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The History of the Royal Air Force Linguists’ Association (RAFLing)

In 1996 a closing ceremony took place at the Joint Services School of Languages (JSSL) which had been located at Royal Air Force North Luffenham for over thirty years from 1964. Of the hundreds of personnel who had trained as linguists in the RAF from the 1950s only a handful were at the ceremony. Two of these, Bryon Kingston and Neil Pickles, had been on the same Russian course and had known each other well. Later, over a few beers at the local hostelry, the Wheatsheaf Inn in Edith Weston, they decided it was time to rectify the situation and the idea to form the RAFLing Association was born.

 JSSL had had many previous locations and, prior to North Luffenham, had been at RAF Tangmere which was where Bryon and Neil had initially met in February 1961. On completion of their course Neil was posted to RAF Gatow in West Berlin, while Bryon went to RAF Pergamos in Cyprus followed by a subsequent tour also at Gatow in Berlin. In 1965, Neil left the RAF for a business career and Bryon left about ten years later in 1976.  

They had kept in touch with one or two others including Dave Haysom who had been on the same Russian course and who had also been posted to Berlin and they enlisted his help in their project. Dave had spent many years in Berlin and, on completion of his career in the RAF, had taken up a post with The Hitachi Sales Corporation and had settled in Hamburg.
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The trio contacted those with whom they had kept in touch, who, in turn, had maintained contact with others and eventually in September 1998, an inaugural reunion was held in Leicester where Neil lived. Accommodation was at the Post House with a Gala Dinner Dance taking place at the Leicester City Football Club Banqueting Suite. This first reunion was attended by over a hundred people and was a resounding success.

Following that initial reunion Bryon thought it appropriate that an Association be established formally so that the hard work which had resulted in the renewal of old friendships and acquaintances should not have been in vain and in September 2000, the Royal Air Force Linguists' Association (RAFLing) was born. Jock Dempster, a long-standing and founder member of the linguist trade, was invited to become President and, happily, he accepted. Neil became Chairman, Dave Vice-Chairman and Bryon became Secretary. Naturally there have since been changes in the committee and the latest members can be seen at the end of this page. We are always open for volunteers to serve on the Committee, so feel free if you can assist.

As a result of that successful reunion, further reunions were held and eventually, due to persistent demands from all and sundry it was decided to hold a Millennium Reunion in Berlin, the city so well known and loved by most of the linguists who had spent many happy years there. Following the reunification of Germany in 1989, all British troops had left Berlin and Royal Air Force Gatow was now a Luftwaffe base named General Steinhoff Kaserne and the Commandant, Oberst Helmut Becker, welcomed RAFLing with open arms and placed the full facilities of the camp at the Association's disposal.

The reunion included a 'Gala Dinner' at the Airbridge Club which was attended by over two hundred people and including the Mayor of Spandau, the curator of the Allied Forces Museum and other senior Berlin dignitaries. This brought back many happy memories, as the Airbridge was the club where most of the linguists had spent their formative drinking years, which helped make the reunion a very special occasion indeed. Further successful reunions have since been held in Leicester, Berlin, York, Spain, Buxton and the most recent was held in 2015 in Paphos in Cyprus.

Lunches have also been held on a regular basis in the Gloucestershire area, hosted by Pete and Sue Moore and are now also held in other parts of the UK. As most members are now 'senior citizens' this allows members who live in far flung corners of the country or are not able to travel easily, to remain in contact with old friends.  The Association publishes a four-monthly magazine, the RAFLing News, and Dave Haysom distributes a monthly electronic RAFling Bulletin which is also printed and sent on to those who have not yet joined the digital age.

As the ratio of linguists posted to RAF Gatow as against other posts was in the region of 5 to 1, the Association was intended primarily to renew and maintain friendship between Russian, German, Czech and Polish linguists who served there during the 'Cold War' decades from 1948 until 1989 as they were by far the majority. However since its inception it has welcomed as members, Army and Navy linguists and also those Chinese linguists from various arms of the services who were mostly employed in Hong Kong. The current membership stands at approximately 180.

The RAFLing Association has carried out a successful programme to commemorate the existence of the various locations of the Joint Services Language Schools by the mounting of suitable plaques, confirming the location of these JSSL. The first of these was at Tangmere in July, 2003 which was very well attended. The next, at the DCLI Museum in Bodmin, was unveiled on 14th June, 2004 and, appropriately enough, in May 2005 the plaque was mounted in the grounds of the Wheatsheaf Inn, overlooking the language school buildings at RAF North Luffenham where the idea of a RAFLing Association was born.

The fourth plaque was unveiled at Crail later that same year and in 2006 a plaque was unveiled at Pucklechurch followed by another at Coulsdon in 2007. In 2008, the Thomas Tallis School, formerly RAF Kidbrooke was the recipient of the seventh plaque. The final plaque was unveiled on June 26th 2009 on the site of the former RAF Station at Wythall. Due to a rebuilding of the Thomas Tallis School that plaque was refurbished, relocated and re-dedicated in July 2016. All of these dedications were covered by the local press and generated a lot of interest in the Association.
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We were also successful in raising funds for the purchase of a Guide Dog for the Blind and our dog, appropriately named Raffles, underwent training in 2011 and was placed with a worthy owner.

Recently we have been pleased that some of our members who studied Chinese whilst serving with the RAF during the 1950s and 60’s (‘Chinlings’) have made a major contribution to our website with information regarding their experiences both in UK and later on postings in Hong Kong. They also hold reunions on occasion and keep us informed so the website is continually growing and ‘vibrant’, to use a current buzzword.

Regarding forthcoming events, in late October we will be having a reunion at one of our favourite haunts in Leicester and early in 2017 we will be dedicating an engraved stone at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to commemorate all Service Linguists, as there are now also many who served with us from the Army and Navy. We are hoping for a large turnout for that auspicious occasion

While we have a good base of members, we struggle to recruit post ‘Cold War’ linguists and are acutely aware that in order to maintain the Association we must look forward as well as backward. To that end we are always ready to welcome anyone who has been involved not only in language training but also those in the ancillary trades of Wireless Operators and Special Operator (Tel) as members.

The current RAFLing Committee consists of:

President: Mike Hancock mike.hancock619@googlemail.com
Chairman: George Bason george.bason471@btinternet.com
Secretary: Mike Hancock mike.hancock619@googlemail.com
Membership Sec: Sue Hancock sue.hancock49@googlemail.com
Web Master : Don Stuart donstu880@gmail.com
Treasurer: Anne Robson anne @alrobson.me.uk
RAFLing News Editor: George Bason george.bason471@btinternet.com
Bulletin Editor: Dave Haysom davhay1@gmail.com
Vice-Chairman: Alan Robson alan @alrobson.me.uk
Welfare Officer: George Bason george.bason471@btinternet.com

If you have any queries regarding membership, please contact any of our Committee members

Alan Robson
July 2016