World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                       William Brown 

A Memorable Year - One of Many

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: William J Brown
Location of story: Iraq
Unit name: No. 4 Flying Training School
Background to story: Royal Air Force



William J Brown

While not wishing to detract from the gallantry of the air crews during the war, the following account of a year in the life of a "then" Air Craftsman 1 engine fitter, will show that the work of the ground crews was not without adventures.

In May 1941 I was serving with No. 4 Flying Training School at Habbaniya. This was the time of the Iraqi rebellion - a little recognised action but one which had a significant effect on the war. On May 1st 1941 an almost illegible entry in a diary reads "Things look rather grim -for us, all issued with an extra 100 rounds for our rifles".

Thereafter, I served with No. 261 Squadron which was reformed from a nucleus of Gladiators and Hurricanes from 94 Squadron sent from Egypt to reinforce Habbaniya, prior to the appearance of the Luffiwaffe. Imshi Mason, the only bearded pilot in the RAF was C.O. I was allocated one of the Hurricanes - seeming very complex after Audax K3118.

Our next job after the "flap" at Habb was to follow army units into Syria against the Vichy French in what was named "Habb Force". The first stop was at Abu Kemal, where the oil pipe from Kirkuk splits, the T section to Tripoli in Syria and the H section to Haifa. Here the squadron divided, the Gladiators eventually arriving at Palmyra. The Hurricanes followed the Euphrates to Deir et Zor and were preparing to move to Raqqa when the Armistice with the French was declared on July 4th.

All this time refuelling was done by hand from 4 gallon cans fuel strained through chamois leather and carried in Crossley six wheelers - not too comfortable an operation, if petrol slopped over into ears or other openings! I know!

All this in midsummer in the Syrian desert - no shade - no sun cream!

Back to Habbaniya in our all purpose Crossley trucks and back to a much needed bath. We were then rejoined by the rest of the Squadron from Palmyra and equipped as a full Hurricane Squadron.

A short stay and then down to Shaibah by Valencia to cover the occupation of Iran before returning to Habb, this time by rail to Baghdad and thence by road.

Another short stay then on our way again, this time to Mosul where there was a Heinkei 111 left by the Germans. We were told that reconnaissance flights were being carried out along the Turkish border and beyond by our long-range Hurricanes - terrible to refuel.

Just time to recover from sandfly fever, and on my way with a flight of 4 Hurricanes - this time as defence of Haifa. Still travelling by Valencia and still the same "in flight entertainment" watching the R.P.M. gauges (situated out on the engine nacelle) fluctuated as we wallowed around over Transjordan - no CSUs (constant speed units) fitted yet.

In flight catering consisted of such gastronomic delights as the un-expired portions of the day's rations, bully beef sandwich, cheese sandwich and probably a tomato or a hard boded egg. Drinks were of tepid water from our water bottles but since full water chargals (canvas bags) were attached to the struts we were assured of a cool drink at a refuelling stop.

Christmas Eve 1941 saw us on the move once again with our 4 Hurricanes, this time to Nicosia in defence of Cyprus, a further 4 Hurricanes from the squadron at Mosul replacing ours at Haifa. This time we travelled by a D.C. 2 (31 squadron). The tail plane was covered by the signatures of numerous film stars, but no safety belts or seats! We sat on our bed rolls and hung on to the sides! I think the plane had originally belonged to Florida Airways, hence the decorations.

Talk about a holiday island, we arrived in a blizzard of sleet coming down from Trudos. However a Christmas dinner was provided but by whom I have no idea as there were only twenty of us, all aircraft tradesman. It was decided by Sergeant Burden (Lofty) that in the event of invasion, we should take to the hills. Fortunately this proved unnecessary. One memorable incident was when Hon. Billy Buchan landed in a fuel dump but with little damage to either!

We remained there until sometime in February 1942 when we were recalled to Palestine, this time by DH86. In the meantime the rest of the squadron had moved from Mosul and we all met at an aerodrome still under construction; I think it was called St. Jean. Some confusion now reigns, for next we are on our way to Helwan - minus our aircraft but with lots of conjecture. Eventually all a/c tradesmen were separated for further travel, others told they would follow later. By this time our popular C.O. Imshi Mason had handed over and unfortunately was killed shortly afterwards in the Western Desert. We proceeded to Port Tewfick there boarding "The Princess Kathleen" for quite a pleasant trip to Port Sudan where we found we were to embark on the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Indomitable along with 30 Squadron. On embarking (Grog or no grog!). I opted for grog!

Our destination at the time was unknown to us and it was during the voyage that we were given to understand that we would be landing in Ceylon. 261 had sixteen Hurricanes and 30 squadron would have the same. These were in a partially dismantled state, assembly to be carried out on board and aircraft flown off when we were within range of Ceylon. All this time, flight deck space was limited and Fleet Air Arm were still carrying out their patrols. We were escorted by two Australian destroyers Nestor and Napier.

We eventually arrived at China Bay with 16 Mark 2 and one Mark 1 Hurricanes, 30 Squadron having gone to Colombo. It would now be early March 1942.

This was a period of chaos in the Far East and on arrival it was found there was insufficient ammunition to arm all our aircraft. However the powers that be must have anticipated trouble as an ammunition ship that had put into Colombo had been told to clear off, eventually arriving at Trincomalee. We boarded it and after removing tons of bombs of various sizes and a large amount of pyrotechnics all dumped at China Bay, we removed our requirements, giving us just time to get sorted out before the Jap attack on April 2nd 1942.

Twenty two days short of one year since the attack on Habbaniya!

The importance of the putting down of the rebellion in Iraq at this time wasn’t realized in Britain owing to the situation here at that time.

However, it prevented the Germans from acquiring the Iraqi oil fields and a back way into Russia (A good read describing the situation at that time is a book by A.V.M. Dudgeon – “A War That Never Was”).