Childhood Memories of the Squadron Commander’s Son
No 46 Squadron, 1937 -39
My father, as Squadron Leader P. R. Barwell (widely known as Dickey Barwell), newly promoted, was posted to command 46 Squadron (Gloster Gauntlets) at R. A. F. Kenley in 1937 when I was six years old. The Squadron had just reformed as part of the pre-war expansion.
Dickey had just turned thirty. This was important because, to discourage the hasty marriage of its young officers the Service did not officially recognize the marriage of officers under that age and hence, previously, Dickey had not qualified for Married Quarters, nor even for a full marriage allowance! Kenley was therefore my first experience of life on a Royal Air Force Station.
Our quarters comprised a spacious first floor apartment in a big, old building which was, I believe, the original Officers’ Mess when Kenley was first established as an R. F. C. station during WW1. From Internet research I have found that the present building designated “Officers’ Mess” was built in the 1930’s to the 1932 standard design. There was a well maintained garden to one side of our building, with lawns and rose-beds and it was there that Dickey checked me out on my first bicycle.
I have very happy memories of Kenley and seem to remember that I had, by today’s standards, quite extraordinary freedom as a 6/7 year old. Dickey took me round the station to show me what was what, including the Squadron offices and hangar and a Gauntlet cockpit. The intricacies of helmets, oxygen masks, (the Gauntlet had a Service Ceiling above 30,000 feet and was therefore equipped with oxygen) microphones, earphones and parachutes were all explained and then I was largely left to myself. I seem to have recollections of being free to roam the station at will but in reality I am sure that everyone knew who I was. Unknown to myself I was probably being closely watched and never for a moment in danger. I even remember going in some fear and trepidation to the edge of the airfield itself, to watch those beautiful little biplanes taxi out, take off and land (no runways in those days, just a grass airfield) - in the evening when I told Dickey what I had been doing his only reaction was to say that he had seen me, so that was all right!
A few words about the Squadron Crest and Motto. It appears that in its original WW1/ R.F.C incarnation 46 Squadron had no official or heraldic crest. When Dickey took command in 1937 one of his first tasks was to attend to this. In those days the allocation of insignia was very much an individual matter for the unit itself: the unit had to make its own application and submit its own ideas for the design of its crest to, I believe, the Royal College of Heralds. It so happened that my mother had a very sure artistic flair and Dickey accordingly delegated the design aspect of this task to the person he thought best suited! I thus remember Mum becoming deeply involved in the details of design. I would like to think that she single handedly designed the final version, as approved by the College of Heralds but that is probably an exaggeration! Suffice to say that I believe that 46 Squadron ended up with by far and away the most inspirational Crest and Motto that can be imagined for a front line operational Squadron and this alone should have guaranteed that the Standard was never again laid up!
I don’t remember very much about any formal education. In those far-off pre-war days we moved about quite a lot and every time we moved I went to a new primary, kindergarten or dame school and had to start again with the Romans, so school didn’t mean very much to me! I do remember that Dickey made a private arrangement with the Station Physical Training Instructor to give me individual tuition in gymnastics and boxing. This must have done a bit of good because later, when I was sent to board at a Preparatory School, I did manage to win cups for PT and for boxing!
One figure I remember very clearly from my wanderings round the station at Kenley. This was an exceptionally smart airman, older than most, a slender fairly slight figure, oozing authority, rigidly stiff and straight as a ramrod, chest festooned with medal ribbons which was quite unusual in those days as there were not many WW1 Veterans around. He always carried a swagger stick under his arm. This was, of course, the Station Warrant Officer.
Dickey was a fine athlete and keen sportsman. His team game was hockey and I remember watching him play from the touchline and shouting “Ritarroy!” at what I thought to be appropriate times – this was meant to be “Hip! Hip! Hooray!”. He also played tennis and was a keen, mean squash player – I used to go to the squash courts with him to watch.
Although my memories of Kenley are important and quite vivid to me, we were not there for very long. Towards the end of 1937 the Squadron converted onto Hurricanes and moved to R.A.F. Digby, in Lincolnshire. There, we were housed in a proper Married Quarter on the “patch” and outside the working area of the Station and so my memories of Digby, exceedingly happy, are a little different – more domestically inclined! Our quarters faced onto a large sports field which I remember best as growing the most delicious wild mushrooms, which it was one my jobs to gather. Our immediate neighbours were Sqn Ldr and Mrs Finch (Uncle Finco and Auntie Doris to me). Finco Finch was CO of 46’s companion Hurricane squadron, No 73 and I remember him as a kind and gentle soul with a fund of conjourer’s tricks for entertaining small boys. I was intensely proud that my father was flying these wonderful, new aircraft that were so incredibly fast, and with retractable wheels!