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A Definitive History of the RAF Aircraft Apprentice Scheme - Min Larkin

Gp Capt Min Larkin CBE MRAeS Min joined the RAF as an aircraft apprentice in 1949. He remustered to aircrew as an Air Signaller/Air Gunner in 1953 and was commissioned as an Air Electronics Officer in 1959. He flew in Shackletons with 224, 205 and 201 Sqns, and Nimrods with 201 Sqn as Air Electronics Leader and aircraft captain. Other tours included, Apprentice Flight Commander at Locking, avionics development at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, and Deputy OC Brawdy. Staff appointments involved operations, search and rescue, training and personnel management. He completed his 45 years in uniform as Deputy Director of Personal Services. Since then he has been Halton’s historian and archivist and in 1995 he founded the Apprentice Museum, renamed the Trenchard Museum in 1999. In 2007 he created the Station Archives.

The Origins of Boy Service in the RFC and RAF

One of the main difficulties facing the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) from its foundation in 1912 was a shortage of air mechanics. Nevertheless, by combing through the ranks for skilled artificers among those already in uniform and identifying likely candidates among the many volunteers who were joining the colours, most of the shortfalls during the first two years of WW I were overcome. In January 1917, following the impressive part played by the RFC in the great battles in the previous year, the Army Council authorised its expansion to a total of 106 squadrons (86 to be in France) and in July this was almost doubled to 200. The limiting factor to this huge expansion turned out to be not a shortage of aircrew, nor of aircraft manufacturing capacity, but rather a lack of skilled groundcrew of which more than a dozen were needed to maintain each front-line aircraft.

As the rudimentary methods of training RFC tradesmen hitherto were unlikely to meet the massive new manpower requirement, it soon became clear that the RFC would have to train its own air mechanics. In order to find the thousands of skilled men demanded by the rapidly growing Service, the RFC expanded its training programmes, basing these new units wherever suitable sites could be found, an unavoidable but random process that scattered the schools across the country. For example, a new training school was set up at Netheravon with 200 men, another was formed at Reading with 1,000, and one in a converted jam factory at nearby Coley with another 2,000, and there were many others, large and small. Under the continuing pressure on manpower another very important decision for the future of the RFC was taken; it was decided to recruit boys.

This kind of improvisation could not provide all of the men the RFC needed and rationalisation of the training machine became an urgent requirement. In June 1917 Maj Gen Sefton Brancker, Deputy Director-General of Military Aeronautics, submitted proposals to centralise the technical training of men, women and boys in a new large school to be located at Halton. This new school was under the 2 direct control of the War Office and commanded by Lt-Col Ian Bonham Carter.

The first 400 RFC boy mechanics enlisted at Farnborough in May 1917, shortly followed by further intakes at Blandford. These boys moved to Halton in the late summer of 1917 where, by the end of the 4 year, 2,000 boys were under training as air mechanics living in Spartan conditions in dilapidated wooden huts previously occupied by infantry troops. Although many boys were later transferred to 5 Cranwell, where permanent accommodation was available, several thousand remained at Halton undergoing in equal measure, drill, physical training, fatigues and technical training for which only basic facilities were available. However, the latter improved with the opening of large training workshops in 6 early 1918 which had been rapidly constructed with the help of thousands of German POWs.

The arrival of the first RAF Commandant, Air Cdre F R Scarlett CB DSO, in December 1919 heralded many improvements to all aspects of boy training, in particular the tightening of disciplinary standards which had been allowed to drift downwards after the armistice. The brass ‘wheel’ badge, worn by all RAF boy recruits for some 75 years, to distinguish them from men, had been introduced in April 1919. Now with some 4,000 boys on strength Scarlett wanted an additional distinguishing feature on their uniforms to facilitate immediate recognition of the sections (later wings) to which they belonged. His reason for this was to ensure that boys committing offences both on and off the station could be dealt with expeditiously by the appropriate authority. His recommendation to the Air Ministry of distinctive coloured hatbands was approved in 1920 and this too became a permanent feature of an apprentice’s uniform.

In March 1920 No 1 School of Technical Training was established at Halton, the future home of aircraft apprentice training. Scarlett remained in post until 1924 which enabled him to oversee the 8 transformation of a temporary wartime military camp into the beginnings of a permanent RAF station. He had laid firm ground on which Trenchard was able to build his aircraft apprentice scheme.

The brass ‘wheel’ badge, introduced in April 1919 and subsequently worn by apprentices on the upper left sleeve.

Introduction of the Halton apprentice scheme

In his memorandum, ‘Permanent Organization of the Royal Air Force’, which was presented to the House of Commons as a White Paper by Secretary of State Winston Churchill in December 1919, Trenchard placed great emphasis on the importance of training, particularly of skilled ground crew. He argued that the best way to ensure that,

‘…. the training of our mechanics in the multiplicity of trades necessitated by a highly technical Service is to enlist the bulk of our skilled ranks as boys, and train them ourselves. This has the added advantage that it will undoubtedly foster the Air Force spirit on which so much depends.’ Later in the paper, he continues, ‘The training of all these boys will eventually be carried out at Halton Park. The first entry under the scheme will take place early in 1920 at Cranwell and move 10 to Halton as soon as permanent accommodation is ready.’

Trenchard had already provided more detail about his intentions for the scheme in a letter to Churchill in November 1919, writing that it would be necessary to enlist the bulk of the technical tradesmen as boys, because the Royal Air Force could not hope to compete in the recruitment of men who had served full apprenticeships in civilian life and could therefore command high wages. He went on to say that apprentices would form 40% of all ground crews in the Royal Air Force, and 62% of all the skilled tradesmen.

It was clear that Trenchard wanted highly skilled men at a price the Service could afford from its very meagre budget, and men who would foster an ‘Air Force spirit’. Thus in late 1919 the Halton Apprentice Scheme was promulgated to Local Education Authorities, and entrance examinations were held in London and the provinces. Medically fit potential recruits were offered training in the trade of their 12 choice, or one the selectors thought more appropriate for them. The rigorous selection procedure 13 ensured that recruits would be of the highest quality, and because of their resourcefulness and intelligence, they could be expected to complete their apprenticeships in three years rather than the five normally served by civilian engineering apprentices. A shorter course meant a cheaper one, which no doubt pleased the Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill.

In February 1920, still known as Boy Mechanics, the first intake of 235 was accepted at Cranwell for a three-year apprenticeship. The first four intakes trained at Cranwell, and it was not until January 1922 15 that the first cohort arrived at Halton to become the 5th Entry. This move coincided with the adoption of the rank of Aircraft Apprentice. Two entries a year were planned.

On arrival at Halton, apprentices were signed-on for twelve years from the age of 18, allocated accommodation and kitted out and they very soon found their lives falling into a well-ordered routine governed largely by bugle calls. They were woken with Reveille at 0630hrs, called on colour hoisting 18 parade at 0730hrs and sent to bed at 2145hrs. Apprentices were not allowed time to dwell too much on 19 their personal thoughts, as evenings and most of the weekends were taken up with room cleaning, inspections and parades. Recreational facilities were available in abundance, including a debating society, aircraft modelling and playing in one of the several apprentice bands, in addition a wide variety of sporting facilities was available. A world-class RAF hospital on the doorstep ensured their medical 20 and dental care were second to none, and spiritual needs were more than well looked after; but few enjoyed the compulsory church parades every other Sunday! In addition to all these privileges they enjoyed six weeks’ holiday a year, mid-term breaks, and were paid, albeit a paltry amount. The cost of running Halton was a contentious issue in the early days. Following a visit by members of a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1923, they reported that they were;

‘[…] of the opinion that the management and training of these boys is conducted in a very efficient manner; they were much struck with the discipline, with the order which was kept, and the arrangement by which they were efficiently taught a trade [and they] receive a payment of 10s. 6d. a week. This payment

An Apprentice on a familiarisation flight in a Hawker Hart 1936

seems to the Committee to be unnecessary. These boys are not only extremely well lodged, fed, and clothed, but are taught trades which will be useful to them in after-life. Under these circumstances it would appear that, if any payment is to be made, it should be made by the parents of the boys, and not by the State.’

Fortunately for thousands of apprentices yet to come, this point was not pursued. But the cost issue resurfaced in a Commons debate in 1926 when MP, Sir Frank Nelson, pointed out that £230, which was estimated to be the cost of training an apprentice, ‘is probably more than it costs a parent to send a boy to any of the four or five leading public schools of England.’ He went on to complain that, ‘these apprentices at Halton get 1s a day pocket money, which, when they number 3,000, will cost the country £55,000 a year, and even now it costs between £30,000 and £35,000 a year.’ But, once again, the point was not pursued.

For the first 50 years of the scheme apprentices were classified as minors and their officers and SNCOs acted in loco parentis. In addition to their responsibilities under the tenets of normal military discipline, each apprentice was issued with a small booklet entitled Standing Orders for Apprentices. 24 This contained a myriad of rules which severely restricted an apprentice’s freedom to spend what precious spare time he was allowed as he might wish. ‘These rules are necessary for your own benefit,’ apprentices were often told by their superiors. Some of the rules were reasonable for boys below the age of 18, such as ‘Apprentices are to take a bath twice a week’ and ‘Apprentices are prohibited from visiting public houses and consuming alcohol.’ One of the oddest rules was, ‘Females are not to attend the monthly Apprentice dances.’ This reflects contemporary society’s deeply conservative approach to sex before marriage. Perhaps the most resented rule, especially by older apprentices in their third year of training, was lights out at 21:45hrs, when their former school chums were still out enjoying themselves with their girlfriends.

Despite the harsh standards of discipline, most ex-apprentices are only too willing to tell you about the occasions when they broke bounds, climbed in and out through windows stealthily in the dead of night, to avoid being caught by patrolling RAF Police. It was a point of honour for apprentices to break 27 as many of the rules as they could, hopefully without getting caught. With an average of 2,000 boys in residence at any one time, the establishment of RAF Police at Halton, known as ‘Snoops’ to apprentices, was higher than normal. The RAF Police could often be seen patrolling local towns, especially on Saturday evenings when their chances of nabbing a few apprentices in the local pubs or dance halls were high. Apprentice Flight Commanders were always busy during lunch hours hearing charges but never

Passing out parades were always impressive. This one marked the graduation of the 20th Entry in July 1932.

more so than on Mondays when they were usually faced with a crop of charges resulting from apprentices enjoying themselves beyond ‘lights out’ on Saturday nights. Some apprentices clocked up cricket type scores in days of ‘Jankers’, but someone had the good sense to rule that punishments awarded for ‘youthful’ offences were to be erased from apprentice records on graduation. However, many apprentices believe that this antiestablishment activity contributed as much to the development of the famous Halton Spirit as did all of the communal living, sporting activities, marching with bands and discipline.

Apprentice Technical Training

Technical training at Halton was divided into three distinct, but closely co-ordinated departments: Trade, Academic and General Service Training. Initial trade training was carried out in the workshops and later in a mix of workshops and on redundant aircraft positioned on the airfield. The trades taught evolved with the ever developing advances in aeronautical engineering but they were principally engines, airframes, armaments, instruments, electrics and wireless. A pass mark in all aspects of his trade training was an absolute for an apprentice to graduate. Until 1951, this mark also governed the rank at which an apprentice graduated.

Academic training was comparable with that of a good technical college and was to National Certificate level. ‘Schools', as it was known by apprentices, was held in a purpose-built college building which had a well-stocked library and excellent engineering science laboratories. All apprentices studied the same mathematics, mechanics and engineering drawing syllabuses, but engineering science was tailored to suit an individual’s trade. Included in the syllabus was English and general studies which covered, in some depth, the history of the RAF. In the third year of training, all apprentices were required to produce a dissertation of 5,000 words on a subject of their choice. A National Certificate, or at least a B Grade pass in the final school examinations, was sufficient to qualify an apprentice academically for commissioning: a C Grade was the minimum requirement for graduation.

General Service Training was an important part of the curriculum, because, once he entered productive service, an apprentice was expected to gain rapid promotion and command men. From the outset of his training he became a member of a society based on the orderly pattern of RAF life in wings, squadrons and flights, where he learned the give and take of community living, and developed a feeling for the customs and traditions of the Service. Under the guidance of his Flight Commander and the NCO instructors, he was taught drill, physical training and Air Force Law. Leadership and management experience were Time-expired airframes were used to provide hands-on experience.

Above, a Wallace, 605M (previously K3664) and,

To keep abreast of technical developments Halton had state-of-the-art Blenheims to work on as early as 1937. After brief service with No

provided through resource and initiative training, field exercises at summer camps and the Apprentice NCO scheme. For the many who were selected for promotion it gave greater responsibility as they progressed through the ranks. The top rank, normally flight sergeant apprentice, was in effect the head boy of the School. He commanded the whole apprentice population and also enjoyed the privilege of commanding his Entry’s graduation parade, and parades for visiting VIPs and Royalty.

To keep abreast of changes in RAF engineering practice, four different types of apprenticeships were introduced over the lifetime of the scheme. The original Aircraft Apprentice (AA) training started in 1920 and continued until December 1966, with the graduation of the 106th Entry. This scheme produced single-skill fitters who maintained aircraft and associated equipment and could, if necessary, actually fashion small replacement parts themselves. Initially, aircraft apprentices graduated as an Aircraftman Second Class (AC2), an Aircraftman First Class (AC1), or a Leading Aircraftman, (LAC), depending on their final trade test results. Some who graduated as LACs 33 in the 1920s were given immediate further training at Henlow and took up their first appointments as corporals. Most pre-war apprentices soon attained LAC rank but, following the ‘Great Depression’, from the late 1920s to the start of WW II, many did not advance beyond corporal, unless selected for flying training. After the introduction of a new trade structure in 1951, all aircraft apprentices graduated as junior technicians with some gaining accelerated promotion to corporal. Most post-1951 AAs were corporals within a year of graduation.

It was in the earliest days of the aircraft apprentice scheme that the term ‘Trenchard (or Halton) Brat’ came into vogue, initially as a term of derision used by ‘old sweats’ who took a rather jaundiced view of these clever young upstarts who were destined for rapid promotion to corporal. However, as time passed and the ‘brats’ were able to prove their worth, it became a title which all ex-apprentices are proud to claim, even those who attained air rank.

In the late 1950s, a study was initiated into the RAF’s youth training requirements. This was undertaken in parallel with another study into the requirements for trade specialisations and resulted in the 1964 Trade Structure, introduced in April that year. The aim of the two studies was to match the growing complexity of aircraft and their systems, particularly those associated with the projected TSR2, with ground crew who had the ability to diagnose faults in systems which cut across the traditional trade boundaries. The RAF’s previous reliance on maintenance by repair was being superseded by a new concept of repair by component change. As a result, the single-skill Aircraft Apprentice was replaced by a new breed, the Technician Apprentice (TA), who trained in the four trades of airframe, propulsion, electrical and weapons. Technician apprentices were recruited with a minimum of four GCE O-levels and more emphasis was placed on their academic training to ensure that most graduated with a National Certificate.

The first TA intake (the 107th Entry) started training in October 1964 but, along with many others in the Service, they were dismayed in April 1965 when the Wilson government scrapped the TSR2 programme. Although the government took options on the purchase of the American F-111 this never came about. The TA course, although relatively short-lived, offered unprecedented career opportunities for those apprentices who completed it. Promoted to substantive Corporals on graduation, after two years satisfactory productive service they could look forward to being promoted to Sergeant. However, as the TSR2 on which they were destined to work had not materialised, many after graduation found themselves posted to single-skill posts. However, they soon proved capable of taking on trade supervisory roles. They eventually found their true vocations with the advent of the Nimrod and the Tornado in the early 1970s. A high proportion of TAs were commissioned in the engineering branch. This scheme ended in 1972.

Whilst the TA scheme took care of engineering support for future aircraft and equipment coming into service, there was a continuing need for single-skill fitters. To meet this requirement a two-year Craft Apprentice (CA) Scheme, with a new numbering series starting with the 201st Entry, was introduced

Hunters, and the occasional Sea Hawk, in Halton’s workshops

concurrently with the TA scheme. This was, in effect, a direct replacement for AA training, but required lower academic qualifications on entry. Craft Apprentices graduated as junior technicians but without formal academic qualifications, unless taken ex-curriculum. However, this did not prevent them from being commissioned, with some attaining air rank and others filling senior appointments in industry as we shall see later. The CA Scheme lasted ten years, ending with the 231st entry in 1974.

In 1969 a one-year Mechanic Apprentice course was introduced starting with the 401st Entry. Its trainees graduated as LAC with many of them still less than 17½ years of age. This theme was very shortlived and was terminated after ten intakes. Another short-lived course training medical admin apprentices for one year starting with the 301st Entry in 1964 ended in 1969.

By the early 1970s, RAF apprentice training had reached a crossroads. Serious consideration was given to terminating it altogether, but after considerable debate in the upper echelons of the Engineer Branch. it gained a reprieve with the introduction of the Apprentice Engineering Technician (AET) scheme. The January 1973 Entry, the 123rd, was the first to undertake AET training. The winds of change were now well and truly blowing through Halton. The maximum age of recruitment of apprentices was raised to 18½ and, exceptionally, 21. With many apprentices now older than direct entry airmen, there was no need for any of the ‘rules’ which governed the lives of their predecessors. Indeed some AETs were married during training, had children and lived in MQs. The standards of behaviour expected of AETs when off duty was similar to that required from all RAF personnel. Their adult status was recognised by the discontinuance of the apprentice NCO ranks and the removal of all apprentice insignia from uniforms.

However, certain aspects of the original scheme were retained such as the apprentice entry numbering system and AETs were accommodated separately from airmen. However, following a concerted campaign led by the RAF Halton and RAF Cranwell Apprentices’ Associations, supported by some prominent ex-apprentices serving at air rank, NCO apprentice ranks and the wearing of the iconic ‘wheel’ badge were reinstated in 1982. Ironically, many of the apprentices serving at this time were keen to see these symbols of their past heritage restored. “After the re-introduction of the ‘wheel’ it was paraded for the first time at the Graduation of the 134th Entry on 29th September 1982. “AET Prevett, the Parade Commander, was so chuffed, he wore a wheel on both arms. We did not charge him with being improperly dressed,” recalled Air Cdre M J Evans, one of five former Halton apprentices who returned to command the station.

AETs were trained as dual-trade airframe and propulsion technicians and initially followed the National Certificate curriculum in their academic training as their predecessors had done. This element of the course was replaced in 1977 by the Ordinary Diploma and for most the Higher Certificate awarded by the newly formed Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC). These certificates were awarded for achievement in all aspects of trade and academic training. The AET scheme ended in June 48 1993 with the graduation of the 155th Entry, which also marked the end of apprentice training in the RAF. AETs enjoyed the highest level of aircraft engineering training during the life of the various 49 apprentice schemes. Ironically, the TAs gradated in the rank of Junior Technicain but unsurprisingly, produced the highest number of commissioning candidates. At the end of 2017, only 45 ex-AETs were still serving, of whom some twenty were holding commissions, with several at senior officer level and seven at air rank.

Halton was arguably one of the first aeronautical engineering colleges in the world and certainly the first in any air force. The ‘Halton Apprentice’ label soon became synonymous with aeronautical engineering excellence, a reputation that rapidly gained international recognition particularly in the aircraft Industries. The Royal New Zealand, Pakistan, Ceylon and Royal Rhodesian Air Forces, and the Burmese, Malayan and Venezuelan Air Forces all sent boys to Halton to train alongside British apprentices. The end of an era. HRH The Duke of Gloucester reviewing the final graduation parade, that of the 155th Entry in June 1993.

The Halton Apprentices’ Contribution to WW II

When the expansion of the RAF began in the mid-1930s, ex-apprentices, as Trenchard had planned, formed about 50% of the trained strength of the Service. With ever increasing numbers now volunteering for the RAF, the size of Halton intakes ballooned, in 1936 reaching over 1,000 boys per entry. The 40th Entry, which enlisted in August 1939, was the largest ever with 1,285 boys taking the King’s shilling. Coincidentally with the arrival of this large entry, as a war emergency measure the 50 duration of training was gradually shortened, initially to 2½ then to 2 years. The reduction of training time reached its nadir with the early graduation of the 39th entry in April 1940 after only 21 months. Some of this Entry were only 16, officially still boys but now serving as airmen on the front line. One of the youngest recruits to join the RAF, at just 15years and 2 months, was Apprentice Harry Clack. Sadly, he would also become one the RAF’s youngest casualties when he was killed in an accident while a member of a team salvaging a Dornier shot down at Eaton Socon in the closing days of the Battle of Britain, a month short of his 17th birthday.

Interestingly, apprentices were the only people who continued to join the wartime RAF; from September 1939 until 1945. All other recruits were enlisted, or commissioned, into the RAFVR.

A large minority of the boys joining the RAF as apprentices saw it as a route via which they might achieve their true ambition, which was to become pilots. Since 1921, airmen had been able to volunteer for training as sergeant pilots and to serve as such for six years before returning to their ground trades, retaining their rank. The idea was to create future leaders of the technical branch with an appreciation 51 of the challenges faced by aircrew. Several hundred ex-apprentices serving on these engagements at the start of hostilities were, however, retained in flying posts. Many were soon commissioned rising quickly to executive positions on operational squadrons. Sqn Ldr Donald Finlay, of the 12th Entry, a triple Olympian well known to the public as one of the country’s top athletes, commanded Nos 41 and 54 Sqns in the Battle of Britain shooting down four enemy aircraft and winning a DFC. Finlay was one of 116 former apprentices who flew as pilots in the Battle; several of them became ‘aces’, some destroying more than 12 enemy aircraft. Among them were Sqn Ldr ‘Ben’ Bennions, Wg Cdr ‘Taffy’ Higginson, Flt Lt Geoffrey ‘Sammy’ Alford and Gp Capt Frank Carey. Sgt Samuel Butterfield destroyed eight enemy aircraft in 14 days of intensive operations in May 1940 accounting for four EA on a single day before being shot down himself over the Channel. He was rescued only to be shot down again a few weeks later and killed.

While many of their colleagues were fighting in the air, thousands of former apprentices were working tirelessly on the ground to ensure their aircraft were in fighting condition. With the rapidly growing numbers now joining the Service, thousands of ex-apprentices ,who had been corporals for years, suddenly found themselves racing through the ranks to SNCO and warrant officer, providing a vital source of experienced technical supervisors on front line squadrons, maintenance units and as instructors for the increasing number of technical training schools.

Halton apprentices contributed to all of the major air campaigns of WW II, both in the air and on the ground. The introduction of the four-engined bombers in 1941 brought an urgent need for an additional crew member, a flight engineer. His role was to assist the pilot to manage the complicated systems in these more advanced aircraft. Former Halton apprentices were ideally suited to this new challenge and volunteered for it in their thousands. The heavy losses sustained by Bomber Command are reflected in the 2,000 casualties listed in the Apprentices Roll of Honour in St Georges Church at Halton. Flight Engineers accounted for more than 400 of these names. Of the five ex-apprentice flight engineers who flew in the Dams Raid, only one returned.

By the mid 1920s Halton apprentices were serving on aircraft carriers, then under the control of the Royal Air Force. When control of the Fleet Air Arm passed to the Royal Navy in January 1937 it lacked the facilities for training its own aircraft engineering apprentices. To meet the immediate need for these 61 skills, volunteers were invited from the 35th, 36th and 37th Entries to transfer to the Royal Navy, and 160 of Halton’s apprentices answered the call. Subsequently the RN sent 400 directly recruited Fleet Air Arm apprentices to train with the 38th to 41st Entries. So ‒ be careful when telling your RN friends this 62 snippet as they can get very upset to learn that the junior Service, in the form of Halton apprentices, provided an important element of the foundations on which the carrier force developed into a vital arm of the nation’s capability in WW II and beyond. Many of the initial Halton transferees were killed in various sea battles during the war; fifteen went down with HMS Glorious at the end of the Norwegian campaign in 1940.

In 1943 hundreds of boys, many orphans, were driven out of Poland by Hitler and, after a tortuous journey through the Middle East, ended up in the UK. Two hundred of these Polish boys, 14/15 year olds and one only 13, were selected to train at Halton as aircraft apprentices, and another 100 at Cranwell. They spent most of their first year at Halton and Cranwell settling into their new country and learning English. At Halton, they eventually joined the 49th and 50th Entries which graduated in the late 1940s. Although offered a five year engagement in the RAF, most opted to leave the Service. Many of the latter 64 forged very successful careers in industry and academia. The 13 year old became a University lecturer with a PhD. Only five of Halton’s Polish contingent elected to return to Poland.

Halton apprentices’ loyalty and devotion to duty during WW II was recognised by the large number of decorations they received. Notable among them was Sgt Gray of the 20th Entry, an observer, who was, along with his pilot Fg Off Garland, awarded one of the first two air VCs of WW II. Over 1,000 other 65 gallantry awards went to former aircraft apprentices and some 3000 were Mentioned in Dispatches. However, on-going research is continually uncovering hitherto unknown awards. Recent discoveries include six George Cross and thirteen George Medal winners among the former apprentice fraternity.

Given that, at the end of the war, only some 20,000 apprentices had graduated from Halton, it is clear that their contribution to WW II had been impressive and this was acknowledged by many senior commanders. For example:

‘The consistent technical excellence of the RAF has rested upon the skill and high devotion to duty of those who learned at Halton their trades and first formed their sense of duty. Their success in the air and on the ground pays a finer tribute than any words of mine to the standard of Halton’s achievements.’ Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal

‘Halton throughout the years has made an outstanding contribution not only to the RAF but to the country as a whole.’

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Dermot Boyle

‘One thing is absolutely true, the air battles of Burma were won in the classrooms and workshops at Halton; won not just by knowledge and skill of your maintenance crews, it was won by the spirit that Halton produced.’ Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten

‘Halton has given the Royal Air Force not only its hard core of efficient technical NCOs and airmen but also a magnificent core of officers many of whom are in high rank in all branches of the Service.’ Air Marshal Sir John Whitworth Jones

Achievements of Halton Apprentices

Lord Trenchard was proud of, and took a keen interest in, his apprentices at Halton and visited them often at work and play. He had always intended that the best of each Entry should be awarded cadetships at Cranwell, but were he alive today he would be amazed to discover that well-over 20% were commissioned, with 110 attaining air rank. One of these, MRAF Sir Keith Williamson, a Cranwell 67 apprentice, became CAS, and several others served on the Air Force Board, including Air Chf Mshl Sir Michael Armitage who was AMSO in the early 1980s and has been the Patron of the RAF Halton Apprentices’ Association since its foundation in 1980. Of those apprentices who became Cranwell cadets, thirteen won the Sword of Honour, giving credence to Trenchard’s vision that the new Service should base the selection of its future leaders on ability and merit, and not class and social background. Halton apprentice training gave many a boy from a humble background the chance to aspire to heights not normally expected of him. This very deliberate commissioning from the ranks was an outstanding example of social mobility, uncommon for the time.

Of the Halton apprentices who achieved air rank, thirteen were knighted. One, Sir John McGregor, left the RAF as a sergeant after WW II, emigrated to Hong Kong where he joined the colony’s Civil Service in a lowly position and made his way up the promotion ladder to become head of the Hong Kong Executive Council and adviser to the last Governor, Mr Chris Patten, during the negotiations leading to the transfer of the colony to China in 1997. Thousands of former apprentices made senior officer rank and many more Flight Lieutenant. On-going research indicates that 1,000 have been awarded State Honours. Uniquely, at the moment (2016) two former Halton Craft Apprentices hold high executive 69 positions in the two principal RAF Charities: Air Mshl Sir ‘Dusty’ Miller 210th, is President of the Royal Air Forces’ Association, and Mr Lawrie Haynes 216th, CEO of Rolls Royce Nuclear and Marine, is Chairman of the Trustees of the RAF Benevolent Fund. Well known to all those who follow air shows around the country is one of the nation’s most skilled display pilots, Air Mshl Cliff Spink, who was a Halton aircraft apprentice in the 104th Entry.

Although thousands of former apprentices had very successful careers in the RAF, many did not reach their full potential until life beyond the Service. The aircraft industries were naturally the first port of call for many ex-apprentices where they made magnificent contributions on the shop floor, at all levels of management, and in the boardrooms. Many former apprentices who trained as pilots and flight engineers continued to fly with civil airlines. The majority of these pilots became aircraft captains, two making notable contributions to the introduction of the Blind Landing System. Captain Eric Poole was the first pilot to land an aircraft using the system while carrying passengers and Captain Charles Owens was the first to land an aircraft using it with Her Majesty the Queen on board.

After leaving the RAF, many ex-apprentices turned away from engineering altogether and forged successful second careers in other professions including medicine and the law. Some became top surgeons and a few served on the Crown Court circuit. Considering they were the two professions most apprentices had spent three years avoiding at Halton and Cranwell, a surprising number became vicars and policemen. In the latter respect, two Cranwell apprentices excelled, one becoming a bishop and another followed in Lord Trenchard's footsteps by becoming head of the Metropolitan Police.

Some former apprentices ended up as BBC TV stars. Most notable of these was Cliff Michelmore who was an aircraft apprentice in the 32nd Entry which graduated from Halton in 1938. While serving as a squadron leader in Germany in 1945 he ran the British Forces Network in Hamburgh. The BBC soon recognised his talent as a broadcaster and he later co-hosted, with Jean Metcalfe, Two-Way Family Favourites, a radio programme much loved in the UK and those serving in Germany. Cliff Michelmore, ultimately became the anchor man for BBC TV news and current affairs programmes.

The most famous of the aircraft apprentice alumni is Air Cdre Sir Frank Whittle who gave the world the jet engine. Whittle initially applied to join the 7th Entry at Halton in January 1923 but failed the medical owing to his lack of height. In an article he wrote for the Halton Magazine while in Halton Hospital for a short period in early 1944, Whittle explains the advice he was given by a flight sergeant physical training instructor which enabled him to add three inches to his height, enough to be accepted for the 8th Entry in September 1923. However, because the permanent barrack building 72 programme at Halton had fallen behind schedule, this entry was trained at Cranwell. Interestingly, at the critical stage of the development of the engine which was to power the first flight of a British jet aircraft, Whittle requested and received the support of four ex-Halton apprentice engine fitters to help out in his workshop at Power Jets. Whittle’s final examination results along with those of 40,000 other former 73 Halton apprentices are preserved at the Trenchard Museum Archives at Halton.

Trenchard’s legacy

While ex-Halton apprentices who became high achievers contributed much to its legacy, Trenchard’s original aim in founding the apprentice scheme was to produce a cadre of wellmotivated, highly trained airmen capable of becoming competent supervisors in the direction of work and control of men. Most exapprentices did exactly that. They were the true heroes of the piece, becoming SNCOs and warrant officers whose training taught them never to accept second best in keeping our aircraft serviceable and safe. They gave of their best in the inter-war years, during WW II, throughout the Cold War and in peacetime, in all theatres, in all circumstances and rightly earned the sobriquet, ‘The Backbone of the Royal Air Force.’ It is as an apprentice engineering school that Halton is best remembered, and indeed revered, not only in this country but across the industrial world. Cliff Michelmore as an apprentice.

For many years this sign was displayed in a prominent place in each of the Workshops Bays.

Perhaps our founder Lord Trenchard summed up his, and the legacy of Halton in a speech he gave in the House of Lords in December 1944 on the air campaign during the war. Here is the appropriate extract

‘Some of your Lordships will remember that after the last war we set up in the Air Force a very large training School at Halton. It was, I believe, the largest of its kind in the world. It was a great experiment and was bitterly criticised at the time. Nevertheless, I feel justified in saying that the experiment has richly justified itself. There is no doubt at all in my opinion, that Halton and the Halton spirit have been a pillar of strength to the RAF all over the world. The Halton trained men have provided the nucleus on which the great expansion of the air force was centred. They have set and maintained an extraordinarily high standard of efficiency. You have only to look at the promotions and honours gained. A large number of these men are senior Air Vice-Marshals and Air Commodores running the highest technical offices in the Air Force. Surely the efficient maintenance of aircraft has also been one of the outstanding features of the war and that has been made possible by the Halton training of our men.’

On 25 July 1952, No 1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton received the highest accolade that any unit in the RAF can receive ‒ the award of a Queen’s Colour. This Colour is unique in being the only one to be awarded to a youth training school in any of the armed forces and, having been received from Her Majesty by a sergeant apprentice, a unique custom was established that it may, on occasions, be carried by an NCO. This custom continues at RAF Cosford today, 75 the current home of No 1 School of Technical Training, where young men and women are trained as aircraft engineering technicians on a modern apprenticeship course.

Sgt App F M Hines of the 63rd Entry receives the Colour for No 1 School of Technical Training from HM Queen Elizabeth II on 25 July 1952.

The Queen Inspecting the Escort Squadron, the 63rd Entry, escorted by Group Captain Don Finlay the parade commander.


Very nicely put. More of this sort of information needs to be put out and it needs to be cross linked to the original Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (Aeronautical Ground Engineer) training and licensing program initiated at the end of WW1 which - at the trades level for foundation practical education - began with the Trenchard Apprentice Scheme and continues today around the world. Also, there are many out there who hear or are told of the "Trenchard Memorandum" on "The Supreme Importance of Training" for airmen. Here is a link to a pdf copy of that document so that all the world can know exactly what Trenchard intended. Trenchard Memorandum - Permanent Organization Of The Royal Air Force - 191…


Wonderful history and greatly appreciated. It answered many of my questions. Was this first published in the Haltonian magazine? If so, which issue? I'd very much like to see an "original" with the bibliography and any footnotes. My uncle, Norman Francis Simpson was in the 5th Class and went on to become a Wing Commander, serving in India during WWII. I'm researching him now for the family and trying to locate all the information I can.


Thanks, Min, for this very fine account of training Halton 'Brats'. Can't help feeling proud that I was included in that number

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