RAF College Cranwell

Life as an Officer Cadet 96 Entry

RAF College Cranwell
Graduates in front of the College Hall


RAF College Cranwell is the training college for future officers in the RAF. To qualify for entry in my day, every candidate had to pass a selection of aptitude tests, which were taken at the time at RAF Biggin Hill – which was in Kent and therefore quite close to my school in Canterbury.

“A” Level passes were taken into account as educational qualifications, but the most important information for the RAF was gathered from the aptitude tests, which were a combination of tests for physical attributes (sight, hearing etc) physical co-ordination and seeing how well candidates “performed” in a team environment – which was directly linked to leadership potential and therefore “officer material”.

Candidates were about 17 or 18 years old (I was 17 at the time) and we came from varied backgrounds – some like me from Public School, others from Grammar Schools, and some from RAF Halton and RAF Locking – the training colleges at the time for airmen – where the top apprentices were assessed as future “officer material”.

Some candidates had RAF connections – I remember two of our Entry had fathers serving at the time in the RAF as Air Vice Marshals – but many of us did not, and some came from overseas, so it was a mixed bag of raw talent. The most important aptitude tests were those related to flying – many of us wanted to become pilots and only a few who passed the fairly rigorous tests – including medical tests – were given this opportunity. 

At the time, and as I remember it, the choices – or branches – available to a potential RAF Officer going through Cranwell were:

(1) GDP (General Duties Pilot)
(2) GDN (General Duties Navigator)
(3) Engineer
(4) Secretarial
(5) Equipment
(6) RAF Regiment

I enjoyed the experience: the tests were taken over a  period of several days, and I was lucky enough to be offered entry to Cranwell and the choice of any Branch. I had always wanted to fly, but chose the Engineering Branch because I had one eye on a future which may not involve the RAF and flying: but only after I was assured that Flying Training was still “on the cards” after I had qualified as an Engineer. Another good reason for this was that I knew that an Engineer with flying experience would always be more likely to  be taken seriously by full time pilots: there was – and probably still is – a big divide in attitude between aircrew and those who  supported them on the ground.

96 Entry

I was in 96 Entry and about 60 of us assembled at RAF Cranwell near Sleaford in Lincolnshire UK to begin our journey into the unknown on 27th March 1967. There were two new Entries every year – arriving in March and September: each Entry was due to graduate (become fully fledged Officers) after two and a half years

The hierarchy at Cranwell was similar to the hierarchy at my last School: we were separated into Entries (Ist Year as “new boys”, 2nd Year, Senior Entry etc) and each entry was split into existing Squadrons which was equivalent to the “House” system at School. We had four squadrons – A, B C and D – and I was in D squadron.

The first year cadets were the “low life” and we were housed in Barracks known as the South Brick Lines. The Senior Entry at the time was 91 Entry, and they were within 6 months of graduating as RAF Officers: they had all sorts of powers and privileges over the “low life”, and the infliction of this power was generally known as “crowing”. At the top of the tree were Senior Under Officers (like the school Head of House) supported by Under Officers (Monitors) for each Squadron: the Under Officers were chosen by the Cranwell hierarchy as those most likely to succeed based upon their performance during their cadetships.

Each Squadron had it’s own Drill Flight Sergeant – with a Sergeant looking after the first year cadets – and we, as the new Entry, were quickly introduced to the realities of early morning drills, parades, bed making, boot shining etc.

The College was run as an active RAF base and the Commanding Officer or Station Commander was a Group Captain, with a support staff. The station was basically split into three main groups – the Academics (the teaching staff for us as cadets), Operations (the Flying Instructors and ground crew needed to run the Chipmunks and the squadron of Jet Provost Trainer aircraft for the pilot training) and the Logistical (everything else needed to run a working RAF Station)

Apart from the College Building and surrounds and the airfield and hangars, there were educational and sports facilities and living quarters, and the Station was spread over a large area, with possibly 2000 personnel including cadets.

More information about Cranwell as it is now can be seen on the official RAF Cranwell Facebook page

A word about GDPs (Pilots)
As Flight Cadets at Cranwell, the greatest stress was undoubtedly on those who had been chosen as Pilots: theirs was a continuous and steep learning process and flying training in first the Chipmunks and then the Jet Provost trainer aircraft was a serious business. The main hurdles to overcome on the way included their relationship with their assigned Flying Instructor (QFI), the first solo flight – usually after 25-30 hours training – mastery of navigation, all weather flying (instruments only) and night flying: all the time their performance was being evaluated and under-achievement at any point in the process would mean failure. If the target was to become a “Top Gun” and qualify to fly strike/intercept aircraft such as the LightningPhantom F4Buccaneer and the Harrier (and later the Tornado), the standards were exceptionally high and most trainee pilots would not make these standards. 

The other non-GDP cadets, by contrast, did not have the same stress, and faced more academic challenges in the classrooms and so – in my view – had more of an  opportunity to enjoy the  unique experience offered by RAF Cranwell.


The aim of the College was to roll out new Officers after two and a half years training, who would then either be assigned their first posting in their chosen Branch (RAF Regiment) or continue their training. GDPs and Navigators were posted to one of the many RAF stations operational at the time – either in the UK or abroad. The Secretarial and Supply Branch graduates spent an extra 6 months at Cranwell before being posted, and the Engineers stayed on at Cranwell for further training in either the Mechanical or Electrical speciality, the aim being to qualify with a BSc Honours Degree after a total of 4 years and 8 months.

The College Building

As can be seen from the photo, the College building was large and impressive: there were two wings – East and West – and two main floors, the top consisting mainly of accommodation and the CO’s office.

The main feature on the ground floor was a massive dining area (Mess Hall) which also hosted many special events, such as Mess Guest Nights, Summer Balls and Graduation Balls. On the same level were the kitchen, several large lounges, the Mess Bar, games rooms and other areas.

The large entrance Hall led out to the main steps and the Main Parade Ground, in front of which which was the “Orange”, and a large grass covered circular area which was ideal for entertainment and/or Sports: I was lucky enough to play cricket for the College on the Orange, which gives an idea of its size.

Behind the College was a large parking area, and sporting facilities which included Squash and Tennis Courts – both used regularly by myself!

College Personalities

There were two individuals who stood out for me while I was at Cranwell, and I do not mean fellow Flight Cadets. Both these individuals were Airmen and involved in our training.

The first was Warrant Officer Garbet. The highest rank for an airman is Warrant Officer, followed by the rank of Flight Sergeant. Warrant Officer Garbet was always immaculately turned out and probably the most powerful man at Cranwell, and I remember him saying one thing in particular to a Flight Cadet (it could have been to me – I don’t remember!) “The difference between you, Sir, and myself is that we both call each other Sir, but I don’t mean it”

The second person was Flight Sergeant Ken Adams the Drill instructor for D Squadron. His job was to turn an unruly and undisciplined rabble (us) into a well disciplined unit capable of drilling at the highest standard. On parade, we had polished boots, white belts and our own SLRs (Self Loading Rifle). Woe betide you if you did not concentrate 100%: a short man, he could be heard from over 100 yards away. One of his favourite sayings – often repeated to any cadet guilty of losing concentration – involved the words “..tearing off your arm and hitting you with the soggy end, Sir”  – the last word being emphasized! I have to say, I actually enjoyed the drilling and I was once in the Colour Party (the group of four bearing the RAF Flag) as the Colour Officer on one occasion when D Squadron had that honour at one of the Parades.

Social Life

While we were at Cranwell, the “Sixties” era was in full swing and so we missed out on this culture: as cadets, we had short “back and sides” haircuts, and so were pretty conspicuous when we ventured outside the Station. However, in the depths of Lincolnshire, there was not much on offer for randy young men. Apart from the towns of Sleaford and Grantham (4 and 10 miles away) the nearest “cultural centre” was Nottingham, and London was 120 miles away down the A1. There were a number of local “ladies” educational colleges which were visited to a greater or lesser extent, and some of us (the minority) had existing girlfriends who were allowed to visit on occasion, which caused some jealousy as I recall (Pete Harding and John Waterfall spring to mind..)

As we progressed in our seniority at the College, more cadets could afford cars, and weekend passes could be obtained which relieved the social isolation

Trips and Exercises

As part of our cadet training the RAF organised some joint exercises outside the College. I remember three in particular.

Catterick Survival – A Bitter Experience.
The first was a Survival Exercise, designed to test our “mettle” in the outdoors: the venue was RAF Catterick in Yorkshire. The time of year was winter, and we were bussed to the North of England (early 1968 I think) when one of the coldest spells on record was in progress. Our mission was to set up tent in some remote area and basically survive for one or two days, with the most basic of provisions. I remember sleeping fully clothed and waking up in the morning with ice inside my boots. There were several casualties and cases of hypothermia in the “ranks”, and in retrospect, the Exercise should not have taken place.

Escape and Evasion – or Chicken and Chips?
The second exercise took place over a few days in North West Germany: we flew as a unit to RAF Gutersloh, and were then – if I am correct – assigned by Squadrons to various  Army Regiments. Our hosts were the 22nd Field Artillery Regiment based in Dortmund, part of the British Army On The Rhine (BAOR). Their principle weapon was the Abbott Self propelled Gun – basically an amphibious tank – which was great fun to drive! The aim of the main exercise was to split our squadron into groups of 4 or 5 cadets, and, armed only with compasses and Ordnance Survey maps, we were dropped some 20 miles or so away from the Base with a view to returning on foot without being “captured” en route by the Army. In the same group as myself, as I remember it, was Prince Bandar, so monetary assistance was never in doubt. Our adventure included chicken and chips in one German pub, and part of the journey was by taxi: we were not caught, but I am pretty sure our solution was not what the organisers had in mind!

King Rock
Named after the Rock of Gibraltar, this exercise occurred for 96 Entry in the summer of 1967. Gibraltar has a resident colony of monkeys – colloquially known as “Rock Apes” – and this affectionate nickname was passed on to anyone serving in the RAF Regiment Branch, which is primarily responsible for airfield defence. I did not attend this particular exercise, for a reason that I cannot recall, but I can report that the two weeks exercise for 96 Entry consisted of one week of survival training which included canoeing in the Eider See and the other week concentrating on escape and evasion, with a one mile race with full backpacks thrown in for good measure.

Escorting Miss World Contestants 
Definitely one of the highlights, the Organisers of the 1968 Miss World competition hosted in London had decided that they needed a bunch of fine young men to act as escorts for the contestants at the Dinner/Dance which followed the event: Cranwell was the lucky beneficiary, and an eager group of us attended – I think we stayed at the RAF Club. All the girls were stunning, but of course most of them had regular boyfriends, and so any form of romance was out of the question! I cannot remember which of the girls (or which country) I “escorted” but it was a fantastic experience for a young hot blooded and totally inexperienced young man! 

The RAF Club 128 Piccadilly London

London was – and still is – the centre for so many cultural events, night-life and other forms of entertainment. To have the RAF club available to us in the middle of London as our personal “hotel” and at reasonable cost was a huge bonus. I used the splendid facilities there on many occasions.

4 thoughts on “RAF College Cranwell”

  1. Does anyone lucky enough to remember the Miss World evening have a story to tell? Or remember which of the gorgeous girls they “escorted”?

  2. Helpful Video (see above) on Rock Apes supplied by Keith Anderson 96A – “a clip from the latest RAF Regt training video (apologies Bill, David, Martin)”

All serious comments replied to the same day !