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JIM PORTWOOD'S WAR (Part Two)

by Action Desk, BBC Radio Suffolk

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
Action Desk, BBC Radio Suffolk
People in story: 
Jim Portwood DFC (deceased) - Story Writer
Location of story: 
UK, Germany, India, South Africa
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A6959316
Contributed on: 
14 November 2005

If an op was on they called the pilots and navigators in the middle of the morning to tell us the target, the route and the times we had to be over set points. Then we had a couple of hours to work it out on the maps and check out our equipment. That took quite a long time. After lunch, they had everybody in for another briefing with the various heads of department. The engineering man would say how much fuel was needed. The wireless operator had code messages to remember and sometimes they had to listen for changes to the route and weather forecast. We did not send many messages but if you were very good, you got the job of wind finding - working out its speed and direction and sending it back to headquarters. They’d collect the winds from various navigators, make an average, and send it back to the rest of the force.

Everybody tried to be cheerful, puffing away on cigarettes, so you could not see any of them for the smoke! Everybody I flew with smoked like mad, but most of them stopped — except me. If it was a long distance job, everybody would tense up. The beauty of it was, before we went out and when we came back, if we came back, we always got bacon and eggs. During the war not many people had eggs, except people who had a few chickens and sold their eggs to American airmen or on the black market. It was a standing joke: “Fred, if I don’t come back tonight, you can have my egg.” An egg was so important in those days.

About an hour before take off, we used to trundle off and get dressed up in our Mae West and parachute harness. I could not wear a thick jacket, like you see in the films, because you could hardly move to draw or write, so I used to have my battle dress, my Mae West and then this harness, that trussed me up like a chicken! I often think if I had been shot down during the cold German winter, I would probably have landed in a ditch somewhere and frozen to death! The gunners used to get togged up in full suits with electric wires inside to keep them warm. If it went wrong, they would either get cold or it would give them an electric shock. They managed to keep fairly warm, but it was cold and draughty in that turret — cold and draughty, sitting there alone, keeping their eyes open!

I would usually get on the aircraft about half and hour before, with all my maps, pencils and rubbers. You had to fix them so that when the aircraft did a dodgy manuoevre, they didn’t all shoot on the floor and you’re scrambling around looking for them! The recommendation was to have three sharp pencils and two rubbers, then you had dividers, compasses, a rule and parallel rules so you could do another line without messing about with the angles again. We had a circular calculator, which we called a computer in those days. It had a little band on which you set wind speed and a three hundred and sixty degree direction scale. You juggled with it until the wind direction off-set the drift you encountered and you knew the course to fly; that could be a difference of anything from three degrees to thirty. Quite often the wind prediction was completely the wrong strength, so instead of taking five hours to reach the target, it was three and a half. You had to get the pilot to do a dog leg or slow down, to waste a bit of time so you got to the target at your given time. Otherwise you would have been there before the markers or, if you arrived too late, they have all gone out.

At the time we were smashing up their railway system to stop the Germans coming from Russia to fight on our front. We spent a lot of time bombing big terminus, bridges and oil storage tanks. The PFF boys got there five minutes before everybody else and dropped pretty coloured markers. A Master bomber would say “Bomb that bunch of reds to the left” or “Bomb that green straight in front of you.” So that nearly everybody dropped their bombs where they were meant to be.

I sat sideways in the nose, at a little table. I had a device for measuring drift.
Peering through it, I could turn it to see stuff on the ground relative to the lines
marked on it. You could measure the drift within a few degrees and that helped you find the wind. Sometimes the kit could be a bit duff, you had to give it a kick.
The bombaimer came through about ten minutes before reaching the target, tried
to see the target, and set up his sight depending on the wind we found. The bombs were on about thirty racks in the body and he could choose which to drop.
most of the time he switched them all on — then you lifted up, woosh! You could feel quite a leap. It was all very frightening — I think most people were scared,
unless they were absolute idiots. Some people are really daft, they will do
anything. There are so many unknowns: First of all you have go to take off with seven tons of bombs and thousands of gallons of fuel. If an engine starts to
splutter or you get a puncture and the pilot cannot keep it straight you would end
up in a ditch with all this stuff pooping off. Then the weather could be scary. When it was stormy, St Elmo’s Fire twinkled on the nose and the props made
circles. Any fighters knew, “Zer most be somzing at the end of zat!”

It was such an anti-climax when you got back. It was a fairly comfortable life,
although the place was very muddy and miles from anywhere. Two miles from the airfield was a church and we went to a service once. The old vicar came out and said “I suppose you chaps know this church very well, because you must
have flown over and seen the red light at night”. I hadn’t seen it and if I was going on leave, I was out of the door and gone — I didn’t hang about to see the church. We had a week off every six weeks, unless they needed more people on
for a particular raid. A lot of people didn’t get to the end of the six weeks. As a crew we didn’t fight or fall out. Even if you did not particularly like a person your life depended on what they could do. I see my chaps twice a year and it was over fifty years ago.

On route to a target you had to stick to the height you were given, any higher and it was thought that German radar would locate you very quickly. On our second flight we got over Belgium and flew into a storm. Within minutes the plane was
covered with ice. There was so much weight we could not maintain height. The ice spoilt the shape of the airfoil and reduced lift, so it was rough and the plane shook. Had we been experienced we would have seen the storm in the distance, and flown over it, but we said “We have got to be at 6,000 feet, those are orders.” The mid-upper gunner said there was eighteen inches of ice on the wings and his turret, like being in an igloo. The plane just could not cope, so we got lower and
lower. At one point the pilot said, “I cannot hold it anymore, get ready to bail out”. Under my seat was a trapdoor, if I just fold up my seat and open the trapdoor and I am out. We got sitting on the edge of it waiting to jump out but we had been forced down into clear air so the ice started to fall off. It was worse than flak, BANG, CRASH! The lumps came off and were bashing into the fuselage and tail.

When we had sorted everything out, I looked at the maps and worked out we were going to be fifteen minutes late at the target. You had to be there at your set time otherwise someone would be in the way. The pilot said, “Oh dear, what shall we do about it?” I said the best things was to go back. We asked the bombaimer and he was a school tie chap. “No let’s press on”. He didn’t know anything about the problems of navigation. The airgunners said, “I am easy, I suppose we might as well press on.” They didn’t like to say that. Like me, they were scared stiff. In those days we didn’t go straight to the target, but go parallel to kid the Germans we were going somewhere else, then turn to fool them again.
We zigzagged along to keep them guessing. We had to make up time so I said, “Sod this!” and drew a line straight into the centre of the Ruhr, which was hell on earth. By the time we got there I think all the flak gunners had packed up and gone home, because only the odd gun fired at us. We were a bit lucky on that one.

The bombaimer was a tall chap and with all his flying clobber on he was like a bear and clumsy with it! So instead of stepping gently, he came pushing by to get to his bomb station. First, he would catch my microphone, then, an inch or two on, he would catch my oxygen tube and disconnect it. When I started talking like a drunk, they said “Uh-oh, Charles has pulled his oxygen tube out again!” You don’t realise you have been disconnected and your writing gets bad and your speech gets slurred. “Pop down and put Jim’s oxygen on again”. I used to get very cross but he was a good chap and sorry he did it. He was a mad public school boy, I had never met any others and this was a prime example. His father was a Canon and had had a privileged education at what they call a ‘Blue Coat’ school. He had this cricket and rugger press on attitude: broken arms and legs? “Let’s keep on going, chaps” He was a useful chap to have around and he’d never say “Oh no, look at all that flak coming up.” He used to say “That’s wizard — look at this Jim.”

As I was doing clerical work I had to sit in the dark with curtains pinned up like a tent, and I would look out and think “Oh my God!” and go back and pin it all up again! He thought it was great fun. Some people had done a lot of flights and went a bit mad and couldn’t wait to go on the next one. They were flak happy, they’d seen so much it was like a party every time. They used to get up to mad antics. For instance, we had a tortoise stove in the billet, we used to stack it up with coke and they would come in and drop in a cartridge or pour stuff down the chimney to make smoke come into the room. They were given a bit of latitude; it was more or less laughed off until they did it again.

The second near disaster was on a training flight on 7th December, 1944. On the next flight we were going to lead our squadron and two others on a daylight raid. They wanted us to do a three hour cross country finding certain targets to see how we coped. It was very misty in the morning so we thought we would not fly but off we went chugging down the runway. About twenty seconds before we reached the intersection the bombaimer who sat next to the pilot on take off, said
“Look out! There is a car coming from the other direction!”
Luckily, we had an experienced pilot and, while we had not reached flying speed, we had enough to jump a little. The car was going to smash straight into us but we pulled back on the controls and we hopped over the car and slammed back on the runway. The pilot asked if the gunners could see what happened to the car and said it looked all right as it continued down the runway. When we got back they told us that the car had either been caught by the slipstream or the tail wheel which tore the canvas hood off and cut off the chap’s head. The pilot received a green endorsement for prompt action.

We were hit by flak once or twice which was frightening but, fortunately, nothing too serious. The control wires for the tail ran through pipes the whole length of the aeroplane, unfortunately, one next to the other. A bit of flak went through the middle of them cutting nearly through them both. There was just a shred left at the very top and bottom. The engineer managed to hack a hole in the aluminium pipes and strengthened the controls with wire cut from the trailing aerial which got us back.

The Germans had a few jets at the end of the war. We saw one at night and our gunners fired at it — they think they hit it. When we told the intelligence officer he said we must be seeing things, they did not want to know because it was a bit scary. At one time they told us that if we saw a big explosion it was a flare fired by the Germans to frighten us. After the war the Germans revealed they had not done that, when there was an explosion like that it was a plane going up.

In April 1945 we finished our thirty flights. At this time you would then be sent to an instructor for six months before returning to do a second tour. I asked “Can I please go on Mosquitoes? I don’t want to be an instructor.” “No, you can’t possibly see any action for six months. There are too many people behind you wanting to go on ops.” I went home on leave. After four weeks the war had finished and they called us all back. We dumped thousands of bombs in the North Sea just to get rid of them as everywhere was chock-ablock with bombs. Then they decided to put us on Dakotas. We were learning to fly them, drop troops and pull gliders for about a month when the rumour circulated that we were going to India to take part in the invasion of Japan. And they told me two months earlier that I couldn’t possibly go to any war zone! Off we trundled to India, taking our Dakotas, ground staff and things. On the way one of the
engines started banging, so we landed in Cairo. Our chaps had a look and didn’t think they could do much. So we went to an American airfield where they had hundreds of Dakotas and obviously knew what they were doing. They just whipped the engine out and put a new one in — no fiddling about replacing parts!

We stayed in an hotel in Cairo and we all got a terrible gippy tummy — sickness, diarrhoea and feeling like hell on earth. So we had a few days off there and then set off for India. The message came through that the Japanese war had ended, we sighed with relief and thought we would turn around and go home. But they had another evil plan for us; to help bring troops back from the Far East.

We were based in Poona, it had a nice mess, which was really cheap, and servants rushed about doing your laundry. You would come in in the morning when it was hot and sticky, throw your clothes off and have a shower and your laundry had gone to the dobiwallah. By the evening it was back washed and starched. We were trooping up and down India. We flew down to Madras to pick up the soldiers and wounded that had disembarked there. You didn’t need a map after you had done it a few times because you knew where the bits stuck out, where there was a little lake or town with bright lights. We flew back to Poona and on to Karachi; from there bigger planes took them home. My home was within a mile or two from aerodromes filled with ex-bombers and I was in touch with people stationed a mile from where I lived and I felt really homesick.

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