The Time I Became a COBY.
I am talking about a long time ago now in the nineteen sixties when I was at school. I was part of a family run by my widowed mother. I was not very bright and I had failed the eleven plus (twice) and ended up in the local secondary modern school in the Fenland village where I lived. I have often regretted not suing the local council for depriving me of just the basic quality of education that everyone was entitled to. It was a dreadful place and I learnt virtually nothing.
I was lucky in a way though. In my mind I had the most intense fascination and interest in aeroplanes and flying. My mum used to cart us off to the local air shows. Strangely, they never seemed to do anything for her. Post war aircraft and the post war Royal Air Force came to concentrate my consciousness to fever pitch. I joined the local Air Training Corps squadron when I was old enough. That was where I got my education and that was where I found a route in life. I was going to join the RAF and wear a blue uniform. I was also going to be a pilot and I was going to fly a Lightning fighter. That was that and f— everybody else. I was thirteen going on fourteen.
The Air Cadets was good for me. It was like being in the boy scouts with aircraft to play with. By the time I left, I had passed all the exams, flown a glider solo, learnt to fly a proper plane and discovered how to shoot a rifle straight. I had scraped enough ‘O’ levels together at my ghastly school and applied to join the RAF. I filled in the form in my appalling handwriting and waited for a reply.
It arrived one morning. A clerk at the RAF had invited me to attend the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at Biggin Hill. I couldn’t believe it and nor could my mum. The letter said that I would receive a medical examination and be assessed in a number of ways. If I succeeded, I would be offered training as a Commissioned Officer and subsequently pilot training on jet aeroplanes. The process at Biggin Hill would last four days and the RAF would pick up all the travel and accommodation tabs. My brain started to buzz and I would have to wear my best school blazer.
I had read tales in the air cadet press of young fellows becoming RAF pilots. They were all very posh, properly educated and completely unlike me. They described themselves as COBY’s, members of the ‘Cream Of Britain’s Youth’. I had my own chance now at Biggin Hill and just maybe I could be a COBY too. I was breathless with anticipation.
I arrived at the selection centre. I got the thumbs up on the medical and moved on to the other parts of the process. The pilot ‘aptitude tests’, leadership exercises and the inevitable long bloody interview all lay in wait. The senior interviewing officers rubbished me and made me do mental arithmetic puzzles whilst they glared back. At the end of it all, I slid off home with my tail between my legs. I did not feel much like a COBY.
I got a letter back in just under two weeks. My mother told me about it when we met on a bus. The RAF had told me that if you hear from us in less than a fortnight, you have probably not got in. I didn’t speak for the rest of the journey.
I opened it privately when I got home. I had to read it a few times. It said that, subject to my continued medical fitness, I could join the Officer Cadet Training course in a few months and then continue with pilot training after that. Would I let them know if I wished to proceed. I told my mum and showed her the letter. She didn’t believe it either. I still have the document at home somewhere.
It was the summer of 1971 and the Sunday came for me to travel to Henlow to start the Officers Training Course. My mother came with me to the garden gate to see me off. I thought she would be happy to see me leave and start my career. Actually, she was a little upset to watch me go and she shed a few tears. I knew that I was leaving the familiar comforts of home and that life would never be the same again. As it turned out though, somehow it would.
I arrived and was met by a few of the other Officer Cadets already on the course. I felt very alone and very daunted about the new life to come. It was fairly late in the afternoon and those of us on the new course were really just shown to our barrack block. We would all sleep in the dormitory together for the first month. The formal introductions and initial reception actions were to begin in the morning.
One or two of the new entrants leapt in with both feet and instantly embraced the air force. This was plainly the clue to making a success of service life. One of them became a friend of mine. He retired a few years ago as an Air Vice Marshall after a distinguished career. I never did pick up the gauntlet for myself. Later, during the night, I realised what a terrible mistake I had made. This was not the air cadets anymore and somebody else suddenly possessed my life. I knew that I wanted out but life for me like this would go on for another couple of years yet.
Prior to joining we had to acquire a civilian hat. The purpose was that it had to be doffed whenever we passed regular serving officers whilst wearing civilian clothes on the station. I had bought a very staid, tweed trilby. I thought it appropriate. One of the others took a different view. He also had bought a hat. It was a jaunty tartan bobble job that made him look like a football hooligan. I was amazed at his poor taste. It actually went down very well. Whenever he doffed it, he did it with great aplomb and humour. The training staff thought it all a great laugh and he went on to enjoy a long career in the commissioned ranks. I was very naive and never really grew out of being an air cadet.
The Officer course consisted of two sections, the Officer Preliminary and Main Course, the OPC and the OMC. Student officers would get a long weekend period of leave between the courses and every Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. We could go home if we wanted to and I did.
The OPC was described by the training officers as a honeymoon period and would last a month. This would give us all plenty of time to settle in and for them to form initial impressions of us. It was busy though and we got to do plenty of square bashing. The OMC would be pressurised and really quite gruelling at times. We would be constantly assessed. They told us that we were not competing with each other. There would be a job for us all in the air force if everyone made the grade. We were competing though in reality, we sensed it. It would have been impossible for every person to pass the course. There was a rumour that the selection board had once sent a course to the college who had done badly at Biggin Hill. It was to test the system and most had failed. I hoped that I was not on one of these test courses. It was a cruel abuse of young lives.
There was quite a lot of leadership training on the Main Course. Some of this was done in the classroom. We could all not be an Air Marshall but the right people could be taught leadership that worked well enough on the shop floor. There were two external training camps lasting a week during the Main Course. They were held at a military training area close by. We would demonstrate at the camp how we were able to put into practice the training. Life during the camp would be uncomfortable, hungry, intimidating and testing. A few cadets came unstuck and were promptly removed and sent home.
We were fed in the field on army ‘compo’ rations. The physical activity was tough and it made you very hungry. I was with a colleague one night during an exercise who I hardly knew. I had long eaten all my rations and complained to him that I was starving. He had one bit of cheese left which he cut in half and gave me a slice. I should think it was nicest thing that I have ever eaten and I shall always remember his kindness. He was just as hungry as I was.
There were two roles during the training camps that were vital. One was to organise the catering and run the field kitchens. The other was to establish and run the bar that was available to all at off duty times. Both operations were essential to RAF life and responsibility for their function was given only to the most able Officer Cadets. The success of these tasks in the field would almost guarantee a pass on the course to the handpicked worthies. My own style during these training cycles was one of keenness and eagerness to impress. I think I was seen as a bit of a boy-scout type who demonstrated only youthful judgement. This was though, the Royal Air Force and not for schoolboys any more.
There were many aspects to the training at Henlow that were all compressed into seven months. There were numerous presentations, practice court martial legal training and plenty of homework.
One session that lasted about four days was something they called the ‘office simulator’. It was a prefabricated building divided into separate rooms. It simulated the administration wing at a fictitious RAF station and all of us were given a particular role. One of us would be the Station Commander, another, the boss of flying operations and someone else in charge of engineering. A few other administration posts were also filled. The idea was that the training staff would input various situations into each office in order to provide realistic experience. It all felt quite lifelike. The job that I got was ‘Officer Commanding General Duties flight’. In practice this would be a very general office role given normally to a junior officer as a temporary posting. It would be a dull job for a non flying pilot. I should have been on my guard. They could really simulate anything that they liked in my office.
I went in and sat down at the desk. There was a file in the draw that I pulled out and opened. It was empty so I wondered about what I was supposed to do. There was a knock on the door so I said come in. Arriving at my desk was one of the female training officers. She was dressed up as a civilian woman and declared in a theatrical accent that she was the wife of one of the airman on this pretend station. She said that he was currently posted abroad, she had not heard from him and her mates had told her that he was having an affair with another girl. She lived in married quarters on my station, had three kids and no money. Crocodile tears were running down her face and she demanded to know what I was going to do about it. I didn’t think I was going to be of much use. She had done this acting bit before but I had not. I stumbled through it all in the end but my knowledge of mistreated wives in this situation was just a little limited.
In the end, she turned off the tears and began to debrief me on my performance. She was snappy and unflattering. I needed to markedly improve my performance at the next encounter and I needed to learn more about life.
I got to the end of the Officers Main Course and would be told soon if I had passed by my mentor. To pass would mean to graduate with a Commissioned rank and to move on to pilot training. To fail would mean a rapid exit from the air force and a need to secure an alternative source of income.
I was called in to visit my guru. He said that the staff had decided that I should be re-coursed. This happened now and again and it affected cadets who they thought would benefit from doing the whole lot all over again. It was not so bad because they really thought that success would come second time around. The training cost the air force money and they didn’t want to waste it. As long as I worked hard and learnt from my experience I would probably be alright. I was given two weeks leave and a date to return. It would be the unabridged Main Course all over again with all the trimmings.
I went home and told my mother. She gave me one of those jaundiced looks and said that she hoped that I would succeed next time around. I went through it all again and passed. My mother came to the graduation parade and when my boss introduced himself to her, he called her Maam.
I received the Queens Commission as an Acting Pilot Officer. I went on and somehow got to the end of the initial pilot training course. I got my wings badge but I had not adjusted to service life. I hated having another organisation owning my life and I never felt committed to that essential duty to Queen and country. I hated sharing my life with all the other blokes and had not impressed the air force.
Anyone could be a pilot but the RAF wanted good officers. They sent me back to Biggin Hill again to get booted out. I had been in the service for about two years. I set off in my first and very rusty car. I hadn’t a clue about what I should do but I could not get the very relieved grin off my face. I never really was a COBY and never really ought to have been.