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15 October 2014
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LIFE AS AN AERO ENGINE MECHANIC

by Wymondham Learning Centre

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
Wymondham Learning Centre
People in story: 
Stanley Farrall
Location of story: 
Cheshire. Kirkham. Stradishall. Haverhill. Sturmer.
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A6048533
Contributed on: 
07 October 2005

The Wedding of Lily and Stanley

At the start of World War Two I was a laboratory technician with Cheshire County Council Health Department. There were six men in my department and they went off to war as aircrew. I was left on my own and was really keen to help with the war effort as an aero engine mechanic, but when I applied for the forces I was turned down as I was in a reserved occupation. However, I did get accepted into the Royal Air Force after I persuaded Cheshire County Council to alter my status from laboratory technician to clerk. I thus achieved my ambition and entered the RAF.

In April 1941 I reported for duty in Blackpool where I was ‘kitted-out’, given a vaccination and the requisite variety of innoculations. Two or three days later, having regained the use of my left arm, I was posted to Morecambe for ‘square bashing’ and intensive physical training. After 4 weeks I was posted to Kirkham for a 3 months training to be a flight mechanic. Learning the correct naming and use of tools, the workings of the internal combustion engine and the general discipline of working on and around aircraft. Having passed the final examination I was sent home for Christmas leave and to await my posting information. This arrived just before Christmas and directed me to Stradishall, Suffolk, where I joined 214 Federal Malayan State Squadron, Bomber Command, 3 Group.

I remember arriving at Stradishall camp at 10.30 pm and being shown to my accommodation by a RAF policeman using a dimmed torch. It was a double bunk bed so I chose the top bunk and was then left in the dark to sort myself out then climb into bed. I was 18 years old and this was the farthest I had ever been — away from home — I felt quite excited. Ten minutes later the policeman returned with another airman who was directed to the bottom bunk and then left in the dark. Having heard him speak to the policeman, I had recognised his voice as belonging to the friend I had made whilst on the mechanics course, but kept quiet. I let him get into bed, waited a few moments and leaned over and enquired ‘Are you comfortable George?’ He was as pleasantly surprised as myself. We remained together for almost 3 years.

During the night the whole station was awakened by two large thumps and the noise of fire engines rushing about. Apparently on returning from an operation, two Whitley bombers belonging to a Special Operations squadron had crash landed, trapping the aircrews inside and caught on fire. The unfortunate crews perished in the inferno and the smell of burnt flesh hung around for days. These planes had become known as ‘Flying coffins’ because of the number of airmen who had perished due to the difficulty they had in getting out quickly.

As a flight mechanic I worked on twin-engined Wellington bombers. A flight mechanic and an airframe mechanic (rigger) were assigned to a particular machine, mine was ‘V’ for Victor and was powered by two Rolls Royce Merlin engines — normally they were powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. The reason for the Merlin engines was to provide extra power to enable the plane to carry one 4000lb bomb which looked very much like a 40-gallon oil drum and was used on special targets.

Having arrived at Stradishall in December 1941, this led us into a very severe winter of early 1942 bringing with it the worst frosts and snow for quite a while. In order that the planes could take-off at any given time, we were formed into snow-shovelling gangs to remove snow from the runways every evening for days on end. It was certainly cold and arduous work.

It was the duty of the mechanic and rigger to service the machine every day in readiness for either the pilot or co-pilot of the crew to air-test the machine at approximately 11.00am. My job was to uncover the engines and give them a visual inspection for leaks in the various systems, oil, coolant and petrol and for possible damage by enemy action. The oil and fuel tanks here checked and refuelled as necessary. Once this was done, and the rigger had completed his work it was then my responsibility to ground-test the engines to ensure that they were performing to maximum efficiency at ground level. If not, the reason had to be found and put right. The machine was then ready for air-test. When the pilot arrived he would have with him a Form 700 for that particular machine, which both the rigger and I would have to sign as having done the necessary inspections, and the pilot would sign when he had carried out the air-test. This meant that ‘V’ for Victor was now ready for operation. In appreciation of our work, the pilot would invite us, in turn, to fly with him on air tests when we would occupy the co-pilot’s seat — a wonderful and exciting experience.

If the plane was selected for a raid, which was nearly always during the hours of darkness, the rigger or myself would have to be present to remove the engine covers, aileron and elevator locks and the wheel chocks on the pilot’s signal. He would then taxi the machine round the perimeter track ready to take his turn on the runway. We were given an approximate time the planes would be expected to return when we would have to be on hand at the dispersal point to tuck the plane up for the night.

All the planes were picketed on ‘dispersal points’ on the far side of the airfield, well away from the administration buildings, living quarters and hangars. The ground-crews and air-crews were always taken out and collected by truck. We had a crew room and the flight office in one of the hangars.

At breakfast, on the morning of 12th February 1942, an urgent message came over the Tannoy system for all ground crews to report to their planes immediately and prepare them for take-off. It appeared that part of the German Fleet, headed by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were moving along the English Channel, making a break for the Atlantic. Our squadron was to take part in the raid on them. The Germans had particularly chosen this day for the operation because of the low cloud and very misty conditions making it almost impossible for the ships to be seen. This proved to be the case, only a fleeting glimpse of one ship was made and only one plane released its bomb load without hitting the target.

By the end of February I was made up to L.A.C. (Leading Aircraftsman). At about this time there were strong rumours to the effect that our beloved Wellingtons were to be replaced by Sterling 4-engined bombers. It happened about a month later.

At the end of March I was recommended for a fitters course and was posted to Stanley Road Workshops at Blackpool for 3 months. This was a very intensive and interesting course. It did have its lighter side however, since it afforded ample time for honing one’s skills at ballroom dancing, one night in the Tower Ballroom and the next at the Winter Gardens with no lack of excellent partners. At the end of the course, and having passed the equivalent of a Trade Test Board, I was posted back to Stradishall. I couldn’t believe my luck. Sadly however, on my return I learned that corporals Prosser and Ford (both of whom I had worked under on the flights) had been promoted to Flight Engineers on Sterlings and had perished on raids.

I had now become a F11E (Fitter2E) and on my return to Stradishall was engaged on maintenance work confined to working on machines in the hangars. This pleased me greatly, the work was far more technical and I was mad about engines. We all had our own lockable tool-box with a very good kit of general tools for which we had to sign and be responsible for during the time it was in our possession, any special tools we needed had to be signed out from stores and returned immediately after use. The planes we worked on were those which had completed a prescribed number of flying hours requiring either a minor or major inspection, and any which had sustained damage by enemy action when on a raid.

According to ‘Administration’ orders, our unit had to muster a working parade every morning at 8.00am; this took place on the hard standing between two hangars. Anyone needing to report sick would report to the orderly sergeant, any new station orders or any other relevant item that should be brought to our notice would be made known etc. etc.

Whilst on these parades, almost every morning we would be entertained by the American Air Force preparing for their daily bombing run — they always bombed by day, the RAF during the hours of darkness. The sky would be full of B29s heading north, with a rainbow of coloured flares filling the sky like a firework display above them. Half an hour later they would all re-appear flying south in strict formation and heading for their target. One morning at breakfast time, word went round the mess that a Halifax belonging to a special operation squadron stationed at the camp was long overdue from a mission and was feared lost. A short time later, our working parade was just about to be dismissed when the drone of Halifax engines could be heard and seconds later, with telephone wires and electric cables trailing from its rear wheel the Halifax roared into view amidst the loudest of cheers.

A local bus company laid on two buses every evening to transport RAF and WRAF personnel to the local township of Haverhill, population 4,500, number of public houses about 20, and a Town Hall with an excellent dance floor and the services of a very good dance-band playing every night of the week — except Sunday. It also had two cinemas. My friend George and I preferred the dances, they were jolly, well run and everyone enjoyed themselves. We also preferred to cycle to and from camp to avoid the scramble for the bus and to be sure of getting there and back without having to walk.

It was at one of these dances that I met my future wife, Lily Whiting, in September 1942 — she lived in London and was a hospital nurse. She had relatives in Haverhill whom she visited quite frequently. A few weeks later I was sent to Waterbeach on an N.C.O. training course after which I was promoted to corporal. In May 1944 Lily and I were married in Sturmer church for which I was allowed a 48-hour pass. My parents managed to travel by train from Chester to Haverhill to attend the wedding which I appreciated very much. My pal George was Best Man.

Being married entitled me to live out of camp, something which the RAF encouraged since it freed valuable accommodation in camp; I was now the happiest serviceman in the war. This meant me cycling to and from camp each day, a matter of 8 miles each way which took me along very quiet country lanes. Every morning I had the pleasure of seeing several Suffolk Punch horses drinking from a running stream at a point where it passed beneath the road, a typical country scene. On one particular day the scene had suddenly changed overnight, quite dramatically. The horses were not there, presumably preferring a less disturbing spot. Instead, on one side of the road was a continuous line of army trucks for approximately half a mile and on the opposite side of the road on a wide grass verge, lying almost shoulder to shoulder, a company of British soldiers, sound asleep, covered by an army blanket which in turn was covered with white frost. By the time I cycled home in the evening they had moved on.

The next morning, when having breakfast at 6.30 am I looked out of the window and was amazed to see in the distance, lines of Sterling bombers each towing a glider. Then the penny dropped. The soldiers I had seen were now the occupants of the gliders we had hidden away on the camp for some weeks and were, I suspect, the unfortunate souls who suffered such a terrible fate at Arnhem. It was about this time that the first 1000 bomber raids began. On the first we supplied 24 Sterlings, one of which was found to have a defective engine when air-tested in the morning. The Engineering Officer called several of us into his office to discuss the possibility of carrying out a power plant change and air-test in time to partake in the raid. We assured him that it was a distinct possibility, as a result of which I was delegated to choose a team and get on with the job. Everything ran smoothly and the job was completed on time. Sadly, we lost several aircraft.

Occasionally we were given a day off so Lily and I would go to London for the day to visit her parents and attend a tea dance at the Astoria Ballroom in Tottenham Court Road. On one of these trips we were standing on the platform at Sturmer Station, awaiting the arrival of the 7.19 from Cambridge when the American Air Force were going through their routine prior to a raid. Suddenly two B29s touched wing tips and began hurtling towards the ground — a sickening sight. Fortunately the crews were able to bale out in time.

The war in Europe was now over — Lily and I were expecting our first child. One day the Squadron C.O. put a notice on the crew room board inviting names of anyone wishing to go on a flight to view the Mohne Dam, in appreciation of the work we had done over a period of time — 3 Lancasters would be making the trip the next day — my name was at the top of the list. So as not to upset Lily I would tell her afterwards. It was quite a long flight, especially since we were not in comfortable seats of any kind, and the plane without a load vibrated quite a lot. In spite of this it was quite a unique experience. Fortunately Lily was quite understanding about it but would definitely have said ‘No’ had I asked her first.

With the over-run of Belsen concentration camp, planes from our station were sent to help with the transport home of ex prisoners who were taken to destinations near to where they could quickly receive any necessary treatment. Meanwhile I was transferred to Transport Command and posted overseas since the war in the Far East was not yet over. I spent exactly one year at Cairo West, a desert airfield some 40 miles from Cairo on the Alexandra Road and finally demobbed in September 1946.

The years 1939 — 1945 was one of the happiest periods of my life. I loved the work and very much enjoyed the comradeship of the times. It also offered me lots of opportunities. The training I received in the RAF fitted me for later life in several ways and especially as I became responsible for a fleet of lorries in the family business.

It the 1980’s a very good friend of mine, Major Rowland Powel Price, asked me during an Armistice Remembrance Day Celebration, what medals I had received for my wartime service. I replied that I had not received nor applied for any. He suggested that I applied. I did and received the Defence Medal and 1939/45 War Medal.

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