From the IOM we were sent to Petersfield, in Hampshire, to the Naval Signal school called Leydene. We were only to be in Leydene for about ten days and in that time we had to learn the workings of some ten transmitters and receivers together with all the ancillary equipment, so it is unsurprising that I remember nothing of that first trip, except the way we were taught. To a young man who had led a sheltered life and had been tutored mainly by Oxbridge graduates, the spiel of the three-badge Petty Officer or Chief Petty Officer, needed to be experienced and still couldn’t be believed. The three badges denoted a minimum of thirteen years service, but many of these instructors had been brought back from retirement. The classrooms were converted Nissan huts containing the replicas of the radio transmitters we would find on the ships we were destined for. Some were small, not much bigger than today’s work-top washing machine, others occupied the area of the average kitchen and were contained within an earthed steel cage, with access through a door which cut off the power to the high voltage areas when the door was opened. Almost the first thing we were taught was how to circumvent this safety measure so we could test the beast while under full power, from within its bowels, so to speak.
Most of us, who were used to radio receivers which were only one stage advanced from the crystal set, were amazed to see a valve the size of a large vase and resistors almost a foot long. The instructors had little to worry about with respect to discipline, we were so continuously bombarded with facts and so overawed with both the equipment and the prospect that we would, within a few weeks be in sole charge of its welfare, that there was neither the time nor the energy left to mess around. It was cramming taken to a fine art. Each morning we would be marched off to a classroom where we would discover yet another set with its own peculiarities. We carried a huge loose-leaf book containing all the circuitry and hints on repair, together with our class notes and a folder of a few pages of duplicated information supplied by the instructors. This library went everywhere, even to bed, because all spare moments were filled with catching up what we’d missed or mugging up what we had forgotten. I remember one of our class was married and had permission to sleep ashore with his wife. She complained that he spent most of the night sitting up studying this huge tome.
In class we were perched on rows of long, heavy, oak benches, with no desk and no support for the back, like starlings on telephone wires. The keen ones sat in the front row and those who were in the class purely as an alternative to sailing on the Atlantic convoys, were generally either dozing or craftily smoking on the back bench. While what I was being taught was in itself a totally remarkable experience, the method of imparting that knowledge was even more extraordinary. Inside these sets were valves, resistors, coils and condensers in the main, with a few other bits and bobs to make the whole thing work, but our elderly instructors, when pointing to a component on a circuit diagram did not refer to it by its name but merely said “Now this li ‘l f….r ‘ere is connected to that li ‘l bastard there….” and so on. In fact it became such a routine that some of us were caught more than once anticipating and saying which epithet would be applied to what item of electronic hardware and were then promptly, in our turn, referred to by yet another and even more expressive phrase.
Indeed there was the occasion when one of the instructors was inside a transmitter ‘putting on faults’ for an exercise in fault-finding. He was mostly only breaking connections, but sometimes he would insert a faulty component. The thing was that as one became more experienced the sounds of resistors being pulled from their anchorage or valves being released were so distinctive that most of us knew which piece was being tampered with. On this occasion there was a distinctive sound and someone on the front bench named the article in a stage whisper. Suddenly a face, surmounted by a battered cap, peered over the top of the fence round the transmitter and it said “Oh no ‘e F…..in’ ain’t” and disappeared to replace the part and pull out another which was equally recognisable. For me this incident epitomised the teaching in those first months of the war.