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A View from the Back: The Recollections of a Fleet Air Arm Observer 1941-1946 by Tony Inman (Part 2 of 14)

by John Inman

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John Inman
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Anthony Inman Lt RNVR
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29 December 2005

Tony Inman, late 1941, on enlistment

A View from the Back: The Recollections of a Fleet Air Arm Observer 1941-1946 by Tony Inman Part 2 of 13 (Jan-Jul 42)

Our time at St Vincent drifted on, we did all the things that naval personnel are supposed to do, and in particular we did a lot of navigation - sea not aerial navigation -to get us off on the right foot. Pilot training took place at Luton and Elmdon; Elmdon is the site of Birmingham International today. We were given the choice of which one we wanted to go to and I opted to go to Luton and eventually to Luton I was sent. The course was based at today's Luton airport but we didn't live there, we were billeted in a very posh country house out towards Hitchin. I say posh because we used to go to and from Luton airport by coach and once we turned off the road there was a long drive up to this enormous house. It was a cold winter with a lot of snow and we used to have our breakfast and our evening meal there, and in the evening there was a big billiards room where we learned to play billiards and snooker after a fashion. To guard against colds we used to have to gargle what seemed to be about 40 times a day with a solution of Condy’s fluid which I realised afterwards was only a solution of dissolved potassium permanganate. This was supposed to keep your throat clear of colds. It was necessary because they did not like you to fly when you had a cold because your tubes were blocked so that when the pressure reduced as you went higher there was considerable pain and that rather took your mind off what you were supposed to be doing.

Luton Airport was always where we had our main midday meal because our day was broken up. Half the day was ground work and the other half of the day was flying, so lunchtime was the dividing time. I remember the chef, he was a big tall man always dressed in white with a tall chef's hat. He used to carve up the meat for us...delicious. Part of the course flew from Luton and the other half (of which I was one) went by coach to Halton over the border in Buckinghamshire which in peacetime was the training centre for regular aircraft engineers for the RAF. There was a grass field airstrip there and we were to fly from there. We lived in Nissen huts and we flew in the Miles Magister. Now the Miles Magister was a single engined, low winged monoplane with a fixed undercarriage and we were initiated into the delights of what was said to be local flying. We were allocated to a particular flying instructor and he would see us through to the end of our time at this particular juncture. This was the first time I had flown apart from a trip we had cadged in an Avro Anson when we were at Lee on Solent. (The camp at Lee on Solent was only just across the road from the aerodrome and it was a regular thing that new pilots and observers courses managed somehow to get themselves into the air).
I don't know whether I can really describe how I felt about flying all those years ago, but it was the thrill, excitement, pleasure and sheer beautiful joy of flying in an aeroplane. It is not the same now, for in those days when I was flying in the Navy there were never more than two or three of you in the aircraft and you were part of what was going on. Nowadays it is just like being in a bus really, although I must say I still enjoy it but there is not the sheer absolute delight there was in those days.
We flew there for a while learning to turn, climb, and dive and turn, and try and attempt to land but it suddenly came to an end when it was decided that there would be no more training at Luton and that our course would move to Sealand just outside Chester and subsequent courses would follow.

We had one pleasing moment while we were at Halton. As I said before it was a snowy winter and we were coming back one afternoon, there had been a lot of recent snow and we were on a country road which was piled up on both sides with snow when we came across a car which had run off the road into one of the snowdrifts and was stuck. There was only an elderly couple in there and they didn't know what to do and they couldn't move the car. Of course there were no mobile telephones then and they were getting very cold so I expect they were extremely delighted when a coach pulled up and out jumped about twenty young, moderately fit men who physically lifted their car out of the ditch and back onto the road so they could be on their way.

So we went up to Sealand. It was a peacetime aerodrome, so we lived in what were peacetime quarters, great big dormitories with a big coal fired stove in the middle which meant if you were near the fire you burned and if you were not you froze.

The main thing about Sealand was the quite abominable food, no matter how many protests were made it never seemed to get any better so we didn't eat very much in there but stoked up in the Church Army canteen or the Salvation Army Canteen in the evenings. They were called the "Red Shield" clubs. We got over the problem to a certain extent when some of the fellows made eyes at the WAAF stewards or cooks and we obtained a fairly abundant supply of bread and butter which we toasted on our fire.

Another snag at Sealand was that we had said goodbye to our Miles Magisters and had to continue our training in Tiger Moths which as you know are far from being modern, they were a biplane, although they are still going to this day. We also had a new set of instructors. We started off again, or to be accurate we partly started again because we were used to a bit of flying and we could do certain things with the aeroplane although we had to do them slightly differently with the Tiger Moth. To allow for this change we were given a few extra hours flying instruction. The thing in those days was that if you were not ready to go solo by the time you had done about 8 hours flying you were given a test by the chief flying instructor and he would decide whether you would get another chance or whether you would be chucked off. Anyway, by the time the chief flying instructor got round to looking at me I had had about 13-14 hours on the 2 aeroplanes - I don't know exactly how much because I don’t have the log book for that. But it was clear to me that things were not going as smoothly as they might have done. I could manage turns and steep turns and do spins and recover from spins. You don't do any aerobatics at this stage, and I could take off all right allowing for the torque of the engine that pulls you to one side, but it was getting back down again where it was a bit dodgy. I could go through the motions but I was not a very good judge of how high off the ground we were. So there was a tendency either to fly into the ground or drop onto the ground from a great height. In my later years I put that down to the fact that my stereoscopic vision was not as good as it might have been, but I sometimes think that is just an excuse and I just wasn't very good at it. At the end of the chief flying instructor's test we got out of the aeroplane and he then proceeded to give me a fearful dressing up and down because I had not had a shave and then he told me I was off the course and I was going back to start something else. It was very disappointing, but there you are. I realised in the years that followed that he had probably done me a great service because there is no doubt that I would have flown myself into the ground at some stage and written myself off and probably some others as well.

Chapter 3: Becoming a Backseat Driver

There were a couple of others who failed at the same time and we went back to Lee on Solent where we were interviewed. They went through our records and discussed our future and we (the 3 of us) decided that we would remuster and go on to an observers’ course. So we were assigned to the next observers’ course, whenever it started. Meantime, at Lee on Solent we were mixing with the other new lads who would eventually be starting on this course at HMS St Vincent and of course we were the old hands in our pale blue jean collars. We knew the way to get round things at Lee on Solent, to be cheeky to the officers - not too obviously - and to get out of the odd work that came our way because we were unattached.

HMS St Vincent

Eventually, we went back to HMS St Vincent for No 54 Observer Course. More than half the course were New Zealanders. The course went on its way much as the previous course but with a slight orientation to being the occupant of the back seat, so we had more gunnery (machine gunnery), much more navigation, and probably some tighter supervision from CPO Wilmot and his mates because they were only too well aware that this course did not comprise entirely of sprogs but had some who had been round before. They also had the New Zealanders to contend with who were not quite as amenable perhaps as we Brits.

When we were not being instructed we were allocated various duties according to which watch we were in and I was allocated to "J Party". So when my watch was the duty watch, J Party was there ready and we seemed to be the ones whom they could not find something to allocate to and so we made the reserve. This meant that if there was an air raid - as there fairly frequently was in Portsmouth in 1941/2, J Party would fall in on the parade ground, march to the armoury and be issued with a rifle and bayonet - no ammunition because we couldn't be trusted with that - and then we proceeded to patrol the camp on the look out for parachutists. I am not really sure what we should have done if we had seen one (run like hell probably), anyway that was our job. So this consisted of finding somewhere to lurk and trying not to jump too much when the local Bofors gun opened fire or bits of shrapnel came dropping out of the sky. You didn't hand your weapon in when you came off duty but kept it till the next morning, and once when we were falling-in next day I was standing there buckling up part of my webbing which was undone when my rifle, which I had leant against my hip instead of laying it on the ground, fell over and broke. Well, it didn't break into 2 pieces but it cracked at the neck of the butt. The armourer spotted this when I took it back and I was up before the Commander on a charge. I don't think anyone really believed my story that it had fallen over and cracked and I got some jankers, so many days of No 9 I think, which meant you had so many hours per day extra drill. This was terrible, boring and painful. Doubling up and down doing all sorts of rifle drill under the supervision of the Duty POs who had to do this and they used to take it out on us. It probably didn't do me a great deal of harm....

Towards the end of this course at St Vincent, we were told that the flying part of the course was scheduled to be in 2 different places. Part of the course was going to Arbroath in Scotland and the other part to Piarco in Trinidad. We were asked which we wanted to do. I seem to think that I would have dearly liked to have gone to Trinidad, but Betty and I were then going strong and we were thinking about getting married that year so I opted for Arbroath. Although it might not be easy to go on leave from Arbroath, it would have been a great deal easier than trying to get home from Trinidad.

HMS Excellent

But before all this there were other courses to go on. We left St Vincent and we went to HMS Excellent which is the gunnery school on Whale Island, Portsmouth Harbour. This is a notorious disciplinary school, almost like Devil's Island I sometimes think. It was run almost entirely by NCOs, Gunners and Chief Gunner's Mates always with their pace-sticks under their arms and their little shiny black gaiters on, and one of the most horrible rules about this place was that nobody marched anywhere: you doubled all the time - purgatory. We only seemed to do parade ground drill and gun drill. By gun drill I mean with 3 or 4 or 6 inch guns. What good that was supposed to do us I have never found out, anyway we did it. A number of us would be allocated to a gun, and we would be instructed on our individual task - you would be the loader or the trainer or something like that. Everyone would then dash madly about loading this thing up with dummy ammunition and then, when you just about thought you had got all pat, you would be changed around to something else on the same gun, and so it went on, day in day out. We had a PO there who was very bitter because he wasn't a Chief PO and we heard 2 stories as to why he had not made it. One, he said he could have been a Chief if he had saluted with both hands. But the other was some story he told of his adventures in the North Atlantic, he had been on convoy work on a destroyer there and they had managed to sink a U Boat and were picking up survivors. As they were being pulled up over the side, one of them (the U boat captain) as he stood up on the deck put up his arm and shouted "Heil Hitler!" which so incensed our PO that he punched him in the face and knocked him back into the sea. He thought that was probably what blighted his promotion chances.

We did an awful lot of rifle drill. For some mysterious reason, at HMS Excellent none of the rifles had bolts in them so that meant they had a couple of very sharp edges and when you got them on the shoulder and doubled about these edges bounced up and down and were very uncomfortable. This was made worse because it was very hot and the proclamation was "negative jumpers" which meant that we sailor boys didn't wear our thick blue jumpers and we just did our drill in the white sailor's shirt which has a rectangular collar which you can fit anybody's big head through and does not fit closely round the neck. The consequence was that these rifles bounced up and down on your bare collarbone. Oh dear. I then thought I would malinger. I had a bad tooth which was giving me earache so I reported sick with earache and waited half the morning up at the sick bay waiting for someone to see me, knowing full well what was causing it but not telling anyone. I think I avoided enough to make it worthwhile.

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