Halton was arguably one of the first aeronautical engineering colleges in the world and certainly the first in any air force. The ‘Halton Apprentice’ label soon became synonymous with aeronautical engineering excellence, a reputation that rapidly gained recognition throughout the aircraft Industry and internationally. The Royal New Zealand, Pakistan, Ceylon and Rhodesian Air Forces and the Burmese and Malayan Air Forces all sent boys to Halton to train alongside British apprentices. The Venezuelan Air Force sent boys to train at Halton in the 1970s.

The Halton Apprentices’ Contribution to WII

When the expansion of the RAF began in the mid-1930s, exapprentices, as Trenchard had planned, formed about 50% of the trained strength of the Service. With recruiting buoyant, the size of Halton intakes ballooned, reaching over 1,000 boys per entry. The 40th Entry, which enlisted in August 1939, was the largest ever with 1,385 boys taking the King’s shilling.50.Coincidentally with the arrival of this large entry, as a war emergency measure the duration of training was gradually shortened, initially to 2½ then to 2 years. This reduction in training time reached its nadir with the early graduation of the 39th entry in April 1940 after only 20 months. Many of this entry were still less than 17½, some as young as 16, officially still boys but now serving as airmen on the front line. The youngest recruit to join the RAF, at just 15years and 2 months, was Apprentice Harry Clack. Sadly, he would also become the RAF’s youngest casualty on active service when he was killed in an accident while employed on aircraft salvage at Croydon in the closing days of the Battle of Britain, still a month short of his 17th birthday.51


Interestingly, apprentices were the only people who continued to join the wartime RAF; from September 1939 until 1945 all other recruits were enlisted, or commissioned, into the RAFVR.
A large minority of the boys joining the RAF as apprentices saw it as a route via which they might achieve their real ambition, which was to become pilots. Ever since 1921, airmen had been able to volunteer for training as sergeant pilots and to serve as such for six years before returning to their ground trades, retaining their rank.52 The idea was to create future leaders of the technical branch with an appreciation of the challenges faced by aircrew. Several hundred ex-apprentices serving on these engagements at the start of hostilities were, however, retained in flying posts. Many were soon commissioned rising quickly to executive positions on operational squadrons. Sqn Ldr Donald Finlay, an ex-apprentice of the 12th Entry and a triple Olympian, was well known to the public as one of the country’s top athletes. He commanded Nos 41 and 54 Sqns in the Battle of Britain, shooting down four enemy aircraft and winning a DFC.53 Finlay was one of 116 former apprentices who flew as pilots in the Battle; several of them became ‘aces’, some destroying more than 12 enemy aircraft, among them Sqn Ldr ‘Ben’ Bennions,54 Wg Cdr ‘Taffy’ Higginson,55 Flt Lt Geoffrey ‘Sammy’ Allford,56 and Gp Capt Frank Carey.57 Sgt Samuel Butterfield destroyed eight enemy aircraft in 14 days of intensive operations in May 1940 accounting for four on a single day before being shot down himself over the Channel. He was rescued only to be shot down again a few weeks later and killed.58
While many of their colleagues were fighting in the air, thousands of former apprentices were working tirelessly on the ground to ensure their aircraft were in fighting condition. Promotion in the ground branches had been slow, even non-existent in some trades, in the inter-war years. With the rapidly growing numbers now joining the Service, thousands of ex-apprentices suddenly found themselves racing through the ranks to SNCO and warrant officer, providing a vital source of experienced technical supervisors on front line squadrons, maintenance units and as instructors for the growing number of technical training schools.59
Halton apprentices contributed to all of the major air campaigns of WW II, both in the air and on the ground. The introduction of the four-engined bombers in 1941 brought an urgent need for an additional crew member, a flight engineer. His role was to assist the pilot to manage the complicated systems in these more advanced aircraft.60 Former Halton apprentices were ideally suited to this new challenge,