- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Goronwy Edwards
- Location of story:
- North Sea
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 July 2005
“This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bob Davis from the Burgess Hill Adult Education Centre and has been added to the website on behalf of Goronwy Edwards with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions”
In 1936 I joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot, and when the war started in September 1939 my unit, No. 233 General Reconnaissance Squadron, was stationed at Leuchars, on the East cost of Scotland.
Our job was to patrol the North Sea between Scotland and Norway, protecting Royal Navy vessels in the area and attacking any enemy vessels trying to break out into the Atlantic.. In this, unfortunately, we were already too late in the case of the pocket battleships Graf Spee and Deutschland, who had left before the declaration of war, and who would do a great deal of damage to our shipping in the South Atlantic.
Then, in November 1939 the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, started bombing our trawlers in the North Sea, which caused great indignation in the country, in which we aircrews joined. We claimed that the trawlermen were non-combatant civilians, but the Germans said that maybe they were, but they were suspected of reporting the movements of any German ships and aircraft they saw - a distinct possibility of course, so were legitimate targets. And anyway, they were bringing in vital food to their enemy, the Brits.
But the 1940 equivalent of the spin doctors got to work in the Press and on the radio. We all ignored what we did not want to know, and joined in the quite genuine feeling of horror aroused by the bombing and machine-gunning of small, unarmed ships.
One day we’d get our own back on the Luftwaffe.
And that day came!
At 0805 on 29th. November 1939 I set off for Norway on a routine patrol, logging the movements of all shipping. We had gone down to sea level to check on a small Norwegian merchant vessel named the Bruse, but no sooner had I climbed back to our patrol line when the machine came to life to the gunner’s cry of “Enemy aircraft to starboard. Low on the water,” followed by a test burst of his machine guns.
I thumbed a quick test of my own front guns and dived down to attack it - a Dornier 18K flying boat. But he wasn’t moving: he was on the water, so I withheld my fire and went round for a second look. The four crew were standing on the top decking, and the plane seemed to be settling by the stern. (We found out later that he’d been shot down by another of our squadrons.)
The North Sea in winter is a damned cold place — and I might be in a similar predicament myself one day, so we went back to the Bruse, talked to her on our Aldis signalling lamp, and asked her to come back and pick up the Dornier crew, after which we which accelerated her sinking with gunfire, though keeping enough in our ammunition tanks in case we met up with something else on our patrol.
After landing, we went to the Operations Room, where the Station Commander received our report.
“You got the crew picked up?” he exclaimed. “What on earth for? Why didn’t you drop a bomb on them and blow them all to bits??
“Sir!” I cried in horror. “You can’t do a thing like that!”
“Oh yes, you bloody well can,” he came back.
But I was on good ground here. “Hardly cricket, sir” I countered.
“In case you’ve forgotten, Edwards, it’s not cricket we’re playing. We’re fighting a bloody war. What price your trawlers now, eh?”
My navigator and I left the Ops Room in a confused state of mind. “Bet he wouldn’t bomb chaps on the water, said Bill.
“Yet he’s got a point, you know. That bunch might find some way of getting out of their internment in Norway (how right I was to be) and when they get back to the Luftwaffe they’ll be shadowing our ships and homing in their bombers again.”
We walked in silent thought towards the mess, where tea would soon be on.
“Look, Bill,” I broke the silence. “The CO’s right. Life isn’t all cricket and cucumber sandwiches, you know. We’ll have to take tougher action in future.”
“Yes,” said Bill, though rather unconvincingly I felt. “We’ll do that.” And added, after a pause, “You know, I’ve never had a cucumber sandwich.”
That’s the worst of being a New Zealander: you do tend to miss out on things.
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