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A Leading Aircraftsman in India

by Dunstable Town Centre

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
Dunstable Town Centre
People in story: 
Aubrey Jones
Location of story: 
India
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A7593401
Contributed on: 
07 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Dunstable At War Team on behalf of the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Having sat and passed a competitive exam in May, on Tuesday 5th September 1939, the third day of the Second World War, I reported at RAF Halton in Bucks. After medicals and uniform issue, I started life as an Aircraft Apprentice in the skilled trade of Airframe Fitter. This was a three-year course combined with a mixed programme of marching, drill, school and practical training. Pay was 1 shilling per day, receiving 6 shillings a fortnight; the balance paid when going on Christmas or summer leave. In April 1941 we were told that a shortage of skilled led labour meant our apprenticeships were being terminated. The marks for continuous assessment of practical work was averaged, weighted and our final school exam added, giving me 57%. I was now an Aircraftman Second Class. Pay - 1 shilling and three pence a day.

23rd March 1941, posted to 32 Maintenance Unit, St Athan, South Wales. Week 1 - cleaning lorries, I complained. Weeks 2 and 3 — nominally in charge of six young ladies (WAAF) — embarrassing. They knew what they were doing. Mid June — detached to 13MU, Henlow, Beds, sorting out boxes of odds and ends into matching nuts, bolts, etc. It was very hot, 12-hour days, 7 days a week; I became run-down, developing boils, whitlows. After 3 weeks I returned to St Athan, unfit for work and detailed as an Engineering Officer’s runner. Early August 1941, volunteered for Overseas Service. Sent to Personnel Dispatch Centre, West Kirby on the Wirral. Embarkation leave, given draft number and kitted out in khaki drill. Inoculated. Waited.

Early October 1941 — caught the slow train to Glasgow Docks then boarded the SS Almanzora for a night passage to the north of Ireland, and then onto Freetown in West Africa for fuel and water supplies. Explosions were heard and rumours of German U boats circulated. They were then detected and depth-charged. We arrived in Durban in South Africa a month after leaving the UK.

Seaman’s Mission, Durban — walked along a brightly lit sea front on a balmy spring evening in the southern hemisphere and ate bacon, egg, liver, kidneys, steak and tomato for 6 pence. Next day we caught the train for a three-day journey to Cape Town and onto Pollsmoor Rest Camp for ‘Fitness and Acclimatisation’. This consisted of PE, drill and marching three miles to Muizenberg for sea and sunbathing!

7th December 1941 — after a two day train journey, we set up a tented camp on the Veldt, a couple of miles outside Port Alfred, Eastern Cape about half way between East London and Port Elizabeth. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbour the same day. Mornings were spent transferring equipment from railhead to field. A concrete apron, hangers, storerooms, cookhouse and dormitory blocks start being built. However, our Christmas dinner, and a proper one at that, is served miraculously from a field kitchen. There were no Officers on site; they would traditionally serve Christmas dinner.

In February 1942, aircraft arrive. These are Airspeed Oxford, wooden twin-engined carrying a pilot, a gunnery instructor and two trainee gunners. Each gunner carries his self-assembled belt of ammunition, each bullet tipped in blue or red dye, to be fired from a Vickers machine gun situated in the turret. The other aircraft are Northropp (USA built), containing a pilot and drogue operator. A drogue (cloth tube) is released and towed above the Indian Ocean; the gunners then fire at the drogue and their hits are recorded. The drogue is then repaired with stick-on patches. I was allocated to B Flight Hanger to carry out overhauls, servicing, modifications and repairs to the Oxfords. There was an unwritten rule that the fitters flew on air-test completion of a job. A Warrant Officer pilot, a German Jew - South African Air Force veteran, invited me to take over on one occasion. Accepting, I piloted on a compass course eighty odd miles to Port Elizabeth. On March 1st 1942 I took an exam, passing as an Aircraftsman, first class. In May I was nineteen and in mid July, I passed another exam with 80%, to become Leading Aircraftsman.

The River Kowie, where the 1820 settlers had landed was silted over but there was a blue lagoon we could use for a swim as long as we avoided the sharks! The area was predominately used for fruit farming — oranges, pineapples and peaches. The East Bank of the River Kowie sported an Anglican Church, a cinema and a chemist. West Bank had more shops and houses together with a Methodist Church and residential hotel, the latter becoming the Officers Mess. Almost all the civilian population were of English descent and we were well looked-after.

All good things must end and I left in August 1943 to join RAF India Command, subsequently South East Asia Command (SEAC). Had short stops in transit camps in Bombay and Calcutta before reporting to No 1 Reserve Aircraft Pool at Asansol, near Burnpur Steelworks, Bihar Province, looking after Wellington bombers. No actual work to be done except when a squadron needed a replacement aircraft. In October 1943 I was promoted to Corporal on 2s 6d a day. The following month we flew the unit to Bishnapur in the Bengal jungle. The Vickers Wellington was a twin-engined medium bomber; the structure designed by Barnes Wallace (he of the dam-busting bomb) and was made of strong, slightly flexible, fabric covered lattice-work. On board with my full kit and tool-box, I watched fascinated as the long, narrow wings moved gracefully up and down.

Life in the jungle was not pleasant. Hot, humid, isolated and boring, living in bamboo and mud/dung ‘bashas’. The only normal contact with life outside was the radio kept in the cookhouse, switched on in the evening for the news. The cook received a Christmas card from his wife, apologising for being pregnant by an American Soldier. One of our group died of heat exhaustion, so with only 20 of us, tempers became frayed. Not a happy time. We had transferred to Bristol Beaufighters; powerful, twin-engined fighter-bombers. Rather illicitly, I would ask the pilot if he would be retuning the same day, if so, could I go with him? Standing on the hatch behind the pilot, with my hands gripping the back of his seat, take-off along the runway between the trees was quite exhilarating! In the early months of 1944 I developed jungle ulcers, which wouldn’t heal, then Dengue fever. I was sent into sick Bay before being sent to the Hill Camp at Chakrata. From the railhead at Dehra Dun, I sat next to the driver. Reaching our destination at about 2 am, he advised me to sit on a bench facing east. I wrapped up against the cold and waited. The sky started to appear behind the blackness, then a dazzling flash as the hidden sun’s rays hit the snow covered crest of Nanda Devi, a hundred miles away.

The carriage of an Indian Troop Train was some 18 ft long with a doorway (but without a door) in each corner, a wooden bench along each side and two benches, back to back along the centre-line. At the front end, a transverse bench for food preparation and at the other end, an un-partitioned hole in the floor. The ration truck supplied tins of corned (bully) beef, condensed milk together with sacks containing hard-tack biscuits, tea, sugar and a metal bucket. At meal times the train would stop, a handful of tea put in the bucket and one of the lads would take it to the engine. Placed on the ground in the right place, the engine driver would open a valve and steam would condense in the bucket, producing a welcoming brew of ‘char’. On the second day of leaving Dahra Dun, I coaxed the ration Cpl into giving me a jar of pickled onions for a party. It was my 21st birthday and I had a party on the train eating the onions, corned beef and biscuits!

On VE day I was in Secunderabad on a Junior NCO’s course. Another Welsh Cpl and I spent the evening in town. Returning to camp, a combination of alcohol and euphoria found us hurling a potted plant through the Guardroom window. Fleeing into the dark, we returned to our hut laughing hysterically until the clump of boots from the Service Police caused instant sobriety. We quickly jumped into bed, pulled up the sheets and put the mosquito nets down — they didn’t notice us.

Again, I spent another birthday on a train. I was being posted from Secunderabad to 362 Maintenance Unit, but this unit could not be located, so I spent approximately four weeks travelling on trains or in transit camps until, as a temporary measure, I was attached to 1344 (Hurricane) Flight at RAF Sambre, near Goa. At altitude it was comparatively cool, so my stay from 17th June was a most welcome break. To my delight in the middle of July I was listed for repatriation but fate (or the RAF), had its revenge. My previous unit had moved from Bengal to Agartala in the Tripura Estate, near the Assam border and wanted me back.

I travelled from one side of India to the other via train, paddle steamer, then train again. The reason for my recall? They were holding a tin of 50 Senior Service cigarettes, sent by my parents for my May birthday! On route again but at a stop in the Calcutta transit camp, they lost my movement order. Several of us were in the same position but after some days we took the initiative. We identified the time and date of a train going to Bombay, bluffed our way past the ticket collector at Howrah station, mingled with legitimate travellers for rations and made it to the Bombay transit camp. There a friendly Australian Flight Sergeant put us in a dormitory, put our names in a hat, told us to stay put then proceeded to cut red tape. Several lucky souls were called for a flight back to the UK on returning aircraft. Mine was the offer of sole occupancy of a twin Officer’s cabin on the SS Orontes. As we edged our way out of Bombay Harbour, all the guns in port went off and I dived for cover. It was August 15th and the Japanese had capitulated. The war was over.

In November 1946, I met Ena. We were married in March 1947 at St Margaret’s Methodist Church in Luton on the first day of my Embarkation leave, prior to a posting to Japan. But that’s another story.

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