Taking off from a Hastings airfield

Peter Holland SUS-180504-072857001
Peter Holland SUS-180504-072857001

We continue Group Captain Peter Holland’s memories of growing up in Hastings.

He writes: The world was an uneasy place, the Korean War was at its height, half of Europe was in the iron grip of communist Russia, nuclear War threatened and young men all over the country waited to do their national service.

The boy was anxious to become a professional sailor. A little earlier he had imagined himself on the deck of HMS Amethyst as it battled its way down the Yangtze Kiang to glorious escape under the guns of the communist Chinese.

But in reality he was an ill qualified clerk, marking time before he was called up.

At work, the boy dealt with school meals monies and dull routine under the watchful eye of Taffy the Cane. He longed to be away from it all.

The advertisement was an old one but what caught the boy’s attention was that candidates should be at School Certificate level, this meant that the actual qualification was not necessarily required.

The ‘ad’ was to fly with the Royal Navy. Flying was not on the boy’s agenda but he would try anything to get into the navy.

He quickly completed an application and sent it off but within days he was notified that the scheme had been closed. By some quirk of fate a few days later a similar advertisement appeared in a newspaper but this time it was to fly with the Royal Air Force. The prospect of flying now began to gather momentum – if not in the navy why not in the RAF?

Another application was filled in and this time, to the boy’s surprise, it was acknowledged together with a railway warrant and an invitation to attend the aircrew selection at RAF Hornchurch.

The boy was barely seventeen, had never been in an aircraft and needed parental consent to proceed. His parents, with tragic family memories of the recent war uppermost in their mind, were not supportive but a compromise was reached.

A wealthy aunt would pay for a short pleasure flight from the nearby airfield.

Hastings airfield used to be just off the Bexhill Road towards Pebsham. It was a grass airstrip with a ramshackle wooden air traffic control shack and sported a windsock and a few old aircraft offering 20 minute flights.

A married sister who had been stationed at a naval air station during the war, insisted on coming, so the WREN and the boy took off together, enjoyed the flight and won parental approval. All that was now needed, was to go to Hornchurch and pass.

Soon after, the boy set out for RAF Hornchurch. It was a two day stay at this famous Battle of Britain fighter Station. One day was devoted to a medical and to written tests and the next day to aptitude tests and interviews. At the end of the second day the boy was interviewed by the ‘Board’. It seems that he had failed the medical, something about a nasal problem. ‘Not serious, could be fixed, get it sorted and try again’.

The rather unpleasant operation was carried out during an extended lunch break at the Buchanan hospital close to his work.

The next day the boy reapplied and within a week was sent a further railway warrant to attend the aircrew selection centre.

He was examined by the medical team and sent straight for interview. ‘You have passed the medical’, the President said, ‘but sadly, when you attended last time you also failed the aptitude tests, very sorry and good luck’.

The boy was outraged and demanded to know why they had not made the situation clear first time? Why had they sent him a warrant and brought him back to be rejected once again? It was to no avail, the boy left the building only to pause and gaze up at the ‘Spitfire’ that stood guard outside.

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