- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ron West
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 August 2005
CHAPTER 1 — My childhood and early years in the RAF
My story has to begin to with my father: he was a remarkable man, in many senses. He worked down a coal mine in a pit somewhere in the Huddersfield area, where the family came from.
When he was about twelve or thirteen, pushing tubs down the mine, he would get paid coppers per week which he used to spend buying books, etc., to educate himself.
Story has it he’d do maths on the back of a shovel with a piece of chalk, by the light of an oil lamp down the pit, and then he went to night school to pursue his education, eventually going to London University and gaining a BA and MA. He taught for many years, became a headmaster in the East End of London and then represented North Kensington as a Labour Member of Parliament for several years, and later on Hammersmith for another couple of years. He was a remarkable man, self taught, self educated.
My father was an ardent socialist and a pacifist. I was interested in aeroplanes at that time, which he regarded as bad. Aircraft, to him, were military objects. If I was caught reading an aircraft book, or making a model, then he would destroy it and send me to my room.
I’m afraid I wasn’t brilliant at school. I did reasonably well, but I wasn’t academically minded. I was more interested in playing cricket and building aeroplanes, etc.
Looking back I can realise that my father could never understand why, with all the opportunities that he never had, I was not bright academically. All I wanted to do was join the Air Force and fly. He scrutinized the career possibilities in the Air Force whilst he was at Parliament and told me to forget about it, because there weren’t any. So that was that.
Unfortunately he died when I would be thirteen or fourteen. When they told me of his death, the first thing I could think of was “Oh, now I can join the Air Force and fly!”. Very sad. It was very sad, for he was only forty-two when he died.
So, when I was fifteen (in 1937), I joined the Royal Air Force as an apprentice at Halton. At that age, the only way into the RAF was as an apprentice, where one did three years training on Rolls Royce engines, etc. What appealed was the fact they took the best of each entry, and each entry was seven or eight hundred lads, to Cramwell to train as pilots.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it, the war broke out when I was two thirds of the way through my training, and they said that they weren’t going to spend thousands on training someone to be an engineer, and then start retraining them, putting all that aside, to become pilots. So that was that. I say fortunately, because If I had gone on as I wanted I probably wouldn’t be here now.
So I did two and a half years at Halton and I kid you not, it was quite a hard training school.
There were five wings at Halton and each wing housed about half a dozen barrack blocks, with six rooms, each room containing about thirty apprentices and one had a Mc Donald bed, a steel frame bed with three biscuit mattresses, blankets and sheets. All had to be wrapped like a Swiss roll carefully every day, all the kit laid out polished and cleaned. Every morning there was an inspection. We would rise about half past six, go on the square for drill and press-ups on the gravel surface. Then come back, get washed and shaved and march down to the cook house for breakfast and march back, and then march with a pipe band down to the work shops at the airfield and we’d spend hours and hours filing and sawing and chiselling metal into various shapes, and it had to be within two thousandths of an inch correct with a micrometer or you’d start all over again.
There were a lot of sports, one had to play sport at Halton to get by and I wasn’t very good at football or rugby, I preferred cricket. But the sport that I found best for me was boxing. I started to learn to box and I did quite well, I won the Halton championship at Hertherway. It served me well. There were about five thousand of us at Halton, and I managed to win the Featherweight championship one year, beating all the other lads. It was very good training.
My introduction to religion was church parade, which one had to attend each Sunday. Church to me meant hours and hours of cleaning buttons and boots, and everything had to be just so. Then standing on the square for an hour while I was inspected before marching down to church. So I was not terribly religious in those days, I’m afraid.
I remember one Sunday there was a big inspection, the AOC inspection. That was the Air Officer Commanding and he came and he had the Secretary of State for Air with him, which was Sir Kingsley Wood. Now, my father had been Parliamentary Secretary to Kingsley Wood when he was in Parliament and when this man came round, rank upon rank of airmen that he inspected, he would stop at about every hundred lads and just have a few words. I sort of fixed him with a steely glare, and I thought “you stop at me, I know you”. To my astonishment he did stop and he spoke to me “How long have been in the Air Force, and what do you think of it?” and all that. I said “Yes, I do know you Sir” I said “my father was your secretary”. At which point all the big brass officers looked at me in total astonishment and, Oh … that was quite a day!
I was billeted in number 4 Wing and the room I was in was occupied by the Wing band. I learnt to play the side drum and used to march down to work everyday, pipes and trumpets playing. I must say I enjoyed that.
Then as I say, after two and a half years, they cut short the course from four years to two and a half because of the War, and I was posted to RAF Hull. So I got on a train and arrived at Hull in the middle of the night and asked the people on the railway “where is RAF Hull?”, and they telephoned all the airfields that were round about, but nobody had ever heard of me and didn’t know anything about me. So they said “ well the only other place is down at the docks” I said “ the docks? have they got flying boats there or something?” “No it’s the Balloon Barrage”. So I went down to the docks, and I was put in a room which had been occupied by the Bennet’s Steam Ship Company, opposite the Corporation Pier on the banks of the Humber.
I found that there was a water-borne balloon barrage, that had a dozen or so steel barges anchored down the Humber, all flying balloons. Apparently German bombers came over and they used to follow the Humber which led them to industrial cities like Leeds, etc. These balloons trailing steel cables were there to prevent them coming low. They would get me up at four o’ clock in the morning to deflate a balloon, and I had to lie on one side and roll over and over, a whole line of us to push the gas out of the balloons so it could be folded up and stored. But there was also an Air-Sea rescue launch, a beautiful forty foot boat with three Perkins diesel engines. I was put in charge of the engines of this boat; but I knew nothing about diesel engines and had never been on a marine craft before. I remember one day the Sergeant in charge, Sergeant Hippisley, came round and said “we’ll have to change the starboard engine on this boat, so take off the roof of the cabin”. So I started with a screwdriver and there must’ve been up to a hundred chrome Phillips screws. I was diligently unscrewing these, one by one, and after half an hour the Sergeant came round and said “have you got that roof off yet?”. I said “no Sergeant, there are a lot of screws here!” He said “Oh Westy, you’re full of the stuff that makes the green grass grow down in Texas” and in my innocence I said: “what’s that, Sergeant?” “Bullshit” he said. “Give us your big hammer” and he went round Bang, Bang, Bang, and rived the roof off.
The Sergeant then said to me “Westy, go and get me a horse!” I said “pardon?”, he said “go and get me horse!!”. He meant a cart horse. Next to the dock were the London North Eastern railway sidings, and they used cart horses in those days to pull trucks along to shunt them, and he wanted one of these horses. So I duly had to go and beg a horse off the railway staff there and march it down to the landing stage where the boat was. We erected a beam over the dock and with a pulley and rope we fastened a sling round the engine and then banged the horse’s behind at which it set off down the road, and up came the engine and that was it!.
Then one day at sea, the engines were spluttering and choking and we lost all headway and the Sergeant said to me “go back there and see what you can do with those engines!”. So I lifted the cover off the engine roof and all I could see was a great big round air filter cleaner, which I suppose was there to stop sea water getting into the engine and doing it no good. So knowing nothing about the thing, I pulled one of these filters off and the engine immediately sprang to life and we surged through the sea. “Oh, smashing” he said “you’ve done a good job there, Westy”.
But this life was not for me. After training as a Rolls Royce engine fitter, what the hell was I doing with a balloon barrage? So I picked up my pen and wrote to the Air Ministry, complaining bitterly about this. In a week or so, I got posted to a place in Wiltshire, Hullavington, on a flying training school. After the war I made enquiries and I found that all seven or eight hundred of our lads trained as Rolls Royce engine fitters had been posted to the balloon barrage. An example of the idiocy in high up places and it makes one wonder how we ever won the war!
After a short period at Hullavington, I was given an overseas posting and sent to a transit camp at Sheffield. I wrote and told my girlfriend at the time that this would probably be the last time I would see her for a while, and arranged for her to come down and see me on a Sunday. Unfortunately, that Sunday I was put on church parade and spent an hour standing to attention on the barrack square with hundreds of other airmen, all the time thinking “she will be arriving at the station, and I won’t be there. What the hell can I do?”. So I suddenly broke ranks and ran across the square to the opposite side where there were some latrines, and I thought “they’ll think I’ve been taken short”. I waited until the parade had marched off and then I somehow managed to climb over a six foot high spike steel fencing and dropped down to the ground below where I ran and got a bus down into town, and I eventually met her. We only had a couple of hours before she had to get a train back to Hull. I returned to camp expecting all sorts of punishment, but nobody had missed me. So I was OK.
The next thing was that we were put on a train. We didn’t know where we were going, but we went to York and then up north to Carlisle, finishing up at Gourock, near Glasgow.
We boarded a ship, a very large beautiful ship, all white, called the Cape Town Castle. It was a troop ship of course, but this was her first trip as a troop ship. We all had cabins, there were four of us in my cabin. We set sail the following day in a large convoy, there were several other ships, like the Monarch of Bermuda, and I think the Winchester Castle and the Arundel Castle. There were six very large ocean going liners, and I believe we had a convoy of destroyers. We set sail, and sailed in a westerly direction round the coast of Northern Ireland, and believe me it was very rough! The ship was pitching up and down and I felt terribly sick, laid in my bunk. The following morning, whilst I was hoping to die, there was a bang bang bang and the ship was tossing and lurching about, all the alarm bells ringing. All the fellows running down the corridor, burst into the cabin “get your life jacket, get your life jacket” “why, what’s happening?” I said; “We’re being bombed, we’re going down, get your jacket on and get out!”. So I staggered to my feet, got my life jacket on and went on deck. It appears this Fokker Wolf Condor, a big German bomber, had bombed us. Fortunately it had missed us, hit the ship behind and blew up the steering gear, so she had to turn round and go back. But we sailed westwards for nearly a week until we were told we were just off the coast of America. Then we turned south for a couple of days, then turned round and went back up north again, then south again. Trying to fox a pack of German U-boats that apparently were hunting for us. Three weeks I was on that ship, and although I liked the ship I was very glad to get off it!
Then one day I saw in front of me a large flat top mountain; it was Table Mountain, so I knew we were at Cape Town.
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