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From the Coal Mines to the R.A.F.

by derbycsv

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
William Henry Sterland
Location of story: 
Derbyshire and various R.A.F stations in England.
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 August 2005

William Henry Sterland

This story was submitted by Alison Tebbutt, Derby CSV Action Desk, on behalf of William Sterland. The author has given his permission and fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I was still Tupton Hall Grammar School when war was declared and was sitting at home playing chess with my uncle when the announcement was made on the radio.

The school had large playing fields, and early in 1940 all the boys had to dig a series of trenches, separating the fields so that planes could only crash land and would not be able to take off again. All the senior boys had to do the work after lessons had finished in the afternoon. We were given a big chunk of bread, thickly spread with jam for our tea. Some of the boys had never used a pick before, so there were some real sights as they tried to use them.

I joined the Air Training Corps when it was formed and was a member of 331 Chesterfield Squadron.

Early in 1941 a German bomber crash landed in the fields about ½ mile from my home at Morton, and I was able to get the maker’s name plate as a souvenir.

In late 1941 I left school and went to work as a mining student at Grassmoor Colliery, also studying at the Mining School in Chesterfield. Some of the time I was working in a coal seam only 15 inches thick so had to wear elbow pads instead of knee pads.

I volunteered for Aircrew in the RAF in 1943. There was a backlog of recruits at that time and I was therefore trained as an Instrument Repairer. Initial training was at Skegness and took 12 weeks, followed by 13 more weeks at Melksham Instrument School in the Cotswolds.

From there I was posted to Cranwell in Lincolnshire, where I serviced aircraft used to train Turkish Air Force pilots. Some of the same pilots had also received training from the Luftwaffe! Once, one of the Turks, flying a Miles Master, overshot the runway on landing, hit a wall and overturned. The aircraft was completely written off, but he was unhurt.

Another incident involved an Airspeed Oxford (a twin engined trainer) which always had difficulty getting to its destination. I examined it and found the compass deviated when the engines went above a certain number of revolutions. An ex-aircrew compass adjuster had been completely baffled by the problem. When the engine of a Master was tested, two men had to put their weight on the tail plane to stop it lifting off the ground, a really draughty job!

From Cranwell, I was posted to 16 Maintenance Unit at Stafford, where my brother was also serving. Here all instruments were tested before being issued to Squadrons. One of the most time consuming jobs was testing automatic pilots (called ‘George’ in the RAF), which took two days to complete. Whilst at Stafford I contracted tonsillitis and was treated with penicillin in a jelly form. The drug made my condition worse and I was rushed to Stafford Infirmary, where I was kept in isolation for a week. I was courting Mary, my future wife, whilst at Stafford and whenever I got a weekend leave I used to bicycle 50 miles to see her in Derbyshire.

Both at Cranwell and Stafford we all had to due our share of night guard duty. We were issued with .303” DP (Drill Purposes only) rifles and a bayonet. We were not issued with any ammunition because the rifles didn’t have any firing pins! We were not told what to do if someone got awkward when challenged!

After VE day I was transferred to the Glider Pilot Regiment in the Army, ready to be sent out to the Far East. I had volunteered for the RAF from a Reserved Occupation and so made representations to the Bolsover M.P. He then asked the Government Minister concerned some searching questions, which resulted in me, along with a lot of other men, being returned to the RAF. I can still remember both my RAF and Army Service Numbers!

I was then posted to Little Rissington, also in the Cotswolds, to take blind flying instrument panels out of Avro Lancaster bombers, which were being ‘moth balled’, because they were no longer needed. The man in charge of us used to spend all day doing the Daily Mirror crossword and repairing wristwatches for civilians.

In December, 1945, I was sent back to the coal mines. The country still needed plentiful supplies of coal and young men were being conscripted to mine it.

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