- Contributed by
- The Stratford upon Avon Society
- People in story:
- Douglas Tuckey
- Location of story:
- several locations
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 July 2005
36a - Chapter One:
I shall begin with my four plus years in the Royal Air Force. It was immediately obvious to me that the transfer from the army to the air force was for me quite the right thing to do. At the beginning of
the February the following year I had to report to RAF Padgate where for three days I went through a hectic and concentrated process of selection tests, medicals and interviews. At the end of this I became number 1672994 and on the 10th February 1942 was Leading Aircraftsman Tuckey under
training as aircrew in the RAF. The next day I returned to Durham and continued with my university first-year course and with the ground training which was required of aircrew whatever category they were eventually chosen for.
My days at Padgate were not only my first three days in the service, but were easily the worst. I learnt more about my fellow men than I had learnt in the previous 18 years. Anybody joining the Air Force in whatever trade or rank needed to be there for at least three days and often there for longer. For many ground crew trades it was their first station and they did not leave there until the appropriate posting came up. There were 50 or 60 beds in the hut and the language, the actions and the obscenities were to my innocent background quite appalling, I will not go into detail, but I cannot imagine that any other initiation could have been quite so shocking. The saving grace was that the
people I met who were on the selection board and the one or two other potential aircrew there shows that to me, yet again, flying in the Royal Air Force was the right decision for me. Even at this early stage I realised that that should be as a Commissioned Officer and not as an other rank. However as far as aircrew were concerned the minimum rank for anyone, even air gunners that had the shortest training, was sergeant.
To do my initial Training Wing at Durham was sheer luxury. The officer in charge was named Fit Lt Kilgour. What a dream job he had! We covered the whole of the syllabus and this took two half days per week plus full-time training during the Easter holidays and again at the beginning of the summer. I took to it like a duck to water. I suppose being a fairly select group intellectually and certainly a group small in number meant that we covered the ground more quickly, plus of course we did not have to spend as much on drill and "bull" as those at ITW. For some reason or other (call it my natural leadership qualities!) I was made the Cadet Flight Sergeant, So you see Sam you were not the first of the family to achieve such status!
When I left Durham in May of that year I attended three weeks intensive training at a small airfield near Newcastle. It was there where my problems with eardrums began. We were doing dinghy drill in a local pool when for reasons still beyond me my head met the bottom of the pool harder than it should have done, I was in the local RAF sick quarters for a week's observation. Then it was back home until I was told to report for my first real day in the Air Force at Regent's Park. We were billeted in a luxury block of flats in St Johns Wood and fed in the cafeteria of the zoo.
How appropriate of you are saying! We were there for two weeks. During that time I can remember only three things. Having my hair cut five times in the seven days; being kitted out; and being introduced for the first time to a rather nasty animal known as a corporal drill instructor.
We ended up with two kit bags full of gear, one with all the required flying gear and the other with normal uniform. Flying kit was enormously bulky and for the next few weeks, one short period apart, I had to hump it around without being anywhere near an aircraft. The 'normal' uniform was everything - not just uniform but also underwear! Not at all what I was used to, but horrid woolly stuff including "combs" which itched like mad! What a good job Simon was born when he was!
Corporal drill instructors were to be the bane of my life for the next six months, it was their job to see that we knew how to drill, that we were very smartly turned out and that we obeyed every word they pronounced immediately and without question - plus a few things like clean ablutions, no dust within a hundred miles, boots and webbing even cleaner than spotless. Such people in ordinary life were even more ordinary people but given this power over other human beings clearly corrupted them. I suppose I was lucky because from things that I heard since and indeed from things I still see now on television this particular breed of animal still exists. I suppose the standard reasons for it would be in that in the dangerous situations likely to be encountered in war there was no room for anything other than immediate obedience and response. That may have been wanted at Waterloo and 1914 - 18 trench warfare, but in a bomber crew of at the most seven people it seemed to me to be a quite inappropriate system. However more of these creatures later in the text.
I suppose I ought to remember more clearly those two weeks just as one is supposed to remember any first time, but I do not. Any of you who know London Zoo will probably be asking now what happened to the animals, Answer: I do not know. I suppose they were removed very early in the war; clearly it would be dangerous to do otherwise. Anyway if you want to know look it up!
I referred earlier to the rather crude experiences of the three days at Padgate, I was soon to be reminded that for the next few months, probably years, there was going to be little privacy and no sensitivity. Just before I left Regent's Park an enormous boil erupted on the base of my 'willy', Reporting sick, however insignificant one's sickness was, was a major activity. You had to take your gas mask and your knife fork and spoon, your tin plate and your tin mug as well as your pyjamas and a change of underwear. There was no way in which I was going to be kept in sickbay so the whole thing was very frustrating. There was little conversation passed between me and the medical officer he just picked up a surgical knife and stuck it in the middle of the abscess. When I got back from off the ceiling he told the orderly to bandage it and sent me on my way. The next day we were moved to Brighton. Whenever one moved to a new station you underwent, on arrival, something called F. I. (Freedom From Infection). This entailed standing in a long line, lowering one's trousers and underpants and waiting for the medical officer to pass You put out your hands so he could inspect your fingernails and he also looked at your private bits presumably for signs of hernia and VD. Standing in a long line of 60 or so young men displaying 60 'willies' being stared at by the inspection team was a very early insensitive and deeply embarrassing experience as mine was bandaged and tied with a huge bow. The sergeant with the medical officer barked at me "one pace forward march". Then I had to explain the circumstances, which I must have done reasonably well because he quickly passed on without requiring the bandage to be removed.
Brighton was one of several resorts used by the RAF (Stratford was too) to be
used as ground training venues or holding camps until places at flying schools
became available. I was at the very palatial Grand Hotel. The building was
but with 12 to a room living conditions were not. It was yet again an area of no
privacy and perfect ground for the sadistic corporal to examine minutely for signs of dust and dirt. One loo, one bath, one basin for twelve of us was hardly luxury! ,
The only saving grace for my three weeks there was clay pigeon shooting and 'night life', but then I was still too young and certainly too inexperienced to capitalise on it
I was then ready to go to my first flying school and was posted a to small grass airfield between Stanford in the Vale and Shellingford, two villages between Faringdon and Wantage. When Rachel was at Tidworth I drove what I think was the airfield on several occasions, but so much had changed and there was nothing there to bring it back in to the forefront of my memory. Much of it seems to have been quarried and there is also a small business
The main purpose of this particular posting was to discover any aptitude for flying. At the end of the course those who demonstrated potential pilot abilities were sent on to flying school and those without to navigation, bomb aiming or wireless operating duties. I was very clearly the latter. From the negative point of view I was quite hopeless as a pilot and got nowhere near the target of solo flying within twelve hours. Others were able to make this superb little aircraft the Tiger, do exactly what they desired, but not me. I either moved the control stick far too vigorously or nowhere near firm enough, The right touch was never present. One of the young pilot instructors once said to me that if any of them misbehaved, then instead of being given orderly officer duties they were given me as a pupil! I do remember feeling a great relief when I was told I was not graded for pilot duties. Years later on a gliding course I had the same sense of relief when days of heavy snow brought it to a premature end before the question of who was to be sent solo arrived.
However the course consisted of many basic skills not associated with being able to keep a tiger moth in the air safely, to fly some miles away from the airfield and find one's way back. Flying needed other skills, navigation, bomb aiming, sending and receiving messages in Morse code and knowledge of guns and gun turrets, In all the various areas I did well. In fact I was quite easily in the lead. That together with my academic background meant that I was graded for observer training. The observer was the original name given earlier to the other "flier" when there was a two-man crew. As aircraft became larger then his duties were split into navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, flight engineer and air gunners. With the arrival of the Mosquito later in the war the observer was reinstated and much in demand. Had the war lasted a little longer I would have done a second tour with them - if so I probably would not have not been here to write this!
I cannot remember if there was any social life and certainly when I drove past years later the village pub meant nothing. I suppose there was a NAAFI and whatever drinking we did would have been there. Nor do I remember anybody who was on the course at the same time. What I do remember was meeting the padre who had varying addresses that we could go to on Sunday afternoons. Not surprisingly I put my name down and was told to go to this particular house anytime after 2 pm. When I got there I found it was a fairly large house with an imposing drive and front door. I knocked on the door only to find that it was opened by a maid telling me that I should not have come to this door and that I should go round the back where it said tradesmen's entrance. The same girl then opened the back door, showed me into the kitchen and said everything that you will need is on the table. Everything was a bit of an exaggeration. There was a dry piece of cake, a jug of water, a writing pad and envelopes, "When you have finished just let yourself out, do not bother to call me". I suppose some lady of the privileged society thought she was doing her patriotic duty!
It was time to move again. This time to Heaton Park at Manchester, which was the aircrew reception centre for u/t (under training) aircrew due to go on the Commonwealth Training Scheme. I arrived there about two weeks before Christmas 1942 only to find the wait for the decision as to the whereabouts of my overseas venue was as yet undecided. So for the u/t observers and bomb aimers someone in authority said send them on a ground crew course for armourers, the trade for those airmen who were to see that all bomb bays and gun turrets were correctly loaded etc prior to take off. Clearly I would never need that knowledge, but it filled our waiting time better than hours of drill and cleaning. There were tales told, and I have no reason to suppose that they were untrue, that some of those waiting be given cans of white paint to paint whatever the drill corporal decided, which included in one case the coal dump. At the end of my time filler I could at least appreciate more the importance of what my eventual ground crew did and how much we depended on them.
The course was held at RAF Credenhill near Hereford and there was no 'going home for Christmas', it was the least 'Christmas', Christmas of my life. Being at the time still a dedicated churchgoer I went to matins at the local church. By the time it had finished and I had walked back to the airman’s mess everyone was there and the officers had started to serve (a long established service tradition), I was refused entry by yet another of my tribe, the drill corporal, for being late. I did not argue - I had by now long learnt the futility of asserting my independence. It surprised him and the turning of the other cheek worked. I was the winner, he the defeated.
My only other memory of that brief four weeks was to find out that one decision I had made did not quite work out the way I had anticipated. The station rugby team were smitten by illness (I guessed later that it was over-indulgence after a training session which they held with great frequency day and night - it was better than working!). So they asked us young intruders if any of us had played rugby at school or university. Seeing a chance to spend my remaining days rather pleasantly I took my one pace forward and described my prowess in rather too glowing terms. I was selected to play on the Saturday in the Western Counties Cup against The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Apparently when my father read it in my letter he said to my
mother "they'll kill him" and they almost did. I think most of them were great
hunks of manhood from Rugby League. Luckily it was back to Heaton Park before they had to decide whether to risk bringing back the sick or playing me again.
I got back to Manchester in the middle of January. It was bleak, cold and damp. We were to be there until we were able to embark. The number of troopships available varied not least of course because of the then current activity among U-boats. All we had to do now was to be kitted out; with what would vary according to where you were to be posted. The fact that I suddenly acquired a kitbag full of tropical gear seemed to suggest that I was due for South Africa or Rhodesia - although it had not been unknown that you boarded a boat kitted out for southern climes and ended up in freezing in Canada. So I fear that for the rest of our days there we were left, both our bodies and time in the hands of the worst of all the D.I. tribe. I cannot remember his name, but I remember that for years I dreamt of him asking me for a job
and the way in which I would receive him! He felt that his duty was to drill us from dawn to dusk. Much of the country then was indulging in Wings for Victory or 'Aluminium for Aircraft' marches. Most Saturdays therefore saw us marching through some Lancashire town with our egos temporarily boosted by the adulation of the crowds, I was, I fear, far too naïve and inexperienced to realise what scope there was for a few hours of female company. I think there was a brief window of opportunity one morning in Rochdale, but the difficulties of returning to my billet, more of which later too complicated. In any case sexual behaviour in my day was rather different to now. Sex prior to marriage was a deadly sin, but then the church declared us all sinners!
[to be continued in Chapter Two]
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