How and Why Did I Become an R.A.F. Photographer?

By Maurice Cooper

‘My service career as a Royal Air Force Photographer II, although my real passion was as a pilot and subsequently a flying instructor. Many, if not all of my service memories, were at sometime copied and published into into the ‘Flasback’ magazine.

 

‘When my mother married my stepfather in 1948 a sort of die was cast in the fashioning my career prospects upon attaining the school leaving age of 15 in 1956.

My stepfather was a Staff Sergeant in the Army and as a family, we moved around quite a bit. This resulted in a rather fragmented education for me. Although I passed the ‘eleven plus’ examination went to Malaya, by means of a four-week sea voyage, when I should have attended Grammar School.  However, whilst aboard I received an education that, because of location, involved being taken to and from school by an armed Army escorted lorry. Compulsory second languages were taught at the Government English School Kluang, Johor, Malaya. It was my misfortune on my first day, at that school, to stand up in class and read a passage printed in Romanised Malay.  After dark Kluang had it’s security gates to the town closed and a military curfew imposed. Owning a bicycle required it to be registered and displaying a tax disk similar to motor vehicles. During those times of the early fifties the Communist Terrorist emergency was in full swing and road travel had to be planned, as roads were categorised as either ‘black’ or white’ according to their risk assessment for an attack by ‘CT’s.  Located close to the threshold of the Army operated grass airstrip at Kluang was a battery of 25 pounder field guns, and it was exciting for us kids to hear the report of their firing followed by the whistling of their shells in flight.  A flight of Army Auster A.O.P. Mk6 aircraft based there, whilst nearby was located a major British Military Hospital, which frequently received Medical Evacuation helicopters bringing in wounded service personnel.  Twice a week a mobile cinema, belonging to the Army Kinema Corporation visited wards in the B.M.H. and showed feature films using a pair of 16m/m Bell & Howell 601 sound projectors. As we were living in one of the of the married quarters located next to the B.M.H. it was quite usual for many of us youngsters to ‘sneak in’ watch these shows seated on the floor of the ward chosen for a film screening. It transpired that I became very interested in the workings of the projectors and eventually persuaded the Malay driver/projectionist to show a couple of AKC newsreels in our servant’s (Armah’s) room with an ulterior motive of learning about the projectors.

During my early childhood I had three passions of what I wanted to do when I grew up. The first, and least obsessive was to become a steam engine driver. The other two really focussed my ambition plans and were not easily prioritised. I always had an obsessive interest in aviation matters, but the more accessible passion was in a pursuit of becoming a cinema projectionist. Coincidently, whilst living in Norwich, I lived next door to the Regent ABC cinema, which had an accessible downstairs projection room. I was very successful in befriending the ‘operators’, including the ‘Chief’, who did much to satisfy my seemingly insatiable curiosity by showing me how to run and manage continuous performances. Lacing up a projector, striking up the arc lamps, rewinding films, splicing, managing curtains, house lights, playing selected 78rpm records during breaks, and the ‘piece de resistance’, doing a ‘change-over’ when one reel came to an end and needed the other projector to continue the show without interruption. During my youth I continued to increase my knowledge of cinema projection and often impressed many in cinema establishments that I came into contact with, and in particular the Army Kinema Corporation cinemas located at many of ‘Dad’s’ postings.

Away from my cinema activities I built as many model aircraft as my pocket money would allow, and dreamed of myself one day becoming a pilot.

From the age of fourteen, and not long having returned from the Far East my parents started showing a keen interest in my future employment prospects. Collectively they had decided that, due to Dad’s frequent postings, I would be unable to support myself in a civilian job at the age of fifteen.

I was absolutely devastated when they wholeheartedly disapproved of my ambition of becoming a cinema projectionist, and they reinforced their objections by pointing out that it was considered a low skill and poorly paid occupation anyway.

It was therefore decided that I should join one of the boy services, which would look after me in my early adulthood, and teach me a worthwhile trade with all the trappings of a secure military life. The only say I had in the matter was the choice of which service to ‘volunteer’ for.

The Navy and Army were quickly ruled out, as I had nothing in common or interest in those, so I selected the Royal air Force as the compromise.

Initially, I applied to join as an Apprentice Airframe Fitter, with two other technical choices, but due to my fragmented and secondary modern education needed to take an entrance examination.

I was then attending a secondary modern school in Gillingham, Kent when it was considered that I needed extra tuition in mathematics, science subjects and English. Therefore, at the age of fourteen and a half I found myself attending evening classes in an attempt to make good a perceived shortfall in the standard of my education. My efforts were ultimately rewarded with an invitation for me to attend three days of induction at RAF Halton, which really pleased my parents. Upon arrival there I took an instant dislike to the place and in my mind no way was I going to spend three years there!

I suppose it was on the third and my final day at Halton that I entered an office for my last interview.  I was greeted warmly by a Squadron Leader interviewer, who enthusiastically shook my hand and congratulated me on being accepted as a Royal Air Force Apprentice in the trade of my choice with training due to commence that Autumn. “I’ll bet you are just keen to get started” he told me. For the first time in my life I made an adult decision by quickly answering “No Sir! I am not keen”.  Rather taken aback by my answer he remarked something like the Royal air Force did not want anyone who was not interested in it.

He quickly asked the question as to why I was there for induction in the first place if I was not interested. I confessed that I was the will of my parents that I should join one of the services for my future employment.

I have to give this officer credit for being able to communicate with youths like myself, as he did not immediately write me off as a bad job since obviously to him I could achieve and had interests of which I was very passionate. He engaged me in conversations to discover what made me tick. He even got me to describe in detail about my job, which I had already started just three days after leaving school as a ‘rewind-boy’ at the Plaza cinema Gillingham Kent. My pay, at the time, was £1-15s-0p (£1.50) per week. He listened to me intently until he was satisfied that I was obviously enthusiastic about my present employment. Finally he said that there was a new trade of Photographer being offered as a Boy Entrant at RAF Cosford, which might offer something of interest to me, and did not require an entrance exam or three years training. Another handshake and a wish of good luck for the future, whatever I decided upon.

Phew! What was I to do?

On the train journey back home my mind was so muddled about how to tell my folks that I had turned down an apprenticeship in the Royal Air Force.

Both my parents were at the gate of our married quarters to meet me with smiles as I approached, with a sour face. “How did it go?” was the first and obvious question. “I failed!” I lied. “You didn’t! You couldn’t have!” I lied further by say that the standard of my maths was not good enough, but they had offered me a place as a Boy Entrant Photographer as a compromise. I have no idea as to whether my parents actually accepted my version of events, but they were certainly not convinced that any of my education standards were to blame.

For the next few months I happily worked at the Plaza cinema, until one day an official looking letter arrived containing a travel warrant and instructions to report to RAF Cosford to commence training as a Photographer.

I just never had the guts to change course again, and so reluctantly handed in my notice and left the Plaza cinema.

A new life then unfolded for a 4’ 11”, 6 stone and 15 year 5-month-old lad as an under training Photographer II, 29th Entry, RAF Cosford, October 1956.

As if to haunt me about my earlier Halton experience, it was during initial training (I.T.S.) that I was invited to re-muster for training as an apprentice. Apparently, it had been noticed that during our further education classes my achieved standards were high enough to be reconsidered for that training.  Rightly or wrongly I declined the offer and pressed on with training as a photographer.

By some strange twist of fate, after passing out from the Initial Training Squadron and moving up to Fulton Block I managed to get a part-time projectionist job at the Astra camp cinema and was paid 2/- (10p) per show. In addition to that whilst on one of my leaves managed to purchase a 9.5m/m silent movie projector, which I used to show short movies in one of our private study rooms on Saturday afternoons to those on ‘Jankers’ who were forbidden to visit the camp cinema, for 6p (2.5p) per head.

I will not dwell on my time spent as a Boy Entrant at RAF Cosford as many similar experiences have already been adequately penned and published, although I feel it sufficient for me to say that I most certainly did not enjoy my days of training there.

After training, however, service life for me became more enjoyable and exciting.  For reasons unknown to me I was fortunate to get seemingly great postings and jobs.

It eventually took a few years before I could bring to fruition my desire to fly, by means of side-line photography, which funded flying lessons leading to the issue of a ‘Private Pilot’s Licence’ in 1965. In truth once having achieved a P.P.L.  I just could not get enough flying, and collected flying hours at every opportunity in preparation for my next goal of becoming an instructor. Once that had been achieved it meant that someone else would be paying for my flying and the hours would build up even more rapidly. A very welcome spin-off from being a RAF Photographer with a Pilot’s Licence was that it was considered a bit of a novelty, and attracted some attention that often lead to being invited to have some hands on flying of some RAF aircraft, under strict supervision of course.

On my last posting before discharge the Station Commander took some interest in my flying activities and noticed that my total number of flying hours occasionally exceeded that of some service pilots. With his encouragement I actively considered re-mustering with a view to commence training as an RAF pilot. Unfortunately it turned out that the cards of were stacked heavily against me. There were two main reasons that caused me so much grief about failing to be accepted as a pilot training candidate. The first was having an insufficient number of G.C.E.s, which did motivate me to go to night school to achieve the required number of five. The second and final straw was that I was at then at the age of 27, and according to service regulations, deemed too old to commence service flying training by one whole year. There were to be no exceptions and no recognition of my impressive number of logged Pilot in Command flying hours, all of which had been gained at personal expense.

It was only after leaving RAF service and working in civilian life as a photographic technician, that once again photography came to my rescue and funded a course in 1972, which upon passing qualified me as a flying instructor. Due to domestic pressures I did not proceed, as was my ultimate ambition, to qualify as a Commercial Pilot and become employed full time in aviation. Although I remained in full time employment as a professional photographer, until declared redundant at the age of 56, my flying activities continued in parallel on a part time basis. Eventually and reluctantly I formally retired from flying after 35 years of exciting and some thoroughly satisfying experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

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