- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Claude Hector (John) Osborne
- Location of story:
- In England and Europe
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
Extract from the incomplete memoirs of Claude Hector (John) Osborne - 26.01.22 to 20.06.96
There were three of us in the offices (at Crittalls Metal Window factory) in Witham who all joined the RAF in the same week, and all as wireless operators. I cannot remember whether or not I influenced the other two but looking back it does seem a strange coincidence. The surname of one of the others was, I believe, Roland (or Rowland), and he lived in the Skitts Hill area, as did the third member of our group. He, I believe, left Braintree after the war but his older brother, who had also been a wireless operator mechanic in the RAF, after the war had a radio and television shop in Rayne Road. When I was visiting my mother in Braintree I would take sets from him to repair at home. He always had more work than he could cope with. The third member of our trio was less fortunate. I cannot remember his name although I knew him well right up until the day he was killed. I witnessed him being shot down in a Baltimore over Grand Harbour in Malta. By the time of his death he had switched to flying as a wireless operator and was commissioned with the rank of Flying Officer. He was the squadron commander's operator. He married a very lovely Maltese girl and I think they had a baby. We used to see quite a lot of each other in Malta and he frequently told me that he was sure he would be killed in the air. Sadly, when it finally did happen, all the local people were cheering as they believed it to be an enemy plane being shot down by one of ours. I was watching from the balcony of my house in Piazza Miratore, Floriana.
At the age of seventeen, on the first of May 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, I joined the RAF as a trainee Wireless Operator. My first three months were spent at the old airship station, Cardington, in Bedfordshire. That was for a period of initial training or "square bashing". During this time we learned the technique of "prop swinging" as many aircraft of those days had no electric starters. Single seaters were quite easy but the larger aircraft required more than one person to swing the propeller and this required a team effort with a number of us forming a human chain. To visualise the method imagine a string of men holding hands, right hand to right hand and left hand to left hand with the first one holding the propeller.
At the end of July I began my training to become a wireless operator at the RAF Wireless School, Yatesbury, Wiltshire. On the 3rd of September war broke out. All leave had been cancelled the previous evening and we heard the official announcement on that Sunday morning. Everything was apparently normal but we were required to carry our gas masks at all times as a gas attack was believed to be very likely in those early days. The winter was a very bad one. For a time we had to melt snow in order to wash. I was in the camp hospital with rubella under these unpleasant conditions. The normal functioning of the camp had come to a halt and virtually everyone had been sent home for two or three weeks; I was unlucky in that I spent all of this potential holiday time in hospital. The restriction on leave was very quickly removed and I managed to get home, by hitchhiking, many weekends. On one such occasion I had taken a friend home with me and we were rather late getting back. Normally this would have presented no problem as we would just climb over the barbed wire fence and go to our barrack room. However, on this particular night, or early morning, we saw a light in our barracks and shortly afterwards an RAF policeman rode away on his bicycle. We therefore decided to enter by the main gate and report ourselves late (we later discovered that the policeman was merely providing an early call for someone who was leaving that morning). As a punishment we were given three days "jankers" during which we had to help in the kitchen with cleaning of pots and pans. We also had to unpack cases of tinned mandarin oranges. We managed to leave the bottom layer of tins in the supposedly empty cases and came back for them later to take back to our rooms! At the end of the three days we had not collected enough so we carried on until the Flight Sergeant in charge asked us how long we had to go as he thought we were being very unreasonably punished. We immediately explained that this was our last evening. Hitchhiking was very easy in those war days. The relatively few people who had cars - and petrol - would always stop for servicemen in uniform. In general we would only invite cars to stop for us if they met our very high standards! This meant seeing a radio aerial and a quality of car which could reasonably be expected to have a heater; by no means the norm at the time. On one trip home my friend and I were given a lift by George Bernard Shaw in his Rolls Royce and on another by an elderly lady, also in a Rolls Royce, who embarrassed us by insisting on giving each of us half a crown. Although our pay was modest by any standards; mine was fourteen shillings a week out of which two shillings were held back as a sort of compulsory saving for holidays, and three shillings and sixpence each week as a voluntary remittance to my mother, we generally felt that we had enough for our needs. I supplemented my income by taking photos for people to send home. I had, by the standards of the day, a rather superior Agfa camera and I used a cheap processing company in Glasgow named Grattispool, a company which I believe still exists there. This company also gave a free film with each processing; unusual at the time. Their "film" was really sensitised paper but it worked. Although the film was black and white they would colour one print, artificially, free of charge.
My first posting as a fully trained wireless operator was to Bassingbourne on the border of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. I recall being on duty when we received news that Italy had come into the war. This information came by way of something called a "K" signal. These were messages broadcast to all units from Air Ministry, usually in the middle of the night. We had little direct action at Bassingbourne although I did experience my first air raid of the war whilst there; it was from one of our own planes, a Whitley bomber, which believed itself to be over enemy territory! We were only a few miles from a number of fighter stations which were very actively engaged in what became known as The Battle of Britain. Duxford was about ten miles away and it was from here that some of our most famous aces were flying, including Douglas Bader. We followed much of the action, which we may not have been able to see, by listening to the exchanges on the air. Being wireless operators we had a privileged position. Bassingbourne was not very far from Braintree but there was no easy route between the two using public transport. The distance was in fact 22 miles. This was the distance using a "B" road via Royston and Thaxted. I tried hitchhiking by this route on my first free weekend! I walked to Thaxted where I gratefully accepted the hospitality of some gypsies camped on the roadside after I had walked some ten miles. By taking the longer route via Puckeridge and Bishops' Stortford I usually had little difficulty in getting home and back on many weekends. Our nearest large town was Cambridge and on those weekends when I did not go home I would probably go to Cambridge for the Saturday afternoon and evening. I remember that on one such Saturday afternoon a friend and I had a lift with David Niven who was on his way to the wedding in either Cambridge on Huntingdon, of his niece.
In October of that year, 1940, I was suddenly to leave Bassingbourne. By this time I was a corporal and a fellow corporal wireless operator named Baxter had failed to return from his embarkation leave. At the last moment a replacement had to be found. There were two of us who fitted the requirement; myself and another corporal who was married and had recently returned after five years in India. Not surprisingly, I volunteered. In point of fact I had mixed feelings about going. Of course I did not like being cheated of the usual embarkation leave, nor leaving for some unknown destination without saying good-bye to my family. Another reason was that I had applied to be transferred from ground to air and this posting virtually knocked that on the head. Looking back it probably saved my life. Not many wireless operators in the air survived the whole of the war. At that time one's destination was a secret until well out to sea and everyone was suitably kitted out for the tropics or the North Pole. The decision that I should be the replacement was made on the Friday morning, and by 2pm I was on my way to Uxbridge where I fully expected to be sent home for at least a few days before leaving the country. This was the usual pattern. However, it was not to be. I had just made my bed and was about to get into it when our group was called out to leave immediately. We were on a train by midnight and sailed from Plymouth in a City Class cruiser, HMS Newcastle, at about eight on Saturday morning. I had been able to throw a message out of the window of the coach, taking us from the station to the ship, with some money for a telegram to my mother before boarding. Fortunately some honest and conscientious person had picked it up and so my mother was at least informed that I had gone somewhere. She had expected me home that day for the weekend. For one's first taste of the sea I would not recommend a trip on a Cruiser in wartime. There were 217 of us as passengers on a ship not intended to take any! We had to sleep virtually anywhere we could hang up a hammock. In fact, I found somewhere to make a sort of bed. It was in what was known as the "rec space". It was a triangular area just short of the forecastle, and raised above the floor with slats. We set off in rough seas at 28 knots, later increased to 33, into the Atlantic Ocean. Our destination, unknown to us at the time, was Malta but the wartime route to Malta was across the Atlantic very nearly to the USA and round to the entrance to the Mediterranean by Gibraltar. My bother-in-law, Bernard, once described sea-sickness as a condition in which you first think you are about to die and then you are afraid you're not; I can say now that his description certainly fitted my feelings during the first twenty-four hours. My position in the "rec space" proved to be very fortuitous. I was able to vomit through the slats onto the surface below and the sea, sweeping into that space, immediately cleared it away. After twenty-four hours I found myself completely at ease. I was able to enjoy my food and the ship could do anything it liked without bothering me. I had certainly found my sea legs. When we approached Gibraltar we were told not to appear above decks unless disguised as seamen. In my case I was issued with a marine uniform. The reason for this was that La Linea, adjacent to Gibraltar, was a hotbed of spies and any unusual activities on a cruiser would have alerted the enemy into an all-out effort to destroy us. At that time Malta was in a very vulnerable state and we were being taken there by this exceptional route as a measure of desperation. The usual route was by troopship round the Cape of Good Hope taking about four months. Our trip took four days. I was well settled in Malta by the time friends of mine, who had left some months before me, arrived! We had a few scares going through the Mediterranean. The Commander at one point gave us a talk saying that we would all be battened down as we were about to pass the Italian submarine base at Pantelleria, and that the enemy would certainly detect us, but as we were an exceptionally fast ship we would be able to outrun their torpedoes! We hoped his faith was not misplaced! We were said to be the fastest ship in the Navy at that time. We were given a running commentary on the action as we did indeed outrun their torpedoes. Apparently the Italians had left a very narrow channel un-mined to facilitate their own movements and it was this which we had to use! Finally, we arrived in Malta on a really beautiful day such as we would welcome in summer in England, and that begins the next part of my story.
Before the war the RAF had been a very small force in Malta and as a result the accommodation for headquarters staff in Valletta was very limited. For this reason we newcomers were given an allowance and permitted to live where we chose. My first two weeks were spent living in a hotel, the Capital Hotel, I believe it was called, and after that at the Vernon United Services Club which was situated on high ground at the edge of Valletta where the road, known as George V Avenue (?) leads down to Floriana. This was considerably cheaper than a hotel and very good both for its accommodation and food. At first I found some difficulty adjusting to the food as garlic was used very freely, and at that time it was a new taste for me. It was not long, however, before I learned to appreciate garlic and I have used it generously ever since. Although Malta was in considerable danger from an invasion, which it was in a poor position to resist, it was governed by a devoutly Christian general who presumably thought that everything could be left to God. As a result we enjoyed peace time conditions with no rationing; everything was plentiful and cheap. Also we servicemen were permitted to wear civilian clothes when off duty; something not permitted in England after the outbreak of war. Out of my first fortnight's pay I was able to buy grey flannel trousers, a sports jacket, a Dunlop Champion tennis racquet, tennis shoes and balls! All this and enough left over to pay for my board and lodging. My pay and allowances amounted to five guineas a week, which was almost double the average working man's wages in England at that time. My duties were in four shifts throughout the day and night and so much of my free time was during the day. As I had played quite a lot of tennis since joining the RAF I spent much of my spare time on the tennis courts in this wonderful climate. I would, at that time, go across to Manoel Island, an island virtually on the mainland situated in Marsamxett Harbour between Valletta and Sliema. The island was a naval base and we were allowed to use its tennis courts. Afterwards we would walk round to a lovely little cafe' in Sliema called Bonaci's, where we would undo all the good our exercise may have achieved by stuffing ourselves with cream cakes and milk shakes. After that we would return to Valletta by ferry at a cost of a halfpenny. If we missed the ferry we would sometimes travel back by dghajasa, a boat rather like a Venetian gondola. It was possible to get back by road but in more time and at greater cost. We also spent some of our leisure time at the cinema. One of the cinemas, located in the main street of Valletta (known at the time as Strada Reale and later changed to Kingsway as Italian became out of fashion) was built like an arch and was considered to be a natural air-raid shelter. This myth was exploded when it received a direct hit with a bomb which destroyed it, just at the changeover of performances one evening. I recall that some sailors were found in it's bar, alive but drunk, some thirty odd hours afterwards! Having no food they had survived on alcohol.
Malta, being a sub-tropical island, was an ideal place for swimmers. Unfortunately I could not swim! I did buy a kayak which was probably rather unwise for a non-swimmer. One day, as I was about to take my kayak out of the boathouse, I was confronted, half jokingly, by a fellow corporal who had recently arrived as a physical training instructor. He had been an Olympic swimmer and so took a very keen interest in this activity. He had put up a notice to the effect that no one was permitted to pass a certain point unless he had passed the 100 yards swimming test. I protested that this did not apply to me but he talked me into letting him give me a thirty-minute lesson, on the understanding that if I had not learned to swim in that time he wouldn't bother me again. This seemed like a joke so I went along with it. At the end of my lesson I had learned to swim! His method was to guide me, whilst wearing an inflated rubber ring, with something resembling a long billiard cue. At the end of about twenty or twenty-five minutes he told me to discard the belt from which the air had by this time leaked away. It worked! All this had taken place in Marsamxett Harbour where the water at the edge was 35 feet deep. He then said that he would be handicapping for the forthcoming swimming gala on the following day, and pointed out that I would get a very favourable handicap, since I could expect to make tremendous progress in the next couple of weeks. The result was that I won the 100-yard event, having had something like a 75 yard start before anyone else was allowed into the water.
When I arrived on the island Malta's entire air defences consisted of three Gloucester Gladiators; bi-planes more suited to the previous war. In November 1940 the first consignment of Hurricanes arrived. They were of limited use because their capabilities did not match those of the enemy. Italian bombers flew over at about 25,000 feet, a height which our Hurricanes could not reach, and JU88 reconnaissance planes, although readily picked out by our searchlights, were too fast for the poor old Hurricane. The Italian bombers were extremely accurate with their bombing. They were generally able to drop their bombs right down our runways, even from that great height. They were often called cowards as they flew straight over the island; in fact they were sensibly using bomb aiming equipment which was better than any we possessed at the time.
In January 1941 things hotted up considerably. A convoy, or perhaps it would be more correct to say the remains of one, steamed into our harbours with a limited amount of supplies. Amongst these ships was an aircraft-carrier, HMS Illustrious, which had suffered considerable damage from bombing at sea. The enemy was intent on destroying it before repairs could be carried out and a major effort was made by German JU87 dive-bombers to do just that. The roof of the club where I lived was flat and very close to the Illustrious and I was able to take lots of action photographs from there. Some of my photographs were used by a reporter from the Daily Telegraph. Stated bluntly like this you could well imagine either that I was very brave or simply stupid. In fact I was neither. The bombing was just so accurate that in my position there was no real risk at all. Unfortunately a "friend" stole all my photographs some months later. He was punished for doing so but he had already disposed of all prints and negatives. HMS Illustrious was in the end patched up sufficiently to limp to Alexandria where more extensive repairs were carried out. Incidentally, I bought quite a lot of hand-made lace, a speciality of Malta, to take home with me when I eventually left the island. This too was stolen by a "friend"; a corporal I had taken in when he was bombed out of his house.
About this time I was invited by a married colleague to share a house with him in Pieta'. Pieta' is located between Valletta and Sliema. Our address was actually Guarda Mangia and we lived in a house which, before the war, had been rented by the navy for the use of Lord Louis Mountbatten. During his tenure the navy had purchased some adjoining land to construct two tennis courts. There was no access to these courts other than through our house and so the courts were, de facto, ours. For the privilege of living in this house we paid five pounds ten shillings a month, fully furnished and including the telephone. Unfortunately we were shortly to be bombed out but the owner, a Mr Debono, who lived in Gozo, arranged for us to rent a house belonging to his brother. This house was situated in Piazza Miratore, Floriana, overlooking Grand Harbour. It was rented to us for four pounds a month, fully furnished, but we had to pay extra for our telephone. Eventually my married friends left for England and for a while I shared the house with our accounts officer, but I did not care for his life style. He was a married man whose wife was in England and he brought his Maltese lady friend to live with him. I then decided to move. I spoke to our landlord, Mr Debono, who very kindly offered me a house two doors away. I think the move was from No.5 to No.3. and the rent remained the same. It was a "town house", joined to its neighbours, three stories plus a very large basement-kitchen. On the top floor I had what was essentially a ballroom with grand piano, and gilt mirrors and paintings on the walls. I shared the house with a number of different colleagues. I tried to limit the number to one besides myself but as others were bombed out of their homes they were taken in on a temporary basis. I employed a 19 year old girl to cook and generally look after us and a gem she was too. Her name was Vincenza Mallia, generally shortened to Cenza. She was a lovely girl but physically very unattractive. On one occasion I invited a soldier from Braintree, named Butcher, for lunch, and was horrified when he started to make passes at her. He was not invited again! I met Cenza by chance when I returned to Malta some years later, by which time she had become the head waitress in a restaurant at the corner of Kingsway and South Street.
Convoys were finding it increasingly difficult to reach Malta and large numbers of ships were being lost in the attempts. A few ships from one such convoy arrived after a harrowing journey through the Eastern Mediterranean and it included a Norwegian ship called the Talabot. This ship had been to Malta before and some of the ship's officers had visited me, and I them, to play bridge. They had come ashore and were on my balcony, watching their ship being sunk in front of our eyes. It was no more than fifty yards from us. At that moment we were listening to the BBC news telling the world that a large convoy had successfully reached Malta. In all 800 tons of food was unloaded from that convoy; not much to share between 300,000 people. Shortly before this the sad state of affairs in Malta had at last been recognised and the governor replaced by General Lord Gort. Lord Gort was a former Chief of the General Staff; a man with a strong character and sound ideas. He discovered that we were down to approximately 13 days supply of food etc. and immediately introduced very strict rationing. To set an example he dispensed with the use of the governor's Rolls Royce and travelled as far was possible by bicycle. This probably didn't appeal to his aids who obviously had to cycle too! It was at this point that the enemy could, had he but known it, walked into Malta and taken it. Our anti-aircraft guns were limited to firing just a few rounds during each air-raid; just enough to give the impression that we still had ammunition left! The civilian population was becoming very restless and would not have been solidly behind us in an emergency.
After the Illustrious, bombing became more and more intense. The average number of air-raids during my three years in Malta was three a day! It was not long before services suffered and we were without water, gas, and electricity. Malta had always relied on Sicily for water prior to the war and now it became a serious problem. We were rationed to a bucket a day, collected from a tanker which visited each district daily. At one point a visitor to my house, who was a long-time resident of Malta, recognised signs of a well in my court-yard which had been covered and this we opened. By a system of ropes and buckets we were then able to obtain sufficient water for our every need. It so happened that about this time my commanding officer moved into the house next door and his wife, together with other neighbours, waited for us to open up each day for an extra ration of water. We knew that our well contained only a limited amount so we rationed it carefully. We made a fire adjacent to the well, fuelled with wood gleaned from bombed buildings, to heat water for our shower. Fortunately the bathrooms were all one above the other and immediately above this area. All of this helped to make for a pleasant life in spite of the state of the island. Our neighbour on the other side was a Mr Skivaniotis who was a cigarette manufacturer. He spent his evenings in Floriana during the week and popped home to Gozo at the weekends. In his court-yard there was an air-raid shelter. This was cut into rock at the back of the court-yard. I believe he was obliged to keep it open for local residents during air-raids and as he had a large stock of black-market food and other supplies in the back he was faced with a problem. We had little sympathy for him and so helped ourselves to modest amounts of his supplies when he was away. So, of course, did others. In some cases the amounts were apparently not modest. I think he took the attitude "if you can't beat 'm, join 'em" and so he approached me and asked if I would become the key holder to look after his house at weekends. He explained to me that he had a lot of valuable stuff in the back and invited me to help myself for my households needs! Naturally, I went along with this arrangement. One item which was of particular interest was kerosene. As we had no gas or electricity we relied on other methods of heating, especially for cooking. We possessed one Primus stove and with this new arrangement we were able to borrow a second one from Skivaniotis at weekends. Until the shortage of all food began to take effect Cenza was able to place one Primus inside our gas cooker to cook roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and use the other on top of the hob to boil vegetables. We were young and foolish then and so generally ignored air-raid sirens unless we had reason to believe that we were in the immediate target area. However, on Sunday mornings we would join our neighbours in the shelter and whilst they were eating their sandwiches Cenza would come in with our plates of hot roast beef etc. It was a bit mean of us! Previously we had been able to use a communal air-raid shelter, cut into the rock, about 100 yards down the road. On the odd occasion that we had chosen to take cover we had used this thinking it to be totally safe. I suppose it was, if used properly, but we would stand around the entrance. This gave no protection at all as the first we would have known of a bomb would have been our arrival in heaven or the other place. On Friday, 13th February, 1942 this shelter, or the entrance to it, had been destroyed by a bomb. We were fortunately not in it although a very lovely seventeen-year old English girl, a friend of ours, was killed. Her body was not recovered for several days. Shortly before this I had been on my way to our HQ with two friends when, almost outside this same shelter, we had found what we took to be the nose of a bomb on the road-side. It was lying nose down and the upper side was damp, giving the impression that it had skimmed the sea and bounced out. We had our photographs taken sitting on it. Four hours or so later, when we returned, it had gone! It had been a delayed-action bomb.
My work was that of a shift or watch supervisor in the HQ signals section. This meant supervising about a dozen operators and operating myself when necessary. I was not readily accepted by those under me who in general had several years of experience but had missed out on promotion through having been overseas. Fortunately I was an exceptionally fast operator and capable of both sending and receiving Morse at 34 words per minute; some ten words faster than most. This stood me in good stead when an objectionable operator at Air Ministry would harass one of my operators. I would be called to "sort him out". This involved pressing the AM operator to send faster and faster until he would exceed his own capabilities. At this point I would state "supervisor here, please put a competent operator on". This always went down well at our end and assisted greatly in my being accepted, in spite of my age. During all of this time I studied to go a bit further and this included taking a course in "High Speed Operating". This means sending and receiving Morse by mechanical means. We had to type our messages onto a perforator and pass the perforated tape through a transmitting head which would then transmit the signals at 200 words per minute. This of course greatly increased the output of our limited number of high-powered transmitters. To receive such messages the signals would be fed into an "undulator"; a machine which would carry a ribbon of paper through a guide whilst a pen would move up and down in sympathy with the signal. We would then feed this tape through a motorised guide at about 40 words per minute whilst we translated and typed the result. After this I continued to study in order to convert from operator to mechanic. I finally took my examinations in mid-1942 and was then transferred to Luqa, an airfield which is now the civilian airport of Malta.
Upon arrival one of the first questions I was asked was "can you drive? ". My mind flicked back to those days when, at the age of twelve, I had driven the baker's van and so I promptly answered yes. I was then told to go across to the MT (mechanical transport) section to take a test and be issued with a driving licence. My tester took me out in a 30-cwt truck into some of the busiest parts of the island with the narrowest roads! I believe I actually passed my test at just one point. In Hamrun we came to an archway which was particularly narrow and at that moment a horse-drawn carriage was entering from the other side. I just closed my eyes and hoped! When we came out at the other side my tester said "you judged that very nicely, I didn't think you could get through".
Upon transfer I did not give up my house in Floriana although it did put something of a strain on my finances. At Luqa I had to check and repair aircraft radio equipment. Our equipment was so poorly made that it would usually require some attention after every flight. We had relatively advanced VHF transceivers, in theory, but very poorly made. Under "Lend Lease" some of these transceivers were being made for us in the USA. The difference was unbelievable! Whilst the transceivers were interchangeable those made in USA were made with about half the number of parts and were totally reliable. In England we had always been led to believe that our methods of manufacture were superior to the American's "mass-production" methods. This opened my eyes to the tremendous superiority of mass-production! For a very short time (about two weeks I think) I transferred to Kalafrana where I was employed on an air-sea rescue unit. My first and only real trip to sea was to drop or collect, I cannot even remember which, a spy on the coast of Sicily. I was so sea-sick that I was back at Luqa as soon as I recovered.
At Luqa I was attached to 69 Squadron, a squadron of Marylands and Baltimores. We had an intrepid Commanding Officer - aged 21 - Squadron Leader Adrian Warburton. He was once shot down over or close to the North African coast and taken prisoner. He came back within two weeks flying a German plane! Sadly he was killed a year or so later. I believe it happened in a silly accident whilst taking off from an airfield near Oxford. By now food was in very short supply and we were rationed to six and a half ounces of bread each day and little else. We were so concerned to see that we received our full ration that we all carried with us new pennies with which we could confirm the weight. Three pennies weigh an ounce. By new I mean freshly minted "d" not "p"! There was one loop-hole in the system which we exploited. One day a week we were allowed a day off to go into Valletta. We could collect our bread ration there by getting our day pass stamped. We employed one of our radar mechanics, a chap from Laindon in Essex, who was better at cutting lino than repairing radar sets, to make a copy of the official stamp used to validate our day pass. This became a full-time occupation for him as the stamp was changed every two weeks or so to hamper such schemes as ours. Under this arrangement we each received one extra ration of bread each week. One day we had a Wellington in from Egypt, where everything was plentiful, and we found inside an opened tin of corned beef, green with mould, together with a few dry biscuits. To us these were such valuable items that we mounted an operation to steal them. Looking back now I am sure the pilot would have been horrified to think that anyone would even have considered eating them.
Cigarettes were especially valuable. We were rationed to ten Indian-made "V" cigarettes each week. When I look back I realise how much easier it would have been to give up smoking than to suffer this inadequate weekly ration of really dreadful cigarettes. One night I was meeting a visiting aircraft, a Boston, which came in every two nights from Gibraltar with supplies of such things as Marmite and sardines, items which contained a high food value in a small space. As always I asked the first crew member I met if he had any cigarettes to sell. Imagine my surprise when he answered with "yes, 4,000". The result of this was an arrangement to buy 20,000 Player's Clipper, a label not known in England, approximately every second night. I paid fifty pounds for them; his cost was half of that in Gibraltar. The crew of five packed 4,000 into each of their parachute packs instead of parachutes. I suppose they took the view that if they were shot down they would probably not survive anyway. In order to collect these and transport them to my house in Floriana (after supplying my friends at Luqa) I had to organise a rather complicated procedure. I needed a vehicle. This I obtained from an army driver on the understanding that if caught I would say I had taken it without his permission. Secondly, I needed petrol. Petrol was so carefully controlled that I had to employ, through this driver, an army of men (soldiers) to go round with cigarette tins to collect a tin from each of a number of vehicles and from aircraft. Then there was the problem of overcoming the normal security system of the RAF station. Here I was fortunate in that the sergeant in charge of the police had been my runner in Bassingbourne. He was persuaded to place himself on duty whenever my plane was due. This normally worked fine but on one memorable occasion it didn't! When I reached the outskirts of Floriana the engine spluttered and stopped. I changed over to the second tank but no luck. I had a friend with me who had come for the ride and he was terrified. At one point a Maltese policeman approached us. I dealt with him by calling to him from some distance to come and help push the vehicle. He thereupon melted into the shadows. Maltese policemen were not noted for their enthusiasm for work. I then decided to take a gamble and stop the first service vehicle to come into sight and tell him my story. It was about midnight. As luck would have it the first vehicle was from the RAF petrol dump which was quite near. The sergeant in charge said he personally could do nothing but I could come with him to speak to his officer-in-charge. This I did, and finally borrowed enough petrol to get me through on the understanding that I would replace it within twenty-four hours. Even he could not lose this small amount in his records. Naturally all of these overheads cost money - or cigarettes. I later learned that the tanks had been full, but contaminated with water! I had been lucky to get home. Finally my game came to an end when someone doing a similar trade with another plane had been caught. The flight engineer with whom I dealt had heard about this in the mess and was waiting on the road-side to see if I was all right. We discussed the situation and decided that this was the time to stop.
I encountered a couple of interesting people in the squadron. One was a chap named Morris who was understood to be the black-sheep brother of Lord Nuffield. He had been living in Malta when war broke out. He had enlisted in the RAF locally and carried out what was known as general duties; the odd jobs that had to be done around the place. The other, unfortunately I cannot remember his name at the moment, was the assistant executioner in England. After the war, and after the retirement of Pierpont, he did take over the job. He was therefore Britain's last hang-man. In Malta I believe he was an engine or airframe fitter.
One of my duties was to look after incoming visiting planes. After the American Liberator raid on the Ploesti oil-fields in Romania one of their planes came in very badly damaged. The pilot, a major, decided the following day that it was beyond repair and told us we could have it. Some months had gone by during which we had gradually reduced it to a shell when another American major appeared to find out what had happened to it. When we told him our story his only comment was "the boys shouldn't give these ships away".
Just before the invasion of Sicily General Montgomery made his base in Malta and brought with him his newly acquired B-17-E Flying Fortress. This he had won from General Eisenhower. It came complete with American crew. I was attached to this plane to keep its radio equipment in good order. There were some benefits attached to this job. Although we in Malta were on very tight rations the crew of this plane, together with a few other airmen from the USA, had access to a private mess in Ta' Xbiex. I was invited to make use of this and I still remember the excellent breakfasts of French toast, bacon, honey etc. On one occasion they were going back to North Africa on some pretext and Captain Evans asked if he could bring me anything. I jokingly said I would love some ice-cream. The plane duly arrived in Malta with a billy-can hung outside containing my ice-cream. The entire crew were unhappy about this assignment as they had completed almost enough missions to qualify them for leave in the USA. Captain Evans, the pilot, devised a scheme, in which we all took part, to get Monty to change his Flying Fortress for a Douglas DC3. It is quite true to say that the plane was of little or no use to him as his immediate needs were to land somewhere in Sicily. We therefore took every opportunity to be overheard discussing the advantages of a DC3 which would be able to land on the beach at Palermo. Monty always liked to believe that he thought of everything and so it had to be discreet. He eventually arranged to swap the B-17 for a DC3!
trip back - food on ship - engine break-down - 6 knots -4 weeks to Liverpool - pies on station - nearly captured in Spain
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