World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                      Ted Gordon

Ted Gordon's Life in the RAF -Part 1: Chapters 1 to 7

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Ted Gordon,F/Lt C. E. Holstrom, F/O Whittaker, Ray Dickinson, Squadron Leader Pennick, Leader Turrell
Location of story: East End of Sheffield, Lords Cricket Ground London, St Johns' Wood, Brighton, Ludlow in Shropshire, Scarborough College, North Wales
Unit name: 367 Squadron Air Training Corps
Background to story: Royal Air Force

 


Ted Gordon's Life in the RAF

CHAPTER 1

INSPIRATION

This story was inspired, and started, by having a pleasant afternoon watching a repeat of the film "The Dam Busters" and the 40th Anniversary of this event, which took place at the Derwent Dams on the outskirts of Sheffield the following day.

To go there was impractical for medical reasons, but my wife and I did see one of the Red Arrows pass over our house, doing a reconnaissance run. Later, the visiting Tornado of 617 Squadron passed over and, by mid afternoon, we were rewarded by watching the last remaining Lancaster, "City of Lincoln", going to make his awaited debut for a crowd of some 80,000 people at the Dams, where the crews had learned their skills for this epic raid.

The morning of this event was broadcast on Radio Sheffield, and it was my privilege to pay tribute to the people who kept them in the air. The unsung heroes: the WAAFS, who packed the parachutes, drove crew coaches, and many other duties; the airmen who maintained the engines, air frames, wireless; the air avnouse who looked at turrets and bomb bays. Truly heroes, who waited in home made huts for your return, and wished "God Speed" on operational nights.

Wishing to understand the problems of this raid, some days later we visited the Dam, and it was only then, standing at the back of the Dam wall, did we appreciate the problem, its cause, and its effect.

This story is a personal account of the desire to fly, and a tribute to the many people who helped us on the way. The people of the Air Training Corps, the University Air Squadron before we entered the service, our instructors and officers at ITW's, Gunnery School, Operational Training Unit, and Heavy Conversion Unit; but, most of all, to my fellow Air Gunners, with whom I lived and worked, and unfortunately never saw again, being posted as missing presumed killed in too many cases. For indeed the price eventually paid by fliers was 55,000 killed (which represents 67% of the RAF casualties or 12% of Britain's total service and civilian casualties).

Even today, many years on, the sound of a jet aircraft still draws me like a magnet. Of all the aircraft ,I have flown, the Bristol Britannia was the most enjoyable, having at that time broken the record from Basle, Switzerland to Heathrow, England.

It was not until we landed, that the Captain advised us of this.

CHAPTER 2
EARLY DAYS AT SCHOOL

Living in a village in the East End of Sheffield, life was hard in the 1930's, and there were more than a few "tatty arse" kids. The Council school which we attended had some good teachers, we were not all saints, and the cane and punishment book were often in evidence; nevertheless the hard schooling we went through did us no harm. Leaving school at fourteen years old was not uncommon, so, like me, if you were not so bright, you just had to go to night school and make up for lost time, and work that much harder if you wished to succeed.

Other lads who went to this school also became flyers, and in total there were ten, of which three were commissioned. Sadly, we lost three, one killed and buried in Yugoslavia, shot down after delivering supplies to the partisans; another died in a glider towing accident with a Stirling, the third was a mystery of how he perished.

Aeroplanes were always my first love and, even whilst still at school, I knew most of the ones then flying, but living in the Steel City you were destined to be involved with this metal in some way or other. For me initially it was the rolling of this material, rounds, square, hexagons, flats of various lengths; in mild steel, and stainless; using tongs and hooks to process the billets. It was hot, tough labour, but the team spirit was great. Danger lurked for the unwary, particularly with stainless. I saw a man killed with a rod through his body with stainless steel.

One day the steel got me on the right arm, so they found me an office job, thus allowing me to go to night school.

CHAPTER 3
ENCOURAGEMENT THE START: 1936

To fly to many aircrew was brought on by the expediency of World War II, but for me it was just an advancement of an earlier desire. Many young boys of my age wanted to be engine drivers, bus drivers, and so on, but seeing Alan Cobham's flying circus at Coal Aston near Gleadless really started me off. The second incident was a dream I had of having feathered wings like those of a bird and flying down Droppingwell Road, to land on what was Arthur Lee's Football Field.

This must have been coincidence, for my father worked in the Fitting Shop of this company, and it was my duty to take his dinner every weekday in the old square basket. I was then thirteen years old, and met by accident a man who further interested, me in flying. Being inquisitive as most lads are, I was looking in a railway wagon, at what looked like scrap strip wire, until this gentleman told me it was part of the remains of the R101 Airship which had crashed some months earlier.

My interest was even more aroused and then he revealed who he was, the General Manager of Arthur Lee & Sons, Colonel Sadler, and an ex pilot of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. After this we walked regularly, down the drive, and he initially taught me much about flying, its thrill, but more so its dangers, for these were days when parachutes were unheard of. He offered to get me into the Air League of the British Empire, but none existed in this part of England, so that was out. He was a kindly, quiet spoken man, a man of leadership and determination, and many years later I understood why he was the General Manager.

You have to remember that these were the days of the DH2, FE2B, Sopwith Pup and Camel, flimsy aeroplanes, and he was a pioneer of what we all today accept as the Royal Air Force, but borne out of the foresight of such men as Lord Trenchard and others.

After these talks I always wanted to go to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, but I never did; the only way, I saw it was from the air, and this was some years later.

CHAPTER 4
ENCOURAGEMENT VOLUNTEERING AND ACCEPTANCE

One is reminded of an era which one can never forget, however hard one tries, for this period in one's life was inevitable: You had to go into the Forces unless you were a conscientious objector or totally unfit. For many you did not have the choice, but for some "volunteers" you had the choice, and this was the case for all the Royal Air Force aircrews. In the earliest days these crews came from the University Air Squadrons, in the feeders for the Battle of Britain squadrons. Later on, with the inauguration in 1941 of the Air Training Corps, led by the leaders of industry, this became the feeder ground for volunteers for Bomber Command, Coastal Command, and other duties where flying was involved.

Having volunteered, the aircrew tests and Board were formidable. Medicals were of the highest standard of any of the Armed Forces, and far more failed these tests than were accepted. It was said that U/T Aircrew were the cream of the nation's young men, and in all honesty I think this was true for at my selection board there were twenty of us, and after
three days there were only three. In fact, prior to my board I had tried to join the Fleet Air Arm, but was turned down due to enlarged tonsils, which were eventually removed at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Had these not been removed, I would have failed the Royal Air Force medical and would not have been writing this story today.

In these days, being a member of the Air Training Corps was an advantage, for other than this the Air League of the British Empire was the only organisation for youth, and only operated in some parts of the country. Being an NCO added further to your chances.

Once accepted, you started the hard grind towards flying, and the Air Force motto "Per Ardua ad Astra" is well known, and had to be tackled. In my case, I was accepted into 367 Squadron Air Training Corps located at the City Grammar School in Sheffield, our Commanding Officer was F/Lt C. E. Holstrom, Managing Director of Firth Vickers Ltd, and our Flight Commander F/O Whittaker, an ex RFC pilot, who later took over the squadron. Some years later I had lunch with my old C.O, toured the works with him as a commissioned officer, and thanked him for his help.

Ray Dickinson was the Sergeant, and I his Corporal; many years later my daughter Fiona became a Corporal in the same squadron and I often wonder if it is unique.

CHAPTER 5
CALLED UP!

When your papers arrived, the first port of call was the Lords Cricket Ground London, the assembly point; from here you went to large blocks of flats, which had been requisitioned for housing. In my case it was St Johns' Wood, a relatively quiet area, which became a seething mass of humanity all determined to be flyers in some capacity or other.

Here you were kitted out and given the white flash for your forage, cap, which distinguished you as U/T Aircrew, a honour which many regarded with some degree of snobbishness.

The people you met came from all sections of society, and places, English, Welsh and Scots were predominant in our group, and ages varied from the youngest at 171/4 to 32, the oldest, a11 of whom had ambitions to be pilots, and this is today still the ambition of most lads who want to join the Royal Air Force.

The next stage was splitting into flights within squadrons, and here you got a taste of what was to follow; you met your first Corporal, then the Sergeant, and then your Flight Commander, usually a F/O.

The rudiments of square bashing became an everyday occurrence; to some this was abhorrent, to the ex ATC lads, easy meat.

Suddenly, one day, your name was called to report to the Medical officer, for what you did not know, but soon realised when he proceeded to produce hypodermic needles to give you jabs for -tetanus and other ailments. The effects were surprising; you could be standing on parade and suddenly bodies in some numbers would collapse to the ground, only to be carried to their beds. Others would not get on parade, and were left to sleep the effects off and, in one case, he slept twenty-lour hours, and then arose, as fit as a fiddle, not realising he had lost a day. Not to be affected in some way or another was a rarity.

The cadets who had been manual workers were described as "tough buggers" by the medic teams, who must have got fed up with punching needles into arms of various shades of white to brown, especially when the needles were getting a little blunt.

Now kitted out, and medicals finished, the next port of call was to a holding unit. Brighton on the South coast was destination for the majority, and the Grand Hotel housed many, as did the other hotels on the sea front. The beaches were swathed in coils of barbed wire, patrolled by the Army, and of no use for sun bathing or other forms of relaxation, for this was the front line.

Here teamwork was established, and the main basis was drill. Once again, the Corporals did the bulk of the work, and the main object of this was to produce the best squad of the intake and win the team prize. The Corporals who were the best at man management usually produced the winning team, but during the time I spent there the winning team turned out to be a squad of fliers, who had been sent to Brighton for committing various breaches of discipline. Most senior NCOs, but some officers were included, they were very good and deserved the honour.

To watch and listen to a squad of thirty doing drill with only one click for each movement, is indeed quite a feat.

Lord Formoy, the Commanding Officer, presented the prize on this occasion and all the cadets watching gave this squad thunderous applause.

Little did we realise just how important this discipline and co-operation would be in time to come, but in hindsight it was a vital and important factor for teamwork.

CHAPTER 6
LUDLOW HOLDING UNIT
With the war machine now fully grinding, having recovered from the Dunkirk fiasco, and success in the air with the Battle of Britain, events stepped up a pace, and we were despatched from the comparative luxury of Brighton to a tented unit in the lovely area of Ludlow in Shropshire, a delightful country area, quiet, peaceful and, thank goodness, it was early Summer, for the rains never came. This was the time you relaxed and indulged mainly in organised sport, for our Flight Commander was Squadron Leader Pennick, the famous golfer.

Here, a football inter-country, rivalry was always prevalent and, having a Scots name, I was picked for the Scottish Team. We played ''thirteen games and never lost one. The prize for the winners' team was tea and wads from the NAAFI.

Football was played nearly every day, not in boots, but in gym slippers, with the old leather balls; Lord knows what the present day players would say if they played or practised with this equipment, for if someone played a practical joke and wetted the ball, it weighed a ton and the lacing on the ball could leave you with nasty bruises if you were that unfortunate. The atmosphere was carefree and happy, some were homesick and worried about their folks at home, but the majority had by now accepted their chosen lot, and eagerly looked forward to the next stage. For all it was back to the classroom.

CHAPTER 7
Initial Training Wings

Scarborough, Bridlington, Aberystwyth, North Wales, were some of the places where the Initial Training Wings (ITWs) were located and where you went was just potluck.

When postings came, it was just one mad rush to see where you would go on the posting board. For me I was lucky, it was Scarborough College, thus remaining in my native Yorkshire.

Our C.O. at Scarborough was Squadron Leader Turrell, a most charming man, and respected by all, the right man for the right job, a man who I was to have dinner with some time later; his house overlooked the first fairway at Scarborough Golf Club.

Here for the first time we met some Belgian trainees, how they got here revealed many fascinating stories of escape, for their war started before we met. Some said nothing, being often too painful to remember.

The only incident of note was being awakened by artillery fire and -the remains of a Heinkel float plane washed up on the beach next morning.

Here the work really started, doing Air Force Law, Signals, Navigation, Meteorology, and other subjects, and if you failed in any subjects that was the end of your chance to become a pilot, but not the chance to fly in other capacities, as Navigator, Bomb Aimer or Air Gunner. Wireless operators, Flight engineers, came from another direction.

In my case I failed one subject, as did many others, and awaited my fate. As in any force, the laws of supply and demand were the governing factor, so us failures were posted to another ITW at Bridlington for a second chance. We now knew our destiny; failure was out, success the Air Gunnery Schools at either Dalcross, Scotland, or in Penrhos, North Wales. Few ex U/T pilots failed and I found myself posted to North Wales - No 9 AGS.

Very few seemed to mind that they would not be pilots, and accepted the situation, for the wish to be a flier was still the greatest incentive, and increased the determination to succeed.

Here was the start of the Air Gunner's way of life, and for me the fulfilment of an ambition to fly.

 

CHAPTER 8
NO 9 AGS PENRHOS - NORTH WALES
The train journey from Bridlington to Pwllheli, N Wales was a tiring time, and it seemed ages before we got there. Lorries collected us down the only road to Penrhos airfield, and the No 9 Gunnery School. This was a surprise to all of us for it was just a large expanse of field with one hangar for servicing aircraft and a collection of wooden huts. Not at all what we expected, having previously been at Finningley. This was an expediency of wartime, and when the needs must, the devil drives.

These wooden huts, with a round stove for heating, were to be your home and lecture rooms for your stay, a far cry from the surroundings of Scarborough College and the hotels of Bridlington, but it was comfortable.

I am not a particularly godly man, but the church here was like the rest, a long wooden hut. The altar was a plain wooden table covered in green cloth with the RAF crest embroidered upon it. It was plain and simple and had a presence within it totally unlike any other church I have been in, and I don't doubt for a moment that many other Air Gunners who went through this station had the same experience; for it was indeed a haven of peace and quiet.

Here the lecturers were different from the academic types at the ITWs, these were all practical and experienced senior NCOs, one or two had Distinguished Flying Medals, and these men gave you a new insight into what you were about to do. These men commanded your respect, and you gave it willingly, for their words of wisdom proved right on more than one occasion.

Here you were split into flights of ten, with a total intake of forty. Our ten comprised nine Englishmen and one Scot, and we all lived together in one hut. Our characters were all different, from one who was inclined to be sullen to the Scot, a most lively character.

Here the lectures were different, you were assessed on practical and written work, and discreetly on your attitude to flying and leadership qualities, the last one determining your qualification and selection.

The top of the course, we were unofficially told, was usually awarded a commission, so this, at this stage, was the target for us all.

Back to the classroom we went, to discuss and learn the working of the 0.303 Browning Gun, the Cine Gun, the Frazer Nash Turret, the art of deflection of air firing, the harmonisation of guns and turrets. You had to strip and assemble a 0.303 Browning blind folded in a specific time limit, and you learned to do it, for your later work was always in the dark of night.

Here you did your first flying in Blenheims, a most uncomfortable aircraft, not one which you could get out of easily if you were in trouble, and thankfully no-one on our course experienced it. You had to climb over a main spar to get to the turret, and could not wear a parachute harness, which was disconcerting to say the least; quite honestly the Blenheim was a death trap.

The pilots we flew with were good, some very good, especially when one day a Whitley came in, and just managed to stop only a few feet away from the hangar. When we saw it happen, we fully realised how good our pilots were, and this increased our confidence in them.

On air firing you rarely flew with the same pilot twice, and they were always the boss, for any mistakes meant you could probably shoot down the Martinet that was towing the drogue, and he would be blamed. This was your first lesson in air discipline: The place we did our Air Firing was west of Bardsey Island, a place noted for its seal colony, and on our journeys in and out we could see these lovely animals swimming, basking in the sun and, as far as I can recollect, nobody interfered with nature's delight.

On your way out to sea, you flew over Abersoch, the only place with a pub, and a small beach beyond, which was many feet below. This was the place to relax whenever you had the time, and the only way you could get there was by "shanks pony", unless you could borrow a "sit up and beg" bike, the aircrew's favourite mode of transport.

We toiled at our lectures, ripped hands on the Browning, worked hard in the turrets with Cine Gun assimilation, and enjoyed our air firing in the Blenheims, until alas examination day came, and your fate was decided.
.
The examinations took three days for us all to get through and then another three days before the results were known.

Results day arrived, and as usual a mad rush for the notice board to see if you had passed. For me it was a surprise, for I was "Top of Course" with 81.5%. I did not win the commission, probably because I was the youngest of the lot, but at least I was a Sergeant, and this would partly please my mum. Mum was never keen on flying, but at least she knew it was inevitable, and was resigned to the fact. Dad understood more in some way, beiong an ex Army man, and I was later told he was proud of me, although on many things we did not see eye to eye.

With fate decided, we now waited the next posting, for me the Operational Training Unit, Hixon in Staffordshire, where we knew it was the ever faithful "Wimpy", or Wellington to be precise.

CHAPTER 9
O.T.U HIXON

On arrival here we were housed in the same type of billet we had at the Gunnery School, wooden huts with the old round stove for heating. The airfield was in a bowl, surrounded by hills, and an ideal place for flying.

After settling in, we now awaited selection for a crew, but odd jobs occurred, and one day a few of us were asked to take a lorry to the station. We did not know what was in it until we arrived there, but soon realised it was four coffins, carrying the bodies of fliers who had been killed a few days before. What an introduction to forming a crew.

A few days later a more pleasant task, a visit to a factory, all females, who were making and filling shells for the Army and Navy.

We stayed for lunch with the girls and this, I suppose, was helping the morale for the war effort, for they were pleased to have some male company, even if only for a short time.

After being here a week, an Australian Sergeant Pilot and a Canadian F/O Navigator, came and sat on my bed, we had a chat, and then I realised I was to become the Mid Upper Gunner of their crew. Later that day I met the rest, so emerged the team of Pilot Sgt Barney Magee, RAAF, Navigator F/O Happy Protheroe - RCAF, Bomb Aimer Sgt Harry Whitehead, Wireless Operator Sgt Doug Carrington, and Rear Gunner Sgt Reg Dix.

Initially the crew of the Wellington we knew had six men, and it was not until later we learned we were destined for the heavier craft of Bomber Command, the Lancaster, Halifax and the Stirling, but which one was the unanswered question.

What a mixture, Australian, Canadian, one from the Potteries,' a Londoner and two Yorkshireman, six good men and true, all single, except for Doug the Wireless Operator.

Barney, the Aussie, was a tall man, tight curly hair, slim and wiry, quiet, but efficient. Happy, the Canadian, tall, lean and lanky, inclined to stoop, maybe this was caused by leaning over his navigator's table. Harry was the glamour boy, with dark wavy hair, all the girls fancied him. Doug, was smaller than the rest of us, with slightly bowed legs, solid and reliable. Reg the Londoner, was tall, dark and often uncommunicative, with a typical Southern attitude.

This started a relationship that had to work for our own survival, in some ways it was true, other ways false, for we did not really know what to expect.

First of all, we were kitted out for night flying, helmet, night glasses, electric suits, Irvin Jacket and trousers, flying boots, underwear and singlets of wool and silk, gloves, sun glasses for day flying, (these I still have, and just as modern as the day I acquired them).

our first flying in the Wellington was circuits and bumps; for, the uninitiated, round in a circle, wheels touch runway, and round again. It didn't take Barney long to master this, and then we realised we had a first class pilot, just how good was further proved later on.

The instructor for this exercise was F/LT Tony Bartley, and he was the envy of most of the aircrew for his wife was Deborah Kerr, the film actress. Here, was the only time I saw and managed to inspect, the Defiant, the only single engined night fighter with a turret, which was his pride and joy, which he flew before becoming an instructor.

For us Air Gunners, apart from the flying as a team, we were mostly restricted to the use of Cine Guns, and only on one occasion did we do any Air-Air firing against a drogue, on an inland firing range.

Here we got our first taste of night flying, with cross country flying, this was to get our navigator Happy back into practice, and work for Harry our Bomb Aimer, for on these runs were points which had to be bombed by photography. Hidden lights were placed in the ground and these were your targets, get them on your camera, and you were in business, miss them and it was back to the air. Our pair did well, so we were ready for a move.

Our last flight here was a "nickel", and our first flight over occupied Europe. Nickel was the term given to leaflet dropping operations, dropping these over Paris, printed in French and German, these I suppose today would be called a public relations exercise. They did however, serve a secondary purpose, in splitting the German air defences for other operations.

On the return flight one engine packed up, so we were diverted to Manston, the fighter drome, after calling Mayday. This for Barney, our Aussie pilot, was his first emergency, and as we knew, he was as cool as a cucumber, as was the confidence that he quietly exuded.

F/Lt Bartley collected us next day. This was the first reminder of the danger aspect that Colonel Sadler advised me of those many years ago. Here we had a rather unusual instructor, a Major in the Royal Artillery with the D.F.C, who taught us about anti-aircraft guns, and the defences of cities in Germany. His job with a crew was to fly and plot the defences of these areas, with a job like that he more than deserved his D.F.C, and so did his crew.

To come back on home leave was always welcome, and it' was from here it first occurred since being called up, a span of over two years. This was not unusual, for some number of the forces were faced with longer sentences away from home dependent on their theatre of operations, but it was good to see the family, mum, dad and sister, but in some ways sad for many school friends were also away in the forces.

Our next port of call on this journey to fly was the Conversion Unit no 1481, Binbrook, Lincolnshire, which still had Wellingtons. We did not stay long here, just long enough to record. 91/2 hours flying, but now we knew which of the heavies we were destined for, the Lancaster, and which group of Bomber Command we would be attached to - 1 Group. At this stage we did not know the Squadron, for Bomber Command was emerging as a major force in the war strategy, under the command of that most energetic man Air Chief Marshall Bomber Harris, and nicknamed "Butch" by all aircrew.

During the time since Gunnery School you had learned team spirit and what leadership was all about; some of the instructors inspired you, like the DFM instructors you had at Gunnery School, but it was always the men who had been through the mill who were the best; some smooth as silk, others rough diamonds, but they knew their job, and prepared you as best they could, and we were thankful for that.

Binbrook was a permanent station, like Finningley, high up and placed on a hill top, a far different type of aerodrome than we had experienced before; from a flier's point of view ideal in every way, and for me a place where I got great satisfaction and experienced the worst accident I can ever recall.

How and why comes later.

Next stop Blyton, Lincolnshire and the Lancs.

CHAPTER 10
1662 CONVERSION UNIT - BLYTON, LINCOLNSHIRE

Here we got our introduction to the Lancaster, built by A. V. Roe, and borne out of the failure of the Manchester, an aircraft loved by all aircrew, for it was indeed a magnificent aircraft, tough, sturdy, reliable, and the best of the three heavies. By comparison the Stirling was heavy, slow and deficient on height; the Halifax, better than the Stirling, slightly slower, but once again deficient on height. Even crews that flew the Halifax loved their aircraft but agreed the Lancaster was the best of the three.

Having flown on both the Halifax and Lancaster, I found more confidence in the latter and, having lost a close friend in the Stirling, I suppose I am biased against them.

For Barney our Pilot, in particular, this was a gigantic leap in size from the empty weight of 18,556 lb, twin engines, and wingspan of 86' 2" of the Wellington, to 36,900 lb, four engines, and wingspan of 102' 2" of the Lancaster but, with the help of F/O Cross, and our newly acquired Flight Engineer Sgt Vic Burton, another Londoner, we started the usual grind.

Circuits and Bumps, and then a six-hour cross-country flight in daytime, and the same occurred at night for this was to be the medium in which we were to operate. For Reg and I we now appreciated what it was to be in the loneliest part of an aircraft. For me, in the mid upper, it was as though you were suspended in air, for Reg in the rear, it seemed a long way off when all the others were bunched together in comparative comfort.

Indeed, the turrets were the coldest places in the aircraft, especially on a cold winter night when the temperature got down to minus 20°C at something over 20,000 feet and this caused problems for many gunners, as I will reveal later on.

The mid upper turret was not a comfortable place to sit, just a piece of canvas, unlike the rear, which had a solid base, but you got used to it, and it became second nature.

The view from the mid upper was fantastic, you could observe everything with its 360 degree rotation; sometimes you saw things which you wished you hadn't, but other times things which still linger on in your memory. Two of the more pleasant occasions came later on.

Blyton near Gainsborough was the nearest so far I had been to home. There were hopes, but these were soon dashed, when suddenly one day, the notice board read Sgt B Magee and crew posted to 100 Squadron, Waltham, Nr. Grimsby.

 

CHAPTER 11
100 SQUADRON - WALTHAM MOTTO - SARANG TEBUAN JANGAN DULIAK (NEVER STIR UP A HORNET'S NEST)
SQUADRON AIRCRAFT LETTERS "MW"

From Blyton to Grimsby is not very far, and when we arrived it was back to the old wooden huts and the round stove.

This Squadron I knew of from my Finningley days, for its badge is unique, skull and crossbones, a Far Eastern motto, and a reputation to match.

When you arrived, life appeared unreal and false, but you soon realised this was far from the truth, for in fact it was a hive of activity, but different from what you had previously experienced. The sounds projected took on a different meaning, for these were the sounds of an ever expanding force, determined to do a job of work, and seek revenge for what had happened to so many of our cities, London, Hull, Plymouth, Coventry, Sheffield, and many more.

On non-operational days, life for some was even more hectic and a visit to the hangar told you this. Engine changes for whatever reasons were always a fight against time. The English Merlin was always preferred against the Packard, for many said you could get more height, a precious commodity on many occasions. From the Wing Commander's point of view, less in the hangar meant the more he could put in the air. For us the Air Gunners, it sometimes meant a visit to the fixed turret for practice against the films, dependent on how the Gunnery Leader saw it.

It was not all work however, and your main source of recreation was either the camp cinema, or the village pub. The village pub saw scenes of letting off steam, these being initially condemned by the locals, but they soon realised our discipline, unlike the Army for example, was in the air, not on the ground, and seemed to understand. Some never did.

Having settled in I got my first surprise, for I was called to the Gunnery Leader's office and told to report to Warrant Officer Clark, whose mid upper had reported sick, and was unfit to fly. This was my first introduction to operational flying, and the target "the Big City", Berlin. We were not surprised, as our intelligence officer had previously warned us the Battle of Berlin was about to start.

At this juncture it was also revealed that if you got through the first five, and the last five, you were home and dry, these remarks appeared innocuous, but in fact were relatively true.

Aircrew were, a superstitious lot in many different ways; some would have markings on their aircraft, once they knew it was their own, others none other than the familiar bomb, denoting missions completed. Some wore St Christopher medals round their necks, some a particular scarf, and many other things, for these were regarded as tokens of luck.

This was not surprising however, for the odds of finishing a tour were five to one. With a reported 55,000 fliers killed, it is not surprising these odds were less.

Two points that were an integral part of aircrew life were first the eggs and bacon before the operation, the other was a more sinister aspect, the One O'clock News on BBC Radio. When this came on, a deathly hush came into both Officers' and Sergeants' mess for the previous night's report and it went something like this: "This is the BBC One O'clock News. Last night 600 aircraft raided Berlin, 63 of our aircraft are missing." (63 x 7 equalled 441 aircrew lost). Most times there were no comments, only being thankful it was not your turn.

In reality, this meant 441 telegrams to the families; for mothers, a distressing time, particularly if the father was also away in the Forces. The first telegram said "missing", and, after a period of time, "missing, presumed dead", and the last, "killed in action".

Nothing more can be said, only the parents left to grieve with dignity if the last one arrived.

"Missing" always gave hope after the initial shock, and many stories of the way home have been recorded and released. Many more were never revealed, for at the time lives of the people who helped were at risk, and some still classified as "Top Secret".

The only time I can recall of escape was a Squadron Leader of ours at 625 Squadron. He was shot down in the Aachen area of Germany, and returned to squadron three weeks later. How he got home was restricted at the time but, after many whiskies, parts emerged. Initially he evaded capture, laid low in barns and farmhouses, and travelled by night. In Holland he made a cradle, attached it to the underside of a tree, used a reed for an air pipe, and floated himself down the waterways. Eventually the Dutch Resistance found him and passed him on via many of the Safe Houses. This story was confirmed to me some years later by a Dutch friend who I visited at Heerlen, for his father was a Resistance man in this area at the time.

The reason I remember this man was simple, he was only 5' 7", the smallest pilot on the squadron. He had to have wooden, blocks fitted to the brake pedals, and when he took off had to stand on the blocks, apply full throttle, release the brakes and he went down the runway like a modern day jet.

In life you meet unforgettable characters and here was one, the Squadron Dentist. I don't recall his name, but I do recall meeting a giant of a man over 6' 6" tall, and he must have been 16 stones, but he had the touch of a fairy.

I hate dentists, as many others do, but here was one nobody disliked, for toothache when flying is a very unpleasant experience.

Our next flight was again a cross country and, some days later, my second operational flight with our own crew. By now the experienced crews had warned us of some of the things to expect, and indeed their words came true.

Just prior to this, we did two visits to the bombing range for Harry to get some practice in. The first one was alright, but the second was aborted due to 10/10 cloud. This cloud problem occurred later on, but was cured by a force that I will reveal later.

The Operations Room on all wartime stations was always the same; a large wooden hut, rows of chairs, and the operational board. When "ops" were posted, it was always the same routine. The Wing Commander Flying convened a meeting and each Section Leader reported their availability, from aircraft to crews, type of bombs, armament type, and all up weights, given for the target that had been designated, then things were motivated. These varied, from time to time, due to the distances to be flown and time anticipated in the air.

Some aircrews were known to visit Ops Room to peep through the keyhole to determine the target; they were always disappointed for it was covered up.

Speculation of targets was always rife, and it was invariably the Flight Engineer who had the best idea when he became aware of fuel loads.

When ops were called for Air Gunners, the routine was always the same, a turret check, first the perspex dome, to ensure there were no marks that could distort your night vision. Small marks at night produced side effects, for the mind plays peculiar tricks, and had been known to cause mistakes; then to check rotation, guns elevation, oxygen supply, heating, gun belt feed and ammunition supply. Sometimes the last was restricted, due to the all up weight factor. Satisfied that you and your armourer had done your jobs, you now awaited your visit to the Ops Room.

From here on, now knowing the routine, we undertook various operations to places like Munchen-Gladbach, Munich, Stuttgart, Kassel, Hanover (2), Berlin (2 more), never in the same aircraft, until we were allocated a Lancaster III DV242 - 'S' Sugar. In between these flights we undertook air firing exercise, and bombing exercises to hone our skills.

By this time we had passed the magic five figure, we felt a little easier, and found ourselves allocated to first wave spot.

To understand this first wave, you have to realise that Bomber Command had increased so much in size that three heavies now operated, Lancaster, Halifax and the Stirling. Each had its operational restrictions as to height and weights, and this gave logistical problems for the planners at Bomber Command, and Group Headquarters: To have sent all three aircraft in at the same time would have been sheer murder, particularly for the Stirling crews, so this was not on.

Air discipline, as I have mentioned before, was of vital, importance, and all generally tried to bomb a target in their allotted time span, but accidents for many reasons did occur, with varying degrees of severity. Woodbridge was however, available if you could not get home, and here was a graveyard, safety for many an aircraft of different types, Americans as well as British. We used this with a Mayday call.

Life toiled on here just the same, until one day we were advised that 'C' Flight was to be moved to form a new Squadron at Kelstern. We packed our bags, put them all in "S" Sugar and took the thirty minute flight, not before the good news however that our Aussie pilot had been awarded his commission in October 1943. The Aussie and the Canadian were together again, for indeed they were virtually inseparable, being a long way from home, and this we all understood.

By the end of this stint, I had flown in six different types of Lancaster bomber, ED317, DV242, ED814, W4999, ED883, and EE319, with two different pilots.

EE319 - the Phantom of the Ruhr - was destined to become famous, by completing 121 operations before being scrapped; what a pity.

Chapter 12a

625 SQUADRON – KELSTERN.

MOTTO - “WE AVENGE”


Kelstern, like Binbrook, is the other high point, so when we arrived, we were greeted by road rollers and other earth moving equipment, sludge all over the place, all the signs of another new airfield, so “S Sugar” was parked in a dispersal point with a background of beautiful oak trees, and this was to be her permanent home. Two other significant observations came to light, we noted Binbrook now had Lancasters and thus 460 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force was born. Mutterings of a new specialist Bomber Group abounded, this later being revealed as the Pathfinder Force, a Force that would play a great part in bombing policy.

Time was precious, the organisation brilliant, and within three days we were back in the air for a fighter affiliation exercise.

The old “sit up and beg” bicycles were now a must, for it was nearly a mile back to our old friend the wooden hut and its round stove; we five NCOB all in the same one with friends of another crew. The round stove, our comforting friend, rarely went out, for now it is winter time and Lincolnshire can be very cold with bitter winds. Two days after this, ops were called again, this our fourth on the Hanover run. 10/10 cloud appeared and made life difficult.

With this inconvenience, we now knew why the PFF was born. New crews arrived to get this squadron up to strength and along with them more ranks.

One day a Lancaster arrived flown in by a lady pilot of the Air Train/Fleet Auxiliary. We were indeed surprised, but over lunch she showed us her log book. She had flown a Spitfire, Mosquito and a Lancaster in the last ten days. Indeed, our admiration for these ladies of the ATA increased tremendously, for many of us recognised that Amy Johnson was a member of this select band.

Flying became ceaseless by day and night to get these new crews and planes up to standard, and amongst these we got the one and only American pilot and his crew. A Yank in the RAF at this time was unusual, but we understood why when he said he was at Cambridge University when war broke out and originally trained in their Air Squadron.

Wing Commander Preston was a different type, more inclined to be a father figure and older than the rest of us, for indeed the average age must have been in the low twenties.

Old “S Sugar” was having engine problems, so an air test was called and she came through with flying colours. Two days later, ops were called and Dusseldorf was the target.

Flying at night could be eerie, unnatural and yet majestic, with a canopy of stars to help us as and when required, an ever changing sky and moon phases, depending on the time of year. Some journalists called it a “Bombers Moon”, others unspeakable quotes, for it was not always your friend.

One night, ops were called, the target was Modane in Northern Italy. The objective was to seal the tunnel where all traffic coming from Italy was passing back to Germany. This raid was restricted to about one hundred aircraft and when we saw the route we knew it was to be a long night; in fact it took eight and a half hours.

For us and in particular our Aussie skipper, the moon proved a sight which was a delight to the eye and unforgettable; the Alps in all their glory, totally covered in snow. He had never seen real snow before. This was a picture no artist could paint.

The Battle of Berlin was now gaining momentum and the fourth for us, but “Sugar” developed engine trouble on the starboard outer and there was no way we could maintain or get the height required and keep our place for the bombing run, so this one was aborted.


Back to the hangar she went, this time for an engine change, and thankfully she got an English Merlin, which pleased us all, especially our Flight Engineer. Little is ever truthfully, honestly and gratefully said about the men behind the aircrews, but in essence, they worked longer hours and were extremely efficient and without their skills enterprise and ingenuity, many an aircraft and crew would have been lost.

The team spirit which developed between a permanent ground crew, an aircraft and its crew was rather like a big family where everybody pulled together. It was a wonderful experience; they saw you off and often waited hopefully for your return. For the ground crews whose aircraft did not return their faces spoke a thousand words.

Berlin – 5 came up and this proved a painful and eventful night. Fighter alley, north of the Rhine, proved more active than usual, and here for the first time, I spotted an ME109. Our instructor at Gunnery School warned us ,”not to invite trouble”, so we just watched it and then realised that he was reporting the path of the stream to determine the target. Being first wave we got another surprise, Intelligence had not reported any defence changes and over the target area, the flak had increased considerably, more to our operational height. “Sugar” took a considerable walloping, I lost part of my turret, which made things rather draughty and our skipper acquired some flak in his backside.

On returning to base, we reported the predicament, came straight in and the station blood wagon met us and took the skipper to the station sick quarters.

At the de-briefing, which always followed ops, normally a civilised affair, this night was turmoil. The yank came in furious, some bastard had collided with him on the bombing run; some minutes later, another crew came in reporting the same.

Some days later, after Intelligence had sifted through the reports and photographs it was suspected that two crews of the same squadron had collided. With six hundred aircraft in the air the odds were unthinkable but nevertheless, truth is stranger than fiction.

We all later went down to sick quarters to see how the skipper was, determined he was going to be alright, and retired to our beds.

 

CHAPTER 12b

625 SQUADRON – KELSTERN.

MOTTO - “WE AVENGE” (Continued)

The following day we got the best laugh for weeks, a note on the board read, “Officers required for Infantry Battalions. Volunteers required”. There were no takers.

We were now without a pilot. Berlin 6 was called and Wing Commander Flying decided it was time he took a look at the current situation in view of various losses we had incurred in the last few weeks, so he was our skipper in “H Harry”. The visibility was bad on return and we wished we had FIDO to help.

The weather was so bad that this night is now named as “Black Thursday” in the annals of Bomber Command history, for aircraft were diverted all over the place. We did not get home but were directed to a place we knew well, Blyton, our old Conversion Unit.

The winter of ’43 was shocking and one morning we awoke to find the whole aerodrome covered in snow, so it was down to dispersal with brooms, shovels and anything else to clean it. Quite honestly, I do not think we had as much physical exercise for months but it provided a refreshing change and took your mind off other things. A thankful release, for when we had finished we just flopped into the nearest armchair.

With the skipper still unavailable, I was allocated to a Sergeant Pilot in “Q-Queeni” for my next op to Frankfurt, and by now the fourth pilot to fly with on operations.

On mornings when ops were called, it was usual to report to the respective Leader’s office so that he knew who was, or was not, available. This particular day I was told to report to the Wing Commander’s office, for what, I knew not. On reporting to the Adjutant, I was ushered into the Winco’s office and invited to sit down for a chat. Two things then happened, I was asked if I would fly with the Yank, but I declined, still wishing to fly with my own crew. Secondly I was handed a sheet of paper, told to fill it in and then hand it to the Squadron Gunnery Leader.

To my surprise it was an application for a Commission. I knew I had been recommended twice before, so I filled it in and passed it to our Gunnery leader as commanded. A week passed and I was told to be ready to go the Base Headquarters for an interview with the Air Commodore at Binbrook, at any time.

This came quicker than I expected, so off I went for my interview with a man whose reputation was legendary in the Air Force. His name was Wray, his nickname Hoppy, for he had the reputation of arriving at a Bomber Squadron unannounced, going into a dispersal and climbing aboard an aircraft to fly with the boys. They loved him for it, but eventually the powers that be got wise to his tricks and shopped it. In retrospect, I suppose they were right, for he knew too much to be reported missing and was too valuable an asset to lose.

Another two weeks passed by and once again, I was called to the Winco’s office, this time to be told I had been awarded a Commission, given a railway pass and clothing coupons and told to go home and get myself kitted out. I had realised an ambition of many years before, for I was still just twenty years old.

On arriving home, my mother in particular was surprised, for I had been home some weeks earlier, but as usual, in her own quiet way she appeared surprised and delighted by my good news.

We went to town, bought the uniforms required and returned home.

The village where I lived now had two commissioned officers the other one being a R.A.F. Intelligence man and an old friend. Living in a village the news spread fast and the first man to congratulate me was my Intelligence friend, for really he was the only man who truthfully knew what was going on.

My nickname of the “Professor”, given when I was at the University Air Squadron, had paid off. I came home a Sergeant and went back a Pilot Officer. Our crew now had three officers, the skipper, the navigator and myself, but in the air it made no difference. On the ground however it did, for I was made a Flight Gunnery Leader, with its own responsibilities. The Gunner Leader laid down our duties and left us to get on with the job.

Initially I missed the Sergeants’ Mess, with its often boisterous good humour, but eventually settled down in the Officers’ Mess, more quiet, and often more serious with the skipper and navigator to help me along.

New Year’s Day 1944 arrived and it was back in the air again for Berlin 7, not with “S Sugar” but “A-Able”, another seven and a half hour run.

Safely home and bed.

Twenty-four hours later we were Berlin bound for the eighth time, but this time, we were not so fortunate, for we had been advised of treacherous air conditions and this proved right, gremlins appeared all over the aircraft and it was bitterly cold, -30C at 25,000 feet.

All of a sudden and without warning, “A-Able” literally fell out of the sky for no apparent reason; fortunately our Flight Engineer had the presence of mind to open the bomb doors and jettison the load and the next thing we knew was we had pulled out at 2,000 feet. The skipper told us to bale out but we could not.

With now a crippled aircraft and no bombs, the skipper turned for home, not Kelstern but Woodbridge in Suffolk. With Mayday called we were eventually guided there with their four searchlights as out guide.

Woodbridge really was a graveyard for aircraft, for everywhere they were, Lancs, Halifax, Stirlings, Fortresses of the American Air Force, all in various states of chaos. Tails missing, fins missing fuselages full of holes, some broken into two parts, a grim reminder of the war in the air and the reaper taking his toll.

With the ailerons and flaps gone, we knew we were in trouble, but we were in the air and there was still hope. A crash landing seemed inevitable, but slowly and surely the skipper and our Flight Engineer coaxed “A-Able” to the ground. From wheels touching the runway to the stop it seemed ages but at least we were down. We were told to leave the aircraft, collected by a crew bus, driven to sick quarters, examined by the doctor, given something to eat, a pill to make us sleep, and sent to bed.

Next morning, late, I might add, we went to see “A-Able, and were surprised at how she had managed to stay in the air. Not only the flaps and ailerons gone, but both fins and rudders were a horrible mess, the dinghy had also got torn out of the wings. The latter provided some degree of laughter when we realised somebody inland would find a dinghy less seven flyers.

On how we got away with this, speculation was rife, until we were shown the photographs which automatically worked when bombs are realised and our prognosis is the updraft from the explosion of 18,000lb of high explosive bombs threw us back into the air.

God works in a mysterious way.

Why we went into this sudden dive could only have been by the sheer weight of ice accumulated on the wings and other parts of the aeroplane, even though we knew our ground staff had put warm air in the wings, which was part of the standard procedure.

The only other thought was we had got caught in a Cumulus Nimbus cloud, where the up and down draughts create considerable uncontrollable forces.

So “A-Able died and it was back to old faithful “S-Sugar”. After a major overhaul we did the usual air test with ground crew as passengers and testers, for this was the only time we managed to get them in the air; our way of saying “thanks” for a job well done and a relief from the monotony of working in atrocious weather on the dispersal site. They seemed to enjoy the relief and the flying.

Having had a couple of weeks’ rest through inclement weather, Berlin 9 was called, the usual route down fighter alley but this time we were routed north back home over the Kattegatt and Skagerrak, Norway. At 25,000 feet we found 10/10 cloud and the skipper put sugar just on top of it and to our surprise, it produced a tunnel of cloud in a perfect circle as we went along.

Whilst it was fun in its creation, we later realised it could have been dangerous had any fighters been around.

Once again it was bloody cold.

Forty-eight hours later, ops were on again and by now we were getting a little fed up with the Big City runs, and so when the ops board revealed Brunswick, a sigh of relief could be heard. On the home bound run we got another shock for, quite unexpectedly, we got coned by five searchlights which were not supposed to be there according to Intelligence Report.

With our night vision gone, we remembered what the Major of Artillery had taught us, nose down, port then starboard and out of the beams. It worked like magic, for had we stayed any longer, we would have been easy meat for the night fighters, who worked in conjunction with the searchlight crews.

A lesson to be remembered for later use.

Magdeburg was next and the most horrific sight I have every seen. We had just taken off and got to about one thousand feet running parallel with their main runway, where 460 Squadron Binbrook Lancasters were also getting airborne, and all of a sudden a Lanc exploded half way down the runway, flames lit the night sky and there was debris everywhere.

How many other Lancs were considered unserviceable I do not know but it was certainly a major blow to the Aussies of 460 Squadron.

The night routing over Heligoland and Southwest Hamburg was the hottest I can recollect, for there were fighters everywhere, along with flak, which looked like bombers exploding in the air.

We were glad to get home, debrief and bed.

Another “Berlin” came, with our bomb aimer being taken ill; my turret became U/S on rotation and my electric suit packed up. Four hours in freezing cold and there were two of us in sick quarters.

The last trip I did was the eleventh of the Berlin saga and once again, my electric suit failed. Five of the seven and a half hour trip was freezing cold and as a result, I was taken to Grimsby Hospital with pneumonia.

Thank God I had an Irvin suit for, with the latter ones, I do not think I would have survived.

Ted the Yank, I later learned, was awarded a D.F.C. and was transferred to the 8th U.S.A. F Bomber Group, reaching the rank of Colonel. Acknowledging the differences between the R.A.F. and Americans’ attitude to air discipline, it is safe to assume the Americans were in for a shock; he was not a lucky person but a very good pilot and his Lancaster crew had more than their share of ill luck.

The daily dose of medicine was the cod liver oil pill, a duty carried out when gunners reported in; it was a necessity for the cold winter nights.

The other oddity not used by all was the “Wakey-Wakey” pill, often necessary on long flights, but if operations were called off, you just could not go to sleep, but when you did you went out like a light.

Other operational aids were the whistle for use if you had to ditch in the sea or call for help, and a compass in a button for directional use for escape purposes.


CHAPTER 13

GRIMSBY HOSPITAL

THE AIR WAR COMES TO THE HOSPITAL.

The Station Ambulance took me to hospital, I was put on a ward totally composed of Army and Navy personnel, and as an officer, it was said by many that I should not have been assigned there.

This situation however, quickly changed, for one morning at about four o’clock, all hell broke loose, beds and personnel were moved out, new beds brought in and we wondered what was happening.

We soon found out; six fliers were brought in. My bed was near the entrance to the ward and the first bed went oppose, he was the air gunner of the crew and sadly he died some two hours later. The pilot was next to me and then came the others.

Reality had struck home once again but this was not the end, for within another forty-eight hours we had a repeat performance, another six arrived.

Total aircrew in the ward was now thirteen, the Army and Navy lads were wondering what had hit them, for the RAF had now taken over more than half the ward and activity was ceaseless.

For the Ward Sister and her nurses, it was hell let loose, the surgeons were kept busy for many days diagnosing and doing their best to patch the lads up. The pilot next to me, I recall, had a broken hip and collarbone, the navigator now opposite had a broken skull and everywhere the signs of bones in plaster. Structures and pulleys with weights were a common sight along with drip feeds attached to arms and legs, and pain killers were dispensed by day and night, along with other drugs.

For nearly two weeks we hardly got any sleep except for the help of the odd sleeping pill.

Slowly but surely the misadventures of these two crews unfolded. The first crew apparently had collided with the large trees on their landing approach and crashed on the runway. These trees should never have been left standing for they were always a danger. They are not there now, for this aerodrome is the Humberside Airport at Killington, then the home of 166 Squadron.

The other crew had crashed at my old home, 100 Squadron at Waltham.

As I got slowly better, I found myself with two jobs, the first was rolling bandages and the second was writing letters for the fliers now immobile through being in plaster. To write to parents, girlfriends and wives, initially I found a little embarrassing to give them bad news, but it had to be done, so one got on with the job, not knowing, if I had made life even worse for them?

The Sister in charge of this ward was brilliant, she seemed to have the uncanny knack of being able to forecast and understand the moods of all her patients and apply the necessary remedies, and this rubbed off on her nurses.

This was truly leadership at work, under the most trying conditions. One thing that became obvious to us all was the daily night visit of the sister to the pilot in the next bed to mine. Romance was blooming.

She was kidded unmercifully about this attachment, but it did survive and later on they got married, to be sent on honeymoon, courtesy of the RAF, in an Anson.

How many of these fliers returned to duty I never got to know, for I was released from hospital, went back to 625 Squadron, collected my kit and was sent on convalescence to Harewood House, between Leeds and Harrogate.


CHAPTER 15

ON REFLECTION

I never saw any of this crew again but did hear the bomb aimer was commissioned and three or four decorations were awarded to them, for indeed it was just rewards for a good crew and well deserved.

Not all the operational flights we did are mentioned here, just the ones, which you had to endure “when you want to be a flyer”.

During these flights, we were subjected sometimes, to the instructions of the Pathfinder Force, its Master Bomber and its technique of laying markers to bomb on.

The first experience of this, when total silence was always the norm, came like a cry from the wilderness, “Bomb on red markers”, he cried. He did this various times, then total silence ensued and we knew what had happened. Another voice came, but by now we were clear of the target area. I once read that the only danger on bombing missions was the target area; this man must have been either a fool or a very lucky man who did not fly in winter months, for what I have written was not our experience.

Strange things happen whilst flying at night, but the strangest for me was the night I appeared to be covered by a white shroud, from start to finish of a flight. It was the quietest night I ever knew, but next day’s 1 o’clock news revealed one of the heaviest losses incurred in that period. I have discussed this with priests, medical men of various branches of the profession, and never got a satisfactory answer, so I remain with my own thoughts that someone was watching over our crew and me, and we were grateful for his help.

Another night, four of us were sitting on a form after de-briefing. It was deathly still and not a sound could be heard. The Squadron doctor came out and told us to go to bed, as we would get cold. A roar of laughter went up as it had been –30°C at 26,000 feet, but he was right as usual, so to bed we went, on our sit up and begs bikes.

My flying assessment as an Air Gunner on leaving reads as – “AG – above average” – with remarks: “A very capable gunner, who filled Flight Gunnery Leader very well”. With these few words I felt that I had justified their confidence in recommending me for my commission.

The saddest thing of flying in this period, was the far too often empty beds you experienced when awakening in the morning, and one often reflected upon the original event when arriving at the OTU.

Friendships were never really established, for it was far too often, here one day, gone the next, for indeed records now show the losses were greatest in this period of time.

One mystery we never uncovered was who was “the book provider”? On many occasions books were discussed by a particular person, and all of a sudden, when you got in bed at night, it was there. We would have loved to know who provided them and make amends.

We have mentioned the ground crews, but not very often are the people of the “Sally Army” remembered, for with undue regularity they always appeared with tea and wads, at the right time, in the right place, and thankful we were on cold winter days for the cup that cheers.

The one aspect, which stood out for me whilst I was here, was the leadership, which was very projected from Wing Commander Preston. He knew everyone by his Christian name, had time for a word and enquired about your home life. With the losses, which occurred, it must have been a difficult job, and only years later did I appreciate the job this man did with dignity and human understanding.

Conspicuous by their absence are my feelings for the opposite sex. To have had a meaningful relationship in this period would have been wrong, particularly after the four-coffin incident, and later on, I made the mistake of sending my parents a telegram to say that I was coming home on leave. Unknown to me at the time, a school friend’s parents also received a telegram, but this was to say he had been killed in a flying incident. I never did this again, for there was enough tragedy and turmoil around and yet in hindsight, a spirit, which was undefeateable.

Some would say this was a selfish attitude but to me, it seemed good common sense and one, which I pursued throughout the whole of this time.

After all, I could always go to the pub for a pint and there was invariably some female company around.

CHAPTER 16

1667 CONVERSION UNIT – SANDTOFT

AIRCRAFT LETTERS 2GG2

This new conversion unit was opened, after having been in the hands of the Polish Air Force, and it smelt like it, for everywhere there were smells of power and other femininities. To put it crudely it smelt like a brothel but never having been in one I guess this was a supposition.

The Halifaxes arrived and we were then in business. For me the post of Instructor, which I had turned down at Gunnery School, was now a reality and I felt comfortable with operation al experience behind me. To instruct however, left me with a feeling of apprehension, but once started, confidence returned and everything turned out right.

The subjects I was allocated were Aircraft Recognition for the Gunners, Night Vision and Bomber Tactics for full crews; however, before lecturing, the proverbial courses had to be taken and completed satisfactorily. The Aircraft Recognition course for me was easy; for it was just a refresher on some of the planes I had always known from being a lad. 1/100th of a second, the hardest part, but I got an “A Certification”. The Night Vision course was really an eye opener, to quote a pun, but something which we took for granted and we did not realise how vital this aspect of flying was until we had finished.

For air gunners, these two subjects were a co-ordinated factor.

Bomber Tactics to me was the most fascinating of the three. In essence, it was how to get there and back, with the minimal loss of aircraft and crews and get the best results from the operation.

For this purpose we conducted a mock operational flight, details of the main force, diversionary force, the route to be taken, in essence, the details that were given at a briefing on an operational squadron. We got the Aussies, some Canadians but mostly English fliers and on one occasion a rarity, a former pilot of the famous “Eagle Squadron” flying as an air gunner – another American.

We tried the best we could to forearm them of what to expect in a relatively quiet and friendly manner, and hope to God that it had sunk in.

Teaching our air gunner colleagues, we took a stronger approach. Tell any man he cannot see looking straight forward at night, even with 20/20 vision, the aircrew standard and you get some rude words. Prove him wrong, as we did and then they sat up and took notice, and this is just what we did.

We undertook test with air gunners that we had done at the Night Vision School. The variation between pupils’ eyes was quite considerable, but as they chose the pupils the results gained increased impetus.

With a new and proven method of vision at night, we painted models of MSE109F, ME110, FW190, red, where the heat showed up on these aircraft and tried to make sure they all understood these tell tale signs and could recognise these aircraft in particular, for these indeed were your greatest threats apart from flak.


“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF NIGHT VISION”

1. Do not attempt night duties until dark adapted – avoid short cuts.

2. Maintain maximum dark adaptation by avoiding all possible light – practice blindfold drills – until you know your surroundings by touch.

3. For instrument lighting, use dim red light and do not stare at lighted instruments.

4. Keep windshields and goggles spotless and unscratched.

5. Practice use of the corners of the eyes, night targets are better seen not looking at them.

6. Practice systematic scanning, move the eyes frequently and be alert for moving objects.

7. Know the value of low light contrast at night.

8. Use binoculars where possible – not practical AGs.

9. Observe technical orders in use of oxygen, be over-conscientious at night, not over confident.

10. Do not break training – the stakes are too high.

One must lay these constantly, if one is to live constantly.

“YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED”

The pupils who were ex ATC were the best at Aircraft Recognition and thus this organisation had proved its worth.

Things we did not do however, were to teach aspects which would lower morale. No takes like some newspapers put out of dead gunners being dragged out of turrets and then cleaned to wash away the blood. Another was the roundel on the side of Lancasters was the aiming point for German fighters, just below the mid upper turret. They had enough problems without this stuff.

By day and by night, the ceaseless throb of the Halifax engines could be Heard. Most of these aircraft came from the Bomber Squadrons; some were old and tired and just scraped the hedge of hawthorn at the end of the main runway but got airborne just the same.

These were the informative days, with fighter affiliation exercises where the gunners took control, corkscrews, to defeat the fighters’ deflection angle, with the use of cine guns in the turrets. The fighter pilots always shook up bomber crews by attacking from below, for this was the blind spot on all the heavies and once you experienced this, you never forgot it.

With this exercise, many a crew, with too much beer the previous night had uncomfortable experiences.

Odd missions came up, like the day six aircraft were despatched on a sea search for a downed crew in the North Sea. Our six never found them but we hoped another group did, for this sea can be a most inhospitable place even on a good day.

Occasionally, accidents happened and the only one I can recollect involved a Canadian navigator who had the next bed to mine. I had occasion to write to his parents, passing on my condolences, and to my surprise, received a gift parcel which contained all the goodies I had not seen for years; a kindly and most generous gesture under difficult circumstances.

The time spent lecturing seemed endless and ever full of noise, for here it was the Nissen hut, which was your home.

Much nearer to the action than we had experienced before, the greatest asset however was that we got a day off every week, and so I was able to get home weekly, being not so far from Doncaster.

The villages of Belton and Crowle were in easy reach by the old ‘sit up and beg’ bicycle, so this was where you want to get away from it all. The roads to these places had canals each side and under the influence, playing fighter and bombers, many a flier finished in here, only to emerge soaked to the skin.

This was just a way of letting off steam, harmless good fun.

The village pubs here saw many fliers and mine hosts often said it was good to see other nationalities, for there seemed to be no great love for the previous Poles.

My stroke of luck here was to meet the “Pidds of Crowle”, an old farming family and owners of the local butcher’s shop. Mrs. Pidd was like a mother to me, for the night before I went on my day off, she always gave me a parcel to take home. I always paid for what she gave me and it was usually more than I expected, but for mum and dad at home, it was always a treat and we were thankful for that, for rations were meagre.

Crowle has changed little over the years; Pidd’s Butchers shop has gone, The old cinema in the square is now a restaurant but all the other pubs still remain virtually the same; a haven of rest in the farm fields of Lincolnshire.

Life throws up unexpected coincidences, for in 1988 I went to Majorca, to a golf tournament and a German guest in the same hotel came over for a chat, and lo and behold, he was a prisoner of war employed on a farm in Crowle village. He remembered his incarceration with the same affection as I do for the time I spent there.

With the war in the air still grinding on its relentless way, the boys of the Air Training Corps in the Doncaster area needed help and were allocated to us at Sandtoft, in just the same way as years earlier I had been allocated to Finningley. To me fell the job as ATC Liaison Officer for the Station. Group Captain Nelson, our Station Commander, gave me a free hand to ensure these cadets were treated like everybody else, subject to the same disciplines and instructions. They were given their own quarter and their NCO’s the same authority as station personnel. B being cadets from a mainly agricultural area, but with links with Lindholme and Finningley, the officers here were mainly schoolteachers and headmasters of Grammar Schools and one was a press photographer of some repute in Yorkshire.

One of the best decisions I made here was to abolish square bashing and the cadets gave their customary approval.

Many of my colleagues, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators and flight engineers, gave their assistance willingly and found it refreshing to lecture to these cadets, who hung on every word, so eager to learn and appreciative of the time given.

The favourite lesson was the Link Trainer; this was the nearest they would ever get to flying an aircraft. We tried to get all the cadets into the air and more often than not we succeeded, even if it was only doing circuits and bumps.

Sport was always on the agenda and one cadet we had was the Middleweight Boxing Champion of the ATC.

During this period, in all sincerity, we never had any trouble with he cadets, this due in no short measure to the standard of offices who looked after them.

The cadets seemed to have enjoyed their summer camp with this station, and afterwards I received a letter from Mr. Clark, Headmaster of Mexborough Technical College, confirming this.

In retrospect, I now felt that I had paid my debt to the people who had originally helped me, years before and was thankful that I had been afforded the opportunity by Group Captain Nelson D.F.C. the Station Commander.

This situation occurred later after I had finished flying, at RAF Valley in North Wales, so I was well prepared. The only difference was that we were provided with the DH98 Rapide aircraft, a most suitable aircraft to get the cadets airborne, and they loved it, for indeed this station was the ideal place for Summer camps; an aerodrome with a beach, not a hundred yards from the perimeter track.

With 364 flying days a year, it was not surprising that it was home for the now famous Red Arrows display team for a period of time, and today is home for the Mountain Rescue Team and an advanced Flying Training Unit.


CHAPTER 17

POST FLYING

RAF VALLEY NORTH WALES

GROUP CAPTAIN GROVES – COMMANDING OFFICER

With operational flying finished and your stint as an instructor completed, to make way for your colleagues to take your place, to keep their new pupils up to date with the every changing scene in Bomber Operations, you were put out to grass, and Valley became my new home.

RAF Valley, located on the Isle of Anglesey, North Wales, was a delightful place for peace and quiet.

When I arrived, it was a joint command RAF and American Air Force, our opposite numbers, were easy to get on with. The happiest times occurred on occasions when you tried to get a Texan to speak with a Yorkshire dialect or a Californian with a Lancashire dialect. The results are indescribable.

The perimeter tract virtually reached the beach; in Summer time it was idyllic, with a warm gulf stream lapping the shores. In winter, it was the opposite, cold and often windy and sometimes seeming remote.

Rhosneigr had a Country Club and a nine-hole golf course, so this provided some relief, if you could manage to find some balls.

From a flier’s point of view, it was always a toss up between Valley and Prestwick in Scotland who had the most flying days per year. In the end it was resolved for both recorded 364 days with no aerodromes reaching these figures.

Today RAF Valley is still a major force in the military plan and Prestwick likewise in the field of civil aviation.

CHAPTER 18

PUT OUT TO GRASS

This for fliers must be split into categories; the post operational fliers, the instructors who did no operations and those newly qualified awaiting postings. In my case, I can only remark on the first category.

Being put out to grass was a situation difficult to deal with, for the experiences you had encountered come rarely in anyone’s lifetime. The physical and psychological aspects were a shock to the system. The strain of night flying was foreign, the expectation of the unexpected was always around and this was foreign. To say you always lived on your nerves on operations is a masterly understatement. This was the cause and the effects were variable, dependent upon the individual and this was where the difficulties started.

To escape the torment, which affected your nervous system, took time, for time is always the necessary healer. Medication helped to achieve stability, but unfortunately the average general practitioner did not really understand the problems.

The only ones who did were the medical officers who had served on Bomber Squadrons, or had similar positions with other branches of the Armed Forces e.g. S.O.E. Commandoes, Paratroopers and such like.

The ability to concentrate, academically, was the hardest part and from this you had to find some escapism. For me having discovered that I had the knack of getting on with the young lads helped and having been the Air Training Corps Liaison Officer at the Conversion Unit at Sandtoft, I was able to pursue this at RAF Valley, North Wales. This aspect for me was the road back to normality.

In all honesty, the Air Training Corps cadets were great and throughout this time, rarely gave trouble. Their eagerness to learn about flying in all its aspects showed no bounds; my colleagues who helped me willingly, F/O Hooper – Navigation, F/O Red Evans – Flying Control and Radar, in particular.

Red Evans, I recollect, was lucky for his work on Radar with the ILS system which was the only one operational at the time, made him a pioneer in his field and later on, after demobilisation, he went to Heathrow.

The worst case of this inability to come to terms with the post operational syndrome was a Warrant Officer Pilot. He was just a “scruff”, always in trouble with his Squadron Leader, a non-flier in charge of Flying Control. One day this Squadron Leader came to me for help for we were due on Commanding Officers’ Inspections and everyone had to wear their respective decorations.

On investigation this Warrant Officer Nicklin, I determined had the Distinguished Flying Cross and Distinguished Flying Medal, along with others. We managed to get all his ribbons together, had them sewn to his uniform and ready for the parade.

The AOC spoke to him during the ceremony, much to the disgust of the Squadron Leader, for he never knew of these awards. Was his face red when he saw them? After all he was a penguin who never really understood fliers, only tolerated them.

Poaching was his hobby; for he was a Lincolnshire man, and he taught me how to catch ducks with no trouble at all – a delightful meal.

During this period, I was able to undertake courses on odes, Ciphers, Fire Fighting and Flying Control, when not dealing with the Air Training Corps.

The latter course, Flying Control, said you had to fly at night to know about airfield layouts; this provoked yelps of laughter, for we were mostly operational fliers.

On this course we had the only flier I ever met who had the Air Force Cross, which he won as a flying instructor in Canada. Apparently he was awarded this for landing two Ansons, which had crashed on top of one another in mid air. The Canadian and American press reported the story, the moguls of Hollywood rewarded him in their usual way by giving him the biggest party he ever had. All the stars of the day were on the photographs he showed us, including Betty Grable, Shirley Temple, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Jayne Russell, Don Amichie, Spencer Tracey, to mention just a few.

Apart from your officer’s duties, other jobs came along and for me being in charge of fifty German POWs was one. Here I was fortunate for the senior prisoner was a sergeant and a former instructor at the German Military College for Army Officers (Berlin).

They were mostly older men and old enough to be my father. They were ably led and only too willing to do any job they were allocated. I had no trouble with them and one became batman to Hoppy Hooper and myself. He was great, particularly when we gave him a place of his own, with all the necessary facilities.

Strangely enough, being a flier did not seem to bother them, for they realised we were all in the same boat and it was not of our making.

Language was no barrier, for the Sergeant spoke good English and I was thankful for that. Rank was observed and a room of his own allocated and this he appreciated.

RAF VALLEY

At this station we had a flying controller called Flight Lieutenant Sony Albertine, a former Battle of Britain pilot and to all intents and purposes, his physical presence would be called normal until one evening whilst sitting in the bar, playing records of the time, the tune “Stardust” dropped onto the table. Everything appeared normal until suddenly tears streamed from one eye and it was only then the story unfolded that Sony had lost one eye on a dogfight, needless to say this record was accidentally broken on purpose.

Group Captain Groves, Station Commander had a lady car diver, Mrs. Barbara Standeven, a widow whose husband an Army Major had been killed in action.

She was not a W.A.A.F. but a member of F.A.N.Y. an elite group of drivers for Senior Officers; she was a wealthy woman being a member of the Standeven family of Halifax, Yorks., one of the largest mill owners of the time. An occasion arose when I had to go to the Air Ministry in London and I accidentally met Barbara, who along with a group of friends, took me to a Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel in aid of the “Westminster Boys’ Fund”, and lo and behold, I won a prize in the raffle, a 3lb box of Black Magic, something we had not seen for years. This I gave to Barbara, in return for her kindness of inviting me. After the ball we adjourned to her flat in Park Lane where I saw a picture of her mother-in-law. This proved fortuitous, for some years later, at the Royal Hotel in Scarborough, I found myself seated at the same table, and having revealed this fact to her, we had an enjoyable holiday. It’s a small world.

Another guest was Tony Brooke of the Brooke Bond Tea Company, a navigator who Barbara later married.

Whilst in essence I have said the A.T.C. boys were very good, the only incident of note occurred here. A case of “boys will be boys” that from their point of view went wrong.

Early one morning the telephone by the side of my bed rang. The station police were reporting a disturbance, so I put my greatcoat over my pyjamas and jumped into my jeep to investigate. Quietly and unobtrusively, I saw the boys having a ding-dong of a pillow fight and the corporal in charge was getting a good old bashing. Noting it was becoming boisterous I quietly opened the door, only to get covered in water. A bucket had been lodged at the top of the door. Within seconds you could have heard a pin drop, a few choice words and everything was normal.

They were left wondering and worrying what the next day had in store. The station police were told to forget all about it, which they did. The corporal came to me and apologised and a sigh of relief was all that remained, after all they were all on holiday at the Annual Camp.

Another joke we played occurred with the “Rapide”. We were flying down “Red Wharf Bay” a beautiful beach, when one of the cadets spotted a tent in which his sister and boyfriend were enhanced. We flew low right over the top of it and suddenly two people in bathing costumes hurried out, not quite knowing what was going on. I only got to know this some time later when I met the cadet and his sister in Bangor.

The cadet got a rollicking from his parents but his sister was a good sport and we all had a good laugh.

Customs Officer was another little job, for by this time the station was now Transport Command and categorised as an emergency field for aircraft in trouble. With 364 flying days per year this was a natural solution.

Fortunately I was only called out twice, once to a Dakota of Aer Lingus and secondly, an American Liberator from the Azores.

The busiest day I recall was the day we helped send Fortresses of the 8th US Air Force on their way to Newfoundland, and thence to America. Every dispersal was full, as were parts of the perimeter track. F/O Hoppy Hooper and Ned Evans did a magnificent job, with three Fortresses on the long runway at one time.

In all we must have had around one hundred aircraft, and I am sure the people of Holyhead and the surrounding villages must have wondered what was going on.

During this period, the only accident occurred early one morning. Due to wind, the sand had built up to form a hump near the shore on the short runway. A Liberator came in, hit the hump, broke its back and finished up in two parts. Nobody was particularly hurt, only shook up and the only job I had to do was check for fire and fuel leaks, internally that all fuel switches were off and advise the Air Ministry that the airfield was unserviceable for use.

Another day of note was the first Open Day to the public. We gathered together as many aircraft as we could to thank them for their support and they came in their hundreds and the ATC cadets gave us their valuable support, as they do today.

Much of what is in this section happened towards the end of the World War II, until the time of demobilisation, but what happened when you wanted to be a flier and eventually succeeded?

Once again you were left in a situation similar to finishing operational flying, the only basic difference being time had healed many of the wounds you had incurred; the basic difference being what do you do with the many who had been through six and a half years, lost all experience of youth and incurred more knowledge than the average man does in a lifetime?

This was the last problem you faced on being a flier. What did you do? You did the best with what you had and proceeded to carve a new life for yourself. Some went back to University; others back to worn out industry. Part of the tragedy of these men was that there were no suitable jobs to use the vast experience they had gained. What a waste!

CHAPTER 19

NO WEEPING NOW - J R WALSH 1976

I went back to the lonely wolds, the fens and the empty sky, I saw the tall gaunt elms, heard the calling rooks,
Now time has passed me by.
Grass has grown on the runways, in the hangars stood rusty ploughs,
The dispersal points were empty, just starlings and grazing cows,
The Watch Office stood deserted,
Or maybe the ghosts of men,
Stood and watched as I walked, remembering,
For I said I would come back again.
The Windsock stood in tatters, forlorn in the cold damp air,
Then I thought “what does it matter”, there is nobody here to care,
The crew huts were but ruins, rotting timbers and sagging floors,
Not a voice to break the silence, just the wind and the creaking door,
Then I recalled these once were billets,
Full of life and the noise of men,
With the crackling roar of Merlins,
Or the whispering scratch of a pen.
So I stood quite still to listen, was there a message there for me?
In shadows would they remember, had they left me a sign to see?
If they had it was too elusive, made dim by the veil of years,
And I recalled all the purpose and courage,
Till my eyes were blurred by the tears.
I turned away downhearted for this was not the field I had known,
Not the brave home of my memories, fool I was for the years had flown.

CHAPTER 20

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote this story purely for something to do, not just personal satisfaction or anything like that. Surprisingly, fifty years on, it came back so easily, one thought triggered another memory and so on.

The disappointment for me today is that subsequent generations have had so much, the nuclear deterrent has seen to that, and they do not recognise their luck. They are avaricious, insolent and lack understanding and good manners and I wonder, in view of this, whether all my fellow fliers paid a price that was ever worthwhile.

The only consolation was, it was “war” and we did not start it.

The areas of Lincolnshire where we were stationed during this period had their faces altered from cornfields to a mass of airfields, attached to villages, which had hitherto only been specks on a map.

The village churches took on a new meaning and for many a sad one, for its attendant churchyards. Today there is hardly a churchyard, which does not hold the remains of a flier, some, many fliers of different nationalities and in these churches, tattered old flags, a reminder of the squadrons who served nearby.


In this respect Lincoln Cathedral, a rallying point for gaining height on operational nights, has a greater significance, for within its walls is the “Aircrew Chapel” and a book of all the aircrew who perished in these fateful days.

A page is turned every day - “A tribute to the fallen”.

Other fliers could write a story similar to this, with often graver and more disastrous results, not only for themselves and their families, so in many respects I suppose we do count our blessings and are thankful to the many people who did their best for us and in return we hope, after flying was done, we did the same for the fliers who followed us.


“PER ADRUA AD ASTRA”

 

 

Pr-BR