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Wartime memories of an aeroplane enthusiast living in Bedford - Part One

by bedfordmuseum

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Mr. John Crawley. Photo taken in January 2006.

Contributed by 
bedfordmuseum
People in story: 
Mr. John Crawley, Stamford Robinson, Captain Starey, Mrs. Monk. Mr. Walter Blott, Mr. Ball, Mr. Todd
Location of story: 
Bedford, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A8821163
Contributed on: 
25 January 2006

Part one of an edited oral history interview with Mr. John Crawley conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

‘I was born in Bedford in November 1925 at St.Miniver Road. I was born there so I am a Bedfordian.

Well of course it was wartime and I think nearly every young lad, I was 14 years old, was pretty interested in aeroplanes at that time, I mean they were everywhere. They were even more prolific than they are today and of course there was also the excitement of a possible German air raid.

Bedford School
During the war at Bedford School the classrooms on the ground floor all had great heavy timber uprights to support the ceilings. And they had sandbags up - oh I don’t know - about a 10 feet high sandbag wall around the windows and if there was an air raid alarm then we had to go to these classrooms. Each class had a designated air raid shelter but of course the way the school worked, I mean you wouldn’t have your own classroom, for Maths you’d perhaps go to one room and then for Geography you’d go to another. So if there was an air raid warning you'd most probably stay in the same classroom rather than all charging around to get to your own particular classroom.

We had a school from Jersey billeted with Bedford School, they came over and they were integrated with us. I remember in my class we had a decent chap called Anderson. There was a certain amount of, I can’t quite recall, but I think there were certain things they did on their own but I certainly know that Anderson was in my class. I cannot be quite sure but I’m pretty sure they integrated because you’d always know one of the Jersey lads because I recollect they had a different coloured jacket to us. But we all got on very well together but of course you would do in wartime.

The BBC Orchestra would rehearse at Bedford School. I don’t know on what particular day, but they would rehearse in the afternoon while we were in classes. It was generally, they tried to arrange it so that they didn’t interfere with classes but I can remember the odd occasion were we would be trying to do school work and there would be Stamford Robinson in his shirt sleeves. The BBC would be rehearsing in the afternoon before they did a live broadcast in the evening. On a number of occasions I went back to school to see these live broadcasts. And you know when you are sitting listening to the radio, obviously you can’t see the performance only hear it, so you didn’t see him perspiring in his shirt sleeves and then when it was dead saying ‘Now for God’s sake, come on! We’ve got to get this … so and so …’ all this in a live broadcast. It was always fascinating to see it, how it was going on. But Bedford School Hall was used a tremendous amount of times, I think they used Bedford School Hall more than anywhere in Bedford. I know all the BBC were in the hotels in Bushmead Avenue in the half of Bushmead Avenue nearest the river there was a number of private hotels which were requisitioned and the BBC was put into those.

Bedford was one of the first towns to receive the standard one kilo German incendiary bomb that was fitted with an explosive charge. The normal way of fighting an incendiary bomb was to carry a bucket of water and a stirrup pump laying on one’s chest directing the water onto the bomb or tipping a bucket of sand on them. After a predetermined period the bomb then exploded with detrimental effects to the fire fighter. The first night they dropped these a lot fell in Bushmead Avenue and all the BBC chaps were up in the Park putting them out but luckily nobody was killed so they couldn’t have all been explosive. On that night an incendiary bomb fell in the garden of my future wife’s home, it went in and didn't explode. My future father-in-law told the Police and nothing was done about it and so to my knowledge it is still there. I know exactly where but nobody was ever interested. Whether it’s an explosive one and it’s still got the high explosive charge or whether it’s just the simple magnesium one kilo I don’t know. Would be interesting to dig it up and find out.

Aircraft Recognition
Well if you are an enthusiast it was just a matter of reading so many papers and books. There were so many books on aircraft recognition and of course you had the real things flying around you like bees round a honey pot so it wasn’t difficult. I was very, very interested and I became, even though I say it myself, quite a ‘gen kiddy’ as regards aircraft recognition. I was a member of the National Roof Spotters Association where I qualified for three National Certificates on Aircraft Recognition. My family’s business were Main Ford Dealers and it was in late 1942 I happened to be in the showroom and Captain Starey from Milton Ernest Hall - he was a Captain in the Royal Flying Corp in the First World War, he happened to come in about something on business. I got talking to him and he brought aeroplanes into the conversation and I think he was a bit surprised that I was able to talk to him on very near equal terms on modern aircraft. He said, ‘Where have you got all your knowledge from?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m just an enthusiast. I’m an aircraft recognition enthusiast.’ I told him I’d got this certificate and that and he said, ‘Ah, you are just the man we are looking for!’ I said, ‘Oh, yes!’ He said, ‘Well, I’m the Commanding Officer of 134 Squadron of Bedford Air Training Corp and we haven’t got anybody to instruct Air Cadets on aircraft recognition.’ He said, ‘Would you be interested?’ So I said, ‘Oh, well I can’t think of any reason why not.’ So that was the start of it.

I went along as a civilian to start with and I must admit my first appearance was a bit nerve racking because from memory there were something like 25 Cadets and every other Officer in the Squadron. There was about five or six Officers all piled in round the back and there was I looking at 25 Cadets and all the Officers all sitting there looking expectantly at me! I thought, ‘Oh, my God what have I let myself in for?’ But anyway once I started of course I was well into my stride and it went down very well apparently. So he said, ‘Oh, yes that’s fine. I think we’d better put you in uniform.’ So I said, ‘Well, entirely up to you.’ ‘But,’ I said ‘I have no wish whatsoever to get involved in square bashing or any another details.’ I said, ‘Basically I’m medically unfit because I have a double curvature of the spine and that’s the only reason I’m not in the ATC waiting to join the RAF, because I’ve been exempted.’ He said, ‘Oh, no that’s alright’ so they made me a Corporal and I was Sergeant about a month later and then a Flight Sergeant a month later than that. I stayed a Flight Sergeant until - oh, I think it was towards the end of the war - anyway I know I had to go to Cambridge and I was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and then became a Flying Officer. Of course my duties then had expanded more than somewhat and I was spending perhaps four nights a week down at ATC Head Quarters. In those days the Head Quarters were at Castle Lane. The Head Quarters where as you go up Castle Lane from St.Paul’s Square it was half way up on the right opposite Well’s warehouses, they are not there now having been pulled down. But you had to go up an outside staircase in the yard, well the staircase was under cover, but you’d go up and we were on the first floor. There was a NCOs room, a large classroom, an Officers room, the CO’s office and another classroom. Also in there was a kitchen with a serving hatch which wasn’t being used at this time.

As I say I used to go along purely for aircraft recognition and then I became so involved and interested I was doing a class one night a week and building model aircraft, elementary theory of flight, which I’d picked up. Later I gave elementary gliding instruction because the boys were going over to RAF Henlow being taught to glide. At that time I’d had a fair bit of experience of handling aircraft, not as a pilot but experience and so I could give them the gist of what the controls did. So, yes I was getting very involved and then one day the CO called me into his office and said, ‘Ah, Crawley,’ he said, ‘I think I’ve got a job for you!’ I said, ‘Oh, yes Sir!’ he said ‘well, it might be up your street on the other hand it might not.’ I thought, tell me more, Sir. He said, ‘I’ve had a request from a Mrs. Monk and she is the Commandant of the Girls Training Corp and they meet at the Shire Hall on a Friday night. She wondered if one of my people could go along and instruct her girls on aircraft recognition and since that is your particular forte I’m offering you the job.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ He said, ‘You don’t look very enamoured’ I said, ‘well, yes, alright Sir, yes I don’t mind, I’ll do it.’ Well of course I wasn’t slow in coming forward because after a comparatively short while I suggested to Mrs. Monk, the Commandant that ‘Ma’am perhaps it would be possible for some of your girls to come and run a canteen for us at the Air Training Corp Head Quarters’. I said, ‘We’ve got all the facilities of what used to be a canteen with the sink and the cooker and means of boiling kettles, but we have no one to run it.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that would be a good idea. That would give the girls practical experience. We could work up a rota and have four girls at a time’ and that’s what happened. At the time it was blackout and I discovered that one of the girls lived about an eighth of a mile further up Goldington Road than I did and so we got to know each other. Well of course, the long and the short of it is that she is now my wife and has been for 54 years! So the Air Training Corp and the Girls Training Corp did have something to do with my future!

Mobile Section of the Special Constabulary
My father was in the Special Constabulary and being in the motor trade he organised a mobile section of which he became Commandant. Of course this was quite easy because he detailed four of the company’s cars to be used for police duties and he enrolled four or five of our employees. I remember there was Walter Blott, who was one of the prewar sales staff who was still working (he was some form of relation to the Blott family that had the ladies outfitters at the top of the High Street). There was Mr. Todd, Mr. Ball and a number of other employees, they all became Special Constables and were each allocated a car. Then he recruited various other people in the motor trade to come in so that when there was an air raid message, Yellow, as they used to be - the Police Station used to phone through and just say, ‘Air raid message, Yellow.’ Whereupon father would then report to the Police Station as would his mobile Police. Then if there was an incident, i.e. a bomb dropping or parachute mine or anything happening the Police would have back up by these extra cars, so that was his involvement. I do remember one day he’d been out with some of his colleagues and they came back and as they were coming back along Goldington Road they called in home for a cup of tea. It had been a pretty rough night as they’d have been out five or six hours. I know when I went to see them off I was absolutely fascinated to see but also so annoyed that I couldn’t get a bit of it - but they had a canister of a flare container sticking out of one of the back windows of the car with all the parachute loose in the car.

He led quite an interesting life from that point of view because he would go to the Police Station. He worked during the day and played Policeman. The routine was he’d go from the office and have dinner at The Swan Hotel so many nights a week and then he’d go down the Police Station where he stayed perhaps until midnight and then come home. If there was an air raid warning or if we knew that there were German aeroplanes about then he wouldn’t come home until the area was clear.”

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