Talking the talk: RAF lingo of WW2

Join us as we attempt to ‘spill the beans’ on the seemingly impenetrable world of RAF slang. What a ‘wizard’ idea…

“Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how's-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his Sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.”

Got all that? Message received and understood? Probably not, but then coming as it did from the minds of Chapman, Cleese, Idle and Co. this dialogue, lifted word-for-word from a famous Monty Python sketch is a rather extreme example of WW2 RAF speak.

Try this one on for size instead. “Rabbit Leader, this is Cowslip Control. Bandits now twenty miles east of you, heading south-east, vector one-two-zero, and make angels two-o.”

That’s more like it. Anyone with a passion for WW2 movies and pilots’ memoirs will understand those instructions from the 1969 Battle of Britain movie. Rabbit is of course the squadron code name, Cowslip is the fighter controller providing the information and the rest are instructions for the course to (vector) steer and the height (angels) to intercept the enemy. Simple. And, easy to comprehend once you’ve got your head around it.

RAF Operations Room in WW2
"What are your angels? Over." The Control Room at Duxford in 1940

The crazy thing is, we probably use more military slang than many of us realise. For example, have you ever taken a long shot at something?  That’s doing something with only a slim chance of success, but it has its origins in firing a cannon ball at a target some distance away.

Is your food piping hot? You’d know it was if you were aboard a ship as a ‘pipe’ would sound to let you know it was ready to eat.

Each branch of the military has its own unique language and the RAF, especially during the Second World War came up with some fabulously colourful terminology. For example, ‘hitting the silk’ or ‘turning caterpillar’ would be to bail out and use a parachute.

Caterpillar Club membership card
Caterpillar Club membership cards were issued by the Irvin Company

What if you were about to engage the enemy in combat?  'Tally ho’ was purloined from fox hunting and became the signal to start an attack.

You would then ‘Press the tit’ or firing button on the ‘stick’ and give the target  ‘A quick squirt’ / fire a short blast of machine gun fire. If you weren’t sure of having the enemy in your sights you might just ‘poop off’ / open fire optimistically.

No pilot would ‘push their luck’ / risk ‘stooging’ / hanging around on their own in combat area and would ‘pancake’ / land back at base. Victory rolls over the airfield were generally frowned upon as ‘line shooting’ / showing off and the ‘Twerp’ / simple-minded soul responsible would be given a ‘Raspberry’ / telling off by the CO. Assuming that is they didn’t ‘prang the kite’ / crash before getting down. In which case they might have ‘Gone for a Burton’ / died before giving the ‘Gen’ / information / combat report to the Intelligence Officer. Who may be a ‘Penguin’ / someone without wings but doesn’t fly.

19 Squadron pilots relaxing in the crew room
19 Squadron pilots, relaxing in the crew room at Fowlmere, summer 1940

Hopefully you feel a bit more ‘genned up’ and can hold your own with the squadron banter.
In which case, dashed good show old boy.

Think you know your RAF slang? Test yourself here now with our difficult RAF slang quiz