It was when applying for another war medal (one that was never sent to me, and not one for gallantry) that I was asked if I had ever been frightened during my wartime service in the RAF.
My first encounter with the enemy was when, after joining up and waiting for flying training, I took a job as a farm labourer. Food was in short supply. I was helping the war effort and experiencing farm life.
When hoeing weeds in the middle of a field, a German JU88 bomber flew over me at just above treetop level and banked on its way to bomb Reading railway station (it actually missed the station and destroyed a school and killed many children). I could see the pilot and rear cockpit gunner quite clearly. The gunner must equally have seen me. But they were trying to navigate in foreign territory at low level so had little time to waste by shooting up a simple farm labourer. It all happened so quickly. Was I frightened? It was far too sudden and unexpected an incident to generate fear.
Then, going on leave to London, and near to the capital, the train I was in came to a halt in an air raid. Searchlights scanned the night sky to look for the enemy bombers. Anti-aircraft guns were in action. But no bombs fell nearby. Was I frightened? I wrote about it to a friend in America saying that I would not have missed it for anything. So I certainly could not have been frightened then.
Waiting at RAF Hornchurch, on the fringes of London in Essex, while waiting for a posting to Flying Training School in America, I volunteered to mend roofs in the much-bombed East End, London district of Plumstead. I was on a slate roof mending it when one of the first German rockets landed in the vicinity. It was just a loud bang. The rocket, being supersonic, the swooshing noise of its arrival came after the rocket’s ground explosion. Was I frightened? I didn’t even know then that the explosion was caused by a rocket.
On leave in London, buzzbombs detonated around with some regularity.
These flying bombs were powered by a pulse jet engine and made a loud, pulsating, growling sound.
If one was still making its noise when overhead, all was well. It would land elsewhere. But if the engine cut out just before arriving, you took shelter – in our case, when living in a flat in Victoria, under a strong table. In a bath one just hoped to hear the bomb fly over. Was I afraid? Sometimes apprehensive for sure.
Crashing a PT19 training aircraft in Oklahoma, USA, was a time when I could have expected to be frightened. But I imagine that trying to work out how to get down in one piece gave me little time for fear. I landed in one piece, the aeroplane in several.
Flying in Coastal Command from RAF Davidstow Moor, Cornwall, in twin-engined Vickers Warwick aircraft, and blessed with wonderful eyesight, I spotted a German Fokke-Wulf aeroplane as a dot in the far distance. Alerting those on board through the intercom, we dived to just above sea level and headed for home. They can’t have seen us. With our 303 machineguns we were virtually defenceless and no match whatsoever for such a fast and powerful enemy aircraft bristling with substantial cannons. Was I afraid? It was simply part of a job that I loved doing, and it did break up the monotony of long operational flights in a very noisy and cumbersome machine. I don’t think that any of us on board experienced fear. And after each sortie we were guaranteed a fried egg in the mess on our return.
On RAF airfields, latrines were in huts dotted around the place (some for men, some for women). One day, at Davidstow Moor, I was going about my business and had need of a lavatory. There was one nearby, which turned out to be the cleanest that I had so far encountered on the station. After sitting down I heard a woman cough in a nearby cubicle. Now, being caught in a women’s lavatory was a court martial offence. It could have been the end of my RAF career if I was discovered. I dressed, crept to the door, exited, and walked away as nonchalantly as possible. No one saw me.
So yes. I really did experience fear in wartime – in a ladies lavatory.