How a simple visit to RAF Ballykelly resulted in an unexpected tour of the UK

by An Old Codger

Author: Neil Davies

It was 1963 and I was one of the Education Officers at No 4 School of Technical Training, RAF Cosford, where two thousand Boy Entrants were under technical training and associated education programmes on a variety of engineering and allied courses. 

It was decided that members of staff should make visits to operational stations around the UK to see how well our graduated Boy Entrants were performing on front line support and servicing. I was a member of staff educating a group of Telecommunication lads in each entry. My choice of visits was to RAF Waddington, near Lincoln, a V Bomber station at the time, and RAF Ballykelly in Northern Ireland. 

My visit to RAF Waddington was straightforward. My visit to RAF Ballykelly not so, despite my detailed planning for the visit.

I left RAF Cosford on a Tuesday morning travelling by rail to Stranraer, crossed over to Larne and took the train from there to Limavady Junction, which was just two miles from RAF Ballykelly. So far, my visit was on track.

The plan was to spend Wednesday visiting and meeting the appropriate personnel and travel back on the Thursday. I had travelled out on a one-way ticket since my return journey had been arranged. An aircraft from nearby RAF Shawbury on its weekly ‘milk run’ to RAF Ballykelly would bring me back home to Shropshire and hence RAF Cosford. A simple, direct, straight, return back home.

On the Wednesday morning, I was picked up from the Officers Mess by the senior Education Officer who was to take me to the Communications section for the day.

The route from the Officers Mess took us down a slope to the airfield perimeter where, on arrival, a red light was showing, indicated to all drivers to wait for clearance before entering the area. We needed to drive around the airfield to the main offices and workshop hangers. My visit happened to coincide with a major NATO exercise with colleagues from across the ‘pond’.

The senior officer, driving, ignored the red light and turned on to the perimeter runway only to find a flight of either American or Canada aircraft bearing down on us in their ‘Shackleton’ type large, four engine aircraft. They were moving to join the main runway for take-off. As we drove almost under their wings the crew were leaning out of the windows waving their fists at us.

My colleague seemed unperturbed and carried on. I sat there wondering what the hell was going on and keen to get out of car as soon as possible.

I spent the day in the company of a member of the Communications unit gaining the information I needed. I ended the day prepared to travel home the next day, Thursday. Back at RAF Cosford, I was the camp organist and had a choir practice that evening with another on Saturday morning ready for the church service on the Sunday morning.

When I woke up on the Thursday morning the whole area was covered in fog (or heavy sea mist)! 

There was no way any aircraft would be able to arrive or leave that day. My homeward lift never came in – I was stranded. 

‘Never mind,’ said my colleague, ‘You can stay another day and catch a plane out tomorrow. Its pay-day today so come along with me to meet and pay the lads stationed around the area at our signals outposts.” I must confess that although I was deeply concerned how I was now going to get back to Shropshire, I enjoyed travelling around that part of the country with the odd small building along the border carrying the painted sign ‘PUB’!

Thursday morning arrived and I quickly dressed and packed, had breakfast and made my way down to the flight arrival area where I had been advised to stand and wait for the arrival of planes, and seek a lift to the mainland. I was joined by a couple of young lads, RAF and RN.

An American small transport aircraft arrived first, pulled up and the door opened. A ladder was dropped and out stepped a young tall American lad with a large Bowie knife strapped to his leg. His told us that the Captain would be out soon.

The Captain appeared, wearing his soft peaked cap and a leather ‘blouse’ styled jacket covered in large military badges – looking like a real Dan Dare of The Eagle comic.

“Sure,” he said. “Just need to off load the gear for our Navy lying offshore and then we will be off again.” We climbed aboard, netting seats were lowered from the side of the cabin and we waited. Coffee was available from the usual dispensing unit.

 We did not have long to wait. 

“Going up country now to Wick for the next drop,” he informed us.

Up to the extreme northern point of the mainland!! and I want to get back south to Shropshire.

No sooner had we gained height and levelled off, than one of the crew came back into the cabin and stood staring out of one of the windows. Droplets of oil (?) were spraying out of the engine cowling. He made several visits to view the engine as we flew north.

I sat there wondering if I should leave the aircraft at Wick and catch a train south. I need not have bothered. As we came into land on a very bleak runway, a small airport fire-engine was running alongside the aircraft.

We all got off to stretch our legs. It was just barren land everywhere except for a small control tower which appeared empty. Not a soul around until an American naval truck arrived to pick up its consignment and load returning items into the cargo hold.

As I walked around chewing over what I should do, the blustery wind blew a copy of an old newspaper around my feet. It was The John O Groats News. I decided to get back on the plane. It would be a long walk to any civilisation.

No sooner were we back on board and preparing for take-off, we were informed that our next landing would be at their base in Kent!! 

At least I am flying south. I had not eaten since breakfast and this next leg was a long slow flight.

As we were approaching Kent, I spoke to the Captain and explained that I needed to catch a train into London. He kindly signalled ahead and, as we taxied in, a car was waiting for me. But I was out of luck again.

I arrived at the local station just as the London train was leaving. The next was an hour later. By the time I reached the London main station the last train stopping at Wolverhampton had left. I found a sandwich bar and then sought advice.

The only option was to catch the Mail Train leaving after midnight. 

I arrived at Wolverhampton station at about three o’clock on the Saturday morning. Now I had to get to RAF Cosford. My luck was in. I hitched a lift on a lorry full of apples going my way.  

I was home two days late but in time for the Saturday morning choir practice.

From the time I boarded that American aircraft I had no way of contacting my wife nor RAF Cosford. We did not have a house phone and personal mobile phones were yet to be invented. I guess a letter would have arrived before me.

p.s. The aircraft from Shawbury did fly to Northern Ireland that day, landing at Aldergrove. If only I had known!!

Salutary thoughts – never take the first option nor any option without seeking out the full facts. Never panic.

There are several more personal insights into my early military career in my book Poems by an Old Codger. Full details on my website