- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Arthur Caygill, Ken Hurrey, Lynn Mears, Johnny Thompson, Jock Milroy, Ray Elliott and Les Wolf.
- Location of story:
- RAF Snaith
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 August 2005
I was to know Abingdon well, posted there as part of No 10 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit) before my posting to my permanent Squadron, then later, after my tour of ops. posted back again as Instructor at Abingdon, and its out-station Stanton Harcourt. In those days it was in Berkshire, but since then it has been moved to Oxfordshire!
This was a real pukka RAF Station, peace time built, with all the buildings for HQ, and Officers and Other Ranks housing, though of course no families there in war time, though of course in our classless society the top rankers had houses even outside the boundaries with families and servants provided by lowly AC's.
Here we had to be on parade, in correct uniform, all buttons and boots ablaze, correctly shaven, and with proper haircuts. The good old peacetime discipline was kept up with all the necessary and appropriate punishments. There was no easy entrance through a hole in the fence. It was secure and well patrolled.
There was a ceremonial parade when we were given our coveted wings, and at that stage, sergeants stripes. All this was useful, for it raised our pay, and as submariners had ' hard lying' money, we had flying pay, 2/- a day, but that meant quite a lot in the early 40's.
So far, I had done time on the Tiger Moth, the Stearman P.T.17, The Battle, The Oxford, and the Whitley, now it was for the big ones!
The first thing was to throw Pilots and Bomb Aimers and Navigators together. At first the Bomb Aimers were all Navigators, and wore the '0' with a Wing. Later when there was much more to do in both navigating and bomb aiming - map reading and second piloting, the 'B' was placed inside the '0' Wing. We all met together in the Hall, and tried to decide who would go with whom. We seemed drawn to some, and we settled for them. I rather liked the style of a red headed Pilot, a Mediterranean looking Navigator, and a wee Scottish Wireless Operator, we all stayed together throughout the tour, through many strange and terrible situations, and none of us ever found the others wanting. We were not to use the big ones yet, so there was no need for the gunners (mid and upper tail) or the Flight Engineer - they were to come later.
First that long awaited leave. A chance to strut a little and show off the wings and stripes. A quick phone call to Kathleen and, in spite of all restrictions of the Emergency Hospital Nurses, she was kindly and sympathetically treated and allowed to take leave to be with me. So we managed to get together and take an old trip by train and revel in the luxury of a railway cooked and served breakfast to make a small celebration - a real 'transport of delight' in every sense of the words, which was exactly what the leave was. Quiet little Midhurst hadn't changed much outwardly, and later I read in the 'Daily Mirror' that Midhurst was one of the only towns in the South East that had no siren to warn of bombers. But there were signs of the conflict in the sky above, vapour trails of the Hurricanes and Spitfires were crossing and criss-crossing the serried ranks of Junkers as the German bombers flew to target London.
At night there was the sound of our own bombers making their way to the coast to begin their attacks on German targets, and there was the occasional German who had been driven from his formation by British fighters, to limp home across the Channel, and drop his bombs on the countryside. There was one such, who dropped a stick of bombs in the woods at the top of Budgenor Hill, a lot of noise, but the only damage was the vegetation, and folks were able to come and to wonder at the large craters. My parents were worried at such nights, and were rather astonished that I wanted to keep to my bed when they heard of overhead activity, but it was all so comfortable, and knowing the accuracy of the bombing, I thought that if my name 'was on it', I'd die in comfort, not in a confined cellar. I was certainly not going to waste some of my leave in hiding from enemy bombers.
It passed all too quickly - we lazed and visited all our favourite spots and made wedding plans. It was quite a problem, arrange for the Church, hospital leave, and RAF leave. We had to check and re-check back and in my usual chivalrous way left most of it to my partner, who luckily enough now had the support of family and friends in both hospitals. But all too soon I was to be on my way to a new posting, where I had to meet my aircrew.
At first we were all passengers, getting used to flights on the old Anson again, or the Whitley, all trying at different times our appointed tasks in differing areas. We got to know each other well 'Ginger' Caygill, our own pilot always addressed when flying as 'Skipper' or 'Skip', but 'Ginger' when off duty. We learned to rely on him completely, as he did on us, when we gave the instructions to fly a course or be ready to bomb. Gradually we became an integrated crew, I map read to the target, to aim small bombs on some Somerset mud flats, or bomb, by simulation some infra-red target that photographed my stick, and had the results ready to acclaim or criticise when we landed. 'Jock' our Wireless Operator had to keep the radio going to get fixes and keep in touch with control, Les Wolf had to navigate. We did many flights, all over Britain, to get used to the terrain, from February to May 1943, all in daylight. No night flights yet, in case we untried crews got mixed up with the real bomber boys, who would be straining at the leash for their targets. Then at last the posting to our Squadrons.
There had been little time to enjoy the fleshpots of Abingdon. Entrance and exit were tightly controlled, and we had little time, and often no passes to leave our billets which on the peace time station were very comfortable. I was trying hard to compose a letter to Kathleen's family in Eire to tell them of my intentions towards their daughter, and in spite of the problems of boats to Eire from Fishguard to Rosslare, she had made the journey, to tell them of our plans. Of course, they couldn't come, and my letter told them of all of our plans, and my intention to look after her to the best of my ability. There was some consternation across the water, but finally all was agreed, and in the old fashioned way I asked father for the hand of his daughter, and was accepted. This had all meant letters to the C.O. asking for 'permission' and leave, and finally it was granted, and the wedding date set for 17th April 1943, just two days before my birthday, and I was delighted to receive such a delightful birthday present. This of course, though not set in stone would be carried forward to my new C.O. who with all dates arranged, and as that year it was Easter Saturday, special dispensation from the Church, it could hardly be refused. Alas though it nearly didn't happen on that day, for other forces came into play, but more of that later.
The posting to the Heavy Conversion Unit was at 51 Squadron, at Snaith, near Pontefract, Yorkshire, the same site as the Squadron to which we were attached. 51 Squadron was one of 4 Group, with neighbouring Squadrons, e.g. 158 Squadron at Lisset, 76 Squadron at Holme upon Spalding Moor, 102 Squadron at Pocklington, 346 and 347 Squadrons at Elvington and 466 Squadron at Driffield - all part of the 100 or so airfields scattered over the country - but these were all good pals, near enough when we were in dire need of a runway to land quickly, when ours was fogged out, or there was a prang on our runway. These airfields were mostly on the eastern side of the country, where the land was flatter, and we were, perhaps, nearer our targets.
Here at Snaith we made up our full crew. The four 'old stagers' gathered together, again in a large hall, and the Gunners and Flight Engineers were let loose to find a few they thought they could get on with. This was the season for the good old 'Colonial Boys', for the dark blue uniforms of the Royal Australian Airforce loomed large.
We chose, and were chosen, by two Aussies and a N.E. Londoner. I think we must have looked as if we needed a father figure for we were adopted by a tall rangy Aussie called Lyn Mears. We were sure he had lowered his age to join up, for he looked well over the age limit; he owned a sheep station back in 'Oz', but he wanted action over here. His skin was like leather, and a cut-throat razor could have been stropped on him, but he was an ace in every way. He said very little, but when he did it really meant something - he had hawk eyes that came with long looks across the dry Australian lands in strong sunlight, and he was a tower of strength. Then another gunner - mid-upper - also an Aussie, Johnny Morris a friend of Lyn, the baby of our group, and to become the great friend of Les Wolf our Navigator. So there was our crew - Ginger, Les, Lyn, Johnny, Ray, Jock and Ken - ready to do battle.
A battle it was too wrestling with the four breasted Halifaxes. The conversion was, we heard later, when it was all over, said to be more dangerous than ops. The kites we were to learn on were old, wounded, cast off things, usually with some consistent fault. But we wrestled and won!
In the midst of the wrestling, however, there had been some bruising. We were billeted in Nissan huts - all seven of us - and the huts were hell. On a warm day the corrugated iron warmed up to an intolerable heat, and the night and the cold days were uncomfortably cold. We longed, alas, for dead men's shoes, for as the built billets became available we moved from these Nissan huts, which were warmed by the old fashioned pot-bellied 'Tortoise' stove, fed by coke, of which we had a ration of a bucket per day - this was often eked out by a nocturnal visit to the coal/coke store, and a careful search of the surrounding area, to pick up dropped pieces.
Sometimes, in the evenings we congregated in a larger Nissan hut to meet and greet other crews. There one evening, one idiot produced a Verey pistol cartridge, and in spite of many shouts of 'NO', threw it on the fire. These Verey lights would throw up enormous light, and the light would burn through almost anything, even burn under water. We used them a lot - different colours as recognition flares when we came into land, or used one to say there were casualties on board, they were used from the ground to give us instructions. This flare would have done a lot of damage to the hut and, perhaps, some of its occupants, so being near, and perhaps stupid, I dashed forward and dragged the thing out. Unfortunately, it had caught and it burnt my hand, a nasty burn to the bone, whilst some other chaps took the long handled shovels we had at the ready for enemy incendiary bombs, and threw some remains into the darkness on the grass.
This meant a trip to the M.O. for me, plus a lot of careful explanation of how and why it happened. I had to turn up for twice daily dressings and sulfathiazole, to help keep from infection, and it was stated that the leave I had arranged for my wedding would be cancelled. It took a lot of explanation to the M.O. to get out of this one - I was able to say, however, that both my mother and my wife were nurses, and they would arrange for the correct dressings. Finally, after much argument, I was allowed the leave, or rather, some part of it; the weekend, starting on Friday, and being back at the station on Sunday evening 23.59 hours! So the crew had a bit of a holiday, whilst Ginger, who was to be my best man and I started for home. The wedding was very impressive. All stops had been pulled out by relatives and friends, cupboards searched, coupons given up, and we had a wonderful reception and wedding breakfast at Budgenor Lodge, then off on our honeymoon, not far away, but far enough from all, at Singleton, 'the Horse and Groom', for the one night only; as I was due back next day. I always say that I'm still waiting to complete my honeymoon, though we did try later. The guests at Singleton were very impressed, as the young wife cut food up for the obviously wounded aircrew husband, and gave many signs of sympathy. Back at the station I was seen to heal quickly, and was soon back flying again Indeed, the log book shows a space from 13th April to 30th April, away, from flying conversion, so all benefited from my wedding, and my wound. So then, I was the first casualty of our crew, but unfortunately, I was not to be the last.
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