BY the February of 1941, Britain had been at war for almost 18 months, and the strain on the country’s armed forces was greater than ever.
So it was on the fifth of that month, that the Air Training Corps (ATC) was born and King George VI installed as the Air Commodore-in-Chief with the main aim of recruting more young men into the ranks of the Royal Air Force to help defeat Nazi Germany.
And ever since those dark, distant days, the organisation has had a presence in the Borders.
Today there are four units in this region, in Duns, Kelso, St Boswells and Galashiels. However, when the organisation came into being it was not long before the ATC had units in almost every Borders town, including Selkirk, Hawick, Melrose Jedburgh and Peebles.
While records dating from March 1941 show that only 330 (Peebles) Squadron was registered at the time the corps was created, by the 18th of that month it had been joined by 427 Squadron.
Photographs exist which show cadets, thought to be from the Galashiels detachment of 427 Squadron, on parade in Warship Week in November, 1941.
Generally, the lower the squadron number the older the squadron and it would appear from records that individual squadrons were raised in each of the Borders counties, with the original Borders squadrons being numbered 330 (Peeblesshire), 427 (Selkirkshire), 1007 (Berwickshire), 1086 (Roxburghshire) with Galashiels a detachment of 427 Squadron and Newtown a detachment of 1086 Squadron.
At that time squadrons paraded more than 100 cadets from each unit with upwards of 10 staff at each location. Today there are about 25-30 cadets and three to four staff at each squadron.
Squadron numbers were, and still are, a source of much pride among members current and past. The official squadron designation of 1716 was adopted by all units across the Borders on at least one occasion when the need for recruits diminished at the end of the Second World War.
Also 2180 Squadron was, for a time, parent to detached flights in Selkirk and Melrose. In 1951, it is noted that 1716 (Roxburgh) was reorganised into three separate squadrons with 1716 headquartered in Kelso and detached flights continuing at St Boswells and Yetholm.
The detached flights at Jedburgh and Hawick reformed once again as independent squadrons in their own right once as 1086 (Hawick) and 2252 (Jedburgh).
Girls were able to join the ATC from the early 1980s, helping to bring more young people, aged 13-17, together to enjoy everything that life as an air cadet has to offer.
The modern day ATC is one of the largest youth organisations in the UK with 1,000 squadrons scattered across the country, as well as in Germany and Gibraltar.
Frank Wielbo, a flight lieutenant from the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve’s training branch, commands the Galashiels detachment of 2180 Squadron and has had a long family involvement with the the ATC. Frank is supported by his wife, son and daughter who are all squadron staff.
He feels the organisation is still relevant today, although it no longer actively recruits for the RAF.
“Yes, the ATC is still very popular with young people in the Borders, primarily because it is an adventure training-based organisation that gives them opportunities to experience things they might not get to do otherwise,” he told TheSouthern this week. “They also get the opportunity to experience flying.”
He says the organisation has changed in various ways since its inception 70 years ago. “When it was formed, the role of the ATC was to recruit more personnel for the RAF. But that was in the 1940s when country was at war and more people were needed.
“But we always adamantly point out that today, the ATC is no longer an active recruiter for the RAF. We are a discipline-based youth club presided over by the RAF.
“The majority of the cadets go nowhere near the armed services after they leave us and in the last years, I have only had three cadets join the RAF, plus one going to the Royal Marines and one to the army.
“That said, around 50 per cent of the RAF’s current personnel do have experience as air cadets.”
And that experience can include high level sporting success. Cadets from Borders squadrons and their detached flights have been successful at wing and Scottish level, producing national ATC boxing, swimming and aircraft recognition champions, and on several occasions were also highly successful in wing shooting events.
In recent years, 2180 and 1716 Squadrons have gained glory on the rugby sevens circuit and a considerable number of cadets have represented Scotland and Northern Ireland in football, rugby, netball, hockey, swimming, cross-country, athletics and shooting.
Last year, 1716 Squadron was revealed as the top sporting squadron in the Edinburgh Wing and one of its cadets, Flight Sgt Cameron Lauder, wasnominated as the top sporting cadet in Scotland.
No less competitive, a typical present day weekend will probably see some or often all of the Borders squadrons involved in a wide variety of events including flying at RAF Leuchars, gliding at Kirknewton, Duke of Edinburgh Award activities, bag-packing to raise funds for charity or occasionally squadron funds, shooting at Castlelaw or competing in a variety of sports.
This summer cadets and staff will depart to all areas with camps planned at Kinloss, Aldergrove, and Wittering and further afield in Cyprus, Germany and Gibraltar. The more senior cadets are eligible for the International Air Cadet Exchange.
Naturally, flying forms a large part of cadet activities and all cadets are given the opportunity to fly in Grob Tutors at RAF Leuchars and gliders at Kirknewton. Summer camps also bring many air experience opportunities and cadets from the Borders have flown in many RAF aircraft types including Nimrod, Hercules, Puma, Sea King, Gazelle, and King Air and one cadet was allocated a day trip to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and back as supernumerary air crew.
Adult staff such as Frank play a huge paRt in providing activities for the 75 or so air cadets across the Borders on parade nights and at weekends.
Flt Lt Jim Henderson from Newtown St Boswells had been involved with the local Squadron for 30 years as a cadet and squadron officer. Having recently relinquished responsibility for 1716 Squadron, Jim is now sports officer for the whole of Edinburgh and South Scotland Wing and will do the same job in the new South-East Scotland Wing when it goes live on April 1, covering an area from Blairgowrie to the Borders.
Jim is also wing staff officer responsible for the four Borders units and has a roving support role across the whole of the Borders area.
Across in St Boswells, husband and wife team Drew and Jacquie Forsyth run the St Boswells unit and support the Kelso Detached Flight with Plt Off Chris White who is a teacher at Selkirk High School.
A number of other adults who are civilian instructors also support the work of the uniformed staff. All in turn are supported by their squadrons’ respective civilian committees who look after the welfare aspects of the cadets.
Fundraising for charity is another aspect of squadron life – the Galashiels unit in particular raised more than £12,000 in the last five years for the benefit of others including Poppy Scotland and Royal Air Force Association.
The reasons why the ATC was established may well be forgotten to most and the organisation may have developed beyond what was originally envisaged but the spirit of the corps, its motto and aims have changed little over the years.
Asked if he thought the ATC had a secure future looking ahead to the next 70 years, Flt Lt Wielbo said the organisation was always very forward-looking.
“The opportunities will still be there for young people to experience,” he added.
Anyone interested in joining the Air Cadets, becoming involved as an adult or who can add information or provide corrections to the history of the corps in the Borders is invited to get in touch with any of the current squadrons or contact Flt Lt Frank Wielbo RAFVR(T) on firstname.lastname@example.org
Grateful thanks to Flt Lt Wielbo, Plt Off D J Wielbo and Flt LT J Henderson for their help with this article.