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15 October 2014
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My Training and Operational Duties in the RAFicon for Recommended story

by rafshropshirelad

Contributed by 
rafshropshirelad
Location of story: 
East Anglia
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4292741
Contributed on: 
28 June 2005

I volunteered for Service in the Royal Air Force in the early months of 1942 shortly after my eighteen birthday. I volunteered for Aircrew and attended a selection board in Birmingham and was selected for training as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (WOP/AG)(this was on 23 March 1942, and I was sent home on deferred service (awaiting training)

I was called for duty in August 1942 but my future training would now be as a Flight Engineer; there was a shortage of personnel to fill this position in the four engined bombers, which were now coming into operational service in greater numbers. Originally many trained aircraft fitters were converted to this crew position, however this practice couldn't continue for ever, it would mean a shortage of highly trained technicians in ground crew.

I undertook my basic ground training at RAF Padgate and Blackpool; here we followed the standard initial training, firearm training, drill. In Blackpool we weren't stationed at an RAF camp, but were billeted in Boarding Houses and generally assisted in household chores and had to return by 2200 at night. Physical training (PT) was carried out on the beaches early in the mornings, many of the instructors were ranked as Corporal PT and were well known sportsmen, Stanley Matthews and Eric Boon for example. If I remember correctly, our daily pay was 3 shillings (30pence) but 1 shilling a day was deducted to send home. You can imagine, even in those days in the summer at Blackpool, 42shillings a fortnight did not go far!

In early October 1942 I was posted to RAF Locking, near Weston Super Mareto train as a Flight Mechanic (Engines) this course was to last until February 1943. Initial training was first of all in the use of hand tools files, hand drills, micrometers, verniers etc. One of the first tasks we were given was to file accurate measurements, a block of metal, this was not as easy as it might sound, especially if like me, you had no experience in this type of task. Perseverance, however by all of us prevailed and progress continued over the following months; we even stripped down to basic parts a radial aircraft engine, rebuilt in and then had to test run it. The final examination consisted 'of written papers and an oral examination in identifying various engine parts, including a booby, and one that nobody seemed to know; eventually someone identified it - information was passed on to later candidates. Most of us passed out as Aircraftsman 2nd Class (A/C2) but one genius became Leading Aircraftsman 1st Class (LAC). Finally, the time came to move on for further training; those of us training for aircrew, were posted to No4 S. of T.T. RAF St.Athan in South Wales, we were issued with a White Flash to wear in our side cap which indicated we were training for Aircrew (glory boys).

St.Athan at this time was one of the largest stations in the Royal Air Force. It consisted of two camps, known as East and West Camp; these were divided by the airfield, training was generally carried out in the East Camp; West Camp was mainly used for general maintenance, known as a Maintenance Unit. I commenced training there in February 1943 and successfully completed the course in July, was awarded the Flight Engineer's brevet and the rank of Sergeant.

The first few weeks of this course took into account the initial training I had received and as I'd trained as an engine mechanic, this meant I received further training in subjects allied to airframes, hydraulics, electrics, etc. Finally the big day arrived when we were allocated (or volunteered) for the aircraft we would like to see operational service. I cannot remember exactly how many personnel were on the course, but five of us were good friends. Four of us passed the final course, sadly one failed. I volunteered to go on Stirlings, two were nominated for Halifaxes and one on Lancasters (most of the course wanted Lancasters, however choice was not granted to all) During the course we all were sent on a "makers course" these were in various parts of the country and generally in factories where the various aircraft were bring built. I went to Elmdon, Birmingham where Stirlings were being built. The main course covered all aspects of the aircraft and lectures were very comprehensive.

We finally underwent training in an aircraft that was tethered to the ground and carried out many engine runs, operated various parts of the systems (not the undercarriage of course!!) To the best of my recollection, we did not fly in our choice of aircraft whilst at St,Athan. This course marked the end of my ground training and I was posted from St.Athan, now in the rank of Sergeant to 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit (H.C.U.) which was located at RAF Woolfox Lodge in the County of Rutland. The airfield was located a few miles West of the Great North Road, and the nearest railway station was Stamford. Here I would begin my flying training and become a member of a crew of seven personnel. Pilot, Navigator, Bomb Aimer, Flight Engineer, Wireless operator, Mid Upper Gunner and Rear Gunner. Five personnel would already have formed a crew and would have completed flying training on two engined bombers, normally the Wellington at another unit, they would need to add two members to their crew, viz., me as their Engineer and a new Gunner, for the Mid upper position. Generally the choice was left to the individuals, somehow either they chose me or I must have chosen them, it happened and we all got on very well with each other, our training awaited us.

My first flight on a Stirling four engined bomber was on the 29th July 1943 and we were airborne for just over two hours. This was with my new crew and the pilot in charge was an instructor; these instructional flights carried on until the 2nd August when my pilot and the rest of us were considered ready to go solo; further periods of daylight circuit work were carried out until 15th August. On that day we commenced night flying, which would have been with an instructor. After three hours of circuits and landings we were sent solo, continuing with circuits and landings for an hour and a half. Further night flying training continued on circuit work until 17th August, and transferred to another flight for training in cross country day flying. This involved two sorties of just over six hours, followed by night flying exercise of nearly five hours.

We left 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit as a qualified crew ready to undertake operations and we were posted to 149 Squadron then located at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk (a wartime airfield). Basic accommodation, mostly Nissan huts, etc., 149 Squadron had initially been formed as a flight at RAF Mildenhall as an offshoot of 15 Squadron. There were two Squadrons at Lakenheath, 149 and 199. We were checked out as a crew, two short daytime flights, followed by night flying on what was known as a "Bullseye". Thus was planned to simulate as close as possible to resemble an operational night flight. Two nights later we went on our first operational flight to the sea area around the Frisian Islands (Off the Dutch/German coast). These were known as "Gardening Flights" and as such all mine laying flights were given this title. We completed this flight successfully, and no doubt returned very happy to base. Even the first flight could have been our last. Just over a month later, a friend of mine from St.Athan, plus his crew failed to return from such a trip, they survived but were prisoners of war..

On the night of 4th September, l943 we undertook our second mine laying operation, this was to the sea area at the mouth of the Gironde river, in South West France, generally known as a trip to Bordeaux. This was followed in the same month with three further operations to targets in France, mostly to the area near the Italian border, one being at Modane where a tunnel went through the mountains.

In October we only carried out two raids one was a further mining rid to the sea area known as the Kattegat, between Denmark and Germany. The other was to Bremen, this trip we went in early to back up (Pathfinder force (PFF). The remainder of the month we continued with practice flying. Bombing practice Low flying, fighter affiliation. In November '43 we carried out three raids, the first was to Mannheim, second to Leverkusen (where we were hit by Flak) both of these targets were in the area of the Ruhr. This was known as "Happy Valley" to most of us; it was one of the most highly defended areas in the Third Reich. We also carried out a raid on Berlin, this took nearly seven hours. The rest on the month again was taken up by continuation training and the odd visit to other airfields. The month of December was generally quiet for operational flying, I see we carried out three Night Flying Tests (NFT) which were generally flown prior to scheduled raids, perhaps therefore weather could have been a factor. However one Gardening raid was made on the 31st December. This was an unusual type of mine laying classed as a high level gardening raid.

We were tasked to carry out a mine laying operation against a blockade runner which had become unserviceable at the mouth of the Gironde River from what I can remember, it was attempting to enter the river en route to Bordeaux and was carrying a load of rubber from the Far East. We were to drop our delayed action mines with several other aircraft involved. The enemy had naval ships in the area acting as protection, plus anti-aircraft guns which were on trains. In all there was quite a barrage phased against us, not all aircraft returned.

January 1944 was also a quiet month for our crew - we only carried out one operational trip; this was a gardening (mine laying trip) to the area known as Kiel Bay, this took just over six hours. The remainder of the month we carried out several Night flying tests (NFT) this could indicate that operational raids were planned but possibly cancelled. Furthermore it may have been around this time that the Stirling aircraft was being withdrawn from taking part in "Main Force" duties. The aircraft couldn't overall carry out raids at the operational heights that the other two aircraft, especially the Lancaster. The losses suffered by the Stirling Squadrons were generally higher; some of the Squadrons were converted to Lancasters. Others like 199 went on to Special duties and moved from Lakenheath. My Squadron was transferred also to Special duties and remained at Lakenheath. These new raids were classified as Secret (at that time) and involved fairly long low level flights over occupied Europe (in our case mostly France). We were involved in supplying the French resistance with means to carry out their functions. This meant dropping containers from very low level (at night).

We operated only during the Moon phases, before and after a Full Moon and at very low level - this involved accurate navigation and we flew as individual aircraft, often when Main Force was not involved. These trips were made under great secrecy, naturally those at the receiving end of the mission were under great risk. We were given the position of the dropping Zone (D.Z.) which would normally be a field possibly three or four hours away in France. If we arrived at the correct area and received the correct Morse Letter flashed to us from the ground, we could drop from low level. If the Morse letter was incorrect or not seen, we were normally given an alternate site, otherwise we brought the containers back to base. We would generally find out later why a drop was cancelled, very often the Enemy had found out. Navigation had to be of a very high standard, we operated without assistance from aids, and at low level and at night (even in Moonlight) especially in Winter flying over snow covered ground many identifying features were covered in snow, furthermore at times we crossed enemy airfields thus drawing low level Flak and even gunfire. We carried out three trips to France in February '44 and a further three in March plus four normal raids in April our crew was quite busy, we carried out seven trips, three special to the resistance (all around seven hours)two gardening (mine laying) two further raids also.

On the 13th April (I was now commissioned and a Pilot Officer) I was in the Mess and answered the phone I identified myself and the person on the other end realised who I was asked me if I would volunteer to take the place of another Engineer who was tasked that night to fly on a Gardening raid to the area of Biscay (near Bordeaux). I think it was the crew's second or third trip, they couldn't go without the engineer, he just decided not to go. I told the Senior Officer on the phone I would if my Skipper agreed-obviously he left it to me, so I went..

This would have been my 23rd trip, very often operational trips with other crews as a spare "bod" became a disaster, this was very nearly so for me! We set course for France, coasted out over the English Channel, crossed over Caen and the Brest Peninsular and out over the Bay of Biscay. Odd amount of Flak, often from ships in the Bay. I noticed the port outer engine had increased oil pressure plus a significant rise in temperature. I diagnosed coring of the oil cooler, which meant we had to switch off the engine. We had a full load of mines, and the Stirling was not too happy on three engines plus a full load of mines. So we had to abort the trip and return to base.

I suggested to the skipper we should drop the mines there and then, but he wished to take them home, so with a full load and on three we struggled back to UK. We had been airborne for about an hour, so it meant that, I would have to jettison fuel later before landing otherwise we would be too heavy. The Stirling has 14 fuel tanks, seven in each wing. You took off on the main tanks No 2 and 4 also landed on those, and they also were the only tanks from which you could jettison. It was going to be an interesting experience to say the least. We were going to land with a full load of mines, on three engines which meant we could not overshoot (make a second attempt)We were the only aircraft in the circuit when we arrived at base, the pilot was not very experienced on Stirlings, but made the best three engined landing I had seen. What a relief - no more volunteering for me.

During some of the sorties to France one remains very clear in my mind. We were tasked as usual to deliver canisters to the marquis these were normally dropped by parachute from the bomb bay of the aircraft. Sometimes on these sorties we also had to drop a container which was carried inside the aircraft. This involved man handling the container and usually I co-opted the mid upper gunner to assist me in the task of dropping this large container through the rear escape hatch in the floor of the aircraft. It was quite a task, in the dark, the aircraft rolling and shaking and having to maneuver this large package made if even worse. This time was different from all the other sorties, it was an area we had not been to before, were we operating this night in the region of South East France in the alps, very close to Swiss border, and we could see the town lights on in Switzerland. This time we were dropping to a resistance group located high in the mountains, well away from the enemy, they had lit large bonfires to aid our drop We were able to see the men on the ground very clearly, I was also dawn at the rear of the aircraft with the hatch open dropping the large container and as we were still at low level above this large plateau we had a very clear view of the resistance. We were told later that this resistance group had been a thorn in the side of the enemy for quite some time ,but the area of their operations high up in the mountains was almost unassailable.

The month of May proved to be the last one of operational duties, we carried out two further secret sorties, both around seven hours duration. Also one final mining trip of 7 1/2 hours to the area of the Bay of Biscay (borders of France and Spain). As a crew we completed 33 sorties. We were then split up as a crew, It took a while to get used to being on your own again. I for one certainly missed the close bond that held us together; as a crew we tended to work and play together, we were quite a mixture with one Australian, two New Zealanders' one Scot and three English. Our navigator (from North Island, New Zealand)earned the title of "POP and he was the oldest in the crew.

I was eventually reposted to a Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) and instructed on Stirlings until November 1944 and then converted on to Lancasters, I continued instructing until October 1945 when I was made redundant and eventually posted to the Far East.

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