Hand & Thunderbolt Badge

This was taken from the RAF Historical Society Journal No 50. It is a interesting history of the siggies badge.

by Wg Cdr Jeff Jefford
Often referred to in later years as the ' handful of sparks' or simply the 'sparks' badge, the insignia still worn today by selected airmen is one of only two RAF 'trade' badges that have been authorised for use continuously since the formation of the Service on I April 1918, the other being the pilots 'wings' . Despite, or perhaps because of, its antiquity, however, the origins of this venerable emblem are somewhat obscure.

During WW I most RFC personnel on active service in France were stationed on airfields, typically located ten or fifteen miles behind the lines. There, beyond the occasional air raid, they lived in conditions of relative security and comfort that were a world away from the circumstances being endured by their less fortunate colleagues in, or in the vicinity of, the trenches. Aircrew were at risk, of course, but only for the relatively short periods while they were actually flying. There was, however, one group of RFC men who were frequently in harm s way - the wireless operators.

Radio technology was in its infancy in 19 14-18 and consisted, forthe• most part, in air-to-ground-only transmissions using Morse in connection with artillery co-operation. Aircrew were trained to work
at no more than eight words per minute and they were not required to send complex messages. Most of the instructions that they needed to pass to the ground were very succinct, consisting of single letters or two- or three-letter groups drawn from a universally understood code. Messages for the crew were sent via ground signals, the early use of pyrotechnics soon being superseded by 'panels' -strips of white cloth laid out on the ground to create patterns which had predetermined meanings.

The men who laid out the ground signals and worked the radio receivers were RFC wireless operators who were attached to the battery with which their squadron was working. That meant that they were deployed forward in a high risk zone where they could become involved in an artillery duel in which they found themselves playing the role of the target.

In recognition of this, in January 19 17, Lt Col Lionel Charlton, then or the Air Organisation staff at the War Office, minuted the Quartermaster General to point out that these men had to perfollll
'work which requires great skill and great personal responsibility, often under conditions which are very trying and dangerous.' He argued that this warranted a badge that would distinguish these men from the 'ordinary air mechanic who is seldom called upon to face [such] hardships and dangers' and submitted a possible design for consideration The initial response was guarded, as there were a number of other applications for special badges in the mill and an ingrained conservatism meant that there was a reluctance to sanction too many, apart from the practical issue of the cost of materials and manufacture.

Nevertheless, Charlton was authorised to pursue his case and the sketch of Badge A (see Figure I) , which, it was proposed, 'should be worn on the right arm' was despatched to HQ RFC whose views were sought. The question was mulled over for several months, during which the design was extensively revised and refined, resulting in several alternative options. In June Maj D Powell wrote to HQ RFC to announce that 'sanction has now been given' for wireless operators to wear a special badge.' The selected design was Badge D and HQ RFC was invited to submit suitable samples of fabric and colours.

Several examples were produced in different colours and these are still on file in the National Archives at Kew but accompanying documentary evidence suggests that the preferred option would have been a blue 'W' with the lightning flashes and circular border in yellow on a khaki ground.
This badge evidently fell out of favour and the next stage was a design featuring a single lightning flash crossed with a propeller which was submitted by HQ Administrative Wing at Farnborough in September 19 17. No further action appears to have been taken until early 1918 when HQ RFC requested a progress report on its badge, Maj Powell responded to the effect that, as yet, ' no sanction has been given in this matter. , HQ RFC promptly pointed out that sanction had already been granted, in the previous June, and asked whether the badges were actually going to be made available. On 26 February an Org Staff minute explained that it had been decided to postpone the introduction of the badge until the 'new Air Force' had been formed and, since this was now imminent, it went on to invite the Comptroller General of Equipment to ' decide which badge shall be adopted.'

.Two days later it was announced that the badge would be 'a grasped thunderbolt in red silk on a black ground' which was to be worn immediately under the ' bird ' on each arm by all wireless mechanics and operators' In the event, since the eventual badge actually featured three thunderbolts, it might be seen as a reversion toa simplified version of the original design for Badge A. newly authorised light blue uniform, implying that. in conformity with other badges, the emblem would now also be manufactured in pale blue embroidery on a dark blue ground. So the badge bad now been officially authorised, twice, but that is not to ay, ilf course, that there actually were any available to be worn - in either colour.

As with a number of other regulations laid down for the ready RAF, both or these Orders contained errors which had to be corrected in arrears. In this instance, it will be recalled that the original case for aspecial badge had been submitted on behalf of the wireless operators, who were liable to be deployed forward, and specifically not the mechanics who worked in the relative safety of an airfield. This was eventually put right on 19 September when AMWO 1066 directed that the ' Hand and Thunderbolt' badge was, in future, to be referred to as the ' Badge, Wireless Operators' and that it was to be worn only by wireless operators. The sting in the tail was that the Order went on to say that supplies of the badge in the red silk applicable to khaki uniform (still the only viable option at the time), would be available 'shortly' and that indents should not be submitted until instructions to do so had been issued. The fighting stopped a little over seven weeks later so it appears quite possible that some men may still not have been able to put up their badges before the Armistice. Furthermore, when the badges did become available they were in red silk on khaki,
like all other RAF badges of the period, and not the black that had originally been specified by the Ministry.

There is, incidentally, evidence, in the form of examples in brass, of another badge allegedly dating from the WW I period, similar to the ' hand and thunderbolt' but with the hand replaced by an '0', but these nwere illicit as official authority for their introduction is lacking (and they may actually be of a much later date).

Retained by the peacetime RAF, but worn only on the right sleeve from (probably) 1934 onwards, the hand and thunderbolt remained in use for both 'straight' wireless operators and dual-qualified wireless operator mechanics until 1938 when the new trade of the wireless and electrical mechanic was added, the common theme being a facility with Morse at, at least, 18 words per minute. The badge's exclusivity began to break down in 1940 when radio operators and radio mechanics, for whom Morse was not an essential prerequisite, were
also authorised to wear it - at tbe time 'radio' implied what later became 'radar,6 In 1951 it was redesignated to become the telecommunications badge and it remains in use today, still being
worn on the right sleeve, by airmen of TG I (Avionics) and TG$ 4(Systems Engineers).
I TNA AIRJl/8 181204/4J1303. Minute dated 10.lanuary 191 7.
Ibid. Letter 20/FlyingiCorp sl132 (0.3) dated 19 June 19 17.
Ibid Letter 20/FlyingiCorpsll32 (0.3) dated 19 February 1918.
Ibid. Letter 20/Flying Corpsl132 dated 28 February 19 18
, AMO A. 799J1 940 of24 October.
6 Radar (Radio Direction And Range) was an American acronym coined in 1940
which did not begin to enter the RAF's informal lexicon until 1942 and was not
formally adopted until late 1943 when the term 'RDF' was finally abandoned in favour for 'radar' all the authority of AMO A.86311943 of 2 September, although the
associated ' Radiolocation' was not formally discontinued until as late as 25 January
1945 (by AMO A.80/ 1945) .