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Airplane Crazy - 2

by susan_west

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

CHAPTER 2 — South Africa

We got off the ship onto a troop train and headed north, although we didn’t know where we were going. Every time the train stopped hundreds of South Africans were there with fruit and chocolates to welcome us. This happened at every station going north, until we were about thirty miles south of Johannesburg at a place called Vereeniging, which is where the Dutch Boer War treaty was signed. Vereeniging apparently means peace in Dutch.
We marched off the train up the road to the camp and found it only half made. Corrugated steel huts, and the Commanding Officer got us together and said “Well lads, you know as much as I do, they obviously aren’t ready for us! But if you look over the road you’ll find a lot of cars”. There were hundreds of cars occupied by South African families who were going to put us up and look after us until the camp was finished. That was very nice.
I spent almost two years at Vereeniging, it was 22 Air School and its function was to train South African Air Force pilots. We had old biplanes, Hawker Harts, Nimrods, Audaxes. I was working in the engine repair shop, where I probably made my only reasonable contribution to the war effort. These engines were Rolls Royce Kestrels, forerunner of the Merlin. They had two six cylinder blocks. We took them apart, and fitted new crank shaft bearings, new piston rings, etc, etc., refurbishing them completely. But unfortunately we had a plague of internal water leaks in these engines; they were water cooled, so meant that the water was getting into the cylinders and causing misfiring.
One day by accident I made a discovery, because when we had these internal water leaks the block had to be mounted on a special steel stand and sent back to Rolls Royce at Derby for repair.
There were rubber rings round the top of the steel cylinders and it got so bad that hardly any aircraft was serviceable. One day I made this accidental discovery; while “gapping” compression piston rings, you put the rings on the piston after having filed them to the correct gap and pushed the piston down the cylinder, remember it’s laid over on its side on the work bench, and I put this thing in too far and the rings, the compression rings, sprang out, and of course then I couldn’t get the piston back out of the cylinder. So with a bit of thought and cunning, I devised the method of blanking off one of the spark plug inlets, and in the other one (each of them had two spark plugs), in the other spark plug inlet, we put an adaptor and attached an oil pipe to it. We immersed the cylinder block in hot water then pumped oil into the cylinder through the adaptor and the pressure blew the piston out and with it the cylinder liner. We were then able to put a new rubber ring in the top of the cylinder, tapped the cylinder liner back into place and thereby avoided having to send them all back to England for a replacement. This of course saved the government thousands of pounds in shipping these things back to England, and more importantly, kept the aircraft flying. For that I was promoted to Corporal, I should have got a million pounds I think!
While I was at Vereeniging in South Africa, which was almost two years, I explored the town of Vereeniging which was only a small mining town. Having exhausted its possibilities I took a train to Johannesburg, about an hour away on the railway, and wandered around. I once went into a bar in the centre of town and met a large American called Glen Morton, he was in charge of the South African film industry. Interestingly he was, or had been, a missionary. He was a Seventh Day Adventist. He used to fly his own, small monoplane, a light aircraft, all over South Africa, landing in the bush and preaching Christianity to the natives. At this hotel where I met him we had very interesting talks and he plied me with Scotch whisky, which I had never drunk before and got slightly tipsy. After a while he said “well! Come on home boy, and have a roast” and took me in a large, American car, I think it was a Pontiac, to his home, a beautiful bungalow in Park Town, which is a very wealthy, upper class part of Johannesburg. There I met his wife, Gusta, and two very attractive daughters, Ruth and Dorothea, who were seven or eight years younger than me. I used to go there nearly every weekend. They let me drive this car, this big Pontiac, and I used to take them to church on the Saturday, which was their Sabbath. As I’ve said before, my experience with church in the Air Force was nothing more than standing for hours on the parade ground being inspected. So I was quite enamoured with this experience, and sat in the church and listened and became quite interested. In fact at one time I could almost envisage being a member of the church and adopting it as my career. However, I went many, many times and formed a very nice relationship with this family and after the war I visited them in America and they came to visit us in Yorkshire.
However time went by and going back to the aviation side, when we had stripped these engines and renewed them, they were installed in the fuselage and it was my job to tune them. This had to be done at night to tune the engine to the colour of the exhaust flame, which should be a nice blue flame, but usually was bright red, orange. To do this you had to remove the cowlings off the engine and I used to lay on top of the engine face down in the V (remember two banks of six cylinders formed a V), in between which were four carburettors. I laid on top of these engines at night, with my head about six inches from the propeller, with a long spanner tuning the carburettors to get a nice even effect in the exhaust.
I should mention that, as one can imagine, the noise level being in such close proximity to the engine exhaust this didn’t do my hearing any good, because in those days there were no such things as ear pads or ear muffs, there was nothing at all. So I’m afraid my hearing deteriorated greatly as a result of this noise.
Understandably, the South Africans were a bit concerned about flying the airplane for the first time after these engines had been stripped and renewed. So I, ever keen to fly and get in the air, always volunteered to go up on the first test flight. The South African pilots were quite pleased with this, and so I did many hours flying on test flights.
Should mention that when South Africa declared war, they did so on a seesaw as it were. There were a lot of Germans in South Africa, Nazis. Because of the Boer war, etc., a lot of the Dutch people were anti-British, and we had machine guns posted round the airfield to defend ourselves against the South African militia which was called the Ossewa Brandwae.
These people were quite aggressive, and would often attack us with small arms fire, etc.
I remember clearly going on one test flight with a young South African Lieutenant pilot and for some reason, probably an error on the part of the ground staff, we ran out of fuel, and consequently had to land in the bush. I remember this very vividly, because it was the most frightening experience of my life. I have at times been bombed and machine gunned, but never have I been so frightened as what happened after this forced landing. We landed in the bush, the pilot got out and he said “well, you stay here with the plane, and I’ll go and try and find help from some farm and phone base and get them to come and rescue us.” So I unconcernedly sat underneath the wing of this aeroplane, and an electric storm started. Now, in my youth I remember being told, when the lighting strikes and you see a flash you count the number of seconds, like one, two, three, four, and usually it was somewhere between two and four before the bang occurred. The numbers you counted related to the distance in miles of the flash impact. Like if there was a flash, you’d count one, two, three and then there would be a bang, that lightning had struck three miles away. But a storm started in the bush while I was with this aeroplane, and lighting hit the ground and the bang was simultaneous, which meant it was very close, in fact when the lightning hit the ground it was like a bomb, and clods of earth were sent up in the air and it went all around the plane, bang bang bang bang and I was terrified and I thought “ if it hits this plane it will blow up with what gas is left in the tank”. So I ran out into the bush and stayed there getting absolutely soaking wet with water up to my backside. You’ll appreciate that when lightning strikes, it will usually strike the tallest object in the vicinity, particularly if there is any metal involved, and so one would think the aeroplane would be the prime target for this lightning but it just went all round the aircraft. I prayed and promised to be good! So it just makes you think that somebody up there liked me. Eventually the storm passed and a rescue squad came and we got home. But that was my most frightening experience.
At that time I was in the midst of my boxing career, and I fought several times in Johannesburg City Hall on a Saturday night. They had charity shows, local boxers from different boxing clubs fighting. It was always a good thing for them to be able to put on their bill that so and so from the RAF is fighting, they sold more tickets that way apparently. I used to go there regularly and had a bit of trouble, because in the dressing rooms you would get these groups of South African lads, and believe me some of them were very good. I would go in and they would say “ah, here comes the glamour boy! You know the Brillcream boy!” and all that sort of thing. I used to say “look! I’m here to box for charity, don’t want any trouble”. But I had several fights there, most of which I lost. There was a club in particular, from a mining village called Boysens, Boysens Boxing Club, some very, very good lads. I once fought a young fellow called George Angelo and got beaten, but he became a world class boxer. The manager of the club came up to me one evening and he said “you know, you’re not bad” he said, “but you don’t like being hurt, do you?”, I said “No, too true I don’t.”. He says “well, that’s something you’ve got to get over!”, he said “you come down the club, and I’ll get the lads to work you over, knock you about a bit, you’ll soon get used to it, and with that you could be quite good”. I didn’t go any further I’m afraid.
Periodically at Vereeniging we got leave in the summer, and I would go to Durban and several places. One time I thought “I’d love to visit Victoria Falls”, which was in Rhodesia (as it was then called, now Zimbabwe). I persuaded one of the lads, he was an instrument basher, an instrument fitter called Frank Cockcroft, to come with me. We got a train and went through the Kalahari desert, a place called Lobatse, saw the Bush Men, queer little fellows. We got off the train at Bulawayo, in Rhodesia, and caught another train to Zimbabwe ruins. This is a fantastic place out in the middle of the bush and all stone erections made of granite, and the only granite in South Africa was hundreds and hundreds of miles away. How the natives, this is going back to B.C. times, how they managed to get these huge boulders, very much like Stonehenge, into this place is beyond all belief. The ruins formed a concentric circle with passages and little rooms and things, there was no roof of course, it was open to the atmosphere. But later on, somebody flew over and photographed, made a plan of these ruins, and strangely enough they conformed exactly to a slice through a human female womb. It’s incredible. Having explored these ruins, we went back to Bulawayo and then went to Victoria Falls, and I still have the booking slip that we got when we checked in at the Victoria Falls hotel. A posh four star place, and it was twenty-one shillings per day full board. Then we explored the falls, a fantastic sight. It’s the Zambezi river, and apparently it was Livingstone who had discovered it. David Livingstone, coming down the river in his canoe, saw what appeared to be a forest fire, a large pall of smoke. So fortunately he pulled into the side of the river to examine it more closely. It wasn’t smoke, it was steam from the falls where this huge river goes over and drops an incredible distance to the gorge below. Had he gone over of course, that would’ve been the end of it.
The gorge was inhabited by scores of baboons, and I was all for going down to have a look of them, but my guide said “no, no, no” he said “ they’ll tear you to pieces”. So we went back to Bulawayo where we stayed with some South African people, and we were saying we’ve still got seven days leave yet and we don’t know where to go. They said “well there’s one place where you shouldn’t go”, and I said “well, where’s that?”, “Beira, in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)!” which was not too far distant from Rhodesia. I said “well, why?” he said “well, because when South Africa declared war, all the Nazis in the countries fled to Portuguese East Africa”, which was of course a neutral country. They said “don’t go there, you’ll get murdered if you go there”. So of course that is the first place we went to! Well, we got on the train and some time during the night, the ticket collector came round, and I mistakenly pulled out my British passport, instead of the ticket, it had a picture of me in uniform in the passport. That was it. When we got to Beira, on the coast of Portuguese East Africa, we were met by police who took us to the local jail and shoved us inside. We were there for two or three days, they thought we were fifth columnists or something.
Eventually a party came down, they sent an armed guard from our place in Vereeniging, to pick us up and escort us back. We had to go in front of the commanding officer; I’ll never forget, he said “what’s your defence, what’s your story?”, “well sir, realising the seriousness of this offence, I’ve decided to put my defence in writing. I wonder if you would read that.” I gave him two or three pages of foolscap that I’d written down. I remember him taking his cap off, he was a Group Captain, he put his cap on the desk, put his feet up on the desk and read this for ten, fifteen minutes. I’d put down how we were fed up of being in South Africa, far away from the war, we wanted some action and we’d heard that there were Nazis in Portuguese East Africa and we’d thought we’d go there and have a go.
He said “well, I may be wrong... but good luck to you!” and shook hands with us and said “I wish we had more like you!” he said “seven days leave refunded!” for the seven days we’d spent in prison, seven days leave refunded. Wasn’t that great?
Whilst in South Africa, this must have been in 1942, one read about the terrible losses that Bomber Command had endured during bombing Germany. So I applied several times for air crew and never heard anything. I went to Pretoria once on a medical board, never heard another thing and I thought “I must’ve failed medically…”.
After the war, when I was given my records, I saw 1942 Pretoria Air Crew selection board, especially recommended as a pilot. But I never got it. Again I wonder sometimes how we ever won the war?

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