- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Victor John Flack
- Location of story:
- Blackpool, Lancs; Kirkham, Linton, Yorks;
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 December 2005
Instalment 2 — RAF 1941
On 15th May 1941 I set off into the unknown, destination Blackpool, which didn’t sound too bad for a start. Our parents had to see their three sons go off, one after another, and after the Dunkirk disaster, they probably had their misgivings, but only showed optimism for the future.
We recruits had to undergo six weeks “square bashing” at Blackpool, learning to march in step, slow marching, marching with a rifle, presenting arms and learning discipline. The group I was in had a Scottish sergeant, quite fearsome at first, owner of a clipped, powerful tongue — Chin up, chest out, - GET THOSE ARMS UP!! But we soon found that his bark was far worse than his bite.
Being springtime the weather was glorious, no air raids, good nights sleep every night, good company, most of us being about the same age, - and a complete change from the London I had left behind. We were billeted in boarding houses, a few of us in each. Uniforms had been issued, and in common with many others, my issue boots needed getting used to, a bit painful when they caused blisters, but I didn’t know of anyone going sick with them.
Our rank on joining was AC2-Aircaftsman Second Class — rock bottom. The only way was up, but for most of us that was not to be very far.
So I was in, and it wasn’t so bad after all. Sure, there was discipline, but so often, a muttered remark from a comedian among us, would have us in stitches, and there were many such light hearted occasions to counter the apprehension many of us must have experienced.
I wrote home, of course, and long after the war, I found that many of our letters to mum and dad had been kept.
Those six weeks at Blackpool passed pleasantly enough. The weather was fine, local features to explore, like the Tower and the Pier, bathing facilities at the swimming pool, we even had physical exercise at the Blackpool football ground, and the war was almost forgotten for me. Almost forgotten too, was the daily grind to the Rolling Mills in smoky old Brimsdown, to scribble away like Bob Cratchet, with Bing Crosby crooning in my ear, and feet just short of being frost bitten.
During this period, we had to suffer the medical inspection ‘FFI Free from Infection, this necessitated standing in a line, while the M.O. — Medical Officer, inspected each bashful trouser dropped person in turn. Also, we received our jabs (inoculation) against ATT, TAB, and probably several other nasties. I remember seeing several anti jab ERKS at the rear end of our column marching to the M.I. room, peel away and escape, before we reached the depot, and I wondered if they would get away with it, as the inoculations had to be entered in our records.
So having left home in civilian clothes, the day came when I returned home on leave, resplendent (I thought at the time), in my newly acquired uniform, not feeling particularly self conscious, as so many lads like myself were now in uniform. The garden, I noticed, had changed from looking fairly bare when I left, to being ablaze with colour; it surprised me, being horticulturally ignorant, that so much changed could take place in only six weeks.
Part way through this leave period, the letter arrived instructing me to proceed to Kirkham School of Technical Training, for my four months intensive training course on aero engines... So at the end of my leave, armed with my travel warrant and leave form 295, I set off from home, for the train for London.
The feeling of regret at leaving the familiarity of home surroundings, gave way to a feeling of expectancy. Blackpool had been a stepping stone, a halfway house between home and service accommodation. The Blackpool landlady had prepared our daily breakfast, kept us in clean sheets, and made the right noises of sympathy as we recovered after our inoculations; we could hardly expect the same level of treatment at the training centre.
We soon found out. On arrival at Kirkham we were checked in at the guard room, and then directed to tents in a field. There were basic toilet and washing facilities available nearby.
It was now July 1941, fortunately the weather was dry, so far. We had to dress properly in uniform to leave the tented area and report to the main camp for meals in the cookhouse, and for our training in the workshops.
Then came a setback. We were instructed to vacate our present tent, and proceed to one in a field on the other side of a public lane, - this area being without facilities, no water, no toilet. It was forbidden to cross this lane unless properly dressed, so to reduce travelling time, I carried water back with me when returning at night, which I used for drinking, washing, and shaving in the morning.
Luckily this didn’t last for long. Our next move was into hut 35. These huts each housed about twenty of us. There were a couple of “Tortoise” coal burning stoves for heating in there, and washing facilities in a nearby hut. Things were looking up. The course was going well, a lot to absorb, but the instructors made it interesting.
It was not all work. We had a visit from ENSA, (Entertainment National Service Association), the artists arriving in an East Kent coach, another time Joe Loss came, also Leslie Hutchinson (Hutch). I was glad I joined.
There was a cinema in Kirkham village; three of us went there to see The Count of Monte Cristo. This cinema was located over the Co-Op stores. It was a kind of family affair. The girl in the box office, wrote on each ticket and stamped it, an old boy collected half a ticket at the door, and a young chap showed us which seats were reserved, unsafe, etc, and which ones were available to sit on. We enjoyed the film though.
Several times during the course, we had practice ‘gas attacks’. The idea was to get us used to whipping out our gas masks, and pulling a string, which allowed our gas capes to unfurl from the pack on our back, and with our tin hats perched on our heads, we must have presented a gruesome spectacle —it was hot, to, inside all that clobber.
It was October now. Weather much colder. We were getting strong winds and heavy rain. We had been issued with gum boots, which, now got worn frequently, and we needed our greatcoats for getting to the workshops.
The course being nearly finished, we spent a lot of time revising. Anyone passing with sufficient marks would go up a grade, and pay would go up accordingly. It was worth working at revision, and it paid off, as I became AC1 instead of AC2, so more money came my way. So ended my training course at Kirkham. From July to the end of October 1941, we had been bombarded with information, suffered discomfort, enjoyed free entertainment, made many friends. Most of the information we tried to absorb, is with me still, - I have kept my ‘gen’; book from the course, which contains not only detailed technical info, but also, on the last page, about twenty names and addresses of class mates.
Looking through the book now, I notice that phase 8, called “Aerodrome Procedure”, contains information most useful to anyone finding themselves responsible for signals to landing aircraft. I would have studied that section in more depth had I known that for one weekend in 1946, a colleague and I were in just such a responsible position. Luckily nothing happened.
So after exchanging names and addresses, (mostly now recorded on the last page of our gen books) we said our farewells, and went our separate ways to have a leave period at home, before being posted to a place of work.
The instruction dated 10th November 1941 came by post. I was to go to 58 Squadron, Linton on Ouse, Yorkshire, on 13th November. One of my friends at training course was Ernie Bridges, he lived in Dagenham, and we had travelled down from York to Kings Cross together. We arranged to travel back up north on the same train, at the end of our leave.
So on 13th November we were on our way, - but our destinations were not the same! I was heading for Linton on Ouse; Ernie was to go to Dishforth. When the train reached York we parted, promising to keep in touch. Maybe I would find some of my fellow trainees at Linton. With this hope in mind, and loaded with all my kit, gas mask, steel helmet, side pack, kit bag, etcetera, I trudged off out of the station to find the single decker bus, which I was told, would take me to Linton. It was raining heavily. The relief at finding the bus, diminished slightly when I found that it was already crowded, the only seat being right at the back. Nowhere to off load any equipment. I headed for the seat, feeling very conspicuous, and trying not to drip water or bump people with my luggage. Very little leg room, but it was possible to perch on the edge of the seat, surrounded with my gear, and hope that someone would be getting off soon. It was dark now; the journey seemed interminable with nothing but blackness to look at through the window. Finally I was told that we were at the aerodrome. It didn’t take long to find the guardroom, where I was directed to the ‘reception hut’.
It was still raining. The entrance to the hut could only be reached by wading through what looked like a moat, but turned out to be only a few inches deep puddle. Inside I found a group of Canadians, welcoming, but a little boisterous, passing the time throwing live ammunition into the heating stove, to enjoy the resultant effects, and having lively arguments among themselves. To me, their accents were a novelty, and, as a bystander, I quite enjoyed their company.
None of my friends from Kirkham arrived; the only new arrival was me! The next day I reported to the ‘Admin’ office, where I was told to move my belongings to a different hut, and given instructions to join the ground crew of a Whitley aircraft. My first stop was a hangar, where I met the flight sergeant. My responsibilities were outlined; together with the penalties should I be the cause of anything going wrong. He mentioned that if the cover over the venture of the Peto Head in the wing, was not removed before take off, the air speed indicator would not work, and the pilot relied on that, particularly for landing safely. After the lecture, he accompanied me to a dispersal point, where a Whitley bomber was parked, and I was introduced to the other members of the ground crew, after which he disappeared in the direction of the hangar, and my service working life began.
One of the crew surprised us all one day. We had noticed a rabbit about two hundred yards away. He said he would be able to get it. He vanished into the woods behind us, and after a considerable absence, re-appeared carrying a dead rabbit. Apparently he had been a poacher, among other things, before being called up. People from all walks of life were coming together in the services. I had already met a tea taster, an undertaker, a musician, now a poacher, and in future, I was to be in the company of a journalist and a guy who re-sprayed stolen cars.
Our work as flight mechanics, consisted mainly of removing engine covers, checking for leaks of oil and coolant, running up the two engines, which were Rolls Royce ‘Merlin’, filling the tanks with petrol from the bowser and performing many other tasks listed on a form which had to be signed.
The aerodrome consisted of a main runway, perimeter track, and at various locations, often near trees or shrubs, were the dispersal points for parking the air craft, a hut being provided at each for shelter, useful for thawing out frozen fingers in the winter.
Occasionally a plane would be taken up by the air crew (often not much older than me), for “circs” — circling the airfield, and “bumps,” bumpy landings, I was told the purpose for this was to allow instruments to be calibrated, and to give inexperienced aircrew a bit of practice! Sometimes, ground crew were offered a flight round the field, so when I was offered the chance, and having by this time seen a few one wheel landings, making my interest in flying non existent, I naturally declined.
During November 1941, there was found to be too many ground crew per aeroplane, giving the opportunity for a number of us to be given a week of training for “Station Defence”. We got to know how to fire a Sten gun, a Lewis gun, and a Vickers machine gun, and how to clear blockages, how to charge at the enemy (a sandbag) with a fixed bayonet and a bloodcurdling yell. During this “guarding an aerodrome” session, we were loaded on to coaches and taken round the camp, being shown the defences. One interesting moment occurred when our coach was crossing the end of a runway as a Halifax bomber was taking off towards us, it missed the top of our coach with very little to spare. Don’t know if anyone got scolded for that.
It was during this course, that one of my mates and me were required to change our billets, as we had been using the accommodation of blokes who had been away. There were two separate places available, one in married quarters, and another in a hut which already housed about forty men. The most desirable was the married quarters — houses build adjacent to the aerodrome before the war, for married airmen and their families who had now been evacuated. My mate and I tossed up for it. I won, and chose the married quarters, where the vacancy was on the ground floor.
The two others on the ground floor made me welcome, we had coal fires in the evenings, and books to read from a well stocked library in the house, - it was almost like being in civvy street, although we still had to go to the cookhouse to get fed.
Then I got a letter from Ernie Bridges. He had been posted to 51 Squadron at Dishforth. Not being the owner of a map, I didn’t know exactly where Dishforth was; found out later that it is not very far from Linton. In the letter he told me that he had the company of several others of our pals from the training course. Owing to a shortage of men at Dish forth, some of us were to be sent there on secondment, not necessarily in the job we had been trained for. In addition to 51 Squadron at Dish forth, there was a Central Maintenance Organization — CMO, and they were shortly to receive such semi skilled help as I could give them.
Very soon after arriving at the CMO, and having settled into yet another hut, I found my Kirkham training course mates, and we exchanged news over our tea cups in the Naafi (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute). They were fairly new to the camp themselves, and when I arrived there, they were on “crash-guard” for the week, meaning that if there were a plane crash, they had to go and guard it. Our intensive training course on engines and airscrews hadn’t been used a lot yet.
My friends Ernie and Harold, hadn’t been out of the camp since they arrived on 13th November (we are still in 1941), so we arranged a trip out to Harrogate, which didn’t cost us much in fare as it was so easy for anyone in uniform to thumb a lift, very little traffic about at that time, and no motorways of course.
Number Four CMO at Dish forth had a motor transport section, and I was attached to that, being allocated a fitter with whom I had to work. We got on well, and I had an interesting variety of work to do. As well as doing maintenance and overhaul of vehicles, I found myself towing landmark beacons back to the hangar for checking, and on one occasion I was sent to a ‘dummy’ airfield at Tholthorpe, about eight miles from Dishforth. The purpose of dummy airfields was to encourage German bombers to drop their loads on to canvas pretend aeroplanes, (which was fine until they started dropping pretend wooden bombs). A small staff was kept there, and they used petrol stoves for cooking. The person from the CMO, who usually maintained and repaired the stoves, was absent. I was given tools, spares, instructions, and a van, complete with a WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) driver, and told to get going. I didn’t mind this sort of responsibility, a welcome change from my life in the Sheet Mill in Enfield. At Tholthorpe there were very few people about, and luckily nothing too complicated needed to be done to the cooking equipment, so were back in camp within a few hours.
About this time, I heard that my Aunt Betty’s farm had been “captured” during invasion exercises, making a change from the usual news about how the crops were doing. There was no mention of real wartime activity there, but after the war, I realised that they must have seen some action when I saw a pile of spent incendiary shells, which my cousin had collected, in one of their chicken houses.
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