In 1938, one was not certain that war was coming but the signs were ominous. About this time I was being pressurised to go out and bring some money into the family. The most attractive job for someone in my position then was the steady 'get in, get a reasonably good salary and get security for life' type. I found I could get entry to such a job by taking an entrance exam for the clerical class of the Civil Service, the Glasgow Corporation, or the LNER or LMS railway companies. I picked the LNER in which, once started, one had the possibility of early progression to a higher echelon provided that a further exam, to a rank termed 'traffic-apprentice' was successfully taken - which would be a set-up to attaining the highest positions in the service's administration. So, having taken and passed the clerical class exam, there appeared to be no reason to continue normal schooling to Higher Leaving Certificate standard, which was simply an alternative to qualification by the LNER exam. I left school, therefore, when LNER confirmed that a post would be offered.
I was appointed as a booking clerk of a minor Glasgow railway station at the age of 17 and then, in 1939, to an office in the headquarters in George Square in the city. The booking clerk job meant alternate late and early shifts, changing weekly. The Station Master worked a 9am to 5pm stint, which meant that the booking clerks ran the Station in his absence from 6am to 9am for the early shift clerk, and from 5pm to 10pm for the late shift clerk - a bit breathtaking for a lad in his teens!
About this time I noticed advertisements in the newspapers for entry to an RAF apprenticeship at the School of Technical Training at Halton. I considered there might be a possibility for a scholarship, via Halton, to become a cadet at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, and aircrew. The application forms came back for filling in, but were intercepted by my father who refused to sign his consent. All seemed lost and I was somewhat disheartened at the time. But with the outbreak of war in 1939 my chance to fly would come.
My permanent position with LNER meant that I was in a reserved occupation, ie I could not be called up for service in the Forces, and was 'deferred'. Later on, once the war was well under way, this rule was relaxed. I then found that I could volunteer for entry to the RAF as aircrew in spite of the deferment. With no requirement now for the consent of my parents, I sent off the application forms and prayed for the chance to talk the RAF into signing me on. I had asked in my application for Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (WOP/AG) never considering I could be taken on as Pilot or Observer, for which I thought a degree qualification would probably be needed.
Meanwhile, I had moved to the Passenger Staff Superintendent's Department in the city, as clerk in charge of the issue of staff privilege tickets and free passes for the Western Scottish area, where I found I could handle all the work involved in about one or two hours per day. So, to avoid total boredom, I volunteered my help to the other clerks in my particular sub-department and in a short time was reasonably conversant with most of the tasks therein. The unit was staffed by about ten clerks from Class 1 to Class 5, plus, in his own sanctuary, the Special Class boss of the sub-department. I had already, of course, some considerable knowledge of the passenger sector working of the railway, from my booking office experience, due to its all-embracing, though small, application to the matters affecting a Station and its passengers, eg ticketing procurement and issue, ticketing and cash accounting, quarterly audit reports, paybill compilation and calculation for the station personnel, ticket and timetable advice to passengers, and all that is involved in goods carriage by passenger train.
Thus I knew much of the matters affecting my appointment's work as well as those of several of my colleagues before I sat down to my own work in the post. For example, one of the Class 3 clerks became ill and his main task was the production of paybills for the headquarters non-salaried staff, which occupied virtually all of his time. I was already well-experienced in this field and completed his work quite satisfactorily during his absence. When I tell you of the staffing league table and its annual incremental intervals, you will wonder, as I did, why the system wasn't sharpened up a bit. Class 5 was the lowest grade, into which I was posted on joining the LNER service. Promotion to Class 4 on time served would not occur until the age of 31, if my memory serves me right. Time in Class 4 to its top increment was about seven or eight years, with similar intervals up the scale. Salary was increased annually until the top of the band was reached, then remained there until you jumped the hurdle, by selection, to the next band. Although my position as a substantive employee was held for me until the end of the war, can you blame me for then preferring some other type of employment?
With time on my hands, I decided to make some preparation for the impending RAF interview, if and when it came, and also went into training to buff up my physical fitness which I knew would require near-perfection. In my days down at Prestwick I had browsed amongst the books on aviation in a well-stocked local bookshop. Aviation books had begun to appear, mainly superficial write-ups on such types as the Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, and some enemy aircraft, and several books on aircraft recognition were sought after by the amateur aircraft spotters as the war in the air took on greater importance. But there was nothing much on the intricacies of the business till I flicked through the pages of a book by a noted aerodynamicist, which I purchased, enabling me to bone up on lift, drag, stalling, aircraft controls, slats and flaps - until it was coming out of my ears. I also (unnecessarily as it turned out) felt I had to extend my maths knowledge because I had become aware from my reading that astro-navigation required the solution of spherical triangles to fix a geographic position, unaware that the use of a sextant and astro-tables provided all that was needed. Time wasted perhaps, but at least I had learned the fundamentals.
To complete my preparations it seemed necessary to demonstrate my patriotism. My ex-schoolmate and I joined Dad's Army. We proudly donned our rough khaki every other evening after work and marched up to our HQ (Queen's Park FC reserve team ground at Hampden Park) to mount guard against a possible Hun parachute drop on our post. We were equipped with the standard broom handles at first, but soon had a Browning 0.303-inch machine gun which was pulled to pieces every evening for three months until the whole Company could recite the nomenclature, eg 'the belt-feed-cam-pawl-withdrawal-spring' and so on. The Browning was never fired in my time there, in fun or in anger. I have to say, however, that it was mounted and ready to fire during all the air raids on Glasgow. I felt a right 'Private Pike' amongst many 'Corporal Joneses'.
In the early Spring of 1941, I could see that my civilian life was running out and that the military one had to commence soon. I could only hope and pray that it would be in the light blue of the RAF; the thought of trench warfare in the Army or life in the bilges of an RN destroyer filled me with depression. But at last the letter from the RAF arrived asking me to report to a recruiting office in Edinburgh. I went through to Waverley Station one morning in April and entered the building with my nerves jangling. Oddly, there were no other persons waiting and so no competitive feeling to worry about. This settled me down remarkably. A Squadron Leader with an Observer's brevet greeted me and quickly set me at ease. He seemed to be impressed by the strength of my ambition and the preparations I had made. He then
asked why I wished to be a WOP/AG. When I told him that I wanted aircrew or nothing, he repeated his question and then said ''Would you not rather be a pilot?''. I could hardly believe my ears. I said ''But I thought I would need a BSc or similar qualification for that''; he then said ''OK son, we'll put you down for pilot then, shall we?'' I could scarcely reply.
I came out of the building after a short medical, into the streets of Edinburgh, in a bit of a dream. I felt that I had to tell someone so I went into the nearest Post Office and sent a telegram to my parents - ''Passed with flying colours, for pilot; will be home on the 5.30 from Waverley''. A bit melodramatic and of course there was no need of the telegram. It must have been depressing news for them, as it was the opposite for me.
The Record of Service in my flying log book shows that I reported for duty at No 1 Reception Wing, Babbacombe, near Torquay in Devon, on 5 July 1941 after a long and tedious train journey from Glasgow the previous day - a journey beset by lengthy stops during the night because of air raids. I was nineteen years old and my flying career had really begun.
William C. Wood 1997.