An introduction to the Aircraft Apprentices Scheme at Halton
The following is an extract from a pamphlet written for the 69th Entry Jubilee reunion in 2001 by Tony Parrott
An apprentice of the 69th at RAF HaltonFollowing the end of the first world war in November 1918, Chief of Air Staff Hugh Trenchard, in his considerations for the founding of a peacetime Royal Air Force, had recognised the need to train a wide variety of engineering trades, especially those connected with aircraft maintenance.
The Aircraft Apprentices Scheme, included in Trenchard's paper, which outlined his rationale for a substantive peacetime Royal Air Force, was endorsed by Winston Churchill - the then Secretary of State for Air - and was issued as a white paper entitled 'An outline of the Scheme for Permanent Organisation of the Royal Air Force', dated 11th December 1919. This was placed before Parliament and accepted.
The first qualifying examinations for entry into the RAF as Aircraft Apprentices were held in London and 14 provincial centres in November 1919, and set the pattern whereby future aspiring boys of between 15½ and 17¼ years of age would gain entry, with selective examinations to take place twice annually.
Successful candidates reported to No. 1 School of Technical Training, formed at RAF Halton in December 1919, in the succeeding January or August. Entries were numbered sequentially and would be the first question asked by one apprentice to another "what Entry were you?". Trenchard's vision was for the recruitment of well-educated boys because he anticipated that they would go on to form 60% of the RAF skilled tradesmen.
Apprentices of the 69th, including Nosher's old man (bottom right) in front of a Gloster Meteor at Halton. The lads would occasionally set the guns up and fire them at sand butts
British Pathé video of the Apprentice training scheme at Halton in 1938
The examinations were set to test the candidate's resourcefulness and intelligence and thus [candidates] needed to be able to absorb the necessary technical training to complete their apprenticeship in three years rather than the normal five years current in civil life, with a considerable saving in cost.
The first entry numbering 235 boys were accepted for three-year apprenticeships in January 1920 and began training at Cranwell, as accommodation at Halton had not been completed. The move to Halton coincided with the 5th Entry in January 1922 when the rank of Aircraft Apprentice was adopted rather than the earlier title of Boy Mechanic. In May 1922 NCO Apprentice ranks were introduced.
Entries of Apprentices continued at a rate of two per year, with the exception of 1941, when there was only one - the 43rd in August - until 1946 when three intakes a year became the norm, until 1964 when it reverted to two.
Basic training at RAF Halton's workshops, date unknown, but likely pre-WWII
During the early 1930's entry sizes had dwindled from around 500 per entry to 166 in January 1932 (the 25th Entry), but with the expansion of the Royal Air Force in anticipation of the Second World War and the need for a vastly increased number of improved-technology aircraft, and technicians to maintain them, aircraft apprentice entry sizes increased substantially, peaking at 1,378 entrants in August 1939 (the 40th Entry). During wartime, Aircraft Apprentices were still required to pass the entrance examination, but entry sizes were down to about 250 from August 1940 (42nd Entry).
Sea Vixen FAW 2's in RAF Halton's New Workshops, around 1977. Photo contributed to the public domain by Pete ButtThe introduction of a revised RAF trade structure and a policy of aircraft maintenance by replacement rather than repair, brought with it in 1964 a reversion to two entries a year and the introduction of two stream apprentices — Technician Apprentices, who continued the existing apprentice entry numerical sequence and the three year course, and Craft Apprentices, who were numbered in a 200 series and carried out a two year course.
By the mid 1980's recruitment of sufficient Apprentices to meet RAF needs was becoming ever more difficult. Apprentice entry sizes were down to less than 100 and by May 1990 (155th entry) they were down to 46. The 155th became the final Entry graduating in June 1993.
"The aim of Apprentice Training is to produce completely reliable airmen and skilled craftsmen, of sound character, of balanced judgment, of good education, with a high sense of responsibility, power of leadership, and pride of Service; to provide a body of men from which future N.C.Os. and Officers may be selected."
The Apprentice Scheme in the Royal Air Force
The following information on potential careers in the RAF and the requirements expected of apprentices appeared in the Halton Magazine for a few years from 1951, the year the 69th Entry commenced and when the trade structure of the apprentice scheme changed again. Four trade groups are mentioned - Aircraft Engineering, Radio Engineering, Armament Engineering and Electrical & Instrument Engineering, however the second of these - Radio - was not taught at Halton but was instead hosted at No. 1 Radio School at RAF Locking, near Weston-super-Mare.
Of the 40,000 boys trained under the scheme since it started, over 10,000 were commissioned, 110 attained Air Rank (Air Commodore and up) and 116 fought as pilots in the Battle of Britain.
Period of Service
On joining the Royal Air Force, the Apprentice is attested for a period of regular Service terminating on the expiration of 12 years reckoned from the date of attaining 18 years of age. Under its new Trade Structure, the Royal Air Force in fact offers pensionable employment up to the age of 55 to all airmen who are up to the required standard. Airmen who complete 22 years' Regular Service also qualify for a pension.
Period of Training
The period of training for a Royal Air Force Apprentice is normally three years. The training includes a progressive and carefully designed course in General Education with emphasis on those subjects which are essential to the Apprentice's future career. Depending on his record of progress and results in the final examination, the Apprentice may qualify for the Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering.
Rank and Promotion
On successful completion of their Apprenticeship, Apprentices are posted in the rank of Junior Technician to selected units. As Junior Technicians, they are eligible for promotion to non-commissioned and then to Warrant Officer rank. Alternatively, they may take up the new technician career in which they may be promoted up to the rank of Chief Technician, according to their skill and experience as tradesmen. Those who have completed Royal Air Force Apprenticeship are expected to reach the higher ranks in the Royal Air Force including commissioned rank.
The trade groups at present open to Apprentices are: 1. Aircraft Engineering. 2. Radio Engineering. 3. Armament Engineering. 4. Electrical and Instrument Engineering.
Apprentice candidates must have received a good general education and be in good health and of sound constitution. They must normally be between 15 and 17 years of age on the first day of the month of entry.
Other opportunities for Royal Air Force Apprentices
Commissioning - At the end of their Apprenticeship training, selected Apprentices are offered cadetships at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, leading to permanent commissions in the General Duties Branch. Selected Apprentices may also be offered permanent commissions in the Technical or Secretarial Branches of the Royal Air Force or in the Royal Air Force Regiment. All ex-Apprentices, after passing out and after completing a period of satisfactory service, are eligible to be considered by their Commanding Officers for recommendation for permanent commissions.
Aircrew Employment - Airmen who have received Apprentice training and who volunteer may be selected for training as pilots or navigators. After selection all receive officer training and will be eligible for commissions. Opportunities are also available for selection for non-commissioned aircrew duites as air signallers and air engineers.
Trenchard's plan for the Apprentice Scheme was to take boys already educated to a good standard, so getting in to Halton required, at least by the 50s and 60s, that the entrant had already passed at least four 'O' Level examinations. There was then an entrance examination, held in London and at various places around the provinces, which, if successful, would lead to an offer.
Getting an A-grade pass at the end of the three years would lead to the awarding of an Ordinary National Certificate in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering, whilst an A- or a B-grade pass was sufficient to be considered for Commissioning into the RAF.
Halton apprentices would go on to form 40% of all ground crews, and over 60% of all the skilled tradesmen in the RAF, whilst some 20% would end up being commissioned, with over 100 attaining Air Rank. According to Group Captain Min Larkin, Halton's archivist and historian, Halton's merit-based entry and the chance to earn a commission as a result of it was an example of "outstanding social mobility, uncommon for the time".
This is the text of an offer letter sent to one of the 69th's would-be apprentices in 1951.
From:- Air Marshal Sir John Whitworth Jones, K.C B, C.B.E Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief
Technical Training Command, Royal Air Force, Brampton HUNTINGDON
Ref:- AOC-in-C/AA/3/27/87 31st July 1951
I am pleased to inform you that your son, Frank, has been accepted for entry into the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice.
As a result of his examination by the R.A.F. Selection Board at Halton on the 27th July, 1951, he has been selected for training in the Aircraft Engineering Trade Group.
The Apprenticeship covers a period of three years, beginning at Halton on the 28th August, 1951. At the Apprentice School excellent facilities are provided for general education as well as for technical training in the most highly skilled trades of the Royal Air Force. Your son will be trained, initially, in one of the aircraft engineering trades and he will have every opportunity, during his apprenticeship, of fitting himself for a very fine career in the Service. "If he applies himself with zeal and makes the most of his opportunities, the way is open for him to rise to a high position."
I am writing this personal letter to you because I am sure that you would like to have early information of your son's success in obtaining a vacancy.
Reporting instructions and a railway warrant for your son's journey to Halton will shortly be forwarded to you by the Air Officer Commanding the R.A.F. Record Office.
May I congratulate you and your son on his success and extend a welcome to him on joining the Aircraft Apprentice School in my Command.
Air Vice Marshal, for A.O.C.-in-C.
H. W. Sheppard, Esq.
Tales from the Early Days
Photographs and the stories of some of the very first intakes to the Apprentices Scheme appeared in a few issues of the Haltonian Magazine during the late 1980s and early 90s. The first of these appeared in the Winter 1991 edition.
Reginald Hughes, 1stEntry 1922
When Ben Goodsell, in his search for missing 33rd members, placed an advert in the Womens' Institute Home and County magazine he did not expect to discover the history of a 1st Entry brat. A letter from Mrs E Hughes led to Ben receiving an account of the career of Flt Lt Reginald Hughes, born 9th January 1906, died 4th March 1989, together with a collection of very interesting photos.
Drum Major Reginald Hughes, Halton 1923
After passing out Reg was posted to Old Sarum and then in 1928 to Andover where he served with 'Shiny 12 Sqn'. He was involved in much of the sport on the station, becoming Welter Weight boxing champion 1932-33. He took part in the Bisley shooting team and was sent on a parachute packing course.
1934. To Manston for a Metal Rigging Course.
1935-36. Posted to Hinaidi in Iraq where he soon became Welter Weight boxing champion and won the `Bond Walking Championship' on February 12, 1936. The distance was 8½ miles and he won it in record time, 82 mins 4 seconds. The picture shows Reg in front at the 3 mile point.
1938-39. Fitter 1's course at Henlow followed by a posting to Halton.
1939. At the outbreak of WW2 Reg was posted to Hemswell where he was involved in organising the camp entertainment and helping with ENSA. Then followed a move to Finningley via a short stay at Titchfield. Commissioned from WO he received two Mentions in Despatches.
Carpenters and Riggers, 1922
1944. Attached to the Control Commission he spent the rest of his service in Germany.
Working on a timber-framed biplane in the Halton workshops, 1922
1946. After much deliberation he decided to leave the RAF and applied for a place on the Emergency Teacher Training Scheme which he achieved and, at the age of 40, graduated from Padgate Training College, near Warrington, as a general teacher with subsidiary subjects in music and crafts. He taught for 24 years before retiring, 12½ years of this time with the British Forces Education Service in Germany at Sennelager, Laarbruch and Hilden.
The Halton workshops, 1922
Always having the welfare of the younger generation at heart, much of his spare time was devoted to sport, helping with the ATC, and promoting the RAF as a fine career for the youth.
Sydney Harris, 1st Entry 1922
This letter appeared in the Winter 1991 edition of the Haltonian.
Many thanks for summer issue of the Haltonian. It reminded me of many incidents I enjoyed during the period I spent at Halton and the RAF. I was 1st Entry at Halton No 362423 1922 to 1925. I keep hoping that others in my entry may be tempted to put pen to paper and write to you. It would be nice to hear from them, though I admit when you are past 85 it is a job to concentrate.
Two items interested me this month, a letter from Mr C P Robinson, son of the late W/Cdr R J Robinson who I am sure was 1st Entry if his number was 362591 quite close to mine and joined in 1922. I knew him well and admired his football abilities and I still remember seeing him score one of the finest goals I have ever seen, when Halton brought off one of their finest wins in an inter-Station competition the ball went in the net off his forehead like a rocket. The team was composed of nine 1st entry, one 2nd and one 4th entry.
What a shock we had when we passed out in Jan '25, apparently the standard for the exam was set too high and only about 15 of the entry passed out as LACs, just over 100 as AC1, and over 200 were classed as AC2s. It was decided that all the AC2s would stay for another term at Halton, the rest of us were posted to other units. A high percentage of those who stayed behind passed out at the end of the next term as LAC's much to our annoyance as we were to wait 12 months before we could sit again for promotion.
Several of us were posted to No 5 FTS Sealand, flying had stopped for a month so we were attached to maintenance and our job was to renew all the shock absorbers of the Sopwith Snipes, Bristol Fighters, Avros and DH9A's. In those days some may remember axles were held on by 5/8" elastic. It took five of us to do each wheel, two front and two back to stretch the elastic and one to hold the tension for each wrap. It is easy to imagine what one's hands, arms and back felt like after a few days of this!
We must have arrived at Sealand about the same time as the ace pilot L R S Freestone when he came for his pilot's course. He no doubt had a good tutor as I remember our ace instructor was a Sgt PIt Palmer who was very good doing the Falling Leaf as they called it and I had the privilege of going with him to test one of the dual Sopwiths. He was doing some acrobatics one day when the engine started to cut occasionally. He made for the drome in spits and starts and to reach it he had to pass through a number of very high chimneys at Shotten Steel Works, which enabled him to practise his Falling Leaf antics and landed safely on the drome. It transpired that sitting in the front cockpit and trying to keep my feet well clear of the rudder pedals I had accidentally kicked the tap on the petrol pipe partially closing it, partially closing the petrol supply. No wonder L R S Freestone became such a good pilot with such skilled instructors.
I left Sealand in 1926 and went to India, spending three years at Aircraft Park, Lahore and three years with 28 Sqn so was very interested in the book about 28 Sqn R F C to the RAF India 1919. In the late '20's we were doing much the same as in the book and fighting on the N W Frontier in 1930.
Leslie Schulkins, 2nd Entry 1922
This letter appeared in the Winter 1989 edition of the Haltonian.
When I joined the RAF on 17th September 1922, it was at Halton, a hutted camp left over from WW1. Handed a palliase cover and a pillow slip, I was directed to a pile of straw and told to fill same in order to make my bed. In the morning, a Corporal handed me a broom. "What's this for?", I said. "To sweep out the hut". "Oh", says I, "I didn't join the Royal Air Force to clear out huts, but rather to learn a trade". The Corporal took the broom, handed it to another boy and I thought no more of the incident.
A visit to the Stores followed where we were issued with kit which included one blue and one khaki suit, and huge 'ammo' boots of raw dubbin-covered leather. Having then signed on the dotted line and received the King's Shilling, we were formed into platoons to start our introduction to drill on the `muttie' square.
Soon, we were brought to a halt and two very large airmen complete with belts and bayonets arrived. My name was called and I was marched away between them, to learn that I was 'on a charge' — whatever that was! I was marched into an office — Left, Right, Left, Right, Halt, Left Turn!!! A Flight Lieutenant read out Number, Rank, Name, charged with disobeying an order to sweep out a hut, refusal to etc, etc. "What have you to say to the charge, sonny?" came next, and I repeated what I had said to the Corporal. The officer seemed to believe me and proceeded to give me the usual 'spiel' in that I must obey orders but, if I disagreed, I could have it rescinded if application was made in the correct manner. "Admonished!, March Out."
I found it all most confusing and was still bemused when I arrived back at the platoon where my colleagues were very curious as to what had happened. I felt something of a hero, having been the first to 'buck the system' about which, at this stage of our careers, we knew nothing.
Leslie Schulkins, 2nd
Frank Povey, 2nd Entry 1922
This letter appeared in the Summer 1988 edition of the Haltonian. It was submitted by Bob Cooper of the 36th.
The second entry of Boys arrived at Halton on Sept 12th, 1922. Among them was Charles Francis Povey aged 15 years and 2 months. Bob Cooper, 36th, relates how Boy Mechanic, later to become Aircraft Apprentice, Povey 363001 arrived dressed in shorts and school cap. his first pair of long trousers being those issued by the RAF!
Bob met Frank Povey at his club in Shrewsbury last year. Both were new members and were delighted to discover that each were ex-brats, although Bob had to concede seniority and speak with due deference! The rest of the OAP's in attendance listened with respect to their reminiscences and, being mostly ex Service types, recognised their arrogant superiority.
Halton in the 1920s (left) and 1988 (right)
Nothing much had changed at Halton in the 12 years between their Entries. In Frank's day they called their discips Sergeant Majors and they formed fours. So did Bob for a while until 3's became fashionable. Many of his Warrant Officers wore WW1 medals and had also been recruited from the Army and Navy. These 'then and now' photos demonstrate the unchanging nature of the place, but what those old Discip's would say about the cars and that chap STANDING ON THE SQUARE! is beyond imagination.
Frank had a long and distinguished career in the RAF retiring as a Sqn Ldr Eng in 1956. One of his last WW2 duties was the re-occupation of RAF Kai Tak, Hong Kong, with 5358 (AC) Wing, 88 Sqn with Sunderlands, and 110 Sqn with Dakotas.
Now in his 80's, it is hoped that Frank will make it back to the 'Old Place' once again. He, like all ex-brats, has never forgotten those formative years and still talks of them with pride.
We stand as one and say, 'Let the wind of change leave Halton alone, and may its tradition serve and protect our Country for many years to come'.