Training to be a military photographer with the Royal Navy

Training to become a military photographer involves a fairly lengthy attachment with the Royal Navy. In bonnie Scotland no less. On the windswept flatlands of the Scottish North Eastern Coast. Lossiemouth.

It was a Royal Naval Air Station and almost brand spanking new, with the most outstanding buildings and facilities, massive state of the art aircraft hangers, a newly laid and enormously long runway, pristine accommodation with about 6 to 8 men in comfortable centrally heated rooms full of light and attractively furnished. A NAAFI bar and nightclub that would match anything, anywhere in any town or city in the country. A few thousand matelots and a fine body of WRENS, or was it a lot of WRENS with fine bodies. The later I think.

We were just a few army lads, all RAOC, and all with a bit of time under our belts, pongos they called us, cast adrift from the Corps and the army, amongst the Fleet Air Arm’s finest.

The Air Station was operating and training on Buccaneers, great brutes on the ground, but wonderfully sleek predator fighter/bombers in the air. Not a particularly safe aircraft as about four or five went down during the attachment, although that might have been inexperience on the part of the trainee pilots. The crews of four of the aircraft safely ejected but the fifth flew straight as an arrow, fast as a bullet, and smack into the hard Scottish earth with both pilot and navigator lost. They were flying round the clock, night and day, day and night. More often than not there was an Aircraft Carrier out in the North Sea and they practiced endless approaches, endless landings, and endless takeoffs. Hairy work.

We were photographers and did a fair old bit of flying ourselves. Air to Air work. Air to ground work. We flew in a wide assortment of naval aircraft, including the Buccaneers. In effect we were made honorary matelots for the attachment period and were obliged to partake in all the Navy traditions. For example, we were forced, under the threat of naval discipline, to drink tots of rum every single day. We were equally forced to take our due ration of Navy fags, a form of currency on the Air Station.

We fitted in rather well and suffered no obvious discrimination despite being but a few in khaki amongst so many in blue. There was an amateur dramatical group on the Air Station, the Buccaneer Theatre Group, and I was induced, by the presence of so many lovely WRENS, to become an actor.
We went into immediate rehearsals for a searing dramatic production set in 1950’s Australia called “The Shifting Heart” written by Richard Beynon” I was cast in the part Detective Sgt. Lukie, a hard bitten, hard drinking Australian policeman who reduces a murder suspect, at the end of Act 1, to a quivering wreck.
The Act was to close with me having grilled the suspect into a pathetic confession, then leaving the interrogation room and at the door, turning back to the broken suspect, and saying in my best Australian accent “..Trouble with you mate, is you’ve got a bloody chip on your shoulder as big as a bloody battleship..” Critics of the play, and there were many, suggested my Australian accent was not quite genuine or that I sounded like a Scotsman recently immigrated into Australia. There was some truth to this, for my favorite accent has always been that of a Scotsman – but one must put up with such critics in life.

My performance on the final night was somewhat marred by another ancient mariners tradition we were forced to endure. The compulsory drinking of tots of rum was occasionally enlivened by a practice, as old as Nelson, known as sippers. This was triggered whenever someone on your mess deck had cause for celebration, perhaps the birth of a child; a birthday; an engagement; a promotion, a divorce – the list was somewhat lengthy and rather flexible. I cannot recall now, at this distant remove, what was the occasion that obliged me to take sippers on that eventful afternoon. It may well have been just because it was the last night of the play. I resisted too many sippers, on the grounds that I was to perform later that evening, not just in the final night of the play but also on the night when the Scottish Amateur Dramatic Society Association was to make an adjudication of our performance for the annual National Dramatic Society Championship competition. My protests only encouraged more sippers to be pressed upon me. But I kept it within reasonable limits. Or so I thought.

Critical voices were later to say that on that final night of the play my Scottish/Australian accent was slightly blurred. That would not have particularly mattered, as I was in fact supposed to be both a hard-bitten and a hard drinking Aussie detective. But at the end of Act one, my murder suspect suitably cowed, broken and quivering , I walked towards the door of the interrogation room to make my dramatic exit, I turned:- “…Trouble with you mate” I said, “is that you’ve got a bloody battleship on your shoulders as big as a bloody chip..”

A lesser man would have given up Amateur dramatics after that. But I am made of stupider stuff, and would go on, in the years to come, to perform in several military dramatic groups ending my career with the fabulous Tidworth Players. I had discovered that such groups facilitated meeting with very attractive women. Indeed in Tidworth I was once cast in a love scene with the very slim wife of a cavalry colonel. The scene involved a great deal of snogging and the snogging required endless rehearsal, both on and off stage. I probably snogged the colonel’s wife a lot more than he ever snogged her himself….I believe there was gossip in the mess…

Meanwhile, back in bonnie Scotland there were, I’m afraid, no snogging scenes. In fact after the final night (in which, sadly, we did not win the National championships) I was never cast in any part again and was relegated to working with props and lights. I was not entirely devastated as the Theatre Group continued to attract the loveliest of the WRENS, but I did rather lose my taste for rum. Not difficult to do whilst living in Scotland, for all who reside there, either permanently or just on attachment, eventually and inevitably succumbed to the superior joys of whisky.

We were required as part of our final photographic portfolio to prepare industrial architectural photographs – interior and exterior, close up macros, tabletop still life’s, landscapes, character studies, photo “stories”, aerial photographs, and amongst other things, to make a film. My own final submission included an aerial photograph of a whisky distillery, architectural studies of the interior and exterior of the same whisky distillery, close-ups of fermenting grain, table studies of a range of bottles of whiskey, a fine portrait of a barrel maker and a great landscape of the fast running river that supplied water for the distillery, together with a film, of the ancient process of making whiskey. And they were all in focus. To this day I remain a world renowned whisky connoisseur. And I have a wonderful Scottish accent.

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