Tag Archives: Lawrence of Arabia

The Genius of Aircraftsman Shaw

Aircraftsman Shaw – otherwise known as the inimitable TE Lawrence CB DSO

There was a period of time when the RAF was derided as “utterly utterly useless”. At the time I thought this comment, written by a personal acquaintance of mine, was grossly unfair, and nothing has happened to make me change my mind since.

There is a degree of healthy inter-service rivalry, but fair degree that is unhealthy too. We always used to joke in Northern Ireland that one could gauge one’s chances (and service affiliation) of a helicopter lift by the clouds in the sky. Clear blue skies and sunshine would see the RAF, overcast with drizzle would see the light blue call off but the Army would still get through. But come rain or shine, hail or snow, day or night the Navy would be there. We loved to Fly Navy.

Joking aside, my dealings with the RAF, have always been a professional delight. My first serious engagement with the light blue was at the then HQ British Forces Falklands Islands, which I still rate as my most rewarding tour by way of professional development and leeway to learn. At staff college I was impressed by the RAF’s ability to work smart as opposed to nugatorily hard (the army way) and I have always been impressed by their performance both as individuals and as an organisation on operations. That goes for air power as a whole, something that the army tends not to understand particularly well. My most recent deployments have been to the Middle East and the role of air power in the counter ISIL campaign has yet to be fully understood or appreciated.

We in the Army would do well to gain a greater understanding of the other domains in light of the Integrated Operating Concept. That may well also hold true to the other components, but I can only talk from my cheap seats in the Land domain. Not that lack of understanding, inter-service rivalry and misunderstanding are anything new, as this excellent biography of Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris makes clear. There is much to commend in this book, not least in the bibliography which lead me to several equally commendable finds and this little gem on Aircraftman Shaw.

“One of the notorious figures at Cranwell at this time was Aircraftsman Shaw (the legendary Col T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia) whose mind-bending task daily was to sit outside “C” hangar and record the cadets’ flying times. He was, of course, revered by all and sundry in the hutted West Camp, Cranwell. He was a form of Guru to the airmen who frequently took their problems to him, rather like the simple Arab in the desert who treated him as some form of God. Many tales are told of his judgements that hovered between those of Solomon and Sanders of the River. On one occasion the old crone who managed the NAAFI decided that she would have to charge an extra penny for a cup of tea. Now in the early thirties this was too much for the troops to take, so they took their problem to Shaw who then went to the NAAFI and brought all the cups for a penny. When the NAAFI ran out of cups, the old dear was at her wits end and sent for the orderly corporal, who in turn sent for the orderly sergeant. He also realised that this was a situation far beyond his métier and summoned the duty staff officer who arrived resplendent in full ceremonials, pantaloons, highly polished knee-length riding boots, and regulation yellow walking stick, and visited Shaw in his billet and confronted him in a corner, where he held court. After a short and unequal debate, Shaw conceded the surrender of the cups, provided the NAAFI no longer charged a penny deposit on a penny cup of tea, and West Camp, Cranwell, returned to its normal tranquillity.

The other story I recall to mind about this time is that Cranwell in those days must have been the coldest spot south of the Arctic Circle and the ration of coal to fire the single stove in a billet of 22 erks took little account of the temporary hutment. Some genius had laid down that the ration of coal would be 1lb of coal every other day as sufficient to ward of armies of brass monkeys that descended on Cranwell in winter. In even the mildest winter, the situation was desperate enough for those in the workshops to make a form of briquette from any form of rubbish bound by rags – and sometimes wired flex – that would give the slightest measure of heat.

Now the ration per airman, meagre as it may have been, was four times for an officer – ie 4lb every other day. The coal compounds were side by side, and whilst the officers’ compound was generally well filled, I can recall sweeping dust from the airmens’ compound floor to get a wee bit extra for the billet. The Shaw solution to the inequality of the coal ration system was simple: just change the signs on the compounds. A perfect balance system was introduced and there was no complain from the officers’ batmen – well they would not would they?” 

‘Hamish’ The Memoirs of Group Captain TG Mahaddie DSO, DFC, AFC, CZMC, CENG, FRAeS, Ian Allan Ltd, London, 1989.

These two vignettes did more to bring to life Lawrence’s approach to problem solving than any number of books and biographies and I look forward to re-reading the ‘Seven Pillars’ with a renewed appreciation of the man.

The moral of this blog, if there is any, is read widely and think critically. That and Fly Navy!