BURTONWOOD IN THE EARLY 50'S
by retired Squadron Leader Jack Riley
Arriving as a young officer at Burtonwood in the early fifties
one's first port of call was, of course, the Stationmaster (Could it have been
Group Captain E.M.Smith ....he of 107 M.U .Kasfareet fame....you
know....the one which burned down ? ) Be that as it may one recalls a
lengthy lecture on the importance of Fire Precautions.
Next, to the Bird Colonel, a very friendly soul who began by
asking if I owned a car and astonished me by telling me to fill it at the pump
whenever necessary. Pointing out that this was a court martial offence
in the RAF I was smartly put in my place ....the USAF view was that
it cost more to pay someone to stop me taking it than to let me have my fill.
The BOQ was interesting....a super steam heated Quonset basking
in something of the order of 120 degrees.
The early morning trip to the ablutions block involved running
the gauntlet of a forest of friendly American arms offering coffee. A
neighbour was a Polish Officer, one Tony Januscz, whose claim to fame was that
he held the World Free Ballooning Record at the time having taken off
from somewhere near Warsaw, disappearing from the face of the earth, hitting
the headlines and eventually reappearing somewhere in the Vladivostock region.
A visit to his room was highly educational. Using such things as tennis
ball tubes, old alarm clocks and the like he had constructed a telescope which
tracked the heavens. More often than not his ceiling was a close up of
From the structured world of a RAF Officers' Mess to the free
and easy atmosphere of the Officers' Club was, itself, a readjustment.
Above the bar a row of coloured light bulbs provided convenient hat racks
(Hats in the Mess ??) a habit some of us managed to eliminate by slipping
pool balls into them, designed to fall on the heads of the unwary. A
habit we never cured, though, was port and ice.....at lunch time !!! But the food
!! In an England still suffering the privations of post-war rationing this was
the American version of Fortnum and Masons at its best. And the waitresses !!!
I'll swear that the selection committee went on to bigger and better things
running Miss World.
Evenings sometimes saw us wading through dinner, climbing into
waiting chromium -clad and wing fared Pontiacs and the like and steaming
off to the theatre in Warrington. (Seeing these gas guzzlers put the
amount of fuel required by my little Austin into perspective and made
sense of the Colonel's system) As always the American organisation was superb.
Standing outside the venue for the night would be a couple of GI's
complete with the appropriate tickets. Off they went to park the cars
whilst we strolled into our seats just in time for curtain up. At the
end of the show there they were again....complete with the cars.
Work.? Oh yes. The base had a highly efficient bus service,
complete with "Central Depot". A regular service carried
folk over the long distances involved in this enormous complex. Officers
rang for a taxi and along would come a Jeep chauffeured by a smiling face full
of pearly teeth asking "Well, sah, where we going today?"
I had been designated Officer in Charge of one of the hangars
in the 200 series. Driving down its centre aisle must have reminded Americans
of home as they moved between skyscrapers of crates.....power plants....gun
turrets.....and whatever. I say Officer in Charge but this was a complete
misnomer. The real power in the land was the Principal Foreman of
Stores, a highly efficient, knowledgeable and friendly man who'd been there
since Adam wore short pants. Knowing better than to attempt any of this
new broom nonsense I went to hide in my office for a day or two.
One morning, remembering the strictures of my Group Captain, I
decided that perhaps I had better have a quiet look at Fire Precautions.
Knowing that in any worthwhile conflagration we would need to be sure that
everyone was safely out I enquired how many people worked there. I was
astonished to be told "One hundred and seven." In my cycle
perambulations round the place I had seen, perhaps, seven. Thus it was that I
asked the Principal Foreman to ring the fire bell. He seemed reluctant....but
complied. To my astonishment sides of the packing case mountains began to open
revealing well-furnished rooms, electric heaters, card tables, easy chairs and
the like as the other one hundred emerged. General embarrassment !
Of course the heaters had to go...most being jury rigged and
thoroughly unsafe. That I was not popular was shown the following day
when the PF and I did a check of the hangar. We found a heater...just the
element mounted on a large tin can base. I was
about to grab it when the PF stopped me, leaned over my shoulder to the plug
on the stanchion, switched off and unplugged. Just as well. The power was
connected to the can.! He apologetically reminded me that all good barrels
have the odd rotten apple and that some of the post-war men were those that
the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board wouldn't employ. My general impression in
the months that followed was that we had a good bunch. My peace offering
was to have constructed a canteen behind the main office which became widely
used and enjoyed. My personal contribution was the dart board and arrows
There is a footnote to the story. In my fascination with the
unfolding events I had neglected to warn Headquarters that I was holding a
practice fire drill. Fortunately for me the arriving Fire Brigade did
not get as far as actually turning the hoses on.....mostly because they
discovered that the stop cock key was nine inches too short and they couldn't.
One wonders how many years this situation had existed. I forgot to
mention this to the Group Captain !!
Two years later I left this thriving, busy, friendly and happy
place which was Burtonwood and like to think I was a better man for the
experience. It certainly set the scene for friendships with the
USAF folk I was later to meet during my years in the Far East.