Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wartime and some experiences

Those who came through WW1 seldom spoke of their experiences, so dreadful were they.

            My father came into this category. So, as children, we knew almost nothing about how he suffered when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). It was not until well after his early death that his letters home from the battlefields about his experiences and how he was shot, then found to be alive among the dead bodies, and brought back to England from the Middle East, did we know some details. He never really recovered.

            In my case, WW2 was a much cleaner affair.

            My children, I believe, never enquired about my part in it – until now, when my younger son, Pete, not only asked me about my experiences but wanted a printed account. I think that most of what I now write is in my unpublished autobiography. But here it is in essence, mainly for him.

            A lot of what I did is of little account, so I will tell only of my near contact with the enemy – which wasn’t much.

            Having crossed the Atlantic in The Duchess of Richmond (which was fairly safe as the ship was fast and submarine warfare still not a major force), and reached the USA in 1940 as a refugee, I was anxious to return to join the RAF to fight for my country. So, when old enough, I boarded a Swedish vessel (Axel Yohnson) in New York to sail north to Halifax, in Nova Scotia. There, in 1942, we were assembled as part of a convoy to cross the now far more dangerous Atlantic.

            Convoys are slow – as slow as the slowest ship involved. So, at some 10 knots we set off with a Canadian destroyer as escort. This escort left and we were on our own.

            I awoke one morning to find our few passengers and crew standing by the lifeboats. The convoy had been attacked by U-boats during the night. There were now far fewer ships in the convoy. I had slept through all the excitement as Nazi sub-mariners beneath the waves nearby had been attacking us with considerable success. Although unseen, I had now been a bit too near to the enemy for comfort, and unable to fight back. Eventually a British destroyer appeared to see us into Liverpool.

            I joined up almost immediately on landing. It was 1942.

            Instead of starting my flying training right away I was told to return to civvy street until I could be fitted into the system. As the weather was so bad in England, trainee pilots had to wait for vacancies in airfields abroad where the climate was more conducive to elementary and advanced flying training.

To fill up this waiting time I took a job as a farm labourer. Rationing was strict and food scarce. So it seemed to me that working on the land might, in a small way, help the national effort.

One day I was in the middle of a field hoeing turnips or swedes or something, when I heard the roar of approaching aero engines. And overhead, banking over the field so low that I could see clearly the pilot’s and gunner’s faces, was a German JU 88 hugging the ground contours on its way to bomb the railway yards at Reading nearby. Why the gunner didn’t just pop me off I don’t know. Perhaps being off course he was too worried about navigation to bother. They did bomb Reading, but missed the railway and killed many young people at a school. I later took a job as a prop swinger to be nearer aeroplanes and gain some flying experience.

Now in the system, I was posted to RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall to be made aware of what was involved in operational flying. From this high altitude airfield we flew Warwick aircraft in Coastal Command. Slung beneath these rather cumbersome, twin-engined aircraft was a specially-designed lifeboat. Our job was to fly over the Bay of Biscay to drop the lifeboats on their multiple parachutes near to aircrew who had bailed out and needed to be rescued. My job in the second pilot’s seat was solely as another pair of eyes. Whereas others were looking down to the sea, my job was to search the sky for Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. These fast, four-engined aeroplanes were bristling with cannon (we only had the much smaller 303 Browning machine-guns) and with mines in the bomb bay to attack Allied convoys at sea.

With wonderful eyesight I saw one of these Nazi aircraft in the far distance. We were as mincemeat had any of its crew seen us first. I switched on the intercom and shouted: “Focke-Wulf….” when the communicating wires somehow parted. So the crew had heard the warning call but had no idea of the enemy’s position or distance. So I pointed it out to the Skipper by my side who alerted the rest. There was considerable apprehension in that aircraft. We dived to just above sea level and at full throttle headed back to base. And what was our reward? We were guaranteed a fried egg. And I suppose we were also rewarded with our lives.

Still waiting to go abroad for my pilot’s training I was posted to RAF Skellingthorpe, near Lincoln. It was a bomber airfield of Lancaster aircraft. Evening after evening these magnificent aeroplanes and their crews would fly to bomb Germany – not always entirely with bombs but sometimes with added cargo such as fake ration books, money, and other disrupting matter.

One day a Lancaster was to go on an engine test up to Scotland and back before leaving that night for Germany. As the rear gunner was unavailable, would I like to fly in the rear turret? Would I? You bet I would.

So, fully kitted out, I found that, surprisingly, I had enough room to squeeze into the turret in reasonable comfort. It would have been quite different had I been strapped in there for many hours on end.

I was allowed to be in the turret for take-off. And away we went. Despite my helmet the noise was deafening. I could spin the turret around from side to side and raise and lower my four, fully armed-up Browning 303 machine-guns. So, had an enemy aircraft appeared from over the North Sea, I was fully prepared (with no training, I might add) to have a go at shooting it down. It never happened.

            My only job in the turret was to occasionally, when asked to on the intercom, tell the navigator the drift. For this I lined up the guns on the landscape below and read the number on a drift scale down on the right.

            Returning to Skellingthorpe all crew except the pilot had to leave their allotted stations and gather amidships. The aircraft left as usual that evening. Many did not return. And the rear gunner was the most vulnerable person aboard. It was not unusual to have blood and parts of him hosed out of the rear turret on the aeroplane’s return.

            On leave in London we were in the thick of it. Trains were brought to a standstill in a raid, searchlights swept the sky, sometimes holding an enemy aircraft in their beams. Then anti-aircraft guns would roar. The sound of bombs was commonplace. V1 Buzzbombs would fly over at any hour. If the pulse jet engine was alive when the craft was overhead you were safe. If its sinister and distinctive drumming noise stopped before it reached you, it was a case of diving for any cover available. But I never got out of the bath for any of them, even though one once stopped overhead in Victoria as I was bathing and hit Buckingham Palace nearby.

            The other nasty weapon was the V2 rocket. When still waiting to go to America I was stationed at RAF Hornchurch in Essex. I had volunteered to mend bombed roofs in Plumstead on the other side of the river. I had been given an hour’s training by a roofer and provided with the equipment and a mate. With very poor quality slates we mended several roofs in such a poor district that I remember a pretty girl smile, only for her to reveal a mouth full of rotten teeth. It was when on a roof (the accumulated Victorian slate dust and dirt was choking) when there was an explosion in the distance, followed by a very strange rushing-of-air noise. It was one of the first V2 rockets to hit London.

            At last I was sent to Oklahoma in the USA (in Mauritania and crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic for the third time) where, after primary and advanced training, I was awarded my wings and a commission.

Few commissions were awarded. But after crashing an aircraft (not my fault) and visited in hospital by the Commanding Officer and Adjutant, who thought that I might want to give up this flying business, I had my chance. “No sir,” I said, “I want to get out of this bed and FLY.” I thought I’d overdone it, but the C.O. on leaving the hospital, was heard to say: “That’s just the kind of young man we want in the Air Force.”

I did sustain one war wound. When having my wings pinned to my uniform by a Wing Commander who had one arm in a sling, the pin on the wings penetrated my uniform’s material and drew blood on my chest. I suppose this might be construed as “friendly fire”.

It was the end of the war in Europe. Fortunately we had enough skilled pilots to fly for us in the Pacific Campaign. So I was grounded to become a Photographic Intelligence officer.

            So you see, my part in the war was very minor and of not of great interest.

            I often think that had I been born but a year earlier I would almost certainly have lost my life, probably as a bomber pilot. I was extremely lucky to have timed it so well.