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15 October 2014
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War as it had to be

by cambsaction

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Leslie Steadman
Location of story: 
RAF Hastings, Sierre Leone
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2005

At the age of 18, I was what was known as a Fitter Armourer; I was trained on the Bristol Beaufort, a torpedo bomber, and then given a posting overseas to West Africa, to Sierre Leone. We’d been trained by men who had fought in WW1 and, as a result, we learned to be highly disciplined — that is the way that we survived. The men in charge were not like the ones that you see on television, ranting and raving; they were fair and square. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

The Americans had just entered the war against the Japanese and they were ferrying an aircraft called the Flying Fortress through Sierre Leone; there were about 6 per day and 80 or 90 of them went through on their way to the Pacific theatre. They lost about half of them in the war. A sad thing occurred in April 1942: we had some American sergeants flying in in a Douglas DC2, about 21 at a time and 2 pilots. We entertained them in our naafie and they took off at about 5 o’clock in the morning. We heard the aircraft take off and then the engines gradually died away; and then suddenly the engines stopped altogether. Next thing, we saw the Fairey Swordfish, which was an old bi-plane, circling the mangrove swamp. Finally, we decided to see whether we could find the wreckage so six of us set off through the swamp, accompanied by Africans who cut through the mangroves, finding it eventually because a banging noise was coming from the direction of the wreckage. I have a photograph of it at home. Twenty-three men were dead. The Medical Officer gave us the order to bring the bodies back for burial, so we had to carry them back, one at a time; the outcome was a burial in twenty-three coffins, in a mass grave. Later that night, we raised our glasses to our comrades, had a moment’s silence and that was it. That was the way of things, at the time: it had to be that way because you never knew what was going to happen next.

What does upset me is that the people of today don’t seem to have learned anything from this history: bomber command lost 55,000 men in WW11, and in addition, many others, ground crew like myself and others, were lost; why, I say? What is here? What have we achieved?

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