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Reminiscences of a Wartime Civilian.

by medwaylibraries

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Working Through War

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Gabriel Lancaster; Charlie Conway; Sir Alan Cobham; Sir Malcolm Campbell; Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands; Mr. Elliott; Lord Ernest Hives; Sir Frederick Handley Page; Sir Ben Lockspeiser
Location of story: 
Rolls-Royce Company, Hucknall Aerodrome, Nottingham, Midlands; Derby, Midlands
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 December 2005

In 1938, after leaving school, I joined the prestigious company of Rolls-Royce, Ltd. In their Power Plant Installation section, at Hucknall Aerodrome, near Nottingham. I started as a very junior draughtsman, having a most enjoyable time, as the aerodrome was at that time the headquarters of Fighter Command, R.A.F. and, between them and the Company, we were visited by almost every aircraft in the country, as well as having the opportunity for occasional flights in aircraft under test. This was at the time of the build up of the R.A.F. as war became imminent.

A memory of summer, 1939, concerns my accompanying the Assistant Chief Draughtsman in looking for a suitable large house within a few miles of Hucknall, to which the drawing office could be evacuated, as it was felt to be a target In the event of war. We found a Miners’ Institute in a nearby mining town, to which we were duly evacuated shortly afterwards, All very efficient , until the manager of Hucknall walked in, to find the draughtsmen making use of the bar and billiard tables, which had been forgotten!

In 1939 I became interested in applying for a scholarship to become a full apprentice in the aircraft industry. These bursaries were awarded by the Society of British Aircraft Constructors, administered by the Royal Aeronautical Society and my application was sponsored by Mr. Dorey, the manager of R.- R. Hucknall. I obtained one of only four awarded that year, opting to take it at Rolls-Royce, Derby and starting my apprenticeship in September, 1939 (an auspicious date!).

( As an aside, one of the tributes I received came in the form of a letter from Lawrence Mensah, from Nigeria, saying that he had seen the notice of the award in the Daily Mail and had fallen in love with my name. If I could send him a camera, he would send me a monkey!)

The R-R Engineering apprenticeship was a very thorough and carefully constructed programme, covering every department and lasting four years; it included one day and one evening a week at the Derby Technical College. It was anticipated that, by the end of the time a useful academic qualification would have been obtained, alongside the practical training in all the factory techniques.

Of course, this was a time when the factory was working flat out to produce the magnificent Merlin engine, to equip the new aircraft of the R.A.F. During the summer of 1940, a very hot summer, I was working in the Foundries, and I well remember, whilst in the die-casting shop, seeing men working with a pool of sweat at their feet.

During a spell making sand cores for aluminium castings, when the little gang with whom I was working were working fortnights about (two weeks on day shift, two on nights) I opted to go with them on night shift. This was unusual for engineering apprentices and I was looked after like a child. A bed was made up for me after our supper break and I was told that I was too young to go through the night without sleep! One night I was awakened by an air raid warning, finding myself in the shelter, with no recollection of how I got there, across a shop floor with pots of molten metal in my path. I met an old man on that shift, who had worked with Henry Royce in the original factory in Manchester. He must have been in his seventies but it was wartime and nobody noticed him on nights — he had a fund of stories about the early days in the car and aero engine industry.

When working in one of the automatic machine shops, with machines some thirty five years old, very worn, I was shown how to make parts to within an accuracy of one quarter of a thousandth of an inch. Now, of course, machine tools are replaced frequently, which may be one reason for the high cost of engineering products.

I concluded my apprenticeship on a research and development testing department, which I stayed on as a full time job. The department operated a number of test beds using one cylinder of the twelve cylinder engine, to develop such components as pistons, bearings, valves, shape of combustion chambers, types of spark plug and different grades of fuel. The test bed which was my responsibility helped to develop a new, more powerful engine, called the Griffon, then later in the war years carried out the early work on a completely new concept, a twenty four cylinder main engine, of 3,600 horse power, called the Eagle, a beautiful engine, of Burt-Macallum single sleeve valve design, which was introduced a little late, to be used in the Typhoon fighter, just before the advent of the Turbo-jet engine, so that not many were made. Some of the early Rolls-Royce work on the development of combustion chambers for turbo-jets was carried in this department.

The supervisor of the department was Charlie Conway, a great character, having many stories of his experiences as a service engineer for
R-R around the world. He represented the company with Sir Alan Cobham, the inventor of refuelling in flight, when they flew a Short’s ‘Singapore’ flying boat from Rochester, to survey the air routes around Africa for Imperial Airways. Another character on this department had represented the company with Sir Malcolm Campbell, in some of his speed record attempts on land and water.

Some events which have stayed in my mind during those years include an occasion when I was working late one evening, with a small gang of fitters in the millwrights shop (factory maintenance). The air-raid warning sounded and, as we could hear aircraft overhead, we rushed for the shelter, which was just outside the building.
I was behind two members of the gang, one very large man, one little chap; in attempting to get through the entrance together, they stuck, just as a land mine exploded in a park about a quarter of a mile away, the resultant pressure wave blowing them through, without touching me. Whilst working in the aluminium foundry, with a small gang making moulds for castings, we were to have a visit by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who had escaped from Holland after being a notorious supporter of the Nazis, to be made a senior officer in the R.A.F., being a pilot. On the morning of the visit, one member of the gang, an acclaimed Communist, appeared with a loaded revolver, with the intention of putting an end to this fascist prince. He was disarmed with some difficulty and the royal visit proceeded without incident.

On another occasion, my test bed had been operating twenty four hours a day, carrying out some development work to improve the performance of Spitfires in the North Africa campaign. During the early morning, a Heinkel bomber had been cruising around the Midlands, in very bad weather, leading to an air raid alert all over the area. This was lifted to allow people to get to work. As I took over my test bed, at 7.55 a.m. the red light which signalled a local air raid started flashing: this meant that the engine should be shut down, to allow the observers to listen for aircraft. The cloud base was very low and it was raining. As I strolled towards the nearest shelter with the colleague from the adjoining test bed, we heard an aircraft, very low, saw a twin-engined ‘plane flash over our heads, heard a pattering on the corrugated iron roof nearby (which turned out later to be machine gun bullets!) and heard the explosions of bombs. The Heinkel had come out of the cloud at about one hundred and fifty feet, seen a factory under him, dropped some bombs and shot up the factory with his tail guns, then disappeared into the low cloud, to be shot down later by anti-aircraft fire.
The bombs hit only a store on the edge of the factory and some nearby houses. On that occasion there was considerable hilarity against the Home Guard contingent guarding the factory, as they had several machine guns on the flat roof of one of the buildings, which, because of the bad weather, had been covered in tarpaulins, while the gunners were imbibing tea in the canteen!

My own service with the Home Guard was with a Nottingham regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, which I joined when the organisation was first set up. Between work and my academic studies I rarely had time to carry out the necessary training sessions, but attended each parade and exercise; eventually the Captain of our company insisted that I should take the tests to become fully qualified, consisting of disciplines such as shooting, rifle, Sten gun, map reading, etc., all of which I managed to pass creditably, much to the captain’s relief. It was found that I had an aptitude for shooting, so became an accredited sniper.

I found life in the Home Guard to be hilarious: suffice it to say that the antics of the television programme, “Dad’s Army”, were very little exaggerated! And yet, there was an underlying seriousness, which probably would have boded ill for any invader of this country. I still have the certificate, sent to all members, signed by the King, thanking me for the time spent with the Home Guard; this was distributed when the Home Guard was disbanded, near the end of the war.

In July, 1943 I married, finding a house in Derby to purchase, thanks to my father-in-law and one week later we were able to take a one week honeymoon, when, for the first time since 1939, Rolls-Royce closed for a week, to allow long overdue maintenance work to be carried out on the factory.
We spent the week in Minehead, Somerset. It can be imagined what a rush there was to get on a train for the coast, particularly the West Country but we discovered that the train we wanted started in Nottingham, so stayed overnight with family and were able to get seats for the journey.

Organising a marriage was fraught with difficulty in those times of food stringency, but we managed to obtain the use of a Scout hall for the reception; The caterer told us, at the last minute, that they could not obtain the fresh salmon we had ordered. However, my brother-in-law somehow obtained a box of salmon, to save the day. The night before the wedding we had supper with my mother; as a special treat she had obtained some fresh salmon. When we left the reception after the wedding, we went to the main hotel in Derby, which only had fresh salmon on the menu, by the time we got there. When we reached our house the following morning my brother-in-law had been there and stocked our larder for the week with ………. yes, fresh salmon!

There were British and American army units stationed within a few miles of Derby and Jewish soldiers came to the Sabbath service in the little synagogue alternate weeks, usually to be offered hospitality with a family. The Americans seemed to appreciate this and very often stayed with us for the weekend, bringing loads of food from their PX and enjoying my wife’s apple pie. After our daughter was born, in August, 1944, they couldn’t do enough for her and those who survived the invasion of Europe used to send her food parcels from the U.S.A. for several years after the war.

I had joined the Royal Aeronautical Society, as a Student member, to obtain a professional qualification and, in 1943, was invited, from London headquarters, to become the secretary of the Student and Graduate section of the Derby branch of the Society.

This took me into quite a rarefied atmosphere for a youngster, as I sat on the Branch committee, taking part in the hospitality offered to visiting speakers and meeting many eminent and historic characters from the aircraft industry. Among these, I remember, were Mr. Elliott, the chief designer of R-R, Mr. (later, Lord) Ernest Hives, Managing Director of R-R, Sir Frederick Handley Page, a famous pioneer, Sir Ben Lockspeiser, an eminent scientist, and Air Commodore Rodney Banks, at that time, I think, with Shell, a specialist on aircraft fuels, who had concocted the fuel for winning the Schneider Trophy races and improved the fuel used for fighter aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

Memories of those years, outside work, include a time in hospital, when I had my appendix removed. I found myself in a surgical ward, with the patients mostly wounded soldiers, who took a very light-hearted view of life, playing jokes on the young nurses, such as changing all the urine samples for cold tea and playing endless gambling games of ‘housey-housey’ (bingo). I had an apprentice friend who decided to visit me after leaving work one day; he travelled the sixteen miles by bus from Derby to Nottingham, then another bus to the hospital, about four miles from the town centre, getting lost in the large hospital and finding himself in the labour ward. By the time he got to me it was quite late, so all the buses had ceased, as they stopped about nine p.m. He decided to walk back, as he couldn’t miss work the next morning, sleeping under a hedge for a while, when he got tired.

My future parents-in-law lived over a shop on a main road hill near the centre of Nottingham, not far from the Castle, where there was a heavy and very noisy, anti-aircraft battery. If I was visiting my fiancée when an air raid warning sounded, we would go a little way up the hill, to a shop which had an entrance to a deep air raid shelter, made from an enormous sandstone cave, about thirty metres below ground. Nottingham had a number of air raids but little damage was done, as decoy fires were lit just outside the town; these attracted the bombs, resulting in the deaths of a few cows. Most of the raids seemed to be the result of frustrated raiders attacking the big industrial towns of the Midlands, dropping their bombs on return flights. The same thing seemed to apply to Derby, where only a couple of raids occurred, including the one described above. despite the extensive rail marshalling yards, railway works and Rolls-Royce.

I find myself mulling over the private and more public events of those years; the happiness of my mother, when my younger brother was grounded, for medical reasons, after receiving his wings as a pilot, in Canada, much to his chagrin; the excitement of seeing the protective balloon barrage around Derby in flames, after an electric storm on the first evening of the war; the sadness of seeing an apprentice acquaintance crash his Hurricane, when he shot up the R-R factory, after training as a fighter pilot and misjudged his height; the anger when hearing of the death in action of a young friend of my brother, during a Lancaster raid on Germany and of the death in action in Malaya of the brother of a great friend, who himself survived the war, despite being the navigator of a Mosquito pathfinder aircraft; the pleasures of marriage and fatherhood, despite the privations of the war years, and twice being of help to people in danger from the buzz bombs of Germany’s final weapons. This last being when a sergeant of artillery, stationed in Derby, knocked on our door, to say he was worried about the safety of his wife and very young son, living in Blackheath. They arrived the next day and stayed with us for about eighteen months. Also, a favourite cousin, living in North London and very pregnant, whose husband was a naval commander; we got her into the same nursing home as my wife and her son was born a few days before our daughter. With great pleasure we all celebrated their sixtieth birthdays, last year.

A fitting place to finish these brief reminiscences, I think.

Gabriel Lancaster ; December, 2005.

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