BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

My RAF Life - Chapter 3

by Ossie Evans

Contributed by 
Ossie Evans
People in story: 
Ossie Evans
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 January 2004

Looking back over fifty years some things stand out more strongly than others, and this time around my nineteenth birthday, May 1st 1942, I remember trains rather than planes. My Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.) was No. 7 (C) at Limavady in Northern Ireland. This involved a train to London then to Stranraer on the west coast of Scotland. An overnight train packed to the eyebrows so you were lucky to get a standing place in the corridor. This was the era of steam engines, and you had to have windows open to be able to breathe in the packed conditions, arriving at Stranraer in the early hours of the morning, I seem to recollect about three o'clock, dirty and very smelly. Perhaps this explains why I am not a steam engine buff and couldn't wait for the diesel This writing is a good idea it explains a lot of the whereof or prejudices that one has. The ferry left about seven and there was about three hours to get very cold and disconsolate before you were allowed to board the boat. I sometimes wonder if the services today are still run the same way? Larne in Ireland was the ferry terminal and then another puffing billy to arrive at Limavady.
No 7 (C) O,T,U. was a Wellington training unit and consisted of a flight to learn how to fly, and know the various systems of, the aeroplane. A second flight to cover the operational requirements of a coastal command unit. My duty was to be the second pilot and I was crewed up with an all Canadian crew, although the Captain was an American. The crew consisted of two pilots, one navigator and three wireless operators/ air gunners. The reason for so many wireless operators was that we were going to be the first course to fly an aeroplane with search radar aboard the aircraft.
The aeroplane was quite distinctive. It had a series of large pole shaped aerials along the top of the fuselage going back to the tail, and obviously was known as the Stickleback. So we needed a wireless operator for the ordinary wireless equipment and one for the radar screen and a reserve to cover for either, and if not needed then he became the rear gunner.
The aeroplanes were Wellington 1 c with the old Pegasus engine whose great drawback was not to be able to feather the propeller, that is to stop it from rotatingwhich in itself causes a lot of drag and made it virtually impossible to fly for long on one engine. The Wellington was designed by the fore-runner of the doubled glazed aluminized window designer. It was a series of look alike metal frames forming the fuselage and the skin was canvas stretched tight with glue and dope, not to be confused with the present definition, but a particularly nasty smelling paint. So if we had a knock we called in the seamstress, come to think of it perhaps we might resuscitate a new British car industry. It was a two engined monoplane and had a remarkable record in so many fields of wartime service. Much later I was on the same
airfield as the American Air Force and they called it "The Limey Ragship" a very good description.
The operational side of the training entailed a great deal of cross country exercises to sharpen us up on our navigation abilities. It culminated in an exercise across the sea to find a place called Rockall, which is aptly named as a chunk of rock sticking out of endless sea, to all fans of the extended weather forecast on the radio the name will be familiar, and I am very pleased to say that we were amongst the few to find it.
In the middle of July we were posted over to Abbotsinch in Scotland to learn how to carry out torpedo attacks. The aerodrome is now the present Glasgow civil airport, but in those days it was just a big field. It was also the home of the Navy or at least the aviation side of torpedo training for the Navy. They were the experts and it was their job to lick us into shape. Torpedoes are long and thin and easily broken, not a good idea when there's a load of explosive being carried and it breaks up just below you, and thus the flying technique is crucial. The parameters were height above the water 100 feet and the speed of the aeroplane about 100 Knots (nautical miles per hour). The first requirement is extremely difficult indeed as it is an endless plain over the sea especially if it is calm. That problem was solved by giving us a radio altimeter, so what with radar and this we were the high tech. lads of 1942.
Navigation over the sea in those days, especially in wartime where radio silence was essential, consisted of updating our course (dead reckoning) with an almost constant drift taking, being over the sea helped a lot as almost any wind gave some form of line (wind vane) or white-caps to see through the drift meter. Otherwise it was coastlines, lighthouses and in our case we had the use of our limited range radar. As our task was to be a night attack system, as well as reconnaissance we had long flights to do, and so we needed the sextant and the stars as well
So most of our time was now spent doing low slow runs around the Clyde using cameras, although I see from my log-book that on the 25th of July we did an exerciseformation attack on H.M.S. Furious, and a few days later on H.M.S. Nigeria. Having described the high tech. I must now come to the British ingenuity. The problem was the torpedo required about a thousand yard run to stabilise and track true and as it travelled about forty five knots it took a certain length of time to reach the target, so ifit was pointed directly at a moving ship by the time the torpedo arrived the ship hadpassed on. This gave two problems, first to judge the speed of the target and second to offset the direction of the torpedo to hit the target. The first one was mainly guess-work, the speed was between nothing and a maximum of twenty five knots and the zero had no bow wave and twenty five a considerable one. In fact most convoys seemed to be about ten knots especially the cargo ships which were to be our principle targets, used in supplying Rommel's army in the desert. The solution was to find a sighting device that could be used for the various speeds and so it was a common and garden (spare the pun) rake with its six prongs. It had to be positioned on the nose of the aircraft in front of the operating pilot and it turned out to be very effective.
On the twenty first of August we went to Moreton-on-the-Marsh to collect ourown aeroplane to test and deliver to the Middle East. Ten days later we flew to Portreath in Cornwall with our Wellington HX604. On the sixth of September to
Gibraltar where we stayed over for a day. It was very blacked out in Gibraltar but just a mile or so away the lights in neutral Spain were burning. The next night we flew to Malta to have another night stop or so we thought before proceeding to the Canal zone in Egypt. I note it took us seven hours forty minutes to fly this leg.
On the 7th September 1942 we were posted to No. 69 Squadron, Special Duties Flight, based at Luqa in Malta. So our night stop became our new home. Our
accommodation was a barrack room with about a dozen beds, and in a previous use had housed a leper colony. The beds had mosquito nets and on the first morning woke to find I was sharing my bed, and netting, with a vast number of bed bugs so I started my operational career pretty well blooded, literally.
During this period of the war the enemy occupied the whole of the Southern Mediterranean to El Alemain in Egypt. Malta was the only fly in the ointment as far as they were concerned, so we were a constant target and attacked day and night by enemy aircraft. The main weapons used were anti- personnel bombs which jumped about like fire-crackers and were just as noisy. It never failed to amaze me why the Maltese should like its firework equivalent so much for their festivals after the war. The aeroplanes were protected in built up pens made of large cut blocks suitably camouflaged from overhead. The pens being quite a distance from the airfield itself. The Island was besieged and everything was severely rationed. Food for the
Maltese people was supplied on an each meal basis at a soup kitchen. The service people probably did better, but it was emergency rations and hard tack biscuits for all, you certainly got very hungry and everybody got ulcers, so called desert sores, over the body, the result of malnutrition. Because of the shortage of fuel every aeroplane had to earn its keep. On the Island there were only a few fighters to keep the bombers away, and some reconnaissance, all 69 Squadron which consisted of special Spitfires, unarmed to get altitude, Marylands and Baltimores to attack in the day and the Wellingtons at night with their A.S.V. radar, as well as keep an eye on supply convoys to Africa and the Italian main battle fleet which seemed to spend most of the war in Taranto Harbour in Southern Italy, fortunately. The Navy also had a presence with some destroyers and submarines and it was these ships which kept us topped up with fuel.
Our first operation in HX565 or " W" William was on the night of 19th September 1942 an attack on a convoy of three merchant ships with an escort of
six destroyers, no results observed but a lot of indiscriminate anti-aircraft ( Flak) which showed they had no idea where we coming from or the height we were at. So we knew that we had the element of surprise. The operation was off Crete and the time airborne seven hours twenty five minutes. Perhaps the worst periods were the hanging around on "stand by" waiting for the reconnaissance aircraft to come up with a sighting, never let it be said now, but thank goodness for "fags".
The next mission was off the Albanian and Corfu coastline but no contact made. The same result on the next flight off the Greek coast, very bad weather including electrical storms. It was the fourteenth of October that we had our first success ,again in William. The convoy was one merchant ship with three naval escorts. Again the flak was very inaccurate and we passed right over the merchantman and the tail gunner reported a direct hit. On the nineteenth of October, I note, we had a double header.The convoy was off Lampedusa Island and had two merchant ships and six escorts, we dropped but couldn't confirm a hit. We
reloaded back at base and returned to find the convoy scattered but couldn't make a second drop because of poor visibility. We needed to be able to see the target to line up the" rake" or should I say the sight. The technique was to use moonlight if available, the target between you and the moon for the run in, and if no moon then flares were used instead.
On the twenty second and again on the twenty seventh no contact again on the Crete and Greek coasts, but on the latter we were pursued by fighters. We always had an advantage in being able to fly low, with our radio altimeter, and slow. Again on the twenty ninth off Corfu a tussle with fighters. On the third of November we made contact with a convoy approaching Benghazi in Libya, dropped a torpedo and hit a Tanker. On the fifth and sixth we were on armed reconnaissance for the Italian Fleet who were active in the bay of Taranto, but no contact though we had night fighter problems. Ninth of November two aircraft, we were one, attacked a convoy in the Straits of Messina, however they were coast crawling and we lost them in low cloud and coastline so broke off. I am afraid the other aircraft never returned, it was our first casualty out of the six of us. On the following night, again in the Straits of Messina we lost the second of our group. We made no contact ourselves.
For the rest of November we had seven missions mainly armed reconnaissance stretching from Sardinia to Bizerta and Sicily to Naples and the impression was that the surprise element was beginning to wane and the resistance getting far more accurate. The "Fag" rate was increasing.
On the first of December we had an eleven and quarter hour marathon when we intercepted a huge convoy on its way to North Africa and by using our I.F.F. a radio identification system, for a Navy task force of destroyers and submarines to home on to us. We had a ringside seat for a naval battle. Our contribution was to put down flares when required. On the fourth we thought we were in for a repeat but it was not to be, and it was just another eight hour flight .
Our aeroplanes were getting very little maintenance and now the Eighth Army was pounding up the desert ,and the Americans and Allies were in Algeria, it was time to do something about it. So on the tenth of December we were on our way to
the maintenance unit in Egypt. The old aeroplane was left and one brought back that had been through its overhaul. However there were a couple of days to enjoy the fleshpots of Cairo but bearing in mind the hunger pains of some months it was round the table that it was assuaged intemperately and we were all sick to prove that. In Malta it had been a very difficult time for the Maltese people, they lacked not only food but all other essentials for living and without doubt were the most heavily bombed of all the combatants on either side. So it was not surprising that anything lying around disappeared, and that went for uniforms as well. In my case I had no hat and there were no replacements in the company stores as you can imagine. No hats were pretty common and of the four of us in Cairo that day, only one had a cap and that was in his lapel, when we were stopped by the Military Police. They refused to listen to our explanation and arrested the three of us without, but fortunately, let the one with the hat go.
I had never been to jail before or since and it was a horrendous experience.We were locked up in a cell with a high ceiling and a tiny window well above the point of being able to look out. After a couple of hours we were made to go into a cramped yard, they said, for exercise. Several soldiers were there some looking very battered, and one, a black lad from Mauritius claimed he had been beaten up by the Military Police themselves, I must say they were such unpleasant characters that I could believe him . We were never interviewed or charged and eventually just allowed to go, but I now place Military Policeman with bell-ringers! So that was another experience of life, and back to Malta.
On Christmas day I note we had two attempts before finally getting airborne to a long reconnaissance from the bay of Naples to Sardinia and Palermo. Two more marathon flights took us up to the turn of the year. Then on the sixth of January we were back delivering an aeroplane to Egypt when we had a complete engine failure, in fact a cylinder block came right through the cowling. Fortunately we were over the desert at the time and as we were descending, we couldn't feather the propeller, we found an airfield and landed safely. Thank goodness it wasn't the Messina Straits or it might have been a prison cell, at the best, for a long time and I,as you know, am quite allergic to that. In fact we never got to Egypt our replacement aeroplane was brought up to L.G.224 as it was called and we took it to Malta.
That in fact turned out to be the end of our tour and on the seventh of February we flew out of Malta on an American Air Force C47 "Dakota" to Tripoli and Algiers

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Royal Air Force Category
Books Category
Northern Ireland Category
North Africa Category
Egypt Category
Malta Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy