Tuesday, 17 May 2011

From Schoolboy to “Reserved Occupation”

Through my parents, I found out that the Post Office was sponsoring a City and Guilds course in Radio Telephony. I started this whilst still at school when I was 14 and  unaware that there was a shortage of technicians at the top secret Malvern TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment).  

As I had a flair for radio and motor bikes, I was sent to TRE in 1943 a long interview. Questions included, “How does a radio work?” and “How would you design one?” Having thrown my gas mask away years ago and replaced it with a 2 valve radio set, I was able to give all the right answers.  So it was that I suddenly found myself conscripted to a “reserved occupation”, a Laboratory Assistant at Malvern College and at the tender age of 15! 

TRE was the brains in the world for radar and I found myself working on airborne radar and DC amplifiers, the latter forming the basis of the early analogue computers.  I was required to sign the Official Secrets Act which meant that I not divulge any information about the radar project I was working on. Even now, over 60 years later,  I feel I have to be careful in what I say; doesn’t the Official Secrets Act mean for life?

The work hours were long & unpredictable, for example, you could be asked to work nights during the week, then we had to work on Sundays too, giving only Saturday as day off. As I wasn't of military age, I was able to work on projects that were not of a military nature, which gave me plenty of scope; my first day at TRE was in Mr Hodgkin's laboratory, helping to make an electronic brain with hundreds of condensers and resistors.  I got all the pieces assembled ready to start, when a day or so later Mr Hodgkin said “I am sorry to leave all your hard work but I am off to Canada”.  We later we found out that he was working on the atomic bomb.  I read in the Daily Telegraph that he was a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the electronic brain but it did not mention his work on the atomic bomb [Alan Lloyd Hodgkin].

In 1945,  the 18 wire scanner cables, part of the air radar fitted in Lancaster and Lincoln aircraft were becoming damaged and breaking. The aircraft, from this time, had begun to fly at a much higher altitude of 20,000 feet, here the outside air temperature dropped to -20 to -50 C.  The scanner kit worked automatically, so I had to test these cables wires in the altitude chamber, taking the wires down to -50 C to discover exactly how long it would take to freeze  and break.  After 2 hours of tests, I had managed to produce a graph from my results which I presented to C J Carter (the head of Malvern), from these observations, l was instructed to go to the industrial side of TRE and order 50 wire scanners to be made up for the following morning.  I was to be collected by an official driver at 9 am who would take me across to the airfield.  All this, was of course, top secret. 

After collecting all the equipment, we set off for the airfield, the other side of Cambridge, in a Hillman estate car.  I slept for most of the journey as l was absolutely shattered, not having slept for 2 days.  We reported to the Radio Officer and instructed him to replace the cable after every sortie;  needles to say, he was not too happy about his new orders.  I remember, he asked me “How old are you laddie?” I replied that l was nearly 17 years old.  Still not convinced of my authority,  he contacted my department boss at Malvern.  He eventually got through, registered his concern about the young lad, but was informed that he must do what I had said based on the tests that l had carried out.  It was rather amusing, judging from the smiles on the faces of the junior airmen.

When World War II ended, our old Lancaster took half of the TRE team on a 'jolly' over Germany to observe the destruction caused by the RAF, flying over the ruined cities & towns of the Third Reich.  When it cam to my turn to go, the flight was grounded; the aircraft which was deemed 'highly secret' and the powers that be, decided that the plane could not be let it out of the country. 

I remember that at Christmas, all members of our group had to report to C J Carter’s office, however, when it was my turn, he apologized profusely saying that he was unable to give me an extra bonus, despite the fact that he was aware that I was doing the same level of work as the Grade 2 and 3 Assistants together with some Junior Scientific Officers.  I thanked  him very much for trying, then surprise, 2 weeks later I received my Christmas increase!
Note: The grades of scientific staff started at: junior wireman, wireman, laboratory assistant (equivalent to a sergeant), assistant grades and scientific officers. The last two were all ex-graduates.

Saturday was my day off & the only day you could call your own, to me time was at a premium. It was the only day that l could shoot rabbits, go into Gloucester or play with motor bikes.  At 16 I had moved on to a Redwing Panther 250cc as my father said you should learn to ride a 250cc before you get a larger bike.  He told me years later that he had a ride home in a hay cart after a motorbike accident at up Leadon Cross. Grandpa Bisco was one of the first motorcyclist in Newent & founder member of the Glos motorcycle club.
I didn't have much time for girls either, they did not like my motor bike or my dog and I did not share my toys plus I did not have any spare cash either!  My father was not at all happy about me riding to Malvern everyday on my motorbike, he suggested that I perhaps buy the chimney sweep's Morgan 3 wheeler.  This had a twin 1000cc engine and cost me 10 quid to buy and a further 3 months to get it all working!  My father had thought I would be safer in the Moggy but he had no idea what it was like driving to Malvern in all winds and weathers. For example, when it was foggy you had to drive at 27mph to keep the battery charging or else the engine died on you.  The battery itself was only 6 volts and the gearbox and generator were on the rear wheel.
By this time my next brother up was stationed at TRE with the RAF too. He wasn't allowed in our lab which l thought rather funny, with him being a defender of our realm and all that jazz. 
I didn't manage to drive from Newent to malvern unscathed having several near scrapes, one  standing out more than others after all these years; - towards Ledbury there was a long sweeping corner and as l was driving along, minding my own business, a lorry came screaming around the corner on the wrong side of the road, fortunately for me, a farmer had left the gate open so taking avoiding action headed for and drove through the gate into the field, turned quickly around and returned to the road, no problem.  l think l can say that it was pretty hair raising driving that Moggy around and fortunately a chap at TRE who wanted to swap the Moggy for his Velocette 350 cc.  I was glad to see the Moggy go and really loved that Velocette, it was a super bike - you can't beat a bit of breeding and quality.
Years later a friend of mine sent his boys to Malvern and I asked them if they knew the history of their college in the war.  They said they had put up some plaques to the Free French in one of the houses. I pointed out the radar brains of the world were at TRE, and asked if they had heard of the Preston lab, they replied that they hadn't.  l was so angry about this considering that the lab had been home of centimetric radar, HAS, AGLT, OBO, the rugby scrum and a lot more.  The man who invented HAS worked in the lab up the front stairs (whilst the basement was full of machinery and very handy for repairing motor bikes) but was killed near Goodrich Castle, in a Lancaster, about a month before I got posted there.  I did asked whether there were any plaques to commemorate the British achievements. No was reply again. In my opinion, the contribution of the French and the Americans in the Second World War is debatable and one of my pet hates is all those boys going through that college without knowing anything about its history, it suppose it is because it was all secret.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

School or my parents attempts to civilise me.

I attended the local school in Newent when l was five, following in the footsteps of my older brothers.  Regrettably, due to me catching chicken pox & measles,  I missed  a lot of time at school, something that l never really caught up on & would pay the price for this later.   However, despite missing so much school,  I thoroughly enjoyed myself playing outside at home. 

The Red House was directly opposite the church and behind that was a large lake fully of coarse fish - roach, tench, perch and eels, & it was here that l spent most of my spare time fishing. When not fishing & thanks to the large numbers of small birds raiding our fruit trees l was given, at the age of about 7 or 8, an air riffle to help reduce the local bird population and save our fruit trees from attack!

A household of three boys and a little girl constantly fighting & getting up to mischief together with a busy Post Office to run, was beginning to  get too much for my mother. So my elder brothers were packed off to Worcester Royal Grammar School as boarders, stopping in the White Ladies schoolhouse, then in 1938 at the age of 10, it was my turn for White Ladies.   Being 10 years old in the summer term I should have gone into the prep, but was put in Lower 1 as I was 12 months behind my contemporaries and struggling academically. I did not catch up until the third form.

Boarding school

I hated White Ladies, it  was like borstal.  From being allowed to run wild at home, l found the discipline, the fagging, the bullying plus the head boy handing out the slipper ad lib, very hard to bear.  As for the slipper, it was no ordinary slipper being made of leather with hobnails in the heel & leaving nasty bruises in its wake.  Not all was doom & gloom, you could plan & plot to reek revenge on your persecutors & have the last laugh hopefully

There were about 35 to 40 boarders at school with the youngest being around 8.  Sports included boxing & as you can imagine the competition was hard & fierce as you were sparing against boys 2 years older than yourself.  Playing rugby against boys 4 to 5 years older then playing fives with no gloves “because only cissies wear gloves” would not be tolerated these days but then, this was the norm and you dare not show any form of emotion, if you did, you would be known as a 'cry-baby' or a 'creep' for the rest of your school life.  You had to fight your corner to survive and from the age of ten I did just  that

Looking back, life in the schoolhouse made you pretty tough, never showing sympathy and a tendency to behave more like a machine; it was not for the soft hearted, weak or delicate, l survived & fortunately for me, these attributes stood me in good stead during the war years.  We didn't all survive the schools harsh regime, my brother Bob left school at the end of 1939 due in main to  the bullying going on to work in a bank, then a drawing office, in fact, anywhere to escape White Ladies!

Our two house masters were,  “Camel” Humphries, who was killed in Normandy, and “Geezer” Wright. Considering the harshness of school, they were great chaps, Camel came to me one day and asked would I look after two boys,  8 and 9,  making sure they were not bullied or picked on and to look after their general well being.  Well, these two boys followed me around like my pet dog at home, and by the end of term Camel came and dragged me off to meet one of the boys’ mother who thanked me for looking after her son!  I asked Camel a long time after, why he gave me the 2 boys to look after, his reply was, “You were a fighter and wouldn't grovel to anybody!' He also informed me l was a good influence to their character building. Camel went on, by now in full swing, 'You don't have to be academically brilliant in this world,  it is what you are that counts!”  

So it was that I soldiered on at White Ladies in the closing years of the 1930s.  World War II began & the Germans started their bombing campaign on Birmingham and Coventry. I remember the headmaster’s wife panicking and sending all us boys down to sleep in the basement. As the war continued, and with 'Jerry' dropping bombs in what seemed a pretty random manner, the boarders were asked to become become day pupils (known as daybugs) so day boys we became. 

I was about the nearest to school and could commute in, courtesy of the Great Western Railway, this meant an early start, catching the train 7 a.m from Newent to Ledbury Junction, then change trains to Worcester via Malvern. The return journey saw me leaving school  at 3 p.m. however it was easier for me to take my bike on the train to Ledbury then cycle home.  In the summer the bike ride was fine,  but it was pretty grim during the winter months.  l did this trip daily during term time, including half day Saturdays too!
To pass the time at home when it was wet, l used to shoot at the telephone cups, which were part of the post office telephone exchange.  We had a choice of about 100 cups to aim for. One day the Linesman was complaining that he had to change 25 cups and was going to report us.  That however, was before lunch but the afternoon came, his van was still parked outside.  I was informed that the linesman was upstairs in the loft of the old coach house, he had gone up  for something or other, well at the same time, my rather large alsation called Smithy was missing, no where to be found.  Eventually, after a lot of barking had alerted further investigation, the linesman was found trapped upstairs in the coach house with smithy sat at the bottom of the stairs.  After some negotiation, the linesman agreed not to report us.
When i was 15, began to help repair radios and deliver telegrams for pocket money. From my earings I earned enough cash to buy radio bits, I must have made most of C J Cams magazine’s 50 tested wireless circuits. With my .22 rifle I kept a lot of people happy supplying fresh rabbits for the pot, as it was war time and meat was in short supply. 
As l grew up l discovered motor bikes - I had an old belt drive Sunbeam that I used to race around the field at the top of the garden, running it on t.v.o. (tractor paraffin) but to start it you needed to use petrol or a blow lamp.  The farmer who owned the fields was a special constable and stopped me and claimed that I was using illegal petrol, he made me stop the engine as he would not believe me when l said  that I was running on t.v.o.  After ten minutes chatter the engine got cold and would not restart, I had made my point!  Speed was the key to everything,  from the bank at the bottom of the garden to the steps at the top was about 200 yards and 1 could get up to 30/40 mph on a run, trusting that my breaks would work when l got to the end!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Chapter One - the garden swing incident

my father robert & his mother

When my father was 80, I asked him what it was like being old and he said “You begin to feel that it is difficult to keep up with the lawnmower.” Let’s hope that my memory can keep up to speed now that I have reached 80!

My parents owned & ran the Post Office in Newent, a business that had been passed down through the family from the time of the introduction of the Royal Mail.  We lived in the “Red House”, a large Georgian property that had formerly been  a doctor’s residence.  The house came complete with a coach house, pig stys, a large chicken run and, before our time, 2 tennis courts.  Behind the house was a long & very large garden occupying more than an acre of terraced banking, fruit trees, flowers beds, vegetable gardens and lawns.   The lawn, on the ground terrace, was 25 yards long with high bank of about 3 feet at the end which made an ideal rifle range! Along side the house was a 100 yard drive leading to the coach house which l remember was lined by cherry, weeping ash and an elm trees.

I had two older bothers – Phillip [who died last year] and Robert James then a younger sister, Camilla Eunice (second name after Mum). Camilla couldn’t pronounce her name as a child, calling herself “cuckoo” instead, a name that she was always known by!

When I was about 4 or 5 and being quiete a bit younger than my older brothers, who were 5 and 7 years older, l had a serious problem keeping up with them, they really didn't want to be followed around by a little boy; well, they had found a swing from old Dr Marshall’s days at the Red House, and had fixed it to a branch of the old cherry tree. I had a wonderful time swinging backwards and forwards, however there was a problem, when I wanted to stop & get off the swing, my feet couldn't reach the ground and then there was a safety bar to stop you falling out.  I struggled to get out of the chair, but the bar kept slidding back into place then, l don't know how, I was caught by the neck and left perilously  dangling by the neck. Fortunately for me, I was rescued by one of the postman, l don't remember which one,  who was heading to the sorting office.  The swing was scrapped immediately.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

In which l introduce our hero


My father was what you would call “a bit of a character” and I’m sure that he was the origin for Richmael Crompton's “Just William”. He never really improved during the intervening years. Always up to something despite the fact that his body was no longer that of a young tearaway! 

From stories that were told, l think he must have run wild as a boy, if he'd been a youngster today l guess he would have been given an ASBO. John was the third child in a family of four whose busy parents owned and ran the local Post Office in a small market town of Newent on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean. The Post Office was a large Georgian building full of nooks and crannies complete with haunted attics filled with the ghosts of long dead Bisco ancestors.  The  large garden, carefully tended with loving care by his parents, backed onto open fields and rivers, the idyllic place for any pre-war child to play, learn to fish and shoot. 

In fact he already showed signs of non-conformity, when he armed with an elderly air rifle he shot simply anything that moved, which incidentally included the weather vane on the church opposite, but that is another story. 

Then there was the story about the church and church yard which my mother thought totally shocking, the little vandal took a chisel and defaced an ancient tombstone that contained the mortal remains of one of his namesakes, thus removing 'his' name as he [my father] wasn't dead yet! More tales recall how he attempted to chop down an apple tree because his big brothers wouldn't let him climb up to join them. 

Today, l suppose, he would be given ASBO or put in care but then children were allowed to be kids, to play and explore unsupervised despite the fact that there was a war going on.

From teenage years to national service in the RAF he lived life with his foot hard on the throttle. Driving along rural lanes with me sat beside him,  he would announce that he had 'jumped' that hedge on a motor bike or skinned his knees on that corner. How he ended up married with children l just don't know. Whenever we went anywhere he would always stride out in front doing the hunter man thing with me racing after trying to catch up. Everything was a competition, who could catch the most fish, jump the most hedges out hunting. It was great fun and a really good practice for life out there. 

If you see me today, l am always marching out in front, leading the way, ready to fight my way through the outlaws and pirates to save the day. Thanks Dad.

The Begining

Today saw the death of my father, today saw me finally pick up the CD given to me months ago containing his memoirs, today saw me do something with those words.

He lived his life to the full from birth to his death, l hope that his words can pass on to you his sense of adventure & joie de vie.  Enjoy.