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Winding down the RAF War

by ken porter

Contributed by 
ken porter
People in story: 
Ken Porter
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 March 2004

From ATC cadet to College Student to RAF Navigator/Radar

After four years of Rolls Royce apprenticeship building Merlin engines, and ATC cadetship, where I reached the rank of Flight Sergeant, I was awarded an Air Ministry Science Scholarship tenable at St. Andrews University in Fife.

That first journey away from home in October 1944 was not uneventful. With my R.A.F. travel pass I took a train firstly to Grimsby,Lincolnshire to visit Peggy, my A.T.S girl friend who had been posted away from my village near Derby with her anti-aircraft battery to help defend the east coast aginst enemy raiders. Afterwards, my night train from York to Edinburgh was wrecked in a collision with a freight train somewhere near Carlisle. I was dozing in my seat, when about 4 a.m. I was jolted awake with a rending crash of glass windows and the train appeared to suddenly develop square wheels as it left the rails and jolted and bounced along the cross-ties. The engine had ploughed through another train of wagons crossing from one set of the outside tracks to the other side of the four-track system. The engine, thrown on its side with three following coaches, slid up the track into a small wayside station that lay alongside an ammunition factory that was safely located miles from anywhere.

In the pitch black darkness it was hard to decipher what had happened, so we crawled back on the train and dozed and waited for daylight and rescuers. Morning light revealed that the driver had been badly injured and his fireman was killed. Several passengers were cut and otherwise injured. After six hours a local train arrived and we were taken first to Carlisle and thence to Edinburgh. The first news my alarmed parents received from me was a brief telegram "UNHURT IN TRAIN WRECK STOP WILL WRITE STOP KEN". This was the cheapest message I could send. About a week later I wrote home, full of other things to report and never even mentioning the train wreck!

At St. Andrews, in Fife, Scotland, in October 1943, I was accepted as a matriculated student and enrolled as a bejant (first year). My curious and distinctive Derbyshire dialect was then mixed in with others from every part of the country, Scots, Welsh, Irish and Liverpudlian. Many of the students were from public schools and sported Oxford accents. We were in digs for the first three months at Murray Park and in St. Salvador s Residence Hall for the last three. I studied Geology, Kinematics and Mathematics, eventually achieving second rank honours in Math. Being already enrolled as a member of the RAF in the Volunteer Reserve, I was assigned to the St. Andrews University Air Squadron where I studied meteorology, navigation and armaments and became a Flight Commander, passing out third in my class.

The University experience was very enjoyable and I came to love the traditions and the historical gray stone town of St. Andrews with its ancient ruined cathedral and narrow walks and byways. I learned to take afternoon tea with fellow-students in the cafes, and enjoy Scottish dancing and beer drinking at the Student Union. The famous golf course alongside the cold and stormy North Sea provided the backdrop for our detested before-breakfast training runs, clad only in scanty shorts and singlets. At that stage in my life I had not yet developed an interest in golf and thus wasted the wonderful chance of starting right at the top of the sport at The Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

I also enjoyed dancing with girl students from many different parts of the country at various functions, but I was still writing to Peggy, and not greatly interested in these others. Although we met again at Whitby in North Yorkshire on my way home at Christmas, eventually letters alone were not enough and we gradually drifted apart. She was posted to the south coast of England where the build-up for D-Day was taking place. I received a very nice letter one day in early Spring 1944, with no return address, telling me she had married a G.I. Included was a note from Bill, her new American husband, wishing me well in my Air Force career.

In April 1944 I was posted to active duty in the Royal Air Force, first completing six weeks of initial training (ITW) at Scarborough. We were housed in the Grand Hotel on the cliff side of the great bay. We were outfitted, head-shaven, inoculated, vaccinated, drilled and exercised and re-moulded to the satisfaction of our drill sergeants. From our window we could see troops training endlessly in the handling of landing craft, circling the bay in preparation for the approaching imminent invasion of Europe. Then, after a week's leave, I was sent off to the R.A.F. Flight Crew Grading School at Burnaston, Derby, and detached from there to a small airfield at R.A.F. Abbots Bromley, near Rugely in Staffordshire. There, we heard the news of D-Day and wondered if our training would be affected. It wasn't, and we were trained in twelve hours or less to make a solo flight in a Tiger Moth aircraft. I solo-ed after about 10 hours, and to be up there alone in the sky was pretty exciting.

In August 1944, after a four-week leave, I was sent to Aircrew Despatch Centre. at RAF Heaton Park, Manchester, and there received news that very few pilots were needed and I had been graded as a Navigator. I then spent six months awaiting an overseas posting for flight training which did not arrive until January 1945. Meanwhile, with the help of a buddy, I got a job repairing RAF bicycles for the permanent staff of the aircrew holding unit, of whom there were several hundred, mostly WAAFs. Little did I know that my future wife wore the same uniform. We were conveniently housed next door to the food storage, and sometimes bicycle lamp batteries and other small comsumables magically transformed themselves into groceries. My partner, rather more skilled at this art, transformed a set of spare parts into a complete new bicycle which he then raffled off to one of the newer aircrew entries.

After a while I was billeted out on a very nice local couple, who treated me like a son and provided me with my own private bedroom. Most weekends I would get a pass, head home for Derby and get together with the gang. People in the village got quite used to the idea of seeing me at regular intervals and must have wondered as to what kind of war I was engaged in.

My brother Fred became an Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy and was stationed at various submarine support bases in the United Kingdom, including Gourock on the Clyde. We corresponded and sometimes managed to meet at places away from home, including Manchester where one Sunday afternoon we attended a performance of the Halle Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Fred was eventually embarked on a Tank Landing Ship and sent to the Pacific Theatre of operations, arriving shortly before the war finally ended, but reaching Singapore and other far-eastern ports before sailing home again.

At Christmas were told that we would soon be sent to Rhodesia for training. We were kitted out with summer khaki uniforms and sent home on embarkation leave. My Aunt Ethel gave me the name of one of her relatives who lived in Rhodesia so that I could visit her. When we returned to Heaton Park the plans were suddenly changed, the tropical gear was returned to stores, and with a few hundred others, I was shipped instead to Canada via the United States of America, embarking on the RMS Queen Elizabeth which had been fitted out as a troopship and was carrying many hundreds of wounded U.S. Army soldiers from the invasion forces in France and Germany. They spent a great deal of time gambling along the hallways and in the stairwells. Large bundles of currency could be seen changing hands as dice were rolled with whoops of joy or despair for success or failure.

We crossed the Atlantic in one of the worst winter storms ever experienced by the ship according to crew members. The winds were so fierce and the waves so high that the screws were often out of water and we had to heave to, drifting in mid-Atlantic for 24 hours. It was an eerie feeling to lose the throb of the turbines and only hear the creaking of the ship's riveted plates. We were assured that it was far too rough for the German submarines to come to the surface and sink us! Everyone was seasick and even the sight of a greasy hamburger would be enough to send us to the rail. We each had to take turns in mess duty and carry the food to our British contingent of airmen.

The storm abated slowly and as the engines returned to life, so did we. On the fifth day we sighted the wonderful skyline of New York and slowly moved up the river to our berth on Staten Island. There was little time to enjoy the exciting new scenery. A dockside Army band played to welcome the returning soldiers, but we were soon disembarked and put on a troop train, headed for Canada. New York had come and gone! Our destination was a Royal Canadian Air Force reception unit at Monckton, New Brunswick.

Our train traveled up the scenic Hudson River valley and through the snowy countryside. We stopped briefly at Trois Rivieres, just over the border in Quebec, and we all dashed into a Canadian restaurant, to be unexpectedly confronted with the novelty of having to order in dimly-remembered school room French, or in sign language. The French Canadians seemed surly and did not seem very eager to co-operate. In Monckton we were equipped with Canadian-style R.C.A.F. uniforms and other flying gear and quickly indoctrinated in New World customs. I enjoyed my first experience with cross-country skis among other fresh experiences.

As Navigators we were to be trained under the Empire Air Training Scheme which had training establishments in many of the Dominion countries and some in the U.S.A. in Florida and Texas. With the rest of my buddies from St. Andrews, we were put on another ancient train and sent via Montreal and Winnipeg to No. 7 Air Navigation School, R.C.A.F., Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, where our flight navigation training was given in Avro Ansons and Airspeed Oxfords.

The Canadian prairies were vast open spaces unlike anything I had ever seen. So flat was the Manitoba prairie terrain, that from our barrack windows it was said that you could see for two days! I can still hear the lonely sound of the trains calling at night across the prairie under the great bowl of stars. The weather was extreme but not unpleasant. No winter is as cold as a prairie winter, where the wind from the far north howls across the open spaces unimpeded, and the snow is so fine and dry that it blows like dust and squeaks underfoot. In contrast, the warmth and the hospitality of the Canadians was outstanding. Families in Winnipeg opened their homes to us on the 2-day passes we enjoyed after each ten-day training period, and many of us formed lifelong friendships there. I stayed often with the Johnston family in Fort Garry, and in the summer was also invited to their cabin at Lake-of-the-Woods, Ontario

The war in Europe ended in May, and when it became official, we were called into a large hangar, given a speech by the Commanding Officer, issued with two free bottles of beer and a two-day pass. We quickly left base and disappeared to Winnipeg where we found deserted streets and shuttered shop windows. It seems that after the Armistice of World War I much damage to stores was caused in the resulting celebrations and this time no chances were being taken.

With the war in the Pacific winding down, our chances of seeing combat were becoming quite slim. We celebrated with a Graduation Dinner in the St. Charles Hotel in Winnipeg and said our local farewells. With my friends I returned home to the U.K., once again via R.C.A.F. Monckton, N.B., and Halifax, Nova Scotia where we embarked for a relaxing one-week cruise home to Liverpool on the S.S. Ile de France, operated by a P.& O. crew. As officers we traveled first class and were very well treated.

It was quite disconcerting within two hours of embarking to hear loud explosions in the harbor when a lighter rammed a dock and an ammunition dump was accidentally demolished. All the ships, including a captured U-boat, hastily lifted anchors and fled for the exit! Our ship hadn't raised steam, so unable to move, we just sat there and wondered whether there would be a repetition of the great Halifax disaster of 1917 which had occurred for the same reason. Fortunately, after a nervous twelve hours, at last we sailed and had a great trip across the Atlantic, though I remember traces of hay-fever accompanying me, a thousand miles from land in either direction.

On arrival at Liverpool we were sent by rail to the Air Crew Holding Unit at Harrogate, Yorkshire. There we were given our kit allowances, enabling us to be measured and to purchase our RAF officer uniforms. We were then sent home on a long leave. The War was fast winding down, but the last-in, last-out demobilization rules meant that we would be recalled to duty before too long. Mo, and several of my gang were at home and we had some good times together. John was still in India, serving in the Tank Corps, and awaiting passage home.

After a month of RAF Regiment commando-type training in September at Credenhill, Hereford, (and some weekend carousings in Cardiff, Wales) we were sent back to Harrogate. There was little to keep us occupied, though one bright spot was a week spent in Blackpool on a swimming refresher course with chums Tim and DereK. Tim was the only non-swimmer, but he was met by RAF Special Police at the station and sent back to Harrogate for missing a roll-call! The last train of the day had left however, so we had to be content with just one night on the town.

Several of us had applied for permanent commissions in the RAF. News came eventually that my application was accepted, and with other friends I was sent to Scotland for Advanced Flying Training at RAF Scone, near Perth. This was previously a civil airport and was slowly returning to that role. We were expected to fly three hours a week in Tiger Moths for map reading and piloting practice, so we toured most of Scotland at low level and I became familiar with the small villages, large mountains and beautiful lochs from a unique vantage point.

We had good times in Perth, took walks, played some golf at local courses, became acquainted with The Salutation and George Hotels and with the Scottish girls at the dances. We also spent a memorable New Years Eve there. At midnight after a quiet evening in the bar, the old tradition began and what seemed like bedlam broke out. As we wandered out into the streets we found crowds of people there and soon we were invited into the homes of complete strangers for drinks and food, as was the custom. We awoke in the living room among the signs of spent hospitality and with throbbing heads.

In April 1946, with my other comrades I was posted to RAF Woodley, near Reading, Berkshire for similar navigation training exercises. This airfield was shared with the Miles Aircraft Company and I saw the first flights of the Miles Aerovan, an innovative twin-boom feeder aircraft. We were surrounded by meadows of tall waving grass and there I had a disabling attack of hay-fever, with swollen, itching and running eyes, which eventually took me off all flying duties. Fortunately I was able to recover sufficiently to attend the magnificent Victory Parade in London as a spectator in the company of some friendly nurses from St. George's Hospital. These nurses had spotted us from above the crowded pavement and hoisted us up for a perch on their wall to watch the parade. Afterwards, from the Embankment near the Houses of Parliament, we all watched the amazing celebration display of fireworks on the South Bank of the Thames.

One year after my aircrew graduation, in July 1946, I was assigned to the RAF Fighter Command and I was posted to No. 54 Operational Training Unit in Leeming, near Northallerton in Yorkshire. There I was trained as a Navigator-Radar and learned to operate Mk.X Air Interception radar equipment. The A.I. training was in a Vickers Wellington bomber converted to a darkened flying classroom, and we also did interceptions and firing practice in Mosquito Mk. VI and XXXVI nightfighters.

There were however some tragic flying training accidents at Leeming. In November 1946 I remember our aircraft being diverted from an exercise to search for another Mosquito in our training unit that had last been seen entering a low cloud. I spotted a smoking hole on the hillside, a yellow lifejacket, and a few scattered remains. The dead pilot, a Squadron Leader named Halifax, had fought in the Battle of Britain, been shot down and badly burned about the face, and had spent five years as a prisoner-of-war in Germany. Such sad irony to come to such an end.

The next day another Mosquito with an engine fitter on board for a test flight was lost when the engines failed. Thus three of my friends were killed. We formed an honour guard for the military funeral, but the day was bitterly cold and the trumpeter could not warm up his instrument sufficiently, Embarrassingly, the final farewell The Last Post became just a strangled sound from the trumpet.

In January 1947 our Mosquito crews became operational and I was sent with my pilot Chuck, and other crews to join No. 25 Night Fighter Squadron at R.A.F. West Malling, near Maidstone in Kent. The weather at that time was extremely bad, deep snow and bitterly cold. Fuel shortages caused rail and road transportation breakdowns, and we were sent home frequently on leave. There was very little flying and I became the Squadron Intelligence Officer, inheriting all the wartime combat records, which made interesting reading, and found me conducting aircraft recognition classes for my comrades.

Springtime eventually came to Kent, known as the Garden of England, and this was most enjoyable as the aerodrome was surrounded by orchards of cherry blossoms. In June, I was assigned as a navigation equipment instructor to the No.1 Radio School, at the R.A.F. College, Cranwell, in Lincolnshire.
Each week we toured the coastlines of the British Isles in a Halifax bomber, demonstrating airborne radar devices to cadets. My pilot was Dickie from Bournemouth who was a bit of a daredevil and never passed up the excuse for some low level flying. We beat up my Derby village more than once, and saw my parents as they watched us from our house. Another time we passed over the assembled Fleet of the Royal Navy during a Royal review on the Clyde, discovering afterwards that it was a forbidden flying zone, but there were no repercussions. Dickie was lucky, he had been stationed in India during the retaking of Burma, and had the unique distinction of crashing a Halifax bomber whose engines failed on takeoff on top of three others, thereby wiping out the entire RAF Bomber Force in India at one fell swoop ...... or so he said.

I was offered a four-year Extended Service Commission by the RAF, but I was now uncertain of the future of the peacetime Royal Air Force and worried that after a four-year absence I might lose my engineering skills. Faced with a career choice, I elected demobilization in October 1947 to return to my engineering training at Rolls Royce.

I was soon whisked away to a Demobilization Centre at Blackpool, given a medical examination and a full suit of clothes, a rail pass to Derby, and without any other ceremony was now a civilian again.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Winding down the RAF War

Posted on: 21 April 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Ken

What a fine contribution! Brim full of interesting detail. Modern day readers will be astounded at how 'minor' things like train crashes were shrugged off in those days. Your story also brought back vivid memories of that bitter winter of 1947.

Best wishes,



Message 2 - Winding down the RAF War

Posted on: 24 April 2004 by ken porter

Each passing day reminds me how few of us are left to pass along these eye-witness accounts of how that awful war felt to the young men who were prepared to do their utmost to win it! But the companionship and camraderie are remembered far longer than any hardships. Strangely, from all those hundreds or even thousands I met in the RAF, I only once bumped into one, an RCAF Flight Lieutenant who taught me navigation at Portage La Prairie, and helped a bunch of us in building the new St. Andrews United Church in Georgetown, Ontario, in 1958.

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