- Contributed by
- People in story:
- WING COMMANDER GORDON CONWAY DFC
- Location of story:
- FAR EASTERN THEATRE OF WAR
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 September 2005
PILOT OFFICER GORDON CONWAY AND HIS FIANCEE ENID CYNTHIA DAVIES IN AUGUST 1941 CELEBRATING THE WINNING OF HIS PILOT'S 'WINGS'.
WING COMMANDER GORDON CONWAY DFC - 136 SQUADRON - THE WOODPECKERS
My father was Wing Commander Gordon Conway D.F.C. a Hurricane and Spitfire World War II Fighter Ace. Flying with The Woodpeckers, 136 Squadron and later 155 Squadron he was the top scoring British Fighter Ace in the Far Eastern Theatre of War.
Sadly he died in January 2005 but all my life I have listened to tales about The Woodpeckers and their deeds and know that he would be proud and delighted to share some of his wartime experiences.
In the last few weeks I have heard many comments about the forgotten War in the Far East but in reference to the Army and never to the Royal Air Force; so I will attempt to set the record straight!
WENDY CONWAY 31ST JANUARY 2006
FROM HOME GUARD TO KODAK TO PILOT OFFICER CONWAY...
As war broke out in September 1940 Connie, as he was later to be named, was too young to enlist and so became an Air Raid Warden patrolling the streets of London checking that the blackout was observed. Later he joined the new Home Guard spending hours at night guarding the local railway station armed with an ancient rifle, for which they were later issued 3 rounds which was all passed on to the next man on duty.
My mother was Enid Cynthia Davies who together with her mother and sisters had left the Welsh village of Cymgrach for London in search of work. She worked in the sweetshop at the corner of the road in North London where my father lived. He described her as ' the most beautiful girl I ever saw....'. His first sight of her was with a bandage around her head as the snow from the shop awning had fallen directly upon her! It was she who encouraged him to join up, particularly as she joined the WAAF first, as one day he found a letter on the mat which said 'I have gone away to join up....'
Connie was working as an emulsion technician for Kodak under the guidance of Professor Baines who developed the Kodachrome 64 emulsion and whilst theoretically studying for a BSc at nightschool, had long since lost all interest in anything other than becoming a pilot.
Finally through the time-honoured expedient of adding a year to his real age he enlisted in the RAF in November 1940. Many who enlisted shortly afterwards were sent to Canada or even Rhodesia to train, not flying in combat for perhaps two more years.
Connie was attested at Uxbridge where he was delighted to find that the old values were still in use and that prejudice was quite in order! The fact that he had a public school education, that he had boxed and played cricket for the school met with the Selection Board's immediate approval, as did his Home Guard badge. When he declared that a2-b2 =a-b(a+b) the Board could not get him into uniform quickly enough!!
After a few days induction at Uxbridge he travelled with a small group of other young recruits to Babbacombe, an Aircrew Reception Centre where they drilled opposite the sea. For the next stage of his training he moved to an Initial Training Wing in Cambridge for a six week course. Severe winter weather prevented the actual flying training so they repeated the course all over again!
However, in April 1941 he was sent to Marshalls a well-known civilian flying club at the time. This had been taken over and renamed 22EFTS (Elemantary Flying Training School) with RAF flying instructors but civilian ground staff. Their first aircraft were Tiger Moths, Connie's flight flying from a small field in Bottisham where the only furniture was a windsock and a field latrine which two instructors demolished one day showing off and beating up the airfield!
His flying instructor was Flg Off Lacey who took him up for his first flight on April 9th 1941 and sent him solo on May 5th. On the 21st May with a total of 45 hours he was selected to train on fighters and was sent to Tern Hill. They were met by the then Wing Commander E M Donaldson who the previous year had destroyed six enemy aircraft. He gave the young pilots a fiery blood and guts welcome!
The training aircraft were Miles Masters, designed as fighter-trainers similar to the Hurricanes and Spitfires that they were to later fly. His instructor was G B Sylvester who had the habit of wearing red socks when night-flying, for good luck.
Connie had his first flight up in a Master on May 26th and was launched solo seven flights later. On July 18th he made his first forced landing in a farmer's field due to loss of oil pressure. He scraped under some power cables and managed to land wheels up in a field of corn. The farmer was not pleased! This was a salutary lesson after only 83 hours flying!
A week later he flew the first of many hundreds of sorties in a Hurricane. By August 12th he had flown 11 hours on the Hurricane and 63 on the Masters. This total met the minimum course requirement of 72 hours. They were instructed to make up their logbooks which were duly signed on the 13th August and the course was over.
A few weeks earlier a dozen or so on the course had appeared before an Officer Selection Board, several being selected and now living as Officers on probation in the huge old Officers' Mess. For some days now they had returned to their rooms where their brand new Officer's uniforms complete with gleaming Wings and narrow Pilot Officer's rank braid were hanging. They nightly admired thenmselves in their new uniforms!...
However, to their dismay the young pilots discovered that the powers that be had decided to extend the minimum flying requirement to 80 hours. Having thought they had attained their target, they had to set aside their coveted Wings and take to the sky once more! Making countless circuits and overshoots Connie nearly fell victim to a now, well recognised syndrome, of failing to lower his wheels on his final landing. Fortunately he realised in time and went round again. This could have been an unfortunate start, perhaps end, of his new career!
At last, logbooks were compiled again and countersigned on the 17th August. Connie was awarded his Wings with effect from the 18th August and gazetted Pilot Officer from the 20th August 1941.
The course ended with a small celebration the unfortunate corollary of which being that the marquee burnt down overnight! However, Connie was a pilot and was now sent to the Hurricane Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge in the Wash where he joined B Flight then commanded by Dowding an experienced fighter pilot.
Watch this space for more tales............
CONNIE JOINS THE WOODPECKERS!
Who should have come out to greet him at Sutton Bridge but Eric Brown, first met at Tern Hill. Eric had a reputation! On one memorable flight he complained that whilst flying his Hurricane there were strange vibrations... Immediate investigations determined the cause: he had clipped 6 inches off the wooden propeller blades and the radiator was full of chicken feathers!! Little did they know at that time that he was setting a pattern for the future and that he would turn up again in Connie's life.
Finally with a total of 190 flying hours Connie was posted to 136 Fighter Squadron R.A.F. which was formed at Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire on August 20th 1941 becoming fully operational by September 28th. Equipped with 18 immaculate Hurricane IIBs they were commanded by Sqn Ldr T A F Elsdon DFC, a pre-war Cranwellian and Battle of Britain Ace. He had been severely wounded and was in constant pain. 'A' Flight was commanded by Murray-Taylor and 'B' Flight by Barraclough.
The airfield and messes were shared at this time with two other Spitfire squadrons, 121 Squadron and 616 Squadron. Connie was the last and youngest pilot to join 136 Squadron late in October 1941 and to his delight he was again met by his very good friend Eric Brown. Young men had come from all over the world, Canada, New Zealand, even Argentina, to join the Royal Air Force and play their part in fighting for freedom.
It was the C.O. TAF Elsdon who was responsible for inculcating the tremendous Squadron Spirit, leading both on the ground and in the air. After days of readiness the whole crowd would leave for one of the two pubs in Kirton-in-Lindsey where The Woodpeckers had already formed a strong identity by the time Connie arrived.
One night the C.O. had struck up the song, 'Oh! I put my finger in the Woodpecker's Hole...' being immediately joined by Viv Jacobs and RH Jenkins and so the Squadron Song was born. Thus The Woodpeckers got their name and also their call-sign and from then on wherever they were gathered together the rafters would ring out with their Song!
Later Ian Adamson designed the Squadron Woodpecker Logo rampant in battle-dress with a steely glint to the eye! He was painted on everything: Hurricanes, Spitfires, jeeps etc and the pilots had little silver Woodpecker badges.
The C.O. would start the evening's proceedings off with a boat-race. Everybody stood in a circle holding a full tankard of beer in the very centre. At the C.O.'s call of 'Chugalug!' the race would begin: whoever was the last to return their empty tankard to the centre paid for the next round!! I have heard many tales about the characters of 136 Squadron but am delighted to quote a tiny portion here of an evocative vignette of the typical evening's proceedings from Ian Adamson, friend and fellow fighter pilot with The Woodpeckers:
'.........By this time Fuggy would be swaying back and forth,eyes screwed up tight, flicking his hands and arms. Connie would start up a story giving everybody the best of his flashing smile and view of his struggling Errol Flyn moustache. The trip back to base was very rowdy.'
THE WOODPECKERS GO TO WAR!
Hardly had the squadron become operational than they were warned of imminent departure to foreign climes. They practiced short take-off and landing in preparation for take-off from aircraft carriers, they collected parachute boxes, tin trunks and lightweight clothing.
The new Flight Commander of 'B' Flight was Barry Sutton, badly burned in the Battle of Britain, but now after a year of surgery, back in the role of an operational fighter pilot. The Squadron now split up and seemed destined for the Caucasus, the advance party led by Murray Taylor leaving late one night in November. With him went Hackforth, Leetham, Fleming, Williams and Dizzy Mendizabel, Connie and the others soon off to Padgate transit camp to await a ship.
They were to be a four squadron wing of Hurricanes ( 17 Squadron, 232 Squadron, 135 Squadron and of course, The Woodpeckers!)with experienced squadron and flight commanders heading up teams of young and often, like Connie, completely raw, pilots.
On December 3rd Connie sailed from the Clyde on the P and O cruise liner 'Strathallan' bound for the Middle East but then came Pearl Harbour and a signal from Churchill diverted them to Singapore:
telling General Wavell that ' four fighter squadrons of the RAF, now en route to the Caucasus and Caspian theatre' were to be placed under his Far East Command, together with 'the 18th Division, now rounding the Cape.' This Cape convoy contained the advance parties of the aircrew together with most of the ground crew of the four squadrons.
Elements of all four squadrons reached Singapore by early January where formed as 232 Squadron under Llewellyn they fought until the fall of Malaya and loss of Singapore. They withdrew to Java and Sumatra where scattered crews fought with the survivors of three other squadrons diverted to the Far East, 242, 258 and 605 Squadrons.
Llewellyn was killed and so too, were Murray Taylor, Hackforth , Leetham and apparently Fleming. (In 1991 before the 50th Squadron Anniversary Fleming was found to be alive and well in Canada having been incarcerated as a POW for more than three years!) Williams and Dizzy Mendizabel were shot down, Williams baling out and Dizzy escaping to Java - of him, more later!
Connie meanwhile was making his way via Sierra Leone, Takoradi and Cairo!. By mid-January there were enough Hurricanes for each of the three squadrons, 17, 135 and The Woodpeckers to fly to Rangoon in Burma just in time to meet the first Japanese raids upon the city. This was a time of much chaos in the Empire: finally it was decided at HQ that the first eight Hurricanes were to be flown to Ceylon which was under threat.
Connie was selected along with Flt Lt Peter Fletcher from Rhodesia, Flg Off Joe Edwards from Canada who was to become a close friend, Plt Off Ian Adamson, a Scot from Argentina, sporting the shoulder badges of the BLAV (British Latin America Volunteers)and four NCOs, Barney Banikin, Bill Higgins, Thomas Taggart Young ( an American in RAF uniform) and Ginger Hicks. Having not flown a Hurricane for a while they each had a refresher flight and then set off to Juhu airfield in Bombay, then on to Bangalore the next day finally arriving at Ratmalana just before the usual afternoon downpour! The ground crews immediately took off the long-range tanks to make the Hurricanes fully operational.
Within a few days some basha huts of woven bamboo had been constructed for their use and they spent a month as the only fighters on the Island. Fletcher was appointed their leader and quick to absorb the rules regarding pilot readiness, persuaded the powers that be to issue eight brand new 500cc Norton motorbikes for the use of the pilots!!!
Daily readiness at dispersal was momentarily interrupted one day by a pleasant surprise; without warning a twin-engined aircraft approached flying straight at the Hurricanes. After a moment's indecision it was noted that it was a Lockheed Lodestar with Dutch markings and on landing out came half a dozen British and Dutch Officers, including Dizzy!!
Having been shot down and escaped he and his companions had found this old abandoned aircraft, had repaired it, tied the tailwheel on with rope and made good their next escape! The fuel supply being insufficient for such a flight, they had filled the fuselage with petrol cans, knocked holes through the aircraft skin through which hoses passed to the wingtanks. They had then set course for India using old handpumps to refuel along the way and a school atlas to navigate!! They had missed India but not by much; a storybook escape...
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