I used to visit Philip Unwin to discuss the publication of the books I was producing, and it was a stock joke whenever an air-raid warning sounded while we were at lunch. ‘Good for business! we would laugh. I followed The Spotter’s Handbook with another one, Night and Fire Spotting, which also contained a lot of baloney. I remember being at the bottom end of Bond Street at 11 o’clock one morning, and hearing the clop, clop, clop of a milk van horse, up at the far end of the street. It was in the dead silence preceding an air raid. This was at the beginning of the war and I wondered if, in a few years time, there would be grass growing the length of Bond Street.
My books, I think, got me into the RAF. Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane, director of navigation training at the Air Ministry, sent for me to write navigation notes for instructors and students. I was commissioned as a Flying Officer, and told to report to the Deputy Director who would be my chief.
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I had once heard a wonderful story about an Air Force navigator, and had used it as the plot for a short story – the only work of fiction I have ever published – writing fiction has always seemed to me paltry compared with real life. This story was called Curly the Navigator, and described how the navigator had told the captain of the flying-boat that he was on the wrong course, which must result in the flying-boat’s being lost at sea. An argument resulted in the navigator’s knocking out his superior officer, and bringing the seaplane safely back to base. When I reported for duty at the Air Ministry, I found that my boss was Group Captain Kelly Barnes, a big red-faced character who looked and acted exactly like the traditional John Bull. He had been the flying-boat navigator whose story I had dished up. I was decidedly uneasy as to what sort of reception I should get. He called me into his office and, as I did my best to stand smartly at attention, he said, You know, you got the end of that story wrong; what actually happened was that I was court martialled in the morning, and called up before the Air Council in the afternoon to be awarded the MBE. Kelly Barnes never liked me, and my two years in the Air Ministry was a frustrated, unhappy period. Kelly B. had been a navigator all his career; he was not only brilliant with the theory of it – he had revised the Advanced Navigation Manual – but he had sound, advanced views on navigation practice. For example, he devised a simple grouping of the stars which would make them much easier to recognise than those connected with mythology. I felt he resented my being brought in, an amateur, civilian navigator.
About the time I was brought into the Air Force, I produced a game, ‘Pinpoint the Bomber’, for teaching navigation. This was published by Allen and Unwin, and considering the limited market which any navigational work must have, it was a great success. I also brought out a sun compass which enabled you to tell the direction by the sun if you knew the time, or to tell the time if you knew the direction of the sun. This, in turn, was followed by a star compass made of cardboard and transparent plastic which sold for 5s, and a 2s 6d Planisphere of Navigation Stars. Another publication of mine was a big star chart designed for teaching star identification.
At the Air Ministry I worked for some time in the same room as Dicky Richardson, then a Wing-Commander who was rewriting the Standard Manual of Air Navigation, A.P. 1234. He made a fine job of it. Dicky was one of those sterling, stalwart citizens who make a country great if there are enough of them. He left the Air Ministry to become Chief Navigation Officer of Coastal Command, where he introduced a navigation drill which helped raise the standard of navigation and with it the standard of safety. Dicky’s navigation drill was almost precisely the same as the system I had worked out for navigating to Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.