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Pilot Officer Percy Prune.

"Prevents that Thinking feeling !" said Tee Emm of itself in the first issue on
 1 stApril, 1941. It did so through its own spokesman, Pilot Officer Percy Prune. As it is 25 years since that first issue appeared to delight the Royal Air Force ... as there will still be many people who will relish a nostalgic recap of the Prune Saga ... and as there may even be some who don't know what we are talking about ... here is a flashback to the days of The Most Highly Derogatory Order of the Irremovable Finger ..

FIRST, let us start at the end (a departure of which Tee Emm would have approved). When Tee Emm produced the final issue in March, 1946 (to be immediately succeeded by Air C/ues, on some-what different lines), over 30,000 copies a month had been printed in the UK alone, plus separate printings in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and India. It was a success.

Why Tee Emm? Merely the initials of Training Memorandum spelt out for Tee Emm was something quite new in official publications. As the first issue explained (yes, we're back at the beginning now!), Tee Emm would provide ". . . an occasional intrusion of light-heartedness into serious subjects ... an occasional unconventionality of treatment . . . an occasional lack of stiffness in the presentation of training and instructional points and information".

Or, as the Editor mentioned later in one of his books," .. it put the jam of read-ability round the powder of valuable information. Painless education, in short." Introduced in the first issue was a certain Pilot Officer Percy Prune,

RAF, (No 89008), the Clueless Clot who stayed throughout the life of Tee Emm to become the most talked-of pilot in the .RAF. While aircrew laughed at his boobs, they were reminded to tighten up their own flying.
But it was Prune's comments on the changing events of wartime flying that guaranteed his fame, linked as they were with those oh-so-apt drawings of him. And the beauty of it all was that his excuses and "blacks" could so often strike home to a real live embarrassed conscience.

AN ECHO
For Prune's "couldn't-care-less" attitudes to flying and operations were often the echo of other's errors. "Landing with the undercart up was just a mistake" explained the doughty Pilot Officer—and many u/t pilots had used that excuse.

 "A good landing is one you can walk away from" was another gem; and we are told that Prune's navigator, Flying Officer Fixe, used to complain that Prune flew so close to the deck over the Channel that he had to stand up to see over the waves,with the pitot head registering fathoms gone instead of IAS.

AN "ACE" SCORE?
He had a good score of "destroyed or damaged" aircraft; unfortunately they were Tiger Moths, Ansons, Wellingtons, Spitfires and Lancs. But Prune always emerged unscathed to boob another day.
The day Prune was, occurred in

P.O. Prune says that guy's been in the Air Force so long he put Wilbur Wright through his I.T.W.
P.O. Prune says that guy's been in the Air Force so long he put Wilbur Wright through his I.T.W.

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the long bar of London's famous Holborn Restaurant, now no longer at the top of Kingsway. Here were Squadron Leader Anthony Arm-strong Willis, OBE, MC (better known in civvy street as "AA" and Anthony Armstrong, author, playwright and contributor to Punch - his thriller "Ten Minute Alibi" was performed all over the world), newly appointed Editor of Tee Emm; staff artist "Bill" Hooper, and Wing Commander L. H. ("Joe") Stewart, who was then in the Signals Training Branch at Air Ministry.
They were planning the launching of Tee Emm, and discussing the Wing Commander's suggestion that the magazine should have a regular character. Here is what Bill Hooper says of the "creation" :
"Whenever the subject of Percy Prune comes up nowadays, and it still does, despite the passage of time, I have to admit that it was not so necessary to create him as to report on him, because his counter-part, to some degree - fortunately small - existed in every unit of the Services. It needed only the genius of Anthony Armstrong to write up the boobs of the RAF 'prunes' in his own inimitable style and for me to portray his doings in cartoon for the character to emerge, so that when he 'resembled any person living or dead' it was by no means 'coincidental' but downright intentional !
"Since the early part of 1940 I had been engaged in a capacity which provided me with almost total obscurity in the South-East, during that stage of the war which comprised long periods of inactivity interrupted by short periods of intense activity - a time which latter-day historians have put neatly between two dates and called the 'Battle of Britain'. "When the squadron on which I served - No 54 (which, incidentally, is 50 years old this month)
 - was posted to the quiet of Catterick for a breather, my Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader 'Doc' Leathart, wrote a humorous book of instruction for fighter pilots; this was ultimately printed on a Restricted basis illustrated with my cartoons. With the title 'Forget-me-Nots for Fighters', it had as its central figure a blob-nosed 'bod' who had no name but which afterwards proved to be Prune in embryo. Anthony Armstrong asked me to come and see him to discuss the, use of a character in his new training manual for aircrew.
"At the long bar of the old 'Holborn', I sat between Willis and an ebullient Wing Commander called Joe Stewart. Pints came as frequently as air raid warnings were sounded - which was very often - and during that lunch hour (?) Joe christened the character 'Pilot Officer Percy Prune', A.A. suggested some classical moral and mental attributes for our brain child, and I provided several beer-stained sheets showing what he should look like. So, in an atmosphere of bombs, beer and general goodwill, Percy Prune was brought into the world."
However, to jump back a bit again, from Wing Commander L. H. Stewart, OBE, RAF (Retd), now living at Cambridge, we learn that he began thinking of the name of "Prune" before that famous "birthday" at Holborn. It was a term then being heard in the Air Force particularly to describe a pilot who had just given a brave and dashing - but very dangerous - display of flying.

His office at the Air Ministry was adjacent to A.A.'s room, and they became friends in the period when the newly-appointed Editor  of Tee Emm was preparing his first issue. A.A. liked the Wing Commander's suggestion of a cartoon character for the magazine, and asked him to try to think of one.
 


Prune only needs fifty square yards to lose himself in.
Prune only needs fifty square yards to lose himself in.

The Wing Commander's son, Group Captain C. L. W. Stewart, CBE, DSO, AFC, at present at the Ministry of Defence, remembers the very occasion when the idea of Prune really crystallised in his father's mind :
"In the winter of the year 1940, I was a Flight Commander at No 6 FTS, Little Rissington, and I recall my father paying me a visit.

During the course of the evening,ensconced. round a blazing log fire in the ante room of the Officers' Mess, and fortified with a jug of mellowed ale, he mentioned the requirement of a monthly magazine for the RAF to explain new operating techniques

 

Prune says it's quite all right, he knows he'll he rescued.
Prune says it's quite all right, he knows he'll he rescued.
 

and new technical equipment then being introduced into the Service - which were becoming more intricate as time went on.
"Essentially the magazine would have to explain dry and involved technicalities in a lucid, readable way which would immediately appeal to the reader and gain his interest.

To help in achieving this, a humorous tone was required if the
 

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magazine was to 'get across' to aircrew and technicians alike. What was wanted was a suitable 'figure', aptly nicknamed, who would fit this theme, and he suggested that this might take the form of a character who was rather dim and vague.
"How should this character be called? Suggestions from the small group of officers around the fire waxed  enthusiastically loud and clear. Such pseudonyms as 'clot', 'dim wit' and 'snooks' were mentioned, and sometime from some-where in the  depths came 'prune'. 'That sounds  very apt', my father said; 'it may be just what we want.'
"It was."


THE MOST HIGHLY DEROGATORY ORDER OF THE IRREMOVABLE FINGER

This Month's Prunery

THE MOST HIGHLY DEROGATORY ORDER OF THE IRREMOVABLE FINGER (Patron : Pilot Officer Prune) has this month been awarded to F/Sgt. --- for Failing to put his Hand Up when Wanting to Leave the Aircraft. F/Sgt....was passenger in the rear of an Oxford which was on a daylight exercise. On completion of a period of instrument flying, at about 3,000 feet, the pilot and instructor looked round and found that they no longer had a passenger.
It turned out later that F/Sgt. , wishing to relieve himself, had opened the door of the aircraft, but instead of carrying on with the exercise had fallen out. He eventually returned to camp by bus with his open parachute tucked underneath his arm.
 
BUT WAS PRUNE?
Prune blossomed as the RAF took to its heart Tee Emm and its easy to-absorb lessons, which Anthony Armstrong wrote up in his own way from the piles of official wordiness. Other characters joined him; they are all shown in one of our illustrations. The Fleet Air Arm wasn't forgotten either, with S/Lt Swingit doing the things at sea that Prune managed so well over land. A.A. fixed up a desk in his office for Prune - his name was on the door and, in fact, within a year he appeared in the official Air Ministry telephone directory at Headquarters.

Of course, Prune was rarely found in - but, as A.A. explains, even more rarely found out. People used to ring him up, or try to see him. To all telephone enquirers A.A. would say that Prune was still not back from lunch - at any time up to 6.30 p.m. And when one indignant lady protested that it was not yet midday, A.A. explained that Prune was not

back yet from lunch the day before. A.A.'s big disappointment, however, was that he couldn't get Prune into the Air Force List.
Yet there were those who refused to believe that Prune could in fact be.

So, to scotch the foul rumour, Tee Emm of January 1942 published the following letter from Prune, with his 'photograph', and duly 'signed' :

December 10th, 1941
RAF Station,
New Heary,
England.

Dear Editor,
I gather that several people seem to have the idea that I am not a real person and that there's a suggestion that you invented me just as an imaginary character to do damn fool things. I take a pretty poor view of this, I may tell you. I was posted here eight months ago and am still fully operational, alive and kicking - in spite of a few unavoidable accidents about which there's no need to go on making those jokes. In any case, I send you my photo to prove I'm me.

Publish it if you like for all the clots who don't believe I exist. P.S. - And now if anyone says I'm not real you can tell them to pull their finger out.

Yet, when Tee Emm was packing up, someone horrified A.A. by suggesting that Tee Emm should at last come clean and confess that Prune did not really exist. (Shades of crashed Spitfires and forced-landed Lancasters! Not exist indeed!) So Anthony Armstrong Willis gave a few facts. And we quote: -

YE HISTORY
Percy Prune, of Ineyne Manor, Prune Parva, Sussex, comes of a very old and illustrious stock, a certain Percivalle de Prun. He fell at the Battle of Hastings. Three times to be precise, on each occasion having got his sword, as usual, between his legs.
The best-known member of the family, however, appears some two hundred years later. He was Sir Percivale de Prunne who was knighted after Crecy. He it was who took as his crest the now famous emblem of an index finger, inflexant, non-movant, with the motto "Semper Inanum".

Then there was Sir Pritchard Proon (1530 - 1592) who, fired by Sir Walter Raleigh's example, once spread a cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth. The fact that he was a trifle short-sighted and that what he took for a puddle was really an open manhole led to his speedy, very speedy, retirement from Court.
Three hundred years later we hear of a Percivall Pruin who fought as a Royalist in the Civil War and had the family characteristics developed to a high degree. Indeed, when King Charles heard that Percivall had taken up arms on his
behalf he at once ex-pressed grave doubts of ultimate victory. A Prune cousin, how-ever, fought on the other side and so evened things out. He was named, after the religious fashion of the day, Praise-him all-ye-works-of the-Lord. P.H.A.Y.W.O.T.L.

 

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Pruin joined Cromwell's Ironsides, was nicknamed "Ironhead", and put in the front of all the charges to soften up the opposition.
Other illustrious Prune ancestors were Captain Percy Prune who served on Marlborough's staff—when he remembered to do so ;

Paul "Beau" Prune, who for many years was a leader of fashion in Bath, but ultimately died in Penury while on holiday there; and Major Pritchard Prune of that famous regiment the Hundred and Eightieth Foot, or "Fighting Drunks".

GRANDFATHER PRUNE
Then there was our Percy's own grandfather, Philip Prune, the well-known racing motorist. He took part in the big race of 1895 from Paris to Bordeaux and back—or rather would have taken part if he'd been able to get his car to start. He was still trying three days later when the winning car returned. In true Prune tradition, from 1900 to 1902, he owned, and succeeded in dam-aging beyond repair, 13 cars. He died in January, 1903, at the age of 43 years and a speed of 35 mph, together with three friends to whom he was giving a lift.


Last but not least, came Percy Prune's father, Peter "Ropey" Prune. He flew in the 1914 - 18 war and in

Ten little air crew boys, bomber types no less, Ditched in the ocean. Oh ! what a mess !
Ten little air crew boys, bomber types no less, Ditched in the ocean. Oh ! what a mess !
One unplugged his intercom, didn't hear a line, Stayed in his turret ; then there were nine.
Nine little air crew boys, one braced himself too late, Banged himself upon a spar ; then there were eight.
Eight little air crew boys, one thought he'd swim to heaven, Dived into the ocean ; then there were seven. Seven little air crew boys, one's harness all amix, Got caught in the escape hatch ; then there were six. Six little air crew boys all glad to be alive,
One overturned the dinghy ; then there were five. Five little air crew boys, to even up the score,
One missed the rescue line ; then there were four. Four little air crew boys gaily floating free,
One we6t and drank salt water ; then there were three. Three little air crew boys beneath a sky of blue, One caught a touch of sun ; then there were two. Two little air crew boys (this tale is nearly done), Couldn't find the wooden plugs ; then there was one. One little air crew boy we're very sad to say,
Didn't wear his Mae West. Tl a corpse turned up to-day. At the subsequent inquiry this tale there was to tell ;
They'd done their job, a beauty, and they'd pranged the target well ; Their dinghy drill, it seemed, alone they hadn't studied ; So all their schemes and hopes and dreams, were well and truly flooded.

Ten little air crew boys, bomber types no less, Ditched in the ocean. Oh ! what a mess !

Failing To Check Position. One Of The 7 Seven Deadly Sins Of RAF Navigators

three months had destroyed 27 aircraft - mostly Bristols and Sopwiths. After his 26th machine was confirmed he was sent home for a rest. His 27th, and final, machine was, of course, the one he flew home in. He only went up once again - shortly before his death. Very shortly indeed, in fact.
And so we come finally to Pilot Officer Percy Prune.
Percy was born, naturally enough, on April 1st, 1922; at Ineyne Manor. At the age of six months, beginning as he meant to go on, he crashed his cradle, and within the next six months had crashed five replacements. As a child in the nursery he was so backward that at one time his parents weren't certain which way he was growing, or going.

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They went so far as to engage a mind specialist; but he soon threw up the job, saying he had nothing to work upon.
Percy, however, did manage to grow up and went to school at St. Finga's, Herts, rising through the following years from "new-bug", via "Upper 111B" to ""blood"". He left suddenly under a 10/10ths cloud, and in 1940 went up to the 'Varsity to Judas College. No sooner had he gone up that he was sent down and then called up.
He was commissioned in the RAF on 1st April, 1941, his birthday, and funnily enough the date of the first issue of Tee Emm.
Since then he has been in Fighter Command, where he accounted for so many Spitfires that he was transferred to Bomber Command where he accounted for so many Lancasters that he was transferred to Transport Command, who wouldn't let him touch a single one of their aircraft, but had him transferred to the Air Ministry, where from sheer force of habit he promptly accounted for the three model aircraft hanging in the office.
And in that office he stayed till his demobilisation. for Prune - 'Aspirant Praline'. A certain pilot, who was the 'unluckiest' we had, remarked to me casually and modestly one day that he had that morning "got a 'Un". I was staggered, but later his Commandant and mine assured me that he had not in fact shot his enemy down in the orthodox fashion but had inadvertently collided with him when returning to Biggin Hill after a fighter sweep.
When I am in the company of young pilots I am asked to tell just what Prune was, and when in the company of hoary old veterans of my own time I am asked what happened to him. So, for the benefit of those who were. perhaps fortunately, too young to have come within the erratic orbit of Prune during their service, and for those who did, I should like to 'say again.'
It was not for achievement that Prune's fame was so widespread. Rather was it for non-achievement, or, more often, for achievement in the wrong direction. He was, in fact, not so much known as notorious.
PERMANENTLY
BONE-HEADED
He was the fool, the poop, the boob, the mug, the mutt, the butt, the clot, the affable dim-wit of the RAF. Fatuously exuberant yet permanently bone-headed, he invariably made a complete muck of everything he set out to do and yet survived to make another. From the ruins of his latest 'prunery', miraculously safe as ever, he contemplated with a hurt and puzzled detachment the incomprehensible eccentricities of a world which was never quite within his grasp; a world in which undercarriages never came down of their own accord and where his
TENDENCY TO COME ALIVE Now Bill Hooper takes up the story again:
So recognisable was Prune as a type - for there is a little of him in all of us - he caught on quickly. As with the monster created by Frankenstein, however, Percy had a tendency to come alive - so much so that we were able to institute the Most Highly Derogatory Order of the Irremovable Finger, of which we made Prune the Patron and, when given written evidence of classic Pruneries occurring within the Allied air forces, we awarded the Order (although the recipient was never named) ; some even got 'joints' to their Order.


One night, in old Adastral House, while I waited for a lift down to ground level, a young officer - who bore a disturbing resemblance to one of my drawings of Prune - approached me to congratulate me on the character. As we got into the lift he remarked, "Of course, nobody could be such a clot !" - He said this as he pressed the wrong button, with the consequence that we were trapped between the sixth and seventh floors during an air raid along with a near-apoplectic Group Captain and an hysterically giggling WAAF.

Another example of true Prunery occurred when I was seconded to a Free French Squadron where I created a Gallic opposite number

Prune and his "accomplices" Flying Officer Fixe, Sergeant Straddle, Sergeant Winde, Sergeant Backtune, WAAF Winsum (who later became Mrs Prune) and, of course, Binder, his dog.
VEE EMM DAY
Prune and his "accomplices" Flying Officer Fixe, Sergeant Straddle, Sergeant Winde, Sergeant Backtune, WAAF Winsum (who later became Mrs Prune) and, of course, Binder, his dog.

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famous finger unerringly found its way to the wrong knob, at the wrong time - and he never under-stood why. Prune was willing but wet, dutiful but dumb; he was one in a thousand, nay, rather one in a million - which was just as well for the Allies, and for the Royal Air Force in particular.
'Battle fatigue' was a phrase unknown until we heard about it from the Americans, but it is known that at least one of Percy's flying instructors went out of the Service with something like it.
He would taxy out of the dispersal in the dawn light only to find that his path along the perimeter track was barred by a line of barrels on which some planks rested. Not wishing to "worry Flying Control" with his R/T he had the planks and barrels removed by some passing Aircraft-men on their way to breakfast. After this, he taxied on and down into a large bomb crater which the barrels and planks had been marking.
On his CO's mat for ripping through some telephone wires he explained that he had had to "fly fairly low to avoid strong winds at higher altitudes".
 

SOME RAF SAYINGS
Remarks that get one expelled from the Navigators' Union

If we just steer west, we ought to get home ...
I'm sorry, I forgot to apply variation ...
I never compute true air-speed; I always make sure the indicator is properly calibrated .. .
I never calibrate the indicator, I always compute in the air .. .
I must have given you the ground speed instead of the compass course .. . The wireless seems to have packed up; we'll have to use navigation .. . I must have read off the reverse .. .
But you never told me you had altered course .. .
These isogonals run N.E.-S.W., yet the variation is westerly ...
I forgot to re-set the atmospheric pressure before coming down .. . That spot height must have been metres: I thought it was feet . . . It did look a bit big for Malta ...

Remarks that get,one expelled from the
Air Gunners' Union

You never see anything on these trips, so I always take a book into the turret ...
Training ? No, you see, I'm at an operational squadron now . . How was I to know there was anything wrong with the
turret: the D.I's always done by the armourer .. .
I never make a testing burst we have to clean our own
guns...
I couldn't tell the range, as it was a Condor and we'd only practised with 109's and 110's ...
Well, you see, nobody knew what it was, as we were all having our sandwiches at the time ...
We'd already sighted the coast, so I wasn't in the turret at the time .
I didn't bother much about it, as it had RAF markings on it...


After a hasty posting to Scotland he was sent on a navigational detail to the Midlands, but on the way was ordered to return to base and to "come via Stratford" to avoid deteriorating weather at Liverpool. He absorbed the first part of the message and started back, but within 10 minutes of his Scottish base he remembered the last part and dutifully returned 200-odd miles so that he could "come back via Stratford". Of course, he ran out of

fuel and forced-landed in a turnip field. His CO got him posted by means of a forged letter for a course at the School of Air Support (before the squadron ran out of aircraft). From here, on a low-level strafing exercise, he started for a West Country airfield but his navigation was so bad that he was soon reported flying over a dummy airfield

in Occupied France - to be precise at St. Praline de Prangue. He was returned by courtesy of Air/Sea Rescue three days later. Facing his Commanding Officer and expecting commendation for his display of enterprise and individual initiative in strafing the enemy 'drome, he was patiently informed that it was in fact a dummy 'drome - to which Prune replied that it "had been done with only dummy bombs".
Prune was a master of the line-shoot. After one raid, he said that the flak was so heavy over target that, just for a lark, "I selected wheels down and made a temporary landing on it".
His excuse after an "incident" - which involved a Miles Magister, an ambulance, a grounded Typhoon, two starter trollies, three rather aged Aircraftmen and an Intelligence Officer who afterwards entered a mental home - was that his compass "must have been out".

THE IRON CROSS
I still cherish a document discovered among the files of the
 

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Luftwaffe which, when Berlin was occupied, came into my hands. The paper is headed with a swastika and eagle and bears the facsimile signature of Der Reichsminister Der Luftfahrt Und Oberbefehlshaber Der Luftwaffe - Hermann Goering. It is a recommendation that, in view of the number of Allied aircraft he had destroyed, "Pilot Officer Percy Prune" be awarded the Iron Cross !
PRUNE TODAY
To bring his contemporaries up to date, I should add that someone suggested to Prune that since such outstanding ability to do the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the wrong way, could not have been achieved in Prune's life alone; that heredity had played its part and that generations of Prunes had lived, boobed and died before the sum total of their cosmic ineptitude could be concentrated into one single human frame; that he, Percy, should embark on a chronicle of his ancestry - from which we have already quoted.
 

PRUNE TODAY

So, shortly after the out-break of Peace, he retired to Prune Parva, where the family have, as he puts it, "held manurial rights from time immoral", there to "write up" the family which must have been responsible for every major disaster in history - no doubt starting with the burning of Rome.
He sometimes surfaces to attend reunions - but invariably gets his dates wrong and attends reunions with Squadrons, Commands, and even Services he had nothing to do with during the war.
He describes his recreations as motoring and walking. The first he does to the peril of every other road user and the latter he does at constant peril to himself. He is well-known at the County Court and in various 'Out-Patient' departments of county hospitals. Recently he was awarded a complimentary season ticket for the local ambulance service. Percy is assisted in his search of the family archives by his son Peter "Ropey"
Prune who served for a short, very short, time in the peace-time Royal Air Force. Unfortunately, at an air display he destroyed two tea marquees, several cars in a park, and a beer tent, when he success-fully selected "rockets" instead of "drop tanks" - and this at the wrong moment.

FINALE
However, Prune was not all of Tee Emm. By far the greater part of the magazine consisted of easy-toassimilate lessons on wartime flying, plenty of good, solid 'gen' offered with a leavening of Armstrong's wit. New equipment was explained, the importance of using navigational aids was stressed, and hints on survival in hot and cold countries were supplied.

But we won't bore you with details of these now, suffice to say that many a prospective 'Prune' is alive now because he read Tee Emm.

So Air Clues took over from Tee Emm, and - amidst many a tear - Prune was regretfully retired. The 'Prune' team were rejoining the ranks of the civilians, so he couldn't have continued without them! Anthony Armstrong Willis went back to his country home to write more books; Bill Hooper's new characters can be seen in news-papers, magazines and on TV. Both were delighted to contribute to re-telling Prune's story.

P.S. - You may be wondering why we waited to include this feature in the May issue, when the anniversary is of the birth of Tee Emm in April, 1941. Well, Prune was always late
...