- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Russell Billson
- Location of story:
- Nottingham, Skegness, Birmingham, Glasgow, Halifax - Nova Scotia, Kingston - near Toronto.
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 December 2005
I served in the Navy throughout my time in the forces during the war. When I was in the Sixth Form at school in Nottingham in 1941, we were all called into the assembly hall to hear a lecture about the progress of the war. The man speaking to us was a splendid gent, festooned with gold braid and medals. He turned out to be an Admiral and he told us all about the war, and how the Fleet Air Arm was losing pilots and needed more to replace those lost. (I discovered some time later that the official average life expectancy for a Fleet Air Arm pilot was six months).
I was so fascinated and thrilled by what I’d heard that I enrolled on the spot, there and then. I didn’t say anything to my parents about this, and the first thing we knew after that was a telegram arriving, inviting me to Cambridge for a medical. I was now nineteen. My parents went into orbit.
I had to report to Butlins at Skegness with 300 others for basic training, followed by flying training on a field outside Birmingham. (It’s now the site of the Birmingham Airport.) Then I had to await advanced training, living under canvas for a couple of weeks. One night we were woken up, told to get our kit together, and taken to a train without knowing where we were going. No one would tell us our destination until we got off at the other end to find ourselves at Clydeside Docks, Glasgow, where we were put on a very big ship going to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The great thing about this was the breakfasts we were given on board — eggs, bacon and everything else we hadn’t had for months due to rationing at home. The breakfasts were marvellous.
We slept in hammocks for that crossing. We went across the Atlantic in a convoy of about a dozen ships and, every morning we looked out to see how many were left. Quite often one ship had been attacked and gone down during the night.
Arriving in Halifax, we found everything there completely normal. We took a train to Kingston, near Toronto, our aerodrome for advanced training. Now this is a small story within the larger story: I had my 21st birthday while I was there. My parents sent me a special token to mark this, a ring which I still have. I’d met some other young people in a milk bar who took me home with them, and put me up for the night, sleeping at their house but outside in the family car. I was on legitimate leave at the time, and I’ll never forget my 21st birthday.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Becky Barugh and Graham Brown of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Russell Billson and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Billson fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
See more of Russell's stories and photographs:
- 2) I had the time of my life
- 3) Flying Walruses
- 4) A Jack-of-all-trades
- 5) A lucky escape
- 6) Extra careful
- 7) Badly needed at home
- 8) Shocking statistics
- Aircraft qualified to fly as first pilot
- Operational Airfields and Bases
- World War Two Key Dates
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