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The Life and Times of an RAF Wireless Operator Air Gunner - Part I


Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jack Farley
Location of story: 
UK, Europe and the Middle-East
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 January 2004

Early Days

At the outbreak of World War Two on Sunday 3 September 1939 I was working as a clerical officer at a hospital in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, where I lived with my family. Like any normal person at that time I wanted to fight for my country and as soon as I turned 18-years-old in July 1940 I volunteered for the Royal Air Force.

I wanted to join the RAF because they were the only service that seemed to be having an effect. The army had just retreated from Dunkirk and the navy had not won a significant battle since the River Plate months earlier. The RAF, however, were running nightly bombing raids on Germany to wear the enemy down.

In the summer of 1940 I reported for active service at RAF Padgate near Warrington, Lancashire. One of my first memories of Padgate is sitting down to dinner and being served a piece of fish with the bones still in it. I couldn’t believe it, this sort of thing never would have happened at home. From then on I realised that my life was going to be very different from my first 18 years but I was proud to wear the royal blue uniform of the RAF and I was proud to be serving my country.

After being kitted out at Padgate I was posted to RAF West Kirby in Wirral, Cheshire, for basic training where I learned how to march, salute and operate a rifle. Before long I was given another stark reminder how different military life would be from my civilian days, when I failed to salute a passing officer.

Before I had even realised my mistake two RAF policemen had hauled me in front of an imposing 17-stone adjutant and I was being asked to explain myself. In all honesty I hadn’t seen the pilot officer walking past but I certainly wasn’t going to admit this. Instead, I said that a boil under my arm made it too painful for me to salute. Luckily the adjutant believed me but I from then on I knew that if I wanted to have a long career in the RAF I should pay more attention to its rules and regulations.

Several weeks later I was posted to Blackpool for three months for my initial wireless training. Upon arrival I was billeted to a private house with another airman. I was pleased that I was going to have some company - until I discovered that I was expected to share a double bed with him. After we both strongly objected we were moved to another billet where, thankfully, we had a bed - and a room - each.

I enjoyed my time in Blackpool. At 8am every weekday morning all the new trainees assembled at the Olympia building for Morse Code training. I was a quick learner and soon reached the required 12 words per minute. I also enjoyed spending many off-duty weekends on the pleasure beach.

One weekend just before the course ended, however, I decided to go home and see my family, even though we were forbidden from leaving the town. My father had been ill in hospital for some time suffering from leukaemia and I got it into my head that I had to visit him. I left for Ashton-under-Lyne on Friday and returned on Sunday night to face disciplinary action. Although I had broken RAF rules I did not regret what I did for that was to be the last time I would see my father alive. He died two days later at the age of 46.

When I saw him in the hospital he knew he was about to die because he asked me, as his eldest son, to take care of the family. However it was nearly two-and-a-half years before I would see my mother, my sisters Molly, Margaret and Desmo and brother Leo again. In December 1940 I was posted to RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire for the final part of my training to become a wireless operator.

As well as learning advanced Morse Code at Yatesbury, I also remember enjoying excellent food there. While I still had to take the bones out of my fish, we often enjoyed delicious meals of Harris’s sausages because the factory was only a few miles down the road.

I completed my course in March 1941 and was then awarded my sparks badge. I was a qualified wireless operator, earning 28 shillings (about £1.40) a fortnight. I then spent a short time doing general duties in RAF Detling, Maidstone, Kent, while I waited for my air gunner’s course.

Until then I hadn’t minded moving around the country so frequently because I enjoyed seeing new places. However, when I was posted to south Wales only weeks later I was very disappointed.

Often on the weekends I would go to local dances in Tonbridge. One Saturday night I saw a very attractive girl and was lucky enough to partner her after excusing an army private during an excuse me dance. We got on very well and I had high hopes for us so arranged a date for the following Saturday.

A few days later, though, I was sent to Number 1 Air Gunner School at Pembrey, Llanelli, south Wales, and I had no way of contacting the girl. I never saw her again and I used to wonder what happened to her and if she ever ended up with that army private.

I did not have time to dwell on it though for six weeks later I was awarded my air gunner’s brevy and sergeant’s stripes and my pay increased to 9 shillings (about 45p) a day. I was now a qualified wireless operator air gunner (wop/ag).

The final part of my training before being posted to an operational squadron was at Operational Training Unit (OTU) Silloth, near Carlisle, in Cumbria, where I arrived late December 1941. Here I joined a crew of three alongside Gib Whittamore (pilot) Arthur Grifffiths (navigator) and Ron Diggle (wop/ag) manning a Lockheed Hudson twin-engine bomber.

We all came from very different backgrounds; Gib was a native Canadian, Arthur came from Wales and Ron was the grandad of the crew — 23-years-old and already married! But we all had the same outlook on life and bonded very well.

We spent a lot of time together, taking part in night flying and low-level practice bombing exercises over the Solway Firth in Scotland. And although there were several fatal accidents during the course of our training we escaped unhurt. A close friend of mine Ginger Taggart, however, was not so lucky. He and his whole crew died the day before the end of the course when his aircraft crashed into the sea.

This experience brought home to me the fact that my future was an uncertain one to say the least, but it made me more resolute to serve my country as best as I could. In March 1942 my crew was posted to 206 Squadron, Aldergrove, Northern Ireland, where I began operational duties.

Squadron Life

On arriving at 206 Squadron, my crew were split up and my navigator and myself formed part of Flight Lieutenant (F/Lt) Goddard’s crew. We conducted patrols over the Atlantic including convoy patrols and anti-submarine searches.

On one of these patrols we had to take a barometric pressure reading at about 50 feet above the sea. Whilst we were doing this, our engines suddenly seemed to lose power. We made it back to base all right, only to find that F/Lt Goddard had forgotten to switch onto the main fuel tank from the overload tanks soon enough.

It may have been an easy mistake to make but it shattered my trust in F/Lt Goddard and I was annoyed that he had put us in such danger. Soon after this incident Arthur and I moved to join another crew and only days later F/Lt Goddard’s crew had a fatal crash. There were no survivors.

Next I joined Stan Weir’s crew with Stan as pilot, Brown as navigator and Powditch as wop/ag. My dear friend Arthur was posted away to join another squadron.

One day I was asked to fly with a new pilot who had recently joined the squadron for local flying practice. At the end of the exercise as we touched down on our landing he failed to allow for a strong cross wind and the aircraft left the runway and crashed. Fortunately neither of us were injured.

Later on that year, I was again involved in another near miss when I was on a flight from Aldergrove to RAF Jurby, Isle of Man, to pick up aircraft spares and refreshments for the forthcoming St. Patrick’s celebrations.

As we were taking off to return to base I happened to look across to the port wing and notice that fuel was streaming from the wing tank. I touched the pilot on the shoulder and pointed to the wing and he pulled back on the stick and aborted take-off. Apparently the maintenance personnel at RAF Jurby had not replaced the fuel cap.

At the time, I remember thinking that with our own men making such serious mistakes, I would be lucky to come out of the war unscathed.

Thousand-bomber Raids

On the 25 June 1942 my Coastal Command crew was one of 12 to take part in the Thousand-bomber Raids on Bremen — a joint operation with Bomber Command and Training Command.

Before leaving Aldergrove for North Coates, Lincolnshire, all personnel had to paint the underside of their aircraft black in preparation for the night-time operation.

Arriving at North Coates, we found that there was no space for us because there were so many aircraft already stationed at the aerodrome from other squadrons taking part in the operation. We were then instructed to fly to a satellite airfield named Donny Nook where all personnel, from commanding officers to maintenance workers, had to sleep on camp beds in a large marquee.

The following day all 12 crews attended a briefing at North Coates. The operations room was so packed with personnel that I had to stand on top of a radiator. I remember the words spoken by the group captain, station commander, as clear as if it were yesterday: “It has been decided to obliterate Bremen”.

206 Squadron was to spend nine minutes over the target area. On crossing the Dutch coast, we encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire that continued all the way to Bremen. We arrived over target at 12.54am and observed vast fires that had been started by an earlier waves of bombers.

We flew at 18,000 feet, the first time ever I, and the rest of the crew, had flown at this height and it was the first time we had needed to use oxygen. Our normal operational height was 4,000-5,000 feet.

On approaching Bremen I began to worry that the four engine bombers would drop their bombs on us from a greater height but this did not happen.

A few minutes later were we above the target and we released out bomb load. Devastation was immense - the whole target area was a mass of flames.

Then, we were just turning to head home when out of the darkness came a German night-fighter that tried to shoot us down. Several minutes later he was nowhere to be seen, but our worries were not over, for our pilot announced: “Only fifteen minutes fuel left and there’s no sign of our coast line.”

For the next ten minutes there was silence in the aircraft and we all held our breath. By the time we landed at North Coates there was only five minutes of fuel remaining.

The damage to our aircraft was mainly from shrapnel from exploding anti-aircraft shells, but we counted ourself lucky because we lost three aircraft out of 12 during the sortie. Two were over the target area and the third, containing the commanding officer and his crew, crashed in the sea near the coast. Their bodies were washed ashore three weeks later.

206 Squadron was due to bomb Hamburg the next night but this was cancelled due to the number of heavy losses sustained on the Bremen raid. The total loss for Coastal Command, Bomber Command and Training Command was 51 aircraft.

July saw the squadron move to Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, and we converted to B17 Flying Fortresses that gave us longer hours on patrol over a larger target area. Shortly after the this, I was posted overseas to be a wireless instructor to a newly-formed OTU, 65 miles south west of Alexandria, Egypt, in the desert.

My story continues in Part II

To see my war-time photos please go to and click on "Your Photos"

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