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15 October 2014
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WIth no 85 'F' Squadron Hurricanes in France

by CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk/BBC Radio Lincolnshire
People in story: 
Mr Dauglas Read
Location of story: 
France
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4517480
Contributed on: 
22 July 2005

I am referring to the article or letter headed “Pure Nostalgia” by Duggy Oliver, or rather Squadron Leader J O W Oliver who was my CO in France at _______ and the story he writes and goes into great detail of saying was going on during that period of time in Northern France and he goes on to talk about the winter of that particular year, 1939/40. The weather there was absolutely atrocious, it was so very cold that people or aircraft fitters working on aircraft in the hangar even were suffering with frostbite and I just want to make one point here is that we did sleep in this old hangar with the roof that let in the snow pretty badly and a lot of us were very ill with as he says bronchitis and flu. There is just one thing that I would like to mention that I with another airman a man by the name of Jock Little who was an electricians mate, we decided so to keep ourselves warm during the sleeping hours by sleeping together, now this has never been mentioned before because one wouldn’t dare mention it today because you would be classified as being an odd bod as one might say, but we did find that with sleeping together it was body warmth that really kept us going and when we woke up in the morning our blankets where we had been breathing on during the night were covered with frost from our breath. It is hard to understand this but this was a fact. Our beds consisted of a wooden arrangement which was roughly six foot long by three foot wide and we slept on palliasses which we had filled from the local farmers with hay from the barns, so that was our tattress and then we had the blankets. We didn’t have suck things as sheets or anything of that nature. Our pillows were also full of hay which was taken from the barns. So we really did have a very very exceptionally rough time during that period when it was so bitterly cold. Jock and myself used to go and have a drink at a local café when we were off duty which was not very often but we did manage to get up there and there were two girls serving behind, one was Marie and the other was Marianne, I remember them quite vividly and we used to try and go through the bottles one after the other till eventually we were stupified and having some difficulty in getting back to the camp due to the depth of the snow. One night we did this and when we got back to the camp due to the depth of the snow. One night we did this and when we got back we felt so hungry that we went to this makeshift Naafi which was in one of the hangars and I bough a bottle of Panyan pickle and ate the lot with a spoon. Having got a belly full of beer or vin rouge or vin blanc or whatever it was plus a jar of Panyan pickle during the night I became quite ill and had to be taken moaning my head off to the sick quarters where the MO decided that I had had too much to drink and could not analyse what all the pains were in my stomack etc etc. I remember to this day he pulled a revolver our and just let the revolver go off back in the roof. Amazing this to happen but it really did. Anyway, I thought perhaps you might like to know this or other people who served out there.

I would also like to mention that eventually after the very very serious weather subsided we were pretty well bogged down on the airfield with melting snow etc we moved from this hangar to a type of fort which was about a mile or a mile and a half from the airfield inside some big woods. We lived in these woods until we were virtually evacuated. We used to have to rise at 3:30 to get to the airfield to make sure the hurricanes were ready and fit for flying and fully armed so that our aircrew pilots could get away before the break of dawn they were getting airborne somedays. So we found it was very very long day from 3:30 most probably to 10 — 11 o’clock at night during that period. Hard work most of the day cleaning guns making sure that they functioned properly every time they come down. Sometimes due to the gasses formations they would get very roughed up and in one case guns would get a little rusty and recalls had to be taken out and really duffed up to make sure that everything functioned 100%. So really that is a story that I sort of thought perhaps may help with future bulletins if you would like to put it in sometime.

Also on another occasion we went down to another airfield near a place called Bthune and our accommodation there was very very extremely Spartan. We slept 12 of us anyway in a barn. We had to go put a wooden ladder to the barn loft and there again we had to accommodate ourselves there to get a nights sleep. We had the usual procedures of filling up our palliasses with straw of hay and also our pillows and we had a couple of blankets a piece and there we used to spleep but what shook me and to this very day I can remember the aroma or the smell that came from below us because down below were 6-8 cows. They were brought into the farmyard shed or barn at dusk and there they stayed and you can well imagine what we had put up with the aroma. We were all young lads 18, 19 20 or so and just accepted the fact that we just splept rough and that it was that as long as we got our heads down and were ready to get into action the next day. We did have a rough time with this sleeping accommodation there is not doubt about it the airman did anyway. I recall at Merville in one instance we splet in a gread big silo there on the concrete floor so we did suffer quite considerable the lesser morsels as we were I can remember it so very very vividly. I am not suggesting we should have been put up in any other situation — we were at war as one might say but as airman we did suffer intolerable really and I am sure airman of today would not put up with it.

Another little story I can recall quite vividly was on the retreat from Lille Seclin. We retreated on mass — aircraft and ground personal — administrators as suck to Merville. When we got to Merville which was quite chaotic — we had been there once before but the thing that struck me again on that particular airfield was the fact that when we got bombed there pretty badly the Germans we thought were dropping gas bombs on us because the explosions were so vivid and the detonation from the components of the weapon that they dropped created a lot of smoke. I had an armourer friend there called “Dropper Marshall” — I won’t go into why we called him Dropper but he said it was gas and so hence he pulled out his handkerchief and did the most desperate thing that I have ever seen anyone do — he peed on his handkerchief and said that the ammonia in his water would prevent him being gassed.

Another job before the squadron retreated from Merville to go to Boulogne to get out of the place altogether — Flight Sergeant Howard Gun ----- Howard he said to us “Okay I want 12 volunteers to stop behind and put the main plane from one aircraft onto another aircraft etc etc and then smash up all the cockpits and I’ve got your names here.” This was typical asking for volunteers when the 12 had already been selected. There were 2-3 fitters and 2-3 riggers 2-3 armourers. The rest of the squatdron end off to get away quickly on the transport to Bouloyne and we were left there stranded to do the necessary with the aircraft. We had one pilot left there to fly the aircraft out — I know his name well but I won’t repeat it now — I have met him since incidentally at the Squadron farewell do at West Ravnum???. We did not know how we were going to get away from there because everything else went. The evening quickly came upon us and we went around the different Hurricanes that were unserviceable smashing up all the cockpits and instrument panels with 8oz ball-point hammers just to make them completely US throughout so that the Deutchers when they eventually arrived wouldn’t be albe to use the aircraft landed on the airfield at Merville and for some unknown reason my mind is not clear on this point whoever organised it \I don’t know we jumped on board this small aircraft and were flown our of Merville. We eventually got back to RAF Hedon where we landed and then we were transported on to Uxbridge. We hadn’t had a wash and shave or anything for about 10 days and were the scruffiest bunck of people that you had ever met and the Station Warrant Officer and Uxbridge really went crazy when he saw this gang of 85 Squadron ground staff wandering around in a daze as one mighrt say. Anywat they sorted us out eventually and we didn’t get into too much trouble for having no kits no shaving gear we had just left completely in what we were wearing. All the kit was left at Merville and to his very day some of my own personal kit most probable hanging around there somewhere — I son’t know — it would be interesting to find out one day if anyone found it.

We were then sent on leave for 5 days while the Squadron really got reorganised at Debden again.

I could really go on for some considerable time with different things that did happen that Chrismas in 1939 we went down to Lille and we had an excellent Christmas dinner in the Café Victor — I have often wanted to go back there to see if it’s still there — we had a delightful time the whole Squadron had a delightful meal and I don’t think Father Chrismas ventured to come near us but it was something to remember.

There are many other things that I could tell you but I really don’t want to bore you too much. There are a lot of people still around who like myself went through the same things and they could tell the stories just as well as I can. I must say it was all such a great adventure during the early part when we went into France with the BEF Amazing fortitude of the pilots and also ground crew because we had to put up with terrible conditions to live and work under which I don’t think would be accepted by present day airmen.

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