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Airplane Crazy - 4

by susan_west

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ron West
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 August 2005

CHAPTER 4 - Italy

Ultimately I left Jask, back to Sharjah, back to Habbaniya, then a boat back again to Suez. From Suez to Naples, where we were based on the sides of Vesuvius, in a small town called Portici. Whilst we were there, Vesuvius erupted and in the village, I think it was called San Sebastian, we had to go and pull people out of the wreckage of their homes and give them food and drink. I remember we had an outside cook house with a big tent, and a big empty 40 gallon oil drum with the top removed into which all waste food was thrown. I remember well-to-do Italians, probably countesses, etc., rushing up to this bin and scooping out handfuls of this thrown-away food and smearing it over their faces.
Whilst at Naples, I did a little sightseeing of course and went to Pompei. There was a crowd of American WACS, the American equivalent of our ATS, about twenty or thirty girls. They had employed an Italian guide to show them around. I couldn’t afford to pay for a guide so I tagged on to this group and was very embarrassed when we got to the brothel area, because all the different compartments, all the different rooms with holes in the rock, all had a show piece over them, a mural on the wall, showing what position was being practiced in this brothel. The Italian guide, of course, waxed eloquent about this, saying things like “in thisa room they’d a do it thisa way, not thata way” and added to the scene by contorting his arms and legs, which had these American girls in screams of laughter and I didn’t know where to put myself.
Also in Naples I visited the San Carlo Opera House and was fortunate enough to see a performance of Carmen there.
The American Air Force had a plane, a Liberator, a four engine bomber which flew from Naples to Rome every day carrying Coca Cola for the American troops. Of course all the Americans piled on this machine for a free trip to Rome to see the sights. I must say I went myself, very interesting city, Rome. But one day, when of course the plane was overloaded, it flew back over Naples and the tail dropped off. The machine went straight in, blew up and killed everybody. I’m glad to say I wasn’t on it that day.
Whilst in Rome, I followed masses of American troops to visit the Vatican. We stood in Saint Peter’s square while they carried the Pope around who stretched his arms out and touched everybody’s head, blessing them. He even blessed me, I can’t say I felt any better for it.
The airfield I was at Naples was Pomigliano, just outside the city. There was a large factory there, I believe it was Alfa Romeo. The other airfield in Naples was Capodocchino, which I think is now the international airport. I remember the lads all singing “Capodocchino, that’s the place for me, molte segnoritas all poxed up with VD”. Terrible …
From Naples to Foggia. There was a complex system of airfields outside Foggia nearly all manned by American Bomber groups, flying Fortresses and Liberators. We were based more or less in the town where the airfield was called “Foggia main” and it had the longest runway of any of the surrounding airfields. Consequently, when the American air force machines would come back from bombing Germany and Romania at about two or three o’ clock in the afternoon, those that were shot up with no landing gear would land on our airfield, because it had the longest runway.
On the airfield there were hundreds and hundreds of aircrafts of different types, all parked higgledy piggledy, nose to tail, anywhere you could get in off the main runway. When these American bombers came back they would crash onto the runway and slide along, probably going through half a dozen parked serviceable aircraft, all blowing up catching fire. It was an incredible sight.
Recently I’ve been sent these semi-religious magazines from these friends of mine I met in South Africa who are now in San Francisco, California. One page in the magazine is a “Where are you now?” feature, people writing to ask if anyone knows of old friends. I saw in one of these magazines “does anyone know anything about Foggia?” which I answered. Someone who got in contact with me used to be a tail gunner from the flying Fortresses based at Foggia. He wrote to me and I said “yes, I know about Foggia. I used to help pull you guys out of the machines that had crashed”: To which he wrote back and said “well thank you very much” and supplied me with streams of information about missions he’d been on, particularly to Romania, to the Romanian oil fields, to a place called Ploesti which they visited almost every day.
While at Foggia I got very friendly with some of these Americans and being ever keen to get in the air I asked one of them if I could possibly go with him on a B24, he was a waist gunner, and just sort of witness the raid. So he got me aboard and we made the trip to Ploesti, past the top end of the Adriatic as I remember it. But it was very frightening, because there was a heavy concentration of anti-aircraft guns all around the oil fields, plus squadrons of Messerschmitt 109s which came in to attack the American formation.
At Foggia I was attached to Twenty Three Army Aircraft Corporation Unit, whose purpose was to tow targets for anti-aircraft gunners up and down the Adriatic coast to shoot up the targets to improve and practice. Unfortunately many of them, particularly the Indian anti-aircraft brigades, didn’t seem to know that they should be firing at the target we were towing, but were actually firing at us. For this purpose we had a machine called “the Boulton Paul Defiant” which was about the size of, and closely resembled a Spitfire. The original version had a turret in the back seat with four Browning machine guns and it shook the Germans quite a bit at first, because they were used to attacking Spitfires from behind and without getting any return fire. But when the Defiant came on the scene they were shot down in quite large numbers by these rear firing machine guns. But of course they soon got used to it and changed tactics. Now, in our aircraft the gun turret was taken out of the back and in it’s place a large winch was installed carrying about five thousand feet of steel cable to which these targets were attached underneath the aircraft, like a bomb bay. The targets were yellow in colour and were about six foot wide and twenty feet or so long. They were streamed out to be about two to three thousand feet behind us. This was not a job I was trained for but it was quite simple to operate this winch, and ever longing to be airborne I did many, many hours, hundreds of hours on these aircraft towing targets.
After a while at Foggia, we were told to move to another airfield called Falconara, which was up the Adriatic coast, somewhere in the region of Ancona. Apparently they were very short of drivers, and asked could anybody on the squadron drive. I thought I would rather drive than sit in the back of a truck or walk, so I volunteered and to my horror was given a huge petrol tanker. We could only drive at night for fear of air attack and the headlights were masked, so only a tiny beam of light came out. The sides of the roads were all mined by the Germans, of course, big signs up “Achtung! minen”. So you had to keep on the road, not stray onto the grass verge. I remember going up at night and we’d tumble along. One night a stream of tanks came hell for leather back in the opposite direction to which we were going, they were going south. It turned out they were the Polish Brigade and they were retreating from the Germans. I opened a window and shouted out “Hey! What’s going on, where are you going?” but nobody took any notice, they thundered by. I didn’t like the idea of being behind German lines, so I pulled in off the nearest turning I could find and went up to an Italian farmhouse. Remember this is at night. I stopped the vehicle and three of us got out and we had rifles, we went up to the farmhouse door and banged on it, no reply. We kicked the door open and were greeted by shrieks and howls from a large family of about three generations cowering in the corner. “No, no shoot, no Tedesco, no Nazi, we no fight!” and I managed to convince them in the end that we weren’t going to shoot them, we just wanted somewhere to sleep the night and something to eat. “Ah mangiare, mangiare” and they promptly killed two or three chickens and cooked us a beautiful meal. I remember sitting down at this long, long table with an extended family of three generations, grandma and grandpa at the head. I formed a very good friendship with this family. The airfield happened not to be very far away and we visited them every evening and they made a big fuss of us. We had a great time. I’ve been back a couple of times since the war, and the first time I went back and saw the family sitting round the same old table I broke down and cried, but it was a very, very nice feeling.
There were several very young children in the family, grandchildren, and of course they didn’t have sweet and chocolates etc., so we used to take them all our rations of sweets and chocolates and we were very popular. I’m afraid that now, of course, they’ve grown up, and nearly all got married and gone away. As I say I’ve been back two or three times and still kept up this friendship with them.
At the airfield at Falconara the Defiants turned up and again started flying, towing targets for the gunners. The targets were yellow and so were the aircraft and so I suppose that was maybe a reason why many of the anti aircraft gunners associated the yellow plane with the yellow target and fired at us. We used to fly up and down the Adriatic coast and many times shells were exploding all around the aircraft. I said to the pilot “they’re shooting at us, you know, not the target!” he said “right! Cut the wire, cut the wire”. We had a big, big tool in the back of the aircraft, wire cutters, they must’ve been double handed things about three foot long. Instead of bothering to wind the target back in I just had to cut the wire and the target drifted away, and we went down and dived on these gunners and frightened the hell out of them.
I had quite a long spell at Falconara. For a time we were shelled quite continuously. I’ll never forget that the Salvation Army were there in a sort of caravan dishing out tea and coffee to us, even when the airfield was being shelled. They were great people, so whenever I pass a Salvation Army collector, I always contribute.
As the Eighth Army moved further north in Italy, we’d follow them. After leaving Falconara we went to another airfield called Jesi. It was quite a historical town. There we had new aircraft, replacing the Defiant with Vultee Vengeance dive bombers. They were an American machine, built to the specification of the RAF who wanted something like a Stuka, they had the same wing formation as a Stuka but were rather big heavy machines with a 2000 horse power Wright Cyclone engine, with the same winch fitted in the back for towing targets. I did another hundred hours or so in these vengeance aircrafts towing targets again. I should explain that the winch that contained all the cable for the targets was to the rear of myself, who stood up back to the pilot, on the floor of the plane. The winch was a big cylinder, a big drum. At about chest height. It had a rotary wheel which acted as a brake, we would drop the target, to let it out it was just like coming out of a bomb bay and, of course, the drag of this huge target would pull the cable off the winch and you would have a sort of milometer thing on the dash board in front of you, and you’d know exactly how many yards or feet you’d plied out. Then to get the cable back in again, one wound a small four bladed wooden propeller into the air stream. This of course spun round and drove the winch to wind in the target. The wire came off the winch down through a hole in bottom of the aircraft, round a pulley, and back out into the slip stream.
On the bottom of our parachute harness there was a buckle, the buckle was attached by a cable to a shackle in the floor of the aeroplane and this was known as a “monkey chain”. So it came up in between your legs and prevented you being left behind if the plane happened to bank steeply or turn upside down, you would’ve fallen out but for this monkey chain. One day, I don’t how it happened, but the cable got round the buckle on my parachute harness and I was too far away from the brake to stop the winch going out and it was getting very near the end of the line, we used to paint the last five hundred feet of the cable with red paint so you knew when you saw the red paint coming in you were getting dangerously close to an accident, and I couldn’t reach the brake and I had to do a contortion like thing to slip on my side and get off the cable which was round the parachute harness because if you touched it, it would rip your fingers off. However I managed ultimately just before the red cable came in. If I hadn’t done this it would’ve ripped the winch out and probably half the aeroplane would’ve fallen apart.
At all these airfields in Italy, wine, the local wine from the area, was cheap and plentiful. I’m afraid we weren’t connoisseurs of wine in those days. We used to get wine, like a very nice Orvietto, a dry white wine. We would have a primus stove or something similar in our tent, we used to pour the wine into a pan and heat it and put sugar in and drink it. We enjoyed it, nevertheless!

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