RAF Apprentices

The Manpower Behind Airpower

Royal Air Force Apprentices were a breed apart, a cut above, a group of boys who went on to be highly skilled craftsmen and airmen. In this section, you can meet just a few of those apprentices who made significant contributions, to the RAF, to science and indeed to their country.

    Between 1920 and 1993:-
  • over 40,000 boys were trained
  • over 10,000 were commissioned
  • 90 attained Air Rank
  • 116 fought as pilots in the Battle of Britain
  • 2000 gave their lives in WWII
  • over 1200 were decorated, including 1 VC and 5 GC's
  • over 2500 were Mentioned in Dispatches
  • over 1000 were awarded State Honours
  • 19 were awarded Knighthoods

Marshal of the Royal Air Force
Lord Trenchard

founder of the Apprentice Scheme

Lord Trenchard

Hugh Montague Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard, is often described as the ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’

An army major-general who had served in India and also fought in the Boer War, where he suffered a critical injury, losing a lung and suffering partial paralysis. The paralysis was later reversed as a result of a bobsleighing accident. Trenchard learnt to fly in 1912 (though he showed no natural gift for flying) and subsequently held senior positions in the Royal Flying Corps during WWI, becoming commander from 1915 – 1917. In 1918 he became Chief of the Air Staff for a brief period before resigning 10 days after the official formation of the RAF and being reinstated the following year.

Trenchard fought fierce critics of the RAF throughout his career, securing its future despite much opposition. Budget constraints meant that the Army and Navy were initially asked to undertake all training and education, but Trenchard insisted that this be done ‘in-house’ and the RAF Apprentice Scheme was born.

Named as first Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1927, he stepped down as Chief of the Air Staff in 1930, and become Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police the following year. He was the RAF’s first peer in the House of Lords as Baron of Wolfeton and was subsequently made a Viscount in 1936. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey.

Triple Olympian
Don Finlay

of the 12th Entry

Don Finlay

Sport has played a huge role is the life of Apprentices, and RAF sports clubs were where many apprentices chose to spend their leisure time. Don Finlay was one of the greatest athletes to ever represent Great Britain.

Finlay arrived at RAF Halton as an Apprentice in 1925. He set an RAF record for the 120 yards High Hurdles in his first race, and represented his country at the High Jump whilst serving as an aircraft apprentice.

In 1930 he won the first of his 8 Amateur Athletic Association titles and represented his country at the Empire Games. He represented Great Britain at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles winning bronze, and in 1934 took gold at the British Empire Games. was captain of the British team in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, where he won silver.

In 1938, Don Finlay won the High Hurdles, High Jump and Long Jump at the RAF Championships, and took gold in the High Hurdles at the European Championships in Paris. A keen football player he also played for Tottenham Hotspur and the famous amateur team Corinthian Casuals.

As a pilot he flew in the Battle of Britain and was awarded the DFC. After the war, Finlay captained the Great Britain team once again in the 1948 London Olympics, taking the Olympic Oath on behalf of all the athletes. He won his eighth AAA Championship a year later, and retired from athletics in 1950 when he achieved fourth place in the New Zealand Empire Games.

RAF Halton's
Thomas Gray VC

of the 20th Entry

Thomas Gray VC

Thomas Gray was born in Urchfont, Wiltshire on 17 May 1914, fourth of seven sons of the village policeman, Ernest Arthur Gray. He lived at 'Fiddlers Cottage' which doubled as the police station. Five of the Gray boys joined the Royal Air Force, three of them including Tom, as Aircraft Apprentices at RAF Halton.

Tom enlisted in the 20th (Halton) Entry on 27 August 1929 and for the next three years trained to become an aero engine Fitter II(E). On leaving Halton in August 1932, he volunteered for flying duties as an air gunner and soon earned the brass 'winged bullet' badge of a qualified air gunner.

In February 1938 came a move to 12 Sqn where he was promoted to Corporal, and following a short course of instruction at No 1 Air Observers School, he was remustered as an air observer (equivalent of the later category of Navigator).

In the 1938 annual firing competition, Tom was awarded the 'Silver .303 Bullet' prize. He was promoted to Sergeant in January a year later.

On the first day of the Second World War 12 Squadron moved to France to begin operations. Early in the morning of 10 May 1940 the German forces commenced their Blitzkreig advance through the Low Countries. On the 12th May, 12 Squadron was tasked with destroying vital bridges over the Albert Canal. The whole Squadron volunteered so it was decided that the six crews already detailed on the readiness roster should undertake the mission.

Flying Officer Donald Garland was to lead 3 aircraft against the Veldwezelt Bridge in a low level attack. Sgt Tom Gray was the Observer/Navigator on Fairey Battle P2204 PH-K, piloted by F/O Donald Garland with LAC Lawrence Reynolds as rear gunner. They flew below the cloud base at 1000 feet and on reaching the Veldwezelt area started a shallow bombing run. There were estimated to be some 300 guns entrenched in a defensive ring around the bridge, and the aircraft was blasted into the ground. When the smoke cleared it was seen that the western end of the bridge was shattered, and evidence suggested the damage was caused by Garland and Gray's cool attack. It had been Gray's first operational bombing raid.

After the bombing raid, local civilians recovered the badly burnt bodies of F/O Garland, Sgt Gray and LAC Reynolds, and quickly buried them in a secret location to prevent the Germans claiming them. Near the end of the war Allied authorities were notified and all three were re-interred in Lanaken cemetery. Subsequently the three were buried in the Imperial War Graves Commission cemetery at Haverlee. The VC was given to Tom Gray's parents at an investiture in Buckingham Palace on 24 June 1941.

RAF Inventor of the jet engine
Sir Frank Whittle

of the 8th Entry

Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle

Frank Whittle began his distinguished career as an Apprentice at RAF Cranwell (No.2 School of Technical Training) in 1923. He had arrived at Halton 9 months earlier, and been turned down twice as a result of his short height and small chest, despite attaining high marks in the entrance exam. He built himself up through a vigorous training regime and reapplied, under an assumed name, to join the Apprentice scheme at Cranwell.

In 1926 Whittle was recommended for officer training, which included flying lessons, setting the young Brat on a course that was to change the face of aviation and world travel. In order to graduate the course, Whittle was required to write a thesis, in which he chose to explore the possibilities of a jet engine. Although the concept was not entirely new, Whittle’s plans explored using a turbine to replace the piston engine, and took the jet engine from theory to reality. Whittle patented his design for the jet engine in1930, and in 1936 received external backing to develop his idea, and was placed on Special Duties by the RAF so that he could work on it. In 1940, the Gloster E.28/39 became the first British jet-engined aircraft, and in 1943 it was demonstrated to Winston Churchill, leading to the nationalisation of jet power. Frank Whittle never made a penny from his shares.

Whittle, whilst brilliant, was something of a rebel and a dare-devil. In his early years he considered deserting because of the strict Apprentice regime, and had a reputation for aerobatics and low-flying which led to numerous official warnings, narrowly escaping a court-martial. Having been disqualified from flying in one contest as a result of his dangerous antics, he went on to destroy two aircraft whilst rehearsing for an air display at RAF Hendon.

RAF Halton's,
The Great Escapers

Stalag Luft III

The Great Escapers

In March 1944, during World War II, allied prisoners of war, including 20 British RAF personnel being detained in Stalag Luft III carried out a daring mass escape. 76 men escaped but only 3 made it to freedom. Included in that unlucky 73 were three former RAF Halton Apprentices: Flight Lieutenant William Jack Grisman (23rd entry), Flight Lieutenant Edgar ‘Hunk’ Spottiswoode-Humphreys (25th entry), and Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh (32nd entry).

Jack Grisman had made the most of his Halton training as a keen engineer and sportsman. In 1941, he baled out of a failing Wellington bomber over occupied France, where he was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III. An enthusiastic tunneller he was well known by the prison guards as a nuisance.

Hunk Humphreys had graduated from Halton as an aircraftsman 2nd class and was flying a Bristol Blenheim Mark IV over occupied Brittany when his plane was shot down. He was transferred to the now infamous North Compound of Stalag Luft III alongside the mastermind of the Great Escape Roger Bushell.

Thomas Barker Leigh had trained at Halton as an aero engine fitter. As the rear gunner in a Handley Page Halifax, Tom’s plane had come down in occupied Belgium and having been captured, he was taken to Stalag Luft III where he met up with his fellow ‘Trenchard Brats’.

On the night of the escape, the three made it to freedom, but it was shortlived. Within 48 hours they had been recaptured and sent to Gorlitz prison. All three were executed by the Gestapo in the reprisals which followed.

Flight Sergeant

the Goat Mascot

LEWIS the Goat Mascot

The Apprentices at RAF Halton had a goat mascot up until the final graduation in 1993. The tradition started when the Royal Welch Fusiliers were sent to the front line during WWII and needed someone to take care of their goat ‘Billy’. He was adopted by the Halton Brats and renamed ‘LEWIS’, or Flight Sergeant LEWIS – his name deriving from the acronym London, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The graduation of 155 Entry was held on the 24th June 1993, when Flt Sgt Lewis and his twin brother SAC Lewis (AKA Lewis VI and Lewis VII) both retired from the Royal Air Force.