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ATC Adventures, then the Real Thing

by The Stratford upon Avon Society

Contributed by 
The Stratford upon Avon Society
People in story: 
Bill Steele
Location of story: 
Stratford area
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A3911519
Contributed on: 
18 April 2005

29 — Bill Steele, from Shottery, served in the ATC and later in the RAF:

[Bill travels to Surrey with his mother’s cousin, an experimental scientist.] “ So after breakfast I got in the car with him, and then he set off somewhere and we turned off this road and straight into pine woods, and there’s a barrier across, a red and white barrier, two soldiers with rifles and a policeman; what’s all this? Anyway he stopped and a policeman came to the window and he took out what was obviously a pass; oh, right Doctor, and I imagine they checked up on who I was, but anyway that was all right so we were waved through.

And a little bit further on there’s this long, low wooden building all hidden in the trees, and we stopped and got out the car and went in, and that was absolutely fascinating for a 12 year-old. There was this big hut, and there were three tables ran the length of it; just by the door were a set of carboys with tubes running out of them to pumps, and the liquid being pumped up, and it went into retorts all the way down this table, over a sort of bridge affair and back along the next table, another bridge, back along the third table, and at the far end is a single carboy going plonk, plonk, plonk. He said well, what do you think of that for an experiment? He asked me, you know! So he took the bung out of this carboy, he said it’s very pungent but take a gentle smell, and remember it - it wasn’t difficult believe me. I said what is it? He said that’s secret, you’ll find out one day. About five years later I found out, it was 80 octane petrol, that was what he was doing, and apparently he went on to do all the others, like 90, 100, 110, to keep pace with Rolls Royce and all their engines for Spits and Hurricanes and Lancs.

I did find out subsequently that he worked at an experimental station on the Isle of Wight towards the end of the war or just after the war finished, on rocket motors. Then he went to Woomera, then he got seconded to Nasa, what is it? Nasa in Florida where they were doing the moon stuff, and he got involved in that. If he’s still alive now he’s got to be in his nineties.

The first I remember of the War here, I can remember listening to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast on that Sunday morning telling us we were at war, and then it seemed no time at all from then, we’re surrounded by airfields. We had got Wellesbourne, Atherstone, Long Marston, Honeybourne, Honiley then Snitterfield. Snitterfield was going to be for B17s; I don’t know who wrote that tale around, the Americans had a look and said B17s in here? No way! You would just about get an Airspeed Oxford in! Then the ITW came into Stratford — Initial Training Wing. All those lads who had been accepted for air crew, they took over all the hotels in Stratford as billets, they took all the garages as stores, and wherever you went in Stratford you came across platoons (flights) of RAF lads doing their basic drill. You always knew because they always wore a white flash in their hat, so you knew they were ITW. They sorted them out at this stage, those who were going to be pilots, navigators, gunners etc, and then they went on to the different sections.

One lad I was with was picked as a pilot, and he did his basic training on Tiger Moths somewhere in this country, and then was sent out to Canada to do the advanced training. While he was still there doing it, peace was declared, VE Day. That same night they were packed and on a train going back to the ship to come back to the UK; the Canadians didn’t want ‘em — get out.

The next thing I have got down, actually, was the night of the Coventry Blitz. I know it was in the winter time, ‘cos it was cold, but I can’t remember the date now. We had a youth club in Shottery, and we met in the school which was fine, it had got a nice fire there, we sat round the fire and chatted. I have got an idea we had something to eat and drink, but the trouble was every time a biggish bomb landed, every window in that school rattled, and then they had got some big guns, big anti- aircraft guns apparently, round Coventry, and they opened up and the same effect, we said oh blow this for a tale, it’s going to shake this place down — let’s get out of it, so we got all our coats and scarves and what have you, and put all the lights out, and went just up the road to the corner of Quiney’s Road.

Well of course there was no houses there then — it was an open field. And we stood on that corner for I don’t know how long, we could hear the bombers going over, droning, and flashes of course going on all over the place, and then we could see these shells, they looked about that big going up, and apparently they were these big anti- aircraft guns, and there must have been enough heat in the propulsion somewhere to make ‘em glow, which we could actually see them going up! And on at least one occasion one hit something — phew! And that was quite fascinating, I always remember that evening.

Dad I think was on duty at the Home Guard, and the greeengrocer opposite got a man and a woman with a teenage daughter and they had decided they’d had enough of the bombing in London, and they decided to come out for a day or two for a bit of a rest. Well they caught the train and got up to Stratford, not knowing where they were going or what they were going to do or anything else. Well once they got up to Stratford, of course there was no hotels because the ITW had taken them over, and they didn’t know anybody, and it just so happened this greengrocer chappie had got talking to them, and he said oh lor! oh this was ten o’clock at night, he said well, you’d better come with me, I’ll see what I can do for you.
[Mother gets involved] I don’t know, my husband’s not here, I can’t ask him, she said, I can’t see them with nowhere to go. So all right, we had one spare bed, I don’t know where we put the girl - oh I do, Mother made me a bed up on the settee, that’s right, she had my bed. And anyway Dad came back in the morning and Mother told him what had happened. Oh well, he said, I suppose they had better stop if they want to, so I think they stayed with us for a week. In fact I did have a photograph of the girl, and I’ve got an idea they had a dog too, ‘cos I had got a puppy and we all went for a walk as far as Wilmcote, my poor little puppy nearly had a fit, because we walked it too far, we shouldn’t have done, and he came home in the bottom of a carrier bag; anyway, that was one thing, and it happened to others I believe.

And then, not long after that came the fall of France. And we’d all been registered by then as how many rooms we’d got and so on and so forth, and somebody came round one day with this older lady and a daughter; they’d escaped from Paris and they wanted accommodation, so they’d been allocated to us. They stayed with us then for the rest of the war I think. It turned out that they’d left Dad in Paris at the mercy of the Germans ‘cos he was ill and couldn’t look after himself and what not, so somebody else had to do that, they just left him. I don’t know (whether he survived) — I never found out. The girl, it turned out afterwards, was married to a Stratford soldier, so why they couldn’t have gone to his folks I don’t know, but they didn’t want them apparently.

I always remember early one morning, I don’t know what time it was, but I was fast asleep and then I suddenly woke up and crump, crump, crump, straight across the back of Borden Hill there somewhere, German bomber had just jettisoned his bombs, ‘cos he couldn’t find the target or something, hoped he’d hit something. Marcelle’s voice in the next room, dirty pigs, at least I understood what she said! (in French).
"Oh, we saw a little bit of action. Dad used to tease me because I had joined the ATC by this time, and one of the things I was quite good at was aircraft recognition, and also I knew a lot of aircraft by the engine sound, only thing I had a job with was a flight of Spitfires or a Lancaster and they’re a job to tell apart. Anyway, we heard this engine, Dad said come on, what is it? He said an Anson? I said no that’s not an Anson or an Oxford, it’s a twin, so I went to the window, I said no, it’s neither of them Dad, it’s a JU 88, and this was in Hathaway Lane. And he stooged across, somewhere over Evesham Road, Shottery Road, heading in that direction, quite low (I could see the pilot’s head it was that low) one thousand foot perhaps, if that, so I said I wonder where he’s off to? Anyway it transpired he went to Henley in Arden and the front (gunner) got a shot up the main street, all he hit was a pig, it was market day and the pig had got away, or was it a sheep, something like that, but he never hit anybody, and then I was told afterwards a Spitfire had him on the way back, so that finished him.

And another morning I can remember hearing something, looking out of the window, it was thick mist, a Heinkel 111 and he was right down to about 100-150 feet coming over Stratford, completely and utterly lost I should think at that hour of the morning. Whether he ever got back I know not.
And then another occasion, same sort of country as it were, I was cycling into Stratford, and as I went down Evesham Road, an Anson flew across, Avro Anson, fairly high about 5000 feet or something in that sort of order; all right that was it, you know, cycled up a bit farther, and he went across again. Well I don’t know where I was going or why, but I went up over Sanctus Bridge. When I got to the top of Sanctus Bridge, I could see more, better view, and he was actually circling, and the Parish Church was the centre of his circle, and I suppose the circle would be about a mile across, something like that, and I thought I wonder what he’s doing? It wasn’t many minutes afterwards, there was a flight of B17s, more than I could count, and they were up 10-15000 feet, and they started to circle as well, then another flight joined them on the next circuit, and a third flight, so there must have been 100 or more, and then they all levelled out, set off in a southerly direction, and the Anson went off northerly somewhere, so he was obviously a marker, and goodness knows where they went to, but presumably across the channel to France somewhere. I imagine that that sort of track would have taken them to Brest peninsular or somewhere there. But fascinating to see a thing like that. You didn’t know why, but these things just happened.

And then…, ‘cos as I say I was in the ATC and one of the things we always liked to do if we could, was to go on to the aerodrome and get flights. You had to put your name on the list, and then you were told oh, you can go up next Sunday or whatever it was, and I also got some quite nice flights. The first I ever went, that was an Anson; we went miles, I can remember circling Salisbury Cathedral.
(We flew from) Wellesbourne. They were using Ansons…, well some of them were kitted out for radio work, so there would be five or six students in each aircraft, sending messages backwards and forwards to wherever. But I knew we flew down — we flew round Salisbury Cathedral, then we flew on somewhere else and, I said we would come down quite low, and I looked down the wing, and right at the end of the wing were three land girls, and the harvester, and we were right down to about 100 feet! The boys were sort of waving, well we did our best, and I suppose that was the end of the third leg, and the second leg and turned round and came back to… And it was the, it was after that trip, that I found out what that smell was that my cousin had given me, because when we taxied up to the dispersal, first thing that happened was the bowser came out and he’s putting fuel in the tank, and aah! Now I know, that’s it — I can smell it! That was the stuff.

And I went one day, I was rather miffed about that. I had gone to Wellesbourne, yes I am sure that was Wellesbourne, and oh yes, they said, you can go with this crew, there was five of these lads; I said where are we going? Oh we’ve got a special job, out in the Atlantic somewhere, mid Atlantic. I said well how long is that going to take us? Oh we should be back by midnight — I nearly had kittens. Anyway they got me all kitted out till we got to the aircraft, and we were just going on board and the sergeant, our ground staff sergeant, said to him, he said, who’s he? Only five of you on this. Oh, he’s ATC, he’s coming with us. Sorry sir, he said, but you’re flying at 10,000 feet? Yes, that’s right sergeant. Well, there’s only five oxygen points, he said, and if you have a sixth he said, he can’t breathe; besides, there’s only enough oxygen for the five of you for the whole trip. So I didn’t get to go.

Oh yes, there was another thing we did too, be interesting: some Stratfordians might remember. The White Swan Hotel in Rother Street was an American service club and American troops on leave can come and stop. And there was a lady there, I don’t know whether she actually ran it, but she certainly worked there, American and Victorian, very nice she was. And they asked for volunteers from amongst the ATC to take parties of troops round on Sundays, Sunday afternoons round the Shakespeare properties, and oh I did that regularly for pretty well a twelve-month, and that was absolutely fascinating, meeting these different groups, often as not just ordinary soldiers, occasionally we would get a group of senior NCOs, and just now and again officers. One Sunday I went they said oh would you go with this…, there was a jeep with an American driver, would you go with him? He’s got two officers to take round, and I don’t know what their ranks were, but they were senior officers, sort of colonel or something of the sort. And we had an absolutely marvellous time, but I took ‘em round the church, out to Mary Arden’s, Shottery and so forth. I had got to know most of the stories about the different properties, who’d been there and what there was to see, and so on and so forth.

I always remember one particular occasion: I’d saved up enough pocket money, I treated myself to a packet of 20 Players and got on this vehicle with a crowd of fellows — got any English fags? Of course I should have said no, shouldn’t I? They had every one of my fags, oh crikey, I said, now what am I going to do? Oh we will give you plenty of ours: I finished up with five or six hundred assorted American cigarettes which were all right, but they weren’t the same as ours, too loosely packed for me!

And I always remember one fellow I was with, he was a driver, and kids all used to come crowding round, any candy mister, any gum? He would take a damn great bagful from under the car seat and was dishing ‘em round to the kids, that was out at Wilmcote, and oh, he said, I do this regular, when I’m coming out, I buy a big bagful of stuff from our shop you know, and it was so cheap and we couldn’t get it.

I don’t remember too much about the Europeans, met more of those when I was in the RAF myself up in Scotland.”

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Message 1 - atc etc

Posted on: 07 November 2005 by nicholas fogg

I was very interested in Bill Steele's account of wartime Shottery (ATC to the Real Thing) and intrigued by his reference to Marcelle and her mother, I've got quite a bit of information on her for my forthcoming book, 'A Town at War'.
She was, in fact, French Canadian. Her full name was Marcelle Rita Jacqueline Marie Melies. She married Quarter master Sgt Leonard Millin of Evesham Palce on the day Hitler's blitzkrieg began. He had to rejoin his unit and was evacuated back to England. Marcelle and her mother made a daring escape on a Dutch dredger from St Malo to rejoin him.
Like Bill, I'm puzzled why they were in lodgings in Shottery rather than with his family. Can anyone shed any light? Nick Fogg

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