Another Blog From Beyond The Grave
oooOOOooo! Hah, were you scared? It’s your favourite ghost again – Wombat’s dead Dad, blogging to you from beyond the grave. As I told you last time, I wrote most of this down shortly before I died in 2003, so that my grand-daughters (and perhaps even their children) would know what sort of life we led in the dim and distant past. Today I’ll tell you something about my RAF career. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Starting out
In 1942 I was 16 and allowed to leave school. I had to decide whether to get a job, or stay on for what are now ‘A’ levels. I’d had enough of school, and decided to join the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice. I passed the entrance examination, had a reasonable interview (during which it was decided which particular job I was most suited to), and was accepted into the service. I was told to report to Marylebone Station in London, and my Dad was sent a warrant so that he could obtain a ticket for us both to go to London, and a return ticket just for him.
In London, I took my leave of Dad, and a very polite Flight Sergeant got us all on board a train. He also made sure that we all got off again when we reached Aylesbury station. From the station it was a short ride on a rickety bus to our training station, Halton, near the small town of Wendover in Buckinghamshire.
We were to stay here for two years, after induction, learning the various trades that we had been assigned to as a result of our original interview. Trades included Fitters Class 2, either Airframe, Engine, Armourer, Wireless & Electronic equipment.
We did a LOT of square-bashing, in addition to guard duties undertaken on a rota basis. I actually quite enjoyed this part of the training, as it was not unlike being back at school (except for the square-bashing practices), and therefore not too dramatic a change. At weekends we used to go to Aylesbury or Wendover, either to the pictures or to take part in various sports and pastimes.
The best part of our training was the trips we used to get in an old Tiger Moth biplane that was kept on the airfield for training purposes. I love the feeling of flying high above the ground. Towards the end of our 2 years training we had to rehearse for our passing-out parade. This was endured by all apprentices who had passed their exams, after which we were given three weeks leave to await our first real posting.
At some point during the second year of training, some of our entry, including me, had volunteered (subject to our being fit enough and passing our exams) to train as aircrew (those who actually flew in the aircraft). We volunteers had to go to Birmingham for a medical exam and aptitude tests. I was chosen to train to be a navigator, but we would have to wait several months until the next course became available. I was pleased, but didn’t realise at that time (and the powers-that-be didn’t tell us) that the life expectancy of a navigator was just six weeks, dependant on what sort of a unit you were sent to. (Luckily, as it turned out, the war ended before I could be appointed to the navigator’s course, so I wasn’t needed).
Anyway, towards the end of my after-training leave, I received a letter posting me to Driffield airfield, which was a Base Maintenance Unit. We travelled to Driffield by train via Hull.
On arrival I discovered that it was a base for seven Halifax Bomber squadrons. Three were actually at Driffield (two Australian and one Polish), and two each at Lisset and at Leconfield, with a further airfield at Carnaby. There were no squadrons based at Carnaby – it had an extra-long runway so that any aircraft in trouble could try to land safely. It was also one of only three or four airfields in the country to have FIDO installed. This is a method of burning petrol through pipes with holes along a runway, thus dispersing any fog, and allowing pilots a better view of the runway as they were landing.
In January or early February of 1945 I was given seven days leave, and ordered to report to Blackpool for eventual despatch to overseas service! Ooer! I began to be both excited and scared.
Initially we were billeted in a guesthouse at Blackpool and after getting all our inoculations and vaccinations we were kitted out. We received tropical uniforms, a Sten sub-machine gun and ammunition (quite exciting in itself), and we were ready to go. We were marched to Blackpool South station at 8 o’clock in the morning, and arrived at the dockside in Liverpool at about 3 p.m. The train had taken seven hours to travel about forty or fifty miles! However, this wasn’t to be my last slow journey while in the RAF, as you’ll find out.
After we emerged from the train, we were then stuck on the dockside for an hour and a half with all our kit while the people in charge sorted things out. Finally, we were let on board a ship called the S.S.Britannic (see right). This had been a luxury liner before the war; the successor to the original Britannic which was one of Titanic’s sister ships. This luxury liner had now been conscripted as a troopship. We were directed to our various mess decks where the crew gave us a hammock each, and showed us where and how to sling them. After this, at about six o’clock, we were given something to eat, our first food since seven o’clock that morning.
I’ll tell you, that meal was the finest I think I have ever had! We were told it was a lamb stew, but all it consisted of was a billycan full of gorgeous thick gravy with loads of bones bobbing about in it, with a big hunk of bread. Doesn’t sound much, but it was beautiful!!
Soon after eating, we heard the engines start up and we were off into the unknown. Only the Captain and senior officers knew where we were going. It could have been the Far East, the Middle East, North Africa or perhaps even Italy. After struggling with our hammocks for some time, most of us finally got to sleep. When we woke in the morning we had a little breakfast, and crowded up on deck. And oh, what a sight!
There must have been at least thirty ships all around us. There were liners like ours all carrying troops; there were ammunition and war material ships; there were oil tankers, food ships and humble tramp ships, all gathered into one huge convoy, at the centre of which was the Britannic. The convoy was steaming along in “zigzags”, so as to provide a ‘moving’ target, and all the while the escorts – destroyers, corvettes and smaller gunships – were dashing up and down between the lines of ships, on the lookout for “U-boats” that might want to target us. Above us, aircraft buzzed to and fro, covering us until we were far enough out into the Atlantic Ocean to be safe.
After about three days we ran into a terrific storm (and remember that this was the Mid-Atlantic, in February/March). I think every single passenger on that ship was seasick for a couple of days. The smell was, how shall I put this, not nice. However, fortunately we soon ran into calmer water and nicer weather. Shortly we passed the Rock of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea. From here it was just a day and a half to our destination, which turned out to be Naples, where we disembarked to the transit camp to await posting to our various units. We stayed in this camp for about a week, and I remember marching up to the cookhouse, which was a hotel that had been requisitioned by the RAF.
When we marched up for our first breakfast after landing at Naples, we passed a corner where there was a huge pile of fallen pine cones, presumably swept from the road. As we got near, they suddenly started moving and about 6 boys poked their heads out and peered at us. They then rushed over asking for chocolate, or cigarettes. The Sergeant quickly chased them away, however, and carried on marching us to breakfast. When we emerged after breakfast, ready to go to our billets, we were amazed once more. A crowd of women, with raggedy children of all ages in tow, were waiting for us. They carried empty cans, and pleaded with us for any leftovers. We all scraped our leftovers in, and they devoured it. They didn’t care what it was, they were so hungry. For the rest of our time there, most of us kept something back from our rations to give them. Until then, I don’t think any of us had realised what conditions were really like for the native population.
A week or two later my mate and me were posted to a squadron which was stationed in the northern part of Italy. This was worryingly close to the front line, and all the fighting, so it was a worried couple of nineteen-year-olds that boarded the noisy Dakota transport plane (se right) that took us north. Immediately on landing we were supposed to report to the Adjutant’s office, but before we could get there we were forced to rush to the shelters, as German fighter planes were approaching the airstrip hoping to destroy some of our aeroplanes. After a few noisy passes over the airfield, the Germans either gave up or were driven away, but this start to our new posting didn‘t help our nerves.
Once the hubbub had died down, the Adjutant found us, and told us that they had just received a message to the effect that, because we were trained Fitters, we had to be sent to Malta where there was a Maintenance Unit with facilities for major repairs of the type we were specifically trained for. He apologised for this sudden change of plan, but given our somewhat frightening welcome, we were quite pleased about it.
The following day we were flown to Malta, met at the airfield, and taken to our new barracks. These were at a place called Kalafrana, which is on the edge of the sea. Kalafrana was used as a base for Sunderland flying boats. During our time there, whenever we were off duty we used to walk the fifty yards from our huts and swim in the perfect blue sea. When we were ON duty, every morning we were taken by lorry to our work place, which was known as Safi Strip.
It was just a small airstrip with one runway, but was connected to the main airfield, Luqa, by a network of small cart tracks that had been widened and equipped with blast pens to accommodate all types and sizes of aeroplanes. After about 3 months came the end of the war, and about 6 months after that we were moved from our seaside barracks to huts at Safi. This irritated us all, since now we had to wangle ourselves lifts on lorries in order to have our daily dip in the briny.
A few months or so after the war had ended, all regular members of the forces were given a long leave to Britain. Regulars were those who had volunteered to join – the rest, who had been conscripted, were not allowed this break, as they were soon all to be demobbed. Going on this leave turned out to be quite a journey in itself.
First, we caught an old, slow tramp steamer which went across to Sicily, then over to Italy, and up to Southern France, following the coastline all the way. During our voyage we passed close by the island and volcano named Stromboli, which was erupting at the time. It was dusk and we could see the molten lava oozing out of the crater and running down the sides of the mountain. I got quite homesick, because it reminded me so much of the slagheaps I used to see as a kid at Parkgate. Remember, I told you about it in my last blog? No? OK, here’s a picture to help you remember.
After we disembarked in France, we went to the usual transit camp – I think almost my entire military life was spent in transit camps. From there we were taken to the local railway station, where all of us were given piles of books, cards and games, and ordered onto a passenger train. The reason for these unexpected gifts slowly became clear, because we were on that blinking train for thirty-six hours. A day and a half in a compartment for 6 people – our sleeping arrangements were: one man (the more athletic of us) on each of the luggage racks, one on each seat, and one under each seat. Luckily, this was only for one night. The train stopped every five hours or so at special feeding stations for us to have a meal and a wash, and to visit the toilets. We were freed at about midday on the second day, when the train reached Calais.
We transferred to a ship, and crossed the English Channel to arrive in Dover at about teatime. We were then put up for the night in – yes, you’ve guessed it – a transit camp, and sent on our own way the next morning with our precious leave pass. At the end of our leave we made the same journey in reverse, as this tedious journey was run as a routine service, until all regular members of the forces had taken their end-of-war leave. In the winter, Malta was much cooler, and sometimes pretty cold. At these times, we spent our off-duty hours visiting Valetta, the Maltese capital. Although the war was over, bomb damage was all too evident. The streets had been cleared of rubble, but there were still many ruined houses and burned out buildings, especially in the townships around the dockyard. Our other activities were mainly sporting, my favourites being football, hockey, or table tennis. Football could be somewhat of a hazard as the pitches were made of rolled sandstone and padded shorts and shirts only provided small protection.
Although in Malta there was virtually no chance of any attacks by the enemy forces even before the war ended, we still had to do sentry duty. This was on a promontory on cliffs at the other side of Kalafrana Bay where we were stationed. We were given a day’s rations and taken up to the sentry post to do our guard duty. The rations were mainly tinned food, and included two tins of sausages. We often swapped one of these for a small sack of potatoes from the local farmer. We’d empty the sausages from the tin, then use the congealed fat left in the bottom to fry chips, cut roughly from the potatoes. To make a fire on which to cook our feast, we would use an old petrol tin about 30cms diameter and 60cms high. We filled it about three quarters full with sand and then poured petrol in so that it soaked the sand, which then burned nicely when lit with a match. It always made a lovely meal, too. We were in Malta for two and a half years altogether, and of course we were entitled to take leaves of absence, so long as we got permission from our Squadron Leader. During our first year, we went on a cruise! We managed to wangle three weeks leave on board a Royal Navy corvette. This ship toured the Mediterranean Sea, patrolling for ships which might be trying to get to Israel carrying illegal immigrants. If any were intercepted they were escorted back to where they came from. We found it an excellent way of touring the Med.
Our second lot of leave while in Malta came the following year. We were offered the opportunity to go for two weeks to Sicily, and stay in a hotel on the slopes of Mount Etna, a volcano which was still capable of erupting. We flew there in an old Anson aeroplane that was being used to transfer, well, anything that needed transferring really, between Malta, Sicily and Italy. When we got aboard the Anson, the weather was foggy (dangerously so, it seemed to me), and when the engines roared into life I saw that the wings started flapping up and down! A few of us expressed our worry, but the pilot just grinned and said that this was normal for this type of aircraft, and we should just relax. So off we went, but we were not relaxed. After about half an hour we landed at Catania, on the south coast of Sicily. We transferred to a lorry which had benches for seats, and rumbled off up the mountain road. It wasn’t long before we reached the snow line, after which it took about an hour to reach the hotel. We had a lovely time! We went skiing and explored the nearby woods, and made new ski runs every day. It snowed almost every night, but when it didn’t the sky was clear with more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. During the day, the sun shone without interruption so that we all became really sunburnt. However, so much snow fell overnight that the snowploughs were working every morning to clear the roads.
Anyway, after this I didn’t do much repairing of broken aeroplanes, as there were so many fitters there for the work to be done that I was detached to run the Station library. That job I enjoyed immensely, given how much I like books. However, all good things must come to an end, so after about a year of being a librarian, in 1948, six years after joining the RAF, I was posted back to the UK.
On the due day we were taken to the Grand Harbour in Valetta where we boarded the ex-liner Circassia. We landed back in Liverpool after an uneventful journey, which took a lot less time than the original trip outwards!
Next time, if I can summon up enough astral energy, I’ll tell you a little bit about post-war life back in Britain.