as I was unable to work on aircraft. They had no work for me so sent me on weekend leave. As it was supposed to be a working weekend for me I was over the moon. That Saturday evening my sister had got tickets to the local church dance and made me go along with her. It turned out to be the luckiest night of my life for I met the girl I was to marry about three years latter. Good old Snowdrops, a weekend of light duties and a future bride.
Just after I joined the RAF my father bought a Standard 8 car and after working on it one weekend I found that I had returned to camp with his spare key. At this time car locks had numbers stamped on the outside of the locks and you could buy keys in any motor shop for about a shilling. So Dad always had spares at home.
Most times when work was done on an aircraft the key was booked out from the Flight Office by the crew chief and the door closed whilst waiting for the aircrew. Sometimes as in this case the aircraft was locked and all I wanted was to get a serial number for the Form 700. I then noticed the number on the lock looked familiar. A quick check with dad's key and, yes, they were the same. Walking back to the Flight Office I checked all the aircraft I passed and they were the same. It seemed odd to me that Vickers had made about eight aircraft with the same key number and they all finished up on the same squadron. So I checked all the aircraft I could from other squadrons and they all had the same number. It didnt take long for crew chiefs to find I had a key to the aircraft and I was up before the CO. My key was taken away and my story checked by Air Ministry police and the local police station. When my story was found to be true the key was returned to my dad and I was not allowed to bring it back on camp.
Locked in the bomb bay
One of my jobs as an Instrument Basher was to adjust any instruments as needed. Fuel gauges seemed to need this the most. The adjustment points for most of them were in the bomb bay. To get to them you had to open the bomb doors then the deflector and close the bomb bay leaving the deflector open. This was a two man job - one in the cockpit reading the gauges and one adjusting, speaking to each other through the intercom. I was in the bomb bay and every thing was fine. We finished, and as I closed the panels my other half went off, calling out to the crew chief that we had done.
Chiefy just closed the deflector without checking, locking me in the bomb bay. It was lunch time so everyone cleared off quick not knowing I was stuck and in the dark with six practice A-bombs for company. Whilst waiting for them to come back I fell asleep wrapped around the bombs. I was still asleep when they started the engines before take off. Mind you I very quickly woke up, and to draw attention to my situation I removed the wires to the fuel tank instruments. The bomb bay was opened in double quick time and I landed hard on the ground. Chiefy got a rocket for not checking before lunch, and every one else had a good laugh.
Ban The Bomb
Five days before I was due for demob the Ban the Bomb lot decided to picket the camp and we were all confined to camp for the weekend. I was not happy. As the day wore on the Banners tried to get onto the camp and all the poor airmen had to keep them off without force. After clearing about 10 or so myself and seeing them come back in a different place I got fed up and with a mate started to get tough. We caught one guy and threw him over a high fence not knowing that TV news was watching us. About 1730hrs we were all stood down as the demo had finished, and told we could have Monday off instead of the Saturday we had just lost. Several of us got together and drove to London agreeing to meet up Monday evening to return to camp. As I got home my wife was watching TV with her Mum and Dad. Just as I opened the door there was the shot of me throwing the chap over the fence and my wife calling out that "it was her Johnny on TV". Back on camp on Tuesday, Marham saw the quickest clearance it had ever had as I was on the 1330 train to London the next day.
I have visited Marham twice since then, taking my children and grandchildren. It has changed a lot on the camp, not so much outside - a few new buildings and pubs closed. Inside has altered the most but the Memories are still there and somehow I miss the place.
207 Squadron RAF History
John Ockenden on RAF Marham website
Photos of (very) old Marham (Norfolk > Marham)
NBS: Navigational Bombing Systems. There was another version of this but it could still get me in hot water, it wasn't very nice.
Before joining the RAF I was on the staff of The Borough Polytechnic looking after all types of engine and engineering laboratries and helping the teaching staff as required. After 1963 I worked for many instrument makers but was forced to retire through ill health four years ago. I now build and fly model aircraft.
© John Foster 2005: not to be reproduced without permission: please contact via the editor
last updated 15 July 08: 1 Jan 14