Richard (Dick) Whittingham spent all his working life at de Havilland, starting as an apprentice in 1935 and finishing up as a senior production engineer. He retired in 1985, having spent 50 years with the company. Dick’s wartime diaries, adapted by his nephew Roger Coasby, have been serialised previously on this site, and you can read the previous instalments here. This is the second and final part of the postscript to those diaries, covering the period from the latter part of the war to Dick’s retirement.
(Transcribed from audio)
Planes and music
I see in my diary on the 16th February in 1944 we had to wheel out the prototype (Vampire) for a demonstration but we didn’t know who it was for and when we get outside Captain de Havilland, he was Captain de Havilland then, Sir Geoffrey, he was out there and he said “It’s a very important gentleman,” he said, “who we are doing this demo for. I’ve told him that our engines start up first time” and I said “Well I’m afraid they don’t, probably only 2 out of 3 times they start first time”, and what we didn’t know was that the gentleman that he wanted the demo done for was Frank Whittle.
Anyway there was an apprentice from the engine company that I had known in earlier years previously and he said to Sir Geoffrey “Leave it to us, we’ll see what we can do.” Anyway Sir Geoffrey went back and stood alongside Whittle and there was quite a crowd of people there. I said to this lad – lad, he was about my age – I said “How are you going to do it?” He said “Well, we’ll slacken off the igniter plug so we can get it out quickly”, because we always used to start the engines up with the cowling undone in case they caught fire, which they did often, so he said “I’ll show you what to do. You stick here with me and we’ll get it started”. Well Geoffrey (de Havilland Jr) got in and he started the engine up and it was a sort of automatic process and after so many seconds you could tell if it hadn’t started by then it wasn’t going to start and when it reached this time limit both myself and my partner realised it wasn’t going to start and he unscrewed this igniter plug out by hand and gave me the plug to hold and the plug lead, he got a polo lighter out of his pocket, lit it and pushed it through the hole, the plug hole, and there was a whoosh as the engine started and to start off the flame shot out of this plug hole and it took all the hairs off the back of his hand and then when the engine caught there was another whoosh and the flames sucked back in the plug hole and when it did he said “Screw the plug back in” and we screwed it back in and he’d got a spanner in his pocket, tightened it up, put the plug lead back on and we put the engine covers back and that was it.
Geoffrey taxied over to the aerodrome from the hangar. He took off and flew around and there was some … spray or vapour coming out of the port wing. I had a pretty good idea what it was anyway. Geoffrey didn’t do the demo, he landed quite a couple of hundred yards away from the crowd and as I was running over to see what I could do for him I passed his father – Sir Geoffrey – Sir Geoffrey just beckoned to me and said “I know you’re going to do your best but” he said “don’t do anything that in anyway puts the safety of my son — puts my son at any risk.” So I went over there and I could see the vapour was coming out of the fuel cap cover and I got a coin and undid the cover and I looked at the fuel cap and it was quite tight but what had happened when they’d filled it they slopped some fuel round the sides of it so I reckoned that’s what was being sucked out and I got a handkerchief out of my pocket and I mopped it all up, put the covers back on and quickly told Geoffrey that everything was alright and ran back. As I went past Sir Geoffrey he thanked me again. Once again it shows what a gentleman the man was.
At this time I was still playing in the evenings with Sid Rumbelow and his orchestra and I remember one of the engagements we had was the opening night of the Parkway Restaurant, the beautiful restaurant that’s in Welwyn Stores – now of course John Lewis and not used as a dance hall. We played at Ware drill hall, Hertfordshire Shire Hall, the Ballito Social Club in Fleetville St. Albans, which of course is no more.
About this time I got my — the war in Europe was over and I got my calling up papers and I joined the RAF. I went abroad to Egypt, I was in the canal zone in Egypt and then I went out to Aden and finally came back to de Havilland’s in 1948. When I rejoined the company they were just starting to build the Comet. I rejoined the company as an inspector as indeed I’d been when I left and I spent some time inspecting the Comet fuselages and later on inspecting the Comet final assemblies. I eventually left inspection and joined the production engineering department as a shop engineer or trouble shooter. This was most interesting work but it did seem to be an anticlimax after my experiences during the war years.
When I came back out of the forces I continued my musical career again. I played with a family band in Welwyn Garden City called Maisie’s Orchestra and they played mainly at the Cherry Tree every Saturday evening. It was a very very popular dance indeed. Of course the Cherry Tree dance hall is no more, it’s Waitrose and I believe soon to become something else, so that’s disappeared. I left Maisie’s Orchestra and joined a little modern group in Welwyn Garden called the Nite Hawks and eventually I took over the band – it was just a six piece band – it became very very successful indeed. We not only played at the Cherry Tree most Saturday nights but we also played at the Parkway restaurant also St. Albans Town Hall which of course again is no more as far as a dance venue is concerned. That was during the Teddy Boy era. We had a lot of fights in the Cherry Tree that we saw, the Community Centre also in the Garden City we also played and eventually we got very well known and we played at the Waldorf in London and also the Cafe de Paris in Leicester Square. The problem was that, if it was a problem, really we were a victim of our own success and we got so popular that we had to turn down a lot of work up in London because of our day jobs. It just got too much, we got really more work than we could deal with.
Back at work, de Havillands – it was now Hawker Siddeleys having been taken over, we were then building the Trident. One interesting period during the building of the Trident was when we sold quite a few Tridents to China and we had some Chinese engineers – a team of Chinese engineers came over for a spell and I was delegated to look after them, that was quite an experience for me as well as for them. When they first arrived at Hatfield in a coach the first thing they saw was the car park with all the workers’ cars there and they said “do you make cars as well as aeroplanes?” They just couldn’t believe that the cars were owned by the workers.
At that time I joined yet another band, this time it was quite a big band. It was very popular in the big band venues round here such as the Watford Town Hall, Wembley Town Hall which became Brent Town Hall, Hornsey Town Hall but there again at Watford Town Hall there’s no ballroom dancing and it is a shame. With this particular band I always remember we had an engagement once at the Savoy Hotel in London which was quite a big thing for us. When I arrived there I found out where the entrance for the band was: it was alongside the Thames. There was a great big commissionaire there looking very imposing. I told him that I was in the band and I was going to be playing dinner music on my own to start off with and where could I leave the car and where was the entrance that I could get into the hall. He said “Can you play Moonlight and Roses?” I don’t think I’d played it for years and I said “Oh yes, I play it all the time.” So he said “Right, you park your car there where it says no parking and then go through that door where it says no entry, you’ll be alright.” The drummer and myself went in there, got up on the stage and I looked at the piano that I realised Carol Gibbons must have played on years ago, and he was one of my idols, and I thought I’m going to be playing on one of his pianos at last, and as I sat down to start playing dinner music the drummer said “What are you going to start with?” and I said “Don’t be a fool it’s going to be Moonlight and Roses.” So we started off “Moonlight and Roses” and as I got halfway through it, the door at the end of the hall opened and the commissionaire, his arm came through and he stuck his thumb up in the air.
In 1978 we started building the 146 airliner at Hatfield and it was decided that the wings were to be built at Nashville in the States. I was sent there as production co-ordinator and given a pile of drawings and told come back when you’ve built the first wing. It took two years. My wife went out with me and we stayed out there for a couple of years. It certainly was an experience. The workforce composed mainly of smallholders and farmers who came to work in pick-up trucks and the firm closed down for two weeks each summer to allow the workers to get their harvest in and when the harvest was in, and they negotiated their new contract for the next twelve months, back they came to work. They were as fascinated with our English accent as we were with theirs. We soon fell into their way of talking. They used to (say) – if something didn’t fit part of the aeroplane, they said “Oh we’ll just stomp it into shape”, and at the end of a production meeting they would say “Right, keep trucking down the pike”. There was a black man who saw me continually walking round the shops to see how the job was going, he said “You sure are the most walkingest man that ah ever did see.” It was different, but we were glad to get back home again.
I came back from the States in 1980 and I was made Manufacturing Methods Manager at the factory and was made responsible for product improvement because then the whole accent seemed to be on cutting costs rather than anything else. I eventually retired in 1985 having served 50 years with the company. Most people when they hear that you worked with one company for fifty years they apt to think that you did the same job throughout your period of service and I can only say that in my case that that was certainly not the way that things turned out and I consider myself very fortunate to have joined the company soon after they moved to Hatfield and to have left before sadly they had to close down.
Although my days of making aeroplanes are long over I still keep the music going and I’ve taken on the responsibility of organising and running and conducting a big band that is composed of retired musicians like myself, music teachers, ex- professionals and it’s a big band and we meet every Monday for a rehearsal and I write and arrange music for them and we give a concert for the public once a month. However, all good things come to an end and after nine years of fronting the band I finally gave up my post of musical director at a farewell concert in December 2003.
In memory of Richard (Dick) Leo Whittingham (Jan 1920 – Apr 2010), who, at the age of 88 years, learned to use a computer, enabling us to share some of his fascinating history. Dick was involved right at the centre of the action throughout the middle of the twentieth century: arguably the most important era in British aviation history.
Roger Coasby is a member of the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association. You can find out more about the DHAeTSA, which has over 500 members, on our Affiliates page here.
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