Taking the Oath of Allegiance - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Taking the Oath of Allegiance

Next morning, immediately after breakfast, we had yet another medical and this time we had to find our own way. I can still remember the long, intimidating sign outside the hut to which we were directed: 'Otorhinolaryngological Diagnostic Establishment' - I remember the name only because I made a note of it and wrote it down in my diary that evening. Because we were moving from hut to hut without any advance knowledge of what was coming next and we no longer had an escort, one of my fellow recruits asked a passing airman what went on inside. He replied with a straight face, "Don't ask. It's better you don't know - you'll find out soon enough!" It was, of course, simply a routine ENT inspection.

Below: Part of my diary entry for 19 August 1953
Once those medicals were over we went to yet another hut to take some basic aptitude tests and then it was time for dinner or, as the RAF called it, lunch. My diary records that whatever you called it, it consisted of rabbit pie and veg for the main course, then prunes and semolina pudding for afters. Very tasty!

That first afternoon we were given a talk about the various trades that were on offer. We learned that a completely new trade structure, known helpfully as the New Trade Structure, had recently been introduced into the RAF, offering a choice of 21 trade groups from which we could select. I already knew that I was going into Trade Group 4, Wireless Mechanic, because the Recruiting Officer in Leeds had pre-arranged that. Most of the other recruits had not at this stage been allocated a trade. It seemed odd to me that so many had been willing to sign on as regular airmen without being guaranteed the trade of their choice.

Many of my fellows told me they were signing on for three years in the RAF simply to avoid being drafted for two years National Service in the Army and they didn't care what trade the RAF trained them for! I was surprised to find that quite a large number wanted to work in Officers' Messes as a Batman/Waiter, a euphemism for Officers' skivvies. This was, apparently, because it was generally thought that batmen had an easy time - with added perks. Another group wanted to sign on as MT Drivers because they believed that drivers would have an easy life. For those a genuinely useful added advantage was the free training RAF drivers were given leading to civilian HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicle) driving licences and you could qualify at the age of 18 not 21. Some of my fellows had no idea what they wanted!

I discovered during the course of that second day that few of the recruits had gained any GCEs before leaving school; I seemed to be the only one with six.

"You should be a POM," said one of my fellows with the air of someone who knew what he was talking about.

"What's a POM?" I asked.

"Potential Officer Material," he replied. "With all those GCEs you should be an officer. I bet you they soon make you a POM."

Some instinct warned me not to mention that I had already attended the Aircrew Selection Centre and been rejected.

On the third day we, and several other groups that we had never met earlier, took the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. The ceremony took place in the Station Cinema known, like all RAF cinemas at home and overseas, as the Astra. We learned later that the RAF Motto Per ardua ad astra was widely translated by airmen as "After work to the pictures". The cinema was full so there must have been a couple of hundred of us in there altogether. As I remember it, an officer with lots of medals stood on the stage and shouted out the Solemn Oath, split into sound bites of no more than four or five words at a time, and we dutifully repeated them. I idly wondered whether anyone who, for any reason, had merely mouthed the words or pretended to declaim them could be legally enlisted. That thought didn't last long because, immediately after swearing, we individually trooped onto the stage to sign our enlistment papers. After signing we were issued with our service number - 4134035 in my case. The whole process took a long time but there was no going back once it was over.
Finally, the officer formally welcomed us into the Royal Air Force with a very short speech which went something like this:

"You men have volunteered to serve in the finest of the three armed forces. You have made a wise choice. Wear your uniforms with pride and remember: always refer to the Service as either the Royal Air Force or the R A F, and never - ever - the Raf! Now, just out of interest, how many of you have signed on for just three years?"

Almost everyone put a hand up. His expression, as he cast his eyes around the auditorium, seemed to indicate that he realised those men had merely signed on for the minimum possible term to avoid being conscripted as National Servicemen.

"How many have signed on for four years?" A dozen or so, including me, put their hands up. We were the ones who had been offered or promised technical trades of our choice in exchange for an extra year of commitment.

"How many for five years?" Two or three hands went up.

"Anyone signed on for longer than five years?"

A lone figure put his hand up and everyone else gasped out loud. We looked at him with a mixture of awe and incredulity when he admitted that he had signed on for 12 years. When you're still a teenager, committing yourself to anything for 12 years seemed both unnecessary and foolhardy. The surprise was so great that I don't think anyone discovered what trade he had been promised.

Shortly afterwards the officer handed over to a Warrant Officer who, contrary to my expectations, seemed nice as pie and ever so friendly. The only thing I can now remember of his speech was his assertion that swearing and other forms of foul language were not encouraged in the RAF, either in public or in private. In the following weeks I wondered if I had heard him right.

I learned much later that there were already 189,000 regular service male personnel in the RAF when I joined; apparently 39,000 of us voluntarily signed on in 1953 alone - that was 750 per week! Of the new regular airmen who passed through the recruit reception station at Cardington with me on my very first week in the RAF, I only ever came across about half a dozen in later years.

(An article in the Daily Telegraph on 1 April 2016 reports that the current strength, including reservists, of the RAF stands at 37,000 and that many young people do not even know that RAF stands for Royal Air Force.)

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