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Desert Rats and Pyramids

by SwanseaLibraries

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jim Phippen
Location of story: 
Andover, North Africa and Chessington Zoo
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 November 2005

Jim Phippen's Pictures from Egypt

Edited transcript of recording for BBC war archive By James (Jim) Phippen of Ivy Bush Court Swansea

In 1941 I was sent to a station near Andover. It was called 15 ITU - a training unit. You could tell that because dotted all around the unit in the neighbouring farmers’ fields were these planes with noses sticking in the ground and their tails sticking up in the air! It was a practice range for the officers and they used to come out with their planes and drop 10 pound bombs on to a target that we had on the ground. During one of these night flying sessions we had to put flares around the target area and my job was to track the bombs. I used a big flat table, marked on the outside edge with degrees all the way round so when the planes came over you could take the readings and measure their success rate. We would take readings recording of the plane’s flight direction and where they dropped the bombs on the practice area. On one particular night we could hear the German bombers coming over and they started dropping bombs on our practice range. We asked our officers if we were to record the German’s score as well!

On another occasion we were going over the target area to pick up all the fragments of bombs and I found one bomb that hadn’t detonated. I threw it on the back of a lorry and it exploded. It was only a small 10lb one. It took about two hours for them to pull all the shrapnel out of me. That was 1942.

Once a week we would go to another range in Boscombe Down where they dropped 250 pound bombs. Our job was to find any unexploded bombs, dig around them put gun cotton underneath. We would then reel out all the cable and detonate them. On one occasion a plane came to drop a bomb but it got stuck in the bomb bay! The pilot was waggling his wing to shake it off it but it would not come off! It was the last one of the day and we were calling him all the names we could think of because we wanted to get home for tea. Any rate, we went back to our camp and we found out later that this chap had landed and jumped out of the plane with the propeller still going to see what was holding the bomb up. Whether he touched anything I don’t know but the bomb fell from under the wing. Fortunately, the bomb did not explode but the pilot seeing the bomb fall jumped back and got his head cut off by the propeller. We were sorry then for all that we called him.

At the beginning of 1942, I was sent abroad. We went from the river Clyde in a convoy of about seven boats to avoid submarines. I remember I sailed on the Eastern Prince and that we used to drop depth charges every so often if there was any sign of any U boats. Whilst in Freetown we used to throw pennies over the side and children used to dive down to the bottom to pick up the coins. We were lucky enough to stay at Capetown for five nights and were able to go up Table Mountain. We even got to see some of the African wildlife.

On one side of the mountain we saw that the huts of the local Africans were all tin shacks. The other side was inhabited entirely by white people who had lovely gardens and houses. The native Africans used to work for the White Africans; that was their means of livelihood. The Whites were waited on hand and foot they didn’t do anything. Our next stop was Suez. By that time we had been on the boat for nine weeks.

At Suez, I was sent to the 28th Fighter Squadron which had a detail of Hurricanes. My job was to refuel the planes. I would jump up, put the nozzle on the plane and fill it up with petrol. We used to go up and down the desert following the army, keeping the planes and everyone fuelled up. One day the Officers Mess burnt down and they needed a new mess tent and someone to take charge of it. The officers called a meeting and there were about 12 NCOs who were competent enough to take over the job of looking after the Officer’s mess but nobody wanted the job. So they got out twelve cards the lowest one got the job. I drew an Ace and got the job! Now at that time I was in a “bivvy” - a tent for two. The chap I was sharing with was an instrument repairer called Chunky. The night after I moved into the Officers Mess tents, a bomber came over and dropped one bomb right outside my old tent. It killed Chunky and his new tent mate. It would have been me if I hadn’t picked the Ace. I often think about that.

Any rate, around about three weeks before battle of El Alamein, we were moving up the desert to Tobruk. From where I was positioned, on a bit of a hill, we could see our army retreating. I could see all the army equipment being towed away and that there was little space between our camp and the advancing enemy. The army and air force had all moved out on the road back to Jerusalem. We were the last ones left because we had the petrol bowser. We had to wait for our planes before we were allowed to go. When the time came, we were all in a hurry to bundle our stuff on to a lorry. I picked up my kit bag and something bit me through my hand between thumb and forefinger — it was a scorpion. You can still see the mark to this day. We were three days away from our camp at Tyre and Sidon but when we got there I was rushed to Nazareth hospital as this sting had grown into the size of a cricket ball! They cut the ball out and had to stuff it up with gauze to let it heal from the inside out. I was in hospital for 10 weeks and during that time the battle of El Alamein took place and we started pushing the Germans back up the desert.

By the time I got back to my squadron they were shipping us out. A lorry dropped me off with my squadron — we went so fast that we weren’t allowed to stop for any meals. I only had two hard biscuits and bully beef so that’s what we lived on. One of the places we stopped was an air strip which had been a German camp. They had retreated so quickly that they left their rifles and didn’t even have time to bury their dead. Amongst other things, we found letters written to sweethearts and that made us stop and realise that the in spite of being our enemy, the Germans were people just like us.

We eventually drove the enemy into the Mediterranean where they also encountered the Americans. Once the enemy began to capitulate, our squadron was given orders to return to Europe. I was lucky enough to be posted to the Suez Canal — Port Said where I met my brother who was a reconnaissance photographer in the Royal Air Force. At Port Said, we could swim in the warm water and enjoy the wonders of Egypt. After a week or so, My brother was given orders to join the war in the pacific and he left for Japan. Around that time, I saw Field Marshal Montgomery. There was a lady on his staff and she was the first British women we’d seen for years.

We had one or two weeks off when we could go into Alexandria or Cairo and have a bit of a holiday. I was able to go down to the tombs of the kings where I climbed about three quarters of the way up the pyramid and took a photo. These days, you’re not allowed to do that.

I joined the Royal Air Force 1938 when I was 18 when I left it was 1946. When I was sent back to England I was stationed in Gloucester where I played football for the RAF. In one match, I ran out to kick ball and I collided with another man running towards me. I broke two bones in my ankle and was taken to a rehab centre at Chessington Zoo where my leg was put in plaster.

After I had been in Chessington for a couple of weeks a girl came into the Corporal’s mess wanting to be shown the way to the Officer’s mess. She was their new cook and didn’t know her way around. I said I would show her, and also offered to give her a tour of the base. We got to know each other very well over the next six months and when it was time for me to be sent home, I asked her to marry me and she did!

When it was time for me to go home I had to swing my plastered leg along to the train station. Once on the train, I had to stick my leg out in the aisle as I travelled from to Bristol and from there to Pensford. I had to walk the three miles from the station with my bad leg. It was good to be home, the story of my life in the war was over.

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