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Jeff Chapman 582 SquadronMy Father was at Little Staughton from April 1944 to February 1945. He flew on operations until October 1944. He had completed three tours including several sorties in the master bomber crew with the squadron commander. This is his story:
Desert Song by Jeff Chapman
Where are they now;
those who went to war by night,
And those below their droning height,
who, in their terror, cried,
"Why kill our children so?"
Where did they go?
Are they yet there, with those who did not die?
And do we, faintly, hear their cry
from that land of long ago?
I went to the library to return a book. As I was still at the reception counter I saw a book that somebody else had just brought back. Normally I would not have given it a second glance but something made me pick it up. It was called 'Notable escapes during World War II' or something of the sort. I sat down to have a look through it and, curiously, it opened at the beginning of a chapter which caught my eye. It was about the crew of an aircraft of 148 Squadron who had been attacking a German-held airfield at Derna in North Africa on the night of 31st May 1942. On the way home they had been attacked in turn by a German night-fighter, had an engine put out of action and eventually crash-landed in the empty (and very sandy) spaces of Cyrenaica.
What caused my particular interest in this was that '148' was one of our 'sister' squadrons based twenty or thirty miles further west from us near a point on the map known as Fuka. Several members of this crew survived the crash and two of them decided to walk as far as they could. The others opted to stay by the aircraft, which was, depending on where you thought you were and whether you had managed to get a message back to base before you put down, recommended as the better way of staying alive.
These two chaps walked by night and slept by day anywhere they could find some shade. They had no food and no water but were able to keep themselves going by licking the dampness, which formed at the base of rocks and large stones just before dawn. By walking due north they survived long enough in this fashion to get to the coastal road where they were picked up by the German Army and became prisoners of war. A remarkable example of determination and effort.
When I got home from the library I looked in my flying logbook and saw that the previous night to this, 30th May, my crew and I had flown a similar mission against the same target and again on the 1st June, each a round trip of 5 hrs 40 minutes. I had noted in my logbook that on the first occasion the Ack-Ack at the target was particularly intense and unpleasant but much less so the second time. Perhaps our joint effort had not done them any good. I make the point about these dates because, generally speaking, our squadron went bombing one night and 148 Squadron the next on a regular sort of rota which went on for much of that summer.
Our squadron, No.70, then known as No.70 Bomber and Transport Squadron had been a veteran of Middle East affairs since the 1920's flying unwieldy Vickers 'Valencia' and 'Victoria' twin-engined biplanes. In those days bombs were dropped upon any Kurdish tribes who became restive through the presence of the British in their territory. We were now equipped, as was 148 Sqdn, with the Wellington Ic bomber powered by the reliable but rather underpowered Pegasus engines, and, we liked to think, engaged in a more worthy cause.
We were based on a flat portion of desert much like any other and distinguished from others only by its number, Landing Ground 104. Our unit straddled the tarmac road which ran, more or less without interruption, from Alexandria, 100 miles to the East, to Tripoli, 1000 miles to the West. Our aircraft were parked at the end of the landing strip which lay parallel to the road and between it and the single railway track, a mile to the south, which ran from Alexandria as far as Mersa Matruh. A few miles up the track were a few nondescript railway station buildings which were graced by a mention on maps as El Daba.
For us aircrew every other day and night came to be a sort of day off from the war. This was not so much for our benefit as for that of the engine fitters working desperately to keep the sand out of our rather clapped-out engines and making them good for yet one more trip.
Twenty minutes walk to the north was the Mediterranean, very blue, and clean and wholesome (in those days) and we swam and sunbathed at will. This was, I suppose, if one forgot about the next night's 8-hour slog to find some shipping to bomb in Benghazi harbour and being shot at rather effectively for one's pains, as near to paradise as one was likely to get for the foreseeable future.
About 6 p.m. all ranks went to their respective mess-tents for the main nosh-up of the day. If we were lucky it would be fried bully beef and some canned potatoes and a mug of tea brewed in a dilute solution of chlorine with a teaspoonful of sand in it for good measure; and if the supplies had come up from Alex, we would be able to buy a couple of pints of New Zealand beer from the canteen for afters. As it got dark the whole squadron would prepare itself for the evening's entertainment.
We had shallow hollows in the sand with a low tent slung over which served as sleeping quarters for two. These were scattered haphazardly and I shared tent No. 55 with Geoff Stayton, our front gunner. Each of us was responsible for his own air-raid precautions and Geoff and I had dug a slit trench about 3 feet deep next to our tent and we would now get into it with our bottles and await events.
In the incredible silence of the desert you could hear it coming for miles, a kind of throbbing that you knew was the usual Junkers 88. One's ears, in those days, became finely tuned to the sound of individual aircraft types. Jerry pilots were apt to de-synchronise their engines, that is they would run one engine, say, 20 rpm slower than the other thus producing a distinctive 'beat' every three seconds. There was a theory that they thought this had an effect on our radar systems (not that we had any in the Middle East) and of course this was nonsense but they nearly always seemed to do it. Maybe they just liked the noise. If any of our own pilots failed to get their engines together they would receive suitable advice from their crewmembers as this throbbing could get quite wearing on the nerves. (I express my regrets to the reader if these technical details become tedious but this wom-wom-wom noise had been a fact of life in Britain since 1940 as anyone who reads this, of a certain age, will recall.)
The Ju. 88 was the work-horse of the Luftwaffe, a very efficient twin-engined aircraft, fast, manoeuvrable, and versatile in that it was used as a night-fighter as well as a bomber. They always came from the west, the pilot map-reading his way easily enough along the coast, keeping just a little bit out to sea until he found us to avoid any stray flak as they would fly quite low. He would clearly see the three promontories one after the other along the coast, the Ras Alam el Rum at Mersa Matruh, the Ras el Kenafs at Fuka and the Ras el Daba. He would know that if he drew an imaginary line due south from the Ras el Daba he would find us at the point where it crossed the tarmac road. Not that he would see us all that clearly, if at all, for everything was heavily camouflaged. But he would have a good game with us for a while, dropping the odd bomb whenever the fancy took him, have a circle round, come in from a different angle, five minutes later drop another and so on. We usually kept our heads above ground to see what was going on until we heard the whistle of the bomb coming down and then, like the proverbial ostrich, buried our heads in the sand. When it was moonlight the aircraft would be perfectly visible at their usual height of 1500 - 2000 feet and one could judge fairly well from its course whether it was heading immediately our way. Darkness in the desert was not as we knew it back home; light from the stars was enough and there seemed such an incredible number of them; but moonlight was another thing altogether and good enough to read a copy of that multi-purpose publication, the Eighth Army News, that is if you still had a copy that hadn't been torn up into handy sized squares. As by this time the second half of our beer ration was now comfortably inside most of us a somewhat more relaxed view could be taken, especially towards the end of our occupation of L.G. 104 when we knew that in the several months of nightly bombing we had had, Jerry might have put some holes through our aeroplanes, but no-one had been even slightly injured.
We had no ack-ack as such but all the ground crew had been issued with a rifle and ammunition. There were about 150 of them and they would fire at will from their trenches as Jerry came over. One particular night it was very bright moonlight and he came over low, and very visible. He must have known how clearly we could see him because we used to bomb his airfield at low-level in just the same way. Nothing much happened at first; each time he came over he dropped one bomb, we ducked our heads, and looked again. Each time a hundred and fifty different points of aim put up a barrage of bullets he would have to fly through. After several runs over the landing ground we heard one of his engines hesitate a bit, cough a bit, and then the other engine rise in pitch as the pilot gave it full throttle to maintain height. We were all out of our trenches trying to get a look and saw it disappear towards the southeast and we knew he was in trouble because he didn't seem to be able to turn to go back home. In a minute or so we could see an orange glow on the ground some miles away. We all knew what it meant. There was a sort of half-hearted cheer. "Poor buggers", I heard someone say.
There was quiet for a moment. And then Jones-the-Voice started up. (Every squadron seemed to have one, I learned, when I was older in the Service.) Enthused by the occasion, by the New Zealand beer, and by the cool of the desert night perhaps, he launched himself with the panache characteristic of his race into 'Lili Marlene', the song of North Africa in '42; borrowed by us from the Germans and sung by either side whenever the occasion seemed to require it. He sung the official version for two or three verses, (I always like to think he was a sensitive soul), before degenerating, if that is the right word, into the squadron version, some two dozen verses I should think, most of which cast doubts about the parentage of NCOs in general, some in particular; pilots who misused their engines (but that wasn't the word he used); all politicians, Hitler and Goering; und so weiter. It went on and on. Voices from near and voices from far away entered into a sort of dismembered chorus. It was all rather moving in the otherwise now-silent desert night and, to me, it has become quite unforgettable. I have to confess that I never found the words of Lili Marlene particularly edifying, then or now, and have long forgotten the squadron version but I never hear that haunting tune without instant recall of that occasion and, I sometimes imagine, when a little carried away by nostalgia, that it was perhaps, a kind of unconscious requiem. And something else, too...the thought, reinforced by more recently received perceptions from both sides, that maybe the greater enemy had been the harsh, unyielding, and unforgiving desert itself.
It’s a strange thing why I got to remember this at all. It was those chaps in that book in the library licking stones to keep alive. It reminded me of how damp it felt at the bottom of our slit trench that night. Funny, how one small thing reminds you of what you thought you had long forgotten.
These events which returned to my mind so readily during my visit to the library made me start to think about that year, 1942, and I came to the conclusion that my recollections of it are probably more vivid after the perspective given by time than most other years.
I have therefore decided to try and write about it while I am still able. I acknowledge that no one has ever asked me, or, indeed is ever likely to, but I have noticed that many of those who bare their souls do so without any prompting by an eager public. And I make no apology for the fickle winds, or just inattention (which airmen are sometimes prone to), that occasionally take me off course during this story of what turned out to be really just a longish journey; or for a tendency, verging on the tedious at times, no doubt, to dwell on technical detail.
I had, at the beginning of that year, not long since become twenty-one. I was a newly promoted sergeant in the Royal Air Force and recently deemed to have become sufficiently proficient at wireless telegraphy and air gunnery to become part of the crew of a Vickers 'Wellington' bomber aircraft - I should say at least that I had a certificate to this effect. Such an aircraft required, in those days, two pilots, a navigator, a wireless operator/air gunner such as myself, and two air- gunners. About sixty of us, in our assorted trades, all much of an age, had arrived at Operational Training Unit No.23 at Moreton-in-the-Marsh in the heart of the Cotswolds towards the end of summer 1941. The method of forming us into crews was quite simply that of putting our names into a hat. In retrospect this turned out to be as good a system as any and I have no doubt that had we been allowed a choice we would have made no better for all that we were a motley collection - or maybe even because of it.
Bill Gunning was one of our pilots who came out of the hat; very Welsh and a schoolmaster, rather highly strung, at 30 much older than the rest of us, and a Canadian, Johnnie Carpenter, very laid back, the other. Our navigator, whose name I confess to having forgotten was Australian, extremely tall and spare of frame, also very laid back and spoke, if at all, extremely slowly. The two gunners were 'Jock' Brown, not surprisingly a Scot, and Geoff Stayton, who, with a background very similar to my own, represented the English.
We were programmed during the next three months to fly nearly every day and sometimes at night, at first with our instructor, a pre-war, regular officer who had completed a tour of at least 30 bombing operations (and whom, for that reason, we regarded with some awe); and, after we had become reasonably competent, to go it alone. Our flying consisted mainly of cross-country runs on the western side of Britain up as far as the Mull of Galloway and back down the Irish Sea, or sometimes the other way round; and sometimes short bombing and gunnery exercises. A few of the crews, including ours, were moved after a few weeks from Moreton, which was as comfortable as a peace-time base, and sent out to its 'satellite' airfield at Edgehill, near Banbury.
There we lived in wooden huts which we could never get warm - nights when we were not flying we would huddle round the communal cast-iron stove; the lavatorial arrangements were primitive and were often frozen up and we had to be taken by truck back to Moreton once a week, for instance, in order to have a bath, but service life was certainly more easy-going than the more regimental Moreton-in-the Marsh. One of the pleasures of Banbury (in fact the only one as far as I knew) was Ye Olde Tea Shop where the two delightful welcoming elderly ladies still made Banbury Cakes and always, somehow, managed to produce them in sufficient numbers when we arrived, together with the best cup of tea for miles around. We lived for a time in a state of blissful ignorance of perils to come that we had not anticipated. One night in Nov. '41, some of us took off from Edgehill, Moreton-in-the-Marsh and other training places despite a warning of snow. It did, in fact, begin to snow hard and some of them got lost and either ran out of fuel because they couldn't find anywhere to land and crashed, or crashed attempting to land at base which was to have a sobering effect not just on us but on the whole of Training Command, apparently. We, ourselves, were flying that night from Edgehill but fortunately with an experienced pilot who sensed that something was going wrong with the weather and decided on his own initiative to return early from our cross- country. Even so we lost all contact with the ground and I had for the first time, in a situation which was becoming increasingly life threatening, to use such skills as I possessed to get wireless bearings and fixes. (One of the principles of safe flying when not certain of one's position is never to come down through cloud below the height of the highest ground that it would be possible to be over. This is easy to say; not so easy in practice. When fuel runs short the temptation to go down through cloud and have a look can be dangerous.) Anyway, we 'homed' thus by wireless to Moreton where they had a D/F (direction-finding) station, made a safe, if somewhat interesting landing, thanks to our instructor, and stayed there the rest of the night.
On Sunday 7th December '41 we went for yet another 6 hour round trip up to Scotland with the Squadron Leader in charge of our unit to check us out for competence as a crew. It had been clear weather over Wales and the Irish Sea and, heading once again for the Mull of Galloway, we had passed over the south west tip of the Isle of Man right on course and flying at 19000 feet. A well-developed mass of cloud soon appeared ahead of us. Normally one would have picked one's way through it, finding the gaps as though they were mountain peaks which pilots found quite fun to do and certainly desirable within a particular range of air-temperatures because of the dangers of icing. Be that as it may, "I'll give you a little experience of icing", he said, took the controls himself and went straight into it.
I looked out of my small window which was level with the leading edge of the port wing and the exhaust collector ring of the port engine eight feet or so away. Normally this got hot enough for me to see it glow a dull red at night. I saw ice building up rapidly on this to a thickness of 4 or 5 inches and then like a sheet over the wings and, with that, the controls locked solid, both engines cut, and everything seemed to go berserk. The next 90 seconds seemed quite unreal; as though in slow motion. I kept thinking 'this is not really happening, I am not in an aeroplane dropping like a stone over the Irish Sea' But I could see, and when I think about it can now still quite clearly see the Sqdn Leader with not just his hands but also both feet on the control column trying to shift it. The navigator and I were flung about in all directions by the 'G' forces working upon us and the aircraft but with considerable effort reached the area behind the pilots and were able to see, not out of the aircraft because of the ice covering all the perspex, but the alarming revolutions of the altimeter and the non-revolutions of the engines. At about 3000 feet some of the ice shook off or melted as we lurched downwards, the wings bending alarmingly, the controls moved, both engines coughed, spluttered, and eventually re-started after some quite alarming bangs and saved us an unscheduled landing in the drink as normality was restored. There was one very sheepish (and probably quite frightened) Sqdn Ldr. and one extremely frightened crewmember, and as nobody spoke a word for some time I assume the others had much the same sort of thoughts. In retrospect, I would rate this as one of the worst experiences of my life. Even during the course of three tours of operational flying ahead of me we always managed to keep at least half our engines going. Having none over the sea is not recommended. However it was an extremely good lesson we learned that day as at least it taught us to go round large and nasty-looking clouds rather than through them. It also gave me some idea, for instance, of the physical problems to be faced in trying to clamber out of a badly damaged aircraft, (on fire perhaps), wearing a flying suit, Mae-West, parachute-harness, parachute, and gyrating all over the sky. I tried not to think about that too much. This particular day was, of course, rather more momentous for events other than this. The Japanese entered the war by striking at Pearl Harbour, Malaya and Hong Kong and, as the temperature on the Russian front went down to 40° below zero, the German forces were just, but only just, being beaten back from the outskirts of Moscow.
Three days after this, on our next cross-country exercise, with Bill Gunning in charge and at the controls, it was seen that the panel on the starboard wing which covered the dinghy storage had disappeared and that the dinghy itself was self-inflating, as it was designed to do (but only if you landed on water). As it pushed itself out of its compartment, and before it had become no more than half-inflated, it was seized by the slipstream over the wing and immediately became entangled with the tailplane and rudder in such a way that we could only shift it by landing. About the same time, and coincidentally, the wireless packed up. Needing no further reason for aborting our flight we returned to base in an untidy and certainly incongruous fashion making a surprisingly good landing considering the restriction on our steering capabilities and causing some interest in so doing. It was a fact of life that an aircraft in apparent difficulties would draw a crowd faster than a Naafi van. While one invariably felt sick in one's stomach there was always this compulsion to watch.
In the couple of weeks that followed we completed our training in the comparative and continuing calm of the Cotswolds despite these world events. Bill Gunning was designated as our aircraft captain with Johnnie Carpenter as 2nd pilot. They both had much the same experience but the older of the two had the edge, on paper at least. Perhaps I should say here that the aircraft captain was normally the pilot with the most flying experience regardless of rank; a sergeant pilot could be captain with even a quite senior officer in the crew and still make all the decisions as far as flying the aircraft was concerned. Our new skipper was good at take-offs but could make some quite exciting landings and we got quite used to bracing ourselves for the bump. In the end he mastered the art of 'going round again' by sheer necessity but somewhat at the expense of our nervous systems. J. Carpenter, however, always landed at the first attempt with confidence and finesse, so between them they did well - the rest of the crew soon realised that an unspoken arrangement developed whereby at night or when the weather was dodgy or there was a nasty cross-wind JC did the landing, much to the relief of the rest of the crew. I, certainly, having already developed something of a neurosis about aborted landings had developed a technique to cope with it (the neurosis, I mean). I will try and explain.
The Wellington was a reliable and tough aircraft without any particular vices. However, in the cockpit the separate levers which operated the undercarriage and the flaps (which slowed the aircraft for landing) were somewhat close together under the throttle levers. Coming in to land with undercarriage down and full flap, if the pilot misjudged his approach to the runway - and this was very common to the inexperienced - he had to make a quick decision whether to try and make the best of it and get the aircraft down on the ground somehow (particularly in bad weather) or to have another go at it. This is the process known as 'going round again'. If he decided on the latter the rest of the crew usually held their breath, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best. Assuming that he had put the propellers into 'fine pitch' for the landing he would have to push both throttles fully forward with his right hand to engage full power, keep the aircraft steady for the moment with his left hand on the control column at the same time pushing it forward against some pressure to keep the nose down until sufficient speed had been built up, simultaneously feel for - and lift up - the undercarriage lever under the throttles with his right hand and then with the same hand lift up the flap lever bit by bit. In the stress of the situation, especially at night, the unwary pilot could mistake the undercarriage lever for the flap lever (being, as I have said, close together) and lift off full flap in one go, the aircraft would suddenly lose the extra lift provided by them being in the fully down position and immediately lose height and fly into the ground. I saw this happen a few times from the ground and the resulting orange fireball and cloud of black smoke was horrible to watch. Whenever possible therefore I used to stand behind pilots when we came in to land to try and prevent this - not of course that I ever let on about what I was thinking. It was all quite ridiculous and in any case I was sure I would never have had the nerve to intervene. (Not until 1943 was a simple delaying device fitted in the flaps hydraulic system to stop this happening - but too late for many). I did, however pluck up courage to intervene in slightly different circumstances during 1943 while on a routine flight, just the pilot (quite a senior officer) and myself, were coming in to land at Pershore. On this occasion we were on the final approach, wheels and flaps down, throttles right back, and about a hundred yards from touch-down when I jabbed the perspex in front of him realising he had apparently not seen, near the beginning of the runway, a small gang of men doing a repair job, and who seemed not to have heard us coming. He pulled the control-column back, gave a burst of throttle and we cleared them. "Thank you", he said, "never saw them at all".
As a crew we ate together, flew together, and off-duty went out and about together. All other crews did the same so one never really got to know anyone else very well. This, I suppose, explains why, when another crew was killed or missing one felt a sense of foreboding and unease rather than the loss of a personal friend. But we certainly took heed of our instructor who gave us advice like "Never say a single word on the intercom that isn't essential and after you've said it switch your microphone off, and never, ever, smoke in the aircraft.” With this crew of which I had just become a member and other crews I joined later in the war thankfully this became almost a religion. Each crew-member, of course had a leather flying helmet with ear-phones built-in and a detachable oxygen mask with an expandable rubber tube to connect up to the oxygen system with a built-in microphone, with switch, and a longish lead, both of which would plug into a number of sockets at various places in the aircraft. When anyone spoke every crewmember would hear what he said. I have seen so many war-films in which aircrews seemed to chatter; it used to really make me cringe. I thought that they wouldn't have lasted long like that. Another aspect of crew membership was the accepting of fallibility with understanding. When for instance the pilot said to the navigator, "Navigator, where are we, please" one could sense from the number of seconds it took the navigator to reply whether he thought he knew or whether he was not quite sure. It was in those days quite difficult for anyone to be quite sure of where they were, especially at night over a blacked-out world below, or over cloud. (Electronic navigational aids were still in the future as far as we were concerned). He would as far possible work out his courses before take-off taking into consideration the meteorological wind-forecasts.
When the aircraft was airborne and the pilot settled in his seat the navigator would give him the first course to set on his compass. The pilot would repeat this back and confirm the aircraft's air speed. Providing one flew at a certain speed in a certain direction one would, theoretically, arrive at a pre-determined position at the appropriate time. It was never as simple as that. Winds were the bane of a navigator's life. The air we flew through was never quite still and he spent most of the time at his desk trying to calculate the amount of drift we were being subjected to; he would be happy if he got a visual fix from a recognisable point on the ground: if all else failed, and he could see a star he recognised he might try a bit of astro-navigation which needed much skill and even so was far from accurate. Sometimes with the help of the rear gunner who could put his sights on something on the ground he could calculate the deviation.
So, with good luck, we survived our training and as a crew we were still all good friends. Our main concern now was where were we going from here. A bomber squadron? - Coastal Command? In the event we ended up at a somewhat obscure airfield at Harwell near Oxford, which had given its name to the infamous and aptly named 'Harwell Box' which approximated to a packing case about 5 feet in all directions and in which we wireless operators under training were literally boxed in, in the early stages, to learn to receive and transmit the morse code. (If the object was to give us a life-long tendency to claustrophobia, in my case they certainly succeeded.) My wireless training took place in the late summer and autumn of 1940 at Compton Bassett in Wiltshire where for eight hours a day we (inside our Harwell Boxes) were stuffed full of the morse code and the insides of transmitters and receivers. It used to be said that all w/ops became slightly deranged by morse (handy, I suppose to be able to blame it all on something). Secretly, we probably enjoyed this distinction as we had our own world and a skill in a language which no one else could understand. Another thing which put us apart, in Bomber Command at any rate, was that on a non-operational flight the only crewmember essentially required to be on board apart from the pilot was the w/op because of his ability to obtain a navigational bearing to or from any given position.
At remote and peaceful Compton Bassett I had spent the whole of the 15th September 1940, like everyone else, digging trenches outside our living quarters. While we were thus toiling - during the whole of a very warm day - Hitler decided not to invade these islands for the time being. It has also gone down in history as the last official day of the Battle of Britain through the efforts of our gallant fighter pilots. And, rather less significantly, it was my 20th birthday… (and I wonder what happened to those trenches? they were almost certainly never used).
At Harwell our future readily became more clear when we were issued not only with some rudimentary maps of the Mediterranean and North Africa but, unbelievably, an absolutely brand-new Wellington '1c' bomber, Serial Number DV 419, to go with them. We had never seen a new one before let alone been given the opportunity to get in and fly it. Had we been posted to the average bomber squadron in England we would have been given something rather clapped out; maybe a bit better than the ones we had been flying during training. (It may be of interest that one of the Wellingtons we had flown in at Edgehill was serial number N 1032 and the fact that aircraft serial number N 2983 had ditched in the North Sea in December 1939, according to records, indicates that N 1032 was getting rather long in the tooth.)
With it came instructions, unbelievably casual, to take the thing to Heliopolis. Where on earth was Heliopolis? I had heard of it but was not quite sure where it was. It soon became apparent we were now considered to be sort of grown-up chaps and would work things out for ourselves. Seasoned officers who last week would have looked upon us (if they looked at us at all) as some sort of unworthy being, suddenly became friendly. We had entered a new world in which parades, drills, roll calls, inspections, and that all-pervasive substance universally known as bullshit, had disappeared. (Being in those days and for some years yet to come still an innocent, I had never heard about this stuff until I joined-up at Cardigan and never fully understood its origin except that it was reputed to make the grass grow green in Texas). Henceforth we would just be told what to do and expected to get on with it without supervision. And from that time my service life became much more happy and agreeable and I cannot remember ever falling out with any colleagues or officers more senior to myself.
It was about this time that quite a number of established aircrews were sent overseas together with a smaller number of those, like us, who had just finished their initial training. There is a suggestion in Air Ministry records that the cost of our very expensive training was a factor in a reduction of its duration and that that had had a knock-on effect on losses of bomber aircraft. There was also an expectation (which I doubt materialised for quite some time) that more aircraft would be manufactured to replace those lost both in training and on operational flights than in fact was the case.
A much earlier observation about Bomber Command capabilities (made in 1939, I understand, one month before the war began, by a very senior officer) was that a large proportion of our bomber aircrew would be unable to find a target in a friendly city in broad daylight - hardly encouraging, but no doubt achieved its object of spurring us into some sort of efficiency.
I think however that we felt confident enough in ourselves even though we had not been tested in the more exacting circumstances that we expected to come. We were soon to find out whether that confidence was justified.
To Biscay, Cape St. Vincent and Gibraltar
So, on the very first day of this year about which I write, I and the other members of the crew I had joined, blissfully ignorant of any such deficiencies in, or attenuation of, our training, took off happily enough in DV 419 at 14.10 hrs, so my flying log-book says, to see if everything worked and to check our fuel consumption. Under normal conditions, as far as I remember, we would use about 60 gallons of 100-octane fuel per hour at a cruising speed of around 130 knots in level flight (or something like 2 to 2½ miles per gallon). It always grieved me that one longish flight would use up more gallons than the average car would use in a lifetime. We flew around for three hours without any trouble. The next day we went along to the Severn estuary and tested all our guns over the water. (A Wellington was fitted with two Browning machine guns in the front turret and four in the rear turret. Each gun was capable of firing about 1000 rounds of .303 ammunition per minute).
On 3rd January after some minor maintenance we carried out an air test for 20 minutes, landing at Hampstead Norris, also in Oxfordshire, and we were ready. From there we were told to go down to Portreath, near Lands End, then make our way to Gibraltar, refuel there for Malta and from there to Heliopolis, which was a tram-ride north from Cairo, they said, impressing us with their local knowledge.
At 12.35, 4th January, now employed by 44 Group (Ferry Command), we set off for Portreath. It was a mild, rainy, gusty day with 10/10ths cloud at something less than 1000 feet so we followed the railway line nearly to Bristol and then turned south to give it a good miss in case they had barrage balloons up. They were always trigger-happy there in any case and a 'Wimpey' skimming through low cloud could become a Heinkel 111 to an enthusiastic gunner. This is an example of how, on a one-off flight such as this, it was very much up to the individual aircraft skipper how he got from A to B. Despite the weather we felt we were free spirits setting out proudly on our great adventure; a small self-contained entity of the war, and let loose from the tight structure of our service life with no problems other than to keep going until we got to Cairo and completely unconcerned as to what would happen if and when we got there.
We followed the south bank of the Severn estuary flying mostly at cliff-top height, our navigator quietly enjoying himself by map-reading for a change along the coast which was pleasantly exciting as none of us except the skipper had seen this part of Britain before; identifying such places as Weston-super-Mare, Minehead, Ilfracombe, Hartland Point, Bude, Tintagel and Trevose Head. A few minutes after identifying Newquay we found Portreath airfield on the cliff-top, and landed without trouble, 2 hours 25 minutes flying, and parked the aircraft where we were told next to a couple of other Wimpeys among a motley collection of aircraft types.
We hung around at Portreath. The weather was foul but good enough to take-off. Maybe it was bad in Gibraltar - a thousand miles south? We didn't know. We were not allowed out of camp (not that there was anywhere to go). No one told us anything. Maybe there was nothing to tell. But there again nobody was ever told anything unless they needed to know, even senior officers. A good idea really. But we believed (more or less) what we read in the newspapers which was the only way we knew what was going on. At the time of writing this I am not sure that I believe anything at all, but that is another matter.
On our third day however one of the other Wimpey crews who were on the same game as us had taken off early morning in the dark, had got to the end of the runway and straight into the drink 200 feet below. The previous evening we had wished them well. Later that day they turned up in the Sergeant‘s Mess; they seemed a bit shaken and subdued and didn't say much. (I do not think I would have wanted to, either.) They had had engine failure immediately after take-off and ditched successfully in the dark, inflated the dinghy and had all piled in without injury. An example of what a well-trained crew can do with good luck thrown in.
To say this gave us food for thought was an understatement but we had little time to dwell on it because the next morning was going to be our turn. Up very early. Take-off 06.38. The runway lights disappeared at the edge of the cliff, wheels and flaps up smartly and kept going, turned onto course and gave the engines a rest at 2000 feet, and 125 knots on the clock. We could, of course, have gone faster than this but presumably at the height we were flying this was the most economical speed in terms of miles to be covered. We climbed slowly to about 6000 feet and cruised comfortably south. We were a bit jolted out of our feeling of well-being when somewhere off the tip of Brest and well out to sea someone started throwing heavy flak at us. It didn't seem to be very near us and it didn't last long. We never knew who it was (probably our own navy it was thought). 'Flak', by the way was short, and necessarily so, for 'Fliegerabwehrkanone' which meant in practice more or less anything that was flung at us in the sky, otherwise known as 'Ack Ack' or Anti-Aircraft Artillery. During the Gulf War the American aircrews called it 'Triple A' I noticed. We were somewhere over Biscay two hours after take-off when the sun came up and we had a nice clear blue sky all the way to Gib. All we had to worry about was meeting up with a long-range German 'Condor' aircraft used mainly against shipping, or the Junkers '88' which could harass our Sunderland flying-boats over Biscay on 'U' Boat patrol.
I was reminded of the time when I was a ground-based wireless operator at Mount Batten (Plymouth) in 1941, a base for No.10 Squadron RAAF Sunderlands. I had been listening-out one day when I received a running commentary in morse from one of their aircraft which was being attacked over Biscay by no less than five of these JU 88's in a pack. By dint of getting down almost to sea level they managed to shoot two of them into the sea and the other three wisely made off. The Sunderland received some damage but got back safely to base. I was on this job at Plymouth for nine months before taking an Air Gunnery course and it gave me a great deal of wireless experience which most air-crew operators were not able to get. I could, by this time, listen to morse as though it was a second language which I could understand without thinking. (This might explain the glazed sort of look that wireless operators generally were said to have.) I kept as good a lookout as I could out of the Astrodome until the engines, running very smoothly, pulled us out of the danger area. One reason why the wireless-op became the general dogsbody of the crew was that he had a longer lead on his inter-comm than the others and was expected to do all sorts of odds and ends while still doing his main job.
Somewhere off the Spanish coast our navigator, who was not known to make any unnecessary statement, suddenly spoke on the intercom to break a long silence. "Skipper from Navigator, we are now at the point of no return." The skipper said, "Thank you. An interesting thought."
Come what may we now had to keep going. Not that we were worried as the fuel gauges had a reassuring look about them. We made landfall just off Cape St. Vincent and then turned a little east for Gibraltar.
On our left...out of sight...the Algarve coast gave way to the Gulf of Cadiz and in about another hour and a half the next piece of land we saw was Cape Trafalgar. We were then able to map-read our way along a few miles out from the Spanish coast. The memory of those last few miles stays with me forever. The bright green of the land, the white, yellow and red villas dotted about, the beaches... it was all extraordinarily exotic...especially in the incredible clarity of light that often exists during a winter's afternoon in the Mediterranean. And, of course, more importantly, for this is what we had come all this way for...ahead of us... impressively visible...was the Rock of Gibraltar. The rear-gunner could, of course, only see where we had been so the skipper called him out of his turret to come up and look out of the front of the aircraft for what was to us a unique event. It was quiet in the aircraft now that the engines had been throttled back to lose height.
The runway we had to use crossed the narrow neck of land which connects Gib to the mainland (and still does but now it is very much longer having been extended out to sea). It was only 1200 yards long in those days and quite tricky to land on for that reason and, if the wheels didn't touch down at the extreme end of the runway, one was inviting a cold bath at the other, either in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean depending which way one was going. It was even trickier to take-off from, fully loaded. There used to be a string of boats at quarter-mile intervals at either end of the runway to fish out the unfortunates who didn't make it - and there were quite a number who didn't, including the Polish Commander-in-Chief General Sikorski who was intending to travel back to the U.K. in a Liberator bomber.
In the event, we made a low approach over the water from the Atlantic side and touched down in the first few yards of the runway and pulled up well before the end. 8 hours 25 minutes in the air, ground speed about 118 knots. A pleasant and relaxing flight... as it turned out... with no problems.
So far, so good. We now hung about in Gibraltar for a few days. Hanging about was a vital part of the war effort wherever one was and one made the best of it. Gib was an interesting place to hang about in anyway and was nice and warm after Cornwall. If there was food rationing we did not notice it and we visited all the sights, saw the monkeys of course, hobnobbed with soldiers and sailors in transit to somewhere or other. Not, of course, that anyone ever said where they had come from or were going to, including us; everyone minded their own business. Various aircraft landed, some took-off; we watched them perform these activities with professional interest. We looked at the naval ships in the harbour. We were told that everything that happened at Gib was under surveillance by unfriendly people with large telescopes across the bay in Algeciras and there were spies everywhere. After 4 or 5 days we began to get a bit fidgety and wanted to get on with things.
One evening there was a diversion when it started to rain. It came down in sheets with no let-up. And then inside our hut we heard the sound of aircraft engines low overhead and looked out to see searchlights weaving in all directions. We were not too sure what was happening until we heard the sort of noise a metal aircraft makes when it lands wheels-up on a concrete runway. We could still hear the sound of engines overhead. Something was very seriously up, we thought, and so it proved for there were shouts for all hands. We got onto the runway and were wet-through within seconds. The light from all the searchlights reflected off the rock and the clouds made it almost like day. A 'Hudson' twin engined aircraft had landed wheels up in the very centre of the runway. What was more important for the moment was that there were other aircraft circling the Rock waiting to get down. The cloud base couldn't have been more than about 500 feet and it was teeming with rain. They would not have had much fuel left; there was nowhere else they could land. It was as fraught a situation as could be imagined. People came from all directions and without any co-ordinated instructions some sort of rhythm developed whereby everybody pushed at the same moment shouting "push".."push".."push".. and I could see by the marks on the runway that the aircraft began to move quite literally inch by inch. Everybody was in a sort of frenzy, soaked to the skin, and shouting "push" "push". Once we got it going we were shifting the 20 tons or so of it sideways about two or three feet a minute. We managed to get it just off the runway and then stood at a safe distance and waited to see what would happen. In the foul weather it seemed to take an awful long time for the other aircraft to get down but they all (four similar Hudson aircraft) made it in the end. We felt pleased we had done our bit to get them down. We went back to our hut, hung up our clothes to dry and went to bed.
In Singapore and Malaya the Japs were having their way with us. Malta was being pounded night and day by Jerry bombers, everything was in short supply, and convoys were not getting through.
However in North Africa where we were going our troops were pushing Jerry back in Cyrenaica in splendid fashion and had in fact re-taken Benghazi. Someone at Ferry Command (wherever it was, we never knew) had a bright idea, why not send the next aircraft for the Middle East direct to Benghazi instead of staging at Malta ? This will save much-needed fuel at Malta and the aircraft won't get damaged in the eight or ten hours it will have to be on the ground for the crew to get some rest. We'll put a long-range petrol tank in this one and see how they get on, it was suggested. We were quite excited by this; we would be blazing a new trail to Africa and at the same time not have to land at Malta in the middle of a perpetual air-raid. So they fitted a long, fat, cylinder down the centre of the aircraft which was to hold our extra fuel, about 250 gallons as far as I remember. I don't think anybody at this stage had considered that not only would we be full up with fuel in the ordinary way but we would have the extra weight of the equivalent of about a third of a maximum bomb-load as well. And a 1200-yard runway. It didn't occur to us either for some time but I suppose we thought they knew what they were doing. ('They know what they're doing' became No. 1 in a very long list of Famous Last Words by 1945). Our briefing, if it could be called that, for this diversion into the unknown was, looking back, entirely farcical. It amounted to something like.. "Well chaps, the army has taken Benghazi...Have a go at it. Actually the airfield is a bit southeast at Soluch. Get some fuel there and you'll be O.K. And the best of luck.. and try not to fly over Pantelleria...they have some quite effective Ack Ack there." We were, of course, supremely ignorant of what real war, war on the ground, that is, was all about and we accepted these directions quite cheerfully. It never occurred to us to ask such basic questions as...was the airstrip at Soluch actually serviceable? how far was it, for instance, from the front line, was there a front line? (there was not, in fact) - will there actually be aviation fuel there, etc., etc,.?
(Indeed, had we had the experience to ask these very pertinent questions nobody at Gibraltar could possibly have known the answers as our experience would show in the next week or two. It is doubtful if anyone, even those close to the action on the ground and in charge of it, knew the location of anything, be it troop movements or supplies except at some few hours notice; and certainly not our H.Q. in Cairo which would be the only source of information with whom those at Gibraltar could possibly have communicated.)
A lot of sea, and a nice sandy beach
Having been so briefed we hung about again for reasons unknown and eventually took-off for Africa at 21.25 hrs on 17th January, the stars, presumably, then being judged in the right ascendant. Having checked our 'Mae Wests’ carefully and puffed a bit of air into them for luck we taxied to the end of the runway, turned around, did the cockpit drill, revved up the engines almost to maximum against the brakes with the stick right back to keep the tail on the ground, released the brakes and we were away. Our skipper made the take-off of a life-time not withstanding that if he had not he and the rest of us would have got very wet. When we ran out of runway he just raised the wheels willy-nilly and kept on flying straight and apparently level because we never hit the sea and kept on going.
It was a long drag along the North African coast with 125 on the clock. The navigation was simple enough, just keep pressing on a bit north of east until Cape Bon was to starboard and then turn right sufficiently to keep Malta well to port. The trouble with this course was that it would probably take us over the island of Pantelleria (occupied by the Axis forces as were the smaller islands of Lampedusa and Lampione further south). As I have mentioned.... somebody at Gib had told us that if we flew over Pantelleria they would probable fire at us. He was right - they did - to quite good effect too - but at least we now knew where we probably were and gave us something to think about as up to now we had been in the air for something like eight hours in the dark with nothing to see but the occasional vague glimpse of the coast to the south.
But there was something else now to think about and that was fuel. The wing tanks were getting a bit low and it was thought this would be a good time to see if we could get the spare fuel from the inside tank we were carrying into the wing tanks. If any problem arose over the transfer of fuel we would have an hour to decide what to do as we would by then be passing Malta to port assuming we kept on our planned flight path. By mutual consent of the rest of the crew this turned out to be my job. I clambered over the main spar and sat down beside the thing with my torch. It was cold down there and dark and rather draughty unlike my place between the engines. There were valves to be opened and closed in the right order. The skipper read out over the intercom from the written instructions he had been given. After I had completed each specific action I repeated it back to him. If I did it wrong there could be an air lock. Then I had to pump the handle backwards and forwards. I pumped for a while. There was no comment from the 2nd pilot who was watching the fuel gauges. I kept pumping. After a bit he said, "I think the needle's moving skipper." There was a faint and disembodied "Thank goodness for that" in a Scots accent, presumably from the rear turret. "Keep pumping,” said the skipper. I kept pumping. It was exhausting work at whatever height it was we were flying. I kept stopping to get my breath. After I had half-filled one tank I had to reverse the valves to feed the other wing-tank and half fill that, and so on until I had emptied the thing. There are many things I have forgotten but I have never forgotten that tank and those valves and the pumping and sweating and feeling cold at the same time and being out of breath. I felt sorry for myself, exhausted and sick, and went back to my seat and as we droned on and on I think I must have dozed off for a bit, ..and I didn't know this till afterwards...I missed hearing a crew discussion about the fuel position and the navigator had reckoned we might not make Benghazi and in fact the skipper went and checked the auxiliary tank for himself and found no more could be squeezed out of it.
After eleven hours and fifty minutes flying time from Gibraltar the sun had come up and we were still over the sea. There was nothing in sight, and the fuel gauges showed zero. I was dwelling on the possibilities...and trying to remember our ditching drill. It was quiet with both engines now throttled back so far that we just about hung in the air, slowly losing height. Five minutes later we saw a low coastline ahead with what appeared to be a sandy beach. Bill Gunning who was at the controls did not mess about. He just put the wheels and flaps straight down and drove us onto the beach with assurance born of desperation and we made a surprisingly good if bumpy landing on a reasonably hard surface and parallel to the tide line. I would say that this was indeed the landing of a lifetime and airmen sometimes tell these dubious stories about not having to switch off the engines because they just stop - but never, with a straight face to another flyer and expect to be believed - but this did actually happen to us. We had landed. All in one piece. And presumably in Africa.
We got out of the aircraft. The first thing was to gather around the tail-wheel and pee (a custom in the service, usually of necessity, but perhaps with even a little more urgency on this occasion engendered by recent uncertainties). We stretched our legs a bit, and wondered what to do next. After a few minutes in which there had previously been nothing whatsoever in sight except a scrubby beach in either direction we saw some khaki clad figures approaching slowly and very cautiously. They proved to be a group of Arabs, 20 or 30 of them, from very young to very old, all male, some dressed in cast-off uniforms (stripped from the dead?). We went towards them uncertainly and an old man came forward. It was obvious that communication was going to be tricky but our skipper pointed to the U.K. on one of our maps. His caution disappeared somewhat at this. Maybe they had confused our blue uniform with German grey. They all started smiling which was helpful. Our navigator now took the initiative, feeling no doubt that knowing where we were on the ground was just as important as knowing where we were in the air, and showed him a map of Cyrenaica. If we didn't know where we were, perhaps he did, he was implying, putting his professional pride in his pocket. The old man certainly did know where he was. He put a finger on the word 'Tocra' he found on the map and kept saying it, "Tocra, Tocra".
I don't know about the others because I never discussed it, but this was my very first contact with any foreign person. With all the arrogance, and the patronising Kipling-esque attitudes one could acquire at an English grammar school in the thirties it never occurred to me that a wizened, elderly Arab in makeshift clothing could read a map as well as I could. My education became somewhat born again at Tocra.
It was decided by the skipper that he and I should go inland and see what we could find. Tocra appeared to be about 40 miles north of Benghazi and seemed more evident on the map than in actuality. If it did exist we did not find it. Nevertheless the slight error in navigation, insignificant in terms of the distance flown, had certainly been in our interests and possibly saved our lives as we would never have made the extra distance over the sea had we been on our proper course and would have had to ditch. We knew later that had we more fuel and made those extra miles to Soluch probably the best we could have hoped for was to be taken prisoner.
We become guests of the Indian Army
It was still quite early in the day as the two of us walked inland. There were 2 or 3 miles of greenish, bushy country rising slightly from the coast, a break in the low hills, some semi-agricultural country which petered out into scrubby desert. We found a track going more or less east and kept on all day. We had no compass but judged our direction reasonably well by the sun. We had no food or water. About four in the afternoon we had been on the go for about 32 hours and had just about reached that state of tiredness of body and mind when it becomes easier to keep plodding along than to make a rational decision and I do not think we had yet appreciated that it would soon be dark. Any decision of what we should do, knowing that we seemed not to be getting anywhere, was taken from us when a truck appeared, coming slowly in our direction. When it was about 400 yards away we could see there were two soldiers in it. They had a machine gun mounted on the bonnet and fired two shots over our heads. We put our hands up as we had seen it done on the films, and stood still. We had been shot at. This was where the real war was. My heart, I remember well, was beating very rapidly. As they came up close we could see that they were wearing khaki battle-dress and khaki turbans.
They were Sikhs, quite obviously - even to us. We had just been rescued, in fact, by the 4th Indian Division of the 8th Army. I have always remembered things well up to this point but now my memory becomes very fragmented. I must have gone straight off to sleep in the back of the truck and then have a vague impression of a Company Sergeant Major, and a large tin mug being put into my hand. It was filled with the most delicious liquid. I think it must have been water heavily diluted with something quite strong because when I woke up some 12 hours later it took me a while to get a grip on the situation. I was lying in a huge bath let into the floor of a large and empty room. The walls, floor and the bath itself were covered with tiny blue tiles. It was quite magnificent - like something out of The Arabian Nights. It was, in fact, the bathroom of a third floor apartment in a large block of flats in the small Italian-built town of Barce, but I wasn't to know that as I woke up. There was hustle and bustle all around and I found the rest of the crew scattered about the floor of another room. They looked just about as shattered as I felt. The army had, it seemed, gone off to find them the previous evening. They, the army that is, didn't know what to do with us but looked after us well. They had their own problems which we had not immediately been aware of. It seemed Benghazi had maybe not been taken after all, or if it had, not for very long.
There was, of course, only rumour. The Sergeant Major, a grey-haired giant of a man who looked as if he had served many years on the North West Frontier, was utterly calm and cheerful. No doubt what would be, would be, he seemed to imply without saying anything. He seemed to run the company; (I have a feeling they were a company of the Rajputana Rifles but I am not sure about this. I never saw any officers). A few days passed. Even if we had known whom to get in touch with about the aircraft there was absolutely no available communication. We had some concern whether it would be still there on the beach 30 miles away, unmolested, but there was nothing we could do but, living with the Indian Army, await events. One morning, early, I recall hearing a babble of their voices, in their own language, I looked out of an inner window of the apartment which overlooked an inner courtyard and was intrigued to see some of them about their ablutions. One normally only saw them when wearing their turbans. Without them their hair was long enough to nearly touch the ground and they were helping each other to wash it in the limited amount of water available and then dry and re-arrange it carefully on their head before replacing their turbans. I had the feeling of encroaching on a form of ceremonial and was careful not to be seen in case they took offence of some kind...as well, of course, they might.
We had a look around Barce. This did not take long but what there was, was not unattractive. A main street of tall imposing Italian-looking buildings, undamaged, no water, no electricity, occupied by our army this week, two weeks ago by the German army, and, not that we knew it at that particular moment, soon by them again. The buildings were magnificent inside, nothing spoiled, no graffiti. (By today's standards this seems a curious war, as though there was a kind of gentleman's agreement not to damage anything too much because it might be needed again. Why waste an expensive shell, made many thousands of miles away and transported at the cost of many lives, perhaps, in order to demolish a fine building. In Europe no such civilised considerations applied either to buildings, however fine, or to those within them. This part of what is now Libya, but then called Cyrenaica, had been occupied by the Italians in 1932 after 6 years of warfare against the Libyan Arab leaders. (Much of the rest of Libya had been occupied by Italian troops to a varying degree since 1911 and, during 1938/9, 30,000 Italian land-workers had been settled in Libya generally and specifically in the ‘Green Hills’ of Cyrenaica.) Hence, I suppose, the Italian character of Barce. Not, I have to say, that I was aware of the history of Libya at that time. One thing that always intrigued me was that when Bill Gunning and I had headed inland, as we had walked up through the low green hills we had been surprised to find on the way through this area a neat-looking row of eight or ten quite roomy bungalows. We stopped and had a look at them. They appeared to be in new condition with tiled roofs and white stucco walls and glass in the windows. Not one pane of glass was even cracked. The doors were not locked and we went in. They were all completely empty, clean and with no evidence of anyone having lived in them. And no graffiti.
It was really quite extraordinary after more than two years of war that they had not, to say the least, been occupied or despoiled in some way or other. It is possible that we had stumbled upon an area that neither army had come across.
An encounter on the road to Alex
On the morning of 25th January (we had been there a week), there was chaos. The main street of Barce was thick with two lines of army vehicles all heading towards Alexandria. We watched this for a while and gathered there was a retreat going on. This raised the question; do we get a lift and join it or get back to the aircraft (somehow) and burn it (not that it probably would burn, there was no fuel in it). If we did we would then quite possibly, if not probably, be taken prisoner. Though I have often wondered what we would have done the choice was denied us because, and it was just as if Aladdin had rubbed his lamp, another small miracle happened. In a temporary traffic jam in the bottleneck of Barce’s main street we spotted a small tanker with ‘S.A.A.F.’ written on it. There was only the (South African) driver. We asked him had he got any aircraft fuel? “Certainly”, he said, “Why do you ask?” – or words to that effect.
He had, it appeared, about 200 gallons and would be pleased to be relieved of it. He had come from Benina airfield near Benghazi from where his squadron’s own aircraft had long since gone and from where he himself had got away just in time. Jerry couldn’t be all that far off, he said. However, he was more than willing to postpone his personal retreat and accepted our story that we had an aircraft 30 miles away on the coast which might, or perhaps might not, be coaxed off the ground. We all got onto the tanker and with more luck than judgement, perhaps, not only found it, but found it just as we had left it, a slightly incongruous object in that particularly remote setting – and rather extraordinary that a patrolling Jerry fighter hadn’t seen it as it was sitting there on the beach, presumably visible for miles.
Because of some technical hitch with the tanker we could only fill the aircraft tanks on each wing by using a funnel and putting 4 gallons in at a time from a can. This was slow going and by early afternoon we had only put about 30 gallons in each tank. The two pilots decided, as it would be dark before long, to try to take off as things were, land at Barce and the rest of the crew to go back on the tanker. (There was…we had noted…on the outskirts of Barce a fair-sized and reasonably flat area with a few empty drums scattered about which would serve as an airfield.) The take-off had to be seen to be actually believed. Personally, I had rated their chances as nil. But undoubtedly another miracle was about to happen, for, after some fierce revving of the engines to pull itself out of the ruts it had dug for itself in the sand when we came to a stop, it was able to be turned round to take off in the opposite direction to which we had landed and then, with about 20 degrees of flap and given full throttle, it swayed this way and that way, hit bumps, bounced violently several times, one final time, and quite incredulously became airborne. I had a sensation of watching some far-fetched episode from ‘The Magnet’ or ‘Beano’ of ten years previously. Fortunately it had no weight in it or the undercarriage would never have stood it. Barnes Wallis, designer of the Wellington, would have been proud. And that was more or less that. We met up again on Barce airfield, put our heads down in the aircraft as it was now virtually dark and transferred the rest of the fuel the next morning. We thanked our more-than-helpful South African as effusively as the occasion merited. He went on his way, our hero, quite cheerfully as though this sort of thing was all in the day’s work. It was probably not his first retreat.
A lady in distress
There was a small but rather interesting diversion at the airfield before we took off the next morning, 26th January. We were approached by a young, well dressed, and attractive woman of, to us, somewhat indeterminate nationality, Italian perhaps or Egyptian. She was in quite a state and urgently needed a lift to Cairo for an equally indeterminate reason and was willing, it seemed, to pay us 1500 piastres for the privilege. All this in delightful broken English. Had we had more worldly experience we would instantly told her to bugger-off and take her chance in the back of an Army truck and add a bit more to her savings. Our skipper, courteous as always, explained that it might be dangerous or uncomfortable or something of the sort. One of the crew added, not altogether helpfully…”c’est la guerre…” This incensed her….”I know eez bloody war” she screamed and shouted “..Bastards…bastards” after us as we hardened our hearts and left her, with her suitcase, to her own devices. Getting into the aircraft we thought we could hear some gunfire, faintly, in the distance. It was undoubtedly time to be on our way. Having already said goodbye and ‘thanks’ to the Indian Army who had taken us under their wing for a week, we got ourselves off the ground without further ado and headed easterly for Cairo. It seemed quite pleasant again to be masters of our own destiny.
And now the mother of all sand-storms
We had not, however, bargained for quite a nasty 3½ hr flight to Mersa Matruh. (This was, in fact, such a violent storm that it is recorded in various accounts of the desert war that activity on the ground, let alone in the air on both sides was virtually nil). This was the only time I can recall flying in such awful conditions. The bumping was violent and we couldn’t get over the thick sandy cloud so we just had to grin and hear it and plough through it. For the first and only time in my life I was airsick and brought everything up. Fortunately I just made it to the Elsan down the back of the aircraft.
Once again we became preoccupied with the fuel gauges. If we had, as we calculated at Barce, put about 200 gallons in the tanks as we had thought, then there was not much margin for error. Once again fate was on our side. Quite suddenly there was a small clearance in the storm and we could see the ground. And there was Mersa, just below us.
We over-nighted there and thankfully the next morning was bright and clear. We walked out to where we had parked our aeroplane and, apart from losing some paint here and there and a layer of dust over everything inside, it seemed all right. We had taken the precaution of parking with the nose pointing down-wind to keep as much sand as possible out of the air intakes under the engines. We had also tied the little canvas cover, provided for the purpose, over the sensitive little instrument mounted just ahead of the tip of the starboard wing called the ‘pitot head’. This instrument measured the amount of air passing through it in a given time and it translated this information into our speed through the air on the indicator in front of the pilot. We managed to scrounge some more fuel, enough to get us to Cairo. ‘Scrounge’ was the operative word. If you didn’t belong to a specific unit, as we did not, everything in the Middle East had to be scrounged rather than obtained as in the UK as of right. This meant finding the right person who had the key to all the goodies and making a good case. We had a good case because we were obviously innocents abroad delivering something badly needed. We noticed that the airstrip was more or less enclosed by barbed wire and were told that outside this was rather uncertain territory having been mined either by us or by Jerry, nobody quite knew, but it wasn’t recommended to venture outside this perimeter.
By the time we had got our fuel and got someone to give the engines a check over and so on, it was decided it was too late to make Cairo in daylight so we decided to spend another night at Mersa. As I recall, we took the opportunity to have a much needed tidy-up of the interior of the aircraft as it was beginning to resemble a bit of a shambles. The next morning, then, we set off on the last leg of our journey. We were going nicely down the runway at just about take-off speed when the pilot saw there was nothing whatsoever registering on the air-speed indicator. This was disastrous and he knew immediately what he had not done and that was to take the canvas cover off the ‘pitot-head’ during his pre-flight check. He braked violently and we managed to stop about 30 yards short of the barbed wire at the end of the runway by virtue of a not highly recommended manoeuvre known as a ground-loop..only to be used in dire emergency ..in which the aircraft is swung into a 180-degree turn by judicious use of brakes and full rudder. This gave the option of either getting away with it or collapsing the undercarriage (sometimes worse). We got away with it. The pilots looked at each other – each should have checked, of course. I think someone said “Christ Almighty!” or words to that effect, probably from the rear turret, as the long-suffering Jock Brown must have been quite, and unexpectedly, shaken about. And so they might because there we were, all slightly bemused to say the least, looking at the notice thirty yards or so away at the end of the runway which said, starkly, ‘Minefield’. The 2nd pilot got out, took off the little canvas cover from the pitot head, got back into the aircraft and the engines were re-started on our own batteries, the switches having been thrown by the pilot….quick thinking that, during this precarious manoeuvre…to prevent us catching fire if the worst were to happen. We taxied back to our starting point, turned around, and more circumspectly this time, tried again. Any collective confusion in the cockpit and concern whether the undercarriage would retract properly after this somewhat embarrassing event was dispersed quite rapidly after an uneventful second attempt.
The 2hr flight to Heliopolis airport in Cairo was an anti-climax after all this as, rather to our surprise, nothing else happened. We landed, taxied to where there was another Wellington parked and got out. Our Wellington, registered number DV419, had been delivered. We had become quite fond of it and looked upon it as our own and flown it about 3500 miles in 28½ hours spread over 24 days. It was still in one piece, still as good as new. We felt quite proud of ourselves. We found somebody. The skipper said that we had just brought this aircraft from England and here was the logbook and .. “Right mate”, he said, “I’ll take that”. And that was that.
We apply to re-join the war
It was the 28th January 1942. Nobody knew who we were or where we had come from and cared even less. Everybody we could see, not that there were many to be seen in fact, seemed very busy. We were in a strange world of which we had no knowledge. Eventually we found an officer and said what shall we do now please? He said that it would be a good idea to hang around the main gate and hitch a ride into Cairo and report to RAF HQ Middle East. You had to belong to someone, he said, otherwise you won’t eat and you won’t get a bed and you certainly won’t get paid so you have to get yourselves a pay-book. This seemed entirely reasonable.
We duly reported to RAF HQ after getting a ride into Cairo. This, our first experience of ‘the East,’ was interesting enough with its new and never to be forgotten sights, and more particularly smells, but we were hardly prepared for the culture shock of close proximity so seemingly dozens of small Arab boys, who, no doubt sensing our ‘newness’, demanded ‘baksheesh’ from all sides as we got out of the truck onto the pavement. It was to be some time before we learned to cope with this eternal menace.
We were soon, and efficiently, dealt with at RAF HQ which occupied what had presumably once been a large hotel or office building. We were fed and watered. And had a much needed shower. We had our clothes taken from us, thankfully, as we had been wearing them for a month and, not to put too fine a point upon it, our collective effluvia must have been quite powerful; not that we had noticed it ourselves. We never saw our RAF blue uniforms again (nobody wore RAF blue in the Middle East – they hadn’t seemed to know this back in the UK) but were issued with army battledress, worn by all ranks.
We told our story. We thought they would be impressed. Nobody was the slightest bit interested. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff. (We had, of course, unwittingly timed our arrival in Africa to coincide with major events, and had, also unwittingly, managed to keep ourselves marginally ahead of Rommel’s probing riposte. He took possession of vast quantities of abandoned stores which the Eighth Army had left behind in its haste to withdraw from overly optimistic forward positions, finding this a more attractive proposition, apparently, than chasing our lot back to the delta region there and then. Our arrival, there though no doubt welcome, was in the context of the moment insufficient to make the history books (!) which, twenty or thirty years later, would only then begin to gather together the bits and pieces of the times into something more coherent than “the fog of war” which then prevailed. One small statistic, for example, not known to us (or anyone else for that matter, except at Command level) at that time was that 440 aircraft of all types had been lost in the ME between November ’41 and 31 January ’42.)
You had best, they said, go back to Heliopolis and await events. This we did, having been quite properly cut down to size, and were there for a week, doing our best to absorb the local atmosphere. I was not to know until the end of the year when I returned to the UK that we were at this time officially posted as “Missing as the result of air operations on 18th January 1942”, my parents receiving a telegram to this effect some weeks later. As they had already received a stereotyped message from me, while at Heliopolis, saying “I am well” with a Middle East Army Post Office stamp on it they were more than mystified. My father apparently rang the Air Ministry but of course they would not say anything. It wasn’t until I was able to write a proper letter that they realised for certain I was alright but it was to be quite some time, in fact, that the events they had mentioned would give me the opportunity.
Many weeks later I was pleased to find out somehow or other that my few words in morse as we came into land on the beach at Tocra had been picked up by the duty operator at Aquir in Palestine. He didn’t know what on earth to do with my message it seemed and so, typically, filed it. One can hardly blame him in all the circumstances. (It was to be several years yet, when cynicism and delusion set firmly into my bones, that I realised that mistakes, misapprehensions, failures of communications and other events coming within the generalization of the term ‘cock-up’ more or less represented normality.)
Glauber’s Salt to the rescue
On 4th February we were told to take our aircraft to a desert airfield called, for some good reason no doubt, Kilo 17. I can’t remember where it was exactly but not too far from the delta area no doubt as it took us only 30 minutes to get there. In fact I never did know much about it at all as we had hardly got there when I remember lying in a tent feeling very ill indeed with blurred faces looking down at me.
I came round in a bed with clean white sheets and red blankets. There were lots of other chaps in other beds. I was obviously in hospital. It was dark outside. Everything seemed a long way off. Some formidable-looking ladies in uniform were walking about the ward importantly. One of them came to me and said, “Good, you’re awake, drink this” Very briskly. In a posh sort of Cheltenham Ladies’ College accent. I drank it, it was horrible. “Where am I?”, I said, “Dysentery ward, Suez”, she said. “Use this commode when you have to go”, pointing to the device next to my bed. I was very weak but soon had to ‘go’. As fast as I ‘went’ they poured Glauber’s Salts down my throat. Everyone else was getting the same treatment. During that same night there was an air-raid on Suez. I got the distinct impression that some of the bombs were not all that far away, as I could hear the whistle as they came down and the ground shook and I could see the flash, as all our lights were off of course.
Bombs had come uncomfortably close to me at Debden fighter-airfield in Essex during the battle of Britain in June ’40; during the winter of ’40 while having a weekend in Bristol; the same winter and on and off during the spring and summer of ’41 in Plymouth (and more was to come in the months ahead in the Western Desert). I think however I was the more frightened on this occasion feeling too weak to do anything but just lie there on my back. Take it from me, anyone who has not been bombed, one feels quite vulnerable lying “belly to the sky”, so to speak, in these circumstances. It was always helpful, I had found, to get into a kind of foetal position at these times. Not that I became thereby any less frightened but it just seemed the natural thing to do and gave one the feeling it would be a more comfortable way to die. Some sort of primeval urge I suppose.
Two weeks of Glauber’s every hour on the hour did wonders for the system and killed every living thing within us chaps in the dysentery ward I imagine, except for one poor chap who died and another who went berserk and attacked one of the nurses. These worthy ladies, members of the then Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Service, brooked no nonsense from anyone and could look after themselves. After I got better I spent another four weeks on convalescence in Suez. I had lost a lot of weight, not that I ever had much to lose, and was a sort of walking skeleton. Wearing the regulation ‘hospital blue’ flannel suit, white shirt and red tie I ambled around this pleasant, amiable town with its cool, shady, tree-lined streets and its fascinating architecture which I was yet to recognise as typically French. Which reminds me that while I was at Suez, not that I knew about it at the time, their submarine ‘Surcouf’ was rammed and sunk, probably by accident (although there has always been some controversy about this) by an American vessel in the Caribbean while en-route to the Panama Canal. All her crew were lost. Surcouf was then the largest submarine ever built (about 5000 tons) and not only had a forward turret with twin 8in guns but a small seaplane kept in a hanger aft of the conning tower. I mention this only because while I was in Coastal Command and stationed on Mount Batten Island in Plymouth Sound during 1940, Surcouf was anchored just offshore. Her seaplane’s air-gunner slept in the next bed to mine for a few weeks and I got to know him a little, (only a very little, in fact, his English was minimal, my French – despite an apparent knowledge of irregular verbs and all that, four years previously, was abysmal). He never told me why he in particular slept ashore and neither did I know at the time that (and I quote from a Reuters report of July 4th 1940) “Prime Minister Churchill this afternoon made a statement on the war situation before a packed House of Commons. Churchill first stated with regret that measures had to be taken to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands. Yesterday morning Britain took the greater part of the French fleet under its control or compelled the fleet by use of appropriate force to accept the British terms. Two battleships, two light cruisers, a number of submarines, including the large submarine Surcouf, eight destroyed and two hundred small minelayers and submarine hunters have been taken over in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheerness after a short notification to their commanders – insofar as this was possible. The operation was carried out without bloodshed except in the case of submarine Surcouf in which two British officers and one rating, and a French seaman, were killed, and several sailors wounded”.
Somehow or other I found my way back to the Air Force after six weeks with the Army who had, once again, looked after me well. A note in my flying logbook says I joined up with most of my crew again on 27th March at a landing ground (L.G. 104) in the desert. We had been posted to 70 Squadron, a bomber squadron equipped with Wellingtons, very thankfully on their part as they had been in a transit camp all the time I was in hospital and they were, in the jargon of the time, very ‘cheesed off’. When they had got a medical orderly to me in the tent I had a very high temperature, they said, and wondered if they would see me again. I never did see our original skipper again and I don’t know what happened to him. This is an aspect of life in those days that was all too common. Events followed each other so rapidly that one hadn’t time to become introspective about lost friends. People came and went. Sometimes they went for that all too common reason which nobody talked about. I have always regretted not knowing what happened to him. He was a good stout-hearted chap and I have always hoped he survived. It would, I suppose, not have been to difficult to have found out after the war but somehow one never did; maybe inertia, maybe one was afraid of knowing, best perhaps just to wonder. And there were so many, of course, for whom one had the same regard. Nor did we ever see DV419 again. Looking back, it’s a fair bet that with only some 30-odd flying hours on the clock she became a glittering jewel which caught the eye of some Flight or Squadron Commander as his personal bomber aircraft.
Henceforth we would have a series of rather desert-weary airframes and engines to contend with; more happily, though, as a crew we were taken over by a very senior Flight Lieutenant who had joined the squadron way back in the ‘thirties. He was a sort of ‘seat of the pants’ flyer with, no doubt, thousands of flying hours, and must have viewed us lot of amateurs with whom he was now lumbered with some apprehension.
The mail run
The war in general was not going all that well and our particular one rather worse than that. After our costly advance and subsequent retreat of December ’41 to February ’42 our ground forces had ended up, somewhat uneasily, on what was known as the Gazala – Bir Hacheim line, roughly speaking mid-way between Benghazi and Tobruk. Both sides had to draw a long breath and await further supplies of war. (General Rommel, though, had had something of an unexpected bonus by collecting up all sorts of useful stuff our side had left behind in our hurry to escape. Our role would be to try and prevent further supplies reaching him from Europe.) Our squadron had a long established song, the chorus of which, between the unprintable verses, ran as follows: (to the tune of “Oh my darling, Clementine”):
“Seventy Squadron, Seventy Squadron, Though we say it with a sigh We must do this bloody mail run Every night until we die”.
The ‘mail run’, of course, being the routine trip by night to Benghazi to drop nine 500-pound H.E. bombs on shipping in or around Benghazi harbour and we spent almost exactly 3 months at our new home L.G. 104 until forced to evacuate it somewhat hurriedly early one morning.
It may be of interest to hear such details as I have of our flights during this period. I have only the sparse comments in my flying log-book to refer to and only on the odd occasion can I recall anything specific about any particular flight as everything has merged into a kind of overall blur. It is now generally recognised, I think, that the medium-heavy bombers played a useful role in the desert campaign by harassing the shipping in the harbours of Benghazi and Tobruk. I look back upon this period with more personal satisfaction than with some of our activities later in the war over Europe.
Date Time Pilot Duty Flying Time
8 April 11.15 F/Lt Farr Air test of aircraft 0.15
9 April 00.10 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 6.40
10 April 10.39 “ Fuel consumption test 2.00
There was probably a good reason for this consumption test inasmuch as, although we as a crew did not realise it at this stage, Benghazi was normally about a 7 ½ to 8 hour round trip from LG104 and we had just done it in 6hrs 40. I reckon our new skipper had pushed the throttle levers too far forward and used up much more fuel than he had bargained for, because the next night and forever after that we travelled a little more sedately.
11 April 00.27 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.25
AA intense and accurate 12 April & 19.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.55
14 April 20.30 “ Operations Martuba airfield 5.40 Fires started
18 April 10.00 “ Air test 0.15
19 April 20.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 1.55
returned early – engine u/s 22 April 0940 “ Air test 0.20
22 April 20.35 “ Operations Benghazi 7.50
Intense AA 26 April 13.45 “ To LG60 and return 0.55
28 April 20.10 “ Operations: Shipping Benghazi harbour Flak damage Landed LG106 8.30
It had been a tedious return flight; draughty too, having been made to feel most unwelcome over the target, and, low on fuel, we landed at LG106 to top-up. They asked us to see if we could find one of their aircraft which had had to force-land. Rather weary, we set off again in the general direction of where we had just come from and after a half-hour saw a Wimpey on the sand, wheels down, the crew waving like their lives depended on it. They were all dressed in khaki, as we all did. The upper wing, fuselage, tailplane etc, of all aircraft were painted a mottled sandy colour to blend with the sand below and were designed not to be visible from above. It was sheer luck that took us over them and more luck that we saw them. Luck, they say goes in threes.
The third piece enables me to write about it here and now and I remember it rather too well.
There was a feeling of some achievement by us and relief by them as we landed alongside (thankfully, and wisely, they had picked a decent bit of desert to land on). As we were restarting our engines to take off with them aboard, the port engine backfired, regurgitated some fuel into the air intake and caught fire. This was not unusual and the remedy was to stuff one’s had up the air intake and being starved of oxygen it would normally go out. I was standing by for this so I stuffed my hat up the intake as required and the fire duly went out. I was rescuing my hat, such as it now was, when the pilot pressed the button to restart the engine a bit too smartly and the tip of the propeller hit me on the jaw. It was fortunate for me the engine didn’t at that moment fire; it was fortunate for them they didn’t have to get back to base with a decapitated wireless operator. So, with myself nursing my face, we left the other aircraft there to look after itself until somebody go some fuel to it and looked forward to some shut-eye.
29 April 07.35 F/Lt Farr From LG106 search for missing aircraft 1.30
3 May 17.15 “ Air test 0.15
3 May 22.40 “ Operations Benghazi harbour & shipping 6.45 Landed LG106
4 May 06.20 “ LG106 to LG104 0.25 17 May 20.15 P/O Gourlie Circuits and landings 0.30
18 May 21.45 “ Operations Benghazi harbour 7.25
20 May 20.10 “ “ “ rly sidings 7.10
22 May 19.45 “ “ Martuba LG (Fires) 5.20
24 May 23.45 “ “ Martuba LG Fires 5.35
30 May “ To LG117 and return 0.40
30 May 14.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Fuel consumption test 2.00
30 May 20.55 P/O Gourlie Operations Derna main LG 5.40 AA very intense Somewhere about this time an ancient looking twin-engined biplane landed at LG104. It proved to be one of the Vickers ‘Victoria’ aircraft, about 1925 vintage, that 70 Squadron used to be equipped with in the years when they acted as a police force in Iran. It had a large bulbous body; the pilot’s open cockpit was on top. It turned out to be a mobile dental surgery of all things and I took the opportunity to have a few fillings done by travelling RAF dentist. (What a wonderful, crazy system, way out in the desert during a war…they were good fillings too…it was about 1960 before I had to have them replaced.)
1 June 21.00 P/O Gourlie Operations Derna LG 5.45 little opposition
3 June 23.10 “ Operations Tmimi LG 5.15 little opposition
7 June 11.00 F/Sgt Carpenter To Fayid for engine change 1.45
11 June 10.45 “ Back to 104 with new engine & mail 2.00 delivered to LG105
12 June 21.15 P/P Gourlie Operations Benghazi harbour diversion attack. AA intense 6.50
Whenever we attacked Benghazi we expected considerable opposition. It was a 4 hour slog to get there in the darkness and a bit less to get back seeing nothing at all because there was nothing below us but sand. One was on constant alert for a night fighter both there and back. It was a question of who saw whom first. The clever thing to do was not to fire your guns but spot him before he fired his and then take violent evasive action of which the ‘corkscrew’ was reckoned to be the favourite although it put not only enormous strain on the airframe, particularly if you still had your bombs on board, but upon one’s own stomach. So there was a certain amount of tension all the way there and all the way back – especially in the latter case when it began to get daylight.
The way our take-offs were staged we would get to the target all on our own and were usually ‘coned’ by every searchlight available. Every gun would then start firing at us. For a few minutes it was extremely hectic and after we had let the bombs go the pilot would do crazy things with the aircraft such as steep climbs and stall turns and all that sort of thing to get us out of the searchlight beams if he could. The enormous amount of trouble they took to shoot us down was indicative of the nuisance we were causing to their shipping in the harbour…so they used to tell us…I am not sure if this encouraged us as much as was intended.
They used to make quite a few holes which let a draught in all the way home and gave us a few worries about fuel leaks but thankfully and somewhat surprisingly never ever struck a vital part of our aeroplane or to any of us at all, in any one of our operational flights. Some, of course, did not have our good fortune.
On June 12 Rommel suddenly burst out from his long held position at the area known as ‘Knightsbridge’ with his tanks highly concentrated against the more dispersed British armour and went through them to such effect that our Infantry had virtually no protection. On June 13 an immediate retreat to the Egyptian frontier was ordered. We knew nothing of this, of course. While all this was going on by land and air, worse things were happening at sea just off the coast. The people of Malta were on the brink of starvation. Two convoys had been formed to relieve the situation, one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria. On June 14 the western convoy escorted by a battleship, two carriers, three cruisers and seventeen destroyers was attacked from the air. There were very heavy naval losses and only two merchant ships got through to the island. The other convoy from Alexandria had to turn back after attentions by the Italian fleet.
On June 17, (here I quote from ‘Turn of the Tide’ by Arthur Bryant) “the Eighth Army was in full retreat, its vehicles streaming in interminable column along the highway to the Egyptian frontier while the Germans closed round Tobruk, and the RAF withdrawing from each improvised airfield at the last possible moment like a bird before a cat, kept up an attack on the enemy so fierce and continuous that there was scarcely any molestation of the defeated army from the air”.
18 June 19.30 To LG60 Circuits and bumps with various pilots and return 4.50 (F/Lt Stanbury….one of our flight commanders took a small bunch of 2nd pilots, including our John Carpenter to LG60).
As I have already said, I think, LG60 was a dried up salt lake really deep in the bundoo on the northern fringe of the Quattara Depression and stretched for miles, hard and very flat, somewhere about 40 or 50 miles south of our own landing ground on the coast, incredibly lonely but well away from Jerry night fighters which we would have had to contend with at 104. We kept some aircraft fuel there and some old oil barrels filled with sand as markers for a makeshift flarepath, poured some petrol into the barrels and those became our runway lights. This, of course, was common practice at all desert airfields for night flying. F/Lt Stanbury was checking the flying abilities of these 2nd pilots to see if they measured up to becoming aircraft captains. If there was one job I detested it was continual take offs and landings – generally known as circuits and bumps – especially at night.
25 June 21.30 F/Sgt Carpenter (Now aircraft captain) Operations: - troops, transport and tanks in Mersa Matruh.Sidi Barrani area 4.05
This made a change at low level. We fired our guns at anything we saw. It was quite hectic for a few minutes with tracer rounds seeming to go in all directions from our two turrets. If we did nothing else at least we kept them awake.
26 June 08.40 “ LG104 to LG224 1.00
Examination of take off times in my log will show this last entry as being somewhat early in the day for us. We were, after all, or least liked to think that we had become “…gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon…” to quote the media-speak of the time for Bomber Command activities. It sounded rather dubiously romantic, somehow, even it if did not quite match up with the reality (and had I read Henry IV for School Certificate English Lit. instead of Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Hamlet I might even have know from whence it came). We had not even got to bed after landing at base at 01.35 from a hectic low level attack on German army positions, when there was, to put it mildly, a sense of urgency in the air and exhortations to get back into it as soon as possible. We were told to pack our kit, pull down our tents, kick in our slit trenches (let Jerry dig his own – we had to), put as much gear as we could into the aircraft and take off with as many ground crew as possible and generally pull our fingers out. The motor transport chaps were left to take the rest of the gear to LG224 - yet another desert landing ground.
A little daylight flying made quite a nice change, although now being close to the front line we had to keep a wary eye on the sky for prowling enemy fighters; a little bumpy perhaps, especially at 2000 feet while looking for yet another nondescript piece of sand, but at least this was almost in pyramid country.
While we were in the air a more momentous flight was about to start from Newfoundland in a Boeing ‘Clipper’ flying-boat carrying Churchill and his entourage and CIGS Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke back to Britain after far-reaching discussions with Roosevelt about the future strategies of the war, curtailed to some extent by the serious events where we were. Which was, in fact, now in Egyptian territory itself.
We were three days at LG224; time enough for our ground staff to give the aircraft a reasonable service. Engines were the problem. The 9cylinder radial Pegasus engines in themselves were very reliable but sand, of course, got everywhere and the worst place was in the carburetion system via the air intake and thus into the cylinders where revolution of the engine ground away a bit more of the cylinder sleeves. Most of our engines consumed so much oil that the normal oil tanks behind each engine were unable to cope with the demand so we used to carry an extra oil tank down the back of the fuselage with 50 gallons in it. It was always my job, when told by the pilot, to pump this into the engine tanks. As we used to fly at about 13,000 feet without oxygen this was an exhausting job and it often used to take me an hour, with rests to get my breath back. The rest of the crew thought this was fair enough as my seat next to the navigator was the warmest in the aircraft – not only that – they thought I didn’t do much else anyway. In Europe, of course, oxygen was used at about 10,000 feet but it was dangerous to use it in the Middle East because any oil or grease, plus heat, plus neat oxygen tended to burn spontaneously.
June 29 11.30 F/Sgt Carpenter LG224 TO Abu Sueir 0.50
Abu Sueir was something like paradise. It had been an RAF station since way back between the wars with proper buildings, mess halls, sleeping quarters, unlimited running water, even showers, a proper bed and even a room to myself. It was from this airfield, incidentally, with its long hard-sand runway that nearly four years previously, November 5th 1938, three Vickers ‘Wellesley’ single engined aircraft set out in formation on a long distance non-stop flight to Darwin, Australia and obtained a word record in so doing – although one of the aircraft had to force-land in what was then called the East Indies.
June 29 21.05 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations Sidi Barrani LG 5.40 Little AA opposition
Our original crew had now been reduced to four including Johnnie Carpenter, myself, Geoff Stayton (front gunner) and ‘Jock’ Brown, rear gunner. We had lost our navigator through a reorganisation of crews and gained a New Zealander, Pilot Officer ‘Billie’ Robinson, whose main interest, pre-war, I remember, was keeping bees. We were very happy with our new skipper. He was now 21, like the rest of us. A tall, relaxed Canadian with a disciplined approach, he had complete mastery of the aircraft with an easy assurance. Perhaps what endeared him to me, personally, was that he never took unnecessary chances; never, for instance, unnecessarily showed off his skill at stall-turns, (like some pilots I later flew with who failed to appreciate the traumas induced in crew members when indulging themselves in crazy flying) except to good effect when ‘coned’ by searchlights. I can still remember looking out of the ‘astrodome’ over Tobruk with ‘G’ forcing my feet against the floor and the searchlights appearing to shine down on us from above (the thought of those 500 pounders above our feet instead of below was not altogether comforting but at least the searchlights would tend to lose us in the ensuing dive).
We had now, as a crew, completed about half a tour of operations but resisted over-confidence. We kept a very sharp eye for Jerry’s JU88 night fighters especially at dawn if we were still up. And we kept our fingers firmly crossed on takeoffs with full bomb load as the veteran engines on full revs and supercharger boost strained interminably to get us off the ground in the summer hear when ‘lift’ in the air is so much thinner. And then, to keep us at 115 knots for a 4 hour climb to the target. Throttled back, and gradually losing height we could make 125 on the way back. Three times, only, did we have engine failure in the air with a bomb load and three times got away with it; probably because on each occasion we had some few thousands of feet below us and were only an hour or so from base when it happened. The Wellingtons fitted with Pegasus engines (though these engines were reliable in the normal course) would not maintain height on one engine without the good engine overheating as, of course, it was made to work harder and under these conditions one could not hope to lose less than about 100 feet of height per minute. Those who lost engine power by enemy action or ‘natural causes’ at or near our usual target areas tried their best to ‘get home on one’ but often had to decide, depending upon all the circumstances, whether to chance it, head straight for home and risk a long thirsty walk as did those two chaps of 148 Squadron, or whether to head north to the coast and follow that home so that, if the worst happened and they ran out of air underneath them, they might, at worst, spend some time as a POW. Such choices, in the actuality of the situation, require a degree of experience, skill, determination and luck to succeed. That some did not is in no way a reflection upon the efforts of ground crews who had to work under the most primitive conditions. (It may be interesting to compare what the first class servicing facilities available in squadrons in England later in the war could do. During a longish tour of operations in a Lancaster Pathfinder Squadron during 1944 the only engine failures experienced in aircraft in which I flew were caused by enemy action.)
June 30 21.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Airfields near Fuka 4.20
July 3 01.15 “ Operations: Transport at El Daba 4.10 Some fires started
July 4 00.45 “ Operations as above 4.50
July 6 02.10 “ Operations as above at low level 3.10 A chance for me to fire the guns at ground targets where we knew the area well.
July 8 16.40 “ To LG86 with bombs 1.20
July 8 20.50 “ Operations: Tanks and transport in 3.20 Matruh area
July 10 21.05 “ Convoy off Tobruk 6.55
July 12 21.15 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.45 Flak damage to engine
This was a very long haul back on one engine and we were getting rather too near the ground as we approached Jerry’s front line so made a slight detour out to sea for a while. We got away with it.
July 16 20.35 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.20 AA intense (and accurate)
July 19 20.45 “ Operations: Fuka LG returned 1.30 Port engine u/s
July 21 10.55 “ Air test 1.00
July 21 23.40 “ Operations: El Alamein 3.20 Transport in battle area
July 23 20.15 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.35
July 25 20.45 “ Operations: El Daba, transport 4.30
July 28 19.55 “ Operations: Shipping, Tobruk 8.05 AA intense and accurate
July 30 22.20 “ Operations: Shipping, Tobruk 8.05
This was quite a month. Thirteen operations, twice returned on one engine, and the aircraft holed by flak quite a bit over Tobruk. In an article in the ‘Eighth Army News’, referring to the restrictions we were putting on the unloading of supplies at Tobruk, the AOC in C, Middle East, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur (later ‘Lord’) Tedder said “…this was carried out despite what was probably the heaviest and most concentrated AA barrage in the world. Pilots who have recently come to the Middle East after home service and the bombing of Germany tell me that the Tobruk defences were more formidable and more concentrated than anything they had previously encountered…”
I forgot to mention that sometime during June we had come back from an operation while at LG104 and found the great man wearing flying kit, smoking his pipe, and leaning against the tent-pole in the briefing tent. I think he said “How did it go?” I suppose I mumbled something – the man who later in the war became Deputy Supreme Commander of the Invasion Forces (Europe) actually spoke to me – well that was really something. (I never even saw at a distance the so-called ‘Bomber’ Harris, chief of Bomber Command at any time during the war.)
It had not all been flying, though. I between times I had explored Ismailia. A delightful place with trees and pleasant houses and, of course, situated at the edge of Lake Timsah which seemed to keep it cool. And you could get a decent meal at the Army, Navy, and Air Force Club. There was hardly anyone about. What I didn’t know until long after the war was that on June 1st, the day Rommel started his push towards Alamein, the balloon had well and truly gone up in Egypt. All the well-to-do residents of Alexandria, Cairo, Ismailia and Suez had queued up at their banks, drawn everything out until they shut the doors, and disappeared eastwards to distant relatives as fast as they could. King Farouk’s large and magnificent steam-yacht was still anchored just off-shore however.
And that was not all. There were about 25 Wrens stationed in Ismailia. Somehow or other I got onto speaking terms with one. Also somehow or other I got invited to the Wrennery to meet the chief Wren (another Cheltenham Ladies’ accent, of course) to receive approval to take Wren Whatever Her Name Was out on specified occasions and to return her in good condition at the specified time. Somehow or other I took this glorious creature and, in the context of the Middle East in 1942, they were all glorious creatures, out on every available occasion when I wasn’t flying. Sometimes we went out to the Club and had tea in the shade, sometimes we went sailing on the lake in a hired boat. These boats they hired out were about 20 feet long with a dhow-like rig and on the somewhat rare occasions when I got the rig set anything like properly would go like the clappers in a fair breeze. But I was certainly no sailor and neither, believe it or not, was the Wren. One afternoon a gust turned us right over and the boat actually sank beneath us, leaving two feet or so of mast sticking out of the water. We had a long way to swim but the water was really extremely warm, being quite shallow, and helpfully buoyant, so we rested every now and then and made for the shore a long way from where we had hired the boat and dried ourselves off in the sun and walked back round the shore. I regret to say, and it has always been a little bit on my conscience, that I preferred to lose the deposit on the boat (which wasn’t all that much) rather than face the boatman. These were desperate days for all (mostly nights for us) and yet at the same time there was an equally desperate urge to squeeze every moment of pleasure out of any situation. Some moments can become quite idyllic in the memory. I wonder if they really were like that?
One day, during July or August I was in camp at Abu Sueir when I was summoned to the Adjutant’s office where two Naval Police were waiting to interview me. Some unknown male person had apparently broken into the Wrennery after ‘lights out’ and tried to have his way with one of the residents. As I was on the list of approved visitors it was a case of “Where exactly were you at 1am this morning, Sergeant?” I was able to prove beyond doubt that at that particular time I was with some other chaps at probably 12,000 feet over the Western Desert on a course of 270 degrees or something of the sort, so my honour remained un-besmirched and my Wren-permit continued until I left the ME.
Back to the war. A bizarre sight was a Wellington bomber with a huge, circular, metal ring strapped to the nose, wing-tips and tail cruising at low level up and down the Suez Canal. It had some electrical machinery on board to generate a large magnetic field to explode magnetic-mines that Jerry used to drop at night. It must have been interesting, to say the least, when it found one.
We kept bashing away at Tobruk. It was a long haul, there and back but I suppose we must have had some effect on Rommel’s supply line because they kept on sending us there, particularly during August. Sometimes we would be the aircraft to carry a camera. I would then have to go down the back of the aircraft over the target area and stand beside the ‘flare-chute’. After the navigator released the bombs he would say ‘Bombs gone’ on the intercom. Hearing this I would release a photographic flare down the flare-chute. These flares were about three feet long and five or six inches diameter and contained a small explosive charge and a great deal of magnesium powder which would, at a pre-determined height, cast sufficient light over the target area to register an image of the bombs bursting on the photographic plate in the camera. All depended on timing and it often worked quite well. Although it was cold down the back of the aircraft I used to sweat buckets doing this job because not only did I have to make sure the fuse had been triggered as it went down the chute but also that, having done so, it didn’t get stuck in it, which they been known to do, and blow us up.
Aug 1 22.20 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Tobruk 7.55 Unable to locate target – 10/10ths cloud over area (almost unheard of in midsummer)
Our aircraft was now badly in need of an overhaul. We had had no leave since joining the Squadron…apart, I recall, from a day or two in Alex when we had previously had to get one of our engines changed at Fayid.
So, they killed two birds with one stone as it were and sent us, and our ground crew, Harry, our engine fitter and Jock the air-frame fitter (I never knew them by any other name) on leave with the aircraft to Palestine where the heavy maintenance was now being done.
We had a pleasant flight up to an airfield near Tel Aviv, went into town, got rooms in a small hotel, had baths, had some good food (I remember it was my first introduction to Wiener Schnitzel. I didn’t actually know what it was at the time but it tasted good) and generally lived a comfortable life. We wandered around town and looked at Arab people and Jewish people going about their business. If the racial tensions were there that would come to the surface so violently three years hence we did not notice them. Everything seemed delightfully peaceful to us. And we went on the beach and looked at all the Jewish girls and came to the unanimous conclusion that they were the most beautiful girls in the world.
One day I went off on my own by bus to a Kibbutz. What made me do this I have no idea but it turned out to be a long and interesting day. There were Jewish people there of all ages. Many had been in professions in Germany and Austria and had left in the mid-thirties while there was still the opportunity. They lived in a tightly knit and virtually self-supporting communal world of their own; keeping goats, poultry, and growing all manner of crops. What they didn’t need for themselves they sold and put their profit into a communal bank to buy whatever they needed. If this sounds a bit like communism it probably was, of a sort. They lived in what seemed to be a shady, pleasant oasis that they created for themselves in those few years out of, if their surroundings were anything to go by, nothing but sandy, stony desert. The work they must have put and were still putting into the project was immense. They seemed content. Whether they were or not I have no idea. Compared with the alternative, which they would be more aware of than I, they at least had a future. I was in uniform, of course, and they knew and seemed to approve, in a sad sort of way, of the very small part I was playing in their war as well as mine. And they seemed pleased that I had come. I have always been pleased that I went.
While we were enjoying ourselves in Palestine, Lt Gen Lord Gott had been ordered to take overall command of the Eighth Army from General Auckinleck. He was killed on August 7th when the aircraft carrying him was shot down on the Delta region between Burgh-el-Arab and Heliopolis. Monty was sent for to take his place; he wasted no time and arrived on 12th August.
However, other momentous events were taking place. On August 11th, Churchill and a large retinue including Generals Brooke (CIGS) and Wavell and our own boss, Tedder, took off from Heliopolis for Moscow via Teheran in three Liberators. They had a very long and uncomfortable flight (sleeping in the bomb-bays); conferred at length with Stalin; told him news that he didn’t want to hear (about no second front in Europe this year or next); and had another long flight back to Cairo arriving on the 17th. On the 19th they all met up in the desert with Monty who had already been going round like a well-planned whirlwind, shaken everyone about, and laid his plans to prevent Rommel over-running the whole of Egypt in his shortly-expected push forward. Not, of course, that we had the slightest inkling of any of this. If any one had said “It’s all right, Monty’s here!” one would have said “Who is Monty?”. But at least Jerry soon found out.
We had to get back to work and the dream of Tel Aviv soon faded with of course yet another trip to Tobruk as follows.
Aug 12 19.40 F/Sgt Carpenter Operations: Tobruk harbour 7.20 Moderate flak
Aug 13 19.35 “ Operations: Tobruk harbour 2.15 Port engine failed Returned with bombs
This (bringing our bombs back especially with one engine gone) we would never have done in the UK. They would have been dumped out to sea somewhere as they were dangerous to land with but those bombs were more expensive things in the ME. So much for our overhaul in Palestine. Once again we just made it. The next night in an aircraft borrowed from another crew to Tobruk again.
Aug 14 19.50 “ Operations: Tobruk 7.40 Moderate flak
Aug 16 19.55 “ Operations: Tobruk 7.10
We were now really pressing on with our particular piece of the war. But when we landed back at base at 3.05am 17th August I did not know I had just completed my last operational flight for the time being.
On 18th August Monty started a new scheme. That was to have a succession of bombers over the German front line all night and every night, dropping the odd bomb at random, here and there, just to keep them from getting any sleep. To do this, all our aircraft were loaded with 16 two hundred and fifty pounders instead of the usual eight five hundred pounders. That day, about six o’clock, our entire squadron strength of aircraft was drawn up in a line, wing tip to wing tip, at the side of the airfield. All bombed-up and waiting to go. I think our particular take-off was about 20.00 because our target, the Alamein area, was not all that far and we wouldn’t have to get there until the Jerries had settled down for the night.
Having nothing better to do I walked out to my aircraft to check over my equipment. I climbed up the ladder, through the hatch on the underside just aft of the front gun-turret. Although the heat of the day was going it was still warm enough for me to unscrew the astrodome to get a bit of a draught through the aircraft. I sat at my set and switched it on. Had a listen. Everything seemed all right. (It always was. I never once had a fault in my radio all through the war on an operational flight.) I heard an aircraft on the circuit, coming in to land, but, having already become aware that a tendency to wanting to know what is going on can be of particular advantage, I poked my head out of the Astrodome aperture.
This saved my life. It was a South African Air Force twin-engined bomber, a Martin ‘Maryland’ I believe, and would have passed in front of me from right to left as it landed but as it touched down either the port tyre burst or the undercarriage collapsed on that side or both. It slewed to port off the runway which was parallel to our line of aircraft and then seemed to be coming straight towards me at 60 plus mph with both sides of the main undercarriage now collapsed and skidding on its belly with both props stopped and bent back.
I can say with some authority that to be paralysed by fear is no cliché in these circumstances. It then veered slightly to port and hit the Wellington immediately to my right, head on, with some force. Both aircraft burst into flames immediately. The impact forced the tail of this Wellington into the rear of mine which spurred me into moving, and moving very quickly. I jumped out of the forward hatch. The heat was astonishing. I had never been so close to anything like this and felt myself to be in a complete panic. I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do for the occupants of the other plane. I saw a small wall of sandbags a few yards to the rear of my aircraft, about 2 feet high, and ran for it. I managed to fling myself behind it just before the first bomb went off and all sorts of bits of aeroplane started falling all around. Bombs started to explode every few seconds. I curled myself into a ball with my face in the sand and my hands behind my head. I realised, although I could not bring myself to look that the fire had spread from aircraft to aircraft along the line in both directions. It was between 2 and 3 hours before I dared to move and I remember I then ran as fast as I could. I was probably in a state of shock because I ran all the way to my room, cleared my hair brush and comb, a small mirror, and alarm clock, from my bed which had fallen from the shelf above by the force of the explosions (I can still remember very vividly replacing them on the shelf) got into bed and went straight off to sleep.
The next morning I got up at first light and went to have a look. There wasn’t a soul about. Ten out of twenty aircraft had been completely destroyed and a few more were severely damaged, probably write-offs. One very brave person had had the bright idea of getting into one of them, starting it up and pulling it out of line to make a kind of fire break. Getting on for 200 bombs must have gone off while I was there. The small wall of sandbags was remarkably still intact but five yards or so from where I had been lying were the battered remains of an aircraft engine and bits and pieces all around. The chaps in the other aircraft would have been killed instantly of course. At least I suppose so. There is always the question of whether I could in any way have saved them. I do not think so…but after the event one will always wonder. I lessen feelings of guilt with the consideration that now, thinking about it, as I frequently do, I am not subject to that searing heat. There was absolutely no sign of them or their aircraft. It was a devastating blow and not only to the Squadron of course as replacement aircraft took so long to get. Apart from not being able to hear anything for a few days I seemed not to have any after effects whatsoever at that time. It didn’t matter anyway…there were no aircraft for us to fly.
It was not until I was actually writing this that I made any connection with a remarkably similar thing that happened to me when I was a small boy. In 1927 my father had sold his business and rented a house with several acres of land and some barns, and became a poultry farmer. It was quite isolated; there was one other house, a small cottage and a pub. We had no electricity, used paraffin lamps, and an Aga-type cooker and although water came out of taps we first of all had to pump it into an upstairs tank from the well at the back of the house. I became knowledgeable about Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, White Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and all the rest and sometimes I would go with my father to market in our ancient open Citroen car with crates of eggs, some of which I had been allowed to collect. I went to a school in Bishop’s Stortford, where I was born, and I got a lift every morning on a sand and gravel lorry and usually walked home, about two miles. One day my father picked me up after school in the car and parked it in town by the bridge over the river Stort while he went into the RDC offices, leaving me in the car. While I was there on my own, a horse pulling a large wagon got out of control and came galloping down the steep hill towards me and the bridge. I thought it was going to hit the car and me but at the last moment it veered to its left, demolished the stone wall of the bridge and disappeared into the river, still between the shafts. I could see the bubbles coming up while it was drowning. I was only 7 or 8 but I can remember every detail because I was so frightened. For many years I have felt a sense of unease in narrow passages, gangways in shops and the like, when anyone is walking towards me, and have only recently wondered if these similar experiences have anything to do with it.
The shambles on the airfield had only just been cleared away when quite early on the morning of August 22nd we were all ordered out there after breakfast, a Liberator landed and out came Churchill. He was wearing a sunhat, his blue siren suit, and walking with a stick. He seemed very old and quite uncertain on his feet, understandably, I should think, after his very long flight to Moscow to visit Stalin (not that any knew that at the time). With him, that I identified, were Brooke and Tedder.
They didn’t stay long and I think they all went back to England the next day. It was not long after this that I was told I was to return to the UK myself. They didn’t tell me why although it seemed a bit odd for me to be sent away from my crew. I had some thoughts that my performance might not be up to standard but was reassured when the Squadron Commander endorsed my flying logbook ‘Wireless Operator – above average – showed exceptional keenness and interest throughout his tour of operations – most capable’. That wasn’t bad, I thought, put the matter out of my mind and looked forward to going home. I had already begun not to argue with fate. (I was, of course, not to know that a furious row had broken out between Tedder and Harris who wanted some of his crews back - those he had sent out at the same time as us).
Despite the now enormous demand for our services by the army the squadron could only operate in a limited way. I spent more time in Ismailia, liaising with the RN as often as I could. Once, when this was not possible, I went with a crowd of other chaps of all ranks in one of our wagons to a place on the lakeside where one could do a bit of swimming and sunbathing. There were about thirty of us lying about, all completely starkers, and not visible from the road. We heard and saw a staff car draw up. We saw two female figures, smartly dressed in army uniform, get out and stroll in our direction. They didn’t see us. Fascinated, none of us moved. Suddenly they seemed to realise they were entering a danger zone; executed a smart about-turn and walked back rather more quickly than before with considerable dignity in the circumstances. We gave them a rousing cheer to give them something to think about.
The female form, of course was a rare sight in the desert, like finding a bottle of beer in a bucket of ice, for instance. Around the delta area however the wonders of nature were more apparent as women, dressed from head to toe in black and working everywhere in the fields, would sometimes raise up their dresses, under which they seemed to wear nothing at all, as they saw us pass by in our trucks. This was presumably for our edification (or, perhaps, education) or maybe they just appreciated the inevitable cheer. It was evident that they did not exemplify a starving populace as most of them would have made two of me.
It is really quite odd the things one remembers, sometimes quite vividly. As I walked along a narrow back street in Ismailia about this time I heard sounds of a brass band so I stopped and watched as a group of 20 or 30 Egyptian bandsmen came up the road blowing their instruments, whatever they were, to good effect, and either unconcerned that Rommel might take Egypt or, more than likely preparing for it. Bringing up the rear a small rotund individual was banging an enormous drum, somewhat bigger than himself it seemed. As he could see only straight ahead he, presumably, just followed his music. When the band turned down a side street his instincts let him down and he kept marching straight ahead. It was quite a few seconds, still banging his drum, before he realised he was performing a solo act. The sight of little legs and the drum swaying precariously from side to side as he caught up with the band who seemed not to have noticed his absence was hilarious.
If I began to have slight feelings of guilt about my now indolent life I managed to keep them well under control. In the desert – away from the delta – one felt completely immersed in the war, doing our bit one night and allowing Jerry to do his the next – and, when in its better moods, there was something about the desert which has stayed with me, the silence, the sand blown into interesting shapes by swirls of wind, the heat of the day, the cool of the night, starlight, but now – here – when the whole campaign in the Middle East depended on stopping Rommel from getting any further East – I was idling my time away in the most delightful way. I had to say goodbye to my naval friend – she was nice and it was all very innocent – of necessity I may add; and ‘thank you’ to the Chief Wren. One always exchanged home addresses in these circumstances of course, as one does, so I have heard, after holiday romances, knowing full well that one is probably just going through the motions. I do wish I could remember her name though. And wonder if she ever thought about that long warm swim.
During my last few days on the squadron I witnessed yet another horrific crash. The Wellingtons of another squadron were taking off on an operation during daylight when one of them had an engine failure at about 100 feet. It just dropped out of the sky and blew up with appalling suddenness as exploding bombs and burning fuel interacted. The rear gunner survived; shaken and bruised but otherwise unhurt and still in his turret which had been blown completely free and propelled like a ball across the sand. Maybe he, too, pondered about fate. I remember it belonged to a squadron which used Merlin engines. These liquid-cooled, in-line engines as used in Hurricanes and Spitfires tended to overheat rapidly when taxiing.
I packed my kit and awaited events. Not that I had accumulated much beyond what I stood up in, except, rather weirdly, a somewhat weighty Chambers ‘Twentieth Century’ dictionary which I had apparently bought, new, from a Greek-owned bookshop in Alexandria called Spiro something or other. I just cannot now think whatever at the time induced me to buy it and it was the only book I possessed but it did, at least, have a lot of words in it and in that respect was good value for money; a concept which has always appealed to me. I used it for over 30 years. And I still had my German 35mm camera, an Agfa ‘Karat’ which I had bought second-hand in 1938 and which, as always, worked perfectly, when I could scrounge some film, despite some rough handling at times in the desert.
On 10th September 1942 the New Zealand Steam Packet ‘Rangitiki’ left Suez for the UK. There was a motley collection of passengers. Some Greek sailors who seemed to have lost their ship, a number of British Army personnel who were obviously unfit – one or two with crutches, quite a number of civilian men, women and children, some miscellaneous and mysterious types who fitted into no specific category and a bunch of aircrew such as myself. About three hundred in all I would say and certainly not enough to make the ship feel crowded. Rangitiki was around 14,000 tons, two funnels, twin screws, built in the twenties or early thirties, cruised at about 14 knots, and what there was of peace-time luxury had long gone, or been covered over when she had been converted into a troopship.
We had hardly left Suez harbour when it became apparent that I and certain others were required to work our passage. The ship was equipped with a modicum of armament; a vintage 4.5inch naval gun on the after-deck near the stern and twin Oerlikon 50mm cannon mounted on sponsons each side of the boat deck aft of the bridge. I was appointed on the first day of the voyage, among others, to crew the starboard gun 2 hours on, 4 hours off. We received some sketchy instructions on how to make it work and change the large and heavy drums of ammunition but were never quite sure whether we ever mastered the technique as owing to shortage of ammunition on no account could we fire a practice shot. Whether the shells would have done any damage to a surfaced U-boat, and at what range, none of us had any idea.
U-boats, it seemed, lurked in these waters as well as the Indian Ocean and the South and North Atlantic. Also, not that we were told at the time, there were German ‘Commerce Raiders’ cruising around the trade routes far afield. These were fast merchant ships heavily armed with guns, torpedo tubes, etc., with immense range and duration, on the lookout for single vessels such as ourselves. I am glad I did not know this. I was worried enough about the U-boats. At first this duty seemed as if it would become an onerous and boring chore but there were compensations not immediately apparent.
Thus…my journey home commenced. I had never been on a large boat before. My nautical experience consisted only of crossing the Irish Sea on the ferry to the Isle of Man, in 1941, for my air-gunnery training, a matter of 4 hours or so. My sleeping quarters were in a large empty space just about at the water-line at the extreme front end of the ship, at, quite literally, the sharp end, and there was about one inch of steel plate between us and the water. The rivets joining one plate to another or to the framework of the ship looked very small. Our prospects should a torpedo hit this particular piece of the ship were not worth thinking about. One could either sleep on the floor or, if one was clever, sling a hammock. I chose to do neither as the heat and lack of ventilation were appalling and took my blanket up to my work place when the time came to get my head down. The two-foot space between the gun and the three-foot high plating which surrounded the sponson gave shelter and a nice feeling of security when the ship rolled. The steady muffled thump, a sort of ‘chumpity-chump, chumpity-chump’, of the diesels and the swish of the sea directly below us made for easy sleep when opportunity occurred. Also, I have to confess, the proximity of the lifeboats gave me quite a degree of comfort. Our varying hours of duty gave us access to the mess at odd hours and being viewed as temporary members of the crew ate in more style and also extremely well.
The days went by very pleasantly. There was nothing to do but look at the sea, enjoy the slow roll of the ship and daydream of this and that. In those days one used the word ‘posh’ readily enough without really knowing its origin. (“Port Out, Starboard Home”.) Going down the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea it was apparent that important people knew what they were about in the days of Empire when they demanded the port side cabins on the way out to India and the starboard ones on the way home, for the starboard side of the ship certainly seemed to get more than its fair share of the sun. However, being suspended over the water a few feet as we were when on duty we got the benefit of any breeze that was going.
After a few days the changes of course from South East by South, to East, and then to South indicated that the sea, although it looked much the same, was now called, more importantly, the Indian Ocean rather than Red or the Gulf of Aden and the sun at midday was almost overhead. It was also some comfort that the coast of Somalia, if invisible, was not all that far to starboard if one had to take to the boats. Any reader who had had the patience to reach this point will by now have gathered that I might be getting over-anxious about my personal safety and they would possibly be right. In my defence I would plead that the throw of the dice had so far been more than kind and no doubt thought it was unlikely to continue.
One soon gets used to the rhythms and vibrations of a ship as one does in an aeroplane. The crew far more so than the passengers, no doubt; the sub-conscious being instantly aware of the unusual. So when the cheerful chumpity-chump, chumpity-chump of the engines changed to a rather down-beat chump-chump-chump it would be a good bet that the Captain was pretty smartly on the blower to the Engine Room. And that he would be not all that pleased to be told that the starboard engine had packed up. The news of this did not filter out to us lesser beings for some time. One heard it from the steward in the mess, of course, who knew everything. Imperceptibly the ship thrust itself forward with less vigour and with some degree of the sort of quietness that overcomes a ship when it berths in harbour and the Captain rings down ‘Finished with Engines’. It was rather eerie and gave one a feeling of considerable unease, especially as the grapevine indicated we were now making 9-10 knots at best and if it was hot on deck it was, no doubt, even hotter in the engine room trying to repair a duff engine. In the event they never did and we carried on with a dignified and uneasy slowness down the African coast to make Durban in another 12 days. On the way we passed through the narrow bit between Mozambique and Madagascar, on which large island the Allies had been fighting a small war with the French, of all people, since May.
Our relief at entering the harbour at Durban was enhanced by the appearance at the end of the quay of a lady who gave us, through a megaphone, a full and magnificent rendering in a powerful contralto of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. We did not know that she was to become legendary as the ‘White Lady of Durban’ by greeting thus every troopship throughout the war, or that she was an opera singer of some note. In any event the occasion fastened itself firmly into my memory and I heard with sadness and considerable nostalgia the news of her death in very old age a year or two ago. Her name was Perla Seidle Gibbon and a statue of her, with megaphone in hand, was unveiled even more recently on VJ Day 1995, on the quayside at Durban at the very spot where she used to sing.
There were lumps in a few throats I think as the ship glided slowly past her large, plumply statuesque figure in her long white gown. We gave her a very good cheer (we had, after all, had nothing much to cheer or look at for a few weeks) which she acknowledged gracefully. We, the passengers, were dispersed ashore; some of us by train to a transit camp a bit out of town leaving most of our kit on the boat. As soon as we could we went back into town to see the sights. South Africa or, at least, Durban, was a culture shock. Affluence and Apartheid side by side. Signs everywhere. ‘Nie Blankes’, ‘Nie Slegs’ and so on. We watched other people before we knew what we could do and what we could not do. It was uncomfortable and complicated so we kept ourselves to ourselves. There was, however, a good club for servicemen where we could get a good meal, called, I believe, The Playhouse, and I think we went there every day. My recollections of Durban are necessarily limited because we were careful where we went; men in full Zulu costume with spears (I don’t know what their function was), a pool of fresh blood on the railway platform late one evening, a clash with some Military Police for not saluting an Army Lieutenant whom we passed and they were following (typical that – even if we had seen him we still wouldn’t have saluted – we obviously hadn’t been brought up properly in the ME) and got told off by the CO of the transit camp; these are things remembered but little more. All in all not one of the happiest seven days of my life and it was a relief to return to the ship, now repaired and ready to go.
Back in the security of my gun emplacement all was well as we settled down on a southerly course with the comforting chumpity-chump, chumpity–chump of the diesels pushing us along once again at full speed. But not for long. Two days out of Durban the starboard engine packed up again. Presumably and hopefully somebody would mend it again, we thought. But nobody told us anything. These were dangerous waters and we were a plump and plodding target. We thought that the Captain may have had the same idea because instead of turning west round the corner when we drew level with the bottom end of Africa we kept on southerly for two or three more days. It was reckoned by the knowledgeable that we were halfway to Antarctica as it began to get quite nippy, especially at night, and from time to time we saw the odd whale blowing which made a change from watching the dolphins effortlessly keeping just ahead of us around the bow, and on we went very much in slow motion. One night there was an impromptu concert in the forecastle and a large and impressive swarthy-looking bearded character in khaki battledress sang ‘Down Mexico Way’ not only in Spanish, but very well too. He was one of the mysterious characters previously mentioned and gave the impression of possibly being a one-time member of the Long Range Desert Group or something of the sort.
One day there was a diversion when it was decided to fire a round from the 4.5 gun aft. The gun was got ready and a large empty crate was dumped overboard. When it was a mile or so astern a round was fired (I was surprised at the tremendous noise the gun made) and I saw the splash of the shell very reasonably close to it. Evidently this was considered satisfactory and normality was resumed.
It got warmer again and then quite hot and one morning at first light the sea was absolutely flat, no wind at all to make even the slightest of ripples on the surface, which was thick with seaweed. It was assumed this was the Sargasso Sea so we knew where we were at least. I remember being slightly worried in case the seaweed fouled up the propeller and cooling water of the remaining engine.
Somewhere about this time the ship would have passed through some water that I would meet up with again in 1945 on my way via Panama to Sydney. (That time there would be no fear of U-boats, although U-boats would in fact be there, carrying their cargo of SS officers and their booty to South America.)
Another morning, about 28th or 29th October, at first light, I was sleeping beside the gun (as always, but not on duty I hasten to add) when there was a sudden commotion which woke me up and the engine stopped and there was the largest collection of big ships, liners, transports, and warships one would ever be likely to see, crossing in front of us from port to starboard. We had virtually stopped before they all passed before us and one of the accompanying warships was busy signalling in our direction with its morse lamp. It was obviously an invasion force of some sort but it was not until later we learned it was for the North African landing on November 8th (Code name: Operation ‘Torch’). Not having seen another vessel since leaving Suez this event provided a topic of conversation for some time. On our way again we carried on with our stately progress up the coast of Africa until it got quite cold again. We did not much fancy our chances across the Atlantic at the speed we were going but there was nothing to do but cross our fingers and hope for the best.
It had now got decidedly cold again and sometimes rather damp sleeping up on deck but nothing would have got me below except to wash, eat and etc..
I decided that I was not a particularly brave person although this must have been obvious to the reader for some time. The crew seemed calm enough but then maybe so did I. But nobody spoke about what was going on inside the head. Regardless of these thoughts the ship turned north-east for some days, then east and after a particular uneasy 14 days or so after sighting the convoy we turned south and early on November 16th ahead of us to starboard was a smudge of land. At breakfast the mess steward seemed more cheerful than normal and volunteered the information that not only was it the NW tip of Ireland but that with a bit of luck we would be berthed at Greenock by sunset. So it turned out. (Ship’s stewards were mostly always right.)
What we had seen was Rathlin Island and I could well remember the cross-country flights in our training days when we had seen all this from 20,000 ft and I knew that we should soon see the Mull of Kintyre to port. This was wonderful stuff. Everyone very excited. By lunchtime we were turning north up the Firth of Clyde and then there was Arran to port, so green. It was too much to take. I leaned on the ship’s rail and wept.
Well, there it was. Nine and a half weeks since Suez - all but a week at sea. A special thank-you to our Captain, whoever he was, for choosing the safest possible route for getting us home and to our Merchant Navy in general, for whom then and since I have always had the greatest respect. We would go our different ways. Tomorrow, next week, whenever, they would be facing their dangers again.
(During 1995 I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the sinking in 1942 of the City of Cairo. I was particularly interested because this ship, of some 8000 tons, left Capetown on 6th November 1942 with passengers for the UK. Six days into the voyage home it was intercepted by a German submarine, the Captain of which allowed the passengers and crew 20 minutes to take to the boats before sinking the vessel by torpedo. Before leaving the scene he gave the boat crews a course to steer to the nearest land. The boats were soon separated and the documentary followed mostly the story of one particular boat which, after five harrowing weeks in which most of those on board had died, was sighted by a German freighter. The few survivors were taken on board and well treated. One young woman, still just alive, was operated on by the ship’s doctor but being too weak to survive was buried at sea with some sensitivity. This ship, in turn, was then sunk by a British submarine, the crew taking to their boats, together with the few remaining survivors of the City of Cairo. They were, in turn, picked up by a German submarine (maybe attracted to the scene by an SOS from the German ship, but this is conjecture on my part) which was returning to its base at St Nazaire. On its way through the Bay of Biscay the submarine was repeatedly attacked by British aircraft and surface vessels and at one point rested on the seabed, badly damaged and partially flooded for many hours. One British seaman was unfortunate to be imprisoned on his own behind a watertight door in that part of the submarine which had to be isolated (the mere thought of this makes me shudder with horror) and unaware of what was going on except the full knowledge of his predicament and fighting like every other member of the crew for every breath. Fortunately for him, with considerable skill by its crew the submarine was able to return to the surface, take in air, and eventually docked safely at its base from where he was eventually sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany and survived the war. This extraordinary story illustrates well, I think, that while no man is master of his fate, some get awfully close to it.
In September 1942, it is on record that U-boats operating in the Atlantic, off South Africa and in the Indian Ocean sank 97 merchant ships; in October 91 ships; and in November in the same general area and including the Mediterranean sank 118 ships; together in these three months totalling over 1.8 million tons. In the same three-month period 39 U-boats were sunk. In November the Allied losses at sea were the heaviest of the whole war. Perhaps my fears were not altogether misplaced. Rangitiki survived the war I am pleased to say.)
Troopships were well organised. Getting kit together took no time at all. There was some queueing to get passes and rail tickets from the ship’s Transport Officer. Someone hands out rations. All like clockwork. “Finished with engines”. Different noises, footsteps and voices. Down the gangway at Greenock, cold, damp and dark. Solid ground under one’s feet. Remembering people one had no time to say goodbye to. Crowded train going south, new faces, a long sleep in a corner seat. Euston Station early morning. Tube to Liverpool Street. Sleeping bodies piled-up on all the underground platforms (33 years later I met Tina who, then 14, may well have been one of them). Waiting around at Liverpool Street for the first train out to Bishop’s Stortford. Had lost my hat long ago. Two MPs eyed me but chose to ignore this transgression. My army battle-dress and RAF badges were perhaps outside their orbit.
Bishop’s Stortford railway station, so well known to me, had not changed, neither had Station Road, South Street or Market Square. Nothing had changed. Up Windhill, past Numbers 22 and 24 where I had spent much of my childhood, and past the Convent where, just pre-war, she with the pigtails would meet me on Sunday afternoons (in ’44 she married a 2nd Lieutenant and they had six children – serve her right), down Bell’s Hill, the Bricklayer’s Arms at the bottom. It was all just the same. As if I had never been away at all. Going back to places always gives me a funny feeling and I remember I had this kind of eerie dreaminess as I walked home. Up Hadham Road, my parents’ house, No 102, up the side path and opened the kitchen door, never locked. (My parents had returned to Bishop’s Stortford in 1934.) My father making tea, “My God!”, he said, and shouted up the stairs “Nora! He’s back!” They stared at me, laughing and crying. None of us knew quite what to say. I remember my mother saying “Your hair is almost white!” and my father, “There’s a letter for you from the Air Ministry”, which they gave to me proudly. Addressed to Pilot Officer 131138 J C Chapman…pleased to inform you…granted a commission with effect from 20th September 1942…report to Air Ministry, Kingsway, London on return to the UK, it said. And then, reading the telegram – “Regret to inform you that your son, 960708 Jeffrey Charles Chapman is missing as a result of air operation on 18th January 1942. Explanatory letter follows.”
The next day I put on my best civvies and went to the Ministry as instructed. Once again everything was well organised, paybook brought up to date and exchanged for a chit to take to Cox and Kings Bank in The Strand, clothing coupons to take to Simpsons in Piccadilly and so on. I did all these things and eventually got back home with enormous parcels of uniform, a cheque book (my first) and a bank account with more money than I had ever possessed. (I had had little chance to spend much of my pay for the last 12 months and collected what seemed a small fortune in those days). And instructions to stay on leave until told otherwise. I was, I remember, quite overwhelmed by all this; I didn’t quite know how to relate to my father and mother who, quite naturally wanted to know everything that had happened to me. I found I was quite unable to tell them and, in fact, never did.
I ambled around my home town for the next month like a lost soul not knowing what to do with myself and knowing no-one although I did rather enjoy the cold and damp for a change and it was a relief eventually to get a telegram to report to 23 OTU (Operational Training Unit) Pershore, Worcestershire, just before Christmas.
Of the remainder of 1942 I remember little. My flying logbook has an entry that I made a brief excursion into the air on Christmas Eve afternoon to air-test a Wellington.
I had my first experience that evening of what was perhaps a typical example of an officer’s mess letting its hair down. I have a vague recollection that around midnight one young local lady visitor decided to take off most of her clothes and try her hand at an exotic dance. As far as she was concerned this went down in history as an incompleted mission by her having received too much hospitality at the bar during the evening and collapsing in some disarray onto the floor; not of course without a sympathetic cheer for her good intention. There was a rumour (unconfirmed) that she was last seen being pushed out of camp in a wheel-barrow, the sentry at the Guard-room presenting arms as she passed).
I was woken up on Christmas morning by, of all people, the MO, who said, of all crazy things, that I was playing hockey against the WAAF in an hour’s time. (I must have foolishly mentioned to someone at sometime or other that I could play I suppose). I gather he realised after looking at me more closely that this was virtually a non-possibility. He came back with something in a glass which eventually put enough life into me to turn out. In the event, after I got going a bit, I quite enjoyed myself and made one or two quite useful contacts – and sometimes with the ball.
I had originally planned only to write about this year 1942. I had, in fact, decided to call it just that: “1942”. Things that happened to me in that year are more than ordinarily vivid, no doubt because my life previous to joining the Royal Air Force at 19 years of age was as uneventful as most others. For reasons explained at the end of the book I decided to go on with it.
A holiday in the West Country
On New Year’s Day 1943, I realised it was twelve months since we had set off for Africa. I felt much more than a year older. And in that a circle had been completed; from being air-crew under training and of not much account, and regarding with awe one’s operationally-hardened instructors, to becoming such myself with the thinnest of rings on my uniform instead of three stripes, and 37 operational flights behind me.
The mechanics of living were so much more simple and pleasant as an officer. The mess operated like a well-run hotel with lounge, restaurant and, most importantly, bar, where one could drink as much as was seemly until the end of the month without putting one’s hand in one’s pocket. Even then, a discreet note in one’s pigeon-hole disclosed how much one owed the bar account (payable by cheque within the next 7 days, please). Those who bent the elbow too frequently thus came to the notice of the Adjutant. (He was a white-haired Flight Lieutenant of World War 1 vintage with pilot’s wings and an MC or two, and of whom one stood in considerable awe, as well one might for he had behind-the-scenes influence in a genial and fatherly way.)
The Assistant Adjutant was a WAAF officer, thirty-ish, and very hoity-toity. She did not speak to, or even look in the direction of any male officer under the rank of Squadron Leader if she could help it. I soon discovered, however, that not all members of this remarkable body of women had such tendencies. During my year overseas I had not realised how the WAAF had taken over so many positions in the administrative and operational branches of the service. I even shared a WAAF bat-woman with seven other officers in a wooden hut divided into eight fair-sized rooms; and was generally very comfortable. And there were clean tablecloths, clean sheets, and one kept out of the way of the Group Captain (‘Groupie’), the Wing Commander (‘The Wingco’), Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants…all seeming very senior to myself…and taking care not to occupy their favourite chairs in the lounge or at table…and certainly not speaking to them unless spoken to first.
Pershore was not quite a town – more a large village; it was a long enough walk to acquire sufficient thirst to enjoy an evening at The Angel Hotel which became a second home. Life was going to be good here, I thought, and so it proved in the 15 months I was there.
There were nasty things happening in other parts of the country and more particularly in Europe and the far East but in Worcestershire they were certainly not evident. When I found my feet a few weeks later I got to know a young local lady whose parents invited me home from time to time for a meal. One would normally be hesitant in accepting hospitality because of rationing but I had no such compunction after noting the pig being fattened at the bottom of the large and well stocked garden and the side of bacon hanging in the kitchen.
My duties as an instructor on training flights consisted only of acting as a safeguard to the supervising pilot should the wireless operator of the crew under training be unable to cope with a difficult situation. This did not happen very often but, if the weather deteriorated to zero visibility in those days before electronic aids, a wireless operator was the only crew-member who could more-or-less guarantee at least to get an aircraft back to base (if not to land it – the most difficult part) or to virtually any other airfield by obtaining (using the morse code) ‘courses to steer’ from a large number of D/F (Direction Finding) Stations throughout the British Isles. Because of this, every flight undertaken for whatever purpose, even a fifteen minute air-test, required a wireless operator on board. This puffed-up our flying hours (and sense of importance no doubt).
The war was something one read about, if one had a mind to, in the variety of newspapers and periodicals delivered to the officer’s mess. I had no feelings of guilt (did anyone?) about leaving the sharp end to others for a while and I had no doubt my turn would come again. This was the time to enjoy life while one could, and by and large I did.
Occasionally however we were pressed into trying to save operational colleagues who had the misfortune to take to their dinghies on their way home across the North Sea. These were known as ‘North Sea Sweeps’ when we patrolled in daylight, singly, over a designated area at low level. We were usually not far off the German coast and, doubtless, while we were looking for our chaps in the water, jerry fighter-pilots were out looking for us so we had to keep a sharp lookout and not only at the water. We did our best but never saw a thing except the odd Danish or German fishing boat during six such flights during ’43. All crews on these activities were operationally experienced but we used to take one or two extra crew members under training for the experience and as extra pairs of eyes. These flights in fact counted in our tally of operational flights – each amounting half one operational flight – as they did present a certain amount of risk.
A lack of Wisdom
The year previously, while in the Western Desert, I had had some teeth filled which I had mentioned. The dentist had then warned me that I would be having trouble with both lower wisdom teeth which were becoming impacted. The dental officer, ‘Jock’ Sutherland (F/Lt), at Pershore confirmed this and convinced me that I should have them out. He had no facilities for doing this as it wasn’t just a straightforward pull with pliers. A bit more complicated, he said, and made arrangements to do it at Evesham Hospital.
When the day came there was a problem with transport, it suddenly became not available. No problem, I said, we’ll go on my motor-bike – I was proud of my Francis-Barnett 200cc two-stroke and it needed a run, I thought. The hospital at Evesham was of the Cottage variety in peacetime, I suppose, with a rudimentary operating room. There was a nurse waiting to help him and they got busy with local anaesthetics sawing away at my lower jawbones to lift out the teeth which were growing horizontally instead of upwards. I have to confess I didn’t feel all that good when they had finished and I had to be dosed with a large amount of codeine. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t think clearly and never, in fact, recalled the seven miles back to Pershore with the gallant Scot, hanging on to me from the pillion seat. He well deserved a citation for bravery and after a week on milk and soup and stuff like that I could open my mouth sufficiently to tell him so and ask the barman to set us up a few pints to celebrate.
(One of the perks of operational flying in the RAF was a (very) small ration of petrol for private recreational use. As most people had to give up driving for the duration, cars and motor cycles were remarkably cheap to buy. If they went wrong you threw them away and bought another. I got nearly 100 mpg from the Francis-Barnett and used it mainly to get home to Bishop’s Stortford on leave.)
There were other diversions. On one of my many visits to The Angel I had become acquainted with a Waaf. When our day-off coincided she twisted someone’s arm in the cook-house and got some sandwiches and a flask of tea and we set off on our bikes to Evesham, sat in a park by the river and had a sort of picnic. One thing led to another (it always seems to, doesn’t it?) and we went to the cinema, forgetting or perhaps wilfully disregarding the fact that it would be dark when we came out and that we had no lights for our bikes. It was bright moonlight and there was no traffic worth speaking of on the 5 or 6 miles of the A44 back to Pershore. We got as far as Cropthorne before disaster struck in the shape of a Special Constable stepping out of the shadows. As far as we were concerned it was more important to be back in camp by 23.59 hours than such a small thing as having a white light to the front and a red light to the rear. We duly appeared together in Pershore Petty Sessions, and pleaded ‘guilty’ to this misdemeanour. I was fined £1 and she got away with 10 shillings. I did the decent thing, I have to say, and gallantly paid both fines. My memory plays tricks here because I would have placed this during the summer because it was such a warm and pleasant day, but actually it was 20th March as will be seen,
“In the County of Worcester (the summons read) Petty Sessional Division of Pershore
To: No 131138 Pilot Officer Jeffrey Charles Chapman of Royal Air Force Station, Pershore.
In the County of Worcester, You are hereby summonsed to appear before the Court of Summary Jurisidiction sitting at the Police Court, Pershore on Tuesday the 6th day of April 1943 at the hour of 10 o’clock in the forenoon to answer an Information or complaint made before me by Thomas James Symonds, Police Inspector, for that you on the 20th day of March 1943 in the Parish of Cropthorne during the hours of darkness, namely at 10.25pm did cause a bicycle to be on the highway there situate called Evesham – Pershore main road without carrying a lamp displaying to the front a white light and a lamp displaying to the rear a red light contrary to the Lighting (Restrictions) Order 1940 paragraph 3(1)
Dated the 24th day of March 1943 (Signed) A E Rusher Justice of the Peace for the said County.”
I would never have believed that the gigantic machinery of the law could grind so small in the times in which we then lived. As it was one of the myths of WW2 that a tiny light on the ground would immediately attract the attention of a bomber crew at 20,000 feet, hence the strict blackout, the virtually universal non-use of lights on our bikes by most of us seemed to make sense. More realistically probably we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, afford the batteries. News of our joint appearance in Court caused the odd raised eyebrow in the mess (“fancy getting caught like that, old man!”) and probably in the Waafery as far as I know.
An early return to base
July 15th, 1943; Take-off 2300 hours; P/O Van Rassel, DFC the (Canadian) pilot; myself the only crew member and eight French-Canadian bomb-aimers under training.
The bomb-bay of this Wellington was adapted to take 30lb practice bombs which made a small bang and mostly a cloud of smoke when they landed. On the way to the bombing range at Defford we had hardly got to 1000 feet when the port engine stopped and caught fire. The fire spread to the wing. There was not time and we were too low for all of us to bale out so we just had to land and as quickly as possible or we would all roast. I had confidence that the pilot, who was very experienced, would get us down somehow but time here was really of the essence. I unscrewed the Perspex ‘astrodome’ which served as an emergency exit on the top of the fuselage, got my back up against the main spar (that’s a fair-sized girder which goes right through each wing and the fuselage and is the strong point of the aircraft) facing the tail, straddled my legs on the floor and got all the trainees facing the same way between my legs and each holding the next man round the waist. The port side of the fuselage was burning through as we hit the ground, wheels up, on the grass at the edge of our airfield and in those last few seconds we were beginning to feel distinctly warm.
We came to a very sudden and noisy stop. The bomb-bay under us collapsed and the practice-bombs went off to add their smoke, noise and heat to the confusion. It is quite extraordinary how one acquires miraculous powers of personal levitation in such circumstances; gravity seemingly becoming temporarily suspended; helped, no doubt, by some functioning of the adrenal glands and serious consideration of the alternative. Or so it seemed as all nine of us in the back ejected ourselves out of the top hatch onto the starboard wing and jumped to the ground. The pilot similarly got himself out of the hatch above his head. He did a fantastic job, and neither he or the rest of us had even so much as a sprained ankle.
We stood around watching and then the fuel tanks blew up and the aircraft burned right out leaving just its geodetic skeleton. We got a lift back to the mess for a much needed drink but we were too late, the bar had closed, the pilot reported to the CO and then we all went to bed. The next morning I poked around in the ashes and found the metal clasps of my parachute harness and have kept them as a souvenir. (As a matter of interest all RAF Transport aircraft these days have their seats facing the rear. Not, I hasten to add, that I make any connection; it was a well known recipe for survival.)
And a pilot caught with his trousers down
On 24th August a pilot, Dai Davies, and I took off in a Wellington to test it after repair. We were circling around Bredon Hill at 2000 feet when he decided he had to go to the loo as he had a touch of the runs that morning. This was quite a complicated business, one had to take off one’s parachute harness for a start and the facilities provided were of the bucket and chuck it variety (known as the Elsan). He left me in charge up the front and I was quite enjoying myself going round in a nice big circle and remembering to watch the air speed and all that (I had flown a bit at times but never unsupervised before).
Quite suddenly the port engine shuddered and banged and ground to a stop. I knew enough to pull the starboard throttle back a bit, apply a bit of right rudder, and put the nose and starboard wing down a little and then, somewhat frantically no doubt, looked round down the back to see where the chap was who should have been doing this. If everything hadn’t been a bit fraught it could have been hilarious at the sight of him climbing over the main spar like a hurdler and doing himself up all at the same time. He more or less pulled me out of his seat and took charge for which I was very thankful. It was no big deal flying with one engine without a load and in a few minutes we were over our airfield and then we discovered we had a problem; we had no hydraulic power to lower the undercarriage and flaps – that meant I had to pump the undercarriage down by hand with the lever provided and then the flaps. Because of the time it took to do this our approach to the runway went wrong and in normal circumstances should have gone round again but we couldn’t do this on one engine with full flap and the undercarriage down as it would not have been possible to pump them up again in less than about 5 minutes. So we did what the instruction book said should never be done in these circumstances and turned with a very tight stomach-churning circle to port, inevitably losing all our height of about 300 feet in so doing, and flattened-out dead in line with the runway and a few feet above it. As we collected ourselves together Dai looked at me “You’re as white as a sheet, man!” “You want to look at yourself” I replied.
Worcestershire has many attractions and associations with literary and musical figures of the past. Our airfield was nicely situated a few miles north of the 1000 ft bulk of Bredon Hill and a walk to the top on a fine day was an experience to remain in the memory as A E Housman had remarked long before (but more eloquently). And there was the whole range of the Malverns ten miles away with their glorious silhouette against the western sky at sunset. On the subject of air-tests it was perhaps not remarkable how often those slopes attracted our pilots, for the high points were tempting to skim over on a clear day. Elgar had the same urge on horseback and put his experience certainly to a more lasting purpose.
Somewhere about this time when I was at Pershore, the Africa Star medal was awarded to those who had served for 6 months or more in the desert campaign. I wore the ribbon with considerable pride and felt part, if a very small one, of a brotherhood of nationalities who had contributed to what Churchill referred to, somewhat prematurely perhaps, in a speech on 10th November 1942 after Rommel’s army had been severely dealt with at Alamein and afterwards. “This”, he said, “must not be considered as the end. It may possibly be the beginning of the end; but it is certainly the end of the beginning”.
I was certainly not overworked. During 18 months rest from operational flying I flew only about 240 hours, including 24 flights as instructor. Much of my flying was accompanying various peacetime senior officers around the country on what, in the guise of keeping in practice in the cockpit, were I suspected, occasions more properly described as social and/or the furthering of careers than otherwise.
However, that was none of my business and I enjoyed the experience. One such officer, a Squadron Leader, with whom I flew frequently and with whom I got quite friendly was engaged for a few weeks with investigating aircraft crashes in Training Command. We few to strange airfields and then got service transport to the crash site. This was apt to be quite gruesome. On one occasion we were walking about trying not to tread on very small pieces of human remains and I can remember the horror of seeing a complete set of teeth still attached to a portion of a lower jaw high up in a bush. While death was always lurking round the corner, we, in the RAF, tended to lesser exposure to the physical aspects of it, either of our own kind or even less of the enemy’s than was common in operation units in other services.
My first experience of death, in any form, was in May or June 1940 when I had been in the service only a few months. As an Airman 2nd class (General Duties) stationed at Debden fighter airfield in Essex I was one of a party of about fifteen, a Leading Aircraftman in charge, sent to a large field near the village of Castle Camps on the border of Cambridgeshire to form the semblance of a satellite airfield for use by our Hurricane fighters should Debden be put out of action. (It had been bombed when I was there as I well remember but not put out of action and Hurricanes did later use Castle Camps on occasion.)
We were provided with a large bell-tent within which the whole lot of slept and kept our kit. We knew so little about camping that we had no idea that one had to slacken-off the guy ropes at night in case it rained. One night our ignorance was painfully made evident when the whole thing collapsed on top of us to our great confusion. We had some means of cooking, a few sandbags, a Lewis machine-gun, manufactured, so it was stamped on the breach, in 1913, and two pans of ammunition each containing, as far as I remember 96 rounds of .303. Our function was to go to war against the enemy if he attempted to land; as it was expected he might. Our 192 rounds of .303 would, I suspect, have had little effect upon history.
While we were being transported on our weekly trip to Debden for a bath there was an air fight going on overhead and a Hurricane was shot down, the pilot making a reasonable wheels-up landing in a field close the road although it was smoking heavily all the way down. As it came to a stop it burst into flames. The pilot was unable to get himself out of the cockpit. We stopped, and ran across the field to see if there was anything we could do. The heat was such when we got there that we could but watch the pilot burn to death and avoid the exploding ammunition still left in the aircraft which he hadn’t fired. When the fire burned itself out there was just some greyish ash on the ground in the outline of the aircraft. In that part of it that would have been the cockpit, and still in the sitting position, was recognisable the body of the pilot, completely charred like burnt timber. This was my first ever experience of death. It was, no doubt at all, as horrific a death as could be imagined and I have never forgotten this image of a once human being.
Disaster at Nuremburg
My holiday from the war came to an end after Bomber Command’s ill-fated raid on the German city of Nuremburg on 31st March 1944. Of the 700 (plus) aircraft dispatched, 98 failed to return and another 10-12 crashed or were otherwise written off from other causes. A fiasco of tragic proportions, it was caused either by incompetence of planning on a breathtaking scale or, as one book written about it, entitled (I believe) ‘They knew we were coming’, claims, an intricate conspiracy at the highest level of government.
The one, was the sending of the bomber force on a night when the moon was at least half way to full. This, risky enough on such a relatively long flight, was compounded by large amounts of cloud cover there and back at about 14,000 feet; a lower height to that which the bomber force was asked to operate (a bomber’s worst nightmare, in fact). The dark silhouette of each aircraft would be sharply defined against the brightness of the lower cloud-layer and would be (and were) gobbled-up by a night-fighter pilot like a heron after a fish on the surface.
The other, more sinister if true, and there are some arguments in its favour, was an effort to induce enemy intelligence to attach credence to the signals of one of their agents who had been dropped by parachute on to our soil only to be promptly captured and ‘turned’, on inducements of being executed if he did not comply. He was to be tested by advancing, to his source, knowledge of a large air-raid proposed by us on Nuremburg and the approximate date. Whatever the truth of it, 600-700 highly trained crew-members were lost, (one of these, a 21-year old W/op-Air Gunner, Sergeant 1390097 EJP Monk, always referred to as ‘Eddie’ by his brothers and sisters, an enthusiast with the violin, is buried in a War Cemetery in the north of Germany, would, had he lived, have become my brother-in-law in later life).
Bomber Command, in a state of some shock, had to replace aircraft and crews on a large scale. The Pathfinder Force squadrons required topping-up with experienced aircrew such as myself. So it was in early April that I found myself inducted into a Lancaster squadron, No 582, recently created from an influx of crews of varying experience from 156 and 7 Squadrons. We shared an airfield at Little Staughton in Huntingdonshire with 109 Squadron’s Mosquito’s. I became absorbed into a crew to replace their wireless operator (if I remember correctly, an incendiary bomb dropped by an aircraft above had come through the top of their aircraft and taken off his hand).
The skipper of this crew had the rank of Flying Officer as I now did myself. He was a very sound flyer and a good skipper. The rest of the crew, all Sergeants, were a good bunch and we got on well but there was just the hint of a slight barrier that rank inevitably gives through not eating together or living in the same quarters; also perhaps because I was starting my second tour of operations while they were no more than halfway through their first. And I suppose it would have been too much to expect closeness with a crew in such circumstances when one had not trained together as with my first crew in 1941. Anyway, they seemed efficient and that was the main thing. I hope this does not sound patronising but I like to think that by now I was a fair judge of those who might survive, given good luck, and those who might not. I felt, like many others starting another tour of operations, not a little apprehensive. Having survived one tour the odds were against surviving a second. It was not a subject much talked about at the time but it was surprising, when it was all over, when one felt more free to chat about such things, how many of us had ‘written ourselves off’ at the start, and after each completed operation congratulated ourselves at having cheated the Great Reaper yet one more time. At the same time I doubt the casual observer would have noted any such profundity of thought among us as we tended to live each day to the best advantage (to say the least).
They, my new crew, did take off without me for some reason on a non-operational flight, failed to gain sufficient height at the end of the runway and demolished not only a church steeple but the greater part of their undercarriage but lived to tell the tale (which they did quite frequently to anyone who would listen).
After the costly experience of the Nuremburg raid, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had been induced to discontinue his planned destruction of German built-up areas in favour of harrying the German armies in northern France, generally by attacking important railway junctions, bridges, airfields and more specifically those sites near the coast from where in the near future the pilot-less winged bombs, (the V.1s or ‘doodle-bugs’) were to be launched.
Here are extracts from my flying logbook of the flights we made in those days. Unless otherwise stated the pilot in each case was Flying Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) O’Donovan.
30.4.44 11.30 P/O Macauley Bombing exercise 1.30
My first flight in a Lancaster bomber. The power was awesome after Wellingtons. The four propellers out in front pulling us along had 6000hp of Rolls Royce Merlin engines turning them around. (And four of them rather than two was very comforting.) My personal space in the aircraft was no larger than in the Wellington – the wireless sets identical – the electrical circuit and, by now, the electronic navigational and other aids rather more complicated.
30.4.44 22.20 Operations: Somain railway centre 3.05 1 a/c lost
1.5.44 15.15 Bombing exercise 1.55
2.5.44 16.00 Bombing exercise 1. 00
4.5.44 12.00 Air test and air/sea firing 0.55
7.5.44 15.45 Night flying test 0.55
8.5.44 00.40 Operations: Nantes airfield 4.50 1 a/c lost
9.5.44 11.30 Cross country. Landed Llandow 2.50
19.5.44 10.30 Training 1.25 Operations: Boulogne railway marshalling yards Some heavy flak 4.40
22.5.44 15.00 Night flying test 0.20
22.5.44 22.40 Operations: Dortmund, some flak over Ruhr 18 a/c lost 4.05
24.5.44 10.30 (S/Ldr Coleman – self under training on ‘Fishpond’ fighter detection and bombing equipment. 2.30
25.5.44 16.00 Night flying and weather test 1.20
28.5.44 23.30 Operations: Dunkerque gun batteries 2 a/c lost
30.5.44 10.50 Training flight 1.50
31.5.44 “ “ 2.15 31.5.44 00.30 Operations: Tergnier marshalling yards. 2 a/c lost
3.55 2.6.44 10.45 (F/Lt Macauley) Training flight
Hitting the right note
It is summer, 1944. I went to the mess to have lunch. I sat down at the long table with my back to the kitchen. Behind me, a WAAF cook or waitress emitted (and this is the only way I know how to describe it) the kind of sound made involuntarily when bending low with one’s head in the oven and subject to a certain kind of unexpected attention from the rear. It was quite piercing but excited no particular comment. My still empty tumbler on the table in front of me, however, disappeared into a small heap of powdered glass. Everyone came to look and marvel (especially the lady concerned). A powerful thing, the female voice in anguish.
And a nightingale sang
I had a room next to the entrance door of a wooden hut in a small copse near the edge of the airfield and about 20 of us flying types lived there. It was quiet and peaceful. Normally we were not early risers. If we had not been on ops the previous night we would not know until we had been to the flight office about 10-ish whether our crew was on the list for the forthcoming night or not. If it was, we could expect, as it was summertime, that take-off would not be before late evening as we would not expect to be sent over enemy territory until it was dark.
Typical take-off times for a longish trip, say to Stuttgart, about 6 ½ hours, would be between 10 and 10.30pm; fairly carefully judged so as not to be still there with the sun coming up. If one was on the list for that night it was not at all uncommon to have a practice flight, or air test, that same afternoon. Here is a typical example from my logbook; 23rd July, at 15.45 an air-test of the aircraft of 40 minutes. Take-off to Kiel at 22.30. Returned to base 03.50. Debriefing, disposing of flying kit, breakfast, say another 1 hour 45 minutes. Time to bed around 05.30. Time elapsed since having our heads down – 21 ½ hours; and more or less ‘out’ on our feet. This was reasonable enough assuming one had had a decent sleep the previous night.
Unfortunately for myself and others a small bird with a large voice had taken a liking to the bushes around our hut. To hear a nightingale in full song is a rewarding and fascinating experience to be sure; in any other circumstances than when one is desperately trying to sleep, that is. This one, or was it a pair?, that settled in the bushes somewhere around our hut for the summer may have thought it was doing us a favour. Not so; if it ever slept it had usually had enough by midnight and then went into full voice. After a week or so I developed a personal vendetta against it by flinging stones, lumps of dirt, anything I could find, into the bushes. It was quite extraordinary how it would stop just long enough to allow me to get back to bed hoping it had taken umbrage and gone into a sulk. Not a bit of it; it just had a vicious cunning. I fought a battle of my own with the thing all that summer, I hated it. But it did have the most beautiful voice.
And then one night it was not there and it never came back. Maybe I should have enjoyed it while I had the chance as I’ve never heard one since, but I wouldn’t have said that at the time.
5.6.44 11.00 Cross-country training flight 1.35
6.6.44 03.11 Operations: Mont Fleury gun batteries 3.15
On 5th June we went for a routine practice flight using some new electronic equipment on trial whose purpose, as far as I remember, was to show on a screen under the wireless operator’s surveillance the position, as little dots, of other aircraft in the vicinity; if one of them seemed to be going faster than the others it was probably an enemy fighter. In the evening we were briefed for a rather minor raid at, of all times, about 4.30 the next morning on some large-calibre gun batteries heavily embedded in reinforced concrete on the French coast at Mont Fleury.
After the briefing I wandered out to the aircraft with the rest of the crew. “Wot’s all this then?” we said to the ground crew, “…all these funny stripes on our aeroplane?” “Dunno”, they said, “Someone came round and just did it. Said it had to be done to all aircraft.” Under our wings, previously all matt-black, were now large white stripes – all very odd we thought.
Anyhow, we took off at 03.11 and reached the south coast at moderate height. It was just getting light. And there below us was a sight which has become quite unforgettable. The sea was a mass of small craft all heading for France. The whole way across the Channel we seemed to be passing over them. This was undoubtedly it. I am sure we all felt the same sense of excitement. I also feel sure that we were glad we were where we were, rather than where they were. We certainly did not envy them. If we had known that many of them were being violently seasick we would have envied them even less. Certainly, it was a scene quite impossible ever to forget.
We dropped our bombs all in one go more in hope than anticipation that we had found the exact location – even if we had we would have done no more than shake them up a bit I suppose as they were so well dug in. We were unaware at that stage that the Royal Navy was going to give them the benefit of their attention from some large calibre guns a bit later on. Going home over the Channel we saw again the immensity of the enterprise below and in an hour and a half have covered the 200 miles to base to tell the ground crew all about it, to de-briefing, to breakfast, and best of all to bed. Thankfully the nightingale had also decided to call it a day…
Our purpose now was to hammer away at railway marshalling yards to slow German reinforcements to the battle area.
8.6.44 23.27 Operations: Mayenne railway yards Bad weather – 4 a/c lost 4.20
10.6.44 01.00 Operations: Laval airfield. Bombed from 2000ft Rather hectic, much light flak – 2 a/c lost
12.6.44 Fighter affiliation 1.45 Fighter affiliation. Air to air firing and bombing 2.30
14.6.44 00.15 Operations: Douai marshalling yards. Master Bomber shot down 3.00
15.6.44 23.30 Operations: Lens marshalling yards 2.50 6 a/c lost
17.6.44 Night flying test 0.40
18.6.44 (G/Capt Collins) to Feltwell and return 0.50
20.6.44 Cross-country training flight 1.30 Formation flying 1.10
23.6.44 Training flight 1.10
23.6.44 23.30 Operations: Coubronne ‘flying bomb’ site 5 a/c lost 2.20
24.6.44 16.00 (G/Capt Collins) Training exercise 2.05 27.6.44 00.30 Operations: Oisement Neuville flying-bomb site. Diverted to Graveley on return
3.10 3 a/c lost 28.6.44 22.30 Operations: Blainville sur L’eau railway sidings A fighter’s moon – 20 a/c lost 5.30
A rather more safe occasion
Scene: An office in an RAF Bomber Command airfield somewhere in England.
It is mid-morning during the summer of 1944. A senior officer gets up from behind a desk with papers in his hand and goes to a large safe, selects a key from a bunch held in his other hand and opens the door. He puts the papers in the safe, puts the keys down on top of them and shuts the self-locking door.
Senior Officer (shouting to subordinate in adjoining office): “Adj. I’ve shut the (xxxxxx) keys in the safe!” Adjutant: “What a nuisance, Sir!” (or words to that effect) “What a good job there are no ops tonight.” Senior Officer: “Yes, indeed, Adj. But there may be, tomorrow. And all those secret codes locked inside! Whatever shall we do?”
What a curious thing it is… as an erk, if an unexpected job turned up, in the first instance at least, volunteers would be called for even if, as usual, this produced little effect. I used then to have a theory that if one stood absolutely motionless one tended to become invisible at such times. An officer has no such opportunity. It’s an arm across the shoulder and “I’ve a special job for you, old man” – to which, of course, there is no possibility of refusal or even negotiation. I had no means of knowing whether I was specially selected or whether I just happened to be handy when the Adj. came out of his office. I suspect the latter. “I’d like you to take the Squadron safe to the factory where it was made in Birmingham”, he said. “They will take it apart and recover the keys which have been locked inside. Transport has been laid on and try to get back with it by lunchtime tomorrow at the latest if you can, old chap.”
So I suppose I said, “Yes, Sir, of course”, and got on with it. I found a 30cwt truck at the MT Section with the safe roped down in the back and Leading Aircraft-Woman driver standing by for take-off. I had never been to Birmingham and neither had she. There were no road signs, of course and no place names, but while she drove I did the map-reading. Birmingham was about 60 miles and in the event would have been difficult to miss as it sprawled in front of us from miles away and we got there about six.
Arriving in a strange city at that time in the evening is always a bit fraught. With a load of secret documents, albeit in a locked safe, it was a bit out of my orbit. I saw a policeman and assuming a tone of authority as best I could asked to be told where we could leave our top-secret cargo safely for the night. This turned out quite well and we left it round the back of a large Police Station somewhere in the City centre. Then I had to find somewhere for the driver to stay for the night. Try the YWCA, they said. We did that and she went in to try her luck. She came out again. “That’s OK”, she said. “And I’ve booked a room for you as well as there was one going. Is that alright?” “What?”, I said, “In the YW?” “Are you sure?” “Yes, it’ll be alright, they said.” So we had a wash and a meal (some funny looks at us – me in particular – in the YW canteen) and went out for the evening.
Early to work the next morning. Found the factory. I forget the maker’s name but it was well known worldwide. They were expecting us. There was a large shed, smoky, noisy, and about a dozen men working. They all stopped as we drove the wagon in and helped slide the safe down a ramp to the floor and stood it upright.
A man came and looked at it carefully for a few seconds. He seemed quite short-sighted and was of an age when Ladysmith, Mafeking and Botha were names on everyone’s lips rather than Caen, the Falaise Gap and Flying Bombs. He felt the left-hand side very carefully with his fingertips. Someone handed him a hammer and a punch. He put the punch to four places on the side in turn and gave each a smart blow with the hammer. It was quite amazing. The whole of the side of the safe just fell off together with a bucket or so of sand. There was an inner panel. He did the same to that. No bother at all. He reached in, handed me papers, books and – the keys. Just like that. Less than ten minutes must have gone by. Within another half an hour the panels were back in position, ground down flat, two coats of paint sprayed on, and that was it. I opened the door with key, put all the papers back, put the keys carefully in my pocket, shut the door, shook hands with all, expressed amazement at their expertise at which they smiled genially, got the whole thing safely roped down again on the back of the truck and we were away.
So far everything had gone smoothly. The hard bit was getting the right road out of Birmingham with not a street sign to go by. It was a bit like snakes and ladders. And it is quite extraordinary (I think it is generally known as ‘Sod’s Law’) that when one asks directions in strange places one can only find people who say “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” If the object of taking down all the signposts was to confuse enemy agents dropping by parachute I think it might well have succeeded. It certainly confused us and our arrival back just within our deadline must have stretched the CO’s nerves to the limit. We may not have got a mention in despatches for this but did manage quite a nice evening out in Birmingham.
2.7.44 12.50 Operations: Ouisement Neuville A wasted effort. Unable to find target 2.35
4.7.44 10.45 Training flight 2.15
13.7.44 14.40 Operations: Cancelled after take-off 0.25
14.7.44 14.45 Operations: St Philliberte Ferme Oboe formation
2.45 15.7.44 15.15 Operations: Neucourt. Oboe formation 3.05 Oboe formation. All these operations were against flying-bomb sites on the French coast
16.7.44 11.00 Formation flying 0.50
17.7.44 11.15 Radar test 1.15
Co-operation with the Army
18.7.44 02.45 An early breakfast Operations: Cagny (tactical) some heavy flak A/c damaged (6a/c lost) 3. 00
Since the disaster of Nuremburg there had been (reluctantly, we now know, on the part of Harris) a noticeable shift of emphasis from the de-housing of Germans to the disruption of the railway system, German airfields and gun batteries in northern France well away from the invasion area – one of the many ruses ultimately to convince the German High Command that the Allied landing, when it came, would be in the Pas de Calais area. It was one of the many objectives of the invasion force to try and take the city of Caen on the first day. In this there had been serious miscalculation of the resolution of the well dug-in German defending forces.
The army therefore, a month later, called upon Bomber Command to attack the city area, which on 7th July they did to such effect with a force of 450 aircraft, that the ruined buildings became a barrier quite impenetrable to our own forces who were attempting to dislodge the occupying Germans. This was a futile act, in retrospect, which succeeded only in destroying a fine old city and killing a large number of French people in so doing. Not for us to reason why.
The background to this particular raid on Cagny, a village some 7 or 8 kilometres SW of Caen was its being the centre of a large concentration of German armoured vehicles. On that day, 18th July, a two-pronged attack by British forces was projected to finally clear this whole area. Just after 6.15am “one of the greatest ever air-bombardments of ground forces was unleashed upon Panzer Group West by heavy and medium bombers of the RAF and USAAF”. It is recorded, somewhere, that the four, only, 88mm flak guns which survived this bombing were then directed to fire upon the advancing British armour. This may well have been so but I can personally record that up to that point the flak thrown up by such 88mm guns was particularly intense and accurate considering the tonnage of bombs being dropped on them and incidentally causing some damage, including the starboard inner engine, of the aircraft in which I happened to be flying.
Notwithstanding the six weeks since the invasion it was less than four minutes flying time from the French coast to the battle zone below us on this, our one and only flight to co-operate directly with the army. At our modest height we still saw little except some scars to the green of the fields and wooded areas and a quick glimpse of the ruins of Caen to starboard. There was satisfaction to be asked to help with the invasion in some direct way but at the same time we were completely detached from the fierce battle to start up again below when we had finished.
In another sense it was to be many years after the war was over that the truth about the other battles came to light, those fought between General and General, Air Marshal with Air Marshal and Generals with Air Marshals, if it ever did, when these important people had retired and written their memoirs after the comfortable blur given by time.
In an hour and a bit after those few hectic seconds over the battle-field in Normandy we were back to the peace and quiet of a fine summer morning in Huntingdonshire; to another breakfast and a quiet read of the papers and then an amble round the airfield in the sunshine to chat to the chaps who were changing our damaged engine and patching a few holes. I have never been entirely sure that occasional feelings of unreality in later years were not born out of such immediate contrasts.
The Allies invasion forces had a total of 209,000 casualties in Normandy of whom 37,000 were killed. British and Canadian amounted to 2/3rds of those suffered by the Americans. Some 28,000 Allied aircrew were lost over Normandy before, during and after the invasion.
19.7.44 14.10 Operations: Mont Condon 2.55 Oboe Formation
“Pressing on regardless”
20.7.44 14.20 Operations: Foret du Croc – Oboe Formation Damaged by flak. Leader shot down 3.05
Yesterday’s jargon always seem rather silly when looked at in print. “Pressing on regardless” was a phrase much used by RAF flyers of the time. It would, for example, be used when “shooting a line” (another such phrase) and expounding upon some dashing exploit carried out, without any regard for the consequences, usually by the teller of the tale – a tall story – never meant to be taken too seriously – even sometimes with a grain of truth, and almost always followed by a chorus of groans from those forced by circumstances to listen. “There we were, in thick cloud, ice all over the windscreen, engines coughing, never got to the target till everyone else had left, etc, etc”.
On 20th July 1944, 20 Lancaster aircraft of 582 Squadron took off from Little Staughton at 14.20 hours to attack a flying-bomb launching site at Foret du Croc just across the Channel. Unusually, we had been briefed to attack as a separate unit. The lead aircraft carried a special radar device (code-named ‘Oboe’) which would be triggered from ground stations in the UK. At the given signal it would drop its bombs and the rest of us would follow suit. Hopefully 100 tons of bombs would fall with precision upon the target. In about an hour and fifteen minutes we were going in to attack in a twin line-astern formation with slight variations in height to avoid the slipstream of the aircraft in front. We were the second aircraft and flying about 15 or 20 feet above the leader with our port wing just over and slightly behind his starboard wing. (We had been practising this but it was the first time that we had done it operationally).
The leader opened his bomb doors; we opened ours, and so on down the line. It would be about 30 seconds to the drop. I was standing up next to my seat with my head in the astrodome and I could see it all; the leader just slightly below us and others staggered at different heights behind; each swaying slightly as in some slow, macabre, elephantine dance in the sky; sinister, yet fascinating to watch. It was a perfectly clear day and I felt reasonably comfortable with our situation. If fighters attacked they would get a rough time from a total of 120 Browning machine guns each firing 1000rpm.
And then it happened. One did not usually hear bursts of flak over the roar of the engines. If one did, then it was very close indeed. We heard this one. A ‘whoof’ and a ball of flame, instantly gone as we flew through it. Our aircraft was spattered with small bits of exploding shell some of which went clean through us and out the other side filling the fuselage for the moment with a cloud of pulverised aluminium dust. One piece on its way through tore the sleeve of my flying jacket. The port wing of the leading aircraft, however, was a mass of flame which streamed back as far as the tail plane in the slipstream having, I judge, received a direct hit on or near the port inner engine or one of fuel tanks. It was obvious they would have to bail out, and quickly, if they were to survive. I saw a face in their astrodome, no doubt the wireless-op, and the rear and mid-upper gunners looking from their turrets at their blazing wing. The leader kept on, straight and level, waiting for the electronic signal to drop his bombs, still with some 20 seconds to go. After what seemed like a very long 10 seconds the whole of the port wing folded upwards at a right-angle and completely broke off, the aircraft turned over on its back and went into a crazy downward gyration. I watched it for some time. I saw no parachutes open and did not expect to; centrifugal force would see to that. When the shell burst our flight-engineer, who was stretched out horizontally in the nose with his eyes glued to the open bomb-bay of the leader, was temporarily blinded and because his thumb was hovering over the bomb-release ‘tit’, inadvertently pressed it. The rest of the gaggle behind us saw our bombs fall away and let go their own. Down went the whole lot, missing the target by at least a mile. None of us spoke and it was the skipper’s somewhat measured “Course for home, please navigator,” that broke the silence. The leader carried out his instructions as far as he was able. A classic case, if ever there was one of ‘pressing on regardless’. But this time for real.
On this same day a few hundred miles away in what was then known as East Prussia, a certain Count Claus Von Stauffenburg also placed his bomb; unfortunately he, too, missed his target (by rather less than we had done) and thereby failed to change the course of world history. Hitler, shaken but slightly injured continued to live but Von Stauffenburg and his fellow conspirators suffered an extremely unpleasant death. This turn of the coin may have been responsible for more lives being lost in the last year of the war than had occurred in the previous five.
The damage to my flying jacket was remarked on by a Waaf in the parachute section on my return. I did not refuse her offer to repair it which she did by the next day most skilfully as I can still see today just by looking in my wardrobe. Mind you, I have to keep it in a strong plastic bag as, I have to say, it does still give off a bit of a genuine 1945 pong; a mixture probably of 100-octane aircraft fuel, hydraulic oil, a great deal of sweat and possibly a few tears. Any many thanks to the Irvine Leather Co. for Jacket No. H.980777 issued to me in December 1941. As well as its special aroma it has some special magic about it too for it kept all perils away as well as keeping me adequately warm in all manner of conditions.
The damage to our aircraft over the Foret du Croc was mostly repaired by the next afternoon when we combined an air test with some practice air/sea firing for the benefit of the gunners. Something wasn’t quite right however for we repeated the air test a couple of days later.
21.7.44 16.30 Air test. Air/sea firing. 1.05
23.7.44 15.4 Air test. 0.40
The Harris factor was at work again. There must have been a bit of a spat with the army for we switched back to our more familiar role, as follows:- 23.7.44 22.30 Operations: Kiel. 4 a/c lost 5.20
24.7.44 22.05 Operations: Stuttgart. 21 a/c lost 6.55
25.7.44 21.55 Operations: Stuttgart. 12 a/c lost 7.15
27.7.44 10.45 Training flight 1.05 28.7.44 22.20 Operations: Stuttgart. 62 a/c lost 6.30
Quite a week this. 99 heavy bombers did not return from 4 nights activities. Stuttgart may have had rather a pasting but so did we. We saw them going down in balls of fire all around. At least that’s what we thought and reported it at de-briefing when we got back. “Very interesting”, they said, “They’re putting up these shells which resemble an exploding aircraft when they go off – just to frighten you a bit. Not to worry – just take a note of the time and position and let us know.” So we went about our business thereafter much comforted. It was, of course, a gigantic confidence trick; kept from as many as possible. In my case it was not until 35 years later, 28th October 1979 to be precise when I bought the Sunday Telegraph, that all was explained in the magazine section. It was quite simple: Junkers 88 night fighters had been fitted with twin cannon which slanted upwards about 70 degrees from the horizontal. They would creep under us, aim for the fuel tanks in our wings, and blow us apart. (Their pilots were subject to the falling debris if they were not careful.) I’m not sure whether I should be glad I did not know about this at the time. The German phrase for this, ‘Schräge Musik’, literally ‘slanting’ or ‘oblique music’, had a kind of poetic ring about it, I suppose; but only if you happened to be German.
It might have been coincidence, but I doubt it. The rate of loss during this period could not be sustained. So back we went to the skies over France for a bit until Harris got his breath back, replacement aircraft on the tarmac and new crews to fly them.
1.8.44 Training flight 1.25
3.8.44 Training flight 0.30
Operations: Daylight attack on flying bomb site at St Leu d’Esserent 3.10
7.8.44 Training flight 1.20 Operations: night attack on railway yards At Mare de Magne. Full moon. 10 a/c lost 2.45
One morning, just after breakfast there was a large ‘bang’ from the airfield and a cloud of black smoke. None of our aircraft was off the deck so it was all rather strange. Rumour flew round quicker than speed of sound – it proved on this occasion to be correct (which was unusual). The crew of an American B17 (Flying-fortress) on its way with others to drop its bombs somewhere over Germany found it necessary to evacuate it and leave it to its own devices. Their aircraft, presumable with controls set to fly out to sea, had failed to comply and made a large hole as its bombs exploded scattering bits of B17 for a hundred yards around, fortunately far removed from any of the runways. Like others, I poked around among the bits and pieces and discovered that this aeroplane seemed to have been virtually held together with jubilee clips of various sizes. And like others I picked up a large quantity of these in first class condition, all beautifully galvanised, and being so useful for repairing elderly cars – one of the then major concerns in our lives. I gave away a fair number over the years but I still have some left to this day. Quite a lot of our spare time was in fact devoted to keeping our motley collection of transport something like drive-able if not entirely road-worthy and spare parts were hunted down relentlessly.
A sequel to the Jubilee clips bonanza evolved the very next day when a party of USAAF officers appeared on our airfield, presumably to discuss the hole they had made in a far corner. It so happened that a chap I knew had at last tracked down a second-hand universal joint for the driving shaft of his Austin 7 tourer, circa 1927 vintage. It (the universal joint) consisted essentially of a circular pad of fabric, about seven inches in diameter and half an inch thick with four holes in it to which one bolted the flanges of the two halves of the driving shaft. It looked as crude a device as it sounds to describe but would work adequately for years. This one had quite a bit of life left in it and he asked me to give him a hand to fit it. We pushed the car along a path with some long grass beside it and turned it over onto its side on the grass to expose the drive shaft. We were bolting the thing on just as this party of Yanks came by. They just couldn’t believe it. A proper car could just not be that small, they said, and how the heck would that bit of cloth take the strain of propelling it on the highway? etc, etc, and went about their business laughing at the quaint ways of us Brits.
We had our own back one day when on a practice flight a B17 (Flying Fortress) was seen ahead and on our height and track. It was fair game for our pilot who stopped two of our engines, feather the props, and overtook it comfortably. Not taking the mickey, of course, or taking a superior stance; merely, and quite properly in our opinion, showing what British technology would do in the form of a Lancaster and Rolls-Royce Merlins. We also knew through living with a Mosquito squadron that this small wooden aeroplane with its two Merlin engines and two-man crew could, and frequently did, take a 4000lb bomb as far as Berlin, while a B17 with its four engines and 10 or 11 crew and weighed down heavily with big-calibre machine guns and ammunition carried very little more bomb-load on an average trip. To give them their due though – despite their own horrendous losses they shot down an awful lot of Jerry fighters.
8.8.44 To Tangmere and return 1.40
9.8.44 Training flight 1.30 Operations: night attack on Dijon marshalling yards 3 a/c lost 5.35
Operations: 18.15hrs. Master Bomber. Formation attack on the railway bridge at Etaples 2.25
Training – fighter affiliation and bombing 20 a/c lost 4.30
There were many euphemisms for referring to empty places in the mess at breakfast time. There – you see, I’ve just done it myself. “Getting the ‘chop’”, “Buying it”, “Going for a Burton”, “The reaper at work”. Anything but referring to the dreaded official words like ‘death’, ‘killed’, or ‘missing’. And without being too morbid about it all there were many ways to die and not just aircrew.
A red light ahead
I forget the actual occasion but we were climbing up to operational height somewhere over the North Sea. There was no moon and we entered a considerable layer of thick cloud. Somewhere, above us, below us, in front of us, behind us, there were some 500 other aircraft all going at roughly the same speed and in the same direction. There was nothing we could do but just keep climbing and hope, as always, for the best. The sky above and in front of us went suddenly bright orange for about 10 seconds. We went right through it and left it behind. Nobody said a word but we were certainly thinking a bit. We eventually came out of cloud and carried on towards the target. Afterwards, when we got back to base our skipper reported at the de-briefing that two aircraft had collided at such and such a time. Twelve aircrew would have died.
…and the weather
A crew in our squadron were on their way to a target when they were carried upward from whatever height they were to something approaching 30,000 feet by getting mixed up, in the dark, with a ‘cu-nim’ (‘Cumulo-nimbus’ – or thunder cloud). Tossed this way, that way, and shaken about in high turbulence they thought, no doubt, this was their lot but somehow they survived and while I do not know whether they went on to bomb the target I do know they brought their aircraft back. Their story was treated with some scepticism until their Lancaster was inspected in daylight. I saw this myself – the whole of the upper surface of their wings, instead of being smooth, was bent into folds and ridges like corrugated iron.
…and things dropping from the sky
I also saw one of our aircraft after returning from a sortie with an elongated hole, the silhouette of a bomb complete with fin, right through the wing between the engines. The bomb must have been released from not far above them while still more or less horizontal. (This was not unusual but it was lucky to get away with it.)
…the armourers had their problems too
Bombs were dangerous, not just when they dropped on you from above, but when they were being handled. The armourers put the detonators in, set them to varying stages of delay, if required, loaded them onto aircraft, sometimes unloaded them. They had to watch out for what were known as ‘hang-ups’; bombs which had not dropped out of the aircraft when they should have done but shaken loose later on when the bomb doors had been shut and brought home unwittingly resting only on the bomb doors. It was an exacting, physically demanding and potentially dangerous occupation being an armourer and they had casualties in these and other circumstances.
15.8.44 W/C Cribb Operations: Master Bomber: St Trond airfield 3 a/c lost 3.10
The appellation of ‘Master Bomber’ was given to the skipper of the aircraft which would lead and direct an operation. It was a somewhat dubious distinction as he usually arrived early over the target and directed the main force of the bomber stream where to put down their bombs in relation to the marker flares that he and other follow-up pathfinder aircraft had laid on his directions. He (and his crew) would spend 10-20 minutes over the target area depending on the number of aircraft taking part and be the last to leave.
Until 15th August ’44 I had flown regularly with the same skipper and crew. From then on I flew only with the squadron commander Wing Commander Cribb (promoted to Group Captain in the time I flew with him) or his deputy, Wing Commander McMillan. This was, again, a doubtful privilege as these officers by the nature of things would, when they chose to fly, certainly not take part in operations against a soft target. There is an entry in my flying logbook on 5th September as follows:
5.9.44 18.00 W/C Cribb Operations: Le Havre 2.30 (Master Bomber)
“Surrender or be bombed” – that is what they had been told. It was not quite as simple as that. At the briefing it was said that this port was urgently needed by the allied forces in France, that the German forces occupying it, although surrounded, would not surrender; and that the ultimatum had been issued to them to surrender or be bombed – hence the remark in my log-book.
In just over an hour on a clear September evening we arrived over Le Havre at 7000 feet just before the main force arrived and laid our markers right in the town centre as instructed. We saw everything very clearly indeed at this height. The main force of in excess of 300 aircraft were advised by us where to bomb in relation to our markers and those of other Pathfinder aircraft backing us up, as we circled round the town for the 10-15 minutes it took, as it seemed to us, to virtually obliterate the allotted target. Surprisingly not a short was fired at us. We had expected a great deal of light flak at the height we were flying but saw no evidence of it. We were the last aircraft to leave and some 20-30 seconds after we had set course for home, and as I was looking back over the tail plane at the huge column of smoke we had left behind, I saw a very large puff of black smoke (rather more than that provided by the usual AA shell) at our own height and about a mile behind us. I thought at the time this was either an act of defiance or that some Jerry gunner below had at last found a shell from somewhere and was determined to fire it, however belatedly. And I remember having a silent chuckle to myself at this latter possibility, which was rather crass of me in all the circumstances which I was later to learn.
Another hour and were back at base. Bacon and egg and chips in the mess and a pint of beer and so to bed, no doubt, (between clean white sheets). To be quite honest I did not think much more about it until 1991, 47 years later to be precise, when I saw a 30-minute feature on BBC TV. I had not in any way until then realised the full implications; so, in 1994, a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of this raid I wrote to BBC (South) TV in the following terms.
“I ask you if you could do me a personal favour, please. During 1991 a BBC 2 programme told the moving story of how in late August 1944, the German-held port of Le Havre continued to hold out against the surrounding allied forces. The senior German officer had instructions to fight to the last man but was concerned about the fate of the French population. He asked the British to allow the civilian population through their lines. This request was refused and an order was given to attack. A British Army officer, Captain William Douglas-Home refused to carry out an order on the grounds that the civilian population would be endangered and was subsequently court-martialled, cashiered, and served one year’s imprisonment in a civilian prison. In the film the moral and legal questions that arose from his action were discussed in some detail and compared with those invoked at the Nuremburg trials in 1945. Three years before the programme was made he had petitioned the Army Board for a revue of the findings and sentence of his court-martial. The previous week to the programme the Army Board announced, without giving reasons, that they had denied his petition. Sadly, I believe that William Douglas-Home died recently. He was, I think, a man of exceptional moral courage.
I have a personal interest in this matter. I was a member of the crew of a Lancaster bomber of Pathfinder Group, Bomber Command, which led and directed the bombing of the town centre of Le Havre during the evening of 5th September 1944. The raid was considered a technical success inasmuch as the aiming-point was destroyed. I can still visualise this raid quite well in my mind but thought no more about it at the time. These were busy days and nights and the war moved on.
I became aware of the events on the ground only when I saw this programme three years ago and realised it was my own aircraft that had led this raid. I had not known until then that we had been instrument in causing death and injury (quite unnecessarily) to some unknown thousands of French civilians. As I recall no mention was made at the briefing before the raid of the implications of what we would be doing. Had we known would we have had the courage of Captain Douglas-Home? I am not sure, I think maybe not. Not one German soldier was killed. Some 12,000 of them, who ultimately surrendered, were, at the time not in the town at all but manning the perimeter of the larger area they occupied.
It will soon be the 50th anniversary of this unhappy episode. I would be grateful if you could, on my behalf, induce the BBC on this day, to honour this gallant man and remember those who died, whom he had tried to save. While I feel no personal guilt, I do, to say the least, feel uncomfortable about our part in this and you will no doubt conclude, and rightly, that this is my way of expressing regret for the decisions taken at the time.
JC Chapman (One-time F/Lt, RAFVR)
(Between 6th and 11th September a further 2000 aircraft bombed the area occupied by the German forces before they surrendered. Shortly afterwards a similar situation arose at the port of Calais. The enclosed German garrison surrendered by negotiation thus saving the port from destruction and civilian casualties. It would seem that a lesson had been learned but it did not prevent the apparently unjust treatment of Captain Douglas-Home.)
The BBC were unable, apparently, at the time, to do as I had asked but interviewed me at home regarding my personal feelings about the raid itself. This went out on BBC Television South in November 1994 and included dramatic film coverage of the actual raid; from what source I am not aware.
17.9.44 17.20 Group Capt. Cribb Operations: Master bomber V2 Store Dump near La Hage. 25 a/c on target. Much flak. No a/c lost. 2.20
This was the day of the airborne invasion of Holland and our raid was one of many small diversions in that area. On the way to and from our target we saw vast numbers of aircraft towing gliders to Arnhem.
18.10.44 F/Lt Hall Training flight. 1.35 W/Comm. MacMillan. Operations: Stuttgart - heavy flak at target. 6 a/c lost 5.40
W/Comm. MacMillan. Operations: Homberg. - heavy cloud – wasted effort. 3.40
W/Comm. MacMillan. Fighter affiliation/ Air firing training. 1.45
28.10.44 W/Comm. Macmillan. Operations: Cologne 4.15
The early bird that caught more than a worm
28th October 1944 was as beautiful a day as you get in mid-autumn. Not a cloud in the sky. Take off at 13.42. A heavy bomb load and not so much fuel for we were going only as far as Cologne and, hopefully, back. Our first venture over the Third Reich in daylight was to be with W/Commander MacMillan again as pilot, and Master-Bomber of a force of no less than 733 aircraft. The ‘ooh’s’ this provoked at briefing were mollified to some extent by being told that we would have long-range Mustang fighters as escort. (We never actually saw them in fact, but neither, probably to their credit, did we see any Jerry fighters. Now we knew why. The previous day, we had been engaged in an hour and three quarters of so called ‘fighter-affiliation’ and firing our guns over the sea.)
We were, of course, to be the first aircraft to arrive at the target to drop our markers. Cologne had been visited many times since the famous ‘One Thousand Bomber’ raid of 1942. The object of this raid was to destroy, as far as possible, the remaining built-up segment of the city so far relatively untouched. This was from the Cathedral outwards towards the North East, shaped like a large slice of cake. A few minutes before our scheduled time on target at 20,000 feet the sky was clear and the visibility perfect. I remember that I had to wear sun-glasses (those issued to me in Africa in ’42) as the sun was west of south and not very high in the sky and could well conceal a German fighter. It suddenly dawned on us – probably the rear gunner mentioned it on the intercom – that there was not a single aircraft in sight. We seemed to be quite alone in the sky.
I had a strong sense of panic – had I missed a recall signal or something on the wireless? Then the navigator piped up “I think we are 90 seconds ahead of time, skipper”. With the large mass of Cologne now almost below us there was no time to circle; to cut our speed down would have had little effect; we just had to make the best of it. I could see the Rhine and the cathedral to my left, just over the edge of the wing which had dropped as we went into a wide circuit to port over the south of the city.
The heavy-flak gunners below probably could not believe their luck at what they were seeing – one solitary Lancaster above their city for everyone to aim at? And in broad daylight and not a cloud in the sky? Seemingly every 88mm in and around Cologne got our height, speed, and direction worked out with some accuracy. Almost immediately there was quite a thump as our port inner was hit, caught fire, and stopped. Holes appeared in the fuselage. I remember thinking, all inside 1/10th of a second it seemed, everything in slow motion, - it had to be sometime – this is it – when my luck runs out – I was standing beside my seat with my head in the astrodome, as usual. I reached down with my left hand and eased my parachute out of its stowage and put it on the table in front of the wireless receiver, within easy reach and ready to clip on. Surprisingly, I now felt quite calm and detached. The flame from the region of the port-inner engine reached back almost to the tailplane. ‘Mac’ was looking back over his left shoulder, the mid-upper gunner was leaning forward in his turret, the rear gunner had his turret turned, we were all looking at it when quite suddenly it just went out. With the port wing lowered I could see the Rhine and the Cathedral standing clearly above earlier devastation. The flak followed us, surrounded us; we could see it, smell it and hear it – that was too close. ‘Mac’ ploughed on as though it just wasn’t happening but no doubt anxious for some sign of the main force as he still kept looking over his left shoulder. The rear-gunner saw them first and then, there they all were, like a gigantic swarm of bees. The flak turned its attention to this more worthwhile target and we were out of it into clearer air and heading for the aiming point, dead on track with doors open, the bomb-aimer with his thumb on the button and “Markers gone, skipper”, and then ‘Mac’ was on the R/T to the main force – ‘Bomb the green markers’ – etc – and we were out of direct trouble and doing what we had come for. Somewhat sheepishly, I remember, I put my parachute back in its stowage. We then went into a wide circuit around the target area, directing the main force where to bomb in relation to the markers burning on the ground and the other Pathfinder aircraft where to place their back-up markers. Routine for us but unusual in that it was such a large target, and in daylight with extreme visibility. One thing we had to take care with when dropping our markers and bombs was not getting caught under any aircraft which had yet to bomb but being daylight this was easier to judge. And then it was all over with utter devastation below. Back to base for us on three engines, downhill all the way, was no problem, and we landed before dark.
The next day we learned that Bomber Command had assessed the raid as having caused ‘enormous damage’ and, more importantly for us, that ‘Mac’ had been given an ‘immediate’ award of the DSO, the eventual official citation for which read as follows:-
“Act. Wing Cdr B W MacMillan AFC, RAFO, No. 582 Squdn. This officer has set a fine example of skill, courage, and devotion to duty in operations against the enemy. He has participated in a large number of sorties against strongly defended targets against such centres as Berlin, Stuttgart, Duisberg and Kiel. In October 1944 W/Cdr MacMillan took part in an attack on Cologne. In spite of considerable anti-aircraft fire, this intrepid pilot remained over the target for many minutes to press home a most determined attack. This officer is a most efficient flight commander whose sterling qualities have impressed all.”
That same day was important for me too. The Squadron Commander asked to see me. I had just completed 3 tours of bombing operations, he told me, and for me, personally, I could take it that the war was over but I could stay on the Squadron for a bit if I liked as there was all sorts of odd jobs I could do. I walked from his office several inches taller and went for an amble round the airfield on my own and thought about things.
Harris had not yet quite finished with Cologne. On Christmas Eve 1944 he dispatched a force of about 30 aircraft to have a go at the railway marshalling yards in daylight. It was planned as an ‘Oboe’ type of attack which was now reasonably accurate and the predicted cloud cover was expected to give them some protection without affecting their accuracy. On the way to the target it was realised at Bomber Command HQ that the cloud was insufficient to give adequate cover on the very prescribed run in to the target and a wireless signal was sent to cancel the ‘Oboe’ arrangement and bomb independently. The ‘master bomber’ on this raid was S/Ldr Robert Palmer, normally a Mosquito pilot of 109 Squadron, which, as I have mentioned before, shared our airfield. He was much practised in the ‘Oboe’ technique and had borrowed a Lancaster and crew from our squadron, 582, for the occasion. Unfortunately the vital cancellation signal was not received (a fear of most w/ops, I should say) and he pressed on in clear air. They did not have the same luck that we had had in ploughing through the flak in somewhat similar circumstances, for having dropped their bombs very accurately on the target they were hit by equally accurate AA fire and went down in flames.
S/Ldr Palmer was awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, on 23rd March 1945. he was already the holder of the DFC and bar, and had completed well over one hundred operational flights.
With a slight leap forward into the future for the moment; on 22nd May 1945 I was one of the crew of a Lancaster which flew at low level over many of our main targets in the Rhineland and Ruhr valley. The devastation was absolutely appalling, none more so than at Cologne where it appeared that the great bulk of the magnificent cathedral was the only solid building left standing. I have never forgotten this sight. It is said that 300 dwellings remained intact in the city on which 45000 tons of bombs were dropped. (Coventry received 530 tons.)
My God, I thought, what is all this we have been doing?
And then, of course, Dresden
Since my last bombing sortie to Cologne in October ’44 I had not done an awful lot to be quite honest except a few admin chores and making myself useful at briefings such as handing out schedules, maps, and all that sort of thing. I was, in fact, enjoying my retirement. During December, in any case, there wasn’t very much air activity at all because of the continuous fog and, or, this cloud cover. It was a different story the other side of the Channel on the ground, where the so-called Battle of the Bulge gave concern.
On 13th February ’45, I went to the briefing for a raid on the city of Dresden. After the necessary ‘gen’ had been given on the route, the weather, take-off times, and all the usual things, an officer got up and sent the crews off with this thought…”Dresden”, he said, “is a very old German city and crowded at the moment we believe with refugees from the Russian front. Many of the buildings are of wooden construction and you are loaded to the maximum with incendiaries. It will burn well.”
That scene and the actual words that officer spoke, made their mark in my brain at that moment and have remained there. It was as though I had sensed that in the future, it would become a moment of history and that I must remember this; I have to remember.
(Some years later I established that virtually the same words were spoken at briefings throughout Bomber Command from the Headquarters of which the exhortation, no doubt, was sent by teleprinter to all stations involved.)
Later that night while I slept, Dresden’s citizens and those refugees from the advancing Russians who had gone there for shelter, died there in numbers that have ever only been estimated.
The full horror of that night became generally evident only slowly, but by the 1980’s was fairly well known in this country. I followed the arguments between the extremes of those whose verdict was ‘serve them right’ and that greater number beginning to voice doubts, not only about Dresden in particular but about the whole principles of Bomber Command itself and those who directed its activities.
In 1992 I read about certain former members of Bomber Command who had commissioned the erection of a statue of the late ‘Bomber’ Harris in The Strand in London, and which was to be unveiled by the Queen Mother on 31st May. I saw fit to write to Neal Ascherson of the ‘Independent on Sunday’, in the following terms, “…I have always felt shame and anger over this matter (the carpet bombing of German civilian centres and Dresden in particular) but not more so than at this moment. I feel I have to express this to someone and that you might just like to know that there is at least one former member of Bomber Command who has in no way contributed to the statue of Sir Arthur Harris and who would certainly not cross the Strand to look at it.” The effect was immediate and far-reaching. The resulting column in the Sunday Independent on that day of the unveiling led to a flurry of media interest and approving letters and ‘phone calls from all parts of Germany; a few, only, from this country. (A young German, on holiday in England three years later, knocked at our door, “I just wanted to meet you and shake you by the hand, he said”.)
The story of a motor car
Soon after I joined 582 Squadron I bought a motor car, a 1934 Hillman ‘Aero’ Minx, ACV 448, for £40 (that was about 2 month’s pay in my then rank of Flying Officer) from the widow of another flyer. It was a very fancy-looking and stylish car for its time, bright red, an open four-seater tourer with knock-on hubs, a leather belt holding the bonnet down, a white steering wheel and canvas fold-down roof, and the spare wheel bolted on behind the petrol tank at the back. As it was also the first car I had ever had, I had to teach myself to drive it which became more trial and error than anything else. There was no synchromesh, of course, and it was necessary to master the art of ‘double de-clutching’ when changing gear; my many failures to do this successfully resulted in horrendous noises from the gearbox. There was no such thing as ‘L’ plates or provisional licences or driving tests during wartime. I just got myself a driving licence, Road Fund Licence (as it was then called) and insurance and that was it. It would do 75 flat-out which was good for 10HP in those days.
I decided to go out in it one evening while I was at my parents’ home on a 48-hour pass, negotiated the somewhat tricky turn from their driveway and had gone about a hundred yards or so down the hill towards the town. I was still going quite slowly, struggling to get from 2nd gear into 3rd, as I passed a junction to my right which led to Bishop’s Stortford College when this chap in civvies hailed me. It turned out to be the Squadron Leader with whom I had flown frequently during 1943 at Pershore, who had recognised me as I passed; he having been visiting his old school.
This was an occasion for celebration to an extent that I was never able to remember what he said had happened to him since he left Pershore. All I do remember is driving home late that evening having apparently quite suddenly acquired an incredible deftness with the wheel; to such an extent that I swung with carefree abandon into our driveway in one go without touching the sides – something I never achieved before, or afterwards. (That is the last time I have ever driven in that condition – I swear it.)
Between my home and Little Staughton the old Roman road to Huntingdon, the A10 and A14, straight and empty, encouraged maximum speed on a few early mornings back to camp in time for breakfast after a 48-hour pass. Such absolute exhilaration, well remembered, would now be difficult to achieve. I have to say, though, that these days I envy my then confidence in cutting things rather too fine and on occasions arriving back on the airfield with only minutes to spare.
Far more exotic cars than mine abounded in the squadron though and I could in no way compete with the glamour of those whose purse extended to a 4½ litre Bentley tourer (250 pound notes would do it) but these were thirsty beasts and I could at least rely on 35miles from each precious gallon.
I did no flying of any kind after my last operational flight until I was posted to Warboys, (a few miles NE from Huntington) the Pathfinder Navigational Training Unit, on 18th February 1945. A day or two before I left I sold ACV 448 to a chap on the squadron, Ted Swales, who had always admired it and made me promise that, if I ever sold it, to sell it to him rather than anyone else.
Not much more than a week later Ted died at the controls of his Lancaster. I think it would be appropriate to record here, in full, the actual citation, as quoted in The Times, of the subsequent award to him of the Victoria Cross.
“Award for Dead Master Bomber One of the Best Attacks of the War.
The King has conferred the award of the Victoria Cross, in respect of most conspicuous bravery on:- Captain Edwin Swales, DFC, SAAF, 582 Squadron (deceased)
Captain Swales was master bomber of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night February 23rd 1945. As master bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers following in his wake.
Soon after he had reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy fighter and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey to further attacks. Unperturbed he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he gave aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’s aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose.
It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war.
Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; Captain Swales ordered his crew to bale out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls. Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live.
Captain Swales was born on July 3rd 1915, at Durban, where his mother lives. On the outbreak of war he left the bank in which he was working at Durban to join the South African Army, and as a Warrant Officer in an infantry regiment he fought with the Eight Army in the desert battles in Africa. He transferred to the South African Air Force in June 1943, on being commissioned as a pilot, and trained in South Africa. He received the immediate award of the DFC in February of this year. Captain Swales was always proud of his association with the Pathfinder Force of Bomber Command, and of the fact that he was the only member of the SAAF to have flown with them. He joined the Pathfinder Force last June. Captain Swales who played Rugby Football for Durban High School Old Boys, and Natal, played forward in several matches in England during the past season for the South African Services XV.
This is the 137th VC of the present war, the fourth to be won by South Africans, and the first for the South African Air Force.”
Strangely, I was copying this cutting from The Times, which I have in my scrapbook, when I realised that had he survived, Ted Swales would have been eighty that same day. He is buried at Limburg Cemetery, Belgium. In 1997, quite by chance, I came across a memorial and photograph of him in the magnificent South African War memorial at Delville Wood in Picardy. I found this very moving, when with my family, we were actually searching for the cemetery at Beaument Hamel for the grave of my uncle, Albert Victor Mumby, Lance Corporal, Royal Fusileers, who was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.
I went back to Little Staughton a few weeks later, for what reason I cannot remember. I walked around to see if there was anyone about that I knew and came across ACV 448 pushed into the far corner of a hanger. It was covered in dust. I felt somewhat sick and walked away.
(W/Commander MacMillan stayed on the squadron until the end of the war and then, with other senior pilots, was invited to join the newly formed British South American Airways in association with the commander of the Pathfinder Force, 8 Group, Air Vice Marshal Bennett. Sadly, he was captain of a four-engined propeller-driven Avro ‘Tudor’ air-liner, the ‘Star Tiger’ when, in 1948 it disappeared without trace in that area of the Atlantic known in those days as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’. There was a great deal of speculation at the time as to how this happened.)
The Pathfinder Training Unit at Warboys existed to introduce pilots, navigators and bomb-aimers to the target-marking techniques required and, where necessary, ensure the all-round level of competence required. I did quite a lot of flying in the next few weeks of a not too onerous nature. The approaching end of the war in Europe made no difference to our activities as the presumption was that when it was over there would be plenty to do in the Far East. Over what remained of German-held territory Harris continued to engage his Command in a frenzy of destruction to within a few days of the actual official cessation of hostilities and losing many aircraft and crews in so doing.
It was anticipated on May 6th 1945 that the war would officially end the next day, May 7th. There was a kind of ‘end of term’ feeling about in our unit and, presumably, throughout the country at large. It was rather a blight on things then that during the morning I had to take to the air for a 15-minute flight for a Squadron Leader to perfect his landing technique.
One personal characteristic to which I will readily admit is that while I have felt that I had quite normal physical reactions, I know I am inclined at times to be a little slower on the uptake than some and this day proved a good example. Mind you, I wasn’t all that dim – I had been in the service for 5 years – so I didn’t actually hurry the business of getting back from aircraft dispersal and disposing of flying helmet and jacket in my locker and my parachute back into store (the Waafs in the parachute section were always worth chatting-up) in case I got lined up for anything else.
It was after lunch I made my first mistake. I sat in the mess reading the papers just a trifle too long and too visibly I suppose because I got a message to make myself ready for a take-off about 21.00 hrs. I couldn’t believe it – the day the war stops and I have to fly – and not only that – at night of all things. It’s something to do with some Russians, I was told. It was rather unbelievable. I was to fly with a Squadron Leader pilot, a bombing instructor, and some 7 or 8 high-ranking Russian officers. We had to demonstrate how we identified a target with target indicators and then how to bomb it. The Russians had either just declared war on Japan or were thinking about it – this may have been the reason. There was another aircraft to fly with us with a similar number of Russians but I didn’t see it or its crew. Loaded up with various kinds of target-indicators and practice bombs we spent 2hrs 20minutes about this business. The Russians didn’t speak to me, nor I to them, and they didn’t look too happy about being there at all, any more than I did. We landed at 20minutes to midnight. The Russians rushed off at top speed. I put away my flying things for the second time that day and went back to the mess for a drink before it was all gone. The whole place was more or less in darkness, just one light burning. There was nothing to be seen of the two chaps I had been flying with. I went round to the Sergeant’s Mess. There was nobody there either. The whole camp appeared to be in semi darkness and deserted. If there was a guard on the gate I did not see him. I realised, slowly, that the beer must have run out and everybody must have gone into Cambridge or somewhere before it ran out there too. Oh well, I thought, that’s it – and wandered round a bit to the airman’s cook-house or the Waafery to see if I could scrounge a cup of tea, or something. There was a dim light somewhere, I forget where. I found my way in. there was a Waaf sitting at a table reading a newspaper. She also had missed the boat. Somehow and somewhere or other we managed to find some cocoa and made the best of it. Everybody remembers VE day. I claim to remember it better than most because I was probably the most sober man in Bomber Command by midnight. But that is not quite the whole story which I did not know until I had the opportunity, many years later, to read the autobiography of Air Vice-Marshal DCT Bennett, who was, at the time, Air Officer Commanding No.8 (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. In other words, my boss. These Russians had caused him no end of a headache (and he not given to headaches – he gave them to other people. A man, so extremely efficient and experienced himself at every aspect of flying he demanded no less from everyone else). The Russians were suspicious apparently. How did they know it was not a trap, they would be dumped out over the North Sea, or the aircraft would catch fire and there wouldn’t be enough parachutes, and so on and so on. “Look”, he had said, in desperation, “I’ll fly you myself or at least half of you, I’ll be at the front of the aeroplane – if it crashes or whatever, I’ll be as dead as you are”, (or some words to that effect). So it was agreed. They all got into his aeroplane and flew to Warboys. Half of them, one General and eight Colonels, had stayed in his aeroplane (I bet they drew lots for that privilege) and the other General and the same number of Colonels had transferred to ours.
The training of Pathfinder crews continued at Warboys unabated by the end of the war. What on earth would have been done with them I do not know because the vast numbers of bombs being dropped at will on Tokyo and other Japanese cities by the huge new B52 Super-fortresses would surely make our intervention in that war quite unnecessary. (In one night during March ’45 it is said 16 square miles were destroyed by fire and 130,000 people were estimated to have died.)
However, on 15th June ’45, the proverbial bombshell well and truly dropped on me personally. I was given three days leave and told to report to Liverpool Docks on the 18th for transit overseas. Ye Gods, will it never end, whatever next, what have I done to deserve this, and so on and so on I thought.
As I walked up the gangway on RMS Andes – the ‘Tannoy’ was blaring out a tune of the times called, I think, ‘American Patrol’. The fact that I remember this does not indicate that it restored my spirits, any more than sitting in the vast dining room for a meal and being given a large and beautifully juicy apple just out of the fridge for afters, as, safely on board, they told us where we were going. Australia. It was not possible to go much further than that, I thought. But even in that I was wrong. I was now in Transport Command it seemed, and I was to be Officer-in-charge of No 196 Staging Post, Pelelieu, The Palau Islands, Pacific Ocean. But that’s where the Japs are, I thought, I couldn’t really believe it. I think that was the moment I started to go into some sort of decline.
There were quite a number of RAF types aboard, a sprinkling of 3 tour chaps like myself, an odd fighter pilot, a chap who had been flying supplies to Tito, and all sorts. And quite a number of RAAF being re-patriated.
The tale of the pineapple slices
It was mid-summer, the sea was in a kindly mood, the Andes motored along comfortably at 20 knots…and the food was good. Sitting on deck with the sun on one’s face I became a little more philosophical about the future.
I had the top bunk by the port-hole in a cabin with eight other chaps. We had an en-suite bathroom. Luxury indeed. One evening about 10pm someone produced a tin of pineapple slices and we sat on our bunks and quaffed the lot. I was in my pyjamas and ready to get my head down after an exhausting day watching the sea go by and leapt off my bunk to go to the loo. The empty open pineapple tine was right on the flight-path of my left foot and cut it open to the bone as I landed. There was blood everywhere. Everyone in the cabin decided to take charge but eventually calm was restored, someone held my left foot up in the air, and someone else went off to find out where the sick-bay was. I was carried there, one on each corner. The ship’s doctor was sent for. My leg was still being held up in the air for the 20 minutes (or so it seemed) for him to arrive. He seemed extremely cheerful. “Well, well, well, well”, he said, with a slight hint of gin and tonic on the breath. “That’s going to be a bit tricky!” This reassured me immensely. “After I’ve cleaned this up”, he said, “I’ll have to sew your instep together again using these curved needles – the trouble is the sole of the foot gets a bit tough and I shall have to use a little force to get them through it (showing them to me to prove the point. They looked slightly medieval). This could be rather painful.” “Thanks”, I said, and in this he was perfectly correct.
It turned out all right in the long run though. I was bedded down in the ship’s hospital, nicely placed on the boat-deck, the only patient and had the run of the deck with my crutches for the next two weeks. He did a fantastic job, actually, for not only did it mend together well and quickly but after a few years the scar had completely vanished as though it never happened. I always tell people, somewhat apologetically, if they are interested (which, I have to say, mostly they are not) that I went through the war without a scratch, rather than admit to making a somewhat ludicrous landing on an open tin of pineapple slices.
We reached Colon on 8th July. It was interesting at Panama – particularly the mechanics of getting our ship through the canal with, at times, only inches to spare – so few, in fact, that during our passage all us passengers were confined to that side of the ship our cabins were on so that the ship didn’t lean over. And it was very hot and sweaty.
It has been obvious to sailors since time began that the Pacific Ocean was vast and so it proved. There was still not much for me to do but watch the sea go by and with every opportunity so to do from my splendid place on the boat deck (it may be remembered that I achieved the same advantage three years before on Rangitiki but by less devious means). Not a thing did we see but the huge swell; slow, ponderous, remorselessly impressive. A reminder, if one was needed, of the unimportance of us humans and our paltry affairs, if I may say so, equally ponderously; and absolutely impossible, ever, to forget. One on these days, or centuries hence, people who fly about this shrinking globe will realise what they miss by going so fast and so high.
After something like another 17 days we reached Wellington. I do not know whether it was considered an attractive place in those days but any place seems interesting after a month at sea. My foot was mending and I could walk quite well with a bit of a limp and so was almost the last off the ship for eight hours shore leave. I got just outside the dock gates and noticed a pale blue Hillman ‘Minx’ open tourer. A young woman with blond hair smiled from the driving seat and said, “Hello”. Slow on the uptake, on this occasion I was not. I was whisked off to the outskirts of Wellington to meet her parents and younger sister and received hospitality to be long remembered. Late in the afternoon I was driven back to the ship, my spirits well restored; and on the way stopping off at a leather-shop to buy a hold-all (now showing signs of age but I refuse to part with it as it reminds me of a happy day).
“Arrival of 2000 RAF men”
“More than 2000 men of the Royal Air Force, the largest single draft to reach Australia arrived in Sydney on Saturday to join the RAF Transport Command.
Among the men are specially selected veterans of Bomber Command and highly trained members of maintenance crews. Almost all of them will take up administrative duties. They travelled on the same ship as the 660 repatriated RAAF men and showed traditional reluctance to talk about their experiences and achievements. The men expect to have little time in Sydney before receiving their postings. Several expressed disappointment at being sent away so soon. Most of them were notified in England of their departure to the Pacific in time to enable them to be granted, in some cases, from 10 to 14 days leave. A number of the officers, however, were unaware of their posting to the Pacific until 36 or 48 hours before embarkation. When the men paraded at Bradfield Park yesterday Group Captain DF Anderson spoke about the type of work they would do.
The Commanding Officer of the RAAF Station, Bradfield Park, Group Captain Ellis also addressed the men and paid high tribute to the hospitality which members of the RAAF had experienced while they were in England.
Flight Lieutenant Tony Le Hardy, of Faversham, Kent, is one of three officers who will pilot transport aircraft in the Pacific. For his work on the island of Vis, secret air base, 10 miles off the Dalmatian coast he received the OBE. He was posted to Marshal Tito’s staff in January last year. The partisans, he said, worked day and night to clear fields for the planes to fly in stores and carry out wounded.
Flying Officer HR Banner of Lewisham, London, admitted that he had been on 60 missions over France and Germany with a Lancaster Pathfinder Force Squadron. He could not remember why he was awarded the DFM.
Flight Lieutenant JC Chapman of Stansted, Essex, completed 73 missions. He flew with a Wellington Squadron in the Middle East for 12 months before returning to England for 18 months instructional duty and then made two tours in Lancasters. He could not remember much about the 73 missions over Europe. ‘Just routine’, he explained, ‘Nothing frightfully exciting ever happened’. (sic)”
This was a piece I cut out of a Sydney newspaper. Like most newspapers, bits of it were reasonably accurate.
The Andes had docked at Woolloomooloo, (accent on the second loo) Sydney Harbour, on 28th July. The Bridge dominated everything. Very impressive.
One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I did not keep a diary during the war. I have my flying logbook which has been invaluable in anchoring some events to specific dates such as, for instance, the Andes leaving the UK, arriving at different ports, in addition to purely flying activities. One memory often prompts another and so on and I have been fortunate up to this point. Many years later, when searching around in my mind for explanations for various aberrant emotions then beginning to surface, I realised that my life had imperceptibly changed about this time. It may have been the injury to my foot that triggered it off; that I will never know. But soon after landing in Australia astigmatism quite suddenly asserted itself in both eyes as it had done similarly when I was 13 or 14 after being ill with rheumatic fever. I had had, of course, 20/20 vision in both eyes by the time I joined the RAF and had better vision than most in the dark. And if the remainder of this that I write appears somewhat fragmented it may be that some things just stopped registering in my mind.
There was a long train journey north from Sydney. Endless trees and lush vegetation were the feature of the 450 miles to Brisbane and although winter the climate seemed pleasant enough along this coastal route. 194 Staging Post, Brisbane, was a clearing house for RAF Transport Command and was situated at Archer Field, a fairly primitive airfield even by 1945 standards a few miles south from the centre of Brisbane. Our camp, rather quaintly called Camp Muckley, if seemingly somewhat primitive at first glance, was really rather nicely situated at a far corner of the airfield up a dusty track to a clearing among the gigantic gum trees and after a time I grew to love the atmosphere of the place, hidden away as it was.
As I virtually couldn’t see anything very clearly I made my first acquaintance with Brisbane itself by going to find an optician and having my eyes tested. I was astigmatic again, but within a week or ten days was in possession of a pair of Billy Bunter type glasses and at least able to read things again.
On 12th August I was flown to Sydney by the RAAF in a DC3, the faithful and ubiquitous ‘Dakota’, generally known as a Dak to all and sundry. The next day, from Sydney to Melbourne, stayed there two days and the next day back to Brisbane. I have no idea why, I just have the record of the flights in my flying logbook. While I was there Japan surrendered. I, and many like me who had not yet been posted to the far corners of the Pacific, took part in the Victory Parade a day or two later in Brisbane. The only aspect of this I remember is of marching along and the band playing and a woman shouting at us, “Why don’t you buggers smile!” I’ve never been quite sure why I, personally, did not smile, but whatever the reason, presumably we all felt like not smiling. So that was the end of it; a sort of non-event in the sense that we didn’t all go a bit crazy as on May 8th in Britain.
I liked Brisbane though. It was nicely old fashioned with some good civic buildings. I got into trouble with the law for crossing the road in Queen Street, (the main street) other than at a designated crossing point and was suitably admonished by a police officer. People went home from work about 5pm and the vast majority, of the male sex, went straight into the nearest pub. I never went in one but it was said to be an experience never forgotten; they shut at 6pm and the result was an alarming exodus onto the street of those who had to feel their way home by instinct. Mind you, it was a thirsty place. I got the impression, however, that betting on horses was the first priority of the average Aussie and a sound taste for the best brew the second. Or so it seemed. And depending on what time of day it was. I can remember speaking to some rather hoity-toity well-off women in a hotel lounge in Melbourne who were interested in talking to me because I was English. Among many things, they asked me if I was going to the races – there being always a horse race to mull over in any hotel in Melbourne; like being permanently in Cheltenham on the eve of Gold Cup day. I said that not only had I never been to a horse race but I had never put a bet on a horse, or anything else for that matter in my life. I didn’t mean to be self-righteous about it, I just said it as a fact; apologetically as far as I know, but it proved to be a conversation-stopper of some magnitude.
It was, I think, 3 or 4 miles from Camp Muckley into the town centre and on the way was the Woolangabba cricket ground (known internationally as ‘the Gabba’ to all cricket buffs), scene of Sheffield Shield and Test Matches, and looking rather sad as cricket grounds do out of season.
The officer’s mess at Muckley was mostly one large wooden hut, off the ground on stilts, which served as lounge, dining room and bar as the occasion demanded, and there was a kind of veranda, an outside extension, where one could take a drink. There were communal (cold) showers and lavatories not far away.
The function of our unit appeared to be the delivery of mail to various parts of the Pacific as far as, and including, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the repatriating of ex-prisoners of war and service men and women as required. My personal function was never, actually, ever explained to me and as far as I remember I made no effort to find out. I was now, I think, in a state of mental inertia - a what will be, will be, sort of attitude and certainly not bolshie; but the sort of view that if they send me 12,000 miles to do a job and they don’t tell me what it is, that’s their hard luck. I think I was not alone in this. I and many of those who had come from Britain with me had nothing to prove, and had already achieved the greatest ambition some of us would ever have, that of staying alive; and no need to make a name for ourselves except those who had their eye on a permanent commission in the peacetime service. (One could readily pick these out.)
Some of us, a few kindred spirits, used to gather outside on the veranda, evenings, and have a drink or two. There was a portable gramophone on which one of us in particular made a small ritual of playing the only record available, an extract from The Nun’s Chorus. Halfway through there was a bit of a gash in the tracks and providing one could endure some seconds of considerable discord, it generated a little emotion into the evening air if only for 3 minutes or so. Well, it was better than nothing I suppose.
It was nearly 7 weeks after landing at Sydney that my actual posting to Peleliu took place. I saw little of Townsville, 4 hours flying from Archer Field, as we landed on the then primitive runway just before dark, and went to bed early with the unending call of the cicadas for an equally early start the next morning. I am not at all sure as the DC3 ambled down the track at 06.05 that morning that I realised it was my 25th birthday. Six hours and 55 minutes later we landed on an airstrip on the island called Manus. Small in reality, it is ever harder to find on a map but about 300 miles north of Port Moresby in New Guinea will be marked the Admiralty Islands. And there, if you look hard enough you will find a tiny dot called Manus, which was then a US Marines base camp.
Another six am start the next morning; course set for Peleliu. (The two pilots who crewed the DC3’s had no real navigation to worry about as they just followed the appropriate radio beacon; this was then quite new technology and the early starts were to avoid the tremendous cloud which built up by mid-afternoon.) And 7 hours 10 minutes later we landed into another world. (18hrs 10mins flying in all to cover 2800 miles – average ground speed 156 knots). Peleliu, almost exactly midway between Townsville and Tokyo can be found on maps at 7 degrees 0 minutes North and 134 degrees 15 minutes East as another tiny dot at the southerly end of the small chain of islands known as the Palau Islands. It is about two miles from east to west and five miles north to south and consists only of a lump of coral anchored to the seabed of which, with the exception of the so called ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’, only about 15 feet stood above sea-level. The ridge, about 250 feet high at its southern end, flattened out as it extended some 4000 yards north-east. In 1945 Peleliu was now occupied mostly by the US Marine Air Corps having been fought for by the US Marines in 1944 who suffered 7417 casualties in so doing. There was a contingent of about seven or eight RAF ground crew already arrived of whom, presumably, I was to be in charge, two Royal Navy ratings and, I found out later, a few members of the Japanese soldiery who had decided not, for the moment to give themselves up.
The Palau Islands, generally, had a history of being colonised at various times by an assortment of European nations and also by the Japanese: what had happened to the native population of Peleliu in particular during the period of this war I have no idea. What is interesting, though, is that quite recently a survey showed a very high proportion of the population of the whole group of islands lived to be more than 100 years old – more than seven times the average in Western countries. I mention this in passing only to record that in the time I was there I have no doubt I failed to find the magic weed.
Accommodation on the island was either in prefabricated ‘Quonset’ huts (similar to our ‘Nissan’ huts but rather larger) or in tents. I had a good-sized tent to myself; a well-made and elaborate affair. Before leaving England I had been issued with the standard camp-kit for officers which consisted of a camp-bed, folding chair, canvas wash-basin supported on wooden legs, and a large canvas ground sheet. (All this was heavy to lug around but beautifully made and with care would last for ever.) I put all this down in one corner of the tent and then realised I had company – there was similar kit strewn about the other side, and some time after I got myself organised the other occupant, a Squadron Leader, turned up, introduced himself, and disappeared almost immediately. All I ever learnt from him was his name (quite famous, a much decorated Battle of Britain pilot), and that he was more than pleased that I had come to relieve him. He had gone off to liaise with several hundred Indian Army personnel, prisoners of war of the Japanese just discovered on a neighbouring island and to arrange for their repatriation.
The next day I was issued not only with a Jeep for my personal use but a US Marine Corps Driving Licence to allow me to drive it. The Squadron Leader’s kit remained in the tent for a day or two and then disappeared when I was away somewhere, and I never saw him again. I was hoping he would have told me what the score was, so to speak, in this strange environment but now realised I would have to try and pick it up as I went along.
The ground crew were a good and experienced bunch with a corporal in charge. Their job was to check the DC3’s belonging to our Group as they landed and send them on their way fully serviceable, or repair them if need be. They only had their basic tools. All replacement parts were obtained from the USMAC supplies department under the so-called ‘Lend Lease’ arrangement with the USA. Their job was certainly not onerous as I found that we would be lucky to see one of our aircraft each day, one from the south one day, one returning from Hong Kong and the Philippines the next.
After I had got the hang of things a bit and learned how to find out (from the radio section) the expected time of arrival of visiting aircraft I started taking our complement in, and hanging on to, the jeep to a beach at the southern end of the island for a spot of R and R. A few palms that had not been decapitated by the cross-fire of the previous year gave us shade and relief from the all-pervading glare of sun on coral. The sea, smooth inside the lagoon, was said to be free from shark (famous last words). There was not a lot to look at except the large land-crabs dashing about at high speed but it was as pleasant a spot as could be found in the circumstances. Fifteen minutes before the appointed time of arrival we would keep an eye open for a distant DC3 and we then just had time to get dressed, get in the jeep, and be at our aircraft parking space as it was taxiing in. We got this procedure to a fine art and if I did nothing else on Peleliu worthy of mention I think at least the ground crew appreciated this bit. If the aircraft had come from the north it would probably have passengers on board requiring an overnight stay on the island. If there were any female passengers my "Welcome to Peleliu!" was about all I was allowed to say as the US Marine Police would be there in strength (mostly to get an eyeful I think) and they would be whisked away under armed guard.
Going to the beach and the airstrip was about all I used the Jeep for, but it was often borrowed from time to time in the evening by Marines to visit the cinema show the other end of the island in which case I would usually find a bottle of something pleasant under the seat the next morning.
Somewhere about 3pm each day, punctually within five or ten minutes either way, the clouds which had been massing overhead for half an hour or so could contain their moisture no longer and poured the whole lot on us for about 15 minutes. The only thing to do was to be ready for it, dive into one's tent and wait for it to finish, which it did quite abruptly. The sky cleared, the sun came out again, and within minutes the millions of gallons which had fallen on Peleliu had disappeared into the coral and there was nothing left but a bit of steam. I was foolish in that I did not realise the humidity for some time and I woke up one morning to find that mostly everything in my tent, including my rather nice service greatcoat of Crombie cloth which hung on a hanger in a corner, had gone completely green with mould overnight.
I ate, and very well too, in the Marine Corps Officers Mess. The coffee was delicious and unlimited and I soon got used to pancakes and syrup for breakfast, and meals on trays divided up into sections, and eating only with a fork. I was told that the few Japanese who had hidden themselves away for the last 12 months in caves in the ridge of high ground used to raid the 'trash' bins around the cookhouses over night for scraps of food.
The Indian ex-POW's who had been brought to the island were not my responsibility and I did not see them for two or three weeks. It seemed that they were given a medical check-up, clothing, food and quarters and allowed to fend for themselves until they were evacuated. I was invited together with members of the Marine Corps to an enormous feast of Indian cooking they prepared in gratitude for their new freedom and felt embarrassed at the depth of their hospitality as I had had absolutely nothing to do with it. I told some of them about being helped by the 4th Indian Div. 3 years previously which did at least give us something in common to talk about. I was very touched when one of them gave me a pair of primitive but practical sandals he had made out of bits and pieces, mostly from old motor tyres, and used them in fact for some years before they fell apart.
One day one of our DC3's landed with a suspect engine. Our engine-fitter would not pass it fit for further use without major overhaul. Normally we would have got a replacement from the USMAC with no problem. This time they said 'Sorry, no more spares available'. When I asked the reason I was told that 'Lend Lease' between the USA and the British Government had ceased as from now and if we wanted a new engine we would have to pay for it. I assumed it was my job to keep the aircraft flying and the mail and passengers on their way otherwise the system would get clogged up. I got a bit stroppy, 'This is a fine thing, etc, etc,' and eventually they said, 'Alright, if you sign this form acknowledging liability for the cost of the engine you can have a spare'. I reckoned HM Government would have to fork out whatever it cost so I signed the form. We got a new engine and I made sure we kept the old one for repair. I never in fact heard any more about it so I assumed in the months ahead that I had either done the right thing or else the bill had not reached Transport Command before I was demobbed. We did not have a bad record for those times in getting the mail through the islands. I used to get, weekly, an airmail edition of The Times on Peleliu five days after it was printed in the UK - 3 days to Sydney by a civilian version of a Lancaster bomber and 2 days, including the re-sorting, from Sydney. I wonder how long it would take today.
I have to say I never liked Peleliu. It was no earthly paradise but a bare and barren place with little relief from the stark and blinding whiteness of the coral except in some small corners such as where we went swimming. Being virtually on the equator there were 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. I cannot say that the Americans were unfriendly, far from it as they used to pass the time of day with me readily enough when I had a meal but that was about as far as it went. There were thousands of them in the UK but I had never really spoken to any except one who was actually in the RAF and with whom I flew on operations on two or three occasions. Here, though, they had their own shared experiences and culture and I just could not penetrate it or feel part of any common cause.
I had foolishly brought with me not a single book except my dictionary, no radio, and developed a growing reluctance to speak to anybody, and no light in my tent, in which, in the long evenings I tended at times, I have to admit, to become more than a little depressed.
And then, quite out of the blue, so to speak, when one of our pilots landed on 14th October he handed me a note from our CO at Archer Field to return there forthwith. I could not understand this, it was only 4 weeks since I had left and I was only just getting to grips with the place, or so I thought. The next morning at 06.30 I got myself on board the next 'plane which was scheduled via Morotai, an island in the Halmerhera group some 400 miles south of the Philippines at 2¨N.
All I can remember of the three very hot and steamy days there was the communal loo about 30 feet long under a corrugated iron roof. One found oneself a convenient hole in the long wooden bench and sat over it. Some distance below was a vast pit of lime which, reacting chemically with that which was landing thereon, threw up such heat that, combining with the ambient temperature and the effect of the sun on the roof, put one into a such a sweat that it was essential to attend to one's needs with as much speed as one could muster.
It was with some pleasure that I left Morotai for the 6½ hour flight on 18th October to Darwin, arriving just before dark. As we took off again just after six the next morning I saw little of it except the hut I slept in which was six feet off the ground on wooden stilts. The 10 hour 20 minute flight over the Northern Territory and Queensland to Brisbane was enlivened only by a half-hour stop at Cloncurry. The field we landed on was more or less just dry earth with a small tuft of grass here and there and a wire fence to keep the cattle out. The shed in which we had a cup of tea and a beef sandwich was close to the fence and the smell of cattle was fairly powerful in the mid-day heat we noticed as we visited the 'Gents' round the back.
Back at Archer Field, no one got round to telling me why I had been recalled to base; and I did not ask. I just started eating in the mess and awaited events. I suppose I should have been grateful to have been given this experience, however unwilling at the time, if only to dispel any desire I might have had in the future to get away from it all, and no doubt it is an arguable point whether any experience is good experience. 'The Sleepy Lagoon', that theme tune to 'Desert Island Discs' on Radio 4, inevitably takes me back to Peleliu although it was neither 'desert' nor was I by any means alone. And when asked what I would like to take, apart from those apparent necessities, the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, I would certainly refuse both in favour of something to make one sleep forever.
Each of us had been given a demob number based on length of service (and I believe, age) and at the rate it was going mine was months away. A week or so after I returned from Peleliu, however, (and I can think of no-one less suited to the job) I was appointed to be the officers' mess 'bar-officer'. This meant being responsible for the takings and ordering fresh supplies as the occasion demanded. I soon realised that this was in fact quite a rewarding occupation requiring the use of a small truck to go to the wholesale store in Brisbane with the necessary cash for further supplies, and developed an enthusiasm for keeping the bar well stocked; my time being otherwise my own it was quite fun. I also developed some popularity at being able to provide lifts back and forth from town. It was a little while before I realised why the bar had such a large turn-over, particularly in gin, which, notwithstanding it was so cheap, seemed to disappear as fast as I could buy it. It took me some while to learn that a 12-pack of gin would slide neatly and not too obviously between the back of the pilots' seat and the bulkhead separating the pilots from the main passenger space in the DC3. At Manus, the next stop after Townsville on the way north, there was a considerable establishment of black GI's who were, by US regulations not allowed to buy spirits from their canteen. A 12-pack, therefore, acquired a certain premium in respect of the transit and everybody was happy, including the wholesaler in Brisbane and myself, my particular perk being the use of the truck.
There was a room behind the bar that I adopted as a bedroom at this time. I had lost touch with most of those I knew before going to Peleliu as they had been dispersed around the Pacific.
One of those I did know who had come out from the UK with me was now quite sick, diagnosed as TB. I started to visit him in hospital on the far side of Brisbane. His death not many weeks later affected me quite deeply. I acknowledge now that I had then become withdrawn and depressed and felt sorry for myself in the evenings, listening to the usual hubbub of voices through the partition. Strangely, I had lost one other personal friend, and he, from my time at Pershore in 1943, also died in Australia some months before I arrived, quite unnecessarily, when the aircraft in which he was flying collided with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When I had a day or two to spare in Sydney I found his grave.
On Christmas Eve '45 I went with a Catholic friend to midnight mass in the large and imposing Cathedral in Brisbane for no reason other than for the experience and to keep him company. The occasion must have impressed itself on me as I remember it still, as well as the long warm walk back to camp in the early hours of Christmas day with the 'Gabba' and, further on, the eucalyptus trees, ghostly in the moonlight.
After Christmas, I had an unexpected opportunity to take a week's holiday in the outback by invitation from the owner of a sheep station in the border country of New South Wales and Queensland. I went by train from Brisbane to Warwick and then changed to a branch line which more or less followed the state-line between New South Wales and Queensland for about 250 miles inland. The further one went from the coast the more exotic the names of the stations, like Goondiwindi and Dirranbandi.
The whole railway system and the engines and carriages had a distinctly Victorian look. It was a continual source of wonderment to me how long man-made things lasted when there was so little dampness in the atmosphere. Houses made of wood, Model 'T' Fords, old 'Chevvies' looked as though they would go on for ever and the railways were no exception. The Victorians had no option but to accept the hard seats and upright back-rests of their otherwise worthy railway carriages as I did and the heat of the day added nothing to one's comfort. I did not, in any case, feel at my best. I was convinced I had the beginnings of polio-myelitis; there was a severe epidemic throughout Australia at the time and I had a headache, stiff neck, lassitude, and felt I had a slight temperature. The train drew into a station conveniently at lunch-time for half an hour and all the passengers got out and were refreshed with tea and biscuits. In my best, and light blue, RAF uniform (The RAAF wore dark blue) I was the object of some curiosity, not that anyone spoke to me. Everybody fed and watered, and back on board, the train ambled on again through the heat of the afternoon and an apparently uninhabited landscape of completely dead trees looking like white bones sticking out of the ground. When we drew into Inglewood I got out. There wasn't a lot in sight except a big and battered old Chevrolet saloon, about 1930 vintage, and a couple of young chaps, to meet me. They were the sons of the owners, about 17 and 18 I should say. The twenty or so miles to their place was an education. They were showing off, of course, but we drove at a furious speed in as straight a line as possible over rough ground, occasional tracks, or anything else. The occasional small fallen tree in the way presented no problem - just straight over it - the old Chevvie took it all in its stride.
We arrived eventually at a small oasis in the desert of scrub, dried up grass, and the few trees. On some higher ground not far from the bank of a dried-up watercourse was an elaborate bungalow built on stilts with a veranda all round in what I suppose would be described as late Victorian colonial style. Round about there were corrugated iron sheds, two or three more cars of various vintage, a truck, a wind pump, a few hens passing the time, and so on. A typical outback place, I suppose. I met the father and mother. They seemed extremely busy and preoccupied with the day to day affairs of an estate of around 500 square miles. They were, they said, pleased to meet me and showed me to my room. The interior of their 'place' with its elaborate and highly polished furniture, rugs on the wooden floors, a large framed photograph of Queen Victoria, was everything of the very best of fifty years or more ago I concluded.
The two sons would normally check and/or mend the boundary fencing as required; patrolling the perimeter in different directions on horseback until they met, and then back together through the middle. This would take them about a week. I was very ignorant of their life-style and they of mine and in the week I was there little opportunity of entering each other's world. Nevertheless they managed to give me just a glimpse of life in the outback and there were some activities that I well remember.
Toad in the hole
One morning I went to the bathroom and sat on the loo. I had been there only a few seconds when I heard a kind of plopping noise from underneath and looked down because I knew at that particular moment it was nothing to do with me. The largest toad that I ever did see was emerging from under the U-bend and starting to climb up the pan, its arms and legs outstretched. Its body alone measured at least six inches I reckon - at least it seemed that big but I am prepared to accept that I might be exaggerating a bit - I have told the tale a few times and it sometimes gets even bigger in the telling. Anyway I can tell you that with its arms and legs extended it was a fearsome thing to behold in those circumstances. I must say it expressed less surprise at what it saw above than what I saw below and I can also quite safely say that in my time I have had, of necessity, to move onto the seat of a loo with some rapidity but never left one in quite the same manner as I then did. But I do not exaggerate when I say I flushed the cistern in some panic, and back it went the way it had come which was down the 150 yards or so of pipe underground down to the billabong* which probably at this time of the year had dried-up. I felt a little bit sorry for it afterwards as all it got for its considerable trouble was a quick wash. *This is an Australian word for a sort of pond. (I thought it might add some local colour).
I didn’t know at the time but it was possibly a ‘Cane Toad’. These were introduced into Queensland in the 1930’s from Hawaii to kill off the bugs which fed on the sugar cane. It so happened that while they didn’t fancy the Australian sugar-cane bug there were so many other things they did fancy that there are now millions of them all over the place and are normally quite harmless but if alarmed or attacked squirt a powerful poison. And yes – they can get very big.
The Eagle’s Nest
It had been evident that a number of lambs had not died from natural causes and it was thought the culprit was a pair of eagles. We went out in the truck one morning and searching a likely area of rising ground, found a tree with a fork about 20 feet off the ground with a substantial nest of branches and twigs about 5 feet across. There was no sign of any eagles; if there were any they would have seen us coming for miles and helped themselves to another tree for the time being, of which there were several million available. It was decided to come back that night when they would probably be back in their nest and burn it down.
We returned about midnight using no lights and walked the last few hundred yards. A prepared torch of twigs soaked in paraffin on some light rope was lit and flung up the tree. We missed the first time but eventually got it going and sat around for about two hours while it burned, disintegrated and came tumbling down. I fancy the eagles had long gone even if they had been there at all.
However, and this is mostly why I remember it, when the fire had gone out and after we had stamped out all the burning embers and it was dark again, I could see more stars than I think I have ever seen. And there was that incredible silence. The only sound I could detect was the beating of my own heart and now and then the weird maniacal laughter of a kookaburra calling its mate, which was enough to put the wind up a limey like me (too right!) even in broad daylight.
…and the death of a ‘roo
Yesterday it had been the eagles and the lambs. This was the day of the rabbits and the ‘roos. They were eating too much grass and not leaving enough for the sheep. In the summer it was a case of survival for one or the other but probably not both. So it was out in the truck with shotguns and a .22 rifle to slaughter as many as possible.
I had no desire to shoot at anything but the two young lads, who were probably as good a shot as anyone, got to work enthusiastically in all directions and rabbits went down by the dozen. We eventually came across a small collection of kangaroos grazing in the distance. They looked at us for a while and then loped off as we got closer. Over the uneven ground they could make as good a speed as we could in the truck and certainly were better at changing direction and he who had the .22 with me in the back of the truck had no luck. They wanted me to have a go and I kept saying, No, you carry on. Eventually they wore me down and I took the gun. We were belting along at about 30 miles per hour chasing after a large male making desperate leaps and turns to get away. I fired the six shots in the magazine. It kept going for a while and I assumed I had missed it until it just keeled over and lay there. I was quite amazed as I had fired without really taking serious aim and it was a sheer fluke. We looked at it closely, it was quite dead. The two brothers took their knives and skinned it there and then. They had done this many times by the look of it, all in one piece. They held it up for me to see the one small hole I had put into it.
It had been a magnificent beast, about six feet tall. It lay there now, a pathetic, revolting sight. The skin was taken back with us to be cured for use as a rug, they said. For my part I did not feel exactly happy at what I had done even if they were, as I was told, being slaughtered by the thousand all over the continent to keep the numbers down.
I realise I haven’t said anything about the flies. I thought, as many did, that one had experienced the ultimate torture from flies in the Western Desert. Not so, the Australian version beat them all ends up for numbers and persistence.
On the Saturday the whole family decided to go to the pictures. It was an hour's drive through the bush in the late afternoon in the best Studebaker. Once again I had reason to admire the suspension of these Yankee cars which seemed to insulate one almost completely from the outside world; and that, hereabouts I can tell you, was pretty rugged. It was getting dusk as we arrived at a cleared and fenced area. There were other cars already there, lined up facing a screen something like a 'sight screen' at a cricket ground, and large speakers either side. As soon as it was dark the films started and with the car windows wound down one lay back and looked and listened in some comfort. There was even a chap who came round with a tea-urn at half-time. We got out of the car then and stood around and there was a deal of chit-chat between the families as everyone seemed, more or less, to know everyone else. It was amazing to me where they all came from in what seemed uninhabited country. The ride back, charging through the bush with headlights on was, to me, quite hair-raising but the navigation was perfect and the two dogs came lolloping up to meet us as we reached the homestead around midnight. And then there was the day we went off, the whole family, to buy some cattle. We drove south for some distance into New South Wales to what I can only describe as a cattle ranch which, with the exception of the typically Australian buildings, could have been a scene from any 'Wild West' film in the thirties. The two station owners, who knew one another, shook hands, climbed onto horses and entered a stockade into which the cattle had been herded and rode round together for about twenty minutes, shook hands again and the deal was done. On the way back we diverted to a small township consisting of one (very) wide street of reddish dusty earth with a couple of stores, a saloon, and a dozen or so other assorted wooden buildings which once again reminded me of a film-set of, perhaps, Albuquerque in the 1870's; and outside the saloon, in which we had a drink, were hitching rails for the horses.
My time was now up, and it was time to say goodbye to my kind hosts. I suppose I must have caught a train at Inglewood and gone back to Brisbane but I do not remember much from now on. I still had the vague symptoms of polio, as I thought, or maybe something else, and did not feel all that well. A few days later, so it is written in my flying logbook, I went by DC3 from Brisbane to Sydney and the next day to Melbourne. Why I went there I have no idea but I do remember that although the sky was overcast the thermometer was registering 104 degrees Fahrenheit and I went in the sea like many other people just to keep cool. This may possibly have been the occasion when some of us British were being asked if we would take our demobilization in Australia and subsequently become Australian citizens. It was quite tempting the way they explained the possibilities and had I known that all my colleagues in the UK had by now sorted out for themselves most of the attractive jobs that were on offer I might have succumbed. I caught the non-stop night 'Blue' train out of Melbourne for Sydney. Early the next morning I took the opportunity to use my recently acquired Leica camera as we wound our way through the Blue Mountains. (While in transit in Morotai I had got acquainted with an Australian Army Captain who was short of cash, he said. He had this Leica camera in as-new condition with leather carrying case and I had no hesitation in offering him the equivalent of £40. This was a lot of money but I knew a good camera when I saw one and had the wit not to question it's provenance for where would an Aussie soldier get a virtually new, extremely sought-after, and very expensive camera from, out there in Jap country?) Very foolishly, when I got back to England I sold it to a dealer for £100 who equally sensibly asked no questions. Considering you could buy a decent house for £2000 in those days this seemed a fair deal at the time but I do rather wish I still had it.
It seems strange to me now but I remember nothing more of Australia until I took a picture, using the same camera, of the pilot boat which had just escorted the MV Athlone Castle, on which I was a passenger, out of Sydney Harbour en route to the UK. My supposed polio symptoms had gone away and I was feeling much better and looking forward to getting back to England with its new government.
In the early hours of 10th March 1946, Athlone Castle eased her way up Southampton Water. She had given me an uncomfortable 48 hours ploughing through the swell of the Bass Strait and the Great Australian Bight, given herself a dent in the side in a slight argument with the dock-side at Freemantle, and all us lot heading for our demob a chance, if two or three days in Bombay counts, to see India. I had had the opportunity to renew at a distance a slight acquaintance with Port Tewfik before we nosed into the Suez Canal, and with a few pangs of nostalgia said hello to Ismailia in the distance as we passed through Lake Timsah; could it be nearly four years?
The organisation in that England of 1946 was extremely good; straight into a special train and off to a large hangar in the depths of Shropshire. All ranks went in one door and civilians, only, came out of the other. When I caught a train to London I had that slightly bemused feeling when one doesn't quite know who one is. In reality I was now a Mr Chapman and wearing an odd-looking green 'pork-pie' hat, a quite nice brown tweed jacket, grey flannel trousers and a pair of very reasonable brown brogues. It was a strange feeling and for some time, many weeks in fact, it didn't really sink in that after six years, all but a month, and nearly a quarter of my life, one had left not only the warmth of friendship with colleagues but also the cocoon the service had become, and that one was now in a different and uncertain world. I was also mindful of having invariably been treated with scrupulous fairness and civility by all the immediate senior officers with whom I came in contact. In that sense I had had a happy war.
Such sentiments however were tempered by some immediate resentment in having been sent on a return journey of 30,000 miles to a remote Pacific island feeling that I had perhaps already done my bit. I did at times, I realise now, become more than a little paranoid about this, wondering if it was retribution for taking a certain attitude regarding the later excesses of Bomber Command; and was I not one of a small number on the squadron in late '44 who attended a talk by the 'Red' Dean of Canterbury? But there again, no doubt I flatter myself that anyone even noticed. Much more probably it was just bad luck. And yet, why was I the only one on my unit to have been sent to what turned out to be a complete waste of time on the other side of the world, and so on and so on?
These bizarre thoughts stayed with me for some time. I would have done much better to be thankful for the experience and count my blessings but I think I then accepted the fact that at least I was still alive without overmuch thought. Now, at this moment, I cannot imagine how my life would have shaped had I not flown those 1000 hours, not been at sea for four and a half months, not served in the Western Desert, Australia and the Pacific; and should feel grateful for the opportunities and good fortune put in my way.
But it is more than that. There were so many fine people I met. But while there are very few now I could put a name to, those in my own operational crews of course and those I occasionally flew with, Squadron Commanders perhaps, almost no one else, it is faces that come to mind; so many faces that came and went. One flew with one's crew, slept, chatted over a meal in the mess to whoever was around and given half a chance lived it up a bit out of camp. If somebody said to me "Did you make any friends in the R.A.F?" I would have to say that it wasn't like that. It was always a here today and gone tomorrow world. There was, for instance, a Flight Lieutenant, a flight-engineer, that I knew by sight in the mess at Little Staughton and around the crew rooms for instance, whom I never actually spoke to personally in any serious sort of way, just a 'hello' in passing, although I knew him as a friendly sort of chap. After I left the Squadron I never saw him again until sometime in the 1950's when he was acting in a film about a wartime bomber squadron and playing to perfection the typical R.A.F. 'type', I recognised him at once but only remembered his name when the credits turned up at the end of the film.
In a way the war was like 'Ole Man River' - always drifting past, it always looked very much the same but the water was different water, and people and events just kept rolling by. An occasional stick or branch would get caught up in an eddy, stay around for a while, and then be gone again back into the current and for ever. Almost everyone who lived through those days, whatever they were doing, felt, I think, a sense of impermanence at the time and much later in life regrets at lost comradeship. I make no apology for these trite and probably over emotive perceptions for there was a great deal of emotion around which then, and afterwards, one tended to keep to one's self.
Some thoughts about Bomber Command
.....A directive arrived at B/Comm H.Q. 9.7.41 - as follows..........
"Sir, I am directed to inform you that a comprehensive review of the enemy's present political, economic and military situation discloses that the weakest points in his armour lie in the morale of the civil population and in his inland transportation system. The wide extension of his military activities is placing an ever increasing strain on the German transport system and there are many signs that our recent attacks on industrial towns are having great effect on the morale of the civil population.
...I am to request that you will direct the main effort of the bomber force until further instructions towards dislocating the German transportation system and to destroying the morale of the civil population as a whole and of the industrial workers in particular. We must first destroy the foundation upon which the German war machine, the economy which feeds it, the morale which sustains it, the supplies which nourishes it, and the hopes of victory which inspires it. Only then shall we be able to return to the continent and occupy and control portions this territory and impose our will upon the enemy. It is in bombing on a scale undreamt of in the last war that we find the new weapon on which we must principally depend for the destruction of German industrial economic life and morale."
14.2.42. - a further directive, which was to remain in force until the completion of hostilities......
"..... the primary objective of your operations should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers..."
It is now considered probable that this policy of what would now be termed 'Indiscriminate bombing' was introduced when it had become known that the bombing of precise targets had been a considerable failure. And that failure was at high cost in men and machines. That our bombing offensive against cities was both morally and practically unsound, and highly wasteful of our human and industrial resources, is not my immediate concern in this book although I have strong feelings about it. While many of those who took part in its activities are still alive views about its place in history are still muted. Future historians may not be so kind. A/C/M/ Sir Arthur Harris was appointed to lead Bomber Command on 22.2.42 and stayed in command for the rest of the war. It is probably fair to say that while he was not personally responsible for the policy he certainly pursued it enthusiastically. It has been said that it was initiated by Portal, Trenchard, Churchill, possibly others; but we shall never know.
What we do know now is that German war production measured in tonnage of armaments was at least twice that of the United Kingdom which because of slave labour might probably be expected. What might not be expected however is that Germany's production of armaments reached a peak in 1944.
Figures produced tend to suggest that Bomber Command's concentration on the dehousing of the German population had marginal influence on their industrial capacity during nearly 5 years of bombing. At the same time, the decision to deny sufficient aircraft to Coastal Command during the darkest days of the U-boat menace defies description. If one were to tot-up the bomber-miles flown over 6 years at 1 or 2 gallons of aircraft fuel per mile that adds up to a mind-boggling amount of fuel required. Most of this was brought to our shores by the Merchant Navy at incredible risk, and loss. If anyone was at the sharp end of the war it was these men who received scant reward, then or since. (It is difficult to believe, for instance, that it was the practice for a seaman who had his ship sunk, but who survived after hardships which can hardly be imagined, to have his pay stopped with effect from the date of the sinking).
One thing that we did achieve in the whole grotesque exercise, if at tremendous cost, was to induce the vast effort of counteracting our activities, such as they were; the enormous number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns and the considerable army required to fire them, and an estimated 25000 shells fired for every bomber destroyed.
And some thoughts about survival
While engaged in operational flying I had not thought so much whether but how long I would survive. If one was written off in one's own mind, then anything else was a bonus. And yet, surprisingly, when peace came, there was little immediate sense of self-congratulation or relief. For very many years I gave it little thought, if any, for one has to get on with the business of living. It may well have been that the statistics of war took some time to get together; more probably that it was not politic to publish them too soon.
Between 1939 and 1945 the RAF lost 70,253 all ranks killed or missing on operations. Bomber command lost 47,268, plus 8,305 in training or accidents, plus 1570 ground crews, including WAAF = 55,573 total.
(1914-18 war: - officer losses of British Empire as a whole totalled 38,834 killed.)
The available published casualty rates for Bomber Command night operations during various periods were as follows:-
Nov '41 - Aug '42:- variable from 2.5 to 4.3%
"The casualty rate of the opening period of the Pathfinder Force would be 4.6%. It is not surprising that a loss rate exceeding 4% would lead to the eventual decline of the force with insufficient crews managing to survive a first tour of operations to provide the leadership and experience in squadrons for the increasing proportion of raw reinforcements. No actual figures for 1943 onwards are available (strange that!) but would appear to have been 4-5% during 1943, about 3-4% for the first 9 months of 1944, about 2% for the last 3 months. During 1945 casualties dropped dramatically to 1% as German defences became overwhelmed.."
These were the official mathematical chances of a member of a bomber crew surviving 50 operational flights at various rates of loss. Casualty Rate Survivors from 100 crews 1.0 60.5 2.0 36.4 3.0 21.8 4.0 13.0
I have done my own calculations on the chances of survival at the 4% rate. I put 25 small pieces of card, which I had marked, into a container. Each card represented a crew at the beginning of their operational life when joining a squadron. Each operational flight was represented by taking one card at random from the container (i.e. representing a 4% loss) and replacing it with a similar but unmarked card (representing a new crew), shaking them about, and repeating the process. I did this a number of times and found a remarkable consistency in that at just over 60 "operations" all the marked cards had been replaced. (This small experiment compares fairly well with the official mathematical calculations.) If, therefore, sheer chance was the criterion, no one would expect to survive this number of operations. That some did, indicates that skill and experience may have played some part but it was noted that in the later years of the war the casualty rate among experienced crews was not less than others. The reason for this, it has been suggested, was the introduction, probably in late 1943, of the 'Schrage Musik' fitted to the German night fighters (as previously mentioned).
Some diverse thoughts
As a boarder at Grammar School in the thirties, I and the rest of us endured the ritual of Sundays during term as a fact of life. In our best black suits, a clean stiff white collar which would have to last until Wednesday, and our boaters, and in a reasonably orderly crocodile, twice every Sunday, we arrived at the village church and effectively provided the vicar with a goodly proportion of his congregation; albeit tucked safely, and more or less out of sight of the more fervent, in a side chapel. We dutifully sang the hymns, psalms, stood up, knelt down as required, and patiently sat through the sermon. As parents who brought their teenage daughters to church were careful to sit suitably out of our vision we examined, and some of us could recite without error, every word of the memorials and tablets around us. On winter evenings the hiss and occasional pop of the gas lamps provided a small diversion. At our morning assembly on weekdays after roll-call boys would, on a rota basis, stand before the entire school at the lectern and read the lesson of the day from the Bible. If all this failed to produce a taste for religion, the latter did at least give confidence in public speaking.
Our headmaster, who was also a man of the cloth, and whom I greatly admired, was a holder of the Military Cross through service in the first world war and suffered terribly from the after effects of poison gas. He had a doctorate in Zoology and had written books on this subject in which he instilled much interest among many of us: so much so in fact that I bought myself a copy of Darwin's 'Origin of Species' which was not on the school's list of approved books and accepted this as the more rational explanation of affairs on earth and, or, in heaven. Despite, or maybe because of every effort to fill our heads with religious thoughts I left school at sixteen with considerable misgivings about the general conception of God.
When I joined the RAF in early 1940 I was sent to Morecombe to do my basic training known as 'square bashing', marching about, trying to remember the difference between my right foot and my left, rifle drill, and all the rest. We had the day off on Sundays and I took an opportunity on one occasion to go with others to the Lake District to do some walking and we had a strenuous but enjoyable day in the hills. A padre, a certain Flight Lieutenant The Reverend ET Killick was in charge of us. Only readers of a certain age and familiar with 'Wisden's Cricket Almanac' will remember that ET Killick was a free-scoring amateur batsman for Middlesex during the thirties. (As cricket had become a substitute for religion in my teens I well knew who he was and I was also a friend of his younger cousin.) In the 1950's he, the Rev ET that is, became vicar of St. Michael's Church which was across the road from where I grew up in Bishop’s Stortford. Then in his mid-forties, he still played cricket at club level and (I was shocked to hear) died of a heart attack while at the wicket. I mention this, not just with sadness, but to illustrate, somewhat unnecessarily, that the finger of fate is very fickle indeed.
If God as a beneficent being ever existed other than as promoted in the mind by religion then I have experienced nothing, during the war years, or otherwise, to convince me of that beneficence. And personal survival did not depend upon catching his eye, that I am sure, much though his help was sought. So what did it depend on, if anything?
I am lucky to be writing this at all after 76 operational flights, if statistics mean anything: and must have shared that luck with all those who flew with me on various occasions for none of my immediate crew was ever injured. And the only blood I saw during six years in the Service was my own (the tin of pineapple slices). And then there was that time of zero revs on both engines in a Cu-nim over the sea; finding a handy beach in the Med; rescue by the Indian Army; a slight argument with a prop; twice in a hurry to leave a burning aeroplane; among other things. Fortune continued to smile in my direction. It is said that survivors have difficulty with guilt. Why me, they say? I have nothing but incoherent thoughts or words to offer and am certain of nothing; it's just that some people call it right every time, others get it wrong. It seems to me in the end that that is what it is, - nothing more than which side up the penny drops.
and the Postscript
The lazy five weeks in the Athlone Castle and the getting home and the integration back into some sort of normal life was absorbed without any great sense of introspection. I had had the summer ahead of me and played cricket for my village side. Regrettably, my right wrist had lost the knack of flighting a leg-break onto a length but I managed to get quite aggressive with the bat. I went back to my old school; on the wall at the back of the assembly hall (how small it all seemed now) the Roll of Honour for those who fallen during the South African and Great War was now extended to include nearly half of my own class, among others.
After three months I took up the career which occupied me for the rest of my working life. I met thereby a number of ex-service men of my own age. Though we certainly formed a homogeneous group within the organisation there was not much talk about the war in general or our individual parts in it. And then, gradually, the bonding by a common purpose, normal during the war itself, inevitably withered away in our attempts to put it all behind us.
During the rest of the 'forties, and well into the fifties, times were quite hard what with shortage of almost everything and cold winters with food and fuel rationed, and it was a full-time business just getting on with living.
I made no effort, then or since, to join what are known as 'Veterans' associations or to visit old haunts. Some, I believe, made their pilgrimage and were shattered by what they saw, or to be more accurate, what they did not see. The hangers had become rusted and storage for farm machinery, the huts derelict and overgrown, weeds growing through the runways (if they had not yet been torn up); and their five or six years in the service became only their own memory just as civilians who had been bombed out of their house in the blitz returned later to what had been their home to find, sometimes, the whole street flattened and nothing there to recognise or identify with and leaving quite a hole in their psyche. Best not to go, I thought, and if I wish to remember, to remember as it was.
For me, personally, things started to go wrong in the late 1940's. I started to get stiffening of and pain in the muscles of my neck, shoulders, and back. I went to a doctor as it persisted and eventually had heat treatment as an out-patient which had little if any effect. Over the years these and various other peculiar, unexplainable and inconsequential pains, aches and other odd symptoms came and went in a whimsical way in various parts of my body none of which ever amounted to anything; I had a long spell of intermittent asthmatical wheezing and was given a test in hospital for lung cancer. I had constantly recurring frightening dreams: for over a year I took tranquilizers. which gave me relief, until I realised this was completely non-productive. In my mid-fifties I developed fears of enclosed spaces and sometimes of open places, fears of crowded places and of noise, emotional disturbances and considerable depression. When I started to look down upon myself from above, as though I was floating outside myself I realised I needed help. A visit to a psychiatrist, some pills for depression, and three weeks later I felt better - for a few weeks - until physical symptoms returned.
I was eventually, many years later, put in touch with the "Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society" with their logo 'Combat Stress', of whom, up to then I had not heard. With their encouragement and help in arranging it I was seen by (then) Surgeon Commander M O'Connell at Haslar Naval Hospital in March 1993. He took little time to make a diagnosis of 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder', saying to me among other things that I exhibited almost exactly similar symptoms as a marine he had just seen that morning who had been in the Falklands War. I was also led to believe that I had probably been suffering from it while in the Pacific, and it had then become suppressed for many years until I had an anaesthetic for an operation in my fifties which, as he put it, had unlocked the gate of the mind, as it were, and let it loose.
This diagnosis, in itself, made me feel a great deal better. At least I now had a label and an explanation for all that had troubled me for many years and that I was in good company. Commander O'Connell indicated that he would try and get me the recommended treatment at Hasler later that year. Unfortunately, the service hospitals received the same cut-back in funds as did the NHS at this time.
After a while I thought to try some do-it-yourself psycho-therapy. I bought a book, intended for would-be counsellors, on the treatment of PTSD. It seemed to me, basically, no more than people in groups being encouraged to talk through their experiences giving full vent to their emotions in the process.
I had written the first chapter of this book as a kind of short story induced only by the memories aroused by my visit one day to the library. In the writing, the emotions of that evening in the desert came easily to the surface and again in the re-writing and the tidying up of words to such an extent that I thought I would have a go at writing about the whole of that year, 1942. It took a great deal of thought, raking over memory, putting it into some semblance of order and quite some time. I printed it out and made it into book form. Then I bought a tape recorder and put it all on tape, about 4 hours of it. I would make mistakes and do it over and over. It was not without its painful moments. All this, I suppose, over a period of a year. I realised gradually that some of the demons in my life, looked at now in print or listened to on tape were having less and less effect. I felt sufficiently encouraged to go further with it as will be seen.
It is now 1998 and I am 77 years of age and as physically fit as I have a right to be. I have some residual problems: tinnitus which will never stop and which I have to accept; noise, crowded places, narrow passages, possibly a few other things tend to make me feel uncomfortable at times but I can live with them. I have remembered many things, often quite trivial, and can still picture them clearly. At the same time there is so much I can push away into the background; those long, noisy, uncomfortable, anxious, often frightened hours and they do not trouble me.
I have forgotten, or perhaps I should say I am quite unable to describe, for example, just how it was, taking off in a heavily laden bomber, engines at full revs and boost, pushing the screaming vibrations of horse-power through all one's senses, through feet, stomach, ears, brain; and the frightening thought that one of those engines might fail to any degree during those long 45 seconds or so it took to get us off the ground. And yet, now and then, perhaps a cello will pick up a particular chord at that same frequency and in that instant of sound I am back in the darkness with the runway lights flashing past and a quick shiver of fear will run through me and be gone. I can cope with it now though and I have come to realise that I would not for a moment be without my past or change it more than a little here and there. And I feel, now, in hindsight, a tremendous sense of privilege to have had the opportunity to experience so much even if I may not have seen it quite that way at the time.
Where are they now;
those who went to war by night,
and died ?,
And those below their droning height,
who, in their terror, cried,
"Why kill our children so ?"
Where did they go ?,
Are they yet there, with those who did not die ?
And do we, faintly, hear their cry
from that land of long ago ?
Jeff Chapman.Peter Chapman
F/O. William J. Mawdsley 23rd Operational Training Unit (d.2nd June 1942)Bill Mawdsley was born in 1912 and became a school teacher. In early 1941 he took part in No 9 Course, No 4 Empire Flight Training Scheme at Mascot New South Wales. He was then posted to "Y" Depot, Halifax, Canada leaving his wife Lorna at home in Australia.
After arrival in England he was completing his training at the 23rd OTU at Pershore when he was sent with his crew as part of the second "Thousand Force" night raid to Essen in Germany. He was in command of a Wellington 1c bomber - No R1266-GZ and took off from Pershore at 23.05 and did not return from the mission.
Nothing was known of them until 8 years later when Dutch bulldozers excavated the plane with its dead crew. They had been shot down over Holland and crashed near the Terwindt Brickyard at Kerkdriel (Gelderland) on the west bank of the Maas and and some 13kms west-south-west of Oss in the neighboring province of Noord Braleant. It was thought that two of the crew had perhaps bailed out but not survived. He is buried with his crew at Uden War Cemetery.Noel Thompson
Flt.Sgt. William Hamilton Grigg 424 SquadronWilliam H. Grigg joined the RCAF in January 1942. His first posting was to elementary flight training at #10 EFTS in Mount Hope, Ontario. In April 1942 he transferred to #6 SFTS in Dunville, Ontario for training on the Harvard and Yale aircraft. In July 1942 having completed the tests and training for his pilots badge, he was awarded his RCAF wings.
In September 1942 he commenced his training on the Oxford bomber aircraft with the RAF in Dishforth. In November of this same year, he commenced his training on the Wellington bomber aircraft while attached to the #23 OTU in Pershore, England.
In March 1943, Bill Grigg and his crew began operational bombing flights into Germany on the Wellington aircraft. Between March 1st 1942 and May 29th 1943, they flew numerous missions over Germany bombing their assigned targets. On May 29th, while returning to England from a mission over Wuppertal, Germany, their aircraft was shot down. During this enemy attack, Bill Grigg was rendered unconscious from a shrapnel hit in the head. Prior to jumping from the aircraft, other crew members put him out of the falling aircraft with an open parachute. He landed in Holland and was captured by the German Army. In early June 1943, he was taken to Stalag Luft VI at Haydekrug. He was assigned POW No.154. William Grigg remained a POW for the remainder of the war.
His wartime log book states that on 6th April 1945, he and the entire POW personnel set out on a forced march from Fallingbostel, Germany. On 2nd May 1945 they were liberated by British paratroopers. Those that did survive were seriously malnourished and many POWs did not survive the march.Mike Keegan
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